Making rainbows and honey

Both our hives are thriving after a slow start this year. A cold dry winter and a hot dry spring meant that forage was poor for London honeybees. Much-needed rain in May and June, interspersed with occasional sunshine, has been good for nectar flow. Our little ladies have built-up honey stores and made rainbows of brightly coloured pollen across the comb.

Home-made fairy cakes and ginger nut biscuits were on offer with tea at the apiary this Saturday afternoon. After a bit of chat and bartering over bee jewellery and blackberry jam, Emily and I got on with the business of beekeeping. I got the smoker going fiercely, as advised by our local bee inspector, with flames roaring out before settling into a dark-grey smoke cloud. My smoker always hurts my eyes and makes me cough – I can only imagine how it affects our bees. We use egg cartons and strips of cardboard because it burns for a long time, and is free, but I have heard that grass pellets and shaved wood are better. Any suggestions for bee-friendly smoker fuel?

Saturday was overcast with a storm hanging in the air, which can make honeybees grumpy and stingy. We definitely needed our smoker. Our first hive is ruled by Queen Rosemary – a feisty and forthright monarch. A cloud of about 50 guard bees circled the hive, a little more agitated than usual. We took off the roof and crown board and found out why – a super almost filled with honey. Emily thinks that they are now ‘on alert’ because they have food stores to protect. I am always amazed by the industriousness of these little creatures. The super only went on the hive about a month ago and it is nearly full of honey.

A full, or almost full, super is very heavy. Emily and I had to lift together to heft it off the hive. There was almost calamity as the queen excluder beneath and a few brood frames started to lift up, but helpful beekeepers were ready to prise away the super. This is why it is good to be joined to an apiary! The hive was rather sticky, so we had to work hard with hive tools to carefully remove the queen excluder and start checking the brood box.

At the height of summer you need to check the hive once a week to make sure that there is enough space in the brood box for stores, rearing brood and for the queen to lay eggs. When the brood nest starts to run out of space the colony will attempt to swarm and you could lose half your bees and honey stores. There were at least two frames spare in our brood nest, but at this rate of expansion we may need to think about putting on a double-brood box by the end of the month.

Emily spotted Queen Rosemary running across a frame in the middle of the hive. I inspected cautiously and put the frame back carefully, because Rosemary is a flighty queen and I don’t wish to upset her! Emily checked the remainder of the brood – we have a good system going. There were newly laid eggs, healthy white brood curled up in cells waiting to be capped, and plenty of capped worker brood soon to be hatched. We have a lot of bees in this hive now.

While the hive was open, I retrieved the queen cage that had fallen to the mesh floor a few weeks ago. It was covered with worker bees, which I shook off, who had eaten away the thread criss-cross cage and destroyed it utterly. We suspect the orders came from the top.

Closing a hive with so many bees is a challenge not to squash and kill them. Some beekeepers say this is unavoidable, but I like to avoid it. As well as being ‘not nice’, squashing bees empties the contents of their stomachs into the hive and helps to spread disease. The other worker bees will eat up the dead remains of their sisters and any bacteria that have been living in their stomachs, thus spreading disease around the colony.

Emily had brought wooden levers to try and these worked a treat. Placing the levers on either side of the brood box, we eased the super back on top and gently lowered it. It was good not to hear the high-pitched buzz of bees getting trapped between boxes and to avoid the ‘crunch’ sound as the super rested onto the brood. We used smoke and levers to place the queen excluder and crown board back on too, and our ladies cooperated.

Our second hive is ruled by Queen Rose, who is queen-mother to Queen Rosemary. She is a hard-working and motherly queen. Her colony is always calm and well-ordered. Rose’s family was transferred from a nuc to a hive a couple of weeks ago and they are growing rapidly. I topped up their feed with some warm, very warm, sugar syrup, which made the workers very excited. Emily thinks that we may not need to feed this hive for much longer. We didn’t spot Queen Rose during our inspection, but we saw eggs and brood, so we know she is there. The colony is also behaving ‘queen-right’, which means that the bees are calm and obviously receiving orders from someone.

Emily spotted a rainbow of brightly coloured pollen on a few of the frames – gold, orange, blue-grey – beautiful. We also noticed the criss-cross pattern of worker brood across the frames revealing that Rose is a particular egg-layer. The cells in honeycomb above the v-shaped wire of the frame are sometimes deemed ‘imperfect’ by queens and they won’t lay inside them.

With smoke and levers we closed the hive. Another successful summer’s afternoon beekeeping.

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8 thoughts on “Making rainbows and honey

  1. Those illustrations are fantastic Emma! Especially the one of the workers obediently unravelling the queen marker cage. And the rainbow pollen. Are they watercolours or were they done on your computer?

    I have some grass pellets and wood shavings at home which I keep forgetting but will try to remember this weekend.

  2. Thank you Emily! I drew the illios in Illustrator freehand with my mouse – would have been easier for me to use watercolours but I am practising my Illustrator skills as it’s one of the most challenging software of the Creative Suite. If you like I’ll send you the jpegs for the queen marker cage and pollen rainbow ;o) I am still smiling when I think about those worker bees tearing apart the queen cage!

    Re: smoker fuel – I also got a good tip from a Cornish-born-now-living-in-Northumberland beekeeper for ‘dried rotten apple wood with dried lavender, gentle long lasting smoke that smells nice’. I had wondered about using calming dried herbs.

    • You must have superb mouse skills to draw those!

      By a weird coincidence I was recently given a bag of dried lavender which I was wondering what to do with. I shall bring some down. Not sure where to find the rotten apple wood though!

  3. Nice informative and helpful content . You have good command on the topic and have explained in a very great way. Thanks for helping .Nice work,hope your blog be better!I just want to make a blog like this!

    • Honeybees are the hardest working pollinators, which is why their decline would have such an impact on human society. In summer a forager bee literally works herself to death bringing food and water to the hive – her wings eventually get frayed and she falls and dies while on one flight. It also takes one honeybee one lifetime to collect one spoonful of honey – so don’t spill a drop!

  4. Pingback: Reflections on a year in beekeeping | Basil and bees

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