A beekeeper gets married

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Married a month. Time flies past faster than a bee. In parts of Britain and Europe, it was tradition to announce an engagement to the bees. The hives were decorated in red or white ribbons, and given a slice of wedding cake.[1] In Hungary, brides baked cakes for the groom during a full moon.[1]

The day before our wedding, I baked John’s favourite fairy cakes with raisin sponge. That night my mum and I made bridal bouquets with red ribbons to match the bridesmaids’ dresses.

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It was a small wedding party of our parents and sisters, and their families, but we wanted it to be special. The wedding breakfast was laid out on the kitchen table with honey favours – a gift from Queen Melissa’s hive last year. Honey has been part of marriage ceremonies for centuries. In the days of the Vikings, newly weds drunk mead and ate honey cakes.[1]

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Almost everything was homemade – and homegrown. The garden provided the dried flowers for the confetti with a drop of lavender oil in each pot. My something borrowed was a sprig for the bouquet from our little myrtle tree. And yes, there were a lot of leftover honey pots put to use.

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The sun shone on the morning of our wedding. My mum had worked hard on the lace for my wedding dress and I had bought a white parasol in case the October weather changed its mind. While John got his family and the bridesmaids to the church from our house, the mother-of-the-bride was busily organising the bride, the father-of-the-bride and stepfather-of-the-bride. I guess she had her hands full!

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We got married at St Giles’ Church in Ickenham by Reverend Felicity Davies. Everything was perfect. My dad Len gave me away. The sun shone through the stained glass windows of the 600-year-old church as we said our vows. Our nieces Lauren and Maisie were our bridesmaids, with Lottie as flower girl, and our nephew Zachary was our page boy. Our sisters Amie and Abby were witnesses.

The marriage ceremony was themed in autumn colours and a celebration of nature’s harvest – from the hives of London to John’s family’s farm in Hereford. We sang All things bright and beautiful, Who put the colours in the rainbow?, and Morning has broken.

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John’s dad Roger did a fantastic job as best man – looking after our rings and saying a reading with my mother. He later did a surprise speech at the reception to wish us well in our married life.

The sun shone brighter when we stepped outside and the church bells rang. My stepdad Bryan and John’s parents Roger and Marilyn did a wonderful job of the wedding photography. The scent of lavender filled the cool autumn air as the confetti was thrown and we made our way to the car.

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At home, the bridesmaids wanted to feed the fish in the pond, which was a good opportunity to tell them (the fish) I got married, I suppose. Luckily, Ealing beekeeper Thomas Bickerdike was taking care of telling the bees.

John opened a bottle of champagne, which was a gift from my last place of work at The Royal Society, and we had a toast from two glass goblets, which had been a gift from my grandmother Antonie. The fairy cakes were mostly eaten or distributed by the bridesmaids who worked up an appetite from their bridesmaid duties. I imagine carrying my dress was quite heavy work.

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That done, we made our way to The Old Orchard in Harefield for a meal in the family room overlooking the lake and woodlands. It had been a magical day and perfect for us. We would both do it all over again.

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On behalf of myself and John, I’d like to say a huge thanks to our parents, sisters and their partners Jerome and Mark – and, of course, the bridesmaids, page boy and flower girl – for making our day so special. We’re also grateful to all the cards, gifts and well wishes that we received from family, friends and neighbours.

All that remains to be done is for John and I to introduce ourselves to the bees as Mr and Mrs Maund to ensure our marriage life is lucky.[1] I may need to bake some more raisin sponge cakes before I tell John about that.

References
1. Collins Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, honey, recipes and other home uses. Various authors. Collins. London, 2004. ISBN: 978-0007279890.

 

A beekeeper’s notes for November

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In November the leaves fall from the trees and the drones fall from the hive. The trees are preparing to rest for winter as their leaves drop to the ground, and the bees are getting ready to close the hive factory as the drones are thrown outdoors.

Autumn and winter are good times of the year for consolidation. The beekeeper can take stock of the hives and colonies, clear up apiaries, clean up equipment, disturb a few spiders, and plan ahead for the next season.

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The ebb and flow of the seasons are not constant, however, and the points on the beekeeping calendar can move each year. The autumn syrup may be poured a month earlier in August for late summer rains. The mouseguard might be pinned to the entrance a month later in November for the workers still bringing home baskets of pollen. Wasps may be seen gliding around the creepers beside the hive, and drones found sitting on the roof as late as December.

This sometimes makes the question “What does a beekeeper do in winter?” a difficult one to answer.  This is because a beekeepers’ checklist is only a guide to the beekeeping year and not a set of rules.

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My step-nephew Sam films what beekeepers do in winter at the apiary, while Andy Pedley tells a visitor what the bees do in winter.

Emily put on the mouseguards at the hive entrances when she noticed that fewer bees were carrying home pollen. The hives were wrapped around in chicken wire as a precaution against possible woodpeckers watching from the bare branches overhead. We tackled the task of removing the syrup from Peppermint’s hive and replacing the feed with fondant, despite a crowd of protesting workers, because the days had become cold and short.

Winter also comes to London despite talk about our city’s microclimate and of bees making queens to swarm on a warm October’s day, which, of course, might happen. But if it’s true the season can sometimes be mild, overall there are fewer days when either bees or beekeepers feel like going outside. On those days both bees and humans are glad of a well-stocked cupboard, an insulated roof, and a secured entrance.

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Every autumn and winter, Emily and I will ask each other “Shall I bring more syrup?”, “Have you got pins for the mouseguard?”, and “Do you think the fondant can go on?”, and each week our plans change as frequently as the weather. We both know that between the two of us the bees will be ready for winter as and when they need to be. We both watch the days and the bees, and tick off items from our checklist when it feels right to do so.

A beekeeper’s notes for November often turn to thoughts of what we have and haven’t done, none of which matters now, and then to dreams of the bees returning in spring.

A beekeeper’s notes for October: Autumn is icumin in

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Autumn had arrived almost unnoticed at the bottom of the garden. The crimson vine creeping over the sheds was set ablaze in oranges and reds in the morning sun. The mason bees and leafcutters were still asleep behind closed doors of mud and leaves. I cleared away the overgrown foliage to warm the bee houses in the sunshine and to remove easy routes for spiders and their webs.

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Unlike our solitary bees fast asleep in their comfy homes, the honeybees were bringing back pollen to the hives faster than the foraging squirrels scampering between trees in London parks. Thomas Bickerdike had organised an apiary tidy-up the weekend before and some beekeeping treasures had been unearthed.

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A well-loved smoker and kit box were not the most unusual finds, it seemed. John Chapple’s concerns about witchcraft at Ealing apiary may be warranted, but I promise this cauldron doesn’t belong to Emily or myself.

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It was the second Saturday of the month, which meant Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop and the apiary was free for witches to get up to mischief. As I had forgotten my wand – I mean my hive tool – I had no choice but to wait for my coven partner – I mean my hive partner Emily – to arrive.

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Two weeks previously it looked like Melissa’s hive was getting top heavy. The first super above the brood box was full and the bees were meandering about the second super thinking about filling the comb, but the brood box was lighter in stores around the nest than I would have liked. There may not be a particular reason why the bees have filled up the supers rather than packing honey around the brood – in fact, it’s a characteristic of this colony – but I wanted to close up the nest with dummy boards. This would help to keep the colony warmer as the nights were getting chillier, and, as I had found in the past, might even encourage our wayward bees to build outwards rather than upwards.

The bees were one step ahead of me. Emily and I opened up Melissa’s hive, along with new beekeeper Bertrand, to find that not only had the workers almost filled the second super but the empty brood frames had stores too. Well done girls!

This particular hive loves to build brace comb at every opportunity, regardless of what space is available elsewhere, and had packed a few rolling hills of oozing honey between the top and bottom super frames. Emily scraped off the delicious honeycomb with her hive tool for Bertrand to taste honey fresh from the hive. A taste of autumn.

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The brace comb was not the only mischief that Melissa’s bees had been up to – I also spotted a play cup at the bottom of a brood frame. We couldn’t see an egg or larvae inside and from the shape it looked unlikely to be drawn out into a queen cell. But I have a feeling that Melissa may lose her crown next year.

Peppermint’s hive is much stronger after August rains had left this small colony quite weak. Pepper’s colony had fastidiously packed down propolis and pollen for winter. Bertrand spotted our queen walking calmly across the comb. The super above Pepper’s hive remains empty though the brood box is well stacked with stores. However, some workers were nursing the comb, so Emily and I decided to give them till the end of the month to fill the super before taking away empty frames for safe storage against wax moth.

That done, it was time to go home and decide what to do with all the apples picked with John’s mum on the farm in Hereford last weekend…

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More autumn activities soaking the cooking apples in water with a pinch of salt to get rid of lingering bugs (sorry bugs) and wrapping the apples in newspaper to store in the garage before I have time to freeze them or bake pie and crumble.

Summer may have passed the baton to autumn, but we were lucky to have pale blue skies on the drive from London to Hereford and to wake up to beautiful morning mists.

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And even a drizzly day couldn’t dampen the beauty of turning leaves and pretty villages like Ludlow. Here’s what we got up to in Hereford even before breakfast!

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A visit to the picturesque town of Ludlow to look around the impressive church. You should be warned that behind small church doors are usually a lot of steep steps going up.

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Two hundred steps up. I’m taking a break by the bells. But it was worth the view at the top of the church tower.

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Here’s my handsome boyfriend John and his lovely parents Roger and Marilyn enjoying a windy day overlooking Ludlow.

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We enjoyed a walk around the parish gardens and market place shops before heading back to the farm for brunch.

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Autumn may be icumin in, but there’s still lots to see and do! My next post will be at the end of the month bringing beekeepers’ notes for October. Till then, enjoy the changing of the season.

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The day Lolly met the bees

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The sun was bright at the apiary when they arrived. Most of the beekeepers had floated home as sleepily as drones. I ran to meet them as small feet in sparkly pink boots pattered down the overgrown path.

The visitors were my sister Amie and her five-year-old daughter Lauren (Lolly). They had come to meet the bees. “Come and meet my hive partner, Emily,” I said, as Lolly looked around curiously. She is very shy in new company so introductions were brief.

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Lolly wore fur-trimmed, pink-glitter Frozen boots for her ‘bee wellies’ and was pleased that I had picked out a matching pink bee suit. These are probably the sparkliest bee-boots that I’ve ever seen.

Emily, Tom and Jochen went on ahead to check Ken’s hive, while my sister and niece put on their bee suits and gloves. That done, we were ready to venture into bee land.

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My sister Amie is suspicious of stripy, stingy flying things, so it was brave of her to visit. She admitted “I was thinking in the car on the way: ‘Oh dear, oh dear – bees!'”

Lolly stood in the apiary clearing quietly taking in all the hives. “This is where the bees live,” I said. “Let’s go see my bees.” We walked to Queen Melissa’s hive and stood watching lots of honeybees flying to-and-fro.

“What’s that?!” asked Amie, as something buzzed past her veil.
“A bee,” I said.
Lolly stared at the hive.

I lit the smoker and put it on the roof. “The smoke makes the bees calm in case they’re naughty,” I explained to reassure them both. “But these bees are very good.”

Their eyes widened as I pulled out a frame of bees from the super box. The bees were busy working on the honeycomb. I pointed out the cells of glistening nectar collected from flowers and the white-capped patches of honey.

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Thanks Emily, for this surprise picture of us all on my phone!

I showed Amie and Lolly the crownboard to introduce the workers crawling across. “These are girl bees, because they have smaller bottoms than the boys,” I said, “The boy bees are mostly thrown outdoors by their sisters at this time of year.” Lolly nodded at the joke, because sometimes she has to throw her little brother Zac out of her bedroom.

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Next we looked inside the nest. I lifted the super to one side and prised apart the queen excluder using my hive tool. “The bees make everything really sticky with propolis, which is a tree sap,” I told Lolly, “The propolis helps to keep the hive clean and warm.”

The queen excluder now removed, I explained that we were looking at the bees’ nest inside the brood box. “This is where Queen Melissa lives with her bees.”

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Lolly stepped a little closer as Amie brushed a bee off her back. I pulled out a brood frame of glittering nectar. “What are these bees?” I asked. “Girl bees,” answered Lolly. The bees were as good as gold. Their gentle humming meant they were happy.

Emily gave the brood nest a quick puff of smoke as I pulled out a frame from the middle of the hive. Things got more interesting.

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Lolly stepped closer as I told her what was happening on the honeycomb. “Here the worker bees are keeping the baby bees warm in their cells until they are ready to hatch. It’s probably warmer inside the hive than your home.” I brushed a few workers aside to reveal the biscuit-coloured brood cells. Then a few bees walked past with bright-coloured blobs on their legs. “The bees are carrying pollen home from flowers like you see in your garden.” I pointed at the cells with gold-and-orange pollen inside. “The bees will head butt the pollen into the cells and use it to make bee bread to eat.”

I put the frame back inside the hive and asked Lolly what she thought of the bees. “Good!” she said with a big smile. She was even happy to hold a frame of bees by herself.

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The humming was getting slightly louder as I told Amie and Lolly to listen to the difference. “The bees are ready for their bedtime.” Emily and I closed the hive. “Do you want to give the bees their dinner?” Lolly nodded. She helped me pour the autumn syrup into the feeder. I gave her a ball of beeswax scraped off the crownboard to take to school for show-and-tell.

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Emily and I had checked the hives of queens Pepper and Peppermint earlier in the afternoon. Here’s pink-spotted Pepper walking across the frame. There seems to be a lot more pink at the apiary since Emily and I started keeping bees.

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The bees seemed content with their visitors, my sister Amie was glad of her veil, and Lolly was amused by the whole adventure. The neighbouring bagpipe player had also come out to play for the bees, which she thought was funny. It was time to go home for dinner and tell baby brother Zac all about the bees and the bagpipes.

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If you enjoyed reading about Lolly’s visit, you might like The day my mum met the bees.

A beekeeper’s notes for September

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The spiders spin their crafty webs between the autumn sedum in September. Thousands of tiny pink star-like flowers open to welcome honeybees in their dozens to drink from a forest of nectar.

The bees trip over themselves to visit every single flower. They fly carelessly close to silken strands where garden spiders dangle beneath the leaves waiting to pounce. The bees’ tantalising electrical charge in the air attracts the webbing even closer to their wings.

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I think the variety of sedum in our garden is autumn joy? The large clump of ungainly leaves growing out from the bottom of the decking had looked suspiciously like a weed to untrained gardeners’ eyes. “I’ll dig it out for you,” my dad said, eager to clear away overgrown foliage from our garden. “No” I replied, “We’re waiting to see what everything turns into this year.”

The green clusters have slowly exploded into bright pink blooms over the past couple of weeks. “Is there a nest of bees in the garden?” John and dad both had asked me. “No, just the autumn sedum,” I replied.

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I was tempted to brush away the spiders’ webs to protect the foraging bees. But who am I to interfere and deprive a spider of her dinner? The sedum looks well established and it’s likely this dance between spiders and bees has been going on for decades in our garden. So far I’ve counted only one mummified bee in a web, the spiders are hardly winning.

The nectar flow is usually considered to be over by many beekeepers come late summer to early autumn. However, as I watch the bees in the garden few appear to be pollen collectors. Their baskets are empty as they search for every place on the flower beds to drink. This gives me hope that autumn forage will bring both more nectar and pollen to the hives, if the bees can withstand the chilly drop in temperatures.

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This hardy warm-blooded bumblebee in a garden centre seemed less bothered by the cool day than the cold-blooded honeybees.

At the apiary table beekeepers were taking a pause for tea, and honey fudge bought by Emily from her holiday. “This looks far too posh to eat,” complained John Chapple. “I think you should wrap it in Christmas paper,” agreed Stan. Emily cut the fudge into cubes for the beekeepers to (reluctantly) eat.

Talk was on about this year’s National Honey Show with Jonesy being persuaded to take part. I shared a tip passed-on by Dev from last year’s honey judges. To get out more air bubbles, spread cling film on the surface of the honey and leave (perhaps 20 minutes) then peel off…

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… air bubbles cling to the film and lift off. I’m not sure of the physics behind it, but it works. Clearer honey!

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Our three hives have ended the summer queen right. With the honey crop off and the Apiguard treatment finished, we’re checking the bees are bedding down properly for winter. To prove the point, Melissa’s colony had stuck down the hive roof hard with lots of propolis.

Peppermint’s hive was low on nectar stores (we hadn’t harvested from this artificially swarmed colony) although packed-full of bright orange pollen. There were also piles of beautiful orange pollen dropped at the bottom of the hive. Be more careful with your shopping, ladies! Going through the frames it was clear this hive would need autumn feeding to meet their quota of 20–30 lb of honey to survive winter. The bees were well behaved despite the low amounts of stores and brood in the nest, which would usually make a colony quite grumpy.

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In Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives the August wash-out had made the bees tuck into their put-away stores and left the returned wet supers unfilled. A reminder of how quickly things can change in bee land. Emily and I may decide this month whether or not these supers now need to be taken off for safer storage against wax moth. There’s no hurry, we’ll wait and see if the forecast Indian summer makes any difference.

We didn’t spot the queens this weekend, but the bees were behaving as good as gold so their majesties must be at home. I wondered if it might also be the effect of Jochen standing nearby. This German beekeeper seems to have a calming influence on our bees.

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Emily holds up a brood frame from Melissa’s colony. The hive had completed a Bailey comb change in the spring, yet how quickly the golden honeycomb turns brown after one summer of brood. It makes me think of how many bees have emerged from each cell leaving behind a cocoon.

The summer holidays felt like a distant memory as we talked about getting ready for winter. Autumn is always a reminder of how fast time flies.

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Two bees chat about their summer holidays while sticking propolis to the hive roof.

Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

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This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

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I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

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What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

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While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

Wasps begone

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“How long do bees live?” Ruth asked me at work. It’s a good question. I replied, “Six weeks in summer and around five months in winter, while queens can live for two or three years.”

It was funny to hear Pat get asked the same question by a family of new beekeepers on Saturday. Though it’s late in the year for visitors, a curious crowd had gathered to find out more about the bees. “The workers live for six weeks in summer, but now they’re fattening up to live longer over winter,” said Pat, as Jochen, Emily and I hovered behind to listen. David had opened his green hive to give the new colony a quick inspection before winter.

An observant beginner pointed at workers on the side of the hive with raised abdomens. I could hear Emily explain about nasonov glands and releasing pheromones for other bees to find their way home. “Sort of like a homing signal,” said the beginner.

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It was lovely to enjoy a beekeeping lesson at the apiary and to hear the ‘oohs’, ‘ahhs’ and gasps of beginners. With not much beekeeping doing, the winter months are a chance to enjoy the company of beekeepers.

Emily and I put the mouseguards on our four hives this week, with a few pins from Jonesy, and topped up the feeders. Our dry sugar experiment hadn’t worked out, so I took away the bags. Like children who realise they can no longer play with an unwanted toy, it was only then bees scrambled up to drag down spilled sugar.

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Melissa’s clever bees had also built their own honeycomb cover for one of the holes in the crownboard.

Chamomile’s hive had more diarrhoea at the entrance. It is a worry but there is not much we can do to treat nosema. Emily has Thomas’s thymol recipe to make up at home, but I’d be happier to get this colony shook swarmed in spring.

The mild autumn has kept bees, and wasps, active for longer. The wasp problem seems to have sorted itself out with only one or two lingering around hives. As I told a beginner, I hoped the bees flying out and about could find forage to replace all that honey they were eating to sustain their unseasonal activities.

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A puff of smoke to clear the bees…

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… as David cleans up wax from the queen excluder.

In fact, this autumn seems to have confused bees and beekeepers alike with some still opening hives for inspections. I asked Alan and John their views. Alan was firm this does more harm than good, “You’re letting out all that warmth and breaking up the propolis. Leave them alone.” When I said that some had even found queen cells in the hive, Alan just shook his head and shrugged: “They’re not going to mate now and there’s nothing you can do. Wait till spring and if you have a drone layer, then replace her.” Personally I agree. Sometimes we have to let nature alone and accept what will be.

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Jochen puts his hand over a hole in the crownboard to feel the warmth that the bees generate inside the hive, probably around 30°C. 

Sitting at the table I remembered how much I enjoyed being an Ealing beekeeper. Perhaps one day when I keep bees away from the apiary I’ll be able to enjoy visiting just for tea and cake. Jonesy and Stan checked out the suspected wasp nest, confirming it was indeed a wasp nest. Stan even offered to remove it, but we all agreed that the wasps will die out soon. Better to give the wasp queen a chance to fly away first and find somewhere to hibernate till next year.

That done, the Ealing beekeepers cleared up tea cups and brushed off biscuit crumbs. It was time to leave the apiary gently humming in the warm autumn sun.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!