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.

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 

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.

The London Honey Show 2012

This week I went to the second London Honey Show at the Lancaster London Hotel, which followed the success of the first show in 2011. The London Honey Show is a celebration of the capital’s urban beekeeping culture with talks, bee-and-honey stalls, competitions and prizes. The show drew crowds of people from those who keep bees to those who are simply interested in bees and honey.

Karin Courtman, London Beekeepers Association (LBKA), gave a talk on ‘Stories from an urban beekeeper’, which was particularly pertinent given reports hitting the news again that London bee numbers ‘could be too high’. This is not news for beekeepers who have kept hives in the capital for many years and who have noticed a steady fall in honey yields. A healthy hive would normally produce 40lb of honey, but in 2011 the average was 20lb per hive and in 2012 just 9lb per hive.

‘There has been an explosion in urban beekeeping in recent years,’ said Karin. ‘The government figures on BeeBase show an increase in registered hives in the city from 1,617 in 2008 to 3,337 in 2012. However, Fera [The Food and Environment Research Agency] estimate that only 25% of beekeepers register their hives so numbers could be much higher.’

A single, healthy bee colony is home to around 50,000 bees during spring and summer, so if there are 3,337 hives and counting then that’s a lot of hungry honeybees in the city; add to that the numbers of other bees species like bumble bees and solitary bees, and other insect pollinators like butterflies that also live in London. Karin’s talk took a look at the maths: just one hive needs 120kg of nectar and about 30–50kg of pollen to sustain the colony throughout the season. That’s a lot of nectar and pollen, ‘Planting one or two lavender plants in your garden isn’t nearly enough!’

So is the question ‘Does London have too many bees?’ or ‘Are there enough flowers in London?’. Karin thinks, ‘We need to be looking at nectar and pollen across London in a much more joined-up way and thinking about food sources for other bees and butterflies too.’

Habitat loss is a major cause of insect pollinator decline throughout the UK. Are there enough bee-friendly plants in London to sustain pollinators like this bumble bee seen foraging on echinacea?

The good news is that by planting more bee-friendly trees and flowers in London’s parks and gardens will not only improve life for insect pollinators but improve life for humans too. ‘Kids love to visit wildflower meadows and see not just flowers but hundreds of bees and butterflies.’

LBKA is starting a survey with beekeeping partners in north London to gather evidence on honey yields. Karin reminded us that everyone can help bees, not just beekeepers, by spreading the word, joining the communities and discussions online, and by planting lots more bee-friendly trees and flowers.

I have lived in London all my life and it is easy to see how spaces around the city could be improved for wildlife. Councils need to be encouraged to buy plants that are not just beautiful for people to look at but useful for insects too. I would like to think that this news will spur on a similar explosion in insect-friendly gardening.

On that theme, Frank Minns, Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), gave a relevant talk on ‘Bee-friendly planting’ and how to plant trees and flowers for bees all year round. The RHS provides a list of plants for bees but Frank gave some interesting tips on types of gardening that bees love. ‘They go for “cold” planting as opposed to “hot” planting,’ he said. ‘Think of blues and whites, “cold-coloured” plants, which bees prefer to reds and oranges, “hot-coloured” plants.’ The traditional Mediterranean herbs are well-known favourite of bees and they are fond of daisies and echinaceas. These are all plants that are good to keep in the garden for culinary use too.

Bees love myrtle and the flowers provide a valuable source of forage in late summer and autumn. This pretty myrtle lives in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, but it can be planted as a border or hedging plant in parks and gardens.

I was pleased to hear Frank expound the virtues of myrtle (Myrtus communis) as an alternative evergreen border plant to privet. Myrtle is one of my favourite plants with pretty white flowers, dark berries and rich green leaves. It yields a beautiful essential oil.

James Dearsley, the Surrey Beekeeper and founder of The Beginner Beekeeper’s Page on Facebook, gave a good overview of bees and beekeeping from the plight of the honeybee and unprecedented hives losses in the US and UK in recent years, to the enjoyment of a wonderful hobby in which you never stop learning. ‘The waggle dance is a figure of eight motion performed by the bees to tell other bees what direction to fly to reach good sources of food. It is accurate to within one foot over three miles, despite the Earth moving slightly in the time that it takes for the bee to fly from the flower and back to the hive. That’s pretty accurate!’ There were also a few controversial facts like ‘male bees do all the work’, which, of course, we all know isn’t true!

James’s talk reminded us that beekeeping is a lot of fun – you get to do cool stuff like feeding this bee sugar syrup on my thumb!

James concluded with five useful tips on how to get started in beekeeping:

  1. Go on a taster day and see if you enjoy it
  2. Join your local beekeeping association and find a mentor
  3. Attend a course held by your beekeeping assocation
  4. Read and read and read!
  5. Have fun!

The talk was well-received by the audience. A lady from the US told me it had made her think about keeping bees in her garden. In her part of the world, black bears can be a problem to gardeners, but James’s talk had encouraged her to get in touch with her local beekeeping community to see how they tackle this challenge!

After the talks there were displays and stalls to visit and the Honey Ceremony to close the evening. A prize was given to Sharon Bassey, from LBKA, as this year’s winner of ‘Beekeeper of the Year’ for her work with children and beekeeping. James Dearsley presented the award and also made the generous gesture of auctioning a book on behalf of Bees for Development, a fantastic charity that supports beekeeping in Africa.

A display of different types of hives at the London Honey Show from old-fashioned woven skeps to WBCs and top-bar hives.

A huge thanks to Jo Hemesley and the beekeepers at the London Lancaster rooftop hives for running another great honey show to celebrate urban bees!

Related links
BBC news: London bee numbers ‘could be too high’

This is not new news:
The Lost British Summer, Emily Heath, Adventures in Beeland, writes a thoughtful post on whether there are too many hives in the city.
Are There Too Many Bees In London?, Deborah DeLong, Romancing the Bee, asks the question following a tough year for bees in the UK.

James Dearsley’s write-up of the second London Honey show: Was the London Honey Show as good as last year?

Why not also visit:
The London Beekeepers Association
Royal Horticultural Society
Bees for Development
The National Honey Show runs from 25–27 October 2012
Surrey Beekeeper for all your beekeeping needs
The Buzz around Lancaster Gate

Register your hive on BeeBase – the website provides a wide range of free information for beekeepers, to help keep your honeybees healthy and productive.

Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden:
RHS plants for bees
A plant study of myrtle

Follow bees on Twitter and Facebook
@Lancasterbees Jo Hemesley, beekeeper at the London Lancaster
@LondonBeeKeeper The London Beekeepers Association
@britishbee The British Beekeepers Association
@BeeCraftMag Britain’s bestselling beekeeping magazine
@beesfordev Bees for Development
@IBRA_Bee International Bee Research Association
@The_RHS Royal Horticultural Society
@surreybeekeeper James Dearsley, the Surrey Beekeeper, founder of The Beginner Beekeeper’s Page on Facebook and author of From A to Bee: My First Year as a Beginner Beekeeper

There is a huge beekeeping community on Twitter, which I have collected as a list Bees & Beekeeping.

EDIT: Following this blog post, there have been repeated reports in the news that unfortunately give an unhelpful view on beekeeping in London:

How do-gooders threaten humble bee
Beekeeping buzz may be doing harm
Are bees under threat from amateur keepers? Food supplies dwindle as trend in urban beekeeping sees population double

While it is worth opening debate to ask whether increasing numbers of hives may have an impact on both amounts of forage and populations of other insect pollinators, this nuance is lost in reports that are currently based on anecdotal evidence and opinion. Reporting of figures has become confused and journalists fail to capture other factors that have led to low honey yields this year, such as poor weather, bee diseases and perhaps badly mated queens, all of which may effect the amount of honey produced by a colony.

Several inaccuracies have crept into reports. For example, the Mail Online reports: ‘Without the necessary food, bees get sick as disease passes through the hive, infecting all the insects’. Again, there are many factors that could contribute to immune stressors and diseases within the hive, not just lack of food.

In addition, the forage debate appears to have become diluted with the separate topic of the education and training of beekeepers.

All in all, the style of reports has sparked much speculative comment without canvassing expert opinion or evidence-based research. The talk above is about opening debate based on some growing concerns, but it is too early to reach conclusions.

As the bees rest over winter, it is a good time for beekeepers to reflect on the season and to have debate. Let’s hope that future discussions involve garnering wide-ranging expert opinion, surveying the views of members from all local associations in London (of which there are many who represent urban beekeepers), and seeking out the evidence before making more statements to the public and press.

The last days of our summer bees

Summer has stretched into autumn this year and the sunshine has drawn a crowd of visitors to the apiary for the past two weekends. The apiary’s communal area is often a place for sharing homegrown food and drink, like these beautiful grapes from Matwinder’s allotment. It is also a place of show and tell, particularly for John who brings mystery items with the promise of a prize of marmalade. See if you can guess this week’s Mystery Beekeeping Object…

More Mystery Beekeeping Objects from John Chapple for show and tell.

It is a miniature queen excluder cage for introducing a new queen to a colony; the large square cage is the original invention and the smaller round cages are copies. The idea is to introduce a queen to the bees gradually – the workers eat through fondant to reach her by which time they are accustomed to her smell.

A round up of last week’s show and tell…

Patrice models a Mystery Beekeeping Object – there’s a prize of a jar of posh marmalade to be won. Emily and me guessed: bee gym!

John’s coveted marmalade and a giant beetroot from Matwinder’s allotment.

Not so lovely. Albert shows what he found on his varroa board – moth poo and propolis – evidence of life inside the hive. His bees are bringing home propolis to bed down for winter, but a moth has decided to bed down too!

Despite posting on Twitter, I still haven’t identified last Saturday’s Mystery Beekeeping Object; John’s marmalade is safe – for now.

At this time of year, honey is also on show and John brought a pair of honey glasses to demonstrate how to grade honey for competitions. There are three grades of honey – light, medium and dark – and two types of honey glasses: light and dark. ‘Hold up the honey glass next to the jar of honey,’ he held the light glass to a jar. ‘If it is the same colour or lighter then you have ‘light’ honey.’ The same is true for the dark glass – if the honey is the same shade or darker, you have ‘dark’ honey, while inbetween the two glasses is ‘medium’. John said the judges put honey into categories because they get thousands of entries and need away to disqualify a few. ‘If you enter in the wrong category, you’re out! If your jar isn’t full to the right level, if there are a few granules at the bottom, or it isn’t labelled right, then you’re out!’

John shows how to use honey glasses to grade honey as ‘light’, ‘dark’ or ‘medium’. He holds up a white background so that the contrasting shades are easier to see.

Emily and me have no honey to show so we are disqualified, but we do have bees to show. We recently combined our two hives for winter as one hive had a drone-laying queen, and so far so good. The colony is medium size with modest stores, and they seem happy and content. Myrtle is a good queen.

I recently started to include frequently asked questions in bee posts, here is another:

Q: Do bees become like their keepers in personality and characteristics?
A: While it helps to handle bees gently and patiently, the temperament of the hive is largely due to the queen. A gentle-natured queen makes gentle bees and a feisty queen makes feisty bees.

The queen also gives off pheromones to bring the colony together as a cohesive whole and to modify the behaviour of the workers. If the queen is lost or removed from the hive, the workers may soon become irritable and distressed. As the queen ages her pheromones become weaker, and her egg laying decreases, eventually leading the workers to replace her with a new queen.

Myrtle is our surviving queen of the summer and her job is to get the colony through winter, emerging in spring to lay eggs and start over again.

Here’s a little video of our winter queen and also some pretty New Zealand bees.

Last week’s inspection was interrupted by a flurry of New Zealand invaders as those golden-coloured bees tried their luck with our bees’ honey again. This week’s inspection was cut short by a cold nip in the air, leaving us to reflect that this may be the last time we fully open the hive. The next four to six weeks we will feed our bees as much sugar syrup as they want to take down and when they stop taking the syrup we will leave a bag of fondant in the roof for winter.

Epilogue: What do beekeepers do when there are no bees to keep?

Last Sunday the sun stayed for the rest of the weekend and I enjoyed a stroll around my favourite National Trust park at Osterley with my friend Dani. I used to ride here when I was at school and there was an unexpected reunion with my riding teacher, Kay, and, to my delight, my first pony, Gally.

The beekeeper and the pony.

Osterley is home to a unique house and beautiful park – The Dark Knight Rises used the interior of the house to film Wayne Manor. Here are a few favourite photos from the Sunday afternoon ramble. With fewer opportunities to photograph bees for several months, I will be exploring London’s ‘secret places’ for other wildlife – and enjoying stories, pictures and videos of wildlife from bloggers like these:

How To Photograph Zoo Animals – It’s Not About Looking Cute
Bobolinks: migratory songbirds of Abaco & the Bahamas

Related links

Things to do at Osterley Park and House
Chelsea Physic Garden upcoming events
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London
London Secrets Meet Up Group
London Zoo What’s On

On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9

A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

The National Bee Unit (NBU) issued a starvation risk this week and urged UK beekeepers to check their colonies for food supplies:

‘With the continued spell of poor weather in many areas of the UK, reports are coming in from Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors of starving bee colonies, where the beekeeper is not aware that the bees are severely short of food, or the colony(s) have already starved to death.’

While in May it seemed unusual that we were still feeding our bees, the NBU’s latest news alert – a starvation risk in June – reinforced what an unsettled year this has been for many UK beekeepers and their bees.

There is forage for pollinators like this hoverfly I spotted in my workplace’s medicinal garden, but the rain has made it difficult to collect nectar and pollen.

Bee colonies at particular risk of starving include those with the supers (honey crop) removed, hives which have been split or artificially swarmed, nucleus colonies, colonies collected from swarms, and even larger hives which haven’t swarmed but which haven’t gathered sufficient food due to rain. So basically most hives are at risk because of the poor weather in the UK!

‘Please, sir? Can we have some more?’ Nucleus hives which are smaller and more vulnerable may be at risk of starvation.

Emily and me have fed our bees all season as a combination of rain and drone laying queens has prevented our hives from growing to full strength. Yet I was concerned by the NBU’s alert and emailed Andy Pedley to send the news to Ealing beekeepers. On Saturday morning I mixed enough sugar syrup for our two hives and the other colonies at the apiary.

Hefting a heavy bag of beekeeping supplies on tube and foot, I arrived at the apiary in time to tag along with Andy’s beginner beekeepers session. Emily, Albert and me have all taken the introduction to beekeeping course, but we watched and listened to Andy’s practical tutorial with interest. In beekeeping it never hurts to be reminded of the basics and there is always something new to learn when observing an experienced beekeeper inspect a hive.

Spotted – a group of beginner beekeepers at the apiary.

Andy picks out a frame from a nuc to show the group. There are black bees and light gold bees which may indicate that the queen has mated and is laying different coloured bees, or that two colonies were combined to make a nuc.

Andy and the beginners had fed the colonies they visited, so Emily and me opted for ginger beer and cake before inspecting our bees. Emily had brought a bottle of ginger beer and there was plenty of cake to choose – almond and fruit to chocolate and pecan. It was like Jubilee all over again!

Beekeepers well fed, we visited our recently combined hive and the new nucleus colony with Albert and Pete, a beekeeper-in-training.

A gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park was found sitting next to our spare hive last week!

Last Saturday we had received a gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park, which the apiary has given us to keep as a training hive for beginners. The Osterley bees had filled their five-frame nuc, so we moved them across to a hive and I spotted the new queen, another bright orange beauty, who we named Ginger. We had closed up the small colony with dummy boards and insulation in the roof to keep them warm, and, of course, left a full feeder of syrup above the crownboard.

This Saturday was our first real inspection of the Osterley bees, but they were not doing as well as hoped. The extra frame of foundation was barely drawn out with comb and there was not much sign of worker brood.

Our new Osterley bees are gentle and calm – Emily and me have always been lucky to have good natured bees.

Albert noticed that the queen was moving too fast and erratically across the frame, and Emily observed drone cells in the centre of the comb – two signs that all might not be well with the queen. Without knowing the full history of these bees, it was too early to decide what could be happening so we closed the hive with insulation and freshly made sugar syrup in the roof.

Fortunately, our combined hive is doing well and Neroli has settled into her queenly duties. On the Jubilee weekend we had combined our two hives because one hive had failed to re-queen and was too weak to continue. But last week revealed that the colonies had not combined successfully and the bees in the top box were bad tempered. It was one of those moments in beekeeping when three beekeepers stand in front of a box of bees scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Believe me, it happens quite often!

Grumpy bees – last week the drones in the top box of our combined hive were not too happy!

Albert had been there that Saturday and the three of us managed to work out the problem. The queen excluder above the bottom box had also excluded the drones (who are larger than workers) in the top box from moving down. The poor frustrated drones had been trapped in the top box for a week and were letting us know that they were not happy by buzzing loudly.

It was easily remedied by removing the queen excluder and remaining newspaper allowing the two colonies to meet up. We had separated the two brood boxes with a super to encourage the bees to move honey from the top box into the bottom box.

The bees have started taking the honey from the comb in the top box to move into the bottom box. Notice the large holes in the wax comb at the bottom of the frame – our bees also tend to rob wax from frames to use in other parts of the hive.

Happily, this week the bees had followed the books and were getting along just fine. The frames of honey in the top box directly above the brood nest had been emptied, good girls! Albert suggested giving our bees a helping hand by using a hive tool to score across the remaining combs of honey, and then place these above the brood nest again. The workers seemed to appreciate our efforts and immediately got to work. Hopefully, next week the top brood box can be removed completely and both colonies will be in one box.

Emily uses a hive tool to score across the comb and make it easier for the bees to rob out the honey.

We carried out a quick inspection of the bottom box because there was no need to disturb the recently mated queen and her bees. There were signs of healthy worker brood nicely patterned across the comb, growing stores of pollen and nectar, and even a propolised ‘dance’ floor at the entrance of the hive. Neroli appears to be an excellent queen like her mother Lavender.

It was another good Saturday’s beekeeping. Here is a short clip of our activities.

Related links

National Bee Unit guidelines on feeding bees: the NBU has provided advice for beekeepers who are concerned or unsure about food supplies in their hives:

  • Heft a hive by lifting the hive from below the floor to check its weight. If the hive is light, it should be fed.
  • Feed with sugar and water mixed at 2:1 ratio or using a ready mixed syrup from a beekeeping supplier.
  • Use fondant in an emergency if nothing else is available, although liquid feed is more appropriate for this time in the season.
  • Large starving colonies will take 1 gallon (5 litres) of syrup and smaller colonies can take ½ gallon (2.5 litres), but the hives should be checked after feeding within a few days.

Further guidance on feeding bees is provided in the National Bee Unit Best Practice Guideline No. 7.

Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off

This interesting article in the London Evening Standard explores an area that has worried the city’s expert beekeepers for some time. Are there too many hives in London and not enough forage for bees? Read about it here.