Five years a beekeeper


As wet bank holiday weather drizzled into the week, I found myself thinking of the virgin queens emerging from our split hives waiting for a dry spell to fly out and mate.

Three weeks ago Thomas and Jonesy had artificially swarmed Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies after finding queen cells in the hives, leaving Emily and I two new hives and queens-in-waiting.


Last Saturday’s approaching thunderstorm had given the bees a headache and made hive inspections impossible. Then as the storm broke it became a typical Ealing beekeepers’ day with beekeepers huddled around tea, accompanied by Polish cheesecake made by a beginner.

Thomas returned to inspect his hives later on that weekend and checked ours too, reporting back that it appeared a queen cell had been torn down in the hive split from Chili’s colony and that a queen cell was open in the hive split from Chamomile’s colony. Our other three hives were doing well, he said, and he had spotted queens Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile, although the latter’s hive was not much bigger than a nuc.

So that’s where we left the bees, seemingly well since I had seen them two Saturdays ago. I got to the apiary early today as there would be five hives to inspect, and I wanted to consolidate our hive equipment to make sure we had a complete hive ready should Myrtle’s colony also decide to start building queen cells.


A keen beginner Freddy arrived not long after and was interested to hear all about our latest hives. Freddy thinks he might like to keep fierce bees, because they make more honey and he would like the challenge. In that case, I told him, he is welcome to Chamomile’s feisty hive! Although Emily and I need to wait a few weeks to see how the split colonies develop, find out who are the best queens, and decide whether we’re recombining or selling hives.

Another beginner arrived as Freddy and I were talking so it seemed a good idea to open up and start inspecting. A look through Myrtle’s colony showed no sign of the queen except some young healthy larvae, and the laying pattern of the brood was patchy with drone comb spotted in the centre of some frames. Not a great sign of a well-laying queen but otherwise the bees looked happy. The stores seemed surprising low compared with two weeks ago, so I put on a syrup feeder.


Emily arrived as I was about to brave opening Chamomile’s hive, which I was feeling nervous about. Thomas was right, this was little more than the size of a nuc colony and Emily noticed they had almost no stores. I felt annoyed with myself – I’d been so good all year feeding up the bees until the start of May, when we had started to reduce feeding, and it had seemed all was well two weeks ago, that I hadn’t thought to continue feeding. Now the bees were looking starved and miserable because of a couple weeks’ rain. We put on a feeder and luckily the syrup I had made for the bees before taking a break for three wedding-themed weekends would be enough for all five hives today.

Chili’s colony was next and though I didn’t see the queen, again the bees seemed calm but needed feeding. ‘Is that all now?’ asked Emily. No, we still had our two split hives to check – five hives is really quite a lot!


Fortunately Freddy wasn’t tired of looking at bees and did a beautiful job of inspecting our first split hive and finding Chamomile’s daughter – the new queen looked just like her mother, I hope she turns out to be better tempered. We then turned to our second split hive and were unable to find a queen or sign of one. I suspect this split has failed and will need recombining with Chili’s hive next week.

Five hives doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake, and by the time we had cleared up our equipment the chattering crowds were gone from the apiary.


Five years a beekeeper and five hives on there is much to think about how and why I want to keep bees in the future. Honey is playing on my mind, but for now it was time to go home and leave the bees to decide what they will do next.


33 thoughts on “Five years a beekeeper

  1. Beautiful photos Emma. Hopefully in a couple of weeks time we can work out what to do about the colonies and reduce the workload so the inspections become less epic!

    • Yes, thinking about it, the bees have a lot of work to do themselves to build up strong enough again before we can put on supers – let’s hope June and July they suddenly go boom! πŸ˜‰

  2. Looking at the picture of your open hive…. What are those narrow, dark frames in the hive? They almost look like something similar to a follower board in a top bar? My guess was that it reduced the interior space of the hive, but it is not something I’ve ever seen here in the US.

    • You might be referring to dummy boards? I put these foundationless wooden or plastic block frames around the smaller colonies as they should really be in a nuc and this will hopefully help to insulate them more until they grow bigger. Dummy boards are a standard feature in brood boxes of national hives over here (they ensure space in the brood nest is left for moving frames during inspection) and they are used for manipulations like Bailey comb change.

  3. Emma, five hives IS a lot of work. I find with 4 I can’t do a thorough inspection unless I stagger the deeper inspections (2 hives a week) and take a cursory glance in the supers of the other 2. Now that there are also 2 growing nucs…thinking about the time it’s going to take makes my head hurt. I hope to have at least one gone in the coming weeks.
    Have you been able to harvest honey from your bees since becoming a beekeeper?

    • It sounds like you’re doing well with 4 plus 2! Yes, you’re right – 5 is a lot to do, some couples at the apiary with four have cut back to two as it’s quite a lot to give all your focus to just managing two colonies. I got honey in my first year and we had some honey in our second, but the third and fourth years were battles against the weather and drone laying queens. This year I’m hoping by having more focus on less hives we can help the bees build up really strong for themselves and get some honey for us. How have you done for honey?

      • I’ve managed to harvest around 20 pounds for the past 2 years. Lower than expected (or hoped) as there was a dearth that caused them to dive into their stores and I used frames to support another hive, took brood as well if needed. But this year looks promising (fingers crossed!) that I may not have to put a limit on how many jars an individual can buy to ensure availability for everyone who has asked me.

  4. You may not have collected masses of honey but how much you have learned about bees! I think that is much more important than honey, however, I think you have steered through years of very strange weather conditions and you should be about the turning point for the honey now. I notice the bee hotel in the Apiary. It will be very interesting to watch how the solitary bees fill it up in the midst of all the honey bees. Amelia

    • You’re right we have navigated many storms to arrive where we are! Although I’d like to put all that theory to practical use now and get on with more real beekeeping and a little less teaching πŸ™‚ The past four and a half years have been a good foundation though. And I do hope we see some solitary bees in the hotel, I’m rather fond of them.

  5. It’s still fairly early in the year, queen-right colonies, laying well today, will have a decent forraging force by the 2nd half of July. If the weather is kind this year looks to be good for honey.

    • That’s true, I’m hoping the colonies get back on track and by July we can pop on supers – there’s still much I’d like to learn about swarming and swarm control though, five years have taught me that! πŸ™‚

  6. Beekeeping is a lifetime of learning. There are so many things that you learn over the years. do you have master beekeepers in england? We do and it also awesome to learn from them!

    • We do – and I had hoped to study to become one, but think it might be a goal for when I retire. Which is no bad thing, I’m taking a leaf out of my mum’s book who tells me how much she enjoys doing things she loves in her retirement!

      You’re right – bees have been around for millions of years, so it will take a lifetime of learning about them.

      I’m glad I wrote the last two posts. I feel like the realisations that I’m coming to after five years are common to many beekeepers, and hopefully my experiences will be useful to others who come after.

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