A rainy day in the honeybee year

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Some say the beekeeper’s year starts in late August to early September after the honey has been harvested and the bees are preparing for winter. In July the flow of nectar should be generous and foragers seen flying home with heavy loads of pollen.

So on Saturday 28 June I stood in front of our hives appreciating that we are on a tight schedule. After getting the bees going in spring, there is a narrow window during which the colony must be strong and conditions must be right to produce a super of honey.

Emily and I have missed that window for the past two years contending with rain, failed queens and small swarmy colonies, but this year our hopes are pinned on two supers on Myrtle’s hive.

With five hives we can’t yet claim the honey as ours. Good weather and strong queens are needed for the bees to make enough stores to see all colonies through winter and to give us a harvest.

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Today we wouldn’t tell if the bees were on track. We were rained out and though some beekeepers did open their hives, they were met with a roar from the bees. Albert’s artistic ladies had been playing in the roof making a construction worthy of Tate Modern.

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Thomas’s Italian ‘teddy bear’ bees were remarkably calm despite the rain and nursing queen cells. The nuc with the old queen had been experimenting with natural comb. Thomas explained that they start by building two oval segments on either side of the frame before joining them up.

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The rain was falling thick and fast now, so we gave up for the day. On my way home I reflected so much time is spent wishing for honey, we forget that the bees are doing something even more amazing all the time – building honeycomb.

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I’ve blogged about the wonder of honeycomb before, but it’s worth repeating.

The honeybee builds honeycomb from wax secreted by the abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. She builds row upon row of perfect six-sided cells in a precise hexagonal array.

Marcus du Sautoy gives a lovely explanation of why bees choose hexagons to build their comb on BBC’s ‘The Code’. “The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible.” To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build and stores the highest volume of honey, which makes it the most efficient shape. “It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,” says Marcus. “Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.”

Rain or shine we will get wax from our bees, and watching this brings a new appreciation for candles.

The month of honey

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So England has lost and is out of the World Cup. There is still a promising summer ahead and today was a beautiful day for beekeeping with blue skies and sunshine.

Festivals were taking place all over London from Hanwell to Greenwich, but I was more interested in celebrating bees and honey in Perivale. Last Saturday Emily and I had put a super on top of Myrtle’s hive and today we would see what the bees had done with it.

They did this…

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Evidence.

Beautiful drawn honeycomb on every frame glistening with honey ready to be capped. We couldn’t help but spend a few minutes admiring it. Honey. That Myrtle’s colony has moved so quickly to fill up a super shows they had really needed the space. We lifted the super to one side and covered with the crownboard to keep the bees warm and protected from robbers.

Myrtle’s bees had been caught playing with the idea of building queen cells last week, although there were no larvae inside the cells. I read in Ted Hooper that removal of two-year-old queens should take place in late August to early September, because of the advantages of having a young queen for wintering. She is less likely to die or become a drone layer, and she keeps the brood nest active for longer in the season, which means younger workers do not have to live as long in winter conditions. (Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper.) Emily and I have never removed a queen unless it was necessary for the colony’s survival, such as a drone layer, and we’ve never bought a replacement queen, preferring the bees to make their own and decide when to do so. That’s worked out, so far. I have a feeling that the bees might supersede Myrtle in August without our interference. We’ll wait and see.

The queen in question was spotted during the hive inspection. “Look how calmly and slowly she walks,” said a beginner. Myrtle is our loveliest queen, regal and elegant with a skip of playfulness. I adore her. We saw more drone cells in the middle of the frame rather than the edges, which can be another sign of an ageing queen. Oh, Myrtle.

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More evidence.

Jonesy lifted the super back on the hive and we put a second super on top. The lime is out and the bees will be flying. “You might need supers on all your hives,” said Jonesy. Hopeful. Though the two hives that were split into four on 11th May must build their brood to full strength. The colony of Chili’s daughter is on its way with plenty of brood and stores. However, the colony of Chamomile’s daughter shows signs of a failed queen. When Emily had spotted cells containing two eggs last week, we gave the new queen the benefit of the doubt and more time to get used to her egg-laying duties. Today we saw much more drone comb, fewer worker brood and young larvae, and no sign of the queen. I suggested a frame of eggs from another hive to test whether the she was still in there – if not, then the bees would build another queen cell – but as usual the workers were one step ahead of us. On the second-to-last frame we found a queen cell. Inside there was a pearly white larva coiled on a bed of royal jelly.

This was the first time in five years that I have seen a queen larva curled in her cell waiting to be sealed. I was tempted to take a picture, but conscious that the future of this colony is perilous and that queen larva in their cells are easily damaged. Returning the frame to the hive with care, we had two choices. The first to take down the queen cell and unite the, probably, queenless colony with its mother colony, Chamomile’s, to make one stronger hive with a laying queen. The second was to give the bees a chance to make their queen and become an established colony in their own right. We chose the latter, but their chances aren’t good. It is six weeks’ since the colonies were split and waiting for a new queen to emerge and mate will set back this colony another few weeks. As workers get older they become less able to nurse and raise brood. Nurse bees are usually between 5 to 10 days old and eat a lot of pollen for their glands to produce royal jelly and brood food. We don’t know how many workers in this hive are still nursers, but we may have to revisit our decision if the situation deteriorates and unite colonies for the wellbeing of the bees.

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Chili’s colony is starting to fill the brood nest, although not with the same gusto that her bees had at the start of the season and before the split. Her bees were testy today. The same was true of Chamomile’s hive, except that our feistiest queen was in a fairer mood and her bees were behaving nicely. Having five hives to inspect is like going through every temperament of bee in an afternoon. You can see Chamomile in the picture above getting a licking from her workers as she walks across the frame. Her pheromones are being spread throughout the colony as her workers lick her and then each other, telling the entire court that the queen is present and well, and to do her bidding.

Today we left the apiary with our dreams of honey coming true, and thoughts of the first taste of Myrtle’s honey to come…

I taste its juice; sweet gods of the evergreen
woods’ taste;
crushed music, bars and epiphanies of dripping air;
aggregated cells
of each and every flower’s oddness there;

this sugar-map.
Bee Journal, Sean Borodale

A case of supersedure and a super goes on

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The World Cup opened in Brazil with a swirl of colours, dance and controversy. In London it was blue skies and sunshine as Brazil Day landed in Trafalgar Square giving citygoers a taste of Rio.

Today the sun slept-in after shining all week and a spectacular show of solar flares captured by NASA. The weather was hot, humid and overcast when Emily and I got to the apiary to light up a smoker and start Saturday beekeeping.

Last week we had left the unnamed queens of our split hives to settle-in and lay. There was concern that neither had started to produce eggs, and that one queen looked small and unmated.

The first hive we opened was artificially swarmed from Chili’s hive. Chili is a good queen and I was pleased when we did spot her daughter walking confidently across the frame. The new queen is now bigger (she has mated) and inherits her mother’s tiger stripes and colours. Emily spotted eggs and the colony seemed content. We closed up as there was no need to disturb the queen further and gave her small colony more syrup for the week.

photo3The second artificial swarm was split from Chamomile’s hive and her daughter was spotted by Freddy, a keen beginner beekeeper, only two weeks ago. She was a big dark beauty, again like her mother. We didn’t see her today, but her bees looked more purposeful and eggs were seen, so the queen has started to lay. Emily spotted cells that had two eggs inside them, although the eggs were at the bottom of the cells, where only a queen could reach with her long abdomen. It might be that she is just getting used to her queenly duties, rather than a laying worker inside the hive.

I’m glad we gave the new queens more time to settle-in before deciding to combine the colonies. It can take a new queen longer to mate and begin to lay than the books say. Other factors can affect her egg-laying, such as poor weather, lack of forage and stores. In these circumstances, the workers might feed the queen less to slow down or stop her laying. This might be because they don’t want more hungry mouths to feed during times of scarcity.

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Myrtle, our favourite queen, was next. Her hive is almost bursting with bees and I feel that the shook swarm at the beginning of the year worked to reinvigorate this slow-moving colony. The brood frames were lower on stores than I would like, although when the foragers returned home at the end of the day this hive would be quite crowded. The workers can’t fill all the cells with stores because the queen needs space to lay. So, for the first time in two years and with great excitement, we decided to put a super on this hive!

There was also another development. Emily had successfully caged Myrtle and was keeping a close watch on our escape artist queen. This was when we saw signs of queen cells being built in the middle of frames, although there were no larvae inside them. I suspect Myrtle’s bees might be planning to supersede her, because she is over two years old and her laying pattern is becoming patchy. It is something to keep an eye on.

Three hives down, we had a tea break and enjoyed a slice of marmalade cake made by Emily. Then it was back to work. I oversaw as Freddy inspected Chamomile’s hives and Emily helped Jonesy with his hive.

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Freddy has the makings of a good beekeeper and he would like to keep fierce bees to learn how to handle them and to get lots of honey. We are thinking of selling him Chamomile’s hive. However, I would prefer that he does a few inspections on this colony first, and find out whether he can get along with this feisty queen.

He did very well and Chamomile’s colony was recovering from the artificial swarm and building up nicely. I pointed to a worker with blobs of shiny red propolis on her hind legs, which the bees will bite off and use to disinfect and insulate the hive. Freddy was surprised when I told him that London bees might collect propolis from tree resin or roof/road tar, whichever source is more convenient!

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Chili’s hive was next and both queen and bees were happy to perform today. Her colony is also recovering fast and well from the artificial swarm. We will have to wait another two or three weeks, I think, before deciding which hives to combine or which queens and colonies to sell. But that’s a nice problem to have.

Our beekeeping done for the day, and some teaching fitted in, we visited the other hives. Sadly, we heard that David’s fierce ‘Welsh’ hive has gone as the bees were sick. It is a shame as the colony was well-established and fondly thought of, I shall miss them.

Thomas has been experimenting with natural comb in his supers, but his bees haven’t quite got the hang of it. While Jonesy was hovering about vying for queen cells to requeen a nasty-tempered hive. He was taken by the ‘cuddly’ Italian bees, although I have noticed that their gentle temperament can turn within a couple of generations, usually when the new queens mate with local drones, and become ill-tempered. Another reason I prefer our mongrel, dark, homegrown London bees.

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The sun came out for the end of the afternoon and I was satisfied that the bees were much happier than last week – they even let us finish-up in time for the football. Tonight’s big match is England vs Italy, Emily is supporting Italy and I’m for England, the bees aren’t bothered. I wonder who will win?

Has the June gap come early?

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After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.

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A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.

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The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.

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Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!

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Five years a beekeeper

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As wet bank holiday weather drizzled into the week, I found myself thinking of the virgin queens emerging from our split hives waiting for a dry spell to fly out and mate.

Three weeks ago Thomas and Jonesy had artificially swarmed Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies after finding queen cells in the hives, leaving Emily and I two new hives and queens-in-waiting.

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Last Saturday’s approaching thunderstorm had given the bees a headache and made hive inspections impossible. Then as the storm broke it became a typical Ealing beekeepers’ day with beekeepers huddled around tea, accompanied by Polish cheesecake made by a beginner.

Thomas returned to inspect his hives later on that weekend and checked ours too, reporting back that it appeared a queen cell had been torn down in the hive split from Chili’s colony and that a queen cell was open in the hive split from Chamomile’s colony. Our other three hives were doing well, he said, and he had spotted queens Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile, although the latter’s hive was not much bigger than a nuc.

So that’s where we left the bees, seemingly well since I had seen them two Saturdays ago. I got to the apiary early today as there would be five hives to inspect, and I wanted to consolidate our hive equipment to make sure we had a complete hive ready should Myrtle’s colony also decide to start building queen cells.

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A keen beginner Freddy arrived not long after and was interested to hear all about our latest hives. Freddy thinks he might like to keep fierce bees, because they make more honey and he would like the challenge. In that case, I told him, he is welcome to Chamomile’s feisty hive! Although Emily and I need to wait a few weeks to see how the split colonies develop, find out who are the best queens, and decide whether we’re recombining or selling hives.

Another beginner arrived as Freddy and I were talking so it seemed a good idea to open up and start inspecting. A look through Myrtle’s colony showed no sign of the queen except some young healthy larvae, and the laying pattern of the brood was patchy with drone comb spotted in the centre of some frames. Not a great sign of a well-laying queen but otherwise the bees looked happy. The stores seemed surprising low compared with two weeks ago, so I put on a syrup feeder.

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Emily arrived as I was about to brave opening Chamomile’s hive, which I was feeling nervous about. Thomas was right, this was little more than the size of a nuc colony and Emily noticed they had almost no stores. I felt annoyed with myself – I’d been so good all year feeding up the bees until the start of May, when we had started to reduce feeding, and it had seemed all was well two weeks ago, that I hadn’t thought to continue feeding. Now the bees were looking starved and miserable because of a couple weeks’ rain. We put on a feeder and luckily the syrup I had made for the bees before taking a break for three wedding-themed weekends would be enough for all five hives today.

Chili’s colony was next and though I didn’t see the queen, again the bees seemed calm but needed feeding. ‘Is that all now?’ asked Emily. No, we still had our two split hives to check – five hives is really quite a lot!

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Fortunately Freddy wasn’t tired of looking at bees and did a beautiful job of inspecting our first split hive and finding Chamomile’s daughter – the new queen looked just like her mother, I hope she turns out to be better tempered. We then turned to our second split hive and were unable to find a queen or sign of one. I suspect this split has failed and will need recombining with Chili’s hive next week.

Five hives doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake, and by the time we had cleared up our equipment the chattering crowds were gone from the apiary.

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Five years a beekeeper and five hives on there is much to think about how and why I want to keep bees in the future. Honey is playing on my mind, but for now it was time to go home and leave the bees to decide what they will do next.

Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

Queen cells x3

Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

A chemistry class in perfume-making at Homemade London

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There was a strange light as I walked around the corner from Marble Arch to Seymour Place. I was on my way to an Introduction to perfume-making workshop at Homemade London, and shafts of sunlight were streaking through darkened clouds that threatened to burst at any moment.

Like a rainbow in the storm, Homemade London is a sanctuary in the busy heart of London where you can stop, be still and get creative. I had visited a few years ago for a beauty workshop: The secrets of beauty masks at Homemade London and after three wedding weekends in a row, I had decided to treat myself to a perfume-making class before getting back to the bees.

Nicola, our teacher, likes to keep the evening workshops small and cosy – there were only four of us. This promised to be an intimate and intense journey through scent, with drinks and nibbles. ‘Sugar revives the sense of smell,’ said Nicola wryly, as she served rose lemonade and offered mini cupcakes.

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During the two-and-a-half hour workshop we would learn what goes into making a perfume and takeaway our own signature scent. Working with a range of organic, or wild, ethically sourced essential oils, rather than synthetic scents, we would tune into our likes and dislikes to find out what suited our skin and personality.

As a relapsed aromatherapist, smelling and identifying the essential oils felt like being reacquainted with old friends. Mandarin, petitgrain, ylang ylang, clary sage and frankincense – my aromatherapy had been put on the shelf for the past couple of years, because of those demanding little bees, but this was the perfect way to revive my interest in scent.

Although, all that smelling did require a mini cupcake or two.

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The art of blending for perfumery was quite different to blending for aromatherapy, I was to discover. Nicola passed around paper testing strips so we could give each scent a mark out of 10 on how much we liked or disliked the smell. I had to forcibly remove my likes and dislikes from aromatherapy bias of what I knew were the therapeutic actions of an essential oil, and focus only on how the fragrance made me feel and would work on my skin.

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‘You’re probably familiar with top, middle and base notes,’ said Nicola, ‘But I’m going to introduce you.’ She gave a delightful description of the notes of perfume as the pub goers across the road stole curious glances in our direction:

Top notes are light and sparkly, they are what you notice first in a blend, although they bubble off the top quickly. They are usually citrusy, though some are woody and spicy.

Middle notes, or heart notes, are the heart of the blend and bring everything together. They are floral, green and woody or warm and spicy.

Base notes are what lingers. They are the remains of a perfume when you can still smell it on your scarf a few days later. They are often dark, woody and foresty.

There was such a range of essential oils to smell and choose that after a while my nose couldn’t tell the difference between citrus, floral, wood and spice. Nicola had a great tip for ‘clearing the palette’ and told us to inhale the coffee grounds placed on the table. This cleared my nose ready to start smelling again.

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‘If you like a smell then it will probably work well on your skin,’ though Nicola admitted this wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Perfumes are fickle creatures and randomly choose people they like or don’t like. Chanel No.5 smells fantastic on my mother, but stinks on me. But Nicola’s rule seemed a good place to start, so I wrote down my marks for the smells I liked best in the notebooks provided.

My choice of perfume friends were grapefruit, bergamot, neroli, jasmine, rose, benzoin, cedarwood and vetiver.

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To create a bespoke perfume from our selection of scents we needed to mix the top, middle and base notes to smell how well they worked together and in which quantities. This was a careful and precise process of ‘layering’. We wrote our choice of oils in a table and with Nicola’s guidance added one or two drops at a time to our blends. Nicola gave our measures based on how highly we had scored each oil and used our individual likes and dislikes to make those the focus of each fragrance. As I hadn’t liked the smell of vetiver very much, but still found it interesting, Nicola provided cocktail sticks to add the oil at a quarter of a drop.

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My blend was taking shape as I tested the perfume on places that I would wear it, my inner wrist and elbow (not behind the ears which is an old wives’ tale, said Nicola). However, it smelt (to me) dangerously close to an aromatherapy blend and what I wanted was a dark, smoky and green forest-like perfume. Nicola helped rescue my recipe by adding some black pepper, geranium and vanilla, and adjusting the measures of the other oils in my final two ‘layers’. The fragrance was left to ‘marinade’ on my wrist until we were both satisfied that the perfume smelt more ‘interesting’ and less ‘therapeutic’.

I finally had my first signature scent and I was impressed by how much more complicated it was to blend for perfumery than aromatherapy. But I wasn’t put off, in fact, it made me want to explore it further.

Nicola provided labels and gift-wrapped our perfumes in tissue paper. As it had been raining today and I now had a fresh green smelling perfume with a slight smokiness, I called it ‘AfterRain’.

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If you’re curious about what my perfume smells like, here’s the recipe so you can try it yourself:

Top notes

  • Bergamot 3 drops
  • Grapefruit 2 drops
  • Black pepper 1 drop

Middle notes

  • Neroli 11 drops
  • Jasmine 3 drops
  • Rose 3 drops
  • Geranium 1 drop

Base notes

  • Cedarwood 4 drops
  • Benzoin 2 drops
  • Vetiver 3 quarter drops
  • Vanilla 1 drop

The essential oils were blended in a base of coconut oil, around 20-30 ml.

I would highly recommend Homemade London’s Introduction to perfume-making and any of the other workshops that they run for much-needed time out and a burst of creativity for weary Londoners!

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