Bees at the bottom of the garden

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The bees were in high spirits when I arrived. A group of beginner beekeepers had finished looking at David Pugh’s hive, and were floating about the apiary like drones.

I took my time in lighting the smoker and opening up the hive belonging to our queen Melissa. After a few weeks spent away for illness, and with Emily at her allotment bees this weekend, it felt like my first proper inspection for a while. I was surprised to find that I needed to steady my nerves before getting on.

A heavy super lifted out of the way and I was inside the nest. The workers were busy, the drones were buzzing loudly, and the queen was spotted on the third frame that I pulled out. I was glad to see that I hadn’t lost my queen-spotting skills, but as the buzzing got louder I imagined the queen hadn’t recognised me. “Who is she?” The bees were saying, “What is she doing looking here?”

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The beginners who had bought Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies from Emily while I was away were asking questions. I really wasn’t much help, I’m afraid, as I was trying to focus my breath and my thoughts on what I was doing. They had found two queen cells with the old queen in the small colony, and were wondering what to do. I suggested that they could do an artificial swarm with the old queen if they were worried about the bees swarming (although the colony was small for a split), or wait till next week as more than likely the workers were trying to supersede the two-year-old queen, and as there were only two queen cells (unless they had missed more). The beginners had already decided to wait and see.

As the new beekeepers left, I finished inspecting the top brood box and then looked inside the bottom brood box for the two queen cells listed as found in our hive records two weekends ago. The cells were gone as I imagined they would be.

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The two queen cells were found on my first Saturday back inspecting the hives with Emily, and when the Bailey comb change was underway. I suspect that either a small swarm was missed in late April to early May, or that the bees were starting to make preparations to swarm that were thwarted by the late Bailey comb change. Perhaps with the queen being in the top brood box and a queen excluder beneath, the bees were unable to swarm away unless they starved her smaller. I doubt the bees were trying to supersede young Melissa who is laying nicely, but it’s just guesswork as I haven’t been able to do much with the bees this spring and I’m still catching up.

I closed up the hive as best as I could, but the weight of the heavy super felt the crunch of some bees beneath.

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Pepper’s hive was split during a beginners’ session last weekend. Interestingly that colony also was in the middle of a Bailey comb change with the queen found in the bottom box and the queen cells found in the top box. The top box was removed to make a new hive leaving the colony ‘artificially swarmed’ in a less than usual way.

Pepper’s bees can be feisty and, as they had already been split, and as I’m supposed to be taking things slowly for another few weeks, I stopped at one inspection hoping that the original colony wasn’t busy casting off.

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At the apiary table Andy Pedley, John Chapple and Alan Gibbs were talking about the record number of swarms reported in London this year. What could be causing this? The rise in ‘middle-class’ beekeepers as one newspaper reported, the surge in inexperienced beginners, or ailing beekeepers like myself failing to check for cast offs? Perhaps it was due to the changeable spring weather with spurts of warm sunshine taking bees and beekeepers by surprise? Or had there been a sudden surge in nectar, because the apiary bees were bringing home a wealth of stores? It could be all of the above, although the newspapers often don’t reflect the world of possibilities in beekeeping.

I left the apiary as Tom was leading Jochen to see the hives. I had more bees waiting for me at home, as well as fish and birds.

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We have bees at the bottom of the garden, which is something that I’ve dreamed about since I first started beekeeping. Our bees aren’t honeybees, they are red mason bees, I think!

The bug house that I planted beside the plot of earth, which will be next year’s vegetable patch, has taken up residents. The mason bees moved in a few weeks ago and have been so busy occupying each tube that they are now looking for more holes in the two sheds for homes. I’ll have to buy another bug house!

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It’s good to see Myrtle’s Palace so well used and I’m learning lots about my new bees, the solitaries, along the way. My early morning walks around the garden have revealed that red mason bees like to have a lie-in…

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And apparently the bees lose their red colour as they get older, becoming more yellow…

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I also learned one evening, after finding a few ants casually walking in and out, that bug hotels need some keeping too. A night spent reading how to care for a solitary bee home, including how to protect it from predators like ants, spiders and birds, had me awake early the next day to rebuild the stand higher up with a water tray ‘moat’ and Vaseline-smeared bricks. This seems to have done the job of deterring the ants for now.

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The fish at the top of the garden are doing well. They had a visit from two local garden and pond fish experts, Sylvia and Paul, who said the pond was doing just fine. Sylvia kindly brought some cuttings of a yellow flower from her pond to put into ours, because “it grows beautifully and the fish love it”.

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I was relieved to hear that I’d been feeding the fish and topping up the water levels correctly. The garden has buckets to collect rainwater to help top up the pond and I use Fresh Start when topping up with tap water, though Sylvia also reassured me that leaving a bucket of tap water to stand outside for a few days would make “the chlorine fly away”.

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The collected rainwater is also useful for feeding the Venus flytraps in our kitchen, one of which is now flowering.

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I discovered that we have a hidden well, which Sylvia and Paul thought had once been a frog pond. “Look out for frogs in the fish pond” they said when I told them about the frog spawn, “the frogs can strangle the fish if they start competing for space or want something to mate with!”

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A stroll around the middle of the garden and past the blue tits’ nesting box (I’ve not been fast enough to get a picture of the birds coming in and out) allowed Sylvia and Paul to helpfully point out weeds…

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…and give me some useful gardening advice, in particular how to control our rampaging bamboo and how to repair the Yorkshire stone paving. “Don’t throw it away or give it to me!” said Sylvia.

There is a world of discovery waiting for us in the garden, I wish that I had more time to spend there. I’m so grateful for Sylvia’s and Paul’s visit and for their generous advice. I’ve given them details of visiting our apiary in return.

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My next post will be in two weeks’ time bringing more stories from the hive and unlocking more secrets from the garden. Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week ahead.

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36 thoughts on “Bees at the bottom of the garden

  1. I have really enjoyed this posting. Over time I would like to become an apprentice beekeeper, but am not sure school and beekeeping go well together. Will keep doing it vicariously for now. Glad to see you settling in and feeling better.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the bees and that you’d like to become a beekeeper. There are quite a few apprentices at the apiary who don’t yet have their own hives, but enjoy visiting the bees when they can.

      I quite understand the need to balance one’s life though. Already the weekend has flown by and only half my to-do’s ticked off.

      Bees are wonderful when you have the time to keep them, I hope you’ll get that opportunity in future or might be tempted to try a bug hotel 🙂

  2. Hallo Emma, I do hope you will be feeling much better very soon. I really enjoy all your posts and I can feel from them that you are having a bit of a struggle. Make sure you really ‘force’ yourself to take an afternoon nap if you can. Don’t think its only for toddlers and OAPs like me. When my Mum used to tell me I didn’t take enough notice of her….. Now all I can do is try to tell you…. Respect the rhythm of your body, give it a regular break, just a half hour or so. It will do you the world of good.

    • Thank you! . You are right! I find it hard to take things slowly but remind myself that even bees have a ‘resting state’. Next time an afternoon nap comes along I’ll give in to the temptation. Thank you for your well wishes, I’m feeling better each day 🙂

    • Thanks! We bought another one at the weekend. I really should make one (we’ve plenty of bamboo cane in the garden) but that project might need to wait till next year. I’ll keep watch over the next few weeks to see if the Vaseline continues to work 🙂

  3. I’m glad you’re fit enough to be back out there again but please do take it a little bit easy won’t you. It sounds as though everything is thriving so nothing to give you worries.Let’s hope for a prolonged spell of nicer weather again now.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  4. Thanks for sharing your adventures. What a lovely garden you have. Did the mason bees move in this year or were they already about? I’d like to try a bee home like this, perhaps next year, and am curious how quickly they will establish themselves.

    • Hi Erik, I was lucky as I didn’t expect mason bees to move on so easily and I heard the hotels sometimes have to weather a bit first. It was a bit of fun putting it at the back of the garden and then, perhaps we had mason bees in our local area, they suddenly moved in. They’ve been quite prolific starting to make nests in the holes of our shed too. I’d definitely have a go at your bee home next year, perhaps this year make note of what other bees fly into your garden or area, and you’ll find out what’s likely to ‘take root’.

  5. Wish I could have been there to help you, unfortunately Drew had booked us an early afternoon cinema ticket and I had a feeling the allotment bees needed some urgent checking on. Think you told the beginners the right thing, seems unlikely the small colony would be wanting to swarm. Very exciting about the mason bees!

    • Afternoon cinema sounds fun, I’m looking forward to hearing about it! And having the bees at the allotment is quite a commitment as well as keeping them at the apiary, I’m just glad Tom could help sort out your swarm challenge! Yes, I’m very excited by the mason bees and a few other insects I’ve yet to get to know in the garden. I think they’re curious about me too 😉

  6. That’s a great picture of the Mason bee in the tube. My Masons are so shy. Whenever they see me come by, they won’t fly out until I’ve given them some distance. If I want to get any photos, I’ve got to shoot video on a tripod and walk away.
    I’m glad you’re feeling better and getting your strength back. Don’t forget the noon naps, they’re the best. 🙂

    • That’s interesting, I wonder if they have different personalities? The redder (I’m assuming younger masons from what I was told on UK Bees, Wasps and Ants Facebook group) are shyer and crawl back in their tube when I peek at them. Whereas the yellow (older?) masons seem a bit bolder and will come and go and let me photograph them quite freely. I’ve heard that masons are shy though so I try to give them privacy at the bottom of the garden 🙂

  7. How interesting, your mason bees are doing very well, there must be quite a few about in London. Also they are ahead of the ones I have been watching down here in Devon who have only started nest buidling in the last week, but we have had quite cool weather recently.

    • I think you’re right. We must have moved into an area with mason bees about and as bug hotels become more popular, perhaps more mason bees are coming into London. I did think about buying a bug house with the mason bees, but didn’t know enough about the ecological impact of buying and importing them. So I’m rather glad that they’ve come of their own accord!

  8. I hope your bees continue well this season. Mine may or may not be queenless. I”m in the “wait and see” phase right now since I’m trying to be patient and let them work it out themselves. My mason bee house is pretty full, too. I’m going to try to find a quick way to add some bamboo somewhere but that requires a trip to the garden center. I don’t know if they’re still nesting right now.

    Your garden sounds like a little paradise.

    • We thought a hive was queenless last year but like you waited patiently and 4 wks later spotted the queen. I’m thinking of cutting up some of the hooligan bamboo in the garden to add to the bug house, although the masons seem content to migrate to holes in the shed. Thanks for your comment on our garden, I wish I could spend more time there 🙂

  9. That’s all shaping up well, EST… but I have a Q. I’ve just been given a bee house – did you use anything to attract bees in the first place, or did they just arrive? I am weathering it at the moment about 3 feet off the ground on a south-facing wall, and when the smell of ‘shop’ has faded (and I know I could have built my own) I’m wondering about poking some lavender stems between the tubes… Any advice welcome from you or any of your other followers. RH

    • Hi RH, sorry for late reply – just landed back from Germany. For bee advice that’s anything other than honey bee I’m joined to this excellent and expert Facebook group run by actual scientific researchers: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1590641777855221/ And about my bee hotel I think it was sheer luck we moved into an area where mason bees must have been about looking for a convenient home. But I have become more aware of other bees in our garden inc mining bees (I think) and other bumbles who come and go. The Facebook group had been great for sharing and getting tips about identifying, attracting and making homes for solitary bees and other insects in our garden. You could try lavender stems – you never know!

      • V helpful, thanks so much. A whole new world of ‘bees that don’t really count’ (‘cos not honey or bumble) except that they obviously do!

  10. Emma I so so loved this post and savoured every picture that went with it.. I just love how you describe your bees and I am learning lots from you about them.. I doubt whether I would ever venture to keep them, as we have a lot on our plate as it is.. An allotmenteer a few plots down from us has bees.. They did swarm the other day while hubby was in the allotments.. it sent him and our neighbour allotment grower running to their sheds, but they soon settled back in their hive..
    So learning why they swam from your post is enlightening..

    I also love your beetle hotel.. and great tips about ants ect.. also the Fish are looking well.. Our pond has serious issues with blanket weed again.. even after treatment, the tips on rain water good advice.. and hope we can sort out the pond soon…

    Sending thoughts your way and look forward to the next instalment.. 🙂
    Love and Blessings
    Sue 🙂

    • Sue, I’m so happy that you loved the post as I savour every moment that I have to be with my bees and to write about them. We have a lot on our plate too and I can fully understand why bees are a lot to take on (honeybees that is, you might try bug hotels to attract solitary bees and other insects, much less upkeep!) as a full Saturday afternoon (or more if building hive equipment) on a weekly basis is quite a commitment when other projects are waiting 🙂 As you can see from this post a couple of years ago, honeybee care can take quite a lot of time! https://missapismellifera.com/2012/04/21/the-case-of-foul-brood-and-the-diabolical-baby/

      I’m so interested to hear about the swarm that your husband and his friend witnessed. It’s interesting that the swarm settled back in its hive. I wonder if the queen’s wings were clipped so that she couldn’t go very far and the queen had to return to the hive (not a method I like to use as the wing clipping can make queens fall on the ground and prey to other risks), or a test flight for a swarm, or whether it was a virgin queen being launched up and accompanied out on her mating flight. So many possibilities when you keep bees, and even those who’ve done it for 10 years are sometimes still guessing.

      Sorry to hear about your pond – I’ve been reading a lot about pond ecosystems (the natural cycle being something I’ve long been interested in, it’s been like going back to school!) and I’ll have an update on our pond in a few weeks once I’ve learned more and I’m surer of what I’m talking about! I did read however that rain water might not have all the nutrients that pond need to keep it sustained (although rivers and lakes etc get topped up with it naturally, so it can’t be that bad) and I’ve read about a few natural treatments or plants to add to ponds to keep the environment filtered, less weedy, and more oxygenated. It seems there’s as much to learn about fish as bees! Till next time, Emma 🙂

      • I can not really tell you any more than Hubby told me, the man who kept the bees was not in his allotments at the time, so it was not due to him opening up the hive.. All my Husband said this dark Mass just headed out of the area of the hive and headed for his and his neighbouring friends allotment, and they both ran for cover… They watched it circle a few hundred feet from the hive and then the swarm seemed to head back towards the allotment they were from.. My husband thought they had returned to their hive.. But didn’t see this.. so assumed they went back.. ( I hadn’t heard of the queens wings being clipped before and found that very interesting you can do that ) ,,

        Yes our Fish are fine, and hubby is kicking himself as when he cleared out the pond last year he took some bottom pond silt out along with some very overgrown plants.. He thinks he upset the balance of the pond and thats why its now having problems.. but we have introduced more pond plants to oxygenate it more and have the pump with water fountain to help clear and oxygenate it too..
        We have an unused water barrel in the allotments in the shed which is new and hasn’t been used. So we are going to collect rain water off the greenhouse roof in our home garden as a start to use to top up.. And I agree, rivers and streams have rain water.. There is a lot to learn about ponds and fish.. We have a tropical tank have had one for over 10 yrs now.. and I am still learning about tropical fish.. 🙂 But they must be happy, as I have had some for 7 yrs 🙂 who are now getting to look old LOL.. 🙂 Good luck with the pond.. xx ❤

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