A beekeeper’s notes for May

bumble foraging

Today was sunny and warm for foraging. The garden was buzzing with honeybees, bumbles, solitary bees, and other pollinators. “Do damselflies buzz?” I wondered as a bright blue streak flew past.

Fairer weather had attracted cake-foraging beekeepers to the apiary with a small crowd sitting down for cream sponge and chocolate chip. I tried a slice of each and Jonesy told me his latest queen dramas. “I bought a new queen from Greece,” he said. “I’ve called her Olivia.”


Pulling on our suits, Emily and I followed Jonesy past the overgrown apiary path to visit Olivia. She was still in a cage with the worker bees desperately crowded around her. We all hoped that they would greet the new queen kindly. We’ll have to wait and see.


A bumble bee was slowly walking towards the hive reigned by Queen Pepper. Emily tried to discourage her from going inside, because Pepper’s lively ladies would probably nip off her hairs.

The Bailey comb change was interrupted on Pepper’s hive, because the colony was split in an artificial swarm about three weeks ago. This I feel is a possible disadvantage to doing a Bailey comb change later in the season, by becoming interrupted by the swarming instinct, but the wet weather at the start of spring made us wait.

Pepper wasn’t spotted in her hive, but Emily found eggs so the queen was there at least three days ago. The bees were content and doing well for stores and brood, and even have a super on top.


The split colony was behaving well, but there was no sign of a new queen, eggs or much in the way of brood or stores. We’ll check again next week, as new queens can take their time to settle in, before deciding whether to re-combine the colonies.

Melissa’s hive had completed the Bailey comb change. I found eggs in the top brood box along with nicely even biscuit-coloured worker brood and plenty of stores. The honeycomb in the bottom brood box was almost emptied, but it was still full of bees. How to get them out? Shake the bees?


We chose a gentler option that had worked in previous years. With the top brood box placed on the hive floor, we created a space above the colony using an empty brood box and put the bottom brood box above this. The cavity should encourage the bees to rob out any remaining stores and move downstairs, but it will be quite crowded. This is a strong colony. Another super will be needed to give the bees more space.


At home it was peaceful to sit in the garden and let nature take care of itself. I got out my camera for the first time since the start of the year and captured the blue tits coming and going from their nesting box.

blue tit feeding blue tit flying

The mason bees are behind bars after I found strange sticks poking out of the bug hotel. It was suggested on the UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook Group that larger birds like magpies and crows might use sticks to poke out the bees. The cage seems to have deterred the birds, I’ve found no more strange sticks and the bees don’t mind it.

bees behind bars

The red leafy tree is yielding delicate tiny flowers beloved by honeybees and bumble bees. I could just about see a fat fuzzy bumble hanging off foliage in the branches above.

bumble in sun

All is well in the hives and garden for May – long may it last. Tomorrow rain is forecast, let’s hope it passes soon.

My next post will be in two weeks’ time, while I catch up with all of yours!

Bees at the bottom of the garden


The bees were in high spirits when I arrived. A group of beginner beekeepers had finished looking at David Pugh’s hive, and were floating about the apiary like drones.

I took my time in lighting the smoker and opening up the hive belonging to our queen Melissa. After a few weeks spent away for illness, and with Emily at her allotment bees this weekend, it felt like my first proper inspection for a while. I was surprised to find that I needed to steady my nerves before getting on.

A heavy super lifted out of the way and I was inside the nest. The workers were busy, the drones were buzzing loudly, and the queen was spotted on the third frame that I pulled out. I was glad to see that I hadn’t lost my queen-spotting skills, but as the buzzing got louder I imagined the queen hadn’t recognised me. “Who is she?” The bees were saying, “What is she doing looking here?”


The beginners who had bought Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies from Emily while I was away were asking questions. I really wasn’t much help, I’m afraid, as I was trying to focus my breath and my thoughts on what I was doing. They had found two queen cells with the old queen in the small colony, and were wondering what to do. I suggested that they could do an artificial swarm with the old queen if they were worried about the bees swarming (although the colony was small for a split), or wait till next week as more than likely the workers were trying to supersede the two-year-old queen, and as there were only two queen cells (unless they had missed more). The beginners had already decided to wait and see.

As the new beekeepers left, I finished inspecting the top brood box and then looked inside the bottom brood box for the two queen cells listed as found in our hive records two weekends ago. The cells were gone as I imagined they would be.


The two queen cells were found on my first Saturday back inspecting the hives with Emily, and when the Bailey comb change was underway. I suspect that either a small swarm was missed in late April to early May, or that the bees were starting to make preparations to swarm that were thwarted by the late Bailey comb change. Perhaps with the queen being in the top brood box and a queen excluder beneath, the bees were unable to swarm away unless they starved her smaller. I doubt the bees were trying to supersede young Melissa who is laying nicely, but it’s just guesswork as I haven’t been able to do much with the bees this spring and I’m still catching up.

I closed up the hive as best as I could, but the weight of the heavy super felt the crunch of some bees beneath.


Pepper’s hive was split during a beginners’ session last weekend. Interestingly that colony also was in the middle of a Bailey comb change with the queen found in the bottom box and the queen cells found in the top box. The top box was removed to make a new hive leaving the colony ‘artificially swarmed’ in a less than usual way.

Pepper’s bees can be feisty and, as they had already been split, and as I’m supposed to be taking things slowly for another few weeks, I stopped at one inspection hoping that the original colony wasn’t busy casting off.


At the apiary table Andy Pedley, John Chapple and Alan Gibbs were talking about the record number of swarms reported in London this year. What could be causing this? The rise in ‘middle-class’ beekeepers as one newspaper reported, the surge in inexperienced beginners, or ailing beekeepers like myself failing to check for cast offs? Perhaps it was due to the changeable spring weather with spurts of warm sunshine taking bees and beekeepers by surprise? Or had there been a sudden surge in nectar, because the apiary bees were bringing home a wealth of stores? It could be all of the above, although the newspapers often don’t reflect the world of possibilities in beekeeping.

I left the apiary as Tom was leading Jochen to see the hives. I had more bees waiting for me at home, as well as fish and birds.


We have bees at the bottom of the garden, which is something that I’ve dreamed about since I first started beekeeping. Our bees aren’t honeybees, they are red mason bees, I think!

The bug house that I planted beside the plot of earth, which will be next year’s vegetable patch, has taken up residents. The mason bees moved in a few weeks ago and have been so busy occupying each tube that they are now looking for more holes in the two sheds for homes. I’ll have to buy another bug house!


It’s good to see Myrtle’s Palace so well used and I’m learning lots about my new bees, the solitaries, along the way. My early morning walks around the garden have revealed that red mason bees like to have a lie-in…


And apparently the bees lose their red colour as they get older, becoming more yellow…


I also learned one evening, after finding a few ants casually walking in and out, that bug hotels need some keeping too. A night spent reading how to care for a solitary bee home, including how to protect it from predators like ants, spiders and birds, had me awake early the next day to rebuild the stand higher up with a water tray ‘moat’ and Vaseline-smeared bricks. This seems to have done the job of deterring the ants for now.


The fish at the top of the garden are doing well. They had a visit from two local garden and pond fish experts, Sylvia and Paul, who said the pond was doing just fine. Sylvia kindly brought some cuttings of a yellow flower from her pond to put into ours, because “it grows beautifully and the fish love it”.


I was relieved to hear that I’d been feeding the fish and topping up the water levels correctly. The garden has buckets to collect rainwater to help top up the pond and I use Fresh Start when topping up with tap water, though Sylvia also reassured me that leaving a bucket of tap water to stand outside for a few days would make “the chlorine fly away”.


The collected rainwater is also useful for feeding the Venus flytraps in our kitchen, one of which is now flowering.


I discovered that we have a hidden well, which Sylvia and Paul thought had once been a frog pond. “Look out for frogs in the fish pond” they said when I told them about the frog spawn, “the frogs can strangle the fish if they start competing for space or want something to mate with!”


A stroll around the middle of the garden and past the blue tits’ nesting box (I’ve not been fast enough to get a picture of the birds coming in and out) allowed Sylvia and Paul to helpfully point out weeds…


…and give me some useful gardening advice, in particular how to control our rampaging bamboo and how to repair the Yorkshire stone paving. “Don’t throw it away or give it to me!” said Sylvia.

There is a world of discovery waiting for us in the garden, I wish that I had more time to spend there. I’m so grateful for Sylvia’s and Paul’s visit and for their generous advice. I’ve given them details of visiting our apiary in return.


My next post will be in two weeks’ time bringing more stories from the hive and unlocking more secrets from the garden. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week ahead.

A beekeeper’s notes for April


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.


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.


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.


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!


Spending time in nature 


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.


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


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


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


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


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.


Dreams do come true.