Nature magic: twilight for the bees and a mystery object at the apiary

00 Dreamy hives

I arrived at dusk at the apiary after the last bee had floated home. It was my regular mid-week visit to bring sugar syrup since shook swarming the hives. Strangely, the apiary takes on a life of its own in the twilight hours. The place is silent of beekeepers clamouring over tea and cake and beginners enquiringly asking questions, and the air is empty of humming honeybees. The hives sit quietly in rows, nettles and bluebells sway gently in the soft glow, and trees secretly rustle. I think this is a time for nature magic.

01 Overgrown apiary

As you can see the path to the apiary is now overgrown – nature has taken over and the bluebells have arrived early. There are lots of wildflowers for the neighbouring shrill carder bees who have been frequent visitors. However, something else was waiting inside that gave me a start. What is this mystery object standing in the gloom in the middle of the apiary? What have the elder beekeepers been up to now?

02 Mystery object mating nuc

I took a picture and tweeted it. Replies soon came back suggesting it was a mating nuc or bait hive, or perhaps bumblebee nesting box. Whatever it is, I may now have to wait till after Easter to find out.

The daylight was fading fast so I lifted the roof from Myrtle’s hive and saw half the syrup in the feeder had been taken down. This is our nicest, and slowest, colony, so I was pleased. I emptied out the remaining syrup – homemade sugar syrup grows mould – and cleaned the feeder – because I’m an obsessive cleaner – placing it back on the crownboard filled with ambrosia. Ambrosia is a special mix of syrup that lasts longer and contains other nutrients for the hive. The bees love it, and the hive raised its hum as workers rushed up to drink.

03 Ambrosia bees

There is plenty of nectar and pollen about, of course, and our bees are probably strong enough to forage to feed themselves. I like to keep feeding, particularly after a comb change, until the hive has fully built up again. The feeders filled with sugar syrup in the roof are for a rainy day – if our girls don’t want it then they won’t take it.

04 Ambrosia bees close up

I fed Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives next. These colonies had taken down all the syrup and were hungrily licking their tongues around the bottom of the feeder for more. I’ve been worried about Chamomile’s hive since her colony tested positive for nosema and we found unhealthy looking larvae in there on Saturday. Cold weather at the weekend delayed the comb change, and though we’re eager to get this hive onto clean frames, Chamomile has had to wait.

Beekeeping done, at the end of my evening visits I enjoy walking around the apiary to check all is well with the other hives and to Instagram pictures of the other residents. Flowers looks so pretty at dusk.

05 Apiary white flowers

06 Bluebells

07 Cherry blossom

A small mouse peeked out from between the flowers and looked up curiously, but I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture before she ran away. The bees were tucked up and well fed for Easter, and it was time to leave.

Happy Easter to humans and Hymenopterans alike!

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.

A string of warm days and daffodils

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While we waited for the bees, the snowdrops came and withered back into the earth and the crocuses arrived with offerings of vibrant saffron-orange pollen and then quietly faded.

Now is the time of the daffodils bursting up everywhere in patches of bright sunshine-yellow flowers. Each year I’m tempted to pick a bunch for a vase on the kitchen window, but I always resist to leave much-needed spring forage for the bees.

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When Emily mentioned that daffodil pollen might be too toxic for honeybees, but perhaps OK for bumble bees to forage as they don’t store the pollen for as long, I was curious to find out more. Emily’s source being an article in a past BBKA news (the newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association), but after turning pages on-and-offline I couldn’t find the reference. However, I did rediscover this useful article in The Guardian on spring planting for bees, which suggests honeybees and bumble bees will forage on daffodils if there is nothing better around. If any bee expert does have an answer or published paper on daffodils and honeybees, I’d be interested to know.

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From daffodils to housekeeping, a string of warm days had speeded up the arrival of spring and preparations for the active beekeeping season. This week John and I had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Dubai – where I didn’t see a single bee. While we had sandstorms and desert temperatures of 38 degrees in Dubai, London had a pleasant spell of sunshine that made the apiary abuzz with bees and beekeepers. So I was looking forward to a nice Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping with tea and cake, but first there was work to be done.

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Emily and I had ended last season with four hives – including two colonies on a double-brood – and a recent stock check showed that we didn’t have enough of the right hive parts for a shook swarm or Bailey comb change. There were plenty of spare supers, crownboards, queen excluders and frame pieces, but not enough empty brood boxes, floors or roofs to move the colonies in spring. We had been far too successful in increasing our bees last year.

Making up a complete flat-packed hive from roof to floor, frames included, takes a couple of hours (at least, for me) and I had no time at all to spend almost a day building four hives in the next few weeks. I made a decision before our holiday to order budget hives, fully assembled, from Thornes, and it was a nice relief to go away knowing that new hives would be there when we got back.

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Here they are, our new hives standing next to the old ones all ready for the bees to move in. I went to the apiary on Saturday morning to unpackage, set up and tidy up. All the parts of our old and new hive equipment were labelled ‘Emma & Emily’, which is quite important when you keep bees at a shared apiary! Then I cleared away rubbish, debris and bracken from around the hives.

To prove that an Ealing beekeeper really can be very organised, I had brought tidy boxes to store our kit at the apiary so we don’t get caught short. Essential items and things that you’d never know you’d need until keeping bees for a few years: burning fuels, tape, drawing pins, wedges, tweezers, newspaper, cloths, queen cages, pens and marking kits. This will also help to keep the hives tidier under the roofs, which is where we used to try and stuff everything away after inspections. I haven’t felt this prepared since my beginner beekeepers assessment – we are ready for anything now.

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Any good beekeeper should, of course, keep records of their hives, so a quick stock check of what we have at the start of the season:

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Myrtle’s hive is on a double brood with an empty super to store fondant (we’ll move to spring syrup for all our hives next week), and insulation in the roof still for chilly days. The hive is quite heavy.

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Chamomile’s is also on a double brood with an empty super storing fondant and insulation in the roof. The hive is a healthy weight.

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Chili’s hive is on a single brood and the bees have been hungrily eating the fondant. The colony is quite light.

When the three colonies at Perivale apiary are moved into the new hives, we’ll blowtorch clean the old hives ready to use for artificial swarms in the season ahead, or to set aside for next year’s spring move. The fourth hive at Hanwell is eventually to be taken to another apiary, along with spare hive parts kindly given to us by Hadi, where Emily will be keeping this colony.

I then walked around the apiary to clear and tidy away old wood, empty syrup canisters and bits and pieces into the observation cage.

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That done, the Ealing beekeepers started to arrive and, more importantly, Emily with fresh-baked coffee bean chocolate cake. With the kettle on, we could now begin a proper Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping at Ealing apiary.

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‘Welsh bees!’ It wasn’t long till we heard the clamour of familiar voices. This exclamation came from a group inspecting David’s hive, a Welsh beekeeper with a notorious colony of very fierce bees, but arguably the most long-standing and successful hive at the apiary. The war-like bees seem to withstand varroa well, survive all winters, and make lots of honey. I rather like them, but I wouldn’t go too close.

Bees are also very nosy creatures and I’d already spied some of our girls popping out to take a look at their new hives. By this time, John had come to pick me up for a trip to Dunelm – we recently had the bathroom painted by an excellent decorator and were going to choose new accessories – and to help take away the Thornes packaging. So we said our goodbyes and went. The afternoon’s adventures continue on Emily’s blog with comb up a tree.

Next week, Emily and I may shook swarm and Bailey comb change the hives, if the weather is nice. A beekeeper’s work is never done.

And seeing as the bees don’t seem to want them, I’ve now got a bunch of pretty daffodils siting on the kitchen window. Happy spring!

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Snowdrop – the flower of promise

snowdrop 2In myth the snowdrop symbolises a promise – to break winter’s spell and bring back spring. When these tiny harbingers arrived at the apiary last weekend, they brought as much delight to us as they must bring to the bees.

But another week of howling winds and raging rains, and I wondered if this tiny flower was not working its magic. I’ve always been fond of flower folklore and remembered a book that I picked up in a second-hand bookstore in Cornwall, Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants by Charles M Skinner.

So I revisited the passage on snowdrops and a couple of pictures taken at the apiary when it had snowed. Here it is, a little snowdrop magic for Sunday…

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Snowdrop

“When the first winter lay white upon the earth, Eve sorely missed the beautiful things of the fields. An angel who pitied her seized a flake of the driving snow and, breathing on it, bade it live, for her delight. It fell to the earth a flower, which Eve caught to her breast with gladness, for not only did it break the spell of winter, but it carried assurance of divine mercy. Hence the flower means consolation and promise. In another legend, Kerma, finding her lover dead, plucked a snowdrop and placed it on his wounds. It did not rouse him, but at the touch his flesh changed to snowdrops, hence the flower is also an emblem of death. Even now in rural England the flower is in ill repute, and it is unlucky to carry the first spray of the season into the house, while it is downright indelicate for a person to give it to one of another sex, since it implies a wish to see the recipient dead. This galanthus nivalis is variously known in England, France, Italy, and Switzerland as virgin flower, snow piercer, winter gallant, firstling, blackbird flower, little snow bell, little white bell, baby bell, spring whiteness, and white violet.”

While not being superstitious, I’m glad the legend discourages bringing snowdrops into the house as they are much more valuable for the bees. And with snowdrops blowing in the fresh February air, let’s hope their promise comes true soon.

Edit: Snowdrops spotted today on Olympic walk from Mile End to Embankment, finally opening…

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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.

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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.

 

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing

While listening to the restless humming inside the hives, spring seemed a long way off this weekend. Though rumours of snowdrops persist and the daylight is stretching further, I’m impatient to open our hives and see whether our queens, Myrtle, Chamomile and Chili, have survived the winter. As I walked home, I remembered this inspiring TEDTalk by Marla Spivak, a researcher in bee behaviour and biology, and watched it again for a dose of honeybee. Here it is, in case you missed it.

TEDTalks Marla Spivak: Why bees are disappearing 

Our fascination for this wonderful creature, the bee, grows as does our need for them. The bees are disappearing, while there is ‘Worldwide 300% increase in crop production requiring bee pollination’, says Marla. But her talk is hopeful because it reminds us that there is much we can do to help the bee. Get planting bee-friendly flowers for spring: RHS Perfect for Pollinators Plant List.

I hope you enjoyed this video as much as I do each time.

Marla’s talk is on TED.com: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing.html
Her bio is available on TED’s website: http://www.ted.com/speakers/marla_spivak.html

For more TEDTalks:

TED.com http://www.ted.com/
Follow TED news on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/tednews
Like TED on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TED

The wheel turns

‘Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.’
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

The sun was hard and bright as we drove to the apiary on Sunday morning. With the passing of the winter solstice the days begin to lengthen. The honeybee colony senses the incremental increases in daylight hours and the queen stirs deep within the cluster. She will soon start to lay for the coming spring.

In the UK beekeepers treat their hives with oxalic acid around 21/22 December. This is thought to be an effective anti-varroa treatment when there is little or no capped brood inside the hive. The varroa mites have nowhere to hide and are most vulnerable to treatment.

Last year I made this video of Emily dribbling oxalic acid on our hives.

As I wrote then, ‘Giving the bees oxalic acid‘, the treatment is given as a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup with 5ml of solution dribbled across each seam of bees.

Emily had treated our Hanwell bees with oxalic acid and now we had three hives waiting at Perivale. John waited outside the apiary as I pulled on my beekeeping suit and untangled the hives from wrappings of chicken wire.

I opened up Myrtle’s hive – our oldest, and my favourite, queen – and peered into the still darkness. All was quiet. Then the workers ran up as one and peered back at me. To anyone but a beekeeper it would be disconcerting. A couple of young-looking fuzzy workers flew out and buzzed curiously around my veil. I realised it was time to stop enjoying the bees. They were losing precious heat, so I dispensed oxalic acid between each frame and closed the hive.

Next, Chamomile’s bees were clustered above the frames tucking into fondant. They were slightly more indignant, although not bad tempered, at being disturbed. So I didn’t linger. Last, Chili’s bees, having strangely taken to the medicine with the sugar, were too busy investigating the sweet drops to make a complaint. Yes, I too have noticed Chili’s bees are a bit weird.

Recent research has challenged the traditional way in which we give oxalic acid treatment, as Emily reports in her post ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. While I enjoy a midwinter visit to the bees, I feel uncomfortable about disturbing the winter cluster. The thought of a further inspection and destroying sealed brood when the colony is about to enter its most perilous time of year fills me with doubt.

However, as I reach the end of my fourth year as a beekeeper, I realise that I must become less sentimental about the bees. As beekeepers we love every bee and often anthropomorphise about life inside the hive, but the honeybee colony can be a ‘vast and cool and unsympathetic’ intellect acting as one mind. Workers will dispose unhealthy larvae, retire old queens and dispatch drones for the good of the whole. If this new research proves to be the best approach then we may have to change the way oxalic acid is given in future. But for now, I’d rather wait and see.

It has been a busy year for our bees, but we have reached the end. I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays, so here are some of my favourite beekeeping moments from 2013.

Happy Christmas everyone and see you in the New Year!

Best beekeeping pictures of 2013

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Snowmageddon – Emily finds evidence of woodpeckers in the snow.

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My first sighting of a honeybee this year foraging on a purple crocus.

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This could get out of hand – our bees make new queens.

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A wonderful Bee Surprise from my boyfriend John and his friends.

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Autumn is coming – the year passes too quickly and soon the bees are preparing for autumn.

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My favourite queen Myrtle walking across the frame. She’s a long amber beauty.

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Our bees love building wax comb where they’re not supposed to!

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One of my favourite pictures of Emily beekeeping this year – What is a swarm cell and what is a superseder cell?

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Beekeepers in Iceland!

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And last but not least, a congregation of Ealing beekeepers.

Small thoughts on Bug Hotels

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‘With a cold snap on the way, it’s nice to give solitary bees and other useful insects a place to stay,’ I posted on my Facebook wall last Sunday with a photo of a pretty bug hotel I had bought in the afternoon at Westfield shopping centre. ‘Though I don’t yet have my own garden, hopefully it will find a quiet, undisturbed corner in a friend’s backyard.’ The post was inspired by a recent article on A french garden‘s blog, More on the mason bees, and proved popular with family and friends. I hoped they would be inspired to build bug hotels in their gardens.

This small thought grew in the week as I tweeted: ‘Building a bug hotel is so easy, looks so pretty and makes bugs so happy ow.ly/qUmTd #homesfornature #bug @Natures_Voice‘. The link was from a website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). RSPB is running a wonderful campaign named Giving nature a home. The idea is that anyone can make a home for nature no matter how big or small a space you have to give.

There’s even a useful free guide on how to help wildlife on your doorstep.

My tweet was also popular and @MrKevinMatthews tweeted me a link to his blog post on Insect House in the middle of their street. Well, it’s in the middle of their garden fence, but you get the idea. It’s a fabulous construction that not only makes an attractive garden feature but creates many homes for nature. Another thought – imagine if all fences and walls along our streets and around our parks were built with insect houses? Entrances could face away from traffic and glass-panes on the back could provide observation panels for curious passersby? I think insect manors would be a great feature for any city! Welcome to bug capital!

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St James’s Park near my new place of work. A five-minute stroll for me but a long trek for a little lacewing.

Parts of towns and cities can be a desert for our insect pollinators unable to find a nearby tree or flower to feast. Local wildlife can become homeless as compost heaps are swept away, fallen twigs and leaves tidied up, and messy hedgerows cut back. While the walk between the office and the nearest park at lunch may be five minutes on foot for me or you, it could be a day’s journey for a hungry lacewing or tired beetle. Bug hotels placed here and there would make ‘bridges’ or places to rest for small creatures trekking between one habitat and the next. I think they would make our cities more pleasant and interesting places for humans to live too.

Why? Because who doesn’t enjoy the first fat bumblebee popping out of a daffodil in spring, or being surprised by a ladybird landing on your coat, or sighting a dragonfly purposefully darting in and out of reeds? Spaces for nature, big or small, will help keep nature in our lives and ensure today’s children grow up seeing butterflies and bees buzzing in our towns.

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In the late autumn gloom of the apiary on a rainy Saturday a few weeks ago.

All is still at the apiary as honeybee colonies cluster together for warmth deep in the darkness of the hives. Emily and I miss our bees over winter, but we often think of solitary bees and bumblebee queens nestling away from the cold. We feel sorry that they don’t have keepers to insulate their homes and feed them fondant and pollen cakes when stores run low in February.

I hope our apiary provides a messy sanctuary to the wildlife we can’t see hiding beneath deadwood and wet leaves.

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And as regular readers know, in sun, rain or snow the apiary is home for beekeepers who are partial to tea and cake…

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Today’s high tea was delicious iced chocolate cakes made by Emily.

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Some beekeepers have been losing sleep worrying about woodpeckers! Jonesy kindly helped Emily wrap our hives in chicken wire, while Thomas has provided insulated roofs.

Honeybees get a lot of attention but other insects need keeping too! Bug hotels are great alternatives to supporting local pollinators and encouraging other bees (around 25 bumblebee species and around 240 other bee species including solitary bees in the UK) into your garden, local park or place of work. Hives make attractive features but so do bug hotels and they come in many more varieties – look at this incredible collection: Insect hotels on Pinterest.

This winter I’m writing to councils, parks, golf courses, schools and businesses to ask them to get involved by encouraging bug hotels. As my friend Suzanne would say, ‘It’s not asking for the moon-on-a-stick’ – just a little bug hotel on the back of a garden shed!

And if you need any more inspiration then I’ve collected these links and more at the end of this post. I’d love to see pictures of bug hotels that you build for a follow-up post in spring.

Useful links
More on the mason bees by A french garden

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB):
Giving nature a home
Twitter @Natures_Voice
RSPB Love Nature Facebook (wonderful for sharing inspiring ideas and stories)
Download RSPB’s useful free guide on how to give nature a home

More Bug Hotels:
Insect House by @MrKevinMatthews
Build a bug mansion by Wild About Gardens
Making a bug hotel downloadable leaflet by Royal Horticultural Society
Make a bug home by BBC Breathing Places
How to make a bug box by Gardeners World
Handmade Homes For Snug Bugs by Bug Hotel

Finally, thoughts from 2012 on why our native habitat maybe disappearing:
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch? A past post reporting on a talk by Dr Stuart Roberts of Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research, speaking at the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Association’s annual Beekeepers Day on Saturday 25 February 2012.

In the Land of Fire and Ice

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Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice. Where rainbows live in waterfalls…

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Hot pools bubble and mountains rumble…

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Northern Lights beckon…

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And locals don’t deny the existence of elves. They live in the lava…

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‘We started the year with hot volcanoes so let’s end it with cold volcanoes,’ said John as we booked a holiday to celebrate the first year anniversary of when we met. He was referring to our trip to Lanzarote in spring and now Iceland waited for us in autumn.

A place of incredible natural wonder, I’ve always wanted to visit Iceland, which John knew. So one night he stayed up till 1am to surprise me with an Icelandic adventure in two parts. First, we would explore Reykjavik, a city of art and literature, and then we would discover Iceland, a country of snow-capped volcanoes and frost-covered lava fields.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of the city and a brisk 20-minute walk to the centre, although it took longer as we dawdled taking photographs on the sea front…

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Reykjavik is a sprawling city of beguiling beauty – historic and modern at the same time with colourful old houses and art deco buildings overlooked by Mt Esja and surrounded by the cold blue sea.

There are so many things to do and so much stuff to see that we were lucky to have our own guide, Hjalmar – an Icelandic beekeeper, show us around his city for the afternoon. And there were a few gems that we stumbled upon ourselves, including…

The Sun Voyager – a hauntingly beautiful sculpture of a Viking ship facing the sea. The sculptor, Jón Gunnar Árnason, created the monument to remind Icelanders of their Viking heritage.

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The Old Harbor – where you’ll find ships, whale watching, Northern Lights tours, restaurants serving fruits of the sea, and a friendly atmosphere.

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Perlan – Reykjavik’s most futuristic building, and home to the Saga Museum, built on four rotating cylinders with a 360-degree viewing platform that provided panoramic views of the city. I loved this beautiful sun dial.

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The iconic white tower is Hallgrímskirkja – the church named after Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. It was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson to symbolise the flowing basalt lava fields of Iceland.

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Harpa – Iceland’s biggest concert hall where a recital of Rachmaninoff was playing when we took a look inside.

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We walked the circular route around the expansive suburbs of rivers and parks, past pretty residential areas to the lake near the town centre. Sunset is striking in Reykjavik.

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And as night falls fast and freezes, the mirror-like Harpa building is lit by multi-coloured lights. John thought it reflected the Northern Lights.

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Image by John Maund

Mid-week we woke up excited to start part two of our Icelandic adventures – from eclectic city break to exploring a strange volcanic wilderness of moss-and-lichen covered rocks with thermal vents of steam rising into the icy air.

We left the luxury of the Grand Hotel to meet our Explore group at Keflavik airport. There was some time to get to know our fellow Explorers before our itinerary started with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Can you imagine a place so magical that it’s indescribable? This, for me, is the Blue Lagoon.

The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa pooling into the heart of a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, south-western Iceland. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur – you can smell the sulphur – to which the lagoon is attributed healing powers for skin diseases like psoriasis. I don’t know about that, but I do know my skin has never felt so soft and silky from head to toe after swimming in the Blue Lagoon.

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Magical is one word to describe the Blue Lagoon. Otherworldly is another. ‘It’s like we’re in a science fiction movie,’ said John, as we swam in the hot steaming pools. We were surrounded by a weird volcanic landscape like something out Prometheus, which incidentally filmed the alien world on location in Iceland. I can’t describe anything more romantic than swimming in the mist-covered Blue Lagoon as the setting sun caught the sky on fire and cast a red-and-orange glow across the blue waters.

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The Blue Lagoon was a highlight of our holiday, but even better was yet to come.

Hjalmar had warned us of winds from the ‘Northern Pole’ arriving later in the week, and they did. A snow storm blew in as we set off to discover the Golden Circle – one of Iceland’s most popular tours.

Our guide was an Icelander named Valli (I think, at least it was pronounced ‘valley’), and a true bard. Valli was quite kooky, like many Icelanders – I like them! She told and sung us the story of Iceland on our journey – an Icelandic folk song, Christmas carols and the national anthem as we drove past dark serpentine rivers and snowy mountain ranges.

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Image by John Maund

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‘Iceland is the youngest country in the world,’ Valli told us. Geologically speaking. And it is still growing, forming, changing. Our Golden Circle tour encompassed the natural wonders of a country newly emerged from volcanoes and glaciers as it continued to evolve. The land is torn and ravaged by sharp ravines, rift valleys, deep gorges and spouting geysers.

At times it was far too snowy and windy for my DSLR to capture, so this was when John’s automatic was very handy.

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We were travelling in the company of a great Explore group and the blizzard made the day very atmospheric, but Valli had an extra surprise in store. For 200 ISK, or about 70p, we could experience an earthquake 6,3 on the Richter scale.

In 2008 there was a 6,3 earthquake under Mt. Ingólfsfjall – Valli remembers it well – that hit in Hveragerði, Selfoss. Today there is an exhibition of the earthquake – the opening in the earth is covered by glass and an earthquake simulator stands nearby! This is kooky Icelandic humour at work, I think. Valli smiled knowingly as we walked into the shed (earthquake simulator) and walked out shaken (literally) by the experience.

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Our fellow Explorers and Valli made the Golden Circle tour lots of fun, but the best day ever was still to come.

The untamed shores of Southern Iceland have black sand beaches, troublesome volcanoes, waterfalls bursting out of mountain sides and ice caves sculpted in glaciers. Our trip to the coast was met with the return of the sun and scenes so awesome and dazzling that no one could put down their camera.

You may recognise the popular tourist spot below – the unpronounceable volcano that Icelanders fondly call the ‘problem child’. Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spewing ash clouds that caused havoc to air travel across Europe.

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However, this is just a baby volcano. Icelanders are waiting for Katla.

The surrounding area of Eyjafjallajökull is covered in volcanic ash. ‘Please take a bag,’ said our guide and bus driver. ‘We have plenty. No really, take away as much as you want.’

We were so lucky that the weather had changed again, because without the sun we would not have seen the famous rainbows in waterfalls. John joked that I had the biggest smile stuck to my face, but I have never seen anything like this. This is actually real…

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Iceland is magical. Where else could I walk to the end of a rainbow?

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A sense of wonder? Wow.

And the day just got better. We went ice climbing on a glacier…

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Our beautiful mountaineer who took us safely around the glacier. She and her team were absolutely brilliant. And made sure we had a fantastic time.

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John, the intrepid explorer.

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Drinking pure glacier water – delicious! Image by John Maund

Walked across beaches with alien black sand…

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And roamed behind thundering waterfalls…

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And did we find the elusive Northern Lights? They took some hunting down…

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And more than a few nights searching. Lucky that John had booked us extra time on our tour so that we could try one more time…

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A week had sped past and as our plane flew away from the Land of Fire and Ice, I thought of how many dreams had come true.

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I hope you get to go to Iceland too.

Useful links

Flights – we flew with Icelandair
Accommodation – we stayed at the Grand Hotel
Activities – we booked with Explore

Food and drink – there are lots of excellent restaurants in downtown Reykjavik. Is it expensive? I’d say central London prices. And I particularly recommend eating at the Laundromat.

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Next post 23 November: back to the bees!

Trick or treat bee!

Our bees love when it rains sugar! Happy Halloween from the honeybees!