Life can’t always be honey

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Pepper’s colony had eaten their first block of winter fondant. The hive had lost weight and it was possible to heft the boxes slightly off the stand. I stared down the hole of the crownboard into the dark abyss of empty honeycomb. There was no sign of activity. Then a single worker crawled up a wall and stopped a few inches beneath the crownboard. She stared back as I slowly lowered a new block of fondant over the hole.

The neighbouring hive belonging to Pepper’s daughter, Peppermint, had become heavier over winter. The workers seemed to have made good use of the milder days to find forage for stores. I lifted the insulation to discover a small crowd of bees had found their way under the roof. They looked like young bees judging from their soft fuzzy thoraxes and perfectly shiny folded wings. They were too busy exploring the new space to notice me. I put back the insulation and closed the roof.

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Melissa’s hive had plenty of fondant under the roof and the boxes were still too heavy to heft. This is our longest-standing hive which has been carried through five winters by the same line of queens. I try not to think too much about Melissa’s hive in winter other than hope for the best in spring.

I slipped the varroa boards under the hives to monitor the mite drop for February. It was a windy and damp afternoon, the sort of day to stay at home in the dry and warm. There was little activity outside the hive entrances, although Emily and I had seen the bees flying for a few weekends in January.

Trying my best not to disturb the colonies, I quietly knelt down at the entrances to look through the mouseguards and saw light shining under the metal mesh floors. This reassured me that piles of dead bodies weren’t accumulating at the bottom of the hive and blocking the entrance for surviving workers. But to prove I wasn’t as stealthy as I thought, workers from all three hives flew out to investigate my activity. They soon settled down and perched on the chicken wire wrapped around the hive boxes.

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“Life can’t always be honey,” my grandmother had said in the last few days of her own incredible life. It’s true. In February the frosts aren’t quite finished even as the first crocuses and daffodils come into bloom. The two strongest colonies had plentiful stores going into winter and even the weakest had sufficient to last till early spring, but was it enough for a mild winter when the queen continued to lay and the workers continued to consume honey almost as they did in summer? On the coldest days in February the bees would need to keep warm while sending out workers to reach the fondant or remnants of honey at the furthest frames of the hive. On warmer days the workers could take advantage of the year’s early forage of hazel catkins and snowdrops to replace their stores.

Thinking of my grandmother’s words at the entrance of the hives, I whispered to the bees to persevere for a few more weeks, because it might be difficult now but a good spring is around the corner.

A beekeeper’s notes for December

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Winter hasn’t come for the bees. They were enjoying the mild weather today bringing home lots of pollen. A drone sat comfortably on a hive roof looking well fed and a young-looking worker was resting on the side of the hive boxes. Else was over-the-moon about the unseasonably warm weather, which brought back memories of Christmas in Australia. She produced a box of deliciously festive cup cakes to cheer up the British beekeepers complaining about the prospect of a sunny Christmas.

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The cakes were baked by Else’s friend and were scrumptious with raisin-and-spice sponge and frosted-chocolate icing.

The unseasonably warm weather meant it was unlikely that the hives would be treated with oxalic acid today. The bees hadn’t slowed down for Christmas. “One hive is heavier now than when I put on the fondant in October,” said Andy. He had treated his hives last month during a brief cold snap on a day when the bees were less likely to be active and protest about being disturbed.

Oxalic acid is usually given as a midwinter treatment when the days are frosty and there is little or no brood inside the hive. It’s most effective when applied during broodless periods, or as close to broodless as you can get, because the varroa have fewer places to hide. The fixed points on the beekeeping calendar are turning as the seasons become uncertain, however. Perhaps it’s best to say the bees can be treated with oxalic acid when the weather is wintry and conditions inside the hive are right, rather than in the winter. That’s assuming you treat your hives to oxalic acid.

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After tea and cake, Emily and I checked that our three hives still had enough stores. Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives were a generous weight when hefted and Peppermint’s hive had also pulled off the trick of getting heavier since putting on the fondant. The hive entrances were as busy as a mild spring day and the weight of the hives suggest the bees might be finding nectar as well as pollen to fill up the boxes.

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Melissa’s bees has tucked into their fondant despite having two supers of honey at the end of autumn. These bees do like their sugar.

That done, we got the bees ready for Christmas with tinsel and festive decorations. The apiary needed a little sparkle if the frost wasn’t coming this year.

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Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.

A beekeeper’s notes for November

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In November the leaves fall from the trees and the drones fall from the hive. The trees are preparing to rest for winter as their leaves drop to the ground, and the bees are getting ready to close the hive factory as the drones are thrown outdoors.

Autumn and winter are good times of the year for consolidation. The beekeeper can take stock of the hives and colonies, clear up apiaries, clean up equipment, disturb a few spiders, and plan ahead for the next season.

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The ebb and flow of the seasons are not constant, however, and the points on the beekeeping calendar can move each year. The autumn syrup may be poured a month earlier in August for late summer rains. The mouseguard might be pinned to the entrance a month later in November for the workers still bringing home baskets of pollen. Wasps may be seen gliding around the creepers beside the hive, and drones found sitting on the roof as late as December.

This sometimes makes the question “What does a beekeeper do in winter?” a difficult one to answer.  This is because a beekeepers’ checklist is only a guide to the beekeeping year and not a set of rules.

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My step-nephew Sam films what beekeepers do in winter at the apiary, while Andy Pedley tells a visitor what the bees do in winter.

Emily put on the mouseguards at the hive entrances when she noticed that fewer bees were carrying home pollen. The hives were wrapped around in chicken wire as a precaution against possible woodpeckers watching from the bare branches overhead. We tackled the task of removing the syrup from Peppermint’s hive and replacing the feed with fondant, despite a crowd of protesting workers, because the days had become cold and short.

Winter also comes to London despite talk about our city’s microclimate and of bees making queens to swarm on a warm October’s day, which, of course, might happen. But if it’s true the season can sometimes be mild, overall there are fewer days when either bees or beekeepers feel like going outside. On those days both bees and humans are glad of a well-stocked cupboard, an insulated roof, and a secured entrance.

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Every autumn and winter, Emily and I will ask each other “Shall I bring more syrup?”, “Have you got pins for the mouseguard?”, and “Do you think the fondant can go on?”, and each week our plans change as frequently as the weather. We both know that between the two of us the bees will be ready for winter as and when they need to be. We both watch the days and the bees, and tick off items from our checklist when it feels right to do so.

A beekeeper’s notes for November often turn to thoughts of what we have and haven’t done, none of which matters now, and then to dreams of the bees returning in spring.

A beekeeper’s notes for October: Autumn is icumin in

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Autumn had arrived almost unnoticed at the bottom of the garden. The crimson vine creeping over the sheds was set ablaze in oranges and reds in the morning sun. The mason bees and leafcutters were still asleep behind closed doors of mud and leaves. I cleared away the overgrown foliage to warm the bee houses in the sunshine and to remove easy routes for spiders and their webs.

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Unlike our solitary bees fast asleep in their comfy homes, the honeybees were bringing back pollen to the hives faster than the foraging squirrels scampering between trees in London parks. Thomas Bickerdike had organised an apiary tidy-up the weekend before and some beekeeping treasures had been unearthed.

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A well-loved smoker and kit box were not the most unusual finds, it seemed. John Chapple’s concerns about witchcraft at Ealing apiary may be warranted, but I promise this cauldron doesn’t belong to Emily or myself.

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It was the second Saturday of the month, which meant Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop and the apiary was free for witches to get up to mischief. As I had forgotten my wand – I mean my hive tool – I had no choice but to wait for my coven partner – I mean my hive partner Emily – to arrive.

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Two weeks previously it looked like Melissa’s hive was getting top heavy. The first super above the brood box was full and the bees were meandering about the second super thinking about filling the comb, but the brood box was lighter in stores around the nest than I would have liked. There may not be a particular reason why the bees have filled up the supers rather than packing honey around the brood – in fact, it’s a characteristic of this colony – but I wanted to close up the nest with dummy boards. This would help to keep the colony warmer as the nights were getting chillier, and, as I had found in the past, might even encourage our wayward bees to build outwards rather than upwards.

The bees were one step ahead of me. Emily and I opened up Melissa’s hive, along with new beekeeper Bertrand, to find that not only had the workers almost filled the second super but the empty brood frames had stores too. Well done girls!

This particular hive loves to build brace comb at every opportunity, regardless of what space is available elsewhere, and had packed a few rolling hills of oozing honey between the top and bottom super frames. Emily scraped off the delicious honeycomb with her hive tool for Bertrand to taste honey fresh from the hive. A taste of autumn.

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The brace comb was not the only mischief that Melissa’s bees had been up to – I also spotted a play cup at the bottom of a brood frame. We couldn’t see an egg or larvae inside and from the shape it looked unlikely to be drawn out into a queen cell. But I have a feeling that Melissa may lose her crown next year.

Peppermint’s hive is much stronger after August rains had left this small colony quite weak. Pepper’s colony had fastidiously packed down propolis and pollen for winter. Bertrand spotted our queen walking calmly across the comb. The super above Pepper’s hive remains empty though the brood box is well stacked with stores. However, some workers were nursing the comb, so Emily and I decided to give them till the end of the month to fill the super before taking away empty frames for safe storage against wax moth.

That done, it was time to go home and decide what to do with all the apples picked with John’s mum on the farm in Hereford last weekend…

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More autumn activities soaking the cooking apples in water with a pinch of salt to get rid of lingering bugs (sorry bugs) and wrapping the apples in newspaper to store in the garage before I have time to freeze them or bake pie and crumble.

Summer may have passed the baton to autumn, but we were lucky to have pale blue skies on the drive from London to Hereford and to wake up to beautiful morning mists.

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And even a drizzly day couldn’t dampen the beauty of turning leaves and pretty villages like Ludlow. Here’s what we got up to in Hereford even before breakfast!

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A visit to the picturesque town of Ludlow to look around the impressive church. You should be warned that behind small church doors are usually a lot of steep steps going up.

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Two hundred steps up. I’m taking a break by the bells. But it was worth the view at the top of the church tower.

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Here’s my handsome boyfriend John and his lovely parents Roger and Marilyn enjoying a windy day overlooking Ludlow.

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We enjoyed a walk around the parish gardens and market place shops before heading back to the farm for brunch.

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Autumn may be icumin in, but there’s still lots to see and do! My next post will be at the end of the month bringing beekeepers’ notes for October. Till then, enjoy the changing of the season.

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The day Lolly met the bees

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The sun was bright at the apiary when they arrived. Most of the beekeepers had floated home as sleepily as drones. I ran to meet them as small feet in sparkly pink boots pattered down the overgrown path.

The visitors were my sister Amie and her five-year-old daughter Lauren (Lolly). They had come to meet the bees. “Come and meet my hive partner, Emily,” I said, as Lolly looked around curiously. She is very shy in new company so introductions were brief.

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Lolly wore fur-trimmed, pink-glitter Frozen boots for her ‘bee wellies’ and was pleased that I had picked out a matching pink bee suit. These are probably the sparkliest bee-boots that I’ve ever seen.

Emily, Tom and Jochen went on ahead to check Ken’s hive, while my sister and niece put on their bee suits and gloves. That done, we were ready to venture into bee land.

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My sister Amie is suspicious of stripy, stingy flying things, so it was brave of her to visit. She admitted “I was thinking in the car on the way: ‘Oh dear, oh dear – bees!'”

Lolly stood in the apiary clearing quietly taking in all the hives. “This is where the bees live,” I said. “Let’s go see my bees.” We walked to Queen Melissa’s hive and stood watching lots of honeybees flying to-and-fro.

“What’s that?!” asked Amie, as something buzzed past her veil.
“A bee,” I said.
Lolly stared at the hive.

I lit the smoker and put it on the roof. “The smoke makes the bees calm in case they’re naughty,” I explained to reassure them both. “But these bees are very good.”

Their eyes widened as I pulled out a frame of bees from the super box. The bees were busy working on the honeycomb. I pointed out the cells of glistening nectar collected from flowers and the white-capped patches of honey.

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Thanks Emily, for this surprise picture of us all on my phone!

I showed Amie and Lolly the crownboard to introduce the workers crawling across. “These are girl bees, because they have smaller bottoms than the boys,” I said, “The boy bees are mostly thrown outdoors by their sisters at this time of year.” Lolly nodded at the joke, because sometimes she has to throw her little brother Zac out of her bedroom.

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Next we looked inside the nest. I lifted the super to one side and prised apart the queen excluder using my hive tool. “The bees make everything really sticky with propolis, which is a tree sap,” I told Lolly, “The propolis helps to keep the hive clean and warm.”

The queen excluder now removed, I explained that we were looking at the bees’ nest inside the brood box. “This is where Queen Melissa lives with her bees.”

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Lolly stepped a little closer as Amie brushed a bee off her back. I pulled out a brood frame of glittering nectar. “What are these bees?” I asked. “Girl bees,” answered Lolly. The bees were as good as gold. Their gentle humming meant they were happy.

Emily gave the brood nest a quick puff of smoke as I pulled out a frame from the middle of the hive. Things got more interesting.

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Lolly stepped closer as I told her what was happening on the honeycomb. “Here the worker bees are keeping the baby bees warm in their cells until they are ready to hatch. It’s probably warmer inside the hive than your home.” I brushed a few workers aside to reveal the biscuit-coloured brood cells. Then a few bees walked past with bright-coloured blobs on their legs. “The bees are carrying pollen home from flowers like you see in your garden.” I pointed at the cells with gold-and-orange pollen inside. “The bees will head butt the pollen into the cells and use it to make bee bread to eat.”

I put the frame back inside the hive and asked Lolly what she thought of the bees. “Good!” she said with a big smile. She was even happy to hold a frame of bees by herself.

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The humming was getting slightly louder as I told Amie and Lolly to listen to the difference. “The bees are ready for their bedtime.” Emily and I closed the hive. “Do you want to give the bees their dinner?” Lolly nodded. She helped me pour the autumn syrup into the feeder. I gave her a ball of beeswax scraped off the crownboard to take to school for show-and-tell.

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Emily and I had checked the hives of queens Pepper and Peppermint earlier in the afternoon. Here’s pink-spotted Pepper walking across the frame. There seems to be a lot more pink at the apiary since Emily and I started keeping bees.

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The bees seemed content with their visitors, my sister Amie was glad of her veil, and Lolly was amused by the whole adventure. The neighbouring bagpipe player had also come out to play for the bees, which she thought was funny. It was time to go home for dinner and tell baby brother Zac all about the bees and the bagpipes.

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If you enjoyed reading about Lolly’s visit, you might like The day my mum met the bees.

A beekeeper’s notes for September

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The spiders spin their crafty webs between the autumn sedum in September. Thousands of tiny pink star-like flowers open to welcome honeybees in their dozens to drink from a forest of nectar.

The bees trip over themselves to visit every single flower. They fly carelessly close to silken strands where garden spiders dangle beneath the leaves waiting to pounce. The bees’ tantalising electrical charge in the air attracts the webbing even closer to their wings.

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I think the variety of sedum in our garden is autumn joy? The large clump of ungainly leaves growing out from the bottom of the decking had looked suspiciously like a weed to untrained gardeners’ eyes. “I’ll dig it out for you,” my dad said, eager to clear away overgrown foliage from our garden. “No” I replied, “We’re waiting to see what everything turns into this year.”

The green clusters have slowly exploded into bright pink blooms over the past couple of weeks. “Is there a nest of bees in the garden?” John and dad both had asked me. “No, just the autumn sedum,” I replied.

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I was tempted to brush away the spiders’ webs to protect the foraging bees. But who am I to interfere and deprive a spider of her dinner? The sedum looks well established and it’s likely this dance between spiders and bees has been going on for decades in our garden. So far I’ve counted only one mummified bee in a web, the spiders are hardly winning.

The nectar flow is usually considered to be over by many beekeepers come late summer to early autumn. However, as I watch the bees in the garden few appear to be pollen collectors. Their baskets are empty as they search for every place on the flower beds to drink. This gives me hope that autumn forage will bring both more nectar and pollen to the hives, if the bees can withstand the chilly drop in temperatures.

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This hardy warm-blooded bumblebee in a garden centre seemed less bothered by the cool day than the cold-blooded honeybees.

At the apiary table beekeepers were taking a pause for tea, and honey fudge bought by Emily from her holiday. “This looks far too posh to eat,” complained John Chapple. “I think you should wrap it in Christmas paper,” agreed Stan. Emily cut the fudge into cubes for the beekeepers to (reluctantly) eat.

Talk was on about this year’s National Honey Show with Jonesy being persuaded to take part. I shared a tip passed-on by Dev from last year’s honey judges. To get out more air bubbles, spread cling film on the surface of the honey and leave (perhaps 20 minutes) then peel off…

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… air bubbles cling to the film and lift off. I’m not sure of the physics behind it, but it works. Clearer honey!

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Our three hives have ended the summer queen right. With the honey crop off and the Apiguard treatment finished, we’re checking the bees are bedding down properly for winter. To prove the point, Melissa’s colony had stuck down the hive roof hard with lots of propolis.

Peppermint’s hive was low on nectar stores (we hadn’t harvested from this artificially swarmed colony) although packed-full of bright orange pollen. There were also piles of beautiful orange pollen dropped at the bottom of the hive. Be more careful with your shopping, ladies! Going through the frames it was clear this hive would need autumn feeding to meet their quota of 20–30 lb of honey to survive winter. The bees were well behaved despite the low amounts of stores and brood in the nest, which would usually make a colony quite grumpy.

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In Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives the August wash-out had made the bees tuck into their put-away stores and left the returned wet supers unfilled. A reminder of how quickly things can change in bee land. Emily and I may decide this month whether or not these supers now need to be taken off for safer storage against wax moth. There’s no hurry, we’ll wait and see if the forecast Indian summer makes any difference.

We didn’t spot the queens this weekend, but the bees were behaving as good as gold so their majesties must be at home. I wondered if it might also be the effect of Jochen standing nearby. This German beekeeper seems to have a calming influence on our bees.

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Emily holds up a brood frame from Melissa’s colony. The hive had completed a Bailey comb change in the spring, yet how quickly the golden honeycomb turns brown after one summer of brood. It makes me think of how many bees have emerged from each cell leaving behind a cocoon.

The summer holidays felt like a distant memory as we talked about getting ready for winter. Autumn is always a reminder of how fast time flies.

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Two bees chat about their summer holidays while sticking propolis to the hive roof.