A beekeeper’s notes for December

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beekeeper’s notes for November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Tintern to Tintagel

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It was a dark and foggy autumn day when we set off from the farm in Hereford. We were driving through Wales on our way to Cornwall. Our route took us past the ruins of Tintern Abbey rising above the wreaths of cold mist.

Tintern Abbey, or Abaty Tyndyrn in Welsh, seemed as unreal as its pictures in a book of poems. Yet there it stood, founded in 1131 near Tintern village in Monmouthshire on the Welsh bank of the River Wye. I looked at the remains and imagined the music that once filled the monastery now replaced by roosting crows.

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The skies brightened as we passed through the border to England and headed to the Cornish coast. St Ives didn’t offer sunshine, but it did provide peaceful seaside views and a tasty Cornish pasty.

The next day we were on the road again to Land’s End. It was our three-year anniversary. The sun came out and the sky was brilliant blue along the winding cliff roads. It had been almost 10 years since I last visited Cornwall and to me it hadn’t changed a bit.

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At the end of the country John took me past the famous signpost to a quiet spot overlooking the sea. Here he asked me to marry him and I said yes. That done in a manner that suited us, we were engaged.

A short walk along the cliff path took us to a small farm where we met a cat called Felix the Mighty and his human friend Edward, who I thought might be a pirate. Felix has the honourable title of first and last cat of Britain because he lives at Land’s End where planes fly over to and from the British Isles.

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Edward told us a story about memory and time travel, which I won’t share with you here because it is his story. To say thank you, I shared our secret with Felix and I was rewarded with a semi-precious stone from the mighty cat’s treasure box. John was not so lucky. Edward told him the points along the coastline of Land’s End where a proposal must be done and to take me there immediately.

And so we walked further up the cliffs where John proposed twice more – in all, three times for the three years we have been together.

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The sun was starting to fade as we drove to the charming village of Marazion. We parked for a late afternoon stroll across the Giant’s causeway to St Michael’s Mount – we had till 6pm before the tide returned. “Keep an eye on the sea,” said a local as we went across. “Because God and tide are two different things.”

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The castle at the top of the mount is almost 900-years-old and belongs to the St Aubyn family, who have lived there since the 17th century. According to Cornish legend, a giant’s stone heart is trapped within the mount.

The island village itself is all cobbled streets and cottages surrounding the castle’s subtropical gardens. When the tide is out, the beach is the children’s playground and when the tide is in they have the sea all to themselves.

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Our journey through Cornwall, or Kernow in Cornish, continued from St Ives to Newquay to visit The Eden Project. John drove off the map to discover more of the rugged Cornish coastline like Perranporth. Here the blustery week had turned out perfectly for kite-flyers and dog-walkers.

The surfers’ paradise of Newquay offered us a brief moment to catch our breath before taking off again to explore Eden.

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Another surprise was waiting at The Eden Project – bees! These three colourful bee hives are part of a project to conserve the British black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) in Cornwall and the UK.

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The Eden Project is home to artificial biodomes housing a captive rainforest and a Mediterranean habitat with thousands of plants collected from all around the world.

As a beekeeper, the giant bee resting in the flower beds and the hexagonal-celled biodomes made me feel quite at home. Of course, there was lots more to see.

Inside the rainforest we found exotic flowers, curious birds, waterfalls and a baobab tree offering welcome refreshment for the humidity.

From Eden to King Arthur’s country, the remains of Tintagel castle waited on the last day of our holiday.

It was a steep climb up the stone steps to the legendary birthplace of King Arthur. The ruined Medieval fortification is split in two by rocks and sea, which make views of Tintagel simply breathtaking.

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Even more exciting than the castle was the discovery of the Tintagel Honey Shop owned by very charming beekeeper. A whirlwind shopping trip and a couple of jars of honey later, we were due back in Hereford for tea time, I had tasted some delicious local honeys and had a nice chat about bees.

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From Tintern Abbey to St Ives, we’d travelled to the end of the country, seen a giant’s castle and explored King Arthur’s land. I said farewell to Cornwall and a thank you to John for our surprise engagement holiday. That done, we drove back to Hereford racing hot air balloons along the way.

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LINKS

You can follow the adventures of Felix the Mighty, the first and last cat of Britain, on his Facebook Page.

All about Cornwall
St Ives
Land’s End
St Michael’s Mount
Perranporth
Newquay
The Eden Project
Tintagel
Tintern Abbey

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I will have a lot to tell the bees next Saturday! My next post will be about beekeeping notes for November with a flurry of snow.

A beekeeper’s notes for July

“It was clever of you to buy a house with a honey extraction room,” said Emily. The garage had been fixed up and painted white by Len, my dad, a few weeks ago. I’m not sure this was exactly what he had in mind – there was some talk between him and John about a dartboard – but the newly decorated tool shed worked perfectly well as a honey extraction room.

The supers were placed on the floor and the frames decapped on a work bench. In the corner of the room a new manual steel extractor, kindly gifted by the lovely people at DK Publishing (more on that in another post), spun out the honey beautifully.

Tom had generously helped Emily and I to take the supers off of the hives, and drove us from the apiary to my house. He had patiently waited as we single-handedly picked off each and every bee still straggling the frames.

The rhombus board had done a good job of clearing the supers, but there were around 50 bees in each super. “I love how you two do beekeeping,” Tom joked, because our method of taking away the supers was so painfully slow! I worried that my house was further than the three or four miles estimated for a forager bee to fly from the hive. It was sad to think of ‘lost bees’ trying to find their way home from my garden. A feather lent by Tom helped speed up the process.

After lunch at home we made short work of extracting three supers of honey in the factory set up in the garage, with John also taking a turn at spinning. First Emily’s super from Andromeda’s hive at the allotment was spun out to reveal dark, deeply floral-scented honey. Then we cleaned out the extractor to spin the next batch from Melissa’s hive – a beautiful rich gold, fruity honey with hints of blackberry and lime. Finally we spun out Pepper’s honey which was again darker and smelt of forests.

Three different types of honey from three differently tempered hives. It was a good job the garage doors were closed because a determined wasp headbutted the back window desperate to get inside. We had to see her off a couple of times.

That done, I poured us some old fashioned still lemonade and we had a walk around the garden. I was happy to show Emily the bees at the bottom of the garden and, of course, the fish. The masons and leafcutters are no longer flying about, but I did find a small sweat bee to show Emily on one of the creepers. The air may feel like autumn is coming, but the nectar flow is attracting bees of every size and shape to feed off the Passion flowers, jasmine and primroses.

Later that evening we drove Emily home and got treated to a curry by Drew for all our hard work.

The honey has sat in my kitchen for a week to allow air bubbles to settle to the surface. It is less clean than last year’s crop and will need filtering before jarring.

The cut comb was easy to put into trays – a happy accident thanks to a super frame not returned to Pepper’s hive one week.

Yesterday a month’s rain fell in one day and I got home to find the fish pond almost overflowing. The fish were inquisitively peering over the edges. I thought it best not to satisfy their curiosity and removed a bucket of water to lower the water level. It continued to rain all night.

This morning felt fresher but still unsettled. John drove me to the apiary to return the wet supers for Melissa’s and Pepper’s bees to clean up. The wasps were out and a few robber bees, so we had a quick look inside, put the supers on, and closed up.

Emily had seen Melissa (our best queen for hiding) last weekend, and all seemed fine with the other two colonies. At this time of year, when the wasps and robbers come, I find it’s better to keep the hives closed and less stressed by skirmishes. Emily put entrance reducers on to help the guard bees better defend the colonies, and I started the Apiguard treatment on Melissa’s hive.

Jonesy was inspecting his neighbouring hives. “Can you smell banana?” He asked.

“Isn’t that the smell of the alarm pheromone?” said Emily.

“Do you smell banana a lot?” I asked.

“All the time,” said Jonesy.

That done and we all finished up for tea and cake. Alan had started a bonfire to burn up some rubbish. Jochen arrived to tell us about a swarm he collected with Bill at Harrow Beekeepers.

The weather had made the bees irritable this weekend and even the gathering of beekeepers was modest. I left the apiary as Alan’s bonfire started to roar higher and the skies darkened with clouds.

When summers turn out to be this good for the bees, I wish that I could keep hives full time. The BBC recently had a great feature on learning to be a bee farmer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33663048

With plenty still to come in bee land, I left the apiary to return in August.

Sorry if the formatting of my post is off. I’ve been without a computer for over a month, getting online is a little challenging but another set of beekeeper’s notes are done.

A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

When does spring come for the bees?

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As every beekeeper, and aromatherapist, knows spring can come more than once for the bees and the flowers. Today was a perfect spring day with glorious sunshine, balmy blue skies and a warm 14–15°C. There would be only one thing on the minds of beekeepers across the UK – the comb change.

Each year many British beekeepers give the hives a spring clean. The bees are moved onto fresh comb in cleaned-up brood boxes to start the season again. The comb change may be carried out using a shook swarm or Bailey depending on the health and strength of the colony, and also relying on ongoing warm weather with availability of local nectar and pollen.

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The reason for the comb change? To keep down the diseases and pests in the colony. The timing of the comb change? That’s up for discussion.

There are some beekeepers who like to shook swarm their hives as soon as the weather allows in late February to early March. The reason being that the earlier you shook swarm the less brood you lose, and the bees can get a head start to the season.

Then there are some beekeepers who prefer to change the comb from late March to early April. They like to wait for consistently warmer days and for the trees to be blossoming.

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In March the weather is not always consistent and spring can come and go a few of times before it stays. It is important to get the timing right for the comb change: too soon for a weak colony or before a string of warm days might make it more difficult for the bees to recover from a shook swarm or to build-up a Bailey; too late in the season means losing more brood (in a shook swarm) and perhaps leaving the bees less time to yield a honey harvest that year.

A couple of experienced beekeepers at the apiary had already shook swarmed some or all of their hives. If you’re a more professional beekeeper or commercial bee farmer with 50, 100 or more hives, I can understand the eagerness to get going early in the season.

For the hobbyist or backyard beekeeper with three or five hives, perhaps we have more time on our side to do a couple of inspections first and wait for the warmer weather to hold before carrying out a comb change.

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When do you prefer to do your comb change? And how do you decide when spring has arrived for your bees?

The first best day of the year at Ealing apiary brought bigger concerns for the beekeepers. Who was making the tea and would there be cake? Luckily Emily had baked a cake and Elsa was busy making tea to keep everyone content. We had a couple of German beekeepers visiting the apiary who were fascinated to learn more about our bees. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake, Emily and I satisfied their curiosity, and ours, by taking the first look inside the hives this year.

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A feast of tea and cake for beekeepers.

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A feast of mealworms and biscuit crumbs for the robin.

Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives were doing very well with bees busily pouring in and out. Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives were weak and though both queens were spotted there was virtually no brood. We closed up the weaker colonies with dummy boards to keep them warm and fed them spring sugar syrup to try and stimulate their activity.

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Pink-crowned Queen Chili was easy to spot.

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Queen Chamomile sees her first sun of the year.

Jonsey kindly helped us to blow torch the empty brood boxes in readiness for the comb change, and Emily and I have started to make new brood frames. Tomorrow forecasts rain with cooler temperatures to follow next week. Spring should be here to stay, hopefully, by the end of March and we can move our bees into cleaned hives, though we may need to make a decision about our weaker hives before then.

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A beekeeper’s notes for February

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On Saturday 14th February I saw the white snowdrops in flower and the purple crocuses opening. Winter aconite and catkins of the hazel and the willow will also blossom bringing the year’s first forage for bees.

Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for their monthly meeting. I stood outside the entrance of the hives and noticed not a single bee took to the wing. The stillness made all other movements sharper.

I watched a red-breasted robin hopping in the thorny foliage and breathed as a magpie swooped down to pick a twig to build her nest.

I found a spider crawling on the fondant under the roof of a hive and two slugs sliding in the dead leaves beneath the floor of another.

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Alan Gibbs arrived just as I had put under varroa boards to check this month’s mite drop. He had come with his spade on this cold, rainy day to lay more paving stones in the communal area. Betty Gibbs was sensibly waiting in the car outside the apiary, reading a book.

We then looked at the fondant under the roofs. I had brought more in case it was needed, but Alan said they had “quite enough”.

A chilly February can be a time of uncertainty for beekeepers with thoughts of wakeful bees kept inside the hive as the winter larder runs bare. I gave each hive a heft for weight of stores. In particular Melissa’s and Pepper’s were very heavy, while Chili’s and Chamomile’s were lighter. Nothing to do but observe, February is also a time to rest and wait as everything unfolds.

With that, I said goodbye to Alan and the bees, and waved to Betty on my way out. John too was sensibly waiting for me in a warm car. There were flowers, cards and chocolates sitting at home.

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This is a short and sweet post like the month.

Emily and I have decided to use paper records for our hives again. Our blogs provide an online diary of beekeeping, and I’ve found electronic records or apps sometimes difficult to access or just fiddly to use on my phone during a hive inspection. Also, it seems better to keep records under the hive roofs at the apiary, in case other beekeepers need to read them.

Here’s a start on preparing our hive record sheets for the season ahead, based on others we have used and ideas for monthly reminders. Let me know in your comments if there’s anything you would include, I’d be interested to know how to improve them:

Hive records 2015 pdf
Hive records 2015 Word doc

And a note on something less practical and more frilly… Sometimes there is snow in February, which makes me remember my favourite passage from The Snow Queen, A Tale is Seven Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen.

In the second story about a little boy and a little girl, Kay and Gerda sit by frozen windows to watch the snowstorm. They lay heated copper farthings on the windowpane to make a peep-hole to look outside…


”Look! The white bees are swarming,” said the old grandmother. “Have they a queen bee, too?” asked the little boy, for he knew that there was a queen among the real bees. “Yes, indeed they have,” said the grandmother. “She flies where the swarm is thickest. She is biggest of them all, and she never remains on the ground. She always flies up again to the sky. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows, and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”

“Oh yes, we have seen that,” said both children, and then they knew it was true.

“Can the Snow Queen come in here?” asked the little girl.

“Just let her come,” said the boy, “and I will put her on the stove, where she will melt.”

But the grandmother smoothed his hair and told him more stories.

In the evening when little Kay was at home and half undressed, he crept up on to the chair by the window, and peeped out of the little hole. A few snowflakes were falling, and one of these, the biggest, remained on the edge of the window-box. It grew bigger and bigger, till it became the figure of a woman, dressed in the finest white gauze, which appeared to be made of millions of starry flakes. She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them. She nodded to the window and waved her hand. The little boy was frightened and jumped down off the chair, and then he fancied that a big bird flew past the window.

The next day was bright and frosty, and then came the thaw—and after that the spring.”

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A beekeeper’s notes
A beekeeper’s notes for January