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.

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.

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing

Mod 6.5 leadA worker honeybee is patrolling the hive. She walks around the colony watching her sisters clean cells, nurse brood, build comb and fan nectar. She sees drones being pushed aside by returning foragers impatient to unload heavy baskets of pollen. She turns as the queen walks past looking for suitable cells to lay eggs.

Such is the constant activity of the hive that it almost causes her to miss a haphazardly laid egg. Almost. She pauses. The egg lies lopsided along the wall of the cell, not neatly deposited at the bottom. The queen, a precise egg-layer, is never so careless, so the worker climbs in the cell to investigate. Every egg laid by the queen has a signature scent (pheromone) but this egg does not have her mother’s tag – it has been laid by one of her sisters, a rebellious laying worker.

The queen does not need to fear insurrection because her daughters are very efficient at policing themselves. Without hesitation, our worker eats her sister’s egg and if she happens to catch her sister laying more eggs, she will not treat her kindly.

My fourth post for BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour covers syllabus item 6.5, which discusses the social organisation of the honeybee colony as a well-structured and highly hierarchical community. This time my revision notes are summarised and illustrated by beautiful infographics created for my blog by designer Keith Whitlock.

6.5 The social organisation of the honeybee colony including worker policing.

The honeybee is a eusocial insect, which describes an advanced level of social organisation. The most familiar examples of eusocial insects are bees, ants and wasps, which all belong to the insect order Hymenoptera.

Eusociality is demonstrated by:

  • colony of overlapping generations from eggs and larvae to young and fully mature adults
  • caste system that divides labour between reproductive individuals (queen) and sterile individuals (workers)
  • responsibility for rearing young shared by large numbers of sterile individuals on behalf of the reproductives

The organisation of a honeybee colony revealing a eusocial society is given below:

Mod 6.5 infographic eusociality

Now that’s understood, here’s how the bees get organised inside the hive.

The queen
(diploid, fertile reproductive individual)
The queen is the most important bee in the colony. She lays eggs, providing a constant supply of new bees, and produces queen substance to control the workers and keep the colony working together as a cohesive whole.

Egg layer
The queen fulfils the role of egg-layer thanks to the royal jelly that she is continually fed in copious amounts as a young larva, thus ensuring she has fully developed ovaries and is able to mate. It is only the queen who can lay both fertilised eggs (which become female workers or potential new queens) and unfertilised eggs (which become male drones).

The queen mates not long after hatching and lays around 1,500 eggs per day; she may live between 3–5 years (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). She is not only a prolific egg-layer, she is also precise. With her long abdomen, she carefully deposits one egg, placed neatly in the centre, at the bottom of a cell (fertilised with a single sperm or left unfertilised) and marked by a pheromone so that the workers can recognise eggs laid by the queen.

Queen substance
The queen secretes a substance from her mandibular glands called queen substance – a heady mix of chemicals of which the main component is the pheromone 9-oxodec-2-enoic acid (9-ODA). The queen substance is constantly spread throughout the hive as workers lick the queen and then pass the chemicals to other bees. Queen substance, combined with a pheromone given off by her own brood, inhibits the development of the workers’ ovaries – effectively it acts as a natural contraceptive! It is quite effective as normally only 0.01% of workers can produce full-sized eggs and only 0.1% of drones in a hive are the sons of laying workers.

Queen substance modifies worker behaviour in other ways:

  • inhibits building of new queen cells
  • stimulates foraging activities for nectar and pollen
  • encourages workers to build honeycomb

The pheromone 9-ODA is also released by the queen as a scent to attract male drones during her mating flight.

As the queen gets older her queen substance becomes weaker, and her egg-laying decreases, so that she has less control over her workers. They will eventually build queen cells to replace her.

Mod 6.5 infographic queen

Workers and worker policing
(diploid, infertile non-reproductive individual)
If you see a honeybee foraging on a flower in spring and summer she is likely to be a female worker. Almost every bee inside the hive is a worker and female.

Workers are the worker caste and carry out all the tasks for the colony (see revision post 6.1 the role of the worker bee). They live for around 40 days in spring and summer and between 5–6 months over autumn and winter.

Development of infertile females
After hatching, all young larvae are fed royal jelly for three days and then put on a diet of brood food, unless specially selected to become queens. Larvae who are continually fed royal jelly become queens with fully developed ovaries and are able to mate. Worker larvae are not fed royal jelly after day three of their development, have under-developed ovaries and are not able to mate. Their ovaries are unlikely to develop as adult bees due to the pheromones given off by the queen substance and the brood.

Worker policing
However, some workers may produce full-size eggs in their ovaries and become laying workers. Their progeny are destined to become drone because they cannot mate and have no sperm to fertilise their eggs.

Laying workers are quite careless. They may lay more than one egg per cell and because their abdomens are shorter than the queen’s the eggs are often laid haphazardly against the cell wall. They do not differentiate between worker-sized and drone-sized cells, laying drone eggs in worker-sized cells that hatch as drones with stunted growth.

Most importantly, worker-laid eggs are not marked by the queen’s pheromone, which helps other workers to police their illegal egg-laying activities. Worker-laid eggs are usually removed from cells and eaten by other workers (a practice known as oophagy).

Mod 6.5 infographic worker police

Drones
(haploid, fertile reproductive individual)
Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). A drone hatches from an unfertilised egg and inherits one set of chromosomes from his mother, the queen; for this reason, a queen cannot mate with drones from her own colony due to the risks of inbreeding.

Drones that mate with a virgin queen on her mating flight will die in the act, and drones that don’t mate but live to the end of the summer will eventually outlive their usefulness to the colony and be evicted by their sisters.

Drones do no work inside the hive, although beekeepers have observed in spring and summer that colonies with fewer drones can be bad tempered. Perhaps drones fulfil another purpose not yet discovered.

Mod 6.5 infographic drones

I’m looking forward to exploring the next item on the syllabus – dancing bees!

Related links

BBKA examination path and BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 4th Honeybee behaviour revision post: social organisation of the colony

Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading

Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

tinsel for our hive

Not to be outdone by the elder beekeepers reading books to bees, this afternoon Emily and I made sure our hive was the most festive at the apiary. A Christmas card to ‘Queen Myrtle and bees’ was also slipped under the roof.

However, if it sounds like we were having too much fun, there was some proper beekeeping to be done: giving the bees oxalic acid.

Pat giving his bees oxalic acid

Oxalic acid is a winter treatment for bees. Above, you can see Pat treating his hive with Emily looking on.

Oxalic acid burns the feet and tongues of varroa mites so they fall off bees. The treatment is particularly effective in winter when the mites are living on adult bees, because there is little or no capped brood for them to hide inside.

Our apiary uses a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and about 5ml is dribbled on each ‘seam of bees’, that is the gap between each frame which has bees. It is important to get the dosage right as over-dosing may be harmful. Last year I took this video of Giving the bees oxalic acid.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has a good advisory leaflet on oxalic acid. Not all beekeepers like to use this treatment for a number of reasons, such as: it is not ‘natural’ (although oxalic acid is a naturally occurring substance; although cyanide is naturally occurring too, so this might not say much!); accumulative effects of annual treatments may harm the queen (I haven’t read enough to know if this is a risk); it may harm the bees (the winter workers will die in spring to be replaced by new bees so its effects on the colony may not be long-lasting). I think it is advisable to treat hives in an apiary environment in a city, because disease may spread more easily.

giving bees oxalic acid

After a challenging year for our bees, it was great to see them alive and well for their midwinter oxalic acid ‘gift’. When we lifted the roof they were happily tucking into the bag of sugar fondant, although the hive is quite heavy with honey stores. They should be tightly clustered inside the hive, but today was quite mild and the cluster had become loose.

Above, Emily treats our bees with oxalic acid. They were much better behaved than last year and didn’t make much fuss. Myrtle must be a gentle-natured queen.

There was a small crowd led by Pat and John to treat all the hives at the apiary and after all that hard work it was time for tea with homemade mince pies and a generous-sized apple pie! There was also honey mead so the banter was quite lively. Yet another exposé on what Ealing beekeepers really get up to!

mince pies and apple tart

Soon it will be January and we will be looking for the first signs of spring when we can see our bees again. Merry Christmas everyone from Queen Myrtle and her bees!

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

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.

The red-headed queen of the Diamond Jubilee

‘For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.’ The moment a princess became a queen, by Rosie Waites, BBC News Magazine 

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brought street parties with red, white and blue bunting this weekend to mark 60 years of HRH. As the queen is an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians where I work, we celebrated Jubilee Day last week and held a charity cake sale with all the proceeds going towards the Prince’s Trust. There was traditional English food on offer in the buttery including roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

At the apiary on Saturday there was also lots of cake, which is not that unusual. I had brought a cake from my holiday in Rome called ‘Dolce del Papa’, or ‘Dessert of the Pope’, which I was bemused to see John Chapple, the queen’s beekeeper, eyeing a bit suspiciously before taking a slice.

Dessert of the pope – it’s heavenly delightful!

Emily and me had our own queen to celebrate – a beautiful bright orange virgin which had been spotted by Emily in our swarmed hive while I was in Italy. To our delight, the queen’s enlarged abdomen indicated that she had mated and she was happily running round the comb being attended by her revenue of ladies-in-waiting.

Queen Neroli, our bright orange Diamond Jubilee queen!

Emily thinks her mother, Lavender, mated with New Zealand drones, which would explain why our new queen is very orange. We have decided to call her Neroli, which is the oil obtained from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. The essential oil (Citrus aurantium var. amara) takes its name from the 17th-century Italian princess of Nerola, Anna Maria de La Tremoille, who famously wore the oil to scent her gloves. A royal name fitting for a queen bee who took her crown on the Diamond Jubilee.

Salvatore Battaglia says the aroma of neroli is light, refreshing and floral, citing Valerie Worwood’s The fragrant mind which describes the essential oil to be ‘ageless, forever young in a spring-like way’. Emily and me hope Queen Neroli will live long and bring good fortune to her hive.

A queen cell from our swarmed hive placed in Myrrh’s dwindling colony has not produced an heir.

Sadly, Myrrh’s old hive remained queenless. The queen cell that I had placed in the colony from our swarmed hive two weeks ago was still capped. Queen bees usually emerge eight days after the queen cell is sealed, so it seemed unlikely that the larva had survived this long. John suggested uncapping the cell to be certain and showed us how to do this gently with a hive tool. If the queen was alive then this would allow her to emerge – but the uncapped cell revealed a shrivelled, blackened, dead queen bee inside the cell. John thought she may have died from black queen cell virus.

A blackened and shrivelled dead queen which may have died from black queen cell virus, associated with the hive disease nosema.

This hive has been unlucky with queens – a drone-laying queen after winter, an unmated queen in spring due to bad weather, and two failed attempts to re-queen using frames of larvae and finally a queen cell from Lavender’s hive. This latest bit of bad luck – a dead queen in her cell – decided the colony’s fate. Emily and me had given these bees enough chances, it was time to combine our two hives.

As the new queen of our swarmed hive, Neroli, had mated it was safe to combine the hives, whereas before it may have risked stressing the virgin queen or have caused confusion when she returned from her mating flight. Combining two hives is really easy – here’s how it’s done in two simple steps…

A sheet of newspaper is placed on top of the brood box which has the queen in the nest, and a hive tool is used to make a few small holes through the queen excluder as Emily demonstrates here.

The brood box of bees without a queen is placed on top. During the week, the bees will chew away the newspaper, which will give them time to become accustomed to each other’s smell and prevent fighting – they will be the best of friends. At least, that’s the plan.

Hopefully, next week we will return to our newly combined hive and our girls should all be getting along! John explained that hive combining should be done in the evening or early morning when the foragers are inside the hive. This is because moving a hive – even by an inch – can cause foragers to lose their way home. However, as it was already late in the afternoon he thought it should be fine.

Emily and me waited as long as possible for Myrrh’s foragers to return and circle the area where their old hive had been. When they settled on the mesh floor we carried and brushed the bees into the combined hive, but we could not get them all. Eventually the circle of returning foragers disappeared and we hoped that they had bribed their way into other hives with their loads of nectar and pollen.

Our newly combined hives – and what is this mysterious empty hive next door?

It seemed that we were down one hive, but John and Pat were busy scheming. In April Emily and me had helped John set up nucleus hives at Osterley Park and the nucs were now ready to bring to Perivale apiary. ‘Would you like another colony?’ Pat asked, to which we both replied ‘Yes!’. So before we left for the day, we used our spare woodwork to set up a new hive next door to Neroli’s. We reflected that both our hives were now in the sunniest spot of the apiary, which should help them to flourish before summer ends.

Happy Jubilee Bees!

Neroli, lavender and rose facial oil
In honour of our new queen, Neroli, and her royal mother and grandmother, Lavender and Rose, here is a hauntingly beautiful essential oil blend that can be used for a rejuvenating facial massage or for an anti-aging and nourishing night oil.

  • 9 drops neroli
  • 6 drops lavender
  • 3 drops rose
  • 30ml jojoba oil
As with all aromatherapy blends, remember to patch test before general use and don’t use during pregnancy without advice from your midwife or doctor.

Related links
The official website of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, where you can also send a message to the queen.

The Bad Beekeepers Club

© Drew Scott

Emily and me have joined the Bad Beekeepers Club – our bees have swarmed.

The weekend before my holiday to Rome, I visited our hives to see the bees enjoying the warmer weather. Emily was on holiday in Albania and I was to check Lavender’s hive for queen cells and to make a decision about Myrrh’s failing colony.

We rarely smoke our bees but there was a lot of beekeeping to do after weeks of rain. So I lit my new smoker for the first time this year and strolled through the dappled sunlight of the apiary towards Lavender’s hive. It was around 1.30pm in the afternoon and I expected to see bees happily flying in and out of the entrance with heavy baskets of bright yellow and orange pollen. Instead, I was surprised to see a very large, very loud buzzing cloud of bees circling the hive.

I wondered if our hive was being attacked by a mob of robber bees, but there were no skirmishes with guards at the entrance. What could have disturbed our ladies? I opened the hive and realised almost immediately what had happened. Inside the frames held half as many bees as last week – Queen Lavender and her court had swarmed.

Beekeepers smoke a colony before an inspection to ‘calm’ the bees. The bees think there is a fire and they gorge on honey which calms them and makes their abdomens too full to sting. However, Emily and me rarely use a smoker because our bees are normally very calm. © Drew Scott

Swarming is a natural phenomenon of honeybees and it is how the species reproduces itself. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain the process of swarming very well in A World Without Bees: ‘When a colony decides to swarm to reproduce, usually in early summer, it starts by raising a number of queens, one of which will take over the hive while the existing queen flies off to find a new home. The workers do this by building a number of larger queen cells and either forcing the queen to lay an egg in each one or transporting in newly laid fertile eggs. Again, feeding the eggs lots of royal jelly turns them into queens. Before the virgins emerge from their cells, the old queen will leave the nest with all of her young foragers in tow, leaving behind the older foragers and the house bees – those members of the colony that are not yet old enough to forage… The travellers gorge on a huge breakfast, equivalent to three days’ worth of food, to see them through their quest for a new home.’

Lavender’s bees – as seen the previous week – have flown off with their queen to find a new home, the splitters. © Drew Scott

During spring and summer – the swarming season – weekly inspections for queen cells are essential for swarm management, and within beekeeping circles it is said that those who manage their bees keep their bees (and their honey). In populated areas, swarming is also a nuisance when swarms land in gardens, in streets, or on houses and other beekeepers are called to collect them.

Head hung in shame that this had happened on my watch, I tried to look through the hive to find out what Lavender had left behind. However, our normally mild-mannered bees were dive-bombing my veil and attacking my gloves making a hive inspection impossible. I remembered my introduction to beekeeping course: if the hive is very bad tempered, close it and walk away. So that’s what I did.

Myrrh’s hive was not much happier and this unfortunate little unmated queen had started to lay drone. So I retreated to the apiary long table. While I am not sure if a Bad Beekeeper deserves tea and biscuits, I had them anyway and a chat to Rosemary, a newbie beek, about the strange behaviour of our hives.

Our bees are usually only mildly curious when we open the hive and a few fly out to say ‘hello’ like this bee in the picture. © Drew Scott

The tea did the trick and I decided to revisit the bees with reinforcements. Thomas, a more experienced beek, and Rosemary kindly offered to help and the three of us approached Myrrh’s hive first.

There was no improvement in Myrrh’s colony and Thomas agreed that something needed to be done soon. However, the decision would be influenced by the situation in Lavender’s old hive, so we found and caged Myrrh before visiting Lavender’s colony.

The cloud of swirling bees had completely vanished and the colony was now calm – had I caught the tail-end of the swarm earlier? As the hive had already been opened once, we tried to be quick. Thomas, Rosemary and me looked through the frames to be sure Lavender was gone and saw she had left behind several frames of biscuit-coloured worker brood. ‘She must have been a good queen,’ commented Thomas. I sighed. Bad Beekeeper.

Lavender made very nice bees. I hope she and her ladies found a good home. © Drew Scott

Lavender’s legacy was sealed within five queen cells on the middle frames, and one of these queens-in-waiting might ensure the future of Myrrh’s hive. Thomas suggested that we choose a frame with one strong-looking queen cell to put in Myrrh’s hive, then pull the two weakest-looking queen cells to prevent further swarming of Lavender’s hive.

Leaving two of Lavender’s royal daughters to decide a new ruler for her bees, Thomas carefully carried over the frame with a queen cell for Myrrh’s colony. Frames with queen cells must be handled with care, Thomas explained, because shaking can separate the queen from her royal jelly and cause the larva to die inside the cell.

A frame of bees is shaken for inspection – it doesn’t hurt the bees but it may damage any queen cells that are present. © Drew Scott

Sadly, Myrrh was dethroned because it was unlikely that the bees would accept a new queen cell while she remained in the hive. Her bees had been given a second chance to change their fortune – if they accept the new queen and if she has good weather for her mating flight. With any luck, Thomas suggested, the workers would soon be climbing over the new queen cell and coveting it like ‘that bit of chocolate you girls often hide for yourselves’.

The chances of getting honey this year are slim, because varroa treatments start in early August and then preparations for over-wintering, but I will be very happy to help our bees recover from an unlucky spring and become strong, flourishing hives for next year.

Worker bees will cluster around queen cells tightly like a ball. This is often how the new queens-in-waiting are spotted on a frame. © Drew Scott

The following week I enjoyed a holiday to Rome and when I returned Emily had emailed with mixed news:

‘I had a look today – Myrrh’s hive wasn’t looking good and were quite moody, but the exciting news in Lavender’s old hive is that I saw a new virgin queen in there! She does not look at all like her mother, which is a bit of a shock – she’s orange! Hoping she can mate successfully.

Looking on the bright side, we were told at the varroa day that colonies which have swarmed get their varroa levels down thanks to the break in brood, so that’s good. I hope Lavender and her ladies found a good home!’

Emily and me have been thinking of a new name for our orange queen: Ginger if she is feisty like her mother, Lavender, or Neroli if she is gentle like her grandmother, Rose. With the Diamond Jubilee this weekend, Neroli would be a name fit for a princess!

A worker bee waiting for orders from her new queen. © Drew Scott

Related links
More information about swarms is available on the websites of the British Beekeepers Association, the London Beekeepers Association and Ealing and District Beekeepers Association.

The title for this post was inspired by Bill Turnbull’s The Bad Beekeepers Club, which is a highly enjoyable read for new and old beekeepers alike.

Bee Health Day at the London Beekeepers Association

‘We are going to talk about varroa, which you will ignore at your peril,’ said John Chapple, chair of the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) in his opening comments at Bee Health Day. Emily and me had attended this varroa workshop with talks by the National Bee Unit’s (NBA) inspectors and hosted by LBKA, because it is vital that all beekeepers remain up-to-date on how to manage the varroa mite.

Varroa destructor – a truly insidious creature – is the mite that propelled the plight of the honeybee into the public eye. While there are many causes behind the decline of the honeybee, varroa is responsible for more colony losses than any other bee disease.

Varroa destructor – the insidious mite that afflicts honeybees and infects them with nasty viruses. © Crown copyright 2012

Since its discovery in England in 1992, the mite has spread rapidly across the country and invaded the hives of unsuspecting honeybees. This was a reconnaissance mission – Emily and me had come to find out more about the enemy.

We learned a lot – so here are highlights.

‘Know your enemy’ Alan Byham, south east regional bee inspector

‘Imagine what it feels like to have one of these on your back,’ said Alan, holding a life scale drawing of a varroa mite on his shoulder. ‘It would get in your way.’ Varroa mites feed on adult honeybees and their brood by clinging tooth and claw to suck their blood (picture a small, vampiric rabbit biting your back), weakening the bee’s immune system and transmitting a vile cocktail of harmful pathogens. Varroa accounts for thousands of colony losses each year in comparison to 800 hives lost annually due to European foul brood or American foul brood.

Varroa mites clinging to the back of a honeybee and sucking its blood! © Crown copyright 2012

As a parasite that frequently kills its host, varroa might not seem very effective. However, it was originally a parasite of the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) which has natural defenses against the mite, and spread to the defenceless European honeybee (Apis mellifera) through globalisation and the transport of honeybees around the world.

Varroa is incredibly well-adapted to the life cycle of the honeybee and spends its entire life within the colony. It is so highly specialised that the female mite can sense the pheromone given off by bee larvae ready to be capped before the worker bees! The mother mite buries herself underneath the larval food unseen by workers as they cap the cell. Sealed inside, she waits for the larva to eat the food and release her. The mite then feeds on the juicy larva as it develops into a bee. During this time, she lays eggs that hatch and mate with each other (inbreeding is not a problem for varroa) and the entire mite family are released when the fully-grown bee emerges from its cell. Insidious.

Mother mites hide in cells and then feed on bee larvae as they develop. © Crown copyright 2012

Varroa are hitchhikers too, and spread from hive to hive by drifting bees who are mostly drones. ‘Drones can do bed and breakfast in any hive,’ said Alan. ‘The workers don’t see them as a threat and so they are well tolerated.’ Beekeepers may be unaware of varroa in their hives during spring and summer, because the mites are mostly hidden within the brood. Varroa particularly prefer drone brood because they take longer to develop, which gives the mite more time inside the cell. Queen cells are rarely invaded by varroa because the queen larva develops very quickly, thus if a queen cell does have varroa this indicates that the colony is overrun.

Varroa counts may appear to rise suddenly in hives at the end of summer, but this is because there is less brood as the queen slows down her egg laying in preparation for winter. Winter or summer, varroa is always there.

You may not be able to see the varroa in your hive, but it is there.

Varroa is a problem to larger colonies because they have more brood, whereas its natural host, the Asian honeybee, tends to live in smaller colonies. Varroa can also rise to harmful levels inside the hive when the colony does not swarm very often or is prevented from swarming, whereas again the Asian honeybee swarms frequently. Swarming is a natural method of varroa control because the queen flies away from the nest with half her bees and leaves behind the brood and varroa.

This is a risk of beekeeping, explained Alan. European bees are usually kept in large ‘super’ hives, sometimes with double brood boxes, in order for the beekeeper to get more honey. Their natural swarming instinct is managed by various swarm control methods to make sure that half the colony doesn’t fly off with the honey! However, beekeepers often report that their biggest and strongest colonies succumb to varroa over winter. So it seems the mite problem is exacerbated by the lifestyle of bees living in hives and, unlike feral honeybees living in the wild, requires good husbandry methods to keep it under control.

Varroa can cause a lot of damage to colonies as seen by this varroa-infested hive. The comb and bees look very unhealthy, or, um, dead. © Crown copyright 2012

Alan’s talk prompted plenty of questions from the audience, including can we breed varroa-resistant bees?

No one has bred varroa-resistant bees yet and using breeding principles to replace good husbandry is risky, because when a queen swarms her progeny will mate with local drones that are not varroa-resistant. In a city like London where most bees are mongrels, it would not be possible to control breeding. It may be possible that a varroa-resistant bee is bred in future, or that Apis mellifera itself adapts to life with the mite, but in the meantime good husbandry techniques are essential to control varroa.

If you keep bees you keep varroa…

…I remembered this comment from Scott, a member of Ealing’s beekeepers, at last year’s Bee Health Day. All beekeepers keep varroa as well as bees no matter what we do or don’t do with our hives, so we may as well learn how to ‘keep’ it!

Alan took us through the treatment options available to beekeepers to kill varroa many of which are based on naturally occurring chemicals, such as thymol and oxalic acid. He explained that beekeepers are also dealing with a food product (honey) and so need to be careful what treatments they use and when. For example, the thymol-based Apistan varroa control strips taints honey with a strong smell and can only be use after the honey crop is removed at the end of the season.

While you can treat the brood nest for varroa, treatments shouldn’t be used while supers are on the hive and being filled with honey. Here I caught a little bee flying off from the comb!

The group asked about the effectiveness of using natural methods like sugar dusting. Bee are dusted in a light coating of icing sugar, which encourages them to clean each other and knock off the varroa. However, sugar dusting only knocks off around 29% of varroa mites and an effective treatment must kill 80% of the mites. It is a useful method during spring and summer when the supers are on the hive, because it won’t taint the honey, but it should not be used alone against varroa. Alan advised a multi-approach to managing varroa and to keep records of what works and what doesn’t.

A practical apiary session followed with Caroline Washington, bee inspector for North of the Thames, and the inspector who visits our apiary. Caroline is an effortlessly glamorous beekeeper and very, very firm. No bee would misbehave for Caroline!

Caroline gets her smoker going with a pine cone.

After getting her smoker going with a pine comb, Caroline demonstrated an inspection of a hive that she described as ‘very boring’. I think the bees were too in awe of Caroline to do anything other than what they should.

The bees behave for Caroline while she inspects their hive. In the background, my lovely hive partner, Emily!

It was a lot of learning for one Sunday morning, so we took a break for lunch and sat on the lawn of LBKA’s base at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth.

‘Virus in varroa’ Caroline Washington, bee inspector North of the Thames

The afternoon sessions kicked off with a talk about the world of bee viruses by Caroline. She listed the top six bee viruses that we should all know:

  1. deformed wing virus*
  2. sacbrood virus
  3. chronic bee paralysis virus
  4. acute bee paralysis virus
  5. black queen cell virus
  6. Kashmir bee virus

The virus that should most interest London beekeepers is deformed wing virus, which is often transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. Caroline commented that there has been much talk lately in the beekeeping world about failing queens, but no one ever thinks to look at the drones.

I demonstrated uncanny queen-spotting skills in the earlier apiary practical session by spotting this queen winding her way across the frame before it had even been lifted out!

The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) suggests that deformed wing virus is associated with most colony collapse, and the problem has become worse because there are many more beekeepers now and not all are managing varroa. Bees have the same problem as people living in crowded cities like London – disease spreads faster. Hives that are not treated for varroa will have bees that will infect neighbouring hives, which seem very antisocial!

‘The claw chooses who will go and who will stay’

The most valuable lesson that Caroline gave us was to use a pair of tweezers for inspections – not to groom the bees and make them more lovely, but to look for nasty stuff on the comb. ‘I have been trying to get beekeepers to look more closely at the comb for years,’ said Caroline. ‘Bad comb is easier to spot than disease or mites.’ Caroline passed round some particularly grotty-looking frames and got us to have a close look at them.

‘Husbandry techniques’ Brian McCallum, seasonal bee inspector 

The final workshop of the day was with Brian McCallum who talked us through a practical checklist of good husbandry including using open mesh floors and varroa monitoring boards, a varroa calculator (available on the NBU website) and drone monitoring.

Drone monitoring is an effective method of checking levels of varroa in a hive, because the mites are most attracted to drone brood. This is done by taking out of frame of drone brood and de-capping it, then counting how many larvae are infected with varroa rather than counting the number of mites. This number can then be checked on the NBU varroa calculator, which will indicate if varroa has risen to harmful levels and requires treatment.

A capping fork is used to un-cap drone brood on a test frame and to count the number of larvae that have varroa – like the one here with a big red mite. © Crown copyright 2012

At the end of the day I suspected that my brain is not much bigger than a bee’s because it was hurting quite a bit. So Emily and me wandered round the beautiful garden of Roots and Shoots, and were introduced to the resident solitary bees by the gardener, David Perkins.

After all that varroa nastiness, here are some lovelier pictures of solitary bees and bumbles happily not worried about mites.

A little bumble bee John found in the morning that hitched a ride. Morgan Bowers, who comments below, says. ‘Your ‘little bumble bee’ is Andrena fulva, the Tawny Mining Bee.’

A solitary bee flies home. They are brilliant carpenters and make little homes for themselves. 


David has made a bee tower for the solitary bees at Roots and Shoots. These bees may be Osmia rufa, Red Mason Bee – thanks, Morgan!


A bee hurries off to get the last nectar of the day. She has no time to stop for photos and passes like a blur!


Useful links
National Bee Unit
London Beekeepers Association
Roots and Shoots

Related posts
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?

Myrrh, Queen of the Monsoon

A tough little tree grows along the Red Sea and arid regions of Northeast Africa, Libya and Iran. Surviving against the odds, the little tree weeps a bitter red-brown resin with remarkable healing properties. Its name is myrrh.

Like her namesake, Queen Myrrh emerged from her cell into adversity. She arrived as the rains came to the desert bringing plants, trees and flowers back to life, while she waited inside the hive. Myrrh, who inherited a dying colony from her drone-laying mother, Rosemary, was desperate to go out on her mating flight, but every beat of her wings would have been a race against the wind and rain.

In Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper says, ‘The queen mates on the wing during the first ten to twenty days of her life. Once she has emerged from her queen cell she becomes mature within a couple of days, but by the time she is three weeks to a month old she is no longer capable of mating properly. During her mature period the worker bees become more and more aggressive towards her up to the time she mates. This behaviour has a possible value in driving the queen out for her mating flight before she is too old to accomplish it efficiently.’

A mild spring of sunshine and showers is vital for bees to forage and build-up their stores after winter, and fine days are needed for the mating flights of virgin queens. However, the torrential rain over the past six weeks has trapped bees inside hives and left hungry mouths to feed.

Warm, sunny days are needed for drones to fly out to congregation areas where they swarm about thirty to ninety feet above the ground and wait for virgin queens to fly past. No one knows for certain how drone congregation areas are found by drones and queens, but each spring they make amazing spectacles of life and death.

If the weather had been fine, Myrrh would have flown through the air like a comet with drones forming a comet’s tail behind her. The best and fastest drones would catch the queen and die in the act of mating, falling to the ground below. ‘At the time of mating the drone genitalia enters the queen and literally explodes, separating from the drone, which dies.’ (Ted Hooper)

During the course of three mating flights, the queen would mate with up to 40 drones, filling her abdomen with sperm and allowing her, potentially, to lay fertile eggs for the colony for two to three years. ‘Mating having been accomplished, the queen starts egg-laying within a few days, and is from then on very carefully looked after by the worker bees… now she produces a scent which causes them to turn and face her if she is close, thus forming the ring of workers usually found around the queen, and called her “retinue”.’ (Ted Hooper)

Queen Lavender is surrounded by her retinue – a circle of worker bees – as she walks across the frame. (Sorry the queen’s a little blurry – it’s tricky to hold a frame of bees, spot the queen and take her photo!)

However, the weather was not kind and Myrrh never left the hive. Unable to mate with drones from her own colony because of the risks of inbreeding, she could not lay eggs to replace the workers reaching the end of their life cycle and the drone her mother had laid. The colony had become quite small by the time Emily and me were able to open the hive for an inspection.

We were sad to see Myrrh walking across the frame without her retinue of workers and her small abdomen indicating that she had not mated. We continued to check through the hive to make sure that there were no eggs or larvae – the queen can also look small and slim before swarming when she is starved by the workers to make her fly, but this was unlikely to be the case with Myrrh. A few weeks ago we had put in a frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, but this was uncapped probably because there are not enough workers to raise brood. We didn’t find new brood.

Worker bees having a chat. Chilly temperatures this spring meant that opening the hives would do more harm than good, leaving nature to decide the fate of Myrrh. We could not introduce a newly mated queen while Myrrh was inside the hive, because the workers would see her as an intruder and kill her.

Emily and me talked over the options because, while there was nothing we could do for Myrrh, there were the surviving bees to consider. It was too late to give the colony another frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, because there were not enough workers to rear a new queen and her bees. For the same reason, it was too late to introduce one of the mated New Zealand queens recently bought for the apiary.

The dying colony was mostly drone, but could be saved by combining with Lavender’s hive. It was a big decision to finally collapse this colony, so we decided to close the hive for a few days to consult wiser beekeepers than ourselves.

Drones carry the characteristics of their hives to other colonies through mating with the local queens. Emily and me have good-natured, hard-working bees, and we would want our drones to survive and mate with other queens in the area.

Queen Lavender’s hive was a happier picture full of bees, brood and stores. The bees had completed the Bailey comb change by themselves – clever bees! – and the brood in the bottom had hatched and moved up to join the queen. We took away the old brood box and placed the new brood box on the hive floor, removing the dummy board to give them space to expand. The old brood box, with straggler bees shaken out into the queen’s nest, was placed on top with an empty super in-between for the bees to rob the remaining stores.

We saw signs that Lavender’s bees are trying to make queen cells – it is the swarming season – but with more space in the brood box this instinct may be delayed. We will have to watch them carefully over the next few weeks.

I spied a worker waving her abdomen in the air, exposing her Nasonov gland and fanning her wings to spread the scent to guide foraging bees back to the colony. She may have been doing this because we kept Lavender’s hive open longer than usual to complete the Bailey comb change.

Emily and Drew had brought along their friend Owen, who was scouting out the situation about bees for his girlfriend, Fran. So we wandered round the apiary for a while and topped up the sugar syrup in the other hives and nucs. In May we wouldn’t normally feed bees because the supers would be on the hive, which we would like the bees to fill with nectar not sugar. However, the wettest April on record for the past 100 years in the UK has bought famine to many bee colonies and the National Bee Unit has issued a starvation warning to beekeepers to continue feeding their hives.

At the height of summer, a forager bee visits around 2,000 flowers a day to collect enough nectar and pollen to feed around 50,000 hungry bees inside the hive, and new bees are hatching all the time. So if bees can’t fly out and stores are low, they need a lot of sugar!

Drew kindly took some nice shots on my new camera…

Me pouring Ambrosia sugar syrup – food of the gods and of bees. I hope the bumbles and solitary bees found food, warmth and shelter during the rainy spring.  © Drew Scott

Rain is needed to stimulate the nectar flow, but then sunshine is needed to evaporate the water from plants, flowers and trees so bees can forage. Too much rain dilutes nectar and washes away pollen leaving no food for bees. The honeybee relies on the delicate balance of nature for its survival or doom! © Drew Scott

Bees can be a bit forgetful so Emily and me use Pat’s sticky twig trick to remind them of ambrosia in the roof. A twig is soaked in sugar syrup and left inside the feeder hole leaving a trail of gooey sweetness for bees to follow. © Drew Scott

Beekeepers sharing a bee joke – hope the bees enjoyed it. © Drew Scott

Beekeeping done for another Saturday and the sun still shining, Emily, Drew, Owen and me ended the afternoon in the beer garden at The Fox Inn, in Hanwell.

The reign of Queen Myrrh has been painfully short and bitter, but she has inspired an aromatherapy blend.

Warming bath blend

  • 4 drops myrrh
  • 2 drops clove
  • 2 drops ginger
  • 4 teaspoons of olive oil

Run the bath and then sloosh round the blend to disperse the oil as much as possible (you can use full fat milk or cream or an unscented bath gel as a carrier agent, if preferred). Patch test the blend if you have sensitive skin. Do not use if you are pregnant.

This is a dark, smoky and reflective blend. In The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia describes myrrh’s effect on the mind as ‘one of inner stillness and peace, of an awareness free from restlessness and the mundane’. Clove and ginger were added for depth and warmth.

Emily and me attended the London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day on Sunday (we were really as busy as bees this weekend!) and listened to very useful talks from our local bee inspectors on how to manage bee diseases and keep happier, healthier bees, which will feature in future posts.