It’s a custom to tell the bees when you get married. I whispered my wedding plans at the entrance of the hive as the bees flew to-and-fro in summer. Autumn shone in all her glory as John and I got married last month at St Giles’ Church in Ickenham. Ealing beekeeper Thomas Bickerdike did the honours of telling the bees. While I didn’t get to share a piece of wedding cake with the colonies, Tom did a great job of decorating the hives and there is always plenty of cake to go around at the apiary.
I swapped blogging for gardening this year. The summer took a long time to arrive and I kept busy keeping my bees alive and nursing tubs of tadpoles as prolific as algal bloom. But as the rain streamed down the windows I realised there’s nothing worse than a beekeeper stuck indoors than a would-be gardener.
The weather finally broke with heatwave after heatwave pouring into the garden and both the ivy and bamboo threatening to grow across the lawn. At the apiary the bees briefly promised a good season until an unlucky setback with several missing or failed queens. With more waiting to be done around the hives, I got stuck into the garden.
It can take several years to get a garden how you like it, but my dad, John and I made a good start this summer. We got rid of the bamboo roots and all and cleared the jungle of creepers at the back to create a new plot. It’s still a work in progress.
My dad helped to make a new bee house, which you can see in the background, but the mason bees chose to nest in the garden sheds this year. This meant we couldn’t get new sheds and instead tidied up the old ones. A place for a beekeeper to hang her smoker.
The walled flower bed got some new friends. A pot of geraniums from John’s aunt, a clump of chamomile, and a neglected lavender from my dad’s front garden. The best spot was reserved for my myrtle tree, which finally found a home in our garden this year.
After the frogs had hopped off into the sunset, there was an explosion of blanket weed in the goldfish pond. I got tired of pulling it out in clumps, then I read that snails might be helpful. I bought four pond snails in spite of warnings that they were unlikely to control the problem alone and that the goldfish might attack them. A few weeks later the pond was almost clear of blanket weed, the snails were enjoying a well-earned break on the floating water lilies, and the goldfish weren’t bothered at all.
In July the garden came alive with all sorts of exciting visitors. A dragonfly on the prowl.
An amazing array of flies like this sparkly specimen.
And a magnificent sun fly, I think?
The flying ants made an impressive display on the decking, gathering to swarm behind my back while I was none the wiser pruning the ivy. I turned around just as the queens took off and watched them fly away. It was rather a privilege.
Something I really wanted to make a start on this year was planting a bee-friendly garden. The left side of the garden had several bee-pleasers like jasmine, sedum and cotoneaster.
But the right side of the garden was surprisingly lacking. I spent a day pulling weeds and sieving the earth, before the fun could begin choosing a bed of new herbs like verbena, salvia, echinacea, and this pretty scabiosa.
It was the garden birds that really stole the show this year and I discovered a new passion for birdwatching. A family of sparrows provided endless entertainment from the kitchen window.
Of course, the sparrows were seen off by the robin when he wanted his mealworms.
When the small birds were finished feeding, the larger birds swooped in. A standoff between a pigeon and a collared dove.
And a more sinister-looking guest, the jackdaw.
But the most fun was at bath time.
And that’s where I’ll leave the garden, for now.
The past month I’ve been unable to go to the apiary. Thomas Bickerdike and John Chapple have kindly taken care of mine and Emily’s bees, and I’m very grateful to them. Emily had a reunion with the bees last Saturday too, which must have cheered them up greatly!
Meanwhile autumn is setting in and so are the final preparations for mine and John’s wedding. This won’t leave much time for blogging, [EDIT] so my stories about the bees, and some butterflies, must wait till after I get hitched. Till then.
Earlier in summer the weather was lovely for ducks, and also frogs. While the pitter-patter of raindrops on the hive roof kept my bees indoors, the tadpoles enjoyed every splish and splosh in their buckets.
The tadpoles turned out to be the surprise success of the summer. After a busy frog had filled up the goldfish pond with frogspawn in spring, it was moved to buckets to keep the spawn safe during the annual pond clean. A few weeks later, the buckets were teeming with tadpoles and John was worrying about a plague of frogs of biblical proportions on the lawn. “What are you going to do with them all?” he asked, and I replied, “Don’t worry, apparently only a very small number will survive.”
They all survived. I don’t know whether this was due to daily feeds of lettuce and chicken, or diligent water changes every other day (tadpoles are ravenous and mucky creatures). Perhaps it is just a good year for frogs? Anyway, the tadpoles got bigger and they got legs. A trip to the charity store for bric ‘o brac (much cheaper than aquatic store accessories) and the tadpoles also got some new furniture to make their lives more interesting. A tadpole tea party.
One day a froglet hopped out while I was doing a water change. I was so surprised that I simply stared at it and it stared back at me. Then it hopped back into the water.
It was around about this time that I had been clearing up the garden and had rediscovered a disused frog pond under a pile of paving stones. With my dad’s help, we cleaned it up that afternoon and scooped up the tadpoles and froglets into their new home.
Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? The frog pond is like a deep well with earth, sludge and stones at the bottom which naturally seem to soak up the tadpole waste so the water stays cleaner. The tadpoles seemed to prefer the deeper, darker depths too, and the froglets were soon climbing out to explore their caves.
I had read that froglets like to eat insects and rest in damp places out of the water. So I splashed out this time and bought them a frog house to sit by the pond and a solar lantern to attract insects at night. I did actually spy a couple of froglets sitting outside the frog house one evening and looking, I fancied, in the direction of the flickering light.
Summer rain misted into warmer hazy summer days. I bought some more pond plants for the froglets and tadpoles, and occasionally scooped up some debris on the surface and topped up the pond with rain water. The tadpoles no longer needed feeding with the mosquito larvae and extra vegetation in the water, and the froglets spent hotter days floating on the elodea.
Sometimes a froglet would come and say hello while I was gardening.
I always put them back in the pond, but they soon hopped out again to return to their favourite spot in the long grass at the end of the walled bed. The spot that I wouldn’t let John or my dad mow down.
In the shady part of the garden where only the Japanese anemone and the lemon balm will grow, I made a small frog cafe from the old bric ‘o brac that was leftover from the tadpole buckets.
I found a froglet clambering out of the buried ceramic jug cave just once…
…for they seemed to prefer the slug-ridden holes in the crumbling brick wall. Build a home for nature and it will come in if it feels like it.
Eventually all the froglets did hop away. At least, I’m fairly certain that most of them made it safely out of our garden without being eaten by birds or mowed down by humans. Only one froglet now remains, I think, and I sometimes see him, or her, hopping around the long grass when I go out to look at our late summer blooms. My niece Lauren has named the froglet Hoppy.
While I’ll never know what happened to all the froglets, I hope that I gave them a good start in life. And when the solar lantern flickers on after dark and the frog pond appears to come magically to life, I like to think there are a few more frogs hopping happily around Ickenham.
The name ‘frog children’ was inspired by a beekeeper in Iran, @reza__beekeeper, who I follow on Instagram.
The queen cells had been torn down. A worker crawled out of a gaping hole in the side of a cell as I wondered who had given the order – a new queen or rebel workers? The old queen, Melissa, had disappeared in early June. Her last public appearance (to my mother) had been just before the May bank holiday. A week later she was mysteriously gone and a single, small queen cell on the middle of the frame – most likely an emergency cell or supersedure – had been left in her place.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the workers had decided to supersede the queen. She was going into her third year and had been struggling to build up the colony after winter. This may have been because the spring was wet and cold, although I had constantly fed and kept the hive clean and warm, or it may have been due to nosema, because both hives had some spotting on the entrance coming out of winter. However, both hives had been treated accordingly with good husbandry and any sign of disease had been very brief and long since passed.
All that being said, the fate of mine and Emily’s longest-standing colony had rested in a single, rather stunted, queen cell. It was like living on a knife edge for the next three weeks as I visited the apiary daily to feed the hives during a month of unsettled weather and patiently waited for the new queen to emerge and mate.
The June gap was very poor this year, in our area at least, and the feeders were drained dry of syrup each day with desperate tongues poking out below the rim at the bottom. On the last Monday in June the weather was fair for an inspection. Peppermint’s colony had been growing steadily stronger and the queen had been spotted and laying well. As all seemed fine in our larger hive, I decided to check the nuc colony first and find out whether Melissa’s heir had emerged.
The bees were content inside the nuc. They were purring. Kitten bees. I went forwards and backwards through the nuc to inspect each frame twice. The queen cell was gone, but there was no sign of a new queen or brood. Every frame was packed full of honey on both sides. If a new queen was present and if she had mated successfully, she had nowhere to lay. Frame by frame, I carefully moved the nuc colony into a full-sized hive then closed up and fed syrup to help the bees draw out fresh comb on the rest of the frames.
Peppermint’s colony was starting work on a super and I was proud of their progress after a slow start in spring. Going through the frames forwards and backwards, I couldn’t find the queen. The bees were as good as gold and shiny eggs at the bottom of cells suggested the presence of a queen at least three days ago. However, I did find four queen cells across two frames and one was still unsealed. A rainy Saturday had delayed an inspection till Monday – had I just missed Peppermint flying off in a swarm by a couple of days? I went forwards and backwards again through the frames in the hope of finding her and making an artificial swarm in the nuc that was now conveniently empty. The queen was nowhere to be found, although I could see the nest had doubled in size since my last visit a week ago. Perhaps it was supersedure despite Peppermint being a young queen in her second year? She too had been quite slow to build up the nest in spring.
Swarm or supersedure: there was little point in worrying about it as it wouldn’t change anything. I decided to take out a frame with two of the queen cells and put it into my other hive. This might help prevent further swarming, if this was the case, in Peppermint’s colony and it might possibly help Melissa’s colony, if queenless, to requeen.
The next day I went back to the apiary to see whether Melissa’s workers had accepted the queen cells. If Emily and I were to lose our longest line of queens then I wanted to know for sure. The cells had been torn down suggesting that Melissa had left an heir or that the workers hadn’t been queenless for long enough to accept the new queens. It can sometimes take a new queen almost a month or more to get into her stride. This had certainly been the case with Melissa after she emerged in summer of 2014. I had been patient with both hives since March and with the colonies only now getting on their feet, I could be patient a little longer.
It was a happy day in early July when I finally saw Melissa’s heir. A healthy patch of brood and eggs heralded her appearance when I saw her climbing across the comb. A long dark abdomen sprinkled in light gingery stars, she was very pretty. I couldn’t get a picture while holding the frame and so I put her carefully back inside the hive and closed up. After discussing with Emily, we decided to break the tradition of names inspired by essential oils and call the queen Patience because the bees had needed a lot of patience this year. And it seemed they would need to be patient a while longer.
The following Saturday my mum, Ronnie, came to help with the inspection and to take a picture of the new queen. I went slowly through the small hive – it wasn’t difficult as the nest was still only five to six frames strong – and couldn’t find the queen, which was disappointing with my mum poised to take a photo. We smoked and cleared the bees from each frame looking through the hive again, and still no Patience although I did see eggs, larvae and sealed brood. I closed up the hive.
Seven days later, yesterday in fact, I opened the hive again and this time found a cluster of queen cells in the middle of the frame. I was disappointed. The cells looked like emergency cells made and sealed very quickly, because they had certainly not been on the frames the week before. What had happened to Patience? How had she disappeared, or why had she failed, barely a month after she had emerged? I felt disappointed for my bees too. They had persevered to recover after spring and I had felt so pleased for them when I had seen Patience on the comb and the brood nest start to grow. But worrying would again change nothing. I let Thomas remove one of the queen cells at John Chapple’s request for a beginner’s hive which had gone queenless. I was glad at least to give one of our lovely line of queens to another hive.
Inside Peppermint’s hive all was well. This week I had a small gathering around the hive of familiar and new beekeepers. Peppermint’s heir was spotted climbing over a frame and I quickly caged her to do some manipulations to the hive, which included taking a frame of brood and a frame of honey to donate to Patience’s former colony. I hoped this would help to sustain the queenless colony while waiting for a new queen to emerge.
I could have marked the new queen, but I had just recovered from a small operation and was starting to feel like I had done enough beekeeping for the day. As I closed the hive, I decided to pass on Patience’s name to Peppermint’s daughter. It is too good a name to waste and it seems both myself and the bees will need a little more patience before the hives can be ready for winter.
Inbetween hive inspections there has on occasion been time for cake for both beekeepers…
… and bees.
I’ve enjoyed every moment spent with my bees in spite of the challenges this season, though I’ve spent less time blogging about the bees in favour of spending time in the garden. That’s a story for another post.
I love to watch the bees hard at work in our garden, but often think they deserve a holiday. So I was thrilled to get an email from Fiona Lane of Taylors of Harrogate about the world’s first luxury bee hotel. Welcome to the poshest insect residence where tired bees can hang up their wings and enjoy a five-star overnight stay in an indulgent spa.
Each room of this charming miniature hotel will delight bees and bee-lovers alike. The Sour Cherry Bedrooms include hollow nesting tubes for solitary bees. The Rose Lemonade Restaurant serves a feast of pollen for fuzzy guests. The Peppermint Leaf Gym gives bees a full-wing workout, and the Sweet Rhubarb Suite is all-the-buzz with decadent sugar-water baths and a UV disco room for waggle dancers. Here are two gym buddies enjoying bee yoga, image courtesy of Taylors of Harrogate.
The luxury bee hotel was inspired by research led by the University of Bristol which found that a wider variety of bees are thriving in UK cities compared to rural areas, while Taylors of Harrogate’s own research found that under half of Brits surveyed are unaware of the important roles bees play in the production of fruits and vegetables. The Yorkshire-based tea experts created the bee hotel to celebrate the flavour that bees bring to our food and to promote the hard work of our insect pollinators. The hotel is made from balsa wood and key features, such as the sugar-water baths and ultraviolet patterns, are based on scientific research that suggests bees will be enticed to enter for some rest and relaxation!
While city life might be getting better for bees there’s always room for improvement – the luxury bee hotel is certainly a fun idea, but it also reminds us of the importance of bees and that much more can be done to help insect pollinators. Kate Halloran from Taylors of Harrogate says: “Bees are so important in helping to provide great flavour, but less attention has been paid to show how urban areas can be made more pollinator-friendly. The aim of the bee hotel is to not only educate and entertain, but to also inspire action…Many people may be unaware that some of our favourite fruits, including apple and cherries all depend on insect pollinators, including bees. We want to raise awareness of this issue and encourage everyone to get more deeply involved and help create a network of real bee hotels, starting in their own back gardens.”
Tim Barsby from BeeBristol, adds: “Bees pollinate one third of every mouthful we eat and they contribute around £651 million per year to the UK economy. We are all in agreement that we need our hard-working friends but also, right now, that they need us. We’re delighted to see Taylors of Harrogate launching this fun and captivating campaign to help draw attention to the plight of pollinators in such a unique way.”
Taylors of Harrogate’s bee-friendly campaign includes some fascinating facts about bees, provided by The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, including:
- There are over 250 types of bee in the UK – one of them is the honeybee, 25 of them are bumblebees and the rest are solitary bees.
- A bumblebee can travel up to 6km daily to visit flowers – this is the equivalent of a person walking around the globe 10 times to get to the shops!
- Bumblebees see in the ultra-violet range of the colour spectrum.
- Different bees specialise on different types of flower and have different tongue lengths because of this – the garden bumblebee’s tongue is a whopping 12mm long, allowing it to probe into deep flowers to access nectar, while the honeybee’s tongue length is much shorter at 6.6mm meaning they forage on more open flowers.
- Bees have smelly feet! They leave a temporary scent behind on the flower they have just visited as a sign to other bees that the nectar in that flower has already been taken, so the next bee visitor to that flower can simply avoid that flower until more nectar is produced, and doesn’t have to waste precious foraging time.
Thank you to Taylors of Harrogate for sending the press release with the information included in this post and the video and pictures of their luxury bee hotel. If you want to find out more about opening your own bee hotel or other ways that you can help the bees, click on the links below.
The Story of Bees with Taylors of Harrogate in partnership with Kew Gardens https://bees.taylorstea.co.uk/
BeeBristol is a not-for-profit project that works tirelessly to help make Bristol the most welcoming city for pollinators: http://www.beebristol.org/. They do this by working in partnership with local organisations, volunteers and community groups, and by planting wildflower meadows, which create habitat and forage. They also manage beehives across Bristol, whilst supporting all pollinators by engaging with the public at events, festivals, school visits and through art installations.
Taylors of Harrogate http://taylorstea.co.uk/
More links to bee-friendly activities:
Visit Bee kind http://www.beekind.bumblebeeconservation.org to score how bee-friendly your garden is and find out how to make it even friendlier for insect pollinators.
Bumblebee Conservation Trust bee walks http://www.beewalk.org.uk to learn how to identify and monitor your local bee population.
Spring sprang into an unsettled summer of muggy days, flash rainstorms and sunny spells at the start of the month. As the weeks had flown past in May, it felt like one step forward and two steps back for our bees. A few sunny days brought the excitement of seeing them draw fresh comb, then the weather turned and hopes of swapping new frames for old were washed out.
I couldn’t blame the bees. The HiveAlive treatment I had given them for suspected nosema had certainly perked up the colonies. They were flying like fury, bringing home bucket-loads of pollen, and were no longer sluggish as they busied themselves inside the hives. The problem was that they had come out of winter too weak and couldn’t quite manage to get the same foothold on the season as some of the stronger colonies at the apiary. It was just bad luck.
“But it’s an odd sort of year,” said my dad as he listened to me talk about the bees. “I don’t see much flying about.” He didn’t know then that it was all about to change.
While Emily has been on maternity leave, my family has taken turns as hive partners. My German cousin Mario was the first to put on a bee suit and be introduced to the bees. He was surprised after thinking that he had only come to visit us for lunch, but he took to beekeeping very well.
It was a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon and as rain was forecast for Saturday, it seemed best to get the inspections done before the weekend. Peppermint’s colony was trying hard to expand as chains of wax builders clung together. I swapped out a couple of dummy boards for new frames and fed the hive syrup to make sure they kept going between then and the next inspection.
Melissa’s colony had stalled and with the weather forecast suggesting temperatures would fall the following week, I decided to move them to a nuc to keep them warm. “Will they know where to go?” asked Mario. I explained that the nuc would be moved to the position of the old hive, and then did just that. The crowd of bees that had gathered outside quickly moved inside. Mario was amazed.
My dad, who has cleverly avoided seeing a single bee on every visit to the apiary, saw much more than he bargained for when he took over hive partner duties for the next inspection. “I’ll do the smoker,” he said and he meant it. Never has a smoker been lit so professionally or kept burning so well throughout two hive inspections.
Melissa’s colony, our best bees which Emily and I have kept for almost five years through the same line of queens, were struggling and I knew why. The workers were old and tired. I may have kept them alive with feed and insulation, but now the weather was improving the colony needed a new supply of younger workers.
That’s when John Chapple came to our rescue. He kindly said that Emily and I could have a frame of brood from one of Alan Kime’s hives being kept at the apiary. With dad puffing away, I took a frame covered in capped brood with bees just emerging and, after checking the frame didn’t hold the queen or any queen cells, transferred it to the nuc.
It seemed to do the trick. When dad and I returned for his second beekeeping lesson, the bees had emerged on the new frame and were busy filling it again even as strings of wax builders were drawing out the next frame. It was hopeful but further rain was forecast that could slow down their progress again. Melissa’s colony were still feeding on fondant because of an unwillingness to take down any syrup so far this year. Fondant would keep the colony alive while trapped inside the nuc on rainy days, but it wouldn’t help them continue to build new comb and rear new brood.
Luckily dad had brought his toolbox and drilled a second feeder hole in the crownboard, which meant I could leave the bees both syrup in a mini rapid feeder and their beloved fondant in case they refused the syrup. This seemed to be exactly what the bees had wanted. I returned a few days later to find the feeder drained of syrup for the first time this year, while the hole in the fondant had doubled. The traffic outside the nuc entrance showed that this colony was busier than it had been for some time. I refilled the feeder and left them to carry on.
When my mum took a turn at beekeeping duties, she was thrilled to spot the queen when I opened up the nuc. Although she seemed much more interested in beekeeper selfies…
Last week I rushed to the apiary in a race against the summer storms. The first rumble of thunder didn’t come until a few hours after the inspections, but Peppermint’s colony was already grumpy. I spotted the queen, eggs and could see that the bees were now occupying six frames and starting to draw out the seventh. I also found a queen cell on the third frame. It was empty and I didn’t find anymore, however, I sighed because the urge to swarm before the colony was strong enough to be split could set back their progress. One step forward, two steps back. I closed up and hoped that it was supersedure the bees had in mind.
Melissa’s nuc bees had a similar story. The workers were less irritable but there was no sign of the queen and I found a single queen cell on the second frame. It wasn’t the best-looking queen cell, perhaps even an emergency cell, and in fact looked similar to the slightly squashed queen cells that Emily and I had found about two years ago when Melissa’s mother, Myrtle, had mysteriously disappeared. It was a disappointment after working so hard to help our best bees recover after winter. It seemed their fate lay in one small stunted queen cell. I closed up and left a note in the roof to make sure the colony wouldn’t be disturbed by beginners on a Saturday while the new queen emerged and mated. Fingers crossed she’ll beat the odds and successfully take over the hive just as Melissa did two years ago.
So that’s where I left the bees, waiting for the summer storms to pass.
Meanwhile in the garden I had discovered that keeping tadpoles can be as much work as keeping bees. The problem was that I had been woefully unprepared for the frogspawn that was fished out of the pond into tubs to actually survive and survive so well. The tadpoles are thriving. I feed them once a day with a mixture of lettuce, raw meat and fish pellets. And I change their water every other day because the tubs don’t have a filter.
The tadpoles stay with us may be brief, but I’ve tried to make it as pleasant as possible. As the larger tadpoles start to grow legs they need structures on which to rest closer to the water’s surface. This is where a few pieces of bric o’ brac came in handy, and were much cheaper than rock and pond accessories from aquatic suppliers.
A tadpole tea party! Frog mum, or dad, watched from the water iris in the fish pond as I gave the tadpoles their new toys. I hope she or he approves!
Ups and downs in beekeeping are about as surprising as the rain in April. After Pepper’s colony had been lost to winter in February, Emily and I delayed the comb change in March due to the cold weather and dwindling sizes of our two surviving hives.
It was a puzzle. These small colonies were just too big for a nuc and yet too weak to keep themselves warm in a regular hive. They needed something inbetween. I had bought a roll of foil insulation that you might use for insulating lofts, which I cut into squares with a pen knife and wrapped around the dummy boards and old empty brood frames to keep both nests warmer. The bees weren’t taking their syrup in the chilly weather either. I left the winter fondant under the roof with more insulation, closed up and hoped for the best.
Andy Pedley took a photo of my insulated dummy board. The other beekeepers were somewhat impressed by my use of odds and sods, at last my induction as a beekeeper was complete.
Meanwhile, regular readers of mine and Emily’s blogs will know that my hive partner has gone on maternity leave to look after a very special little drone. Congratulations to Emily and Drew on the arrival of their wonderful baby boy Thomas who you can read all about on Emily’s blog!
I haven’t told the bees yet, but here’s what they did next.
On the odd bright day in April when I opened up the hive it was like inspecting winter colonies. The bees were clustered over two or three frames with some patchy brood. They were being kept alive through warmth and food, but their situation wasn’t improving much. I managed to reduce Melissa’s colony into one box when visiting the apiary with Jonesy on a Sunday. The colony had nested in the super over winter because it was the warmest spot at the top of the hive beneath the fondant, but they had left behind a couple of frames of bees in the brood box below.
I removed the old brood box and put the super holding the nest on the floor with a new brood box and frames above shaking in the rest of the bees. The forecast was fairly warm for the week ahead and I hoped the bees would be encouraged to move onto the fresh comb, but a week later they had not touched it. It become cold and rainy again, and I abandoned the attempted Bailey comb change.
I could hardly blame the bees. When the nights dropped to 1-4•C and daytime temperatures peaked at 9-12•C, it was a lot to ask these small colonies to keep the hive warm, and draw new comb, and forage for new stores, and rear brood.
It was barely warm enough for some humans to want to go outdoors, but I managed to encourage my dad to the apiary to help clean-up some hive equipment. He enjoyed it once there. He does like to blowtorch stuff.
And seemed a bit disappointed when the job was done.
The queens hid away in April with no sight of new eggs being laid. It was only the workers bringing home pollen and calmly carrying on with their tasks inside the hives which gave me any reason to believe that the colonies were still queen-right. The brood and bees that were there were largely workers, not drones, which also gave me hope that neither the queens had become drone layers nor the workers started laying.
The queens surprised me for May Day. It was the first time this year that Melissa had been spotted as Jonesy pointed over my shoulder at the queen poking her bottom in a cell. Peppermint too was seen walking steadily across the comb and I hadn’t seen her since March.
Melissa is somewhere to be spotted in this photo taken by Jonesy, towards the right of the frame there is a faint pink dot revealing the queen. Despite my joy in seeing her, I didn’t keep her out for long. “Put her back before she gets shy,” said Jonesy.
The days and nights were getting warmer. When opportunity allowed I transferred the frames of brood from both Melissa’s and Peppermint’s colonies into clean brood boxes, standing on clean floors with a clean crownboard and roof above. As the bees were still only occupying three or four frames in the nest, I filled the gaps with insulated dummy boards. I’m pretty sure that the extra insulation in our hives has been vital in keeping them alive this far.
A normal comb change wasn’t going to happen this year, the colonies just weren’t up for it. Instead, I would swop the insulated dummy boards and old brood frames for new foundation as the nests, hopefully, expanded in May and June. I feel it is going to be a year of slow progress for our bees.
Peppermint’s ladies had made quite a fuss when I moved them. I had caged the queen on the comb so I knew where she was during the transfer and her workers were not happy about that. “It would be much easier if you could just put up a sign with an arrow saying ‘This way’,” said Pat who happened to be walking past me. I agreed.
If April showers bring May flowers then I hope the bees will be as bountiful as the forage. Just to be safe, I will keep their syrup topped up and the nests insulated till both hives fully recover.
Pat kindly gave me a bottle of Hive Alive to add to the syrup. I had noticed a few spots of dysentery on the old brood boxes and thought the bees needed a tonic to boost their health.
The apiary was also starting to spring back to life with some hives small and weak like ours and others already booming with bees. John Chapple brought over some drone comb culled from a colony for varroa control. I felt sorry for the drones but good husbandry can be helpful to the overall health of the hive.
John Chapple and Alan Gibbs have been kindly caretaking some new arrivals at the apiary. These beautiful emerald hives used to belong to Alan Kime who sadly passed away, but thanks to the hard work of John and Alan his bee legacy has continued. I sometimes watch their activity at the entrance after inspecting my hives and they are very nice bees.
In the garden
At home in the garden I was having more luck with mason bees than honeybees. A reward for patience came in April when I saw the first mason bee emerge from his cocoon.
Since then almost all the masons have chewed a hole through their mud-capped tubes and are busy foraging plants at the bottom of the garden. I caught this loved-up couple on a dandelion.
I took advantage of the sunshine last week to tackle the plot at the back and divided the land between humans and bees: half vegetable patch and half wild flower meadow. I left the dandelions and forget-me-nots for the bees and butterflies; John thinks I’m crazy ‘weeding’ around the weeds.
The new insect mansion is also taking shape thanks to my dad’s donation of three wooden pallets and some bricks. I hope to have it finished next week in time for the mason bees to start making their new homes.
My other life as a backyard birder has attracted a sparrowhawk to the garden. I was surprised to see him one day from the kitchen window. He sat conspicuously next to the feeders and the sparrows watched him from a safe distance.
From the birds and the bees to pond life, we lost our oldest fish Richard coming out of winter.
I don’t know much about ponds, yet, but think Richard died of swim bladder brought on by old age. I found him floating on his side and after looking up advice on goldfish forums, gently lifted him out to try an Epsom salt bath for five minutes. He didn’t struggle and the bath made no difference. I put the poor fish in a shallow glass dish and placed him on a shelf in the pond to die peacefully. The other goldfish came over to have a look, but couldn’t disturb him too much in his glass bed. I told them visiting hours were six to nine. He was dead by morning and buried by John beneath a bush.
A few days later I cleaned the pond pump, pulled out some weed, and gave the fish a water change. Two frogs had found the pond over winter and provided a frogspawn buffet for the fish. I scooped out half the spawn into buckets to give the tadpoles a chance. You can see the fish were rather curious about where the tadpoles had gone.
The frogspawn has since hatched and I now have two tubs of tadpoles sitting by the pond.
I’ve fed them crumbled fish pellets and lettuce leaves, which they love, along with half water changes each week and they seem to be thriving. It looks like I may end up having more frogs than bees this summer.
My friend Joanna asked me to recommend a book about bees and beekeeping several years ago. I gave her a spare copy of Bees at the Bottom of the Garden from the beginners’ course that I took at Ealing and District Beekeepers Association. Bees at the Bottom of the Garden by Alan Campion is a bestselling book for novice beekeepers that explains very simply how to set up a hive and what to expect in your first few years of beekeeping. It’s an easy-to-understand, practical guide for beginners with useful diagrams and seasoned advice from an experienced beekeeper. Joanna found the book interesting but too technical, for her: “I don’t want to keep bees, Emma,” she said, “It’s a very good textbook, but I just wanted to have a read about bees and beekeepers for enjoyment.” I was surprised by her comment; by then I was already a beekeeper in my second year and still closely reading Alan Campion’s book alongside all my beekeeping activities.
When Alastair Laing, an editor at Dorling Kindersley (DK), approached me to write a section for The Bee Book, I thought of my conversation with Joanna. The publisher had an idea for a book that would open a window onto the amazing world of bees and show what the beekeeper does for everyone to enjoy. There would also be a section on planting gardens for bees and pages of recipes for making the most of bee bounties like honey and beeswax at home.
My family and friends have asked many questions about bees and beekeeping over the years: “What’s the difference between honeybees and bumble bees?”, “Why do bees swarm?”, “How do you get the honey?”, and “What do beekeepers do in winter?” I have always enjoyed telling people about the bees, although I have seen a few glazed eyes from sharing too much information. DK is well known for their beautifully illustrated books that make a detailed topic accessible to every reader – so I loved the idea of being part of a book that would allow my non-beekeeper family and friends to enjoy the wonder of bees. Alastair needed a writer for a section that showed how a beekeeper cares for bees and for a recipe section. So I accepted the job. I hoped that my pages would provide a helpful look at the year ahead for the novice beekeeper about to take their first steps, as well as an enjoyable read about a fascinating hobby for the arm-chair enthusiast.
Writing for The Bee Book was a lot of fun and I felt lucky to be part of the team as the pages were brought to life by the beautiful design of Kathryn Wilding and the wonderful photography of Bill Reavell. Alastair commissioned Judy Earl and Bill Fitzmaurice of Harrow Beekeepers Association for their expert knowledge on crafting with beeswax, candle-making and recipes on honey, beeswax and propolis, and to take part in the photoshoots as well. My favourite story from the making of the book is how a swarm of honeybees happened to settle on a tree around the corner from a photoshoot one day. This allowed Bill Reavell to capture Bill Fitzmaurice demonstrating swarm collection in action (pages 158–159)!
The chapters that I enjoyed reading most, however, were on the amazing world of bees by Fergus Chadwick, and how to plant a garden to attract bees by Steve Alton. I hadn’t seen these pages during the production of the book and was full of curiosity by the time my copies arrived in the post. Fergus reveals a treasure chest of bees around the world including the Himalayan honeybee, Australia’s sugarbag bee, and the blue carpenter bee of southern Asia. His section is beautifully illustrated by Bryony Fripp. Steve explores how to attract bees to your garden with an array of bee-friendly plants and guides to making bee homes.
I wrote my pages with my first year of being a beekeeper in mind. I remembered there was so much to learn and I couldn’t know everything at first. The Bee Book is a great introduction to bees and beekeeping for those who would like to become beekeepers but are not quite ready to own a hive yet, and for the novice beekeeper about to take their first steps, it illustrates what might be expected of the year’s work ahead.
My acknowledgements thank my first-year mentors Ian Allkins, Andy Pedley, Pat Turner, John Chapple, and Alan Gibbs, and also my hive partner Emily Scott of Adventures in Beeland. Mentoring doesn’t stop after your first year and there is always more to learn, which is why it’s so important to be part of a beekeeping association. I’ve enjoyed keeping hives at Ealing apiary alongside practical beekeepers like Thomas Bickerdike, of Beekeeping Afloat, and Llyr Jones, often a beekeeping partner-in-crime, and many more. I’d also like to say special thanks again to David Rowe for his assistance during the photoshoot at Ealing apiary, to John Chapple for his tip about the winter tunnel (page 166), and a huge thanks to Ealing and District Beekeepers Association and Harrow Beekeepers Association for letting DK photograph the hives at their apiaries.
You can find out more about The Bee Book and order a copy from DK or Amazon. And if you are thinking about becoming a beekeeper, do follow one of the most important pieces of advice in the book – join your local association and take their introductory course! You won’t learn everything you need to know about bees and beekeeping even with a library of books at your disposal, but hopefully The Bee Book will be one of many that you’ll enjoy reading.
“Morning drizzle at ten a.m. We open the hive, bee friend, last time & it’s like entering Pompeii…I did not expect to see a bee’s point of death.” From Bee Journal by Sean Borodale.
Pepper’s hive had been losing weight for some time. The bees had stopped flying in and out of the hive entrance. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when Emily sent a text to say the colony had perished. I followed up her grim discovery a couple of days later by opening the hive to find comb upon comb of frozen bees. Each one had a purpose, a job to do, cleaning, foraging, feeding, until they just stopped moving.
It must have been the arrival of winter in February. The mild weather had tricked the bees into using all their stores and when a sudden cold spell blew through their starved house it swiftly took each and every one. I didn’t look for the queen, it was too sad.
I bagged up the dead bees and empty brood comb for the bonfire. Pepper is the first hive that Emily and I have lost to winter in around five years.
That was two weeks ago. Today Emily and I met at the apiary to inspect Peppermint’s and Melissa’s hives for the first time this year. We wanted to see what was what before the spring comb change. The story was much the same in both hives: plenty of bees, some leftover honey stores, and almost no brood except for two or three patchy frames. We consolidated the hive boxes by removing empty frames and combs of useless hardened honey and replaced with dummy boards to keep the bees warmer and bring the fondant closer to their nests.
As for the queens, we spotted Peppermint walking across a frame, but there was no sign of Melissa. The bees were well behaved, if a little skittish for their first proper inspection in around five months, and workers were bringing home pollen. These were perhaps signs that Melissa is alive and well, and perhaps indicated that both queens are still capable of laying enough brood to build up their colonies again this spring.
I propped up the empty super that had been taken off Melissa’s hive to the entrance. It was occupied by around 50-70 bees. This is something I like to try when unsure whether the queen is still inside or not, and it has worked in the past. The bees walked inside the hive entrance and cleared the super in 10 minutes suggesting that the queen could be with the colony, or maybe they were simply attracted to the colony’s common scent. It was clinging to a small straw.
Emily suggested that the persistent cold weather could have prevented the queens from laying much brood, and it seemed that both colonies had the appearance of only just surviving on the remaining stores and fondant. They were hanging on, they weren’t ready for a comb change.
We decided to close up and feed the bees sugar syrup for a couple of weeks to see whether this stimulates the queens to lay, and to find out whether Melissa is still inside the hive, before springing into action. We’ll then reassess the situation after Easter.
Spring is in decay this year. The mild winter has left autumn leaves in the garden at the same time as daffodils. I think the worst of the cold weather is behind us, but nature may struggle to spring back to life. A lot of TLC is needed.
Last Sunday evening I stood in the kitchen grating orange zest for a citrusy sponge mix. The sweet orange smell brought joy to my baking and the cake rising in the oven fragranced our house with the taste of home. It reminded me what a difference scent can make to daily life and got me thinking about a review I was recently invited to do.
I was over-the-moon when Buff & Butter offered to send me five essential oils to review. Given that winter came in February, I chose rose geranium and myrrh for warmth and comfort, and cedarwood, mandarin and peppermint to uplift and energise.
As an aromatherapist I love to make fragrance a part of everyday life. I also like to share recipes that anyone can make with ingredients and equipment they already have at home. For my review of Buff & Butter, I used one essential oil for five days of the week. I hope that you find the recipes as easy and enjoyable to use as I did.
Monday: Mandarin-and-vinegar fabric conditioner
I opened my bottle of mandarin oil on Monday. The sweet citrus scent with a touch of flower blossom was pleasing and playful. Mandarin is a lovely essential oil that is gently uplifting and soothing.
Inspired by the aroma of Sunday baking, I used my mandarin oil as a homemade fragrance for Monday’s laundry. I like my housekeeping to be as natural as possible and use washing soda, or substitute washing powder for part bicarbonate soda, for laundry detergent and use distilled white vinegar for fabric softener. These clean clothes nicely and don’t leave them smelling of either soda or vinegar.
Add a teaspoon of mandarin oil to half a cup of distilled white vinegar for the laundry rinse cycle to give bedsheets and towels a beautiful sweet orangey fragrance, while the vinegar softens fabric beautifully.
Tuesday: Cedarwood room spray
Tuesday 1 March was the start of meteorological spring but someone forgot to tell the weather. It was cold, windy and rainy in Ickenham, not the sort of day for opening the windows to let in fresh air.
Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica) is a wonderful essential oil with the clear scent of lofty trees. Some find the aroma calming and others find it strengthening, like a walk through a mountain forest. It’s also a good oil for inhaling due to its decongestant properties – helpful for those leftover winter colds.
Cedarwood is ideal as a fragrance for the living room. If you don’t have an aromatherapy burner or vaporiser, you can use a plant spray. Add 10 drops of essential oil to 300ml of water then pour into the bottle and shake well before spraying the room.
I spray two or three times in the air to finely disperse in the middle of the room and avoid polished surfaces or leather furniture. The cedarwood room spray has a subtle and lingering sweet leafy aroma.
Wednesday: Myrrh room fragrance
I opened myrrh as my midweek essential oil. It had a dark spicy scent that would make an exotic room fragrance. Some find myrrh’s rich resinous aroma calms the nerves. I find the fragrance has a tranquillising effect when used in small amounts, which is sometimes more helpful to an overtired mind than an essential oil with a sedative effect such as chamomile.
This is another simple method to fragrance a room when you don’t have an aromatherapy burner or vaporiser. I poured boiling water into a small bowl and added six to eight drops of myrrh oil. I left the bowl on the dressing table in the bedroom, closed doors and windows and let the scent evaporate into the room.
Thursday: Lazy peppermint lip balm
One of my favourite uses for peppermint oil is in lip balm. A lip balm is so easy to make by melting a little beeswax in olive oil, but this week’s recipes were for everyone to make using other ingredients around the home. Not everyone has beeswax in their kitchen cupboard unless they’re a beekeeper or aromatherapist! But most people have a tub of vaseline in the bathroom cabinet. This peppermint lip balm is even easier to make.
I never buy perfumed vaseline when I can add a few drops of natural fragrance. Add two to three drops of peppermint oil to a 25g jar of vaseline and use a cocktail stick to stir. (I warm the vaseline in sunshine first to make it easier to stir.) The method can be a little messy, smooth the mixture with the back of a teaspoon and wipe off excess around the sides with a kitchen towel.
My lazy peppermint lip balm smelt delicious – sweet, sharp and so clean it almost made my lips feel sparkly!
Friday: Rose geranium cream bath
On Friday I opened my bottle of rose geranium oil and smelt a fragrance that was like a rose slowly unfolding. Its floral scent was simply sensational, I wanted to bathe in it. So I ran a bath and poured in rose geranium oil blended with cream. A luxury bathtime treat worthy of Cleopatra!
Pour 150ml of double cream into a small jar adding 15 drops of rose geranium oil. Shake well to blend and then add the contents to a hot bath, swoosh around thoroughly.
This rose geranium cream bath would also make a lovely homemade gift for Mothering Sunday. Pour the blend into a pretty jar and label for mum to use same day!
So there you go, five ways to use five essential oils at home every day of the week.
The iced orange bundt cake also turned out well.
Disclaimer: I received Buff & Butter‘s five essential oils for free in return for a review and, as you can see, they were beautifully versatile to use. I loved their particularly fresh fragrance which evoked memories of summer meadows.