The secret beekeepers

Secret goings on inside the hive by our September bees

Every second Saturday of the month, Ealing’s beekeepers have a workshop at the scout hut. While the apiary is free of visitors, Emily and I can do some secret beekeeping.

At this time of year we need to check that our hives have enough stores. One hive needs about 35lb of honey for winter. When I hefted our hives a few weeks ago they felt a little light, so I have been feeding both colonies syrup twice a week and it has made a real difference. Emily has written a great post about feeding bees for winter: Some good advice.

Our bees squirrel away stores for winter

We got our lavender-scented smoker roaring with flames, although we only need a few puffs for our ladies. Rosemary’s hive was very busy as usual. Bees were frantically flying in and out overloaded with bright golden and orange pollen, trying to make the most of the last days of sunshine.

It took both our hive tools to get the crown board off Rosemary’s hive. This is why…

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

Our ladies were so busy chewing and sticking propolis to the top bars of the frames that they barely glanced up to say hello. Propolis is a resin that bees collect from trees to seal up the hive for winter. You can buy it in health-food stores as a supplement to boost the immune system because of its anti-microbial properties. We don’t harvest the propolis from our hives as London bees have a tendency to collect resin from road tar and roofs. Not very healthy!

I lifted out the dummy board to find that a foil lid from an Apiguard tray had been stuck down with propolis. Our bees are like Wombles, they investigate everything that they find inside the hive!

Foragers push their sisters out of the way looking for a place to unload. You can see some larvae cosily curled up here too (pink arrow)

Rosemary’s hive has about five frames of honey and six frames of worker brood (they have stopped making drone). I think this colony will be strong and healthy going into winter. We say plenty of forager bees waddling on the frames. They look funny trying to walk with heavy baskets of pollen, and I noticed that they elbow other bees out of the way looking for a cell to unload their shopping.

Bees use pollen as a source of protein and not just for making beautiful patterns for us to admire…

Autumnal varieties of pollen tightly packed into cells

Emily spotted Rosemary running across a frame, alive and well, but her blue dot is hard to spot. Here she is…

The camera spotted Rosemary even if I didn't! Our queen is marked with a blue dot on her back that is quite difficult to spot

We took the honey off this hive at the beginning of August, but left a space between the brood and the super to encourage our bees to take the remaining honey into the brood. They mostly cooperated, but there was one frame that still had a patch of precious honey.

Mmm, it's all about the honey!

I used my hive tool to scoop out the honeycomb and placed it on the top bars of the brood. It didn’t take long for our ladies to start chowing down. We left Rosemary’s hive happily munching on fresh comb oozing with golden-amber honey. Mmmm.

'Gosh! Where did all this honey come from? Rub it all over yer face!'

A little wasp was spotted loitering, so we were careful that she didn’t sneak inside as we closed the hive.

Wasps are starving at this time of year and desperately scavenging for food. This little wasp sat so quietly and innocently as we inspected our hive – she almost looked cute. Almost

We opened Lavender’s hive to find the bees had taken all the syrup that I gave them on Thursday (only two days ago) and were desperately poking their tongues through the feeder trying to get the last sugary drops.

'I can just reach it'

Last week Emily and I wondered if Lavender had mated with Albert’s New Zealand drones, because our ladies looked lighter and more golden in colour. Here is the proof…

Evidence! Our golden ladies have built a Kiwi-bee style conservatory in the roof

We opened the hive to find that our bees have built a conservatory in the roof – identical to the little hang-out that Albert’s bees have built in their hive! Sadly we had to remove their play area as we don’t want them to store honeycomb in the roof for winter. Emily observed that our bees seem to enjoy making their own comb. I suggested that we experiment next year by alternating frames with and without foundation – we’ll have a 50:50 chance of either practice working.

Lavender seems to have taken after her mother and sister. She is a hard-working queen who has produced quite a lot of brood in the past few weeks and who continues to give us gentle-natured bees.

Lavender has been hard at work creating lots of winter bees

The honeycomb in the last frame was flat and hard on one side. ‘This is the dance floor,’ said Emily. ‘The bees sometimes store propolis in the last comb to make a flat, hard surface for the waggle dances to be heard throughout the hive.’ Bees are so clever!

A propolis 'dance floor' for bees to communicate by vibrating messages to the rest of the hive. Genius

On the other side of the frame we saw foragers head-butting pollen of many varieties tightly into cells.

Lavender's ladies are still finding sources of blue and grey pollen. I wonder what is flowering nearby?

We put a mouse guard on this hive last week to help our smaller colony defend itself against would-be intruders, such as wasps, robber bees and mice. There was quite a lot of activity around the entrance showing that this hive is growing from strength to strength.

A mouse guard helps protect our bees in autumn and winter from would-be robbers and pests. You can see a little guard bee vigilantly peering out (pink arrow)

We closed the hive and topped up the feeder to keep our ladies happy and busy till next week.

Finally, I apologise in advance to my hive partner for the next photo…

These curious autumn spiders intrigue me. What are they?

Every autumn I am intrigued by these pretty-patterned spiders with enormous webs. What are they? I much prefer this spider to the big hairy sort that rampage like a lunatic around your house in September. This fellow wasn’t at all bothered when I poked a bright pink camera in his face.

This weekend we will be feeding our bees fumidil with their syrup – if I can just do the maths! I hope our ladies will still be hungry!


7 thoughts on “The secret beekeepers

  1. Have you seen these spiders too? They appear every September and make the most amazing, beautiful webs, and then just sit in the middle. My puny pink camera couldn’t pick up all the detail.

    I’ll see if I can print out a pollen chart to keep with our hive records at the apiary, that would be fun!

  2. I’ve got a question for both of you. I have three frames of honey to harvest, but because there are about 6 frames of honey which are not capped, I can’t just remove the box and bring it inside for the winter. Should I harvest all of the honey and just let that be that? I know it won’t keep for very long, but it’s not like it needs to last for years. It’ll be eaten within a few months. I don’t really have any way to let the bees take the honey out of the super and store it elsewhere in the hive that doesn’t involve just setting the super out and letting everything in the neighborhood have access to it.
    So my question is, do I take all of the honey out of the super (I know its late to harvest), or do I harvest only the capped honey and leave the rest out for a few days for the bees and whatever else to take care of it?

  3. I would harvest the capped honey – a nice treat! So you need to find a way for the bees to take the honey from the remaining six frames in the super and into the brood box? You can do this in the same way that Emily and I did. Place an empty super between the brood box and the super with the six frames of honey. This space will make your bees think that there is another hive above them. They will then ‘rob’ this rival hive and take the honey from the super into the brood box. This usually takes about a week.

    You will then have a job of shaking any remaining bees off your super frames, and out of the super boxes into the brood box, before closing the brood box with the crownboard and roof. Shaking bees is tricky, do as much as you can and then prop up the supers next to the hive entrance as the remaining bees will eventually walk back inside.

    Of course, if your queen excluder is not on your brood box you’ll need to be careful not to shake the queen anywhere. I might put the queen excluder back on the brood box while the bees are taking down the honey and only take it off once you have all bees inside the brood again.

    I hope that answers your question, if not, just shout. I am sure Emily will have some good advice, she has been beekeeping longer than me.

    Have you hefted your hive to make sure they are building up enough stores in the brood box for winter? It’s a good idea once they have taken all the honey down to feed them as much syrup as you can before the end of October. Each colony needs about 35lb honey to survive winter and each frame of honey contains about 6.5lb depending on the type of hive you use.

    Our apiary is quieter in autumn, so we can probably take any questions you have to our experienced members next week and get some better answers for you!

    • It took me a while to get around to harvesting it, and by the time I did most of it was capped so I just took all of it. Collected about 12 pints!
      Anyway, I don’t have a queen excluder, or even a second super, so I just used the ‘wet towel’ method, in that I brushed all of the bees off of each frame at a time, and then placed them under a wet towel. I put the super off to the side and put the messy frames back out for the bees to clean up the next day.
      I haven’t been out to the hive again since I harvested, because it’s been nice not having them so aggressively bothering us while we’re outside. They had a TON of stores when worked with them last (the whole top deep box was capped honey) so I’m pretty sure they’re fine. And they’ve been out every day since I opened them up, collecting honey and stuffs for the winter.
      I was thinking about opening them up sometime soon, but just don’t think i’ll have the time with all the midterms i’ve got to prep for. They’re still really active and seem perfectly fine from the outside, so I’m not too worried about it.
      Thanks for all your help!

      • 12 pints is a great honey crop, congratulations! Yes, sometimes leaving the bees be(e) is better. They can take pretty good care of themselves. Good luck with your mid-terms – you have lots of honey to get you through revising and exams!

  4. Pingback: BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour. How honeybees use nectar, pollen, propolis and water | Miss Apis Mellifera

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