The wasp palace

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The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

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This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

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EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

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There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

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We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

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The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

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With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

The London Honey Show 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily it got better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our grocery shopping would look very different without pollinators.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eight is the magic number, sort of

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When you first start learning to be a beekeeper, you may be taught that 8 mm is the magic number of the ‘bee space’. Perhaps this is easier to learn when starting to build your own hives. In truth, it’s closer to 6–9 mm.

What is bee space? Imagine an alley between the neighbouring combs within a bee hive, or indeed a natural bee nest. The ‘bee space’ leaves a gap so that bees can work on the opposite sides of the combs and have enough space to move past each other back to back.

This gap or ‘bee space’ is widely considered to be around 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) and is a key principle in the design of most modern bee hives allowing the bees free passage between the frames and the hive wall and above or below the frames.

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Bee space is the gap between the frames in the hive, and around the walls and above and below the frames. This gap gives the bees enough space to work on opposite sides of the comb and pass each other back to back.

I’ve read that the variation in spacing might be due to the varying sizes of the different species of honeybee, although 6–9 mm seems a pretty uniform measurement to me.

Why is it important to remember bee space? Because any gap that is too small (less than 6 mm) the bees will fill with propolis, a sticky resinous substance, and any gap that is too big (more than 9 mm) the bees will fill with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb). This, of course, makes it harder to move the frames and boxes of the hive during an inspection.

Beekeeper David A Cushman describes bee space as “A gap in a natural nest bees don’t fill up”. He provides an interesting list of the different types of bee space. He also suggests sometimes the bees will fill small gaps with pollen, perhaps to allow some light to filter around the hive.

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Bees filling a small space (less than 6 mm) above the top bars with stick propolis.

But whether it’s 6, 7, 8 or 9 mm, leaving a gap that the bees feel inclined to fill isn’t sensible. So, of course, that’s what Emily and I did. To be fair, this was during the four-week course of Apiguard treatments for varroa, where an eke (sort of an extension wooden frame) creates a space beneath the hive boxes where the Apiguard tray rests on the top bars.

In Melissa’s hive our bees had dutifully built brace comb to fill the gap bigger than 9 mm. And it wasn’t easy to scrape it off the bottom of the super without the help of a hive partner. The bees showed their appreciation of our efforts by munching the oozing honey.

Some beekeepers might consider leaving space for the bees to build brace comb a waste of valuable energy and resources when they could be getting on with other work: filling up super frames with honey or getting ready for winter. There might be some truth in this, but I always enjoy seeing my bees build brace comb. The beautiful curved shapes of freely expressed honeycomb gives an insight into the secret life of wild honeybees.

How do honeybees in the wild know about bee space? Well, I haven’t read much on this, but it seems they weren’t taught it by the beekeepers. Bee space, like the building of vertical combs, is all about gravity:

“Guided by their sense of gravity, though, bees can maintain a comb construction that is vertical, and oriented downward from the roof to the floor. The distance between the comb results from the space a bee occupies when standing on the comb. When moving over the surface of neighbouring combs, bees must be able to pass one another, back to back, without difficulty … and this minimal distance is strictly maintained.” (The Buzz about Bees, Jurgen Tautz, Springer, London, 2008.) Tautz says that gravity receptor organs are found on the bees’ leg joints and between their head, thorax and abdomen, which allows them to build combs vertically down in the dark. Amazing creatures.

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Last week we left Melissa’s amazing bees munching on the brace comb honey under the roof, which we hoped they would take down into the nest. Probably an unwise idea as our bees were likely to build more brace comb, but it seemed unfair to take away their secret stash of honey. This week, we would find out what the bees did.

The rainy morning had persisted into the afternoon and though the rain was drying up, the air was too damp and cold for inspections. I arrived to find a small crowd of people at the apiary sheltering under the awnings of the apiary hut. The air was filled with bees, unusual as they don’t often fly over the green netting that separates off the hive area. Perhaps they had also come for tea. In any case, they were happy to fly calmly about listening to the conversation.

Emily came with nuts to feed the magpies and robins. Jonesey was showing off his new iPhone 6 and a new beginner, Emma, was getting to know everyone. The crowd soon dispersed and it was time to see what our bees had done.

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In Melissa’s hive I’m pleased to say the workers had done exactly what they were supposed to do! They had taken down most of brace comb honey into the hive. Emily and I cleared up the empty wax and left the remnants around the crownboard holes for the bees to finish up. I saw a little wasp on the crownboard drinking a dreg of honey. Wasps are desperate at this time of year, starving and dying off. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her but couldn’t leave her inside the hive either. I picked up the piece of comb with the wasp and placed it on the roof of an empty hive.

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We had fed Pepper’s and Chili’s hives with pollen and syrup though they didn’t seem to need feeding, it has been a very kind autumn for bees. Chamomile’s hive was left to check.

We opened the roof and lifted the crownboard – and the wasps flew in! They must have smelt the scored honey frames feeding the bees above the crownboard. Quickly putting back the roof on the hive, there were at least a couple of wasps inside and many more buzzing around the outside, and trying to disturb the other hives.

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I lit the smoker to deter as many wasps as I could, while Emily used newspaper to make the hive entrances narrower. As the wasps cleared we lifted the roof from Chamomile’s hive again and the two trapped wasps flew out. There’s no space for wasps in our bee hives!

That done, we took a walk around the apiary. The rain had stopped, the sun had come out and wasps were still stalking most of the hives. It was time to leave.

Post notes If you’re interested, here’s some more information about bee space.

Top beeway or bottom beeway?
In a natural colony of wild honeybees, bees only leave a distance between the vertical-hanging combs and around the walls of the nest. There is no need for horizontal spaces above and below the honeycomb. But in a bee hive, the beekeeper needs horizontal spaces to move the boxes during an inspection. Here, the concept of bee space is again used by leaving a gap between hive boxes around 6–9 mm. (Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, Ed: HarperCollins Publishers, London 2010.)

“The bee space can either be at the top of the box, over the frames (as in the Langstroth, Dadant and Smith hives), where the bottoms of the frames are in line with the bottom of the box (known as ‘top bee space’) or at the bottom (as in the National, WBC and Commercial hives), below the frames, so that the tops of the frames are level with the top of the box (‘bottom bee space’).” (Collins) Obviously, you can’t mix boxes with top- and bottom-bee space in the same hive or the concept of bee space won’t work.

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Which is better? In Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper refers to this method of spacing as ‘top beeway’ and ‘bottom beeway’. He prefers the ‘top beeway’ design, which he says is most common in America, rather than the ‘bottom beeway’ design used in Britain (my fourth edition of the book was published in 1997, so I can’t say if this is still the trend on both sides of the pond, particularly as many beekeepers like to experiment).

“Top beeway is much more efficient in use and less of a strain on the beekeeper as supers can be lifted back and placed ‘cross-cornered’ on the hive and then slid around into place. With bottom beeway this cannot be done as the edge of the super box would run across level with the top of the frames and would decapitate any bee looking up between the frames and squash many of those walking about on top of the frames.” (Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper, 4th ed, Marston House, 1997.)

A short(ish) history of the movable-frame hive
American-born Reverend Lorenzo L Langstroth (1810–25) is credited with the invention of the movable-frame hive. It was Langstroth who recognised the concept of ‘bee space’ in a ‘Eureka’ moment, which became a vital component in modern hive design and which now allows beekeepers all over the world to freely move and lift frames and boxes without breaking up the honeycomb. (Collins)

There had been similar bar hives previously, such as the leaf hive invented by Swiss natural historian Francois Huber (1750–1831), and the multi-layered skep hive invented by Englishman Thomas Wildman (1734–81), an experimenter, showman and beekeeper. It is thought that a movable-frame hive was also first designed by Englishman Major William Augustus Munn, author of A Description of the bar-and-frame hive (1844). (Collins)

The theories that lay behind these models may have helped to pave the way to Langstroth’s discovery.

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When a space that is too big (more than 9 mm) is left in the hive, the bees will fill it with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb) as shown here above the top bars.

Langstroth was frustrated when his coverboards became stuck down with the sticky resinous substance propolis and like any good beekeeper he sought a practical solution. He cut a recess into the hive box that allowed him to drop the hive bars down to 9 mm below the coverboard, which seemed to solve the problem. Then he thought about similarly adjusting the spacing in the interior parts of the hive to make it easier to work with the bees:

“The critical aspect of his design was the space between the edges of the frames and the walls and floor of the box – an opening wide enough for a bee to pass through and hence termed the ‘bee space’.” (Collins) Langstroth initially used a space of 12.5 mm (1/2 in), before he further discovered that bees leave a 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) space between their combs and the walls in their nests.

A Polish beekeeper Reverend Dr Jan Dzierzon (1811–1906) had put thought towards a system of movable frames by spacing the comb 38 mm (1 1/2 in) apart. But it seemed that 6–9 mm was found to be the most practical movable-frame system and Langstroth’s design is used by 75% of all modern hives sold throughout the world today. (Collins)

The Great Honey Bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor

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“We lost almost an entire crop to rapeseed one year,” said Patrice. We were talking about the really thick honey that Emily and I had been unable to spin out in an extractor. “There is most likely rapeseed in the honey.” Patrice had seen rapeseed growing in the area local to the apiary, she thought it was probably spread around by birds who ate the seeds and left their droppings elsewhere.

Three years ago on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, Emily and I took six frames of honey off the same hive and got in a cab to my dad’s house to extract it straightaway. The honey wouldn’t spin out and instead we made cut comb honey in mini jars.

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The following spring we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden’s honey tasting session and brought a pot of honey for expert honey taster and beekeeper Peter James. He took one spoonful and gave us a definitive answer, “Rapeseed”.

Could our thick honey be from rapeseed flowers? It has some of the same qualities being too viscous to extract by spinning the comb, a light golden colour and a mild floral flavour with a slight tangy aftertaste. However, rapeseed honey granulates very quickly, sometimes setting in the honeycomb even when still on the hive, and our honey, like that of three years ago, is a smooth gel-like liquid that hasn’t granulated. Rapeseed honey is also said to be gritty with a cabbagey or peppery aftertaste, which doesn’t fit the description of our honey either.

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Fields of oilseed rape in Herefordshire by Jonathan Billinger via CC BY-SA 2.0

There are other types of forage that can produce viscous honey, but none of these have quite the right characteristics to fit the pieces of the puzzle. For example, hawthorn honey can be thick and difficult to extract, and granulates very slowly over time, but it also tends to be darker in colour and richer in flavour than our honey.

I’ve considered another option, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Bees can move honey from the brood box into the supers if they want to make more room in the nest. We stopped feeding our bees sugar syrup a week or so before the supers went on the hive, and the bees started to draw out and fill the supers quickly after. Was there some sugar syrup in the honey we had harvested and could that have made it more difficult to extract? I later discussed this possibility with Emily and she thought this wasn’t likely either.

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The only way to know for sure what is in our honey is to send it off to be tested, which is what I plan to do. The answer may surprise us and be either none of the above or all of the above. We’ll have to wait and see.

Still, there was the job of extracting honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor used for years and generously gifted by retired beekeeper Professor Robert Allen – thank you Bob. This is how I have done it.

Honey processing began in my small kitchen after work one evening. I quickly de-capped the frames in the supers using a hot knife. The wax cappings were caught neatly in a bucket to be used at a later date.

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That done, I hung the frames in a plastic container about the same size as a super and with plenty of room for the honey to drip into the bottom.

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John put the container on the work surface above the washing machine/tumble dryer, which is frequently used because I’m a clean freak. Here, the frames of honey have hung for three weeks, slowly dripping in the warmth of the kitchen with the subtle vibrations of the washer–dryer underneath.

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I’ve encouraged the honey to dribble out using a small (sterilised) metal key to stir each cell, working across every frame as diligently as a bee.

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Yes, I actually stirred every cell on the comb. I now have some idea of what it means to work as hard as a bee!

It may sound slightly mad, but the good thing about this method is that I’ve not crushed and strained the honeycomb to get the honey out; though it has left about a quarter of the honey in the comb, it has also left the comb intact. This means I can return wet supers to the hive for the bees to lick out the remaining honey and to repair the honeycomb with insect precision. We may not get as much honey as we thought, but we will still get plenty between us and I don’t begrudge giving some back to our hardworking bees. The drawn comb on the frames will also give Melissa’s colony a head start for next year.

When John dropped me off at the apiary this afternoon there was a small crowd of people talking about honey and wax. (We’re all bonkers.) Everyone has lots of plans of what they are going to do with their harvest. It has been a good summer for beekeeping and autumn will bring honey shows, cooking with honey, and recipes for wax cosmetics, polishes and candles.

After having a cup of tea we suited up to inspect the hives. Emily inspected Pepper’s hive without a smoker, although being allergic to stings I prefer to get the smoker going in case it’s needed, and I find Pepper’s bees quite feisty. The situation was good in this hive with a colony of healthy bees and brood, building up enough stores for winter.

Another visitor to the apiary turned up to watch the inspections.

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I’m told this is the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) by Mark Patterson of London Beekeepers. The lookalike hornet fly was very curious about us. He, or she, was perhaps a little too friendly, flying after Jonesy to say hello and making him stumble backwards in surprise. The extraordinary looking insect stayed around for a while, then flew off to find something more interesting somewhere else.

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Friendly hornet mimic hoverfly retreats to Emily’s glove after one of Pepper’s workers had headbutted her off the hive.

Unfortunately there were also wasps flying around the hives, and when I opened Melissa’s hive to find lots of dead bees inside Emily wondered if a wasp had got in and a battle had ensued. Aside from this, all was well here and Emily spotted the queen. The brood nest is getting smaller as the bees prepare for their winter cluster, and I counted about five brood frames (in addition to some uncapped super frames I was returning) for their winter stores.

How much honey does a hive need for winter? Sources vary between 35-60lbs and one frame is about 5lbs of honey. The amount of stores needed also depends on the size of the colony, how active they are during winter, and how fast they eat. I was counting the frames of stores while going through the hives and it looks like they’ll have plenty for winter.

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Spot the black bee in the centre of the frame? Emily thought she might be a robber bee, because robber bees are often blackened from having their hairs nipped off.

I inspected Chili’s hive next and the situation was much the same with a declining brood nest and a build up of stores. We watched our pink-spotted queen climb across a frame looking for cells to lay a few more eggs before winter arrives.

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Emily inspected Chamomile’s hive which has a large brood nest and quite a lot of stores. Chamomile appears to have mellowed in her second year and she is an excellent layer, though there are signs of disease in the hive. I do hope they survive the winter.

We are now halfway through the Apiguard treatment, and put a second tray on each hive. The bees are clearing the Apiguard with varying degrees of success. Melissa’s bees cleared the entire tray, while Chili’s bees have been less hygienic removing only half the treatment.

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There was a high number of varroa mites on all the varroa boards, worrying but also a good sign that the Apiguard is working. All the colonies at the apiary have thrived this year, and with larger and more active colonies it’s to be expected that varroa numbers would also rise.

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Another spot the … beautiful bright orange pollen amid the nasty red varroa mites on the varroa board.

That done, we cleared up our equipment and said goodbye to the bees as the light began to get dusky. Reflections of a good year’s beekeeping were comforting, despite knowing that we’ll soon say farewell to the bees for their winter slumber.

Summer’s end

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The moments of sunshine appear in and out of showers in these end of summer days, as I notice the bees nipping in and out of the fading flowers for every last dusting of pollen.

With the cooling of the summer’s warmth, is it my imagination that the bees’ furry coat becomes fuller?

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We spent the last week of summer visiting John’s family in Hereford where the round bales of hay were being rolled in the fields and the trees were showing the first tinges of autumn.

I’ve always liked the autumn and winter months, perhaps because I was born in the winter. At the same time there is also a feeling of sadness as summer ends.

My grandad used to call it ‘the ebb time’. I feel the retreating evening warmth in the buzzing of the bees and watching them eagerly gathering every last flowerful of nectar from the Japanese anemones in the garden.

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This year it’s different because I see the summer sunshine in my bees’ honey. I can appreciate the hard work of summer’s end and enjoy the beginning of autumn as we take the harvest and prepare the hives for the winter.

In Hereford I saw the richness of the harvest in the fruits of the fields as we picked blackberries, plums and apples for pie and crumble.

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The cows were watching as we filled up tubs with fat juicy blackberries from the hedgerows. They (the cows) were inquisitive, said John’s mum. So was The Gruffalo, the magnificent new bull, but he got fresh hay, not blackberries, for supper and enjoyed his nose being scratched.

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After the bank holiday’s rain had passed, we drove ‘abroad’ to Wales to view the impressive Victorian dams set in the beautiful Elan Valley in Rhayader. The country is always changing in Wales. It’s stunning.

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A visit to the Elan Valley “never fails to delight and inspire” says the information at the visitor centre. I could imagine that living here would inspire creativity to flow from every pore.

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There is a feeling of spending time in nature that I can only describe as contentment.

We met a friend of mine for lunch by Hereford cathedral and he put into words exactly what I felt. In London there is everything to do and no time to do it. Here, there is a lot to do and more time to do it. While being on holiday puts everything in a romantic light, I could easily imagine swapping city life for living in the country.

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On the farm John’s dad brought home a bunch of hops and asked if I knew what they were. I didn’t.

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He also found a dead grass snake in the corn field to bring back for show-and-tell. We laid him to rest behind a tree in the garden.

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The last day of summer was the best day with deep blue skies and golden sunshine. I sat on the back of the bike as John cycled from the cottage to the farm house, listening to the birds and bees and watching the cats preen lazily in the yards.

We enjoyed a full roast dinner before saying our goodbyes and driving back to London. John took the very scenic route through Gloucester and Burford in the Cotswolds, and we eventually arrived home just before sunset. Our small London flat smelt of the honey that had been slowly dripping from frames hanging over a container for a week. Patience and perseverance has paid off, I may be able to return wet supers with drawn comb to the hive to give the bees a head start in spring.

Autumn is now here and as the sun rises lower in the skies so the afternoon shadows stretch longer and further, and the days grow shorter. My kitchen is overflowing with summer’s bounty of apples, plums and honey ready to make honeyed fruit crumbles and pies. Winter is coming so I’ll leave this memory of a playful calf frolicking at summer’s end.

Giving thanks for the honey

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The sweet golden treasure is this year’s honey.

Honeycomb slowly dripped viscous syrup as white wax cappings cleanly sliced away, pooling like liquid sunshine into a bucket. Every cell releasing the gifts of some flower’s nectary with an explosion of fragrance. I dipped a teaspoon in the honey and tasted soft sweet chords of floral top notes and fresh fruity twists.

The creation of honey is an alchemical process. Flowers produce a sugar-rich liquid by glands called nectaries, signalling the honeybee to come and drink deeply. Her honey stomach heavy with nectar, she flies back to the hive and shares the sweetness on her sisters’ tongues. Thousands of tiny wings fan the cells magically turning nectar into honey.

A dozen honeybees are needed to collect enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey and each bee must visit 2,600 flowers for this to happen.

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This teaspoon of honey holds the nectar of 31,200 flowers. Summer’s essence distilled and concentrated in every drop. We have a beautiful harvest from Queen Myrtle’s hive. Like our honey crop of three year’s ago, it’s too thick for the extractor. We’ll take it over autumn by crushing and filtering through muslin.

I’m thankful to the trees, flowers and honeybees who made our honey.

Welcome Melissa

We named Myrtle’s daughter and the new queen of our honey hive, Melissa. While we wished for her to emerge the bees were the picture of contentment, which gave us the wisdom to wait a month for the queen. This inspired the name Melissa.

“Melissa oil promotes sensitivity and intuition and helps us find inner contentment and strengthen ‘wisdom of the heart’.” (Salvatore Battaglia)

The sweet blossomy lemony fragrance of melissa suits our light golden honey very well. The name Melissa is from the Greek ‘bee’ indicating the attractiveness bees feel towards the plant. A perfect name for the queen who continues the legacy of our favourite hive.