A beekeeper’s notes for April

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When it rained on Wednesday morning I was torn between feeling happy for the fish in our pond and sorry for the bees in the hives. The day turned out nice for fish and bees with late afternoon sun shining as I left work.

A week done back in the office was exhausting. My chest felt tight as I stood on the tube slowly breathing into a paper bag, which is my (doctor-advised) ‘magic medicine’. It does help when I’m breathless, though I feel ridiculous.

The weight started to lift off my chest as I walked in the door of our lovely home and went through to the garden, listening to the fountain sprinkle (the frog spawn has dissolved and I’ve tried to spy some tadpoles) and watching the blue tits fly in and out of the nesting box.

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My beekeeper’s notes for April are poor considering I’ve not done much since helping to get equipment and hive records ready in March, and to knock-up brood frames. Emily has taken excellent care of our bees. The Bailey comb change had been started on Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives, and Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies have been sold to beginners. This is a wise decision. Two hives are more than enough to keep, because our lives will continue to grow in new ways and bring other adventures.

It was lovely to get back to the apiary yesterday and listen to the chatter of beekeepers. This spring has brought a mixed bag of stories from hive autopsies to supers already overflowing with honey. The apiary was also looking prettily overgrown with bluebells and wildflowers.

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John Chapple had tales of ‘floating’ hives visited abroad to picturesque scenes of his own colonies. You can see his pictures, kindly sent by Jonesy’s considerable technical skills demonstrated at the apiary table, on Ealing Beekeepers website’s news blog.

I was pleased to see that the two hives we are keeping, Melissa’s and Pepper’s, are doing well. Emily and I have shared the colony, currently headed by Queen Melissa, for the past few years and they are the loveliest gentlest bees. Emily spotted the queen this week and we put her in the top brood box for the Bailey comb change.

Unfortunately one hive inspection was all I could manage for my first week back, and Jochen ably helped Emily to find Pepper for the Bailey comb change on that colony too.

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Thomas had tales to tell of bluebells in Perivale and adventuring in bug hotels. I was sorry to miss the bluebells (I’ve enjoyed them in previous years), although I’m hoping Tom can help create a beautiful bug mansion in our garden some time.

I didn’t take pictures at the apiary as it was nice just to sit and get used to being back. Instead I hope you’ve enjoyed the pictures taken in our garden. My next post will be in two weeks’ time as I’ll use that session to catch up on everyone else’s. There’s lots of other reading to do on my blog in the meantime.

I’d also like to say a special thank you to everyone who has wished me well. I’m looking forward to catching up on your blogging very soon. Happy May!

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Spending time in nature 

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It’s a friendly garden. The birds, bees and fish are happy here. It’s a good place to rest and spend time in nature.

I’ve taken a break these past two weeks after being in hospital with breathing difficulties. Perhaps moving home, work and bronchitis all caught up till my body said ‘stop’. So that’s what I did.

The doctors and nurses have been wonderful and I’ve had the best of care. I’ve got a lot of thank you letters to write from the kind Boots pharmacists where I first fell ill, to the fantastic A&Es at University Hospital London and Hillingdon Hospital where I was treated, to the lovely doctors at Sameday clinic for their reassuring support.

I don’t like to do nothing and I’m impatient to get back to everything. John has been incredible, and both our families have been making sure that I’ve taken life more slowly.

My lovely hive partner Emily has been taking care of our bees and sent me these beautiful flowers! I also had a lovely get well card from my work and John’s work has been amazingly supportive in giving him time to look after me.

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Spending time in nature with the insects that I love, listening to the birds singing, and spying the frog in the pond has been the best medicine.

I hope you don’t mind me taking a break from blogging and from reading all the blogs I follow too. It won’t be long till I’m back with more stories from the bees, some new creatures, and the garden.

A beekeeper’s notes for March

“It’s going to be cold till June,” said a courier dropping off some boxes to our house on Saturday. I was dismayed to hear his gloomy forecast, because it meant the bees would wait a long time for spring to return. The bright yellow daffodils had come up in our garden and the robins were fighting sparrows for fat balls on the feeder. Hopefully, the birds and the plants knew differently.

White, blue and pink flowers greeted me along the apiary path as I arrived in the late afternoon. It was heavily overcast and windy, and there was a feeling of dampness in the chilly air. The poor weather hadn’t deterred beekeepers from turning up for Clare’s tea and chocolate cakes. “What are you going to do with your bees?!” demanded John Chapple. I was wearing my bee suit, but explained this was to check the feed under the roof and nothing more. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to open up the hive and expose the bees to unfriendly elements, John returned to his tea.

A beekeeper who is also a doctor was standing next to me. She doesn’t visit the apiary often but I enjoy talking to her when she does. A few years ago I was stung by a bee while checking Pat’s hives at Osterley. The sting was my fault – the hive roof had a sign saying ‘Nasty bees’ and I opened up without my gloves. The next day the sting on my finger had swollen half my arm and I was at A&E.

“Is there a way to be test for allergy to bee stings?” I asked her. She shook her head to explain that the allergic reaction depended on many factors from how quickly the sting is removed and the amount of venom received, to how warm your body is, the flow of blood, and many other variables. Wearing a bee suit at all times is the best precaution we both agreed, watching Tom and Jonesy venture behind the green netted area without their suits.

The afternoon wasn’t getting any brighter so I put over my veil and went to visit the bees. German beekeeper Jochen had arrived to lend a helping hand. The sky was very dark by now. I lifted the roof of each hive to empty the feeders of old syrup and pour in ambrosia from a spare can that Jonesy had brought over. Chamomile’s bees had drunk all their feed and one of her workers was determinedly trying scare off Jochen.

Fortunately Jochen was more delighted to see how well Chamomile’s and Chili’s workers appeared to be doing from their vigorous climbing around the feeders. “What a lovely change,” he said.

It was disappointing not to look inside the hives to check the queens and brood nest. The bees were spilling in and out of Melissa’s and Pepper’s colonies where we had removed the old sugar and cleaned up the crownboards with a damp cloth. Bees, beekeepers and flowers were ready for spring but the weather wasn’t.

The kit boxes are prepared for the season to start too. You can see the pine cones for smoker fuel that John and I foraged for in Rye last autumn.

After Jochen and the others had left, I sat at the apiary table to catch up on writing hive records for March. I put each record in a sleeve under the roof, then wiped down the varroa boards and left one under each hive.

Using a bucket of soda water and old cloths I wiped down all the equipment of our three empty hives and evicted some huge spiders. During the week I had made up the frames for the comb change. The British weather forecast is notoriously unreliable, which means that next week’s chilly outlook could get sunnier.

On my way out I noticed a worker bee clinging to the side of her hive. A few breaths of warm air and she was ready to fly home. With a quick turn to look back, I had left the bees and hives at the apiary as ready as they can be for the clocks to go forward to British summertime.

Myrtle’s Palace



This morning as the sun shone I fed the fish in the pond, gave the robins in the hedge their breakfast, and finally found a home for the bug hotel I bought last summer. It’s christened ‘Myrtle’s Palace’ after my favourite queen bee, and hopefully will attract friendly pollinators like solitary bees and lacewings to the garden. 

A happy move to a new home can often bring positive new energy. I was given food for thought yesterday about other areas of my life that need a clear out. Now we’ve settled into our new home I can look forward to making changes for the better. Well, as I said in my new year post, this will be a year of exciting happenings! 



A short visit to the apiary Saturday afternoon allowed Emily and I to check the feed under the roof, but it was too cold to open up the hives. An encouraging sign was seeing Chamomile’s workers take to the feeder with vigour having drained last week’s syrup. This hive is one of two weak colonies coming out of winter, but I hope feeding and warmth will allow the queens to lay again. 



This week’s post is brief as we have no broadband and intermittent Internet access. So as the robins build their nest, for now just wishing everyone a wonderful sunny Sunday.

This is our garden

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This is our garden. The trees are rustling and the plants are awakening. We don’t know any of them yet.

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The fountain sprinkles in a pond where brightly coloured fish swim. We are keepers of fish now.

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The sun shines through the windows of the kitchen bringing warmth and light to our new home.

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Today is moving day. John and I are moving to our new house. The journey to get here at the start of the year was longer than we thought it would be, but we finally arrived. With the help and love of our families. Our very first house.

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Dreams do come true.

When does spring come for the bees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A feast of tea and cake for beekeepers.

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A feast of mealworms and biscuit crumbs for the robin.

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

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Pink-crowned Queen Chili was easy to spot.

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Queen Chamomile sees her first sun of the year.

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

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Beauty and the beast

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The pleasure of seeing my first bumblebee of the year was blighted by the plague. She looked as beautiful as I felt beastly. A giant black fuzzy bumble haphazardly zig-zagging up the street towards Piccadilly Circus as city workers and tourists dodged out of her way. I had struggled into work feeling very sick, but was glad to have seen her.

I’m taking an unfortunate blogging break this week due to a particularly nasty infection that has totally wiped me out. Sorry to everyone whose posts I’ve not caught up on this past week, I’ll be back soon.

For now, please enjoy a pretty bumblebee frolicking in pollen on top of a purple echinacea flower. I took this photograph in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians in summer 2012.

EDIT 28 February 2015: Thanks all for your get well wishes below. How ridiculous that a bad cold turned out to be bronchitis – it seems a bit excessive! I’m taking a break for another week to get fully well and catch up with everyone else’s news before getting back to my own. Please stay warm and healthy!