A beekeeper’s notes for June: secrets inside the hive

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“Quick! Take the egg!” whispered the worker to her younger sister. “Hide the new princess in the upper chamber where the queen won’t find her!” The young worker gently picked up the precious egg in her mandibles and ran as fast as she could past the queen’s retinue, and up the stairs where her majesty couldn’t follow. Higher and higher she climbed till she stopped with exhaustion beneath a special cell. The smells of nectar in the loftiest chamber were overwhelming and the scent of the queen seemed far away. 

The young worker placed the egg carefully inside the secret cell already prepared to receive the new princess. The egg would be safe from the queen who would be unable to get through the nectary gates and tear down the hidden queen cell.

The longest day of the year had passed on the summer solstice last Sunday. At the apiary talk had turned to the honey crop and how much could be harvested this year. Emily and I had put two supers on Queen Melissa’s hive, which were filling up nicely. “Let’s check the super frames to see which can be taken,” I said going through the top super. Around the fifth frame in, I found her. A tiny, coiled, pearly larva in a silky white bed of royal jelly at the bottom of a damaged queen cell. Emily and I stared at her curiously wondering how the queen larva had got into the top super. The queen excluder was above the brood chamber and, we hoped, the queen had not gotten past to start laying in the supers.

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The queen cell looked partly torn away and whether that had happened when I pulled out the tightly fitted super frame or by a worker tearing down the cell, we could not tell. We marked the frame and carefully put it back for a further investigation of the hive.

I didn’t find any brood or further queen cells in the supers, but I did find several collections of pollen-packed cells, which is unusual. It seemed the workers were preparing to raise a special brood in the top super, and though the workers can move eggs, nectar and pollen around the hive this seemed a long way to carry an egg from the brood chamber. “Perhaps they heard us saying that we wanted to try queen rearing,” I joked to Emily.

A beginner beekeeper, Mark, was watching our discovery with interest and asked why the workers would hide the queen cell. “To keep it a secret from us,” I said, “Or more likely the queen who would tear it down.”

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Then it was time to go through the brood nest. Here there were only stores and brood, but no queen cells. Emily spotted the queen as I held up a frame, so I caged and marked her with a pink marking pen from Pat.

We closed up the hive. With only one queen cell hidden in the super, and now appearing partly damaged, this seemed a case of attempted supersedure rather than swarm. Emily and I have always let our bees get on with supersedure in the past, the workers know best when to replace a queen. Melissa and her hive were left to their royal secrets until next week.

In the artificially swarmed colony the still unnamed queen was also found and marked by Emily. Two queens now wear pretty pink crowns thanks to Pat’s pink queen-marking pen from Thornes. I wish they would make a glitter pen too.

Emily is mentoring new beekeepers for the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) and had already checked Queen Pepper’s hive with Mark. This left us time for tea and cake (Polish cake from Clare and home-made ginger cake from Emily) and a casual visit to Den’s hive.

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Den was puzzled about why his bees were making waves of honeycomb above the frames. This was ‘bee space‘, we explained. There was a gap, more than 8mm, between the top bars and the top of the box. The bees would fill up any gap bigger than 8-9mm with honeycomb. The importance of bee space demonstrated and lessons were almost done for the day.

From the apiary to the garden there were fewer butterflies than bees, and I was hoping to attract more winged visitors to our flower beds. A butterfly supper of brown mashed banana on a plate and sugar syrup in a jar was prepared. These were simple to make and, I thought, an ideal activity if you’re entertaining young nieces…

How to make a butterfly supper

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You will need: 

  • Plastic plate
  • String
  • Over-ripe brown banana
  • Decorative flowers

1. Pierce four holes in the plastic plate to pull through the string and tie handles on either side.

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2. Stick on plastic flowers to make the plate look pretty for butterflies.

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3. Mash a brown banana that butterflies love.

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How to make a butterfly sugar feeder

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You will need: 

  • Jam jar
  • String
  • Sugar syrup

1. Mix one part sugar to four parts water to make sugar syrup.

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2. Pierce a hole in the jam jar lid and poke through a brightly coloured kitchen cloth.

3. Pour the sugar syrup in the jar and screw on the lid so the cloth can absorb the syrup.

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4. Secure with garden string and/or elastic bands to hang upside down.

The butterfly feeding stations were hung up high in the flowering bush that is busy with bees. We’ve had no customers yet, but I’m hopeful.

So the bees don’t feel neglected in the garden, my niece had a bright idea a couple of weekends ago. She asked me to pick one of each flower to put on a saucer. We then drizzled the flowers in honey. “This is a bee bed,” she said proudly putting her creation on the flower bed wall. “For tired bees.”

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edit: my story of the worker moving the egg is anecdotal (see comments below) and pure guesswork as I can’t know for certain how a suitable egg got into the super for the bees to try and make a queen. Moving eggs is one theory I’ve heard over the years, laying workers is a possibility though these eggs would become drone not queens, or a small queen able to slip through the excluder after all or even a second queen in the hive still unseen…

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Venice, city of water and light

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In the cold month of February comes St Valentine’s Day, the 14th, with skeleton trees in parks and plants shrivelled away by frost. It seems a strange season to celebrate romance, but I saved this pretty picture post for when winter should be stirring with thoughts of spring.

In December I was whisked away for a birthday surprise to Venice. John had planned the trip in secret, revealing our destination last-minute at the airport. I was so excited – Venice, an impossible city floating on the water, just a few hours away by plane.

John is a seasoned traveller, but even he was struck by the uniqueness of Venice. Our boat bus took us past brightly coloured buildings along the canals, water seeping in doors and lapping at shuttered windows. The city, said to be founded with the dedication of the first church at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421, is built on 117 islands linked by bridges across waterways.

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We stayed at Piazzo St Marco, the main public square with gulls flying over the famous Basilica during the day and fairy lights illuminating passage ways at night. Walking in Venice is the best way to get around the little streets and bridges. It is a quieter place in winter with fewer tourists and, of course, no cars. Breakfast views of early morning gondolas to night-time scenes of beautiful moonlit palaces, Venice is a jewel of old world charm, art and architecture, culture and history. Here’s our holiday highlights…

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As travellers we felt welcomed by the local culture and traditional way of life.

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Of course, we had to do the tourist thing.

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How’s this for romance? The house where George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin.

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A short island hop took us from the main city to Murano, a beautiful paradise of rainbows and glass.

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And twilight had so many colours mirrored in the skies and seas.

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Venice by night is magical, like stepping back in time. I felt truly spoiled – thank you John for the most wonderful birthday surprise!

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We needed only a few days to become familiar and fascinated by Venice. Flying away from the city of water and light, John found a video that explained: How does Venice work? Enjoy watching Venice backstage…

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Winter studies: Lessons under the hive

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As February is around the corner, there’s a chance for new beekeepers to visit the apiary ahead of the beginners’ course. This year’s cohort are keener than ever to look inside the hive, but the recent cold snap has meant roofs are just briefly lifted to check the fondant.

Last Saturday I took out the varroa monitoring boards beneath the mesh floors to count the mite drop for the week. Andy Pedley used this as an opportunity to give the beginner beekeepers a lesson in what you can learn under the hive.

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You can tell a lot about the colony in winter by looking at the varroa board, including its size, position, and activity. I held up Pepper’s varroa board (above) as Andy examined the ‘evidence’ like a crime scene investigator. “You’ve probably got around six seams of bees filling the brood box,” he said pointing to six ‘lines’ of debris that had fallen down from the brood frames. There was a pile of wax cappings: “The bees have been eating their honey stores in this spot here…”. We also counted 19 mites had dropped onto the varroa board in a week, which is not too high.

Next we looked at Melissa’s, Chili’s and Chamomile’s varroa boards. What can you tell about life inside these hives from the boards below? I’ve marked up Pepper’s board to make it easier to spot the clues.

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Unfortunately, Melissa’s and Chili’s bees had around 30 mites dropped in a week, which might be more of a concern. There’s not much we can do about that now, but regularly monitoring varroa levels over winter may give us a better idea of what to do in spring.

Chili’s colony looks smallest and least active and Chamomile’s colony showed worrying signs of nosema (see the red ring around a spot of dysentery). Hang tight ladies, not long till spring!

We’ll put a varroa monitoring board under the hives again for one week in February.

The varroa boards are all yellow and it’s much easier to spot a red varroa mite against a yellow background. I don’t know if this is the reason that varroa boards are yellow, although I read a really interesting article on entomologist Simon Leather’s blog: Entomological classics – The Moericke (Yellow) Pan Trap. The post explains why many entomologists use yellow pan traps because the colour yellow “is highly attractive to many flying insects”. Varroa aren’t insects and don’t fly, but I found it interesting that varroa boards and pan traps are both yellow all the same.

Today the crowd disappeared even quicker than last week, Emily and I used the opportunity to clean up our kit boxes.

The apiary’s snowdrops are still peeking shyly from bright green shoots. The cold weather hasn’t quite coaxed them to unfold their pretty flowers. Instead, I’ve drawn what they might look like in a couple of weeks visited by a bee.

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Inbetween not-a-bee post

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We stood on high ground overlooking the rural moors and rugged hills of Lancashire. Sheep stared quizzically as I raised my iPhone to take a photograph. The camera was in the car boot, and time spent admiring the darkly inviting Northern countryside was measured by a lack of road signs and failing satnavs.

Crossing an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) meant we were spoilt for choice for taking pictures, but the weekend was a whirl from start to finish: a wedding in Stonyhurst, a farmers market and ukulele band at Otley, and a reunion with mutual friends from Dubai in Bradford. The camera never got out of its case, but we took plenty of pictures.

Here’s a fantastic photo taken by John as we stumbled across a stony brook at the Inn at Whitewell.

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And a snap I took walking through the village of Silsden, still decked out for Tour de France.

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When we got back home to London on Sunday night I unpacked my camera with a pang of guilt, mixed with satisfaction there was no memory card to process.

I inherited my passion for photography from my photographer grandmother, Antonie Dees, who had a studio called Cameracraft in Surbiton, London. My interest grew as a magazine editor working photoshoots with professionals like Mark David Hill and Jonathan Perugia, till I finally bought my Canon DSLR.

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The joy of using my Canon camera to capture almost what my eyes can see – the light, colours, textures, detail – hasn’t diminished. However, I’ve learnt that a good picture can come from seizing, as well as seeing, the right moment, like the photo above taken while we explored Cowley on a rainy Saturday afternoon. So I’ve put my camera aside this summer for a busy time at work and a new resolution at beekeeping to focus more on keeping bees than photographing honeybees.

And bumble bees…

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Instagram started as a tool to improve the quality of iPhone photos for my blog, but it fast became an opportunity to see a great photo on the move and take it quickly. And it was fun. Here is a space not only for snapshots of daily life but for creating a scrapbook of moments. As a teenager I loved making scrapbooks and now I have a virtual one on my phone, called @cameracraft2010 after my grandmother’s studio.

Mark David Hill once said to me, “All you need is a camera phone.” He was right. Here’s the story of the summer so far in a stream of scrapbook-style memories…

Swans frolicking in the lido and a woodland train ride at Ruislip.

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People or bird watching at lunchtime.

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Or just noticing the ordinariness or splendour of where you are.

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I hope you found some inspiration here for camera phone pictures too!

This is an inbetween not-a-bee post while the honey is harvested, but bee drama returns next week.

INSTAGRAM 101

Thinking of trying Instagram? Do, it’s easy and fun to use. If you want to use it professionally, such as brand building or networking, then the same applies as any communication channel – post excellent content that stands above the rest (less is more) and which appeals to a very, clearly defined audience. There are many articles online that give advice about times to post and hashtags to use, but there’s no real secret to success other than posting good stuff.

The wonderfully talented Amber Tenzin-Dolma

Working from her Hobbit House studio in Bath Spa, Somerset, Amber Tenzin-Dolma creates vibrant and imaginative artwork inspired by nature and science. This talented young artist blends watercolours and oils, tempera and gold leaf, mixed media and graphic design to form ethereal illustrations and intricate geometric fractals.

I have been friends with Amber’s mother, Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, since my days as commissioning editor on the partwork magazine, Enhancing Your Mind Body Spirit. Lisa is a writer, artist, musician, canine psychologist – and Amber has inherited her mother’s creative energy, artistic skills and passion for the natural world.

On a visit to Bath this year, I was warmly welcomed into the charming Hobbit House set among the pretty countryside of Somerset. Amber’s beautiful paintings reflect her surroundings from Bath’s classical Roman and Georgian heritage to the wide fields and wild woodlands.

A sphinx of classical mythology sits beneath blue skies and sunlit clouds.

A woodpecker painted on the door leads the way into Amber’s art studio.

Early on Sunday morning I sat in Lisa’s sweet-smelling herb garden as a hot air balloon passed overhead and watched a fat bumblebee exploring the lavender and thyme. I remember thinking that the bumble’s bright colours, fuzzy fur and symmetrically patterned wings would make a good study for Amber’s art…

A bumblebee of Bath plants the seed of an idea…

Some time passed since I returned to London after a fun weekend spent catching up with my friend and walking the dogs in the woods, but the thought was never lost. I eventually contacted Amber to ask if she was interested in a brief for my blog: a watercolour inspired by the magical alchemy between flowers, bees and honey, and taking flowers used to obtain essential oils such as myrtle, rose, lavender, thyme, rosemary and violets.

Amber was thrilled at the idea and almost immediately sent back some initial sketches, which were exactly what I had in mind.

A sketch of the banner artwork. Amber used rosemary, violets and a rose overlaid on a photo of our mischievous bees when Emily and me had caught them making brace honeycomb last year.

For the background art, Amber used myrtle, rose, lavender, thyme and violets with three hungry bees and, of course, honeycomb. The flowers were chosen from my favourite essential oils with creative license to make myrtle my favourite colour – pink!

When I returned from my holiday in Italy, a lovely surprise was waiting in my inbox – the final paintings for my blog with added sparkle. Bees have never looked so pretty.

After experimenting with crops and tiling, Amber’s beautiful artwork went live on my blog yesterday and I couldn’t be happier. As an aromatherapist and beekeeper, the art represents, for me, the special relationship that flowers have with bees – and the close connection between essential oils and bees!

Amber also designs and makes jewellery using semi-precious stones and silver. She really is a talented lady. A few years ago, I commissioned this turquoise, lapis lazuli and amber necklace as a christening present for my niece, Lauren, which many years from now she will receive to wear on her 21st birthday.

An Egyptian-style necklace created by Amber for my niece, Lauren, using the semi-precious stones of her birth sign – turquoise, lapis lazuli and amber!

Looking at the cute honeycomb background for my blog, I wonder how lovely our hives would look with an Amber Tenzin-Dolma design. Maybe next year…

Related links
Amber’s sketchbook and paintings are available on her website, and her jewellery is sold on Etsy at Aether Design.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Lisa and Amber share their home with a deerhound-greyhound lurcher called Skye, and a 15-year-old Oldies Club collie-husky foster dog, Shep ‘The Shepster’. Lisa’s new book, The heartbeat at your feet, will be published later this year.

Skye and his paws.

Shep ‘The Shepster’