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.

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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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The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden

Waterfall

Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

Nature magic: twilight for the bees and a mystery object at the apiary

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I arrived at dusk at the apiary after the last bee had floated home. It was my regular mid-week visit to bring sugar syrup since shook swarming the hives. Strangely, the apiary takes on a life of its own in the twilight hours. The place is silent of beekeepers clamouring over tea and cake and beginners enquiringly asking questions, and the air is empty of humming honeybees. The hives sit quietly in rows, nettles and bluebells sway gently in the soft glow, and trees secretly rustle. I think this is a time for nature magic.

01 Overgrown apiary

As you can see the path to the apiary is now overgrown – nature has taken over and the bluebells have arrived early. There are lots of wildflowers for the neighbouring shrill carder bees who have been frequent visitors. However, something else was waiting inside that gave me a start. What is this mystery object standing in the gloom in the middle of the apiary? What have the elder beekeepers been up to now?

02 Mystery object mating nuc

I took a picture and tweeted it. Replies soon came back suggesting it was a mating nuc or bait hive, or perhaps bumblebee nesting box. Whatever it is, I may now have to wait till after Easter to find out.

The daylight was fading fast so I lifted the roof from Myrtle’s hive and saw half the syrup in the feeder had been taken down. This is our nicest, and slowest, colony, so I was pleased. I emptied out the remaining syrup – homemade sugar syrup grows mould – and cleaned the feeder – because I’m an obsessive cleaner – placing it back on the crownboard filled with ambrosia. Ambrosia is a special mix of syrup that lasts longer and contains other nutrients for the hive. The bees love it, and the hive raised its hum as workers rushed up to drink.

03 Ambrosia bees

There is plenty of nectar and pollen about, of course, and our bees are probably strong enough to forage to feed themselves. I like to keep feeding, particularly after a comb change, until the hive has fully built up again. The feeders filled with sugar syrup in the roof are for a rainy day – if our girls don’t want it then they won’t take it.

04 Ambrosia bees close up

I fed Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives next. These colonies had taken down all the syrup and were hungrily licking their tongues around the bottom of the feeder for more. I’ve been worried about Chamomile’s hive since her colony tested positive for nosema and we found unhealthy looking larvae in there on Saturday. Cold weather at the weekend delayed the comb change, and though we’re eager to get this hive onto clean frames, Chamomile has had to wait.

Beekeeping done, at the end of my evening visits I enjoy walking around the apiary to check all is well with the other hives and to Instagram pictures of the other residents. Flowers looks so pretty at dusk.

05 Apiary white flowers

06 Bluebells

07 Cherry blossom

A small mouse peeked out from between the flowers and looked up curiously, but I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture before she ran away. The bees were tucked up and well fed for Easter, and it was time to leave.

Happy Easter to humans and Hymenopterans alike!

A tale of two colonies

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‘Your blog is like a soap opera. Each week I tune in to find out what the bees will do next,’ my friend Danielle had said a few years ago. ‘The twists and turns of your queens has been really dramatic!’ She was talking about the bee saga of 2012 when a season of prolonged rainfall and drone-laying queens had made beekeeping more interesting than usual.

This year I was hopeful for strong colonies, steady queens, fair weather and plentiful flows. How we get the season going is an important part of its success and this year we were well prepared, but as Emily and I have learned, anything can happen in bee land.

This is a long post, written in the raw to get my thoughts and feelings down.

Day one

Last Saturday’s all-day sunshine made it a great day to kick off the season. The apiary was pretty in the sun as I waited for Emily. We were going to change the comb. Regular readers will know that beekeepers in the UK are advised to replace the old brood comb once a year, with fresh comb, using methods like the shook swarm or Bailey comb change. The thinking behind this is to manage the levels of diseases and parasites that often live within a bee colony. Even if you can’t see any visible signs of disease, there are parasites that live with the bees all year round and it’s best not to let them get out of hand.

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For the past two years we had used the Bailey comb change, because this is a gentler method, and while we had enjoyable seasons beekeeping and learned a lot, the bees had not done that well. They were slow to complete the Bailey – whether due to poor weather, failing queens, or the collective characteristic of the colony being too complacent and slow – and last year our longest-standing hive didn’t complete the Bailey at all, which meant some comb was now two-years old.

I had a positive experience in my first-year beekeeping of shook swarming my hive. The bees had risen to the challenge and the colony had boomed, thrived and burst over with bees and honey. Having thought and read about this for months in winter, I wondered if it was time to try out the shook swarm again, at least with a couple of colonies, to re-invigorate the bees and to get rid of comb that wasn’t changed last year. Emily’s inspection of the bees, while John and I were in Dubai, showed Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were strong enough to shook swarm, but Chamomile’s was weak and might be better for a Bailey.

That decided, I lit my first smoker of the season and we opened up Myrtle’s hive. After a few frames in, I was delighted to see our favourite queen. There she was big, beautiful and dark with an amber tinge. Emily gently caged her with a few workers to keep her company, then placed the cage in a small blue tub to the side of the hive, in the shade to keep the queen cool and safe.

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That done, we did the business of the shook swarm. The original hive was moved to one side and a clean floor placed on the original hive site – so the foraging bees will not get confused when flying home to the same spot – then we placed a queen excluder on the floor, so the queen can’t abscond with her colony after the shook swarm, which she might do if the upheaval upsets her. On top went the new brood chamber with fresh frames, the centre four frames removed to provide a space to shake all the bees from the old combs.

I shook the bees from the old hive into the new hive as one of my first-year mentors had taught me: holding each of the old brood frames a third of the way into the empty chamber of the new hive and giving a sudden shake downward, careful not to knock the frame or bees against the sides. My shaking method was successful as almost all the bees fell off, leaving Emily and I to brush off the rest with leaves.

Incredibly, we barely had to use the smoker at all! Our lovely girls were well behaved throughout the whole shook swarm process and we worked quickly together as hive partners to make sure the upheaval to the bees was over as soon as possible. I shook and handed Emily the old frames to put into bin liners (to be tidy as we worked) ready to be discarded into the apiary’s burner.

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The old brood frames, some with unhatched brood, is burned. Thankfully, as it is still early in the year, there was not much unhatched brood on the frames, so we wouldn’t have to destroy many un-emerged bees. I noticed a few bees were starting to chew away the wax cappings and, not being completely heartless, I suggested Emily use the tweezers in our kit to help these bees emerge before the frames went on the bonfire. Emily rescued as many unhatched bees as she could, while I continued shook swarming.

It was soon over. We carefully put Myrtle into the new hive with her daughters and placed the crownboard (not a queen excluder, this is an important point to remember later in this post) on top of the new brood nest. The bees would now be busy drawing new comb from the foundation in a completely clean hive for a fresh start. I was particularly hoping the shook swarm would invigorate this laid-back colony, though it is my favourite, from ambling around all summer to properly ‘get-going’ this year.

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Even so, shaking two boxes of bees into another box isn’t easy – a lot of workers stubbornly stayed in the old hive boxes around the corners and sides. I used Joseph’s trick of propping up these old hive parts near the entrance of the new hive. The bees would soon figure out that the queen was inside and walk in to join her.

Next, Chili’s hive. This queen took us longer to find than Myrtle, but then we spotted her familiar red dot and long orangey-brown striped body. I thought again how lovely it was to see our queens after winter. We caged Chili and shook swarmed her colony into the new hive, propping up the old hive boxes to the entrance so unshook bees could walk in.

Both Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies would now be fed lots of sugar syrup over the next few weeks to help the hives build up – the bees use the sugar to produce wax for comb-building. The nectar flow is strong at the moment, so if the bees don’t want the syrup then they can leave it, but we liked it there just in case.

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As Chamomile’s hive was weaker we decided to leave the comb change till next week, to give these bees a chance to settle into the season and us more time to decide what to do. The apiary was also starting to get busy with beekeepers and I always find it harder to concentrate when there are lots of people around.

Pat had kindly helped Emily get started with the burner and as the fire roared the old brood frames were destroyed, to be hygienic to the apiary and neighbouring hives. I had a quick scout around the apiary to collect up dead wood to be burned.

Walking back to our newly shook-swarmed hives, I saw Joseph’s trick had worked its magic again. The straggler bees had gone into the new hives and the old hive parts were now completely empty. I neatly stacked them the side and cleared everything away into our kit box. These empty hive boxes, along with wooden dummy boards, crownboards, queen excluders, roofs and floors, would be blow-torched clean in a few weeks’ time, ready to fill with new frames should the bees expand this season or kept aside for next year’s comb change.

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With our two hives shook swarmed I suddenly felt very nervous. What if it was not the right decision? What if our colonies were not strong enough to survive the upheaval? The Bailey now felt like a better choice where we didn’t lose all the honeycomb, brood and stores from the hive in one day and anxiously waited a week for the bees to recover and rebuild. However, if I’ve learned anything as a beekeeper it’s that I must have the courage to make my own decisions and learn from my own mistakes. The decision to shook swarm seemed right at the time given the strength, personalities and circumstances of the colonies in past years where the Bailey hadn’t quite worked. So we’d just have to wait and see.

I think it’s important as a beekeeper to try the different methods and observing their effects a number of times for yourself in the first 5–10 years’ beekeeping, because you build the skill and experience to know what to do and how to do it when faced with different colonies in different situations. Whether it’s a shook swarm, Bailey or doing nothing at all, it’s about having a big bag of tricks as a beekeeper. I’d only done a shook swarm once before, it was time to learn about it first-hand again. Nature would soon tell me if I was wrong.

Day two

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The day after the shook swarm John drove me back to the apiary to refill the feeders with syrup. I remembered in my first year that shook-swarmed colonies need to be fed a lot of sugar to help them recover. John waited outside as I suited up and walked to the hives. I took the roof off Myrtle’s hive and my heart stopped. There she was, our precious queen, floundering in the feeder with the workers. Her long body dipping precariously in the syrup.

Before I could think why the queen had wandered into the feeder, where she should never be, I quickly removed it, got out the queen and hastily put her back inside the hive where she rolled unceremoniously to the floor. The bees were furious and I had to ignore them as I closed up, this time putting a queen excluder on top (remember earlier, the shook swarm instructions don’t include putting an excluder above the nest) so the queen could not possibly find her way into syrup again. As I topped up the feeders in both Myrtle’s and Chili’s hive, I reflected on why Myrtle had walked up there. Day two after the shook swarm, the queen has nowhere to lay eggs and nothing to do but wait for the workers to build comb with cells to lay eggs. To do this, the workers need lots of energy, from sugar, to produce wax, and they would all cluster in the feeder taking down syrup. It was probably warm and tempting up there for Myrtle, who went to join her daughters or maybe she was just looking for a place to lay. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t risk this inquisitive queen falling into the syrup to a sweet sugary death.

I thought about putting a queen excluder on top of Chili’s hive too, but it was late in the day and the bees were testy after the disturbance. So I left the apiary and worried about the bees for three days.

Day five

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Midweek I went back to the apiary to feed the hives again. Myrtle’s hive had half taken the syrup down and Chili’s had finished theirs. I’ve read that you shouldn’t disturb a shook-swarmed hive for a week – just feed and feed – but I couldn’t resist a peek inside Myrtle’s colony to see all was well. Taking off the crownboard, I stared through the queen excluder and five seams of bees stared back at me. To my relief the colony was calm, suggesting Myrtle was alright, and appeared to be building wax across five frames already. I closed up and left the bees in peace.

Day eight

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Yesterday Emily and I carried out the first inspection on the two hives since the shook swarm. I was nervous what we would find – and it was a happy discovery. Myrtle was alive and well in her hive, walking in her playful way across the frame. The bees were building comb across five–six frames and the queen had even laid eggs. Not bad for our normally complacent bees, they had risen to the challenge and I was very proud of them. The more cautious Chili was found scrutinising cells in her hive and her bees had industriously started drawing comb on eight–nine frames, there were even rainbows of pollen alongside glistening stores of nectar.

While I’m not sure that I would shook swarm every year, it felt like what was needed this year and so far the signs were good. Let’s hope it stays that way.

We fed the bees more syrup and will continue feeding them until they don’t want it anymore. Emily also left pollen supplements alongside the frames – as we’d caused the upheaval to the bees, it was up to us to give them a helping hand.

The overcast weather meant it wasn’t a good day for a full inspection, and we were satisfied that we’d seen the queens and the two colonies were recovering well from the shook swarm. So we closed up and went for a cup of tea and cake.

While all this drama was happening in Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives, Chamomile’s hive was having its own misadventure. More on that next time.

Reflections…

This was a difficult post to write – I expect many beekeepers, particularly those who use natural methods, will disagree and criticise me for doing a shook swarm. I’ve nothing against any method, in particular, if it works for the beekeeper and their bees. But I need to learn my own way. Here, I’ve dissected all my thoughts and feelings around the decision to shook swarm and my reaction afterwards, and I’ve been harder on myself this past week than anyone else could be. Whether I shook swarm again or not, this was a valuable learning experience to record, so that it will help guide me in future years as a beekeeper.

A string of warm days and daffodils

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While we waited for the bees, the snowdrops came and withered back into the earth and the crocuses arrived with offerings of vibrant saffron-orange pollen and then quietly faded.

Now is the time of the daffodils bursting up everywhere in patches of bright sunshine-yellow flowers. Each year I’m tempted to pick a bunch for a vase on the kitchen window, but I always resist to leave much-needed spring forage for the bees.

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When Emily mentioned that daffodil pollen might be too toxic for honeybees, but perhaps OK for bumble bees to forage as they don’t store the pollen for as long, I was curious to find out more. Emily’s source being an article in a past BBKA news (the newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association), but after turning pages on-and-offline I couldn’t find the reference. However, I did rediscover this useful article in The Guardian on spring planting for bees, which suggests honeybees and bumble bees will forage on daffodils if there is nothing better around. If any bee expert does have an answer or published paper on daffodils and honeybees, I’d be interested to know.

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From daffodils to housekeeping, a string of warm days had speeded up the arrival of spring and preparations for the active beekeeping season. This week John and I had just returned from a whirlwind tour of Dubai – where I didn’t see a single bee. While we had sandstorms and desert temperatures of 38 degrees in Dubai, London had a pleasant spell of sunshine that made the apiary abuzz with bees and beekeepers. So I was looking forward to a nice Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping with tea and cake, but first there was work to be done.

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Emily and I had ended last season with four hives – including two colonies on a double-brood – and a recent stock check showed that we didn’t have enough of the right hive parts for a shook swarm or Bailey comb change. There were plenty of spare supers, crownboards, queen excluders and frame pieces, but not enough empty brood boxes, floors or roofs to move the colonies in spring. We had been far too successful in increasing our bees last year.

Making up a complete flat-packed hive from roof to floor, frames included, takes a couple of hours (at least, for me) and I had no time at all to spend almost a day building four hives in the next few weeks. I made a decision before our holiday to order budget hives, fully assembled, from Thornes, and it was a nice relief to go away knowing that new hives would be there when we got back.

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Here they are, our new hives standing next to the old ones all ready for the bees to move in. I went to the apiary on Saturday morning to unpackage, set up and tidy up. All the parts of our old and new hive equipment were labelled ‘Emma & Emily’, which is quite important when you keep bees at a shared apiary! Then I cleared away rubbish, debris and bracken from around the hives.

To prove that an Ealing beekeeper really can be very organised, I had brought tidy boxes to store our kit at the apiary so we don’t get caught short. Essential items and things that you’d never know you’d need until keeping bees for a few years: burning fuels, tape, drawing pins, wedges, tweezers, newspaper, cloths, queen cages, pens and marking kits. This will also help to keep the hives tidier under the roofs, which is where we used to try and stuff everything away after inspections. I haven’t felt this prepared since my beginner beekeepers assessment – we are ready for anything now.

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Any good beekeeper should, of course, keep records of their hives, so a quick stock check of what we have at the start of the season:

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Myrtle’s hive is on a double brood with an empty super to store fondant (we’ll move to spring syrup for all our hives next week), and insulation in the roof still for chilly days. The hive is quite heavy.

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Chamomile’s is also on a double brood with an empty super storing fondant and insulation in the roof. The hive is a healthy weight.

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Chili’s hive is on a single brood and the bees have been hungrily eating the fondant. The colony is quite light.

When the three colonies at Perivale apiary are moved into the new hives, we’ll blowtorch clean the old hives ready to use for artificial swarms in the season ahead, or to set aside for next year’s spring move. The fourth hive at Hanwell is eventually to be taken to another apiary, along with spare hive parts kindly given to us by Hadi, where Emily will be keeping this colony.

I then walked around the apiary to clear and tidy away old wood, empty syrup canisters and bits and pieces into the observation cage.

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That done, the Ealing beekeepers started to arrive and, more importantly, Emily with fresh-baked coffee bean chocolate cake. With the kettle on, we could now begin a proper Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping at Ealing apiary.

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‘Welsh bees!’ It wasn’t long till we heard the clamour of familiar voices. This exclamation came from a group inspecting David’s hive, a Welsh beekeeper with a notorious colony of very fierce bees, but arguably the most long-standing and successful hive at the apiary. The war-like bees seem to withstand varroa well, survive all winters, and make lots of honey. I rather like them, but I wouldn’t go too close.

Bees are also very nosy creatures and I’d already spied some of our girls popping out to take a look at their new hives. By this time, John had come to pick me up for a trip to Dunelm – we recently had the bathroom painted by an excellent decorator and were going to choose new accessories – and to help take away the Thornes packaging. So we said our goodbyes and went. The afternoon’s adventures continue on Emily’s blog with comb up a tree.

Next week, Emily and I may shook swarm and Bailey comb change the hives, if the weather is nice. A beekeeper’s work is never done.

And seeing as the bees don’t seem to want them, I’ve now got a bunch of pretty daffodils siting on the kitchen window. Happy spring!

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Going beyond the bones

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The day felt primeval as I walked up the path to the Natural History Museum with mist after the rain cooling in the air and rumbles of early morning traffic behind me. It was unnaturally quiet and still inside as I made my way past the diplodocus skeleton standing in Central Hall and down a dim corridor to start my time journey.

I was here before opening hours for a breakfast viewing of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, a temporary exhibition running from 13 February 2014 to 28 September 2014. The exhibition builds on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project led by Professor Chris Stringer, the Natural History Museum’s expert on early humans and a Fellow of the Royal Society. As I work for Royal Society, I’d been lucky to be invited along.

The 13-year research project had unearthed evidence that pushed back the arrival of early humans in Britain from 500,000 years ago to 950,000 years ago. So while Homo sapiens only appeared on the scene in Britain around 40,000 years ago, the story of our ancestry begins, almost, one million years in the past. This is where the breakfast tour of the exhibition started – with the earliest glimpses of human life viewed through fossil evidence of flint tool flakes and ancient pine cones. Our guide, curator Ellen Simonssen, led us through each room – through a different time, a different climate, and a different step in our history.

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In the room of the rhino butchers we were shown how our ancestors had a taste for large animals like rhino, horses and deer. But this was a time zone that they shared with other predators, ‘So holding on to a large carcass meant competing with lions and hyenas,’ said Ellen. Leaving behind one brutal existence for the next, we entered the big freeze. This zone was the Ice Age with sound effects of a desolate wind-blown landscape.

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Emerging from the thaw were the Neanderthals who came to Britain around 400,000 years ago, and again 50,000 years ago. We stood with exhibits of skulls and teeth against a backdrop of painted walls and video installations – pictures and sounds opening a window into a lost world. ‘We wanted to go beyond the bones and show what these people were really like.’ The bones might not have looked like much, we were told, but they were amazing discoveries that had never been displayed together before.

Our time journey continued apace into a world that heated up and rising sea levels pushed humans out. We were now 125,000 years ago. There was not even an echo of human life here, just the sound of the waves and the roars of roaming beasts. ‘But it was quite an exciting world. Imagine hippos in the Thames, and also rhinos and elephants.’ I felt quite disappointed that Charing Cross doesn’t look like this when I get off the tube each morning.

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We turned the corner as the Neanderthals returned to Britain and the first evidence of Homo sapiens was found. Two specially commissioned model reconstructions – Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapien – gave us a feel for how these ancient neighbours lived, as did the cannibalised remains of skulls fashioned into bowls. It was still a cold, harsh climate with humans rationalising the need to eat meat. On that note, we ended our time journey just 12,000 years after the Ice Age.

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We had reached the story of modern science as curator Jenny Wong introduced us to a project that explored our genetic ancestry in more detail and put the exhibits into greater context. Scientists analysed the DNA of six well-known personalities to unearth the roots of the wider human family tree.

The exhibition had collected 200 of the most important fossil specimens and archaeological objects in Britain and woven the tapestry of our steps through time. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story had gone far beyond the bones.

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Thanks to Jonathan Tyzack and Emily Williamson at the Natural History Museum for inviting me to the breakfast viewing. I highly recommend going!

Find out more about Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story on the official website and view the fantastic films on the YouTube playlist including how the life-like early human models were made.