A birthday for a bee and a beekeeper

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A bee was born last Sunday afternoon along with a few hundred others in his small queenless hive. The drone chewed away the wax capping of his cell and emerged from a frame as Emily held it up to inspect for signs of a queen. He would have blinked at us, if he could.

The new queen had been missing since she was first spotted at the end of May. She had looked long and beautiful after her mating flight, full of promise for her colony. A couple of weeks later something had gone wrong. Emily found cells that had two eggs laid in them, usually a sign of a laying worker or sometimes a new queen getting used to her duties. We gave the queen the benefit of the doubt but the following weekend we found a queen cell with a small pearly larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly. The workers were trying to make a new mother and the unnamed beauty was nowhere to be seen. Two weeks later their attempts appeared to have failed and Emily and I decided to unite the hive with its original colony, Chamomile’s.

We met two weeks ago on Sunday at midday to go through the queenless hive using a method that John Chapple had taught us to make sure there is no queen or virgin hiding away. We took out each brood frame, inspecting in turn, and placed them in spaced-out pairs in an empty brood box to the side. If we did miss a queen on a frame then the bees would betray her by gathering around the frame she was on. We didn’t find her, but we saw emerging drones, drone brood and multiple eggs in cells. I saw a varroa on a worker, when looking through photos on my way home, this was not a healthy happy hive.

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Emily had inspected Chamomile’s colony the day before and all seemed well. We removed the queen excluder from Chamomile’s hive (the queen-right hive) and placed sheets of newspaper on top of the brood box making small slits with our hive tools. We then placed the brood box of the queen-less hive above. The bees will chew away the newspaper as they become accustomed to each other’s smell and unite as one colony. That is, if Chamomile accepts the return of her prodigal daughters, and sons. We put on the roof and hoped for the best.

That was two weekends ago. This Saturday came with surprise sunshine instead of expected rain. The bees were on the wing and making honey. Emily and I arrived at the apiary for midday inspections ahead of Andy’s 60th birthday party that afternoon. It was hot work going through four hives in a mini heatwave, but wonderful to see our colonies bursting with bees and heavy frames of honey.

008Chili’s colony had made a good start on a super that Emily had put on last Saturday. Chili is a slender bright orange-red queen like a tiny beautiful chili pepper. Her temperament pervades a hive of energetic and lively, but steady bees. We soon spotted her walking over the top and down a frame, and caged the queen to keep her safe during the inspection. We saw some queen cups and a cell that could have been a long drone or a queen, but these were too few to be attempts at swarming and were probably late summer plans of supersedure or workers playing as they do. I released Chili from her cage and she climbed onto my glove for a mini adventure before dropping into the hive.

The split hive from Chili’s colony is coming along nicely, although they haven’t made much work of their super. We saw the new queen, Chili’s daughter, who looks just like her mother. I had a name for her on the tip of my tongue, but couldn’t quite think of it.

Myrtle, our favourite queen and matriarch of our longest-standing hive, has given us two magnificent supers of honey this year and I’m really proud of the lovely queen and her bees. Myrtle’s gentle workers were noticeably more alert – not quite feisty but they have lots of honey to guard now.

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We didn’t see Myrtle but there were eggs in cells so a queen is there. Earlier in June we found a couple of queen cells in Myrtle’s hive which led us to suspect the workers might try to supersede their two-and-a-half year old queen this summer. Perhaps mother and daughter are inside the hive now, tolerating each other until the workers decide the old queen’s time is done.

Last we opened Chamomile’s hive to see whether the bees had happily united. We went through the first brood box holding our breaths, it is always a test of nerves to find out if a hive combining has worked. There were eggs – single eggs – in cells of the former queen-less brood box which meant Chamomile had been upstairs and started to lay. The bees had chewed away most of the newspaper and were co-living contentedly. Chamomile was found in the bottom brood box along with a couple of queen cells that might again be signs of supersedure. Will we have all new queens to take our hives into winter?

That done, we changed out of hot beekeeper suits and went to Andy’s 60th birthday party where more bees awaited – chocolate raisin bees.

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This delicious-looking honeybee birthday cake was baked by Andy’s clever wife Penny Pedley. The beekeepers at the party noticed that the queen sitting outside the hive entrance was marked with a red spot rather than a green spot for this year. “That makes the queen around 53, not quite 60,” said Andy wryly as he cut the cake. Penny had made the sponge using honey from Andy’s hive and so the cake was a birthday present from his bees too.

As this was a beekeeper’s birthday there was, of course, a beer hive…

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… for beekeepers to enjoy a long cool dark beer after a hot day’s beekeeping.

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Emily and I chatted to John Chapple about our bees while eating the buffet and cake. He asked about the ratio of brood, bees and honey in the hives, and we reported that all hives were producing less brood. “The bees are telling us that summer is coming to an end,” said John. But not quite yet.

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The name for the new queen, Chili’s daughter, sprung into my mind as we sat in Andy’s pretty garden. Emily and I have a tradition of naming the queens of the hives we share after essential oils, so I asked Emily if she liked Pepper for black pepper essential oil. She did.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a dark, intense and interesting aroma. In subtle aromatherapy the essence “will help us ‘get a move on’ at times when our lives feel ‘stuck'” (The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia). Perfect for a late spring queen who needs her colony to get a move on before autumn.

A rainy day in the honeybee year

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Some say the beekeeper’s year starts in late August to early September after the honey has been harvested and the bees are preparing for winter. In July the flow of nectar should be generous and foragers seen flying home with heavy loads of pollen.

So on Saturday 28 June I stood in front of our hives appreciating that we are on a tight schedule. After getting the bees going in spring, there is a narrow window during which the colony must be strong and conditions must be right to produce a super of honey.

Emily and I have missed that window for the past two years contending with rain, failed queens and small swarmy colonies, but this year our hopes are pinned on two supers on Myrtle’s hive.

With five hives we can’t yet claim the honey as ours. Good weather and strong queens are needed for the bees to make enough stores to see all colonies through winter and to give us a harvest.

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Today we wouldn’t tell if the bees were on track. We were rained out and though some beekeepers did open their hives, they were met with a roar from the bees. Albert’s artistic ladies had been playing in the roof making a construction worthy of Tate Modern.

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Thomas’s Italian ‘teddy bear’ bees were remarkably calm despite the rain and nursing queen cells. The nuc with the old queen had been experimenting with natural comb. Thomas explained that they start by building two oval segments on either side of the frame before joining them up.

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The rain was falling thick and fast now, so we gave up for the day. On my way home I reflected so much time is spent wishing for honey, we forget that the bees are doing something even more amazing all the time – building honeycomb.

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I’ve blogged about the wonder of honeycomb before, but it’s worth repeating.

The honeybee builds honeycomb from wax secreted by the abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. She builds row upon row of perfect six-sided cells in a precise hexagonal array.

Marcus du Sautoy gives a lovely explanation of why bees choose hexagons to build their comb on BBC’s ‘The Code’. “The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible.” To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build and stores the highest volume of honey, which makes it the most efficient shape. “It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,” says Marcus. “Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.”

Rain or shine we will get wax from our bees, and watching this brings a new appreciation for candles.

The month of honey

charing cross

So England has lost and is out of the World Cup. There is still a promising summer ahead and today was a beautiful day for beekeeping with blue skies and sunshine.

Festivals were taking place all over London from Hanwell to Greenwich, but I was more interested in celebrating bees and honey in Perivale. Last Saturday Emily and I had put a super on top of Myrtle’s hive and today we would see what the bees had done with it.

They did this…

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Evidence.

Beautiful drawn honeycomb on every frame glistening with honey ready to be capped. We couldn’t help but spend a few minutes admiring it. Honey. That Myrtle’s colony has moved so quickly to fill up a super shows they had really needed the space. We lifted the super to one side and covered with the crownboard to keep the bees warm and protected from robbers.

Myrtle’s bees had been caught playing with the idea of building queen cells last week, although there were no larvae inside the cells. I read in Ted Hooper that removal of two-year-old queens should take place in late August to early September, because of the advantages of having a young queen for wintering. She is less likely to die or become a drone layer, and she keeps the brood nest active for longer in the season, which means younger workers do not have to live as long in winter conditions. (Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper.) Emily and I have never removed a queen unless it was necessary for the colony’s survival, such as a drone layer, and we’ve never bought a replacement queen, preferring the bees to make their own and decide when to do so. That’s worked out, so far. I have a feeling that the bees might supersede Myrtle in August without our interference. We’ll wait and see.

The queen in question was spotted during the hive inspection. “Look how calmly and slowly she walks,” said a beginner. Myrtle is our loveliest queen, regal and elegant with a skip of playfulness. I adore her. We saw more drone cells in the middle of the frame rather than the edges, which can be another sign of an ageing queen. Oh, Myrtle.

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More evidence.

Jonesy lifted the super back on the hive and we put a second super on top. The lime is out and the bees will be flying. “You might need supers on all your hives,” said Jonesy. Hopeful. Though the two hives that were split into four on 11th May must build their brood to full strength. The colony of Chili’s daughter is on its way with plenty of brood and stores. However, the colony of Chamomile’s daughter shows signs of a failed queen. When Emily had spotted cells containing two eggs last week, we gave the new queen the benefit of the doubt and more time to get used to her egg-laying duties. Today we saw much more drone comb, fewer worker brood and young larvae, and no sign of the queen. I suggested a frame of eggs from another hive to test whether the she was still in there – if not, then the bees would build another queen cell – but as usual the workers were one step ahead of us. On the second-to-last frame we found a queen cell. Inside there was a pearly white larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly.

This was the first time in five years that I have seen a queen larva curled in her cell waiting to be sealed. I was tempted to take a picture, but conscious that the future of this colony is perilous and that queen larva in their cells are easily damaged. Returning the frame to the hive with care, we had two choices. The first to take down the queen cell and unite the, probably, queenless colony with its mother colony, Chamomile’s, to make one stronger hive with a laying queen. The second was to give the bees a chance to make their queen and become an established colony in their own right. We chose the latter, but their chances aren’t good. It is six weeks’ since the colonies were split and waiting for a new queen to emerge and mate will set back this colony another few weeks. As workers get older they become less able to nurse and raise brood. Nurse bees are usually between 5 to 10 days old and eat a lot of pollen for their glands to produce royal jelly and brood food. We don’t know how many workers in this hive are still nursers, but we may have to revisit our decision if the situation deteriorates and unite colonies for the wellbeing of the bees.

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Chili’s colony is starting to fill the brood nest, although not with the same gusto that her bees had at the start of the season and before the split. Her bees were testy today. The same was true of Chamomile’s hive, except that our feistiest queen was in a fairer mood and her bees were behaving nicely. Having five hives to inspect is like going through every temperament of bee in an afternoon. You can see Chamomile in the picture above getting a licking from her workers as she walks across the frame. Her pheromones are being spread throughout the colony as her workers lick her and then each other, telling the entire court that the queen is present and well, and to do her bidding.

Today we left the apiary with our dreams of honey coming true, and thoughts of the first taste of Myrtle’s honey to come…

I taste its juice; sweet gods of the evergreen
woods’ taste;
crushed music, bars and epiphanies of dripping air;
aggregated cells
of each and every flower’s oddness there;

this sugar-map.
Bee Journal, Sean Borodale

Has the June gap come early?

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After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.

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A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.

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The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.

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Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!

grandad

A chemistry class in perfume-making at Homemade London

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There was a strange light as I walked around the corner from Marble Arch to Seymour Place. I was on my way to an Introduction to perfume-making workshop at Homemade London, and shafts of sunlight were streaking through darkened clouds that threatened to burst at any moment.

Like a rainbow in the storm, Homemade London is a sanctuary in the busy heart of London where you can stop, be still and get creative. I had visited a few years ago for a beauty workshop: The secrets of beauty masks at Homemade London and after three wedding weekends in a row, I had decided to treat myself to a perfume-making class before getting back to the bees.

Nicola, our teacher, likes to keep the evening workshops small and cosy – there were only four of us. This promised to be an intimate and intense journey through scent, with drinks and nibbles. ‘Sugar revives the sense of smell,’ said Nicola wryly, as she served rose lemonade and offered mini cupcakes.

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During the two-and-a-half hour workshop we would learn what goes into making a perfume and takeaway our own signature scent. Working with a range of organic, or wild, ethically sourced essential oils, rather than synthetic scents, we would tune into our likes and dislikes to find out what suited our skin and personality.

As a relapsed aromatherapist, smelling and identifying the essential oils felt like being reacquainted with old friends. Mandarin, petitgrain, ylang ylang, clary sage and frankincense – my aromatherapy had been put on the shelf for the past couple of years, because of those demanding little bees, but this was the perfect way to revive my interest in scent.

Although, all that smelling did require a mini cupcake or two.

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The art of blending for perfumery was quite different to blending for aromatherapy, I was to discover. Nicola passed around paper testing strips so we could give each scent a mark out of 10 on how much we liked or disliked the smell. I had to forcibly remove my likes and dislikes from aromatherapy bias of what I knew were the therapeutic actions of an essential oil, and focus only on how the fragrance made me feel and would work on my skin.

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‘You’re probably familiar with top, middle and base notes,’ said Nicola, ‘But I’m going to introduce you.’ She gave a delightful description of the notes of perfume as the pub goers across the road stole curious glances in our direction:

Top notes are light and sparkly, they are what you notice first in a blend, although they bubble off the top quickly. They are usually citrusy, though some are woody and spicy.

Middle notes, or heart notes, are the heart of the blend and bring everything together. They are floral, green and woody or warm and spicy.

Base notes are what lingers. They are the remains of a perfume when you can still smell it on your scarf a few days later. They are often dark, woody and foresty.

There was such a range of essential oils to smell and choose that after a while my nose couldn’t tell the difference between citrus, floral, wood and spice. Nicola had a great tip for ‘clearing the palette’ and told us to inhale the coffee grounds placed on the table. This cleared my nose ready to start smelling again.

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‘If you like a smell then it will probably work well on your skin,’ though Nicola admitted this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Perfumes are fickle creatures and randomly choose people they like or don’t like. Chanel No.5 smells fantastic on my mother, but stinks on me. But Nicola’s rule seemed a good place to start, so I wrote down my marks for the smells I liked best in the notebooks provided.

My choice of perfume friends were grapefruit, bergamot, neroli, jasmine, rose, benzoin, cedarwood and vetiver.

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To create a bespoke perfume from our selection of scents we needed to mix the top, middle and base notes to smell how well they worked together and in which quantities. This was a careful and precise process of ‘layering’. We wrote our choice of oils in a table and with Nicola’s guidance added one or two drops at a time to our blends. Nicola gave our measures based on how highly we had scored each oil and used our individual likes and dislikes to make those the focus of each fragrance. As I hadn’t liked the smell of vetiver very much, but still found it interesting, Nicola provided cocktail sticks to add the oil at a quarter of a drop.

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My blend was taking shape as I tested the perfume on places that I would wear it, my inner wrist and elbow (not behind the ears which is an old wives’ tale, said Nicola). However, it smelt (to me) dangerously close to an aromatherapy blend and what I wanted was a dark, smoky and green forest-like perfume. Nicola helped rescue my recipe by adding some black pepper, geranium and vanilla, and adjusting the measures of the other oils in my final two ‘layers’. The fragrance was left to ‘marinade’ on my wrist until we were both satisfied that the perfume smelt more ‘interesting’ and less ‘therapeutic’.

I finally had my first signature scent and I was impressed by how much more complicated it was to blend for perfumery than aromatherapy. But I wasn’t put off, in fact, it made me want to explore it further.

Nicola provided labels and gift-wrapped our perfumes in tissue paper. As it had been raining today and I now had a fresh green smelling perfume with a slight smokiness, I called it ‘AfterRain’.

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If you’re curious about what my perfume smells like, here’s the recipe so you can try it yourself:

Top notes

  • Bergamot 3 drops
  • Grapefruit 2 drops
  • Black pepper 1 drop

Middle notes

  • Neroli 11 drops
  • Jasmine 3 drops
  • Rose 3 drops
  • Geranium 1 drop

Base notes

  • Cedarwood 4 drops
  • Benzoin 2 drops
  • Vetiver 3 quarter drops
  • Vanilla 1 drop

The essential oils were blended in a base of coconut oil, around 20-30 ml.

I would highly recommend Homemade London’s Introduction to perfume-making and any of the other workshops that they run for much-needed time out and a burst of creativity for weary Londoners!

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Going beyond the bones

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The day felt primeval as I walked up the path to the Natural History Museum with mist after the rain cooling in the air and rumbles of early morning traffic behind me. It was unnaturally quiet and still inside as I made my way past the diplodocus skeleton standing in Central Hall and down a dim corridor to start my time journey.

I was here before opening hours for a breakfast viewing of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, a temporary exhibition running from 13 February 2014 to 28 September 2014. The exhibition builds on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project led by Professor Chris Stringer, the Natural History Museum’s expert on early humans and a Fellow of the Royal Society. As I work for Royal Society, I’d been lucky to be invited along.

The 13-year research project had unearthed evidence that pushed back the arrival of early humans in Britain from 500,000 years ago to 950,000 years ago. So while Homo sapiens only appeared on the scene in Britain around 40,000 years ago, the story of our ancestry begins, almost, one million years in the past. This is where the breakfast tour of the exhibition started – with the earliest glimpses of human life viewed through fossil evidence of flint tool flakes and ancient pine cones. Our guide, curator Ellen Simonssen, led us through each room – through a different time, a different climate, and a different step in our history.

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In the room of the rhino butchers we were shown how our ancestors had a taste for large animals like rhino, horses and deer. But this was a time zone that they shared with other predators, ‘So holding on to a large carcass meant competing with lions and hyenas,’ said Ellen. Leaving behind one brutal existence for the next, we entered the big freeze. This zone was the Ice Age with sound effects of a desolate wind-blown landscape.

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Emerging from the thaw were the Neanderthals who came to Britain around 400,000 years ago, and again 50,000 years ago. We stood with exhibits of skulls and teeth against a backdrop of painted walls and video installations – pictures and sounds opening a window into a lost world. ‘We wanted to go beyond the bones and show what these people were really like.’ The bones might not have looked like much, we were told, but they were amazing discoveries that had never been displayed together before.

Our time journey continued apace into a world that heated up and rising sea levels pushed humans out. We were now 125,000 years ago. There was not even an echo of human life here, just the sound of the waves and the roars of roaming beasts. ‘But it was quite an exciting world. Imagine hippos in the Thames, and also rhinos and elephants.’ I felt quite disappointed that Charing Cross doesn’t look like this when I get off the tube each morning.

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We turned the corner as the Neanderthals returned to Britain and the first evidence of Homo sapiens was found. Two specially commissioned model reconstructions – Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapien – gave us a feel for how these ancient neighbours lived, as did the cannibalised remains of skulls fashioned into bowls. It was still a cold, harsh climate with humans rationalising the need to eat meat. On that note, we ended our time journey just 12,000 years after the Ice Age.

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We had reached the story of modern science as curator Jenny Wong introduced us to a project that explored our genetic ancestry in more detail and put the exhibits into greater context. Scientists analysed the DNA of six well-known personalities to unearth the roots of the wider human family tree.

The exhibition had collected 200 of the most important fossil specimens and archaeological objects in Britain and woven the tapestry of our steps through time. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story had gone far beyond the bones.

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Thanks to Jonathan Tyzack and Emily Williamson at the Natural History Museum for inviting me to the breakfast viewing. I highly recommend going!

Find out more about Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story on the official website and view the fantastic films on the YouTube playlist including how the life-like early human models were made.

A break in the clouds

our hives

After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.

The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.

The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’

Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.

purple crocuses

What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.

This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:

‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’

Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.

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Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’

Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.

Links of interest:

The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.

Blogs to read:

If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.

 

Street lights

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‘The night sky isn’t always black,’ said Wei as I aimed my camera at the silhouettes of buildings outside Waterloo station and expected my lens to be swallowed up by the blackness of space. What I got was an electric blue shot of London’s cityscape revealing colours in the night sky that I had never seen. This was Destination Blue Hour – the magical moment when the sun drops below the horizon on a cloudless day electrifying the sky with a blue glow.

Wei is the organiser of the London Camera Club on London Meetup setting monthly ‘missions’ for anyone with a camera (DSLR or automatic) or camera phone to join and practise photography. I had signed up for Mission 6 – Destination Blue hour, for £2, on October 28, 2012, 4:30pm. Our meeting point was Waterloo station, South Bank exit, where we would head towards Hungerford Bridge, Victoria Embankment, Westminster Bridge and walk along the South Bank.

Destination Blue Hour is also referred to by photographers as the ‘Golden Hour’ or ‘Magical Hour’ Wei told us. While many photographers get up early to capture the sun rise, Wei prefers the evening sun: ‘You’ll be able to see blues and oranges in the pale sky against the glow of street lights without any special effects’.

We were told to keep all flashes off and, for those of us with a DSLR, Wei had provided guidelines for experimenting on manual. I chose a low ISO of 100 and, as I don’t have a wide angle lens, a low aperture of F3.5 (and lower), while adjusting shutter speeds of 1/30–1/8–6. I was surprised with the results.

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As nightfell, and so did the rain, our mission changed from Destination Blue Hour to Street Lights & Motion as Wei encouraged us to have fun playing with ISO 100 and very low shutter speeds to capture London’s traffic. I thought my first attempt was a fail, but Wei was delighted with this photo of an invisible bus speeding past…

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… so I tried some more…

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It was an amazing tour as I saw London through new eyes. Wei is a fantastic teacher and I highly recommend his camera club and workshops. The evening ended at a pub where we were told to choose one photo to show the group and then have a drink, and a packet of crisps, to share our experiences.

Since then I’ve rarely gone out without my bulky Canon 600D stuffed inside my bag. Wei opened up a whole new world of night photography to me and gave me the confidence to keep my DSLR setting on manual. I’ve tried his techniques many times while out and about. Here’s Tower Bridge at night and a walk along the Thames with a view of the glittering Shard.

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The low ISO and slow shutter speed method works well for darkened interiors I found at the Natural History Museum’s After Hours when visitors can explore the museum in a different light.

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I love London.

And closer to home in the western suburbs of Greater London – a dusky walk at Osterley Park House and Garden provided the opportunity to capture a fair at the mansion and eerie lights across the lake.

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If you live in London and have an interest in photography, I highly recommend Wei’s workshops. Destination Blue Hour 2 is scheduled for 27 October, this time for £2.50!

To find out more about Destination Blue Hour and night photography visit http://www.bluehoursite.com/.

Next post: 26 October ‘What our bees did’

Too cold for a bee’s nose

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Another fine day of sunshine and showers in London and it is hard to remember that just over a week ago a blanket of snow had fallen and transformed the city into a winter wonderland. The weekend that it snowed I had been caught in a wintry blizzard when walking in Wimbledon woods and froze these scenes on camera.

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The woodlands were part of a nature reserve with signs to indicate local species, including the green woodpecker. This inquisitive bird can live in an apiary for years before, one day, it learns that tasty treats of bee larvae and honeycomb may be found inside the hives.

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More on woodpeckers later…

The snow had lasted after the weekend until Monday. Those who made it into work enjoyed a lunchtime walk around Regent’s Park as the afternoon sunshine took a sideways slant through the trees.

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There was more to see than just snow – this tree has eyes!

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And these pigeons huddled on top branches to keep warm.

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And spying through the bushes on the penguins at London Zoo!

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London has its own microclimate and by Tuesday the snow had left the inner city completely. In the meantime, a little visitor had landed at the apiary in search of food – woodpecker-bored holes were found on the side of one of the hives. Pat had found similar holes in his hives at Osterley a few weeks ago, so it appears that the woodpeckers are spreading the word.

While Pat and John had wrapped most of the hives in chicken wire, I paid an early morning visit before work to finish the job on our colony and the two that we are looking after for Clare and Charles. A few bees were curious to see what I was doing and poked their heads outside the entrance, but it was far too cold for their noses and they soon went back inside.

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Emily had spotted snowdrops trying their hardest to grow through the hard ground a few weeks back. Not long now till spring.

Related links

Snowmageddon
Winter watch for bees

You may also be interested to read this bittersweet post by Daniel J Marsh on Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss. A stark reminder that January to March is when colony losses are often reported. You can also follow Daniel on Twitter: @danieljmarsh

Snowmageddon

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As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

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Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

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By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow