A beekeeper’s notes for January

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We’re into January and it’s wild and windy. Storms urge on the rain and frosts strengthen the cold. On some days the sky is covered in a grey blanket and on other days it is crystal blue.

At the apiary the green netting that separates the bees from the communal area had almost fallen down. The shape of hives seen through a veil of hazy sunshine was enchanting, but there was tea and a panna cotta cake on the table.

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I love spending a Saturday afternoon at Ealing apiary. It is like a pocketful of country life with beekeepers sharing stories about winter bees and swopping homemade recipes for jams and, in particular, marmalades.

Elsa was going to Greenford market to forage for Seville oranges and she got a good tip from John on using up frames of crystallised honey: “It’s all good for marmalade”.

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John Chapple looking cosy in a Christmas pudding hat and a tea-filled Tigger mug.

But the shorter daylight hours in January means beekeepers have less time to stand around and chat, and those beguiling bees were waiting for us, behind the curtain in the fading sun.

Beekeepers have few tasks for January but they are important. First, we unwrapped the chicken wire from the hives and checked under the roofs. Emily and I had put on a second block of fondant on each hive two weeks ago. Melissa’s and Pepper’s bees had made a hole in theirs, but Chili’s and Chamomile’s bees were slower eaters. The heat coming off the crownboards was remarkable and reassuring. We could see and feel that our bees are warm and well-fed.

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Melissa’s bees have eaten their way through to the second block of fondant, although the hive is still heavy with honey stores. I suspect that they just like nibbling icing sugar!

I hefted the weight of each hive and put in a varroa board to monitor for levels of mite infestation next week, and Emily checked the entrances were clear of debris and dead bodies. Entrances sometimes get blocked and make it difficult for bees to come and go on cleansing flights or pollen-collecting.

That done, we wrapped up the hives in chicken wire again to prevent hungry woodpeckers from pecking at the wood. I’m sure any local woodpeckers have easier treats to find than tasty bee colonies in this mild winter, but better to be safe than sorry.

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While the wintry weather is setting in, the snowdrops on the ground and the green buds in the trees whisper that spring is fast approaching.

The next few weekends will be about clearing out and mending old hive boxes, making up new frames, cleaning kit and getting fresh record cards for the year’s work ahead. I suspect the bees will be coming out of winter soon.

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A Christmas letter

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Once again Christmas in Hereford was a magical experience. We arrived from London in time for the candlelit carol service on Christmas Eve. A starry sky and glowing barns lit up the muddy foot path to Amberley Church. We sang as the cows grazed contentedly outside and the fairy lights twinkled inside.

Christmas Day was another beautiful day of bright sunshine and blue skies. It was bitterly cold but that didn’t matter with a log fire roaring in the living room. After dinner, we watched The Queen’s Garden on ITV, presented by Alan Titchmarsh, for an appearance by John Chapple, Queen’s Beekeeper and Ealing member.

A bee on the thumb of Royal Beekeeper John Chapple, taken at London Beekeepers Bee Health Day.

A bee on the thumb of Royal Beekeeper John Chapple, taken at London Beekeepers Bee Health Day.

Alan Titchmarsh spoke to John about keeping the royal bees as he helped to harvest honey from the hives. “Nectar of the gods,” said John, scoring honeycomb with his hive tool. Alan described the taste of the honey as like “dessert wine” and asked what made it so good. John explained that there’s a large variety of trees and plants in the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace, which gives the honey a unique flavour: “If it’s in here, the bees will find it, and we’re tasting it”.

The honey is used in the Queen’s kitchen and she has even given some to the Pope. John must be very proud. It was a pleasure to watch him talk about the bees on TV just as he does at Ealing apiary. Andy Pedley was also there on the day of filming and is John’s Assistant Royal Beekeeper. (Thomas Bickerdike says you can hear John tell Andy to put the queen back in the hive!)

If you missed the Royal Beekeeper on Christmas Day, The Queen’s Garden episode 1 is available to watch here for the next 30 days. My work is just round the corner from Buckingham Palace and I enjoyed watching the hidden treasures of its gardens.

John Chapple is well-known authority on beekeeping and he gave our new queens the thumbs up.

Here’s John Chapple inspecting our bees at Ealing apiary with beekeeper Rosemary watching.

It rained on New Year’s Day washing the world clean outside my window. The first Saturday back at the apiary I had a cold and it was drizzling, but that didn’t dampen my spirits or those of the beekeepers chatting over tea and a table of Christmas leftovers. I was also wearing my new Joules bee wellies, a Christmas gift from my boyfriend John’s mum, which were much admired by the women beekeepers.

Jonesy and Albert were giving their bees oxalic acid. “You’ve already poisoned your bees, I hear,” grinned Thomas. “Yes” I said, “But they are on a January detox.”

Emily and I checked the varroa boards under our hives to find varying results of mite drop. Still it is good to see mites on the board rather than in the hives. It has been an unusual winter, the bees haven’t slowed down much and already I saw signs of buds and blossom in the bracken. Here are more Ealing beekeepers at work on the first cold rainy Saturday of January.

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There was more to tell of this afternoon’s beekeeping, but I’ll leave those stories of craft and sneaky bees to Thomas and Emily to reveal on their blogs.

I had brought new fondant for the bees, who had mostly munched their way through the first block. The warmer autumn might have meant that they had used their winter honey stores more quickly.

We followed John’s tip of cutting a hole in the middle of the old block and the new block, then carefully placing the new fondant on top for the bees to crawl through. This helps to avoid squashing the bees by removing the old fondant and putting on new fondant.

Our four hives are doing very well this winter and I am hopeful that they will be strong in spring. John has said, wryly on occasion, women make the best beekeepers because we are gentle and patient with the bees, although I learned that from him. He also attributes our good fortune at Ealing apiary to witchcraft! I’ll leave you to decide which is true…

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In more good news, another Ealing beekeeper is blogging – the inspiring Matwinder Randhawa tells us about her travels in Postcards from San Francisco. Do join her “journey of unbelievable adventure and beauty” in 2015.

A new chapter begins

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My first venture into the world of bees began before I was even born. At seven months pregnant, my mum remembers on a hot sunny day a beautiful big fat bumble bee landed on her bump. It sat there comfortably then started to crawl slowly up, before my mum asked a young man walking past to shoo the bee away.

After I was born, my mum took me out in the pram to lap up the sunshine of my first summer. She strolled along Oldfield Lane South, in Greenford, near to where Litton Local Nature Reserve is situated today. A small dark cloud appeared and a swarm of honeybees flew over my pram as I slept.

Our family moved around London over the years, but on a winter’s evening I found myself, now an adult, walking up Oldfield Lane South to Litton Local Nature Reserve to start an introduction to beekeeping course at Ealing and District Beekeepers. How funny that I was here again, where it had all begun, about to begin a chapter as a beekeeper.

That was six years ago. From my first hive bought from Ealing beekeeper Ian Allkins to the four colonies I now share with Emily Scott, keeping bees has opened up a treasure trove of discovery and adventure. Each year as the wheel has turned through the seasons, the secret life of bees has been revealed from spring to summer to autumn to winter to spring…

Today is New Year’s Day. In a matter of weeks the hives will be flying and the dance of the bees will bring the earth back to life as trees blossom and flowers open.

This year will bring exciting new possibilities and I can’t wait to start an all new chapter. My blog has changed as my life has changed, which is a good thing. Alongside those changes, I’m looking forward to rediscovering pastimes of drawing, painting, photography and aromatherapy, as well as writing about bees. I made a start today getting out my pencils and paper to practise drawing honeybees and comb before painting the hive boxes for spring.

Every season is full of promise and 2015 is going to be an exciting time. I wish you all health, happiness and a very Happy New Year!

A stocking filler from the bees

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Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

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I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

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There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.

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I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.

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Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!

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Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

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See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil

Method:

  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.

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A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

A winter’s tale

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There is a bee legend handed down from bee generation to bee generation about the mysterious appearance of the great whiteness.

“Ooh the great sparkle,” say the bees as they see the twinkling stars and the early evening frost. “Get inside quickly before the instant freezing grips you in its icy hold.” Then they all settle down in their nice warm hives to listen to the tales about Jack Frost.

It is a fable, of course. Frost fell on the farm in Hereford last weekend. I imagined the bees belonging to the neighbours’ hives peering out at the frozen fields.

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Yesterday was another beautiful winter’s day when Emily and I met for lunch in Ealing, back in London. A mushroom risotto warmed us before getting the bus to Perivale. The clear blue sky had a tinge of orange as the late afternoon sun shone through the tree tops.

Emily’s marmalade cake caused a stir among the murmur of beekeepers who had gathered for tea. “Your bees have been flying like hell,” said Stan, as I cut a slice of cake.

Another bee legend at Ealing apiary, Alan, gave Emily and I tips on insulating the hives with the foil bubble wrap. Here he is showing Emily how to cut squares around a queen excluder to fit into the roof.

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Alan then helped us to fit the foil bubble wrap inside the roof of each hive. The colony will do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter, but the foil will help to reflect the heat back into the hive. Hopefully, the bees will feel even more cosy.

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Bees tucked in for winter, I got a surprise by lifting the roof off an empty hive to put away some equipment. A sleeping wasp with her wings folded neatly by her legs. A bit further along the wood was a desiccated spider and a ladybird who may have died in suspicious circumstances… What dark fairy tale had unfolded?

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I gently placed the roof back on the hive to not disturb the sleeping beauty. She looks small for a wasp queen, perhaps a worker who had abandoned her dying nest? In any case, few hibernating wasp queens survive the winter, either succumbing to the cold or spiders, she’ll have as good a chance as anyone else.

The hives had become still as Emily and I got out the chicken wire to make a start on wrapping the bees for Christmas. The dusk was chasing away the day.

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… As usual and as happened every year, there were those bees who didn’t heed the warnings of the legend. They got caught by Jack Frost’s creeping, sometimes sudden, appearance. The late returning foragers caught frostbite on their wings, or even worse turned into instant bee statues. Those whose wings were caught could only be saved if they happened to be on the hive, so they could walk in and thaw. These lucky bees were the ones who told the tales that were handed down.

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It is a story, of course, as we left the quiet hives behind us to keep their winter secrets.

Winter studies: A chat about the small hive beetle

There are few things that could be worse than finding varroa in your hive, but the small hive beetle (SHB) may come close. This unpleasant squatter, which originated in sub-Saharan Africa spreading to Australia and US, has been sighted uncomfortably close to home in Italy. What is SHB and why don’t we want it?

“It is small, only about 5.7mm in length, black and with tiny clubbed antennae. Each female beetle can lay up to 1,000 eggs, hidden away in crevices in the hive or laid in comb containing pollen or brood. These hatch, after a few days, into tiny larvae which feed on bee eggs and larvae, pollen and honey, tunnelling through the wax in the process…Their faeces get into the honey, causing it to ferment and become frothy and unusable, even for bee feed. There is no webbing, as with the wax moth larvae…but the combs become slimy and the beetles, in addition to weakening a colony and depleting it of brood and/or stores, can become a serious threat to survival.” The Honey Bee Around and About Celia Davis

That makes the wasps bothering our bees seem positively nice! So what’s the chance of SHB causing problems in the UK?

BeeCraft, the magazine of British beekeepers, held a chat about SHB as part of their BeeCraft Live series. The BeeCraft team were joined by University of Florida researcher Jamie Ellis to chat about what impact SHB might have on British beekeepers if it does arrive in the UK.

I was hopeful from this general chit-chat that beekeepers in the US and Australia have learned to live with SHB, and that our cold damp climate might be in our favour for a nasty squatter that doesn’t like long winters. EDIT: However, in the comments below some beekeepers have found SHB may be fairly resilient to the cold, that where it has brought down colonies it can be devastating, and suggest that we do need to be vigilant in ensuring it doesn’t arrive on the UK. I wholeheartedly agree with that!

Watch more BeeCraft Live episodes here and find out when the next one is taking place at #BeeCraftLive.