A stocking filler from the bees

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Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

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I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

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There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.

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I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.

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Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!

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Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

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See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil

Method:

  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.

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Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

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This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

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I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

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What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

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While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

Wasps begone

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“How long do bees live?” Ruth asked me at work. It’s a good question. I replied, “Six weeks in summer and around five months in winter, while queens can live for two or three years.”

It was funny to hear Pat get asked the same question by a family of new beekeepers on Saturday. Though it’s late in the year for visitors, a curious crowd had gathered to find out more about the bees. “The workers live for six weeks in summer, but now they’re fattening up to live longer over winter,” said Pat, as Jochen, Emily and I hovered behind to listen. David had opened his green hive to give the new colony a quick inspection before winter.

An observant beginner pointed at workers on the side of the hive with raised abdomens. I could hear Emily explain about nasonov glands and releasing pheromones for other bees to find their way home. “Sort of like a homing signal,” said the beginner.

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It was lovely to enjoy a beekeeping lesson at the apiary and to hear the ‘oohs’, ‘ahhs’ and gasps of beginners. With not much beekeeping doing, the winter months are a chance to enjoy the company of beekeepers.

Emily and I put the mouseguards on our four hives this week, with a few pins from Jonesy, and topped up the feeders. Our dry sugar experiment hadn’t worked out, so I took away the bags. Like children who realise they can no longer play with an unwanted toy, it was only then bees scrambled up to drag down spilled sugar.

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Melissa’s clever bees had also built their own honeycomb cover for one of the holes in the crownboard.

Chamomile’s hive had more diarrhoea at the entrance. It is a worry but there is not much we can do to treat nosema. Emily has Thomas’s thymol recipe to make up at home, but I’d be happier to get this colony shook swarmed in spring.

The mild autumn has kept bees, and wasps, active for longer. The wasp problem seems to have sorted itself out with only one or two lingering around hives. As I told a beginner, I hoped the bees flying out and about could find forage to replace all that honey they were eating to sustain their unseasonal activities.

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A puff of smoke to clear the bees…

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… as David cleans up wax from the queen excluder.

In fact, this autumn seems to have confused bees and beekeepers alike with some still opening hives for inspections. I asked Alan and John their views. Alan was firm this does more harm than good, “You’re letting out all that warmth and breaking up the propolis. Leave them alone.” When I said that some had even found queen cells in the hive, Alan just shook his head and shrugged: “They’re not going to mate now and there’s nothing you can do. Wait till spring and if you have a drone layer, then replace her.” Personally I agree. Sometimes we have to let nature alone and accept what will be.

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Jochen puts his hand over a hole in the crownboard to feel the warmth that the bees generate inside the hive, probably around 30°C. 

Sitting at the table I remembered how much I enjoyed being an Ealing beekeeper. Perhaps one day when I keep bees away from the apiary I’ll be able to enjoy visiting just for tea and cake. Jonesy and Stan checked out the suspected wasp nest, confirming it was indeed a wasp nest. Stan even offered to remove it, but we all agreed that the wasps will die out soon. Better to give the wasp queen a chance to fly away first and find somewhere to hibernate till next year.

That done, the Ealing beekeepers cleared up tea cups and brushed off biscuit crumbs. It was time to leave the apiary gently humming in the warm autumn sun.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

The wasp palace

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The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

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This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

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EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

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There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

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We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

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The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

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With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

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!

Winter studies: How honeybees use nectar, pollen, propolis and water

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My friend Suzanne says, ‘I always know that spring is coming when I see my first big fat bumblebee popping out of a yellow daffodil.’ Last week I saw my first honeybee foraging for luminous orange pollen inside a bright purple crocus. Spring is coming.

In my next winter study post, I’m continuing to look at the collection, storage and use of nectar, pollen, propolis and water by the honeybee colony.

A honeybee sees a flower very differently to humans. As Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum describe in A World Without Bees, the two compound eyes on the front of her head are sensitive to ultra violet light ‘expanding the already vibrant colours of the plant world into an explosion of differing hues, and directing the honeybee towards the area of the plant where the nectar and pollen are stored’. The honeybee’s eyes can see lines that guide her to the heart of the flower in a similar way that ‘the lights of an airfield direct planes to the landing strip’. Here’s what happens when she collects nectar for the colony.

nectar collection infographic

So that’s an overview of how the honeybee collects nectar, processes and stores the nectar as honey, and how the honey is used by the colony. The next flow chart specifically looks at the conversion of nectar to honey.

nectar to honey

Collection and use of water

Honeybees also collect water to bring back to the hive. They tend to collect water from unusual, or what we would consider ‘unclean’, sources such as puddles, drains, bird baths, cow pats and, on occasion, and at the risk of causing annoyance to neighbours, from hanging laundry. The stomach in which water is stored has a valve that microscopically filters and cleans the water that they bring back to the hive.

Water is not stored by the colony so it is collected and used when needed to:

  • dilute honey to be eaten
  • mix with pollen to make brood food (70% water) to feed larvae
  • dissolve hardened granulated sugars
  • cool the hive when temperatures are very high.

The inter-relationship of nectar, honey and water in the honeybee colony

So this is how nectar and water are brought into the hive and stored and/or used. The simple diagram below brings together their inter-relationship in the honeybee colony.

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There is a lot more to learn about nectar, water and honey (as shown on the syllabus for module 3 honeybee products and forage!) but for module 6 I’m focusing on honeybee behaviour.

The collection, storage and use of pollen by the honeybee colony

Emily and I enjoy watching our bees fly back home with baskets full of brightly coloured pollen. In January and February this is usually a sign that the queen has started to lay eggs again, because the pollen is needed to feed larvae and young bees who need the protein in pollen to develop their bodies. Throughout the year seeing our bees fly home with pollen is usually a good indicator that the colony is ‘queen-right’, meaning that the queen is present and that she is laying, and if our colony has recently re-queened it can be a sign that the new queen has mated successfully and is laying new brood.

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And the different colours of pollen packed into the cells in the honeycomb are not only beautiful to look at, but also give us an idea of what flowers our bees like to visit.

Emily and I use a pollen chart throughout the year to identify the pollen of various flowers brought home by our bees. This tells us what is flowering now and what our bees like to eat.

Emily and me keep a pollen chart in the roof of our hive to identify the different-coloured pollen brought home by our bees.

Foragers use a variety of methods to collect pollen from different flowers. Mark L Winston describes this in The Biology of the Honey Bee according to the type of flower:

Open flowers. The worker bites the anthers with her mandibles and uses the forelegs to pull them toward her body.

Tubular flowers. Workers insert the proboscis into the corolla searching for nectar, and pollen is collected incidentally when it adheres to the mouthparts or forelegs.

Closed flowers. The bee forces the petals apart with her forelegs and then gathers pollen on the mouthparts and forelegs.

Spike or catkin flowers. The bee runs along the spikes or catkins, shaking off pollen onto her body hairs.

Presentation flowers. The pollen is collected by workers pressing their abdomens against the inflorescence, causing a pollen mass to be pushed out of the flowers.’

Honeybees can often be seen in flowers their bodies covered with bright yellow or orange pollen grains, which they then ‘dust off’ and brush into baskets on their hind legs.

Here’s another infographic summarising the relationship between bees and pollen.

pollen collection infographic

And finally, propolis…

The collection and use of propolis by the honeybee colony

Our ladies were too busy sticking propolis on frames to notice we had opened the hive

On a mild day in September 2011, Emily and I visited the apiary while the other beekeepers were away to do some secret beekeeping. We had to work hard with the hive tools to prise open the hive, which was very sticky. When we looked inside our bees were so busy chewing and sticking propolis all over the hive that they completely ignored us!

Propolis, or ‘bee glue’ is a resinous substance collected from sticky buds or tree bark, and seen as shiny blobs on the third legs of foragers flying home. It is most often seen by beekeepers in late summer and in autumn when bees use it to insulate the hive for winter – it makes all the hive parts very sticky and inspections can become difficult.

Here’s why the bees like it though.

pollen collection infographic

Related links
Visit my blog index for more winter study posts.