Bees or honey?

beesorhoney1

“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.

beesorhoney2

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!

beesorhoney3

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.

beesorhoney4

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.

beesorhoney

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.

Let them eat cake

It felt like old times at the apiary today. An overcast, grey Saturday afternoon found a group of old and new beekeepers huddled at the apiary table and waiting for Elsa and Clare to pour tea. Emily had baked delicious chocolate-and-nut muffins and I had to be quick to take a photo before they disappeared.

So this week, back by popular demand of fellow blogger Rolling Harbour, we have cake…

photo_2

A new visitor asked: ‘So is this what you do every Saturday?’ Yes – before we had four hives. Emily and I reflected that a better summer for the bees meant less tea and cake for beekeepers.

This year’s long warm summer has seen our bees boom and we’ve been very lucky with our windows of sunshine at weekends. However, as if on cue, it started to rain today as we walked the group of beginner beekeepers to the hives. We were only able to show workers crawling over the crownboard before big wet drops of rain forced us to close up.

A usual day at Ealing apiary then – tea, cake, rain and bee talk…

photo_1

Next week: Apiguard and honey.

Autumn is coming

000

Last post Emily and I were in the thick of it. We had to abandon combining two hives as angry bees got the better of us.

So the following Tuesday evening we met at the apiary and pulled on bee suits over smart work dresses and heeled shoes. Emily was wearing a beekeeping jacket that left her legs perilously bare – but it was the mosquitoes, not the bees, who feasted.

Rose’s colony was more bad tempered than ever and, although we couldn’t find the queen, we were almost certain the colony was queenless. The bees have been trying to supercede Rose since spring and our artificial swarms only delayed their efforts to overthrow the reigning monarchy.

We laid a sheet of newspaper over the brood box of Chamomile’s colony and moved over Rose’s colony, then left the apiary hoping for the best. Emily revisited the following week and removed the newspaper, which was mostly chewed away by the bees. All seemed well. In the time the bees had eaten through the newspaper they had gotten used to each others’ smell and were one happy colony. This was also an indication that Rose had gone as the two colonies were more likely to fight if two queens had been present.

003

A Saturday went by as we shopped for wedding and bridesmaid dresses for Emily. Today was the second Saturday of the August and the apiary was lovely and peaceful as the association held its monthly scout hut meeting. However, we had both forgotten to bring a smoker and the noise of irritated bees soon filled the air.

Myrtle’s colony was well behaved and, as we’ve never smoked these bees, we were able to check both brood boxes and spot our shy queen. I’m rather proud of Myrtle. She is in her second year of being a queen and is still making nice, well-behaved bees.

001_a

Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies were much feistier. They are the daughters of Rose, the queen of the colony we bought from Charles. We managed to check a few frames before they let us know that we should have brought a smoker. All seemed well inside the colonies though. We have three strong hives and apparently enough honey stores for winter. Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile are our autumn queens – an interesting blend of essential oils, I might try it!

At this time of year the bees start to prepare for winter. The queen lays less and the workers bring home propolis to insulate the hive. They are more protective of their honey and on guard for robber bees, wasps and other pests who might want to steal their precious stores. This can make them less tolerant of beekeepers too.

Emily spotted drones being pushed out of the entrance by workers and a few wasps were buzzing around the roofs and floors.

Autumn is coming.

Useful links

A useful strategy for dealing with autumn wasps entering hives via @DrBeekeeper on Twitter: The Battle of Wasps attacking Bees http://bit.ly/15k9a9r 

What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ‘emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

When it doesn’t rain

When it doesn’t rain this is what a Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping looks like.

Emily and I now have four colonies at Perivale apiary: Queen Myrtle’s hive has almost completed the Bailey comb change after a late start in spring; Rose’s colony has been successfully transferred from a nuc into a hive; the second nuc is building up nicely; and we saw a new virgin queen in our hive from Charles. We closed up and left her to fly free.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s short snapshot – much more next week.

Happy beekeeping!

This could get out of hand…

photo_7

Our bees are feeling swarmy.

Last Saturday afternoon Emily and I found three queen cells in the hive we bought from Charles recently. And in a surprising display of competent beekeeping, we demonstrated how to do an artificial swarm to an audience of three beginner beekeepers.

We found the queen and put her in a nuc (baby hive box) with four frames of brood and stores (honey and pollen), a frame of foundation (so the small colony can grow) and I had the (unenviable) task of shaking in two frames of flying bees. We then ‘took down’ (polite beekeeping term for ‘destroyed’) one queen cell in the original hive and left two queen cells inside.

As usual, beekeepers have different ideas about how many queen cells to leave inside a hive: too few might risk the colony becoming queenless if the new queen(s) fail, and too many might risk the colony trying to swarm again. But it seemed for now we had stopped the bees from swarming and had (potentially) a third hive.

photo

Emily and Drew returned to the apiary on Sunday to move the nuc to the location of the original hive so that the foraging bees would return to the nuc and boost its numbers.

So far so good.

Today we returned to see how our swarmy bees were getting on.

And discovered they are still feeling swarmy.

photo_8

Five new queen cells!

We decided not to destroy the new queen cells and ask if another beekeeper at our apiary needed queens.

We then inspected the nuc and found that the small colony will soon need to be moved into a grown-up hive. And we named the queen Rose, because she seems rather nice.

Luckily nothing as exciting was happening in Myrtle’s hive. Our well-behaved bees are doing the Bailey comb change exactly as the books say. We found and put Myrtle in the top brood box to encourage the colony to move upstairs into their new home.

photo_10

Later that day Emily returned to the apiary and sent a text to say the elder beekeepers had advised making another nuc from the extra queen cells. So we now have four colonies at Perivale apiary and one at Hanwell which is also bursting at the seams. This could all get out of hand.

Book review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

SONY DSC

The sun broke through this year’s never-ending winter for Easter and blue skies brought hope that spring is really coming. The cold, bright sunshine reminded me of a poem from The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar and made me think of the months of honey ahead.

An extract from The Honey Month

Day 10 – French Rhododendron Honey

Colour: The colour of sugar dissolving in hot water; that white cloudiness, with a faint yellow tint I can only see when looking at it slantwise, to the left of me, not when I hold it up to the light.

Smell: Strange, it has almost no scent at all; it’s also crystallised, so it’s a bit difficult to scoop some out with the wand, but it smells cold with an elusive citrus squirt hovering about its edges.

Taste: There is a kind of sugar cube my grandfather used to give my sister and me every morning when we were small, not so much a cube as a cabochon, irregularly rounded, clear and cloudy by turns. It was called sikkar nabet, which is “plant sugar.” This tastes like it. The honey taste is so pale, so faint, it really is almost sugar water. I’m reminded of maple sap in buckets, right at the beginning of the boiling process that produces maple syrup, where it’s still water enough to be used for steeping tea.

harbour in Penryn
the moon is a sugar-stone
melting on my tongue

quai bas a minuit:
la pleine lune fond contre ma langue
comme une jeune Francaise.

When my good friend Lisa Tenzin-Dolma read about The Honey Month she ordered a copy for us both and mine arrived as a surprise parcel in the post. I read every page with pleasure. Amal’s sensual narrative spins poetry and prose around the colours, smells and tastes of honeys both exotic and familiar. Amal wrote the book in the month of February using a gift of assorted vials of honey from her friend Danielle Sucher to inspire a daily journey of discovery. Her writing is artistic, mischievous and bewitching as she explores the different textures and experiences of sweetness using her senses and imagination.

The book is illustrated by artist Oliver Hunter who brings to life Amal’s fairy-and-goblin woven world of bees and honey. And I couldn’t think of a better illustration to accompany my post on The Honey Month than the artwork created for my blog by Lisa’s daughter, Amber Tenzin-Dolma (read more).

I’ve taken an unintentional break from blogging since mid March due to new, and significant, changes for my job (more later) and to take my first bee exam (also more later), but normal blogging will start again from mid April, including the remaining posts of my module 6 revision notes.

Meantime, do enjoy Amal’s deliciously wicked book, The Honey Month is available at Papaveria Press.