Winter studies: The poison honey

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© Dr Henry Oakeley

“In the summer, in the College garden, the woolly foxglove, Digitalis lanata, is visited by little bees which become stuporose and lie upside down in the flowers, seeming unable to fly away when disturbed.” –Dr Henry Oakeley, Garden Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) Medicinal Garden.

I became fascinated with the idea of ‘poisonous honey’ when I worked at the College. Watching bees foraging on the intoxicating inhabitants of the physicians’ Medicinal Garden, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of insects tempted by sinister sweetness, putrid pollen and foul fruit. What seductively dark nectar would the bees return to the hive to convert into undesirable honey? When I asked Henry, he told me the story of the bees in the woolly foxgloves and he kindly sent two beautiful photographs taken in the College garden.

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© Dr Henry Oakeley | Poison honey and a whodunnit bee too, how exciting! Anthophora or Anthidium manicatum? See Mark’s comments below.

The colour and flavour of honey comes from the variety of nectar sources visited by the bees. From spring mint and summer blackberry to autumn woods and bitter ivy, the taste and smell of honey can evoke intense reactions, not always good. The strong flavour of privet honey, for example, is described as ‘objectionable’ in Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, while Ted Hooper in A Guide to Bees & Honey confesses: “I cannot say I have ever found much wrong with it”. But whether you like ivy, heather or rapeseed, ‘unpalatable’ honey is a matter of personal taste.

What, then, of honey with truly ‘undesirable’ qualities from the nectar that is gathered, being harmful to bees or humans, or both? In this post, I’m going to look at the possible toxicity of honey from the nectar or pollen of plants rather than artificial contamination.

“Just when you thought that honey was always a wonderful health food,” says Henry, pointing me in the direction of rhododendron – a common culprit of toxic honey that can be harmful to bees and humans. According to Wikipedia, a chemical group of toxins called grayanotoxins found in rhododendrons and other plants of the family Ericaceae may, very rarely, cause a poisonous reaction of ‘honey intoxication’ or ‘rhododendron poisoning’.

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Image: Rhododendron and vast clouds in Japan | 松岡明芳 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Xenophon and his Greek army retreated ill from Persia in 399BC as a result of ‘toxic honey’ and Pompey’s soldiers fell foul of ‘maddening honey’ in the Third Mithridatic War in 65BC. These historical accounts name varieties of rhododendron honey as causing a “feeling of drunkeness, to vomiting and purging, and madness that lasted for days” (Collins). A botanist’s tale of poison honey is given by Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885–1958), during his travels in northern Burma towards Tibet. He recounts symptoms similar to acute alcohol poisoning, suffered along with his travelling companions, after eating honey produced in the rhododendron season. The local Tibetans ate the honey without ill effects (Collins).

Piers Moore Ede vividly describes sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ of rhododendron flowers collected by the honey hunters of Nepal: “It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful” (Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness).

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Image: Rhododendron forest on Manaslu circuit, Nepal | Spencer Weart via CC BY-SA 3.0.

An incident of poisoning reported in honeybee colonies on Colonsay Island off west-coast Scotland in 1995, referenced in Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3). “The bees had died out completely in 2–3 days after starting to collect nectar from Rhododendron blossoms (Rhododendron thomsonii) caused by the poison andromedotoxin or acetylandromedol.” Ted Hooper writes on the case of Colonsay Island’s bees: The West of Scotland College of Agriculture Study showed that the poison andromedotoxin was involved”.

It sounds like rhododendrons are not a desirable source of forage for bees! However, to put the risk of honey poisoning from rhododendron, or any other toxic plant, into perspective, I asked John Robertson of The Poison Garden website: “Put simply, something has to go wrong for toxic honey to be produced and then it has to go wrong again for it to cause human poisoning.” OK, so what can go wrong?

“The first thing that has to go wrong is to have a lack of species diversity. Generally, bees visit so many different plants that they don’t get a concentration of any particular toxin. This can go wrong, as in the west of Scotland, where Rhododendrons are almost the only thing in flower early in the spring. But, nectar from Rhododendron is toxic enough to kill the bees so they tend not to return it to the hive. Experienced beekeepers know not to let their bees out at this time of year. I haven’t seen any reports of poisoning from honey made from Rhododendrons.” John writes more on The poison garden blog, entry for Tuesday 27 September 2011.

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Image: Coriaria arborea | Rudolph89 via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Both John and Henry brought my attention to honey from the tutu tree (Coriaria arborea) in New Zealand, which could cause harm to humans, but this is due to the unusual way in which the honey is produced by insects. John says:

“Bees collecting nectar directly from the plant do not produce poisonous honey. But, a vine hopper insect also feeds on the nectar of the plant and excretes a sweet ‘honeydew’ containing a high concentration of plant toxins. Especially in times of drought, bees may gather this honeydew rather than nectar from the plants. Because this is a well-known problem, however, there have been no instances of poisoning from commercially produced honey since 1974. When four people were taken ill in 2008, the source was traced to honey produced by an amateur who was not aware of the problem. Another instance of the flaw in the belief that the more ‘natural’ something is the better it is for you.” Read more on The poison garden blog, entry for Thursday 30 June 2011.

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Image: Drone fly (Eristalis tenax) – not a bee! – on ragwort flowers | Francis Franklin via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rhododendron is not the only mischievous plant in the garden. Yates lists common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) in its section on unpalatable honey as “an injurious weed in the Weeds Act 1959, is poisonous to cattle and horses causing damage to the liver with pyrrolizidine alkaloids“. However, bees work the blossom for nectar and pollen with no ill effects to produce a bright yellow honey with an unpleasant smell.

What other mutinous plants, then, produce nectar and pollen that is harmful to the bee?

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Image: Ranunculus macro | Laura Brolis via CC BY-SA 3.0.

The innocent-looking buttercup that pops-up in spring has bitter tasting leaves from a toxin called protoanemonin present in the sap. In 1944 in Switzerland, spring dwindling, or ‘May disease’, occurred after bees brought home pollen from the Ranunculaceae family (buttercup): “Nurse bees appeared at hive entrances trembling and unable to fly, excitedly moving on the landing board, losing control of their legs, rotating violently on their backs, becoming paralysed and dying. The leaves of most species of buttercup are poisonous and avoided by livestock” (Yates).

As the reference to this case is old, I dug deeper for something more recent. I found a study in the journal Functional Ecology, published by Wiley-Blackwell, which showed the contradictory effects of buttercup pollen and viper’s bugloss pollen in two closely-related species of mason bees: “While the larvae of Osmia cornuta were able to develop on viper’s bugloss pollen, more than 90% died within days on buttercup pollen. Amazingly, the situation was exactly the opposite with the larvae of Osmia bicornis” (Science Daily press release). The researchers suggested that some flowering plants used chemical defenses to prevent all their pollen being used by the bees to feed their larvae, rather than to pollinate the flower.

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Image: Abies alba Schleus Berg | Thomas Dreger, Suhl via CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 1951 another account of bee poisoning was reported in Switzerland, this time from the silver fir (Abies alba), which is a source of honeydew toxic to bees. “Thousands of returning foragers, with a waxy black appearance, were reported dying outside hives.” It was thought that sap-sucking insects feeding on the silver fir had converted the plant sap into sugars toxic to the bees (Yates). I was unable to find a more recently reported incident of silver fir honeydew poisoning in bees, although I came across a website that said silver fir honeydew honey is an “excellent table honey that goes well with cheese”. Is Abies alba still foraged for honey? If anyone has further information, I’d be interested to know.

In California, the pretty blossom of the buckeye chestnut tree (Aesculus californica) wickedly beckons bees to feed from its nectar and pollen: “The bees become black and shiny, trembling and paralysed. Non-laying queens, dying brood and infertile eggs have also been reported. As this species covers 14 million acres in North America its effects on honeybees are well known to local beekeepers” (Yates). You can read more about the buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee in this interesting article by the University of California’s Bug Squad.

Then there is the mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), native to eastern US, introduced to Europe as an ornamental plant, and toxic to bees, humans and livestock due to the presence of andromedotoxin which could accumulate in the honey (Yates). However, the honey is reportedly so bitter that it’s unlikely to be eaten and cause poisoning (Wikipedia).

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All in all, it seems you’re more likely to come across a ‘poison honey’ in an episode of Poirot than find it on your breakfast table. John comments that the taste and texture of ‘bad’ honey, such as from common ragwort which “is waxy and unpleasant”, is probably enough to prevent anyone from eating too much of it. That, then, puts the lid on a fascinating topic.

With thanks to
A huge thanks to Dr Henry Oakeley and John Robertson for generously sharing their vast knowledge of plant lore for this post. If you’re interested in reading more about poison gardens or exotic plants, check out the links in the reading list below.

Further reading
A tour of the medicinal garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
A year in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Henry Oakeley, published by RCP
Rhododendron yakushimanum ‘Grumpy’ from RCP Medicinal Garden online plant database by Dr Henry Oakeley
The Poison Garden website posts by John Robertson from Thursday 30 June 2011 and Tuesday 27 September 2011
Toxic honey entry in Wikipedia
Collins Beekeeper’s Bible by Philip Et Al Mccabe, published by HarperCollins
A Guide to Bees & Honey by Ted Hooper MBE, published by Northern Bee Books
Yates Beekeeping Study Notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3) by JD & BD Yates, published by BBNO | (Yates recommends further details on undesirable nectars can be found in Honey Bee Pests, Predators and Diseases by RA Morse and R Nowogrodski, published by Cornell University)
Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede, published by Bloomsbury
Claudio Sedivy, Andreas Müller, Silvia Dorn. Closely related pollen generalist bees differ in their ability to develop on the same pollen diet: evidence for physiological adaptations to digest pollen. Functional Ecology, 2011; DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2435.2010.01828.x | sourced via Science Daily press release.
• University of California’s post on buckeye chestnut tree and the honeybee from the Bug Squad
Mad honey poisoning‐related asystole from US National Library of Medicine | National Institutes of Health
• Emily Scott of Adventuresinbeeland’s Blog has written a brilliant post on 1st Honey bee products and forage revision post: a list of floral sources of unpalatable honey;

Further winter studies for bees can be found in my blog index.

Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

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This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

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I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

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What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

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While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

The London Honey Show 2014

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Autumn brings lots of good things like misty mornings, crispy days, bonfires and fireworks – and the annual honey shows.

The London Honey Show at the Lancaster Hotel celebrates the end of one beekeeping season and the start of the next.

For a small fee of £1, donated to Bees for Development, you’ll enter a room filled with bee paraphernalia – honey, mead, honey beer, honey cakes, bee art, wax candles, wax flowers, cook books, bee books, cosmetics, jewellery, exotic hives… and lots of beekeepers, quite a few from Ealing.

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What I enjoy most about The London Honey Show are the talks. They are not too long or too many to stop you from walking around and sampling the stalls, but they leave you sparkling with bee knowledge. It’s like the Ted Talks of beekeeping, so here’s a bonus post for this week on the three speakers.

Products of the hive and what to do with them by urban beekeeper Judy Earl gave us new ideas for old ingredients: honey, propolis and beeswax. A beekeeper for 10 years, Judy has spent hours experimenting in her kitchen. Skipping over pollen and royal jelly (she had rarely met a beekeeper in the UK who uses these) Judy explored medicinal, cosmetic, decorative, culinary, and other uses of the hive.

While New Zealand’s Manuka honey is widely acclaimed for its antimicrobial properties, propolis has long been a medicinal component used for skin ointments and tinctures for sore throats. “Although reading some sources would seem to make propolis a cure-all,” said Judy.

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From honey-and-slippery-elm tablets to beeswax-and-chili plasters, Judy has tried every remedy including a garlic-and-beeswax chest rub which was so pungent the judges refused to try it at the national honey shows.

There are a wide range of do-it-yourself cosmetics from soaps and yoghurt-and-honey face masks to lipsticks and mascaras. “The easiest to make is lip balm,” said Judy, which can be blended with other lovely ingredients such as avocado oil. “Be sure to use the cleaner white wax cappings when making products for the lips and face.”

Foods like honey and mead are just the beginning we discovered as Judy described delicious recipes for flavoured vodkas and honey liqueurs. She gave an easy shopping list for blackberry vinegar made with 600ml white wine vinegar, 450g sugar, 450g blackberries, and 225g honey.

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From dipped and moulded beeswax candles, the hive has a cornucopia of practical and decorative uses. Mixing 100g beeswax and 250ml turpentine is the “easiest thing” to make beeswax polish, while “wax crayons is quite a labour of love”. Judy showed the nice things we could do with decorative wax confectionary and flowers. Her take-home message: “Anything that comes out of your hive can be used, don’t burn it use it!”

Saving our bumble bees by Professor Dave Goulson, author of A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow, pointed out that honeybees are nice but they’re not everything. “There are around 26 species of bumble bees in the UK, the numbers keep changing, and around 220 species worldwide,” said Dave, a bit miffed.

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A plate of different bumble bee species from Collins Beekeeper’s Bible.

As an academic at Sussex University, Dave has spent around 30 years studying bumble bees, although his first foray at age seven into bumble bee conservation didn’t start well:

“On one occasion, after a heavy summer rainstorm, I found a number of bedraggled bumblebees clinging to my buddleia, and decided to dry them out. Unfortunately for the bees I was, perhaps, a bit too young to have a good grasp of the practicalities. With hindsight, finding my mum’s hairdryer and giving them a gentle blow-dry might have been the most sensible option. Instead, I laid the torpid bees on the hotplate of the electric cooker, covered them in a layer of tissue paper, and turned the hot plate on to low. Being young I got bored of waiting for them to warm up and wandered off to feed my vicious little gerbils. Sadly, my attention did not return to the bees until I noticed the smoke. The tissue paper had caught fire and the poor bees had been frazzled. I felt terrible. My first foray into bumblebee conservation was a catastrophic disaster.”
A sting in the tale, Dave Goulson

Luckily it got better.

Bumble bee colonies are annual, said Dave. They start again each year with late summer queens who have mated and leave their nests to bury in the ground over winter. In spring, hungry bumble bee queens emerge to feast on flowers and search for an uninhabited mouse or vole nest in a lawn. Then satisfied, the bumble bee queen lays her eggs and sits on them like a bird, pressing her stomach and shivering to keep them warm.

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Another fascinating fact about bumble bees is that these furry insects are like us – warm blooded. Bumble bees are thought to have originated 30 million years ago in the eastern parts of the Himalayas, where around 60 different species of bumbles still live. But being big furry insects adapted to live in colder climes, bumble bees have enormous energy requirements. “A bumble bee beats its wings 200 times per second to stay up in the air.” To maintain body warmth and function they must eat a lot and often. “A bumble bee with a full stomach has 40 minutes before starving to death.”

While Dave promised the talk wouldn’t be all gloom and doom, he couldn’t tell us these bumble bee delights without sharing a cautionary note for the future. Bumble bees are important pollinators, “While your honeybees are shivering inside in early spring, bumbles are out and about pollinating tomatoes. Honeybees are rubbish at pollinating tomatoes,” Dave told the room full of beekeepers. “Tomatoes require buzz pollination which honeybees haven’t worked out how to do, but bumble bees have.” In fact, every tomato that we eat in the UK has been pollinated by a bumble bee, which could mean fewer generous helpings of tomato sauce if these insects decline.

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Three British species of bumble bee have become extinct in the past 100 years and many other species are declining. Why? Changes to farming, exposure to foreign diseases and pesticides like neonicotinoids are all contributing factors, Dave explained. “About a quarter of British bumble bees suffer from an Asian honeybee disease, nosema ceranae, which is very sad.”

We were shown a table of agrochemical applications on an oilseed rape field in Sussex, which had 20 different types of chemicals thrown on a single crop. Wild bees, honeybees and other pollinators are bombarded by different pressures, toxins and loss of natural habitat. We need to learn how to look after them better.

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How fast are bumble bees declining? That’s hard to say, Dave admitted, because we have an idea of honeybee losses from the number of hives, but bumble bee nests are small holes in the ground that are difficult to find. This is where the army are called in to help! A specially trained sniffer dog, Toby, sniffed out nest holes so that researchers could set up cameras and learn interesting things about bumble bees.

One thing they learnt is that great tits are a predator of bumble bees. We watched a clip of grainy footage as a great tit sat outside a bumble bee nest waiting to pick off the workers. From the piles of bodies, Dave’s team found out that each bird had a favourite way of eating its snacks: biting the thorax and chewing on the wing muscles, or chopping off the bottom and scooping out the innards.

Badgers are also a predator of bumble bees, digging up their nests to eat, particularly during hot dry summers.

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A picture of pretty bee art to offset the doom and gloom. A lovely project by Hallfield School Year 3.

So it seems bumble bees face a lot of challenges, what can we do to help? Dave outlined an action plan:

• Make people aware about the plight of bumble bees, not just honeybees
• Working with children – kids love beasties so keep them engaged and interested about insects
• Join a citizen science scheme, there are lots in the UK finding out how bees are doing
• Promote wildlife friendly gardens using traditional cottage plants not intensively bred flowers – “You may as well have plastic plants than hideous bedding” said Dave
• Badger councils to stop mowing verges of roads and roundabouts to leave them for wild flowers, bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

Go to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust for lots more information about bumble bees, including how to identify them, and follow Dave Goulson on Twitter @DaveGoulson.

A short Q&A followed Dave’s talk. I asked what is his favourite bumble bee? “Shrill carder,” said Dave “It makes a shrill sound up in the air.”

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Our grocery shopping would look very different without pollinators.

Dave reminded us that three-quarters of life on earth is made up of insects and that life would be very different without them. These small creatures not only pollinate our world but fulfil many important tasks like recycling, waste disposal and are part of the food chain of larger animals.

However, Dave’s talk did have a sting in its tail, “All bees have a common ancestor around 120 million years ago – wasps that lived in the age of dinosaurs.” These wasp ancestors kept burrows in the ground filled with paralysed insects. It’s thought that they began to collect pollen, and eventually collected more and more pollen and fewer paralysed insects until they became vegetarian wasps – or bees.

The final talk on Spoonfuls of Honey by food writer Hattie Ellis was a warm hug on a cold dark autumnal evening. Though Emily, Jonesy and I had all sampled the honey beer, mead and cocktails, so we were feeling particularly warm already.

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Hattie took us on a sensual culinary journey of cooking with honey, illustrated by using small amounts of honey to make simple food wonderful. Her colourful descriptions of mango honey from Jamaica and quince honey from Kew filling a whole room with fragrance made my imagination run wild. This was a great talk for a beekeeper and an aromatherapist. “How do you evolve a language of the flavour of honey?” asked Hattie. You cook with it. A sumptuous display of delicious dishes ensued from borage or orange blossom honey spooned over buttery Madeleines to chestnut honey drizzled over chocolate ice cream.

“Honey’s best friends are things the bees like,” said Hattie, “Like apricots with thyme, and elderflowers fritters.” Her talk was driving me crazy! “Cheese and honey are a marriage made in heaven,” she continued to describe dipping walnut bread and honey in baked Camembert.

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For the carnivores there was also honey-glazed lamb and sweetened tamarind ribs. Hattie recommended using cheaper honeys to cook and saving speciality honeys to drizzle. The fructose in honey tastes sweeter than the sucrose in sugar, so less can be used if baking, say, a Drambuie-soaked fruit cake.

Take care to use a lower temperature when cooking with honey, warned Hattie, as it burns more easily.

As we salivated over a picture of a fig-and-honey tart, Hattie led us from sweet to savoury dishes like leeks scattered with toasted bread crumbs and pollen, and pollen-flavoured shortbreads. It was too much.

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Hattie finished with a rather sexy description of how to savour the taste of honey slowly on the tongue – it would make a bee blush.

You can read more about Spoonfuls of Honey on Hattie’s website.

The night ended with announcements for best honeys and Beekeeper of the Year. We didn’t win the honey prize, so instead floated between stalls like aimless drones before flying home. I can’t wait till next year’s London Honey Show!

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The Great Honey Bottle

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Often when people meet me and find out I am a beekeeper, they say: “Taking honey from bees is cruel, isn’t it?” I don’t really mind because ‘they’ are usually (self-confessed) vegans and all I have to say is: “Yes, but I don’t eat almonds” to confuse them and make my escape.

Of course, as a beekeeper I don’t think taking honey from the bees is cruel. To me, a single jar of honey at the end of the season is a sign of strong and healthy colony and a well-managed hive. The honey harvest is a culmination of a successful partnership between the bees and their beekeeper.

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Today Emily (above) and I celebrated our harvest with a great honey bottling session. We poured and sieved our light golden and mildly sweet honey into containers and jars to be divided between us. I’m planning to label my jars ‘Myrtle’s honey’ after the queen who successfully led the colony for the past two years.

Ah, beautiful jars of honey – a taste for all our family and friends, thank you Myrtle.

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If you’re not a regular reader of my blog, be assured that no bees were squashed or maimed in the making of our honey. Not a tiny wing or little leg was found as we decanted the precious golden liquid. Emily and I take care to clear bees from the supers by gently brushing and handpicking stragglers from every frame before they are taken home. Although, I should say that with only four hives we have the luxury of doing this.

Later in the afternoon we returned the last of the wet super frames to the apiary for the bees to clean up and add to their winter stores. The elder beekeepers were surprised that we had returned so much honey in the frames for the bees and thought they had better check to see it was ok. Thumbs were out and honeycomb was crushed, “Blackberry and lime,” was John’s verdict.

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Though the days are growing shorter, the autumn has been mild and there was still time to look at our bees. Melissa (Myrtle’s daughter) has got her bees to work filling up another super, which along with the honey we have returned gives the colony more than enough stores for winter. Melissa’s workers had also left a mischievous honeycomb surprise in the hive after four weeks of varroa treatments. But more on that next week.

We took a look under the crownboards of our other colonies to see them calm and content, and building up good stores. Although someone needs to tell the bees that winter is coming as they are still very active: eggs, brood and even drone found in Pepper’s hive.

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We have just finished the Apiguard treatments for varroa and the mite drop has shown that both the treatment has worked and that sadly varroa often flourishes when the colony does. Emily and I are both worried about Chamomile’s sickly hive, which we will try to treat further with a thymol mix for the syrup next week.

I’ve never met a beekeeper who isn’t obsessed about the wellbeing and survival of their bees. When many of the beekeepers at Ealing apiary went to a showing of More than honey, a Swiss documentary directed by Marcus Imhoof, they were shocked to watch the treatment of bees at an almond plantation in California. At a larger commercial scale for the pollination industry, the picture for honeybees is grim as colonies are mechanically processed by machines that crush and grind bees in their hundreds. I had mixed reactions to the film – awe at the spectacular scenes of life inside the hive and horror at the management of colonies as nests are torn apart into boxes of ‘brood’ and ‘honey’.

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That’s why I don’t eat almonds, or buy almond oil. It probably doesn’t make a difference but I just can’t bring myself to make a purchase without thinking of that picture of suffering honeybees at the almond plantation. When I am asked what I think about taking honey, I suppose that I could explain how most beekeepers care greatly for their bees and how on the whole there are worse things that you could eat. What I really want to do on a Saturday afternoon though is enjoy beekeeping and having a nice cup of tea with the beekeepers, so I usually say nothing and hope the questioner goes away.

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Last autumn I remember a visitor to the apiary who told me he was a vegan soon after we met, perhaps he could tell that I am a butcher’s daughter as well as a beekeeper. He showed his displeasure at treating the bees with Apiguard and the use of chemicals in the hive. I didn’t really mind this either, because I had been to an excellent Bee Health Day at London Beekeepers Association at which I had made up my mind that I disliked varroa and bee diseases much more than I disliked treating my bees. But as there was tea and cake waiting on the apiary table, I hoped to make a quick getaway rather than stand around and explain about naturally occurring chemicals thymol and oxalic acid. So I said: “I’m sorry, is there a chemical on the periodic table that you don’t take offense to?” Unfortunately, smoke and mirrors failed as he persisted to poke me like a small honey-stealing bear until I finally agreed “Yes, taking honey is very cruel” and “Yes, I shouldn’t treat my hives”. That done, I apologised for going because I wanted a cup of tea at the apiary, before enjoying a slice of black pudding for my supper at home.

I suppose that I am as naughty as Melissa’s bees.

Further reading – an interesting post by Bees with eeb on The Bee Man of Orn provides beekeeping from the perspective of a migratory beekeeper.

A flurry of honey

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Jonsey had been stung twice by the time I arrived at the apiary. “I put my head around the net and they got me,” he said, pulling on his suit. It was a hot and humid Sunday. We were taking off the honey, although the muggy air was the more likely reason for the bees’ defensive behaviour. Jonsey was helping out while Emily was away.

I had put a clearer board underneath a super in Myrtle’s hive on Saturday afternoon. A clearer board has one or two ‘escapes’ that let bees go down but not back up, so ‘clearing’ the super of bees. I took off the roof and saw that the clearer board had done the job. Jonsey carried the super to the apiary table where we brushed off stragglers and wrapped the box in plastic to prevent more bees, or wasps, from flying inside.

That was two weeks’ ago. Since then Emily and I have taken off a second super, both are sitting in my dad’s kitchen ready to spin the honey.

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So what about the bees? Our favourite hive may be queenless. Myrtle mysteriously disappeared a month ago with strangely squashed queen cells found inside the hive. The workers are behaving calmly, not erratic like a queenless colony, but there is no sign of a new queen, eggs or much brood. We put a second test frame of eggs from Chili’s colony into the hive to see if the workers try to make queen cells.

Emily inspected Pepper’s hive and reported all was well, though the queen was in hiding. Queens Chili and Chamomile did make an appearance. Can you spot Chili in her queen cage? She has a pink crown.

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Chamomile was hiding in a crevice underneath the comb where we couldn’t cage her. A few bees were crawling around with shrivelled wings, a sign of deformed wing virus (DWV) which can be transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. We also saw black shiny hairless bees who may have chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), which is thought to be transmitted by varroa. Soon we’ll be starting varroa treatments on the hives.

So that’s where we left our bees at the weekend with the honey harvested and the queens still keeping us guessing. Jonsey observed drones cowering in the corners of frames. The season is nearly over and they know what is to come…

Here’s a big beefy drone who fell in love with me. He sat on my yellow gloves during a recent inspection, fluttering his wings. I felt like a queen bee.

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Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

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Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

A tale of two colonies

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‘Your blog is like a soap opera. Each week I tune in to find out what the bees will do next,’ my friend Danielle had said a few years ago. ‘The twists and turns of your queens has been really dramatic!’ She was talking about the bee saga of 2012 when a season of prolonged rainfall and drone-laying queens had made beekeeping more interesting than usual.

This year I was hopeful for strong colonies, steady queens, fair weather and plentiful flows. How we get the season going is an important part of its success and this year we were well prepared, but as Emily and I have learned, anything can happen in bee land.

This is a long post, written in the raw to get my thoughts and feelings down.

Day one

Last Saturday’s all-day sunshine made it a great day to kick off the season. The apiary was pretty in the sun as I waited for Emily. We were going to change the comb. Regular readers will know that beekeepers in the UK are advised to replace the old brood comb once a year, with fresh comb, using methods like the shook swarm or Bailey comb change. The thinking behind this is to manage the levels of diseases and parasites that often live within a bee colony. Even if you can’t see any visible signs of disease, there are parasites that live with the bees all year round and it’s best not to let them get out of hand.

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For the past two years we had used the Bailey comb change, because this is a gentler method, and while we had enjoyable seasons beekeeping and learned a lot, the bees had not done that well. They were slow to complete the Bailey – whether due to poor weather, failing queens, or the collective characteristic of the colony being too complacent and slow – and last year our longest-standing hive didn’t complete the Bailey at all, which meant some comb was now two-years old.

I had a positive experience in my first-year beekeeping of shook swarming my hive. The bees had risen to the challenge and the colony had boomed, thrived and burst over with bees and honey. Having thought and read about this for months in winter, I wondered if it was time to try out the shook swarm again, at least with a couple of colonies, to re-invigorate the bees and to get rid of comb that wasn’t changed last year. Emily’s inspection of the bees, while John and I were in Dubai, showed Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were strong enough to shook swarm, but Chamomile’s was weak and might be better for a Bailey.

That decided, I lit my first smoker of the season and we opened up Myrtle’s hive. After a few frames in, I was delighted to see our favourite queen. There she was big, beautiful and dark with an amber tinge. Emily gently caged her with a few workers to keep her company, then placed the cage in a small blue tub to the side of the hive, in the shade to keep the queen cool and safe.

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That done, we did the business of the shook swarm. The original hive was moved to one side and a clean floor placed on the original hive site – so the foraging bees will not get confused when flying home to the same spot – then we placed a queen excluder on the floor, so the queen can’t abscond with her colony after the shook swarm, which she might do if the upheaval upsets her. On top went the new brood chamber with fresh frames, the centre four frames removed to provide a space to shake all the bees from the old combs.

I shook the bees from the old hive into the new hive as one of my first-year mentors had taught me: holding each of the old brood frames a third of the way into the empty chamber of the new hive and giving a sudden shake downward, careful not to knock the frame or bees against the sides. My shaking method was successful as almost all the bees fell off, leaving Emily and I to brush off the rest with leaves.

Incredibly, we barely had to use the smoker at all! Our lovely girls were well behaved throughout the whole shook swarm process and we worked quickly together as hive partners to make sure the upheaval to the bees was over as soon as possible. I shook and handed Emily the old frames to put into bin liners (to be tidy as we worked) ready to be discarded into the apiary’s burner.

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The old brood frames, some with unhatched brood, is burned. Thankfully, as it is still early in the year, there was not much unhatched brood on the frames, so we wouldn’t have to destroy many un-emerged bees. I noticed a few bees were starting to chew away the wax cappings and, not being completely heartless, I suggested Emily use the tweezers in our kit to help these bees emerge before the frames went on the bonfire. Emily rescued as many unhatched bees as she could, while I continued shook swarming.

It was soon over. We carefully put Myrtle into the new hive with her daughters and placed the crownboard (not a queen excluder, this is an important point to remember later in this post) on top of the new brood nest. The bees would now be busy drawing new comb from the foundation in a completely clean hive for a fresh start. I was particularly hoping the shook swarm would invigorate this laid-back colony, though it is my favourite, from ambling around all summer to properly ‘get-going’ this year.

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Even so, shaking two boxes of bees into another box isn’t easy – a lot of workers stubbornly stayed in the old hive boxes around the corners and sides. I used Joseph’s trick of propping up these old hive parts near the entrance of the new hive. The bees would soon figure out that the queen was inside and walk in to join her.

Next, Chili’s hive. This queen took us longer to find than Myrtle, but then we spotted her familiar red dot and long orangey-brown striped body. I thought again how lovely it was to see our queens after winter. We caged Chili and shook swarmed her colony into the new hive, propping up the old hive boxes to the entrance so unshook bees could walk in.

Both Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies would now be fed lots of sugar syrup over the next few weeks to help the hives build up – the bees use the sugar to produce wax for comb-building. The nectar flow is strong at the moment, so if the bees don’t want the syrup then they can leave it, but we liked it there just in case.

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As Chamomile’s hive was weaker we decided to leave the comb change till next week, to give these bees a chance to settle into the season and us more time to decide what to do. The apiary was also starting to get busy with beekeepers and I always find it harder to concentrate when there are lots of people around.

Pat had kindly helped Emily get started with the burner and as the fire roared the old brood frames were destroyed, to be hygienic to the apiary and neighbouring hives. I had a quick scout around the apiary to collect up dead wood to be burned.

Walking back to our newly shook-swarmed hives, I saw Joseph’s trick had worked its magic again. The straggler bees had gone into the new hives and the old hive parts were now completely empty. I neatly stacked them the side and cleared everything away into our kit box. These empty hive boxes, along with wooden dummy boards, crownboards, queen excluders, roofs and floors, would be blow-torched clean in a few weeks’ time, ready to fill with new frames should the bees expand this season or kept aside for next year’s comb change.

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With our two hives shook swarmed I suddenly felt very nervous. What if it was not the right decision? What if our colonies were not strong enough to survive the upheaval? The Bailey now felt like a better choice where we didn’t lose all the honeycomb, brood and stores from the hive in one day and anxiously waited a week for the bees to recover and rebuild. However, if I’ve learned anything as a beekeeper it’s that I must have the courage to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. The decision to shook swarm seemed right at the time given the strength, personalities and circumstances of the colonies in past years where the Bailey hadn’t quite worked. So we’d just have to wait and see.

I think it’s important as a beekeeper to try the different methods and observing their effects a number of times for yourself in the first 5–10 years’ beekeeping, because you build the skill and experience to know what to do and how to do it when faced with different colonies in different situations. Whether it’s a shook swarm, Bailey or doing nothing at all, it’s about having a big bag of tricks as a beekeeper. I’d only done a shook swarm once before, it was time to learn about it first-hand again. Nature would soon tell me if I was wrong.

Day two

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The day after the shook swarm John drove me back to the apiary to refill the feeders with syrup. I remembered in my first year that shook-swarmed colonies need to be fed a lot of sugar to help them recover. John waited outside as I suited up and walked to the hives. I took the roof off Myrtle’s hive and my heart stopped. There she was, our precious queen, floundering in the feeder with the workers. Her long body dipping precariously in the syrup.

Before I could think why the queen had wandered into the feeder, where she should never be, I quickly removed it, got out the queen and hastily put her back inside the hive where she rolled unceremoniously to the floor. The bees were furious and I had to ignore them as I closed up, this time putting a queen excluder on top (remember earlier, the shook swarm instructions don’t include putting an excluder above the nest) so the queen could not possibly find her way into syrup again. As I topped up the feeders in both Myrtle’s and Chili’s hive, I reflected on why Myrtle had walked up there. Day two after the shook swarm, the queen has nowhere to lay eggs and nothing to do but wait for the workers to build comb with cells to lay eggs. To do this, the workers need lots of energy, from sugar, to produce wax, and they would all cluster in the feeder taking down syrup. It was probably warm and tempting up there for Myrtle, who went to join her daughters or maybe she was just looking for a place to lay. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t risk this inquisitive queen falling into the syrup to a sweet sugary death.

I thought about putting a queen excluder on top of Chili’s hive too, but it was late in the day and the bees were testy after the disturbance. So I left the apiary and worried about the bees for three days.

Day five

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Midweek I went back to the apiary to feed the hives again. Myrtle’s hive had half taken the syrup down and Chili’s had finished theirs. I’ve read that you shouldn’t disturb a shook-swarmed hive for a week – just feed and feed – but I couldn’t resist a peek inside Myrtle’s colony to see all was well. Taking off the crownboard, I stared through the queen excluder and five seams of bees stared back at me. To my relief the colony was calm, suggesting Myrtle was alright, and appeared to be building wax across five frames already. I closed up and left the bees in peace.

Day eight

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Yesterday Emily and I carried out the first inspection on the two hives since the shook swarm. I was nervous what we would find – and it was a happy discovery. Myrtle was alive and well in her hive, walking in her playful way across the frame. The bees were building comb across five–six frames and the queen had even laid eggs. Not bad for our normally complacent bees, they had risen to the challenge and I was very proud of them. The more cautious Chili was found scrutinising cells in her hive and her bees had industriously started drawing comb on eight–nine frames, there were even rainbows of pollen alongside glistening stores of nectar.

While I’m not sure that I would shook swarm every year, it felt like what was needed this year and so far the signs were good. Let’s hope it stays that way.

We fed the bees more syrup and will continue feeding them until they don’t want it anymore. Emily also left pollen supplements alongside the frames – as we’d caused the upheaval to the bees, it was up to us to give them a helping hand.

The overcast weather meant it wasn’t a good day for a full inspection, and we were satisfied that we’d seen the queens and the two colonies were recovering well from the shook swarm. So we closed up and went for a cup of tea and cake.

While all this drama was happening in Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives, Chamomile’s hive was having its own misadventure. More on that next time.

Reflections…

This was a difficult post to write – I expect many beekeepers, particularly those who use natural methods, will disagree and criticise me for doing a shook swarm. I’ve nothing against any method, in particular, if it works for the beekeeper and their bees. But I need to learn my own way. Here, I’ve dissected all my thoughts and feelings around the decision to shook swarm and my reaction afterwards, and I’ve been harder on myself this past week than anyone else could be. Whether I shook swarm again or not, this was a valuable learning experience to record, so that it will help guide me in future years as a beekeeper.