Bee surprise!

I always have fun showing people the secret world of bees, but when I got a text on Friday evening from Kimberly Hannaford asking if she could visit the bees on Saturday I knew it was going to be an exciting day.

That was where it all started.

I knew Kimberly and Cameron through my boyfriend John, and because his friends Nina and Gavin were also curious about bees I asked if they wanted to join us. John hadn’t yet visited the bees and this weekend we were meeting up on Sunday.

It was the second Saturday of the month, which meant Ealing beekeepers would be sitting in a circle discussing bee matters at a scout hut in Southall. The apiary would be free of the usual hustle-and-bustle of tea-and-cake crowds and beginner beeks looking over our shoulders and asking questions. It was also hot and sunny. A perfect afternoon to show new friends the bees.

I arrived at the apiary at one o’clock to meet Andy who would unlock the apiary hut where we store spare bee suits for visitors. This eerie object in a bubble was sitting on a side bench.

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Something suspiciously wasp-like at the apiary.

An abandoned wasp nest. When Andy arrived he explained that it had been found by one of the beekeepers who decided to bring it for show-and-tell. Thankful it wasn’t full of wasps, I took a photo for an obligatory tweet.

Kimberly and Cameron arrived a short while after and were eager to get started. ‘It’s like a secret world,’ said Kimberly as I led them along the overgrown leafy path to the apiary hut and gave them bee suits to put on while I lit my smoker.

Here’s a photo of Cameron looking like a proper beekeeper.

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One of us is either very tall or very small! Image courtesy of Kimberly Hannaford

Smoker lit and suited up, I invited Kimberly and Cameron to follow me into beeland.

I decided to start with Myrtle’s hive as her bees are gentle. This hive is on a double brood box after this year’s long, cold spring delayed the colony from completing the Bailey comb change. I showed Kimberly and Cameron the entrance to the hive then opened up to inspect the top brood box.

There was nothing much to see other than worker bees filling up frames with nectar and capping the comb, while fat drones munched on honey stores. As these are well-behaved bees, I let Kimberly and Cameron hold a frame so they could feel the weight of the honey stores. Here they are probably holding around 600 honeybees between them.

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As a beekeeper whose head is crammed full of bee facts it is always difficult to know exactly what people are interested to see and hear. I talked a bit about the honeycomb which is made by wax secreted by the bees. I pointed out the uniform-sized cells built using hexagons because this shape is the most efficient in nature – holding the highest volume of nectar while using the least of amount of wax.

A worker bee stood accommodatingly on top of a frame and waved her nasonov gland in the air, which gave me the chance to talk about the pheromones she was emitting to help guide home foragers.

‘Do the bees get too hot?’ asked Kimberly and I explained how the colony controls the temperature by shivering their wing muscles to heat up or cool down the hive.

This all seemed to impress. ‘Bees are like a super race,’ said Cameron.

Things were more interesting in the bottom brood box where the queen was hiding. We could see larvae curled like pearly white crescent moons inside their cells, biscuit-coloured capped brood and differently coloured pollen that the bees had head butted into cells. I also spotted a worker bee walking across a frame with shiny red propolis on her legs and told Cameron and Kimberley how they use this sticky tree resin to insulate the hive.

Half way through the box I heard Nina and Gavin arrive and left Myrtle’s hive half covered, and Cameron and Kimberly to chat to Jonesy, who was checking his hive, while I went to get out more bee suits. Stepping past the green-netted honeybee area, I stopped in my tracks – there was a surprise visitor – John standing laughing at me.

I wasn’t expecting to see John in a bee suit this weekend – but here he is suited up and taking a photo of me.

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It was the best surprise and I couldn’t have been more happy. See…

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By the time everyone else was suited up, Myrtle’s hive was getting impatient and starting to whine. The queen was unlikely to show herself now as they don’t like the light. So I smoked the colony and closed them with John’s help lifting up the heavy brood box.

We had a look inside Queen Chili’s nuc next. These bees are livelier and disappointingly their tiger-striped, red-dotted queen was nowhere to be seen. This nuc colony is growing fast and will have to be moved into a full-sized hive soon.

The afternoon was getting busy. Some beginner beekeepers had arrived, not realising that the apiary was usually closed on the second Saturday, with lots of questions to ask about artificial swarms, queen cells and drawn-out frames in supers. Kimberly and Cameron had to leave, and Emily had arrived along with another beginner beekeeper.

John took this video of us inspecting Queen Rose’s colony and captured the moment of the afternoon’s second surprise – queen cells!

Emily found around four to five queen cells in Rose’s hive. This was unexpected as the colony was a recent artificial swarm and quite small. With plenty of room for the queen to lay there was no need for the colony to build swarm cells. And with the discovery of young larvae suggesting the queen had been present at least three days ago (it takes three days for an egg to hatch), but being unable to find the queen, it was difficult to tell if these were supersedure cells.

‘If the colony is planning to swarm the workers may have starved the queen so she’ll be smaller and more difficult to see,’ said Emily. We decided to check the hive again for the queen using a method John Chapple had taught us by sorting frames into pairs and each taking turns to check every frame.

John took over my camera to take photos as we searched for Rose.

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It was some bee-action for John, Gavin and Nina to watch. ‘Could the queen have flown away?’ asked Gavin. I explained that the queen is fed and cared for by the workers so she is unlikely to abandon the colony.

We didn’t find Rose but we did find a worker bee chewing away the wax capping of her cell and about to emerge to see the world for the first time. It was a bit of an Attenborough moment.

Without knowing for sure what the bees were planning to do, and without having a spare hive or nuc or being able to find the queen, we decided on a temporary measure of taking down the queen cells. This would buy us time by either preventing the bees from swarming or to find evidence next week of supersedure.

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By this time I had been in my bee suit for about two hours and was really hot. So I left Emily to close up Rose’s colony and to check the final hive – our weakest colony with the unnamed queen – while I joined the others at the apiary long table to enjoy her homemade biscuits. That done, there was nothing else to do but go for a pint in Ealing.

It was a really lovely Saturday afternoon of bee-ing and I think everyone enjoyed it. Here’s a group shot taken by Kimberly.

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Image courtesy of Kimberly Hannaford

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9 thoughts on “Bee surprise!

  1. Pingback: The wheel turns | Miss Apis Mellifera

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