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


22 thoughts on “The last days of our summer bees

  1. Nice video of Myrtle. You certainly learn a lot when you visit your apiary. Older beekeepers around to give advice. A real advantage over having bees in your backyard.
    What to blog about during the winter time has crossed my mind too. Looks like you have many interesting subjects. I’ll be looking forward to reading about them.

    • There’s also taking bee exams in winter! I’m taking the British Beekeepers Association module 6 exam on honeybee behaviour so will be reading this syllabus – it’s not ‘light’ and I hear the examiners take it very seriously!:

      Module 6 is my first theory exam, I need to take 4 modules and another practical to become a qualified beekeeper, and then even harder exams to becoming a Master Beekeeper! *gulps*

      Click to access bbka_training_flowchart_1308302439.pdf

      I’m glad you enjoyed the video. Filming on my SLR close-up is a little tricky with constantly moving subjects and constant re-focusing – while also beekeeping and answering beginner questions! Hopefully, I’ll get better at this next year! 🙂

      We’re lucky to have the expertise of the older beeks each week, you’re right that’s an advantage of being at an apiary. A disadvantage this year has been the shady environment combined with poor weather, so no hives have done that well there. Next year I’m hoping they cut back the trees to give the hives some sun – and Emily and me may also have a new site to keep another hive.

      • I’ll admit that your SLR can take sharper photos…it’s a good thing you have young eyes and quick reflexes, there’s no way I could keep refocusing. (never thought I’d admit that but somewhere around 45 years that auto focus got faster than manual focus).

        Keep up the learning about bees so you can share it with people like me that don’t have classes to take.

      • Thanks Pat, I’ll be sharing my revision of the syllabus in posts and hopefully get tips from other beeks along the way. There seems no end to what can be learned about bees! Emma 🙂

    • That’s how we feel when looking at a frame of bees but once your eyes find her then she is hard to miss. It is strangely relaxing to watch the queen walk around the frame and see the interactions of the bees as they work. It is a whole other world.

      Ah, those cute, friendly little NZ bees. You couldn’t be cross with them!

    • Yes, something like that is what John said although not sure how the fondant works with the round excluders, whereas it is quite obvious with the square excluder. I still really want to know what last Saturday’s Mystery Object is. Perhaps the old beekeeper really did make it as a trick?

    • I’d love to see those old photos, something so nostalgic about finding a box of old pictures. It was lovely to find Gally alive and well, he really is an old man now but still mischievous 🙂

      Once you get into honeybee genetics and behaviour, and start looking at how the drones that the queen mates with also play a part in influencing characteristics of the hive, and whether it is the queen or workers who really rule the hive, it all gets a bit complicated… But as a rule of thumb, a nice queen usually means nice bees 🙂

  2. I know our bees are just like their owners: lazy! They only make just enough honey for themselves and we can go hang. But, as we are lazy like them, we don’t want all the work to get that honey anyway. So it all works out!

    • He he! It is a lot of work to extract honey – I remember extracting two full supers in my first year, it took about a week to extract, filter and jar, phew! That is funny, I think our bees are very laid back like Emily and me, so we get little or no honey! 🙂 Like you, I prefer to have happy bees though 🙂

  3. Well, your bees have been VERY entertaining all this summer – maybe they deserve some downtime… Thanks for the Related Links, and in particular for what I can only describe as the Bobo Link! Take care, enjoy the Honey Show. RH

  4. Mmm, Osterly House and Gardens… I was wondering if the recent Parades End was also filmed at Osterley? There were horse riding scenes that looked like they were around the lake and the girls school exterior scenes seemed to be outside the cafe & shop!

    • I haven’t seen Parades End, will check it out. There was a huge party at Osterley House when I was little, and my mum took my sister and I to watch the famous people roll up. I remember Princess Diana wore an amazing black dress and was the only one to turn around and wave at us, before she walked up the stone staircase to the house. It is a very beautiful location 🙂

    • Seeing Gally brought back memories of a time when I was fearless and was given the wildest ponies and horses to ride at our school. I’m not sure that I would do the same now!

      Poetry is the barest expression of the soul, very brave to share with everyone.

    • Thank you, I shall have to practise taking video of fast-moving subjects between now and next spring! Yes, the recent turn in cold weather sees the end of beekeeping for the year, although there will be occasional winter checks and treatments to make sure all is well. I hope our bees are nice and cosy enjoying their summer honey! 🙂

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