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.
Category Archives: Beekeeping
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.
Welcome to the luxury bee hotel
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.
My family and other animals
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!
Behind The Bee Book
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.
The Bee Book published by DK (1 Mar. 2016). ISBN-10: 0241217423 | ISBN-13: 978-0241217429. Order from DK or Amazon.
Ealing and District Beekeepers Association website
Harrow Beekeepers Association website
William Reavell Photography
Bryony Fripp Illustrations
Bees at the Bottom of the Garden by Alan Campion
The decay of spring
“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.
Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016
March is going to be a busy month with Mothering Sunday, my fiancé John’s birthday, a Marriage Preparation Course, Easter and, of course, the start of the beekeeping season. The last throes of winter may be felt in February, but I feel spring will jump out suddenly.
The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Associations’ Beekeepers Day often feels like the start of the beekeeping season when beekeepers from in and around Middlesex gather to talk about bees and beekeeping. This year’s annual gathering was hosted by Barnet and District Beekeepers Association, on Saturday 20 February at Arkley Village Hall, in Arkley, Greater London.
There were three lectures by expert speakers, a wax exchange, and a general congregation of the Middlesex beekeeping associations for the Annual General Meeting. It was a bit of a trek from where I live in Ickenham to Arkley, I gave up at Edgware and got a cab. “I think we’ve arrived,” said the driver on seeing a beekeeper in full suit standing outside the village hall. It smelt of beeswax inside. I grabbed a seat and got out my notebook and pen ready for the first talk to begin.
This is a long post so I’ve made it easier to navigate with jump links.
Beekeepers Day 2016 lectures
1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.
2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper
3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.
1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.
The first lecture was given by Professor Linda M Field who works at Rothamsted Research on understanding insecticide mode of action and resistance at the biochemical/molecular level towards developing better pest control strategies. You can read about Professor Field’s research on the Rothamsted website. Her talk was about why we need and use pest-and-disease control, in particular focusing on a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics), which were subject to a restricted-use ban, preventing seed treatment on crops that flower, by the EU in 2013, and taking an overview of the current position on neonics in the UK given that the ban is due for review.
Professor Field opened her lecture looking at how to feed the world’s growing population, last estimated at around seven billion, with a large percentage of current agricultural crops dependent on pest-and-disease control like pesticides. This wasn’t intended to lead us down the path of different approaches to agriculture, but instead to frame a picture of why we have used pesticides in the past and continue to do so, and to explore whether pesticides and insect pollinators can ever go together.
Pesticides are made to kill insects that cause damage or disease to crops. Some examples of insects that are seen as pests in the UK are certain types of aphids and beetles. “Aphids are sap suckers. And although you need a lot of aphids to kill a plant, they can breed asexually,” said Professor Field. The peach-potato aphid spreads viruses to oilseed rape (OSR) and sugar beet. The grain aphid and the bird cherry oat aphid spreads viruses to cereals. As a reader of Don’t Forget the Roundabouts blog, I rather like aphids but I can understand how they could make themselves unpopular by sucking the sap out of crops.
Other pests to OSR crops include the pollen beetle and cabbage stem flea beetle, both of which have quite nice-sounding names.
Quick guide to the history of pesticide use
Professor Field gave a quick history of pesticides from 1940s DDT to today’s neonics. DDT, which everyone agreed was just bad news all round, was replaced by organophosphates and carbonates in the 1950s-70s but these were also quite toxic to both mammals and insects. In the mid-1970s new synthetic pyrethroids were seen as a breakthrough because they offered pest-and-disease control against insects with relatively low toxicity to mammals. Apparently the reason for the effectiveness of this group of chemicals was clearer for scientists to see in hindsight.
Pyrethroids bind with a particular protein in the nervous system which both insects and mammals have, but which is slightly different in insects and affects them differently. Pyrethroids were widely used till the 1990s when resistance developed and their use declined. This was when a new group of chemicals came on the market called neonicotinoids (neonics), which brings us up-to-date with where we are now.
Professor Field gave a nod to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which she said did a good job of raising awareness about the risks posed by certain chemical substances to the environment, and which is as relevant today as it was then. About 50 years later, as Andy Pedley later reminded me, Poison Spring by E.G. Vallianatos picks up where Carson left off.
I read Silent Spring. As a beekeeper and aromatherapist, and having been taught a natural approach to life by my grandmother, Rachel Carson’s words deeply resonate with me. However, my fiancé’s family are famers and my dad is a butcher, and I have a pragmatic view of the food industry.
Most of us worry about insecticides till their dog has fleas, the cat has ticks, or their children have lice, then they rush to buy insecticides from the pharmacy, commented the speaker. I could see that this was partly true, although my mum successfully treated our cats for fleas using garlic capsules in their food and my first resort to hair or skin afflictions might be lavender or tea tree oils.
Is the answer to always replace one pesticide with another? I’m not convinced that it is, nevertheless the search continues to find a pesticide that can target specific chemical pathways in insects seen as pests rather than those insects seen as beneficial, such as bees.
Pros and cons of neonics
We were shown some of the advantages and disadvantages of neonics:
- Selective. Neonics bind with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in insects which, since the pesticide’s introduction and subsequent widespread use, selectively binds to that receptor in insects but doesn’t bind as well to the same receptor in mammals.
Systemic. Neonics are systemic when used as a seed dressing, they travel up through the plant into the leaves and flowers. This was seen as a breakthrough because it meant avoiding spraying crops, which could be more costly and more damaging to local wildlife. However, neonics applied systemically have been found in trace amounts in nectar and pollen which might affect bees, including honeybees, solitaries, bumbles and so on. (I also wonder whether systemically applied pesticides are an advantage over spraying crops at certain times, such as when bees aren’t foraging.)
- Low resistance. Unlike other pesticides like pyrethroids, pests are so far taking a long time to develop a resistance to neonics.
So what are the problems with neonics?:
- Sub-lethal effects. Neonics end up in nectar and pollen at a very low dose which might still be harmful to bees. The pesticide may not kill bees directly but it may have a sub-lethal effect through low levels in nectar and pollen, which could have subtle effects on bee behaviour. It is these subtle effects that are not fully understood. I think it is also worrying because pollen is used by nurse bees to make brood food for larvae.
Where are we now with neonics?
On 24 May 2013 the EU implemented Regulation (EU) No 485/2013 to prohibit use of neonics, or more specifically clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, as seed treatment on crops that flower. Has the regulation made any difference to bees? Unfortunately the EU has not provided research funds to monitor the effects of the ban. Its most recent report Ecosystem services, agriculture and neonicotinoids (April 2015) by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) provides some conclusions, but I find it disappointing that more effort hasn’t been made to monitor the effect of the ban, and in closer collaboration with farmers, bee farmers, local wildlife groups, beekeepers and so on.
The EU report’s conclusions in summary (page 29):
- Ecosystem services provide significant economic benefits to agriculture. Maintaining strong functional ecosystem services is a critical part of a sustainable agricultural system.
- Biodiversity has significant positive impacts on the provision of ecosystem services but is also an objective in its own right under global and European international agreements.
- Insects providing ecosystem services have shown major declines in recent decades (pollinating wild bees, natural pest control providers, etc.).
- Protecting honey bees is not sufficient to protect pollination services and other ecosystem services. Honey bees have been the main focus in assessing the risks from neonicotinoid use, and much debate has focused on whether honey bee colonies are being affected. Yet the honey bee colony structure provides an exceptionally resilient buffer against losses of its foragers and workers. In contrast, bumble bees have just a few hundred workers at most, while solitary bees and other insects have no such buffering capacity.
- There is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target organisms that provide ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest control.
- There is clear scientific evidence for sublethal effects of very low levels of neonicotinoids over extended periods on non-target beneficial organisms. This should be addressed in EU approval procedures.
- Current practice of prophylactic usage of neonicotinoids is inconsistent with the basic principles of integrated pest management as expressed in the EU’s Sustainable Pesticides Directive.
- Widespread use of neonicotinoids (as well as other pesticides) constrains the potential for restoring biodiversity in farmland under the EU’s Agrienvironment Regulation.
Professor Fields felt that while there is an ‘increasing body of evidence’ about the negative effects on non-target organisms (5), she had also read research papers to the contrary. She also felt ‘prophylactic’ in this context was misleading as it implied that neonics were used on crops at times when they were not needed.
Unfortunately some pests come back when neonics are not used, such as the outbreak of cabbage stem flea beetle on OSR in autumn 2014. Pyrethroids were sprayed to protect crops, which are more damaging and largely failed due to pests’ previous resistance to the pesticide. In autumn 2015 the UK government did allow 5% of farmers to use neonics on OSR for those who saw a high level of resistance to pyrethroids in cabbage stem flea beetles. However, without adequate pest control farmers might choose not to grow OSR, which is an important source of forage for bees in certain areas, and turn to other crops like beans and pulses.
Perhaps we needed to start looking at the wider debate such as ‘land sharing’ and ‘land sparing’. In ‘land sharing’, farmland is shared with wild habitat to protect biodiversity and preserve agriculture. While this tends to protect a larger number of species, it is often the common species and not the rarer ones that are in greater need of protection. In ‘land sparing’, farmland is kept for agricultural use but other land is spared for wild habitats, and while this helps fewer species it tends to be the rarer species that are protected. For me, ‘land sparing’ by preserving more areas of wild habitat seems a better approach, but could we do it with growing, and ever-hungrier it seems, human populations?
We were shown the the COLOSS 2014–15 winter losses data for honeybee colonies in the UK and Europe, and a drop in overall honeybee colony losses, but also illustrated that honeybee losses are multifactorial, due to varroa, queen problems, and other influences.
We were still no closer to finding out whether pesticides and insect pollinators could ever work together. My feeling is that they probably can’t given that pesticides are designed to kill or harm insects. There are so many different types of bees from honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutters, miners, and each species has a slightly different biology that reacts slightly differently to pesticides like neonics. It’s a big ask for the next designer chemical to target specific chemical pathways in just target insects without subtly effecting the various chemical pathways of non-target beneficial organisms.
Professor Field looked at approaches to pest management other than pesticides:
- Biological control including the ‘lure and kill’ method which uses pheromones to trap pests in a small area and kill them with fungi.
- GM crops that could be used to repel pests, although I’m not convinced this would work or be greatly preferable to pesticides. It also opens up an entirely different debate.
- Crop rotation as a first resort before using pesticides.
A question from the audience probably drew a line under the discussion, for now. A retired microbiologist recalled the lessons that her generation of scientists had learnt with DDT, and thalidomide, which gave her misgivings about today’s new designer pesticides like neonics. Professor Field acknowledged this but asked: “How do we feed the world?”
The first lecture had given us all food for thought, something that would be the subject of the second lecture on honeybee nutrition.
A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.
2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper
From food for humans to food for bees, the second lecture of the day was by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper. Her talk focused on the importance of high-quality nutrition for honeybee health and why the honeybee colony needs a varied diet.
Like all animals, bees need nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and micronutrients) for energy to build and repair tissue, maintain essential organs, produce enzymes, and replace cells. The foods that provide these nutrients for bees are:
- Nectar: not just sugar and water, nectar provides carbohydrates, trace vitamins, and aromatic compounds.
- Pollen: is a precious source of protein with fat and minerals, vitamins, lipids, micronutrients, pigments and so on.
A good supply of nutrition to the honeybee colony is essential for all individuals inside the hive, including a healthy and productive queen. A brood frame that has capped worker brood with well-defined borders and stores of honey is one sign of a well-fed colony.
The metatarsus that rocks the cradle
A recurring theme in Pam’s talk was the influence that nurse bees have upon the colony. “Butterflies are horrendous and drop an egg on a leaf and fly off,” said Pam, “Whereas bees look after their larvae at every stage in their development.” In Pam’s view of the honeybee democracy, it is the nurse bees who control the colony with the queen, although well-fed and pampered, just an egg-laying slave.
Nurse bees’ hypopharyngeal gland develops at around six days after they hatch and this allows them to convert pollen into brood food. Protein-packed pollen is itself an essential nutrient in the development of the nurse bee’s hypopharyngeal gland. Younger larvae are fed brood food, made by the nurses’ hypopharyngeal gland, and older larvae are fed pollen.
Thus, pollen is an important nutrient in early spring which helps the hive to build up at the start of the season. A varied mix of pollen grains provide a wide variety of nutrition and this is preferable for the honeybee colony, as can sometimes be seen from the differently coloured pollen grains fallen out of the hive floor onto the varroa monitoring board below.
Pam showed us a figure of a hypopharyngeal gland in a young bee fed a protein-rich diet, which looked like a bunch of plump grapes, and a hypopharyngeal gland in an older forager bee fed largely carbohydrate-providing nectar, which looked like a bunch of dried grapes. It illustrated the difference that nutrition can make.
Made up of saccharides, or sugars, carbohydrates can be simple or complex molecules built from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and used by bees, like in all animals, for energy and storage.
- Polysaccharides are complex sugars such as glycogen and chitin, the latter of which is the tough outer wall of bees and other insects.
- Oligosaccharides are made from 2–10 sugars.
- Disaccharides are made from two sugars.
- Monosaccharides are made from one sugar.
The hydrolysis of sucrose for energy involves the enzyme sucrase which converts it to glucose and fructose. Most nectars contain glucose and fructose hydrolised from sucrose, but a few nectars have high levels of sucrose such as borage. Borage has so much sucrose, said Pam, that it required a change in honey regulations to accommodate it.
Storing nectar as honey is vital for the survival of the honeybee colony in winter, and it is why the honeybee colony can survive winter. In comparison to the Asian honeybee (Apis ceranae), the European honeybee (A. mellifera) appears to be a better honey producer. Pam observed the Asian honeybee doesn’t need to produce as much honey because it lives in smaller colonies and endures shorter winters. However, when humans first exported the European honeybee to Asia, and back again, they subsequently introduced the ‘harder-working’ honeybee to varroa.
The European honeybee needs on average 40kg of honey to overwinter, and around 200kg per year for the colony. There were lots of experienced beekeepers in the room who had heard this before, but I think it can never be said enough. With changing weather causing mild winters, later springs and wetter summers in some years, it’s seems more important than ever to assess whether the hives are building up enough honey stores for the season before taking the harvest.
Pros and cons of nectar
Nectar may be a superfood for bees but it’s not a perfect food.
Nectar starts as a weak watery solution with a mix of fructose and glucose, and some sucrose. Foraging bees collect nectar to return to the hive where it’s transferred from cell to cell between bees, mixed with their hypopharyngeal glands, and fanned with their wings until its water content evaporates to 20% and the honey is ready to cap. Pam took a moment to marvel at this: “Science needs machines to measure water content in nectar yet somehow the bees just know.”
Nectar may be valuable forage but the problem is its availability. It’s secreted by plants into nectaries and there are many factors that can affect its production, such as temperature, humidity, moisture, wind factor, sunshine (for example, dandelions only produce nectar following two hours in direct sunshine), time of day, and the age and vigour of the plant.
Pros and cons of pollen
Pollen is a less fragile source of forage and it provides all-important amino acids in protein that are necessary for animal growth. As most of us are familiar from school biology classes, proteins are large complex molecules which must be broken down into simpler components (amino acids) to be absorbed into tissue and then rebuilt into complex molecules again for the body’s needs. It is the same in bees, proteins are absorbed by the epithelial lining of a bee’s gut, which helps younger bees develop strong, healthily functioning bodies. Essential amino acids, such as those you might see on a cereal packet (eg arginine, lysine, and leucine) cannot be manufactured within the body (by humans or bees) and need to be provided by nutrition; arginine is not needed by humans but it is needed by bees.
Not all pollens are made equal. Around 20–30% of protein content in crude pollen is a good source for bees, but this can vary from plant to plant. For example, the protein content of Cupressus arizonica pollen is 2–3%, but this is to be expected from a wind-pollinated plant.
Unlike nectar which can be stored for long periods of time, pollen’s nutritional value decreases rapidly. “Get rid of pollen-clogged frames,” said Pam. After a year, the protein value of pollen decreases by 75%. Thus a fresh supply of pollen is needed all year round. Plants like late Michaelmass daisies and sedum in autumn provide protein for hives going into winter, and hazel catkins early in the year provide protein for colonies building up in spring. “Hazel is wind-pollinated but bees can be opportunistic and will take the pollen nonetheless.”
A wide range of vitamins are found in pollen, especially water-soluble ones, such as B complex vitamins like biotin, riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid and so on.
Vitamin C is present in large quantities in most pollen and also fat soluble vitamins like A and K. Then there are around 3-8% of trace minerals and pigments, plus carotenoids and polyphenols. And, of course, throw in flavonoids which are always good (pollen is like chocolate and wine for bees!).
“While you can get all these goodies from pollen, it’s not a panacea for humans.” A lot of pollen is needed to have any sort of healthful effect on humans, and it must be fresh, by which time the honeybee colony has been depleted of an essential nutrient. I particularly agree with this. Whereas honey can be produced in surplus, other products of the hive such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly generally are not, and I prefer not to harvest these because the bees need them more.
Fat is needed for muscle contraction, conducting nerve impulses, and for cell membranes. It’s also needed for larval growth and development as larvae fed an inadequate supply of fat can have an increase in deficiencies, explained Pam. Although, she added, some lipids could inhibit brood production but this was not much understood.
Fat is important for those house bees going into winter and living off fat reserves for up to six months. There is a significant difference in the fatty bodies stored by winter bees compared to summer workers and, like pollen, fat is an important nutrient to the colony during the spring build-up and autumn preparations for winter.
Goldilocks and the bees
Larvae in eusocial insects are more dependent on stable nutrition and regular temperature. Their fragility is similar to the adult bees who, despite being opportunists, depend on their environment and nutrition being ‘just right’.
Nurse bees decide what’s taken from foragers – nectar, pollen, water and so on – and in doing so, they tell foragers what they want and need for the good of the colony. Pam feels they judge it well to decide what nutrition is needed by the hive to:
- produce a strong queen who has been fed well at larval stage.
- build up the hive’s reserves for times of dearth or winter.
- continually feed adults who have fewer fat reserves and lower glycogen than larvae.
Pam explained fewer pollen supplies can reduce the amount of larvae produced or even lead to larvae being canabalised. Poor quality pollen could reduce immunity, thus a mixture of pollen is best. A study by Degrandi and Hoffman et al (2010) suggested that levels of viruses can be reduced within the colony if it is fed sufficient levels of pollen.
A deficiency of pollen can cause the hypopharyngeal gland in nurse bees to be less well developed, which would impact the brood food they produce, and could cause colonies to become aggressive; although I’ve noticed a lack of forage in general (nectar and pollen) and a lack of brood can cause colonies to become more irritable. Little wonder if the colony is hungry or does not have enough to do (is bored) with fewer brood to rear. Uncapped brood also produces a pheromone to stimulate pollen collection and the hypopharyngeal gland to develop. It is a reminder how wonderfully interconnected the world of the honeybee is.
Variety is the spice of life
Pam concluded that bees need a variety of good-quality food to stay healthy. She quoted a study that the longevity of bees can be affected by the quality of the pollen that they eat. (Schmidt et al Journal Econ Entomol 88 1591 (1995)). For example, bees feeding on rapeseed pollen lived 51 days longer, whereas bees feeding on sunflower pollen lived for 31 days. There were vast areas of sunflowers near French farms at the time of banning neonics, said Pam, could the less nutritious sunflower pollen have been another factor affecting bee longevity? “But bees love sunflower pollen even if it is not as good for them as rapeseed.”
I enjoyed Pam’s although I was familiar with most of it. It makes good sense that high-quality nutrition and a varied diet is as important to the health of the honeybee colony as it is to all animals. Along with pesticides, forage is another important factor affecting all bees and insect pollinators and with spring fast approaching, beekeepers will be mindful of what’s flowering in their local area.
Pam also recommended the resource: Somerville, Doug (2005) Fat Bees Skinny Bees, A manual on honey bee nutrition for beekeepers. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Australia.
3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.
The third talk of the day was as topical as spring forage. For beekeepers who have lots of beeswax – and that’s a lot of us – Dr Sara Robb’s lecture was brimming with ideas of how to clear up last year’s honey-and-wax buckets before the start of the season.
Dr Robb studied neuroscience in Pennsylvania, US, before finding her way to Scotland then England, where she started to make soap. The scientist was a meticulous soap-maker, but she grew impatient till one day she threw away the thermometer, “Soap had been made for centuries without thermometers”, and came up with same-day soap. When a Polish neighbour brought back a gift of honey from Poland, Dr Robb decided to make honey soap for her baby Jasmine. One bar and she was sold. The soap was beautifully fragranced and moisturising and worked wonders as a baby bath.
Dr Robb’s talk covered a beekeepers’ favourite – what to make with honey and beeswax: “I’m not a beekeeper but I am a beekeeper groupie.”
The products of the hive, such as honey and beeswax, can be added to many cosmetics, which in the EU is anything that is applied to the body from toothpaste to shampoo. Bee products can be used to make lip balm, body butters, cerate, cream, soap, and more.
Dr Robb gave a summary of why we use honey, beeswax and propolis for their cosmetic properties:
- Beeswax (Cera alba) – emollient, emulsifying, film foraging, perfuming.
- Honey (Mel) – emollient, humectant, moisturising; add small amounts to soap transforms it and different types of honey lends different fragrances and characteristics to cosmetics; Dr Robb feels honey is more moisturising than beeswax.
- Propolis (Propolis cera) – antiseborrhoeic, moisturising, smoothing; good for acne, problem skin, improves roughness and irregularities.
Cosmetics can be made easily using equipment that most people have in their kitchen including scales, a microwave or stove, handmixer, bowls, spoons and containers. There are three main methods of making cosmetics:
- Mixtures: lip balms, body butter, waxeline, cerate.
- Emulsions: moisture cream, body lotion.
- Chemical synthesis: soap (ingredients + chemical reaction = product).
Dr Robb explained the chemical synthesis of soap is by saponification: hydroxide + triglycerides = soap + glycerine.
Soap can be made using various ingredients from oils (olive, sunflower, rape, almond, coconut), butters (cocoa, shea), fats (lard, tallow, vegetable), waxes (beeswax, plant). While people tend not to use fat for making soap at home anymore, commercial soaps may contain tallow. Dr Robb noted that beeswax doesn’t saponify well and has a higher melt temperature, which can make it difficult to use for homemade soap.
Soap-maker’s top tips
As soap-making is Dr Robb’s specialty, she gave us some top tips on what we need to know before getting started.
- The precise amount of sodium hydroxide needed for soap to saponify must be calculated against the given oils used in the recipe. It’s really important to get this right because a soap with a high pH can be dangerous to use as it could burn skin.
- Olive, coconut and sunflower oils are good for lathering, although olive oil lathers the least. Dr Robb avoids using almond oil in case people have nut allergies.
- Lovely colours and subtle fragrances can be added to soap from adding just a small amount of honey.
Waxeline: While candle-making is the most likely way to use up all the leftover beeswax at the end of summer, Dr Robb likes using wax for simple recipes such as alternatives to shop-bought cosmetics. One of her favourites is waxeline (her twist on Vaseline) made from 40g beeswax and 160g rapeseed oil.
Cerate: She makes cerate mixture, originally made with animal fat, using: 40g beeswax, 80g olive oil, and 80g honey. It is all thrown together and mixed, melted and stirred till emulsified. A cerate mixture is like a healing salve that coats a small area of skin. The recipe is similar to balms that I make to deeply moisturise dry, cracked heels or soften rough skin on elbows.
Emulsions: Emulsions are also easy to make from beeswax, cocoa butter, rapeseed oil and water. Again, Dr Robb likes the easy method of throwing all the ingredients together, heating, mixing, and melting to make a beautiful emulsion. Once the base is made then honey, fragrances and preservatives can be added to make various emulsion products.
During the Q&A we got more top tips about the ingredients that make emulsions and creams easy to use and longer lasting:
- Distilled water can be substituted for a good-quality mineral water, but adding water still shortens the shelf life and any product that contains water needs a preservative.
- Vitamin E can be used as antioxidant but not as a preservative because it won’t inhibit fungal or bacterial growth.
- Honey should be added in tiny amounts to emulsions and creams, particularly those worn during the day otherwise you may feel quite sticky!
Selling cosmetics in the EU
After formulating the perfect recipe, Dr Robb explained a little of what is involved in selling a cosmetic in the EU.
- You need to prepare a Product Information Pack (PIP) and send the recipe, with a sample if it contains water, for a safety assessment, and a challenge test for aqueous products, to go through the Cosmetics Products Notification Portal (CPNP). You can find out more about the regulations for selling cosmetics here. The challenge test for recipes with water is squirting a cocktail of bacteria and fungus into a sample and monitoring their growth.
- For beekeepers using their own beeswax in recipes, the beeswax needs to be analysed before use.
- Products need to labelled correctly, including address, batch no/use-by date, weight, and ingredients listed in the correct nomenclature.
As Dr Robb closed her talk, I felt motivated to get to work on the last buckets of honey-and-wax gubbins from last year’s harvest. But it was pouring with rain outside Arkley Village Hall and there was still a wax exchange, an AGM, and a two-hour journey home to go. My enthusiasm would have to wait.
You can read more about Dr Sara Robb’s wonderful products and recipes on her website.
The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016 had been a great success, three brilliant lectures, and an opportunity for the associations to get together to talk about their beekeeping experiences. Thanks very much to Barnet and District Beekeepers Association for organising a great day.
A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.
It has been a while since I’ve been to a Beekeepers Day due to work the past two years and then moving house. Here is my write up to a lecture in 2012.
Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2012: Disappearing bees or countdown to catastrophe
Life can’t always be honey
Pepper’s colony had eaten their first block of winter fondant. The hive had lost weight and it was possible to heft the boxes slightly off the stand. I stared down the hole of the crownboard into the dark abyss of empty honeycomb. There was no sign of activity. Then a single worker crawled up a wall and stopped a few inches beneath the crownboard. She stared back as I slowly lowered a new block of fondant over the hole.
The neighbouring hive belonging to Pepper’s daughter, Peppermint, had become heavier over winter. The workers seemed to have made good use of the milder days to find forage for stores. I lifted the insulation to discover a small crowd of bees had found their way under the roof. They looked like young bees judging from their soft fuzzy thoraxes and perfectly shiny folded wings. They were too busy exploring the new space to notice me. I put back the insulation and closed the roof.
Melissa’s hive had plenty of fondant under the roof and the boxes were still too heavy to heft. This is our longest-standing hive which has been carried through five winters by the same line of queens. I try not to think too much about Melissa’s hive in winter other than hope for the best in spring.
I slipped the varroa boards under the hives to monitor the mite drop for February. It was a windy and damp afternoon, the sort of day to stay at home in the dry and warm. There was little activity outside the hive entrances, although Emily and I had seen the bees flying for a few weekends in January.
Trying my best not to disturb the colonies, I quietly knelt down at the entrances to look through the mouseguards and saw light shining under the metal mesh floors. This reassured me that piles of dead bodies weren’t accumulating at the bottom of the hive and blocking the entrance for surviving workers. But to prove I wasn’t as stealthy as I thought, workers from all three hives flew out to investigate my activity. They soon settled down and perched on the chicken wire wrapped around the hive boxes.
“Life can’t always be honey,” my grandmother had said in the last few days of her own incredible life. It’s true. In February the frosts aren’t quite finished even as the first crocuses and daffodils come into bloom. The two strongest colonies had plentiful stores going into winter and even the weakest had sufficient to last till early spring, but was it enough for a mild winter when the queen continued to lay and the workers continued to consume honey almost as they did in summer? On the coldest days in February the bees would need to keep warm while sending out workers to reach the fondant or remnants of honey at the furthest frames of the hive. On warmer days the workers could take advantage of the year’s early forage of hazel catkins and snowdrops to replace their stores.
Thinking of my grandmother’s words at the entrance of the hives, I whispered to the bees to persevere for a few more weeks, because it might be difficult now but a good spring is around the corner.
Bee Merry it’s Christmas!
A beekeeper’s notes for December
Winter hasn’t come for the bees. They were enjoying the mild weather today bringing home lots of pollen. A drone sat comfortably on a hive roof looking well fed and a young-looking worker was resting on the side of the hive boxes. Else was over-the-moon about the unseasonably warm weather, which brought back memories of Christmas in Australia. She produced a box of deliciously festive cup cakes to cheer up the British beekeepers complaining about the prospect of a sunny Christmas.
The cakes were baked by Else’s friend and were scrumptious with raisin-and-spice sponge and frosted-chocolate icing.
The unseasonably warm weather meant it was unlikely that the hives would be treated with oxalic acid today. The bees hadn’t slowed down for Christmas. “One hive is heavier now than when I put on the fondant in October,” said Andy. He had treated his hives last month during a brief cold snap on a day when the bees were less likely to be active and protest about being disturbed.
Oxalic acid is usually given as a midwinter treatment when the days are frosty and there is little or no brood inside the hive. It’s most effective when applied during broodless periods, or as close to broodless as you can get, because the varroa have fewer places to hide. The fixed points on the beekeeping calendar are turning as the seasons become uncertain, however. Perhaps it’s best to say the bees can be treated with oxalic acid when the weather is wintry and conditions inside the hive are right, rather than in the winter. That’s assuming you treat your hives to oxalic acid.
After tea and cake, Emily and I checked that our three hives still had enough stores. Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives were a generous weight when hefted and Peppermint’s hive had also pulled off the trick of getting heavier since putting on the fondant. The hive entrances were as busy as a mild spring day and the weight of the hives suggest the bees might be finding nectar as well as pollen to fill up the boxes.
Melissa’s bees has tucked into their fondant despite having two supers of honey at the end of autumn. These bees do like their sugar.
That done, we got the bees ready for Christmas with tinsel and festive decorations. The apiary needed a little sparkle if the frost wasn’t coming this year.
Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.