Winter studies: The poison honey

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© Dr Henry Oakeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhododendron and clouds in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter breaks for bees

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

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it rained…

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Our hives survived December’s wind and rain, while John and I spent Christmas at his family’s farm in frosty but sunny Hereford. The first Saturday in January, we went to the apiary in the afternoon and found a small crowd huddling around tea and Clare’s gingerbread men and women. Emily was then stranded at Drew’s family home in Cornwall due to floods.

The pink- and blue-iced gingerbread people looked very tempting, but I was keen to see our hives were still standing after the storms that had torn across the UK. They were. John watched as I hefted Myrtle’s hive, which was too heavy to heave, and Chamomile’s and Chili’s hives, which also felt a good weight of stores and bees.

Winter checks include looking into the entrance to make sure it isn’t blocked by dead bees. You would expect more dead bees at the entrance and lying in front of the hive in winter. Workers can get cold and weak even in the cosy warmth of the cluster, and a few may fall to the bottom of the hive and die. Of course, a whole pile of dead bees on the floor might be something to worry about.

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Raindrops on winter blooms at White City tube station last year.

Undertaker duty is a bit neglected in winter, when poor weather prevents flights or the workers may not have enough energy to carry dead bodies away from the hive. So it falls to the beekeeper to gingerly poke a stick through the holes in the mouseguard and tease out any dead bodies, so they don’t pile up and block the entrance.

I was wearing my full suit and veil to do this, despite mocking from some bearded beekeepers, because bees don’t take kindly to sticks being poked in the hive in winter, or, incidentally, at night. I wanted to avoid an indignant guard charging out and stinging my eye.

Hives heaved and entrances cleared, we went back to the apiary table for tea and gingerbread. Clare mentioned the apiary was showing Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s documentary More Than Honey the following Saturday. I had already watched the film over Christmas, a surprise gift from John. This led to lively debate. More Than Honey contains both incredible and disturbing scenes of bees and beekeeping around the world. I’m writing a review on my blog towards the end of this month, although I may not be able to include some comments made at the apiary about the pollination industry. If you can’t wait till then, Emily has written a thoughtful review on her blog.

There was a good turn out of Ealing beekeepers talking about their bees and buying oxalic acid. Sara, of lovely homesteading blog Hen Corner, was chatting to Elsa about great posts she has written recently on the pig process. Thomas, who was conferring with Jonesy about bee matters, has also started a blog about bees and life on the river.

Eventually, we all drifted away from the apiary and back to our other lives.

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A peek under the umbrella at rainy London on my way home from work.

There are so many things to do in winter like visit the Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop days, coming soon, or the Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, now on.

John and I went to NHM with friends last weekend to see this year’s gallery of astounding wildlife photography. My favourite was this picture of two grumpy-looking bedraggled lions in the rain. I know how they feel!

Invertebrates seemed rather under-represented, I’m thinking of entering bee photos to the next competition – entry details here. So come on all you Hymenoptera and other invertebrate people! Let’s not have the tiny animals forgotten!

'Where the hell can I get eyes like that?'

Bumble bee precariously balancing on echinacea in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians.

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.

Who keeps the beekeepers?

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Winter is here and, as every beekeeper knows, you will get asked at least once a week ‘What do bees do in winter?’. People are surprised when you say that bees don’t hibernate in winter and they are fascinated to hear how the workers cluster into a small, tight ball around the queen, vibrating their flight muscles to maintain a core temperature of around 21–24°C inside the hive. The winter bees eat the honey stores made by their summer sisters, because generating that much heat requires energy. ‘During the winter a colony will use an average of about 1kg per week just for heat production. (So do not skimp on feeding!)’ says Celia F Davis, The Honey Bee Inside Out. On a clear, mild day, the workers venture outside to stretch their wings or on a ‘cleansing flight’ (bees don’t like to poo indoors).

Honeybee colonies are much smaller in winter – on average, around 10–15,000 workers and the queen – so there are fewer bees to keep, but still beekeeping to do. Insulating roofs to conserve heat energy, checking mouseguards are secure and entrances clear, wrapping hives in chicken wire to deter peckish woodpeckers, and hefting the weight of stores. Beekeepers can then look forward to the tradition of giving bees a gift of fondant on Christmas Day, although many of us leave the fondant under the roof much earlier.

Sadly, people rarely ask what do beekeepers do in winter, who keeps the apiary warm or who maintains vital stores of tea and cake? Luckily, at Ealing apiary there is a hard core of beekeepers who turn up every Saturday afternoon to keep each other. And while we can’t vibrate our flight muscles like bees to maintain a tropical 24°C, the urn is boiled, tea is poured and cakes served warm from the oven. I arrived at the apiary yesterday to find a small crowd chatting over cups of tea, two varieties of cake and curious about my offering of a packet of jaffa cakes.

As regular readers know, there is a show-and-tell each week at our apiary. John Chapple was showing a photo of a strange numerical construct built on to the front of a house ‘for the bees’. I never got to the bottom of what it was. Thomas had brought a pretty collection of beeswax balms made by a lady beekeeper at Walpole Friends apiary, which the Ealing (men) beekeepers thought were good for buying, sticking on a gift label and saying ‘here, have this’ at Christmas.

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Beekeepers are great hobbyists and have many hobbies to keep them occupied in winter. One of those hobbies is talking to other beekeepers about their bees. I had a fun chat with Andy, a beekeeper who admitted that Emily and I are not the only Ealing beekeepers who name our queens. While Emily and I use a naming convention of essential oils, Andy names his queens for famous female scientists. So far his queens have included Rosalind (Rosalind Franklin, British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer), Jocelyn (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Northern Irish astrophysicist) and Valentina (Valentina Tereshkova, Russian cosmonaut and engineer). Valentina swarmed with her colony which, said Andy, taught him not to name future queens after astronauts or aviators, ‘There will never be an Amelia’.

The apiary’s core temperature of around 8–10°C doesn’t allow sitting for long, so we joined Andy Pedley and the other beekeepers stretching their legs around the hives. Albert noticed a few dead bees were blocking the entrance to Chamomile’s hive and Thomas thought the bodies might be trapped by the way our mouseguard was placed over the entrance reducer. ‘I noticed lots of hives here have entrance reducers and mouseguards on, but this might make it too difficult for bees to get in and out,’ he said. Thomas and Albert helped me to reposition the mouseguard and remove dead bodies. As soon as the entrance was clear a worker bee flew out impatient to get past and buzzing loudly. Perhaps she had been waiting for a cleansing flight for a long time.

There was not a sight of a bee outside Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives and I hoped our queens were well inside. I shouldn’t have favourites but I am fond of Myrtle, who was named for my favourite essential oil and, like her namesake, is a gentle and kind queen. Here she is walking elegantly across a frame this summer.

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Satisfied the bees were well being kept, the beekeepers drifted out of the apiary and all was quiet and still again. The day was getting darker and colder, so I was grateful when Stan offered a lift home to Northolt.

Today is the 1st of December and John and I are putting up the Christmas decorations. I will, of course, save some tinsel for the bees.

Further reading

Hivernation – a useful read on what the bees get up to in winter, by blogger Apis.

Understanding bee anatomy – Thomas found a fantastic blog by a doctor and Master beekeeper, very useful for winter bee studies.

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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Image by John Maund

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Image by John Maund

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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‘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!

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