A year in the bee garden – September

The honeybees built the comb with bright yellow beeswax this summer and filled cells with vibrant orange-yellow pollen. Emily and I imagined that our bees had been visiting sunflowers.

The weeks have since flown by and Emily has now moved to Cornwall. After almost seven years of keeping bees together, I shall miss my hive-partner-in-crime very much, but I will continue to follow Emily’s adventures in beeland as she discovers the bees and wildlife of the west country.

Meanwhile back in London, the sunflowers are in full bloom in our garden.

The sunflowers were a gift from the garden of John’s aunt and uncle, Jo and Brian, who live in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. We had visited them earlier in the summer for the Hay-on-Wye Festival and came home not only with books but sunflower seedlings and a rowan tree sapling.

Today I caught a carder bee on the sunflower – her face full of pollen.

Summer has turned into autumn and the bees are busy foraging for every last drop of nectar and dusting of pollen that the garden has to offer.

The gardener’s year, I think like the beekeeper’s year, begins in September. The honeybees clear out the nest by throwing out the drones and the queen lays fewer eggs as the brood nest becomes smaller with more space instead for winter stores. In the garden, it is a good time of year to clear out weeds and prune back overgrown plants to make space for what you will grow next summer.

This was the first weekend that I have had free from work for a couple of months, and the sun has been shining. I made a start in the garden by pulling up the weeds around the apple tree and working the soil into a fine crumble ready to scatter the toadflax seeds.

A toadflax meadow had sprung up between the gravel this summer, but the flowers were now fading and the seed pods beginning to burst open. I moved as many of the toadflax as I could from the gravel to the apple tree bed and into large containers to let the seeds fall where I want the flowers to grow next year.

The apple tree bed is prone to weeds, but toadflax seedlings are easy to recognise (see above) with their narrow spiral of pale-green leaves and are less likely to be weeded out by mistake.

The carder bees buzzed around me as I moved the toadflax that was still flowering to the containers and then inspected my work to make sure it matched their standards.

I uncovered some slugs and snails, and moved them to another patch of weeds that I plan on tackling next weekend. They can munch on these in the meantime.

While I was moving this snail, I noticed that she had a little hitchhiker on her back. Mum and baby are now happily eating up my bindweed, I hope.

That done, I left the garden to go indoors. It wasn’t long before John called me outside again. He had been mowing the lawn and spotted a rare visitor perched on the roof.

We stood on the decking to take photos of the heron who looked unimpressed with the cage around the fish pond.

And then he was off!

Everything ends and starts again in autumn. As Emily and I move on to our new adventures – from bees in Cornwall to wildlife gardens in Ickenham – I hope that we will always be inspired by the natural world around us and that our paths will one day cross again beside the hives.

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Life in the garden

The selfish ivy had taken everything out of the soil for itself. As I dug up the echinacea, verbena and thyme to replant in pots, I realised that few but the most stubborn plants would grow in this unfriendly earth. Further along the walled bed, two small trees had littered the soil with fallen leaves and not even the Japanese anemone nor the lemon balm would venture any further into the shade.

Then I had an idea. Bees, butterflies and other garden visitors need water as well as food. If I couldn’t grow any flowers for wildlife to eat, then I would give it a place to drink instead.

A cinnabar moth resting on a cool leaf. Non-flowering foliage is as important as the flowers in the garden, because it provides a place for wildlife to hide, shelter and rest.

A quick search around the house and garden and I found everything that I needed to create two mini-wildlife ponds.

Tip: The garden is a great place to find new uses for old things. I also feel that we rely too much on recycling. The next time you think about buying garden accessories have a look around the home or second-hand shops first. A bucket with a broken handle could make a frog pond, a cracked flower pot for a toad house, chipped cups for bird feeders and old serving forks and spoons can be used as stakes for plants.

An empty plastic container and a stained washing-up bowl – both in the queue for a trip to Harefield’s recycling skip – were just the right sizes for my mini ponds. I dug a hole in the earth for each and buried the bowls up to the rims to make it easy for hedgehogs to stop by and dip in for a drink.

The ivy is home to many creatures in our garden, including spiders who usually walk out on their webs when I disturb them doing the gardening.

Next, I poured gravel into the bottom and made a pile of stone ‘steps’ for frogs, toads or newts to climb in and out. Larger stones and broken paving slabs surrounded the edges. That done, I filled up the ponds with tap water – and some dechlorinator (it hasn’t rained enough lately to collect rainwater in buckets) – and added duckweed and hornwort from the larger fish and frog ponds.

Tip: Duckweed and hornwort can quickly grow and become a nuisance. I find it easy to manage by removing a handful now and then as compost for the garden or to put into the bird bath and rain buckets. The plants seem to keep the still water clear and to deter mosquito larvae as well.

Finally, a few pieces of crockery filled with pebbles made watering holes for thirsty insects. Here are the results:

It wasn’t long before the frogs, and the snails, found the new garden ponds.

A walk in the garden at night revealed that a lot of wildlife comes out after the dark like this trail of snails climbing over the plant labels to the pond.

Although some still prefer our more established frog pond.

We have a lot of slugs in the garden too, but, as you might guess, we don’t use slug-and-snail pellets. Any slugs that I find on the Japanese anemone, which is their favourite thing, are put on the compost bins where they can eat to their hearts’ content.

The mini-wildlife ponds are also the perfect place for baby snails but overall life in the garden sorts itself out, and the frogs seem to keep the slug and snail population in balance.

As you might imagine, our garden is also pesticide-free and weedkiller-free. In fact, I was once told by a gardener, when asking about how to control the bamboo and bindweed last year, that the bees don’t mind Roundup. I didn’t believe him and I’m glad to say that we found another gardener willing to dig out the bamboo (an expert job because its roots were entwined around the roots of the smoke tree) rather than poison it. Meanwhile, John and I weeded out the bindweed and covered the area using garden sheeting and gravel.

We’ll never be rid of either (bindweed seeds, for example, can live in the soil for many years), but we manage both quite well by physical methods – digging, hoeing and weeding.

The old bamboo grove is now used as a bird-feeding station. Here, the birds can feast on fat balls and splash about in the bath and make as much mess as they want on the rhizome-riddled earth. The area is sheltered by the smoke tree and bushes to allow small birds to make a quick exit if the sparrowhawk flies past.

As a thank you, the birds have left us some beautiful flowers this year from other gardens, such as this love-in-a-mist. Birds are very good gardeners.

Life is always very busy in the garden.

After the bamboo was cut down, several thistles sprung up in its place. John and I kept the largest thistle next to the fence for the sweat bees. It has been a popular breakfast bar.

On the gravel patch, I planned to plant mini-wildflower meadows in pots but the garden had other ideas. This summer’s surprise is the butterfly-and-caterpillar habitat that has sprung up in the form of a toadflax meadow.

The carder bees also buzz around the purple flowers all day long – toadflax is a rewarding plant for wildlife.

While my mason bees that I ordered earlier in spring fell victim to the backwinter and an army of ants, a single local mason bee found the insect hotel when the weather warmed up again. She worked very hard for almost a month to fill as many tubes as possible with her eggs and food for her larvae.

The mason bee was too busy to keep up with her housework this year and often left piles of yellow pollen outside her front door.

Sometimes she had a lie-in on a Sunday morning.

I last saw our mason bee resting on the fence, her exhausted and bedraggled body fit to drop, and then she was gone. A fortnight later, I realised that she wasn’t coming back and that three of the tubes were only partly finished. So I completed her work by making mud plugs myself and hoped for the best for next spring.

The leafcutters moved in next and have been busy filling up the remaining tubes.

Another resident has been watching their progress with interest.

As far as I can tell, he has not caused any mischief and so has not been evicted.

The ants made up for their earlier destruction of my mason bee cocoons by allowing me to watch this year’s queens fly away to start new nests. They didn’t fly very far it seemed and probably we will have more ant nests on the lawn again.

The honeybees returned after the June gap for their annual crop of a flowering shrub around the fir tree. As a beekeeper, I have an interest in planting a garden that is pleasing to bees. This summer, the salvia and scabiosa have been the clear winners, probably because they have flourished and grown rapidly in the sun. The honeybees have also discovered the lemon balm which is in flower and a few bumble bees have opted for the more traditional choice of our lavender bush.

The scabiosa has been busy entertaining bee and hoverfly visitors all day long. This carder bee can’t wait to get in on the action.

I’m also delighted that our myrtle tree is in flower for the first time since it was planted in the garden, although it has not yet produced enough flowers to delight the pollinators.

Of course, it’s not all about the birds and the bees. On occasion, we have human visitors too.

My mum and stepdad enjoying Sunday lunch in the garden yesterday.

They provide something interesting for the fish to look at.

Life in the garden is precarious and it can all change as quickly as it came. Already the plants seem too far ahead of the season and the blackberries are beginning to ripen over the fence. I have found a new hobby in collecting my own seeds and cuttings to grow more of the plants and flowers that the wildlife in our garden loves most. Bluebell bulbs can be divided and planted under the smoke tree in autumn, seeds are being collected from the salvia and seedheads from the scabiosa to provide more forage for next year’s bees, and the toadflax and rose campion ‘alba’ are being encouraged to sprout everywhere for next year’s butterflies.

This week on BBC begins The British Garden: Life and Death on Your Lawn looking at how well British gardens support wildlife. From the frog ponds in the shady flower beds to the compost bins and piles of logs and leaves, I like to think that our garden supports a lot of wildlife and that there is still much more to discover beyond our back door.

 

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

What the bees did

“The bees don’t listen, do they?” said Jonesy. John Chapple and I nodded in agreement.

Alan had put on the kettle to make tea as we sat under the shade at the apiary table and shared stories about misbehaving bees.

Last weekend, it was a gloriously hot and sunny Saturday afternoon and the nectar, as well as the conversation, was in full flow. Emily and I had inspected our three hives and found that the honeybees were not wasting a second of the good weather either.

We had arrived at noon before the other beekeepers to carry out a thorough inspection of a suspected queenless colony. The queen was last seen three weeks ago by myself and Jochen. She was big, orange and beautiful. But she had since failed to lay a single egg and the colony was dwindling without brood or stores.

Eggs can be tricky to see on the comb until you know what you’re looking for – one tiny grain of ‘rice’ sticking up from the middle of a cell. Here I’ve ringed two eggs laid by Queen Angelica.

TIP: I have since learned from anecdotal sources that a virgin queen can be large rather than small and so appear to be mated, or, of course, a mated queen may look big and beautiful but may not have mated well. The only proof of a successfully mated queen is seeing eggs, larvae and worker-brood on the frames. Thanks to the Women in Beekeeping Facebook Group for that tip!

While waiting for her majesty to settle into her egg-laying duties (which can sometimes take a few weeks depending on the conditions inside and outside the hive), Emily and I had reduced the colony to one hive box by encouraging the bees to rob out the super above and take the honey down below. This would make it easier to search for a missing queen or to combine the hive, if it truly was queenless, with a queen-right colony.

Going through the frames, there was no sign of a queen or eggs and we were about to reach for the newspaper to unite colonies when at the eleventh hour (or the tenth frame) Emily spotted a queen. She was not the giant orange beauty but a smaller, darker queen, and as I held up the frame we watched her release an egg from her ovipositor and carefully deposit it into a cell, surrounded by a retinue of attentive workers.

After so many years of keeping bees, it is still a sight to see the queen in action. And with no other eggs seen inside the hive, perhaps we had watched her lay the first egg.

I also never get tired of seeing a bee emerge from her cell by chewing away the wax capping. 

What happened to the orange queen? I had put a frame with four or five queen cells (two looked particularly promising) into the hive on the weekend of the first May bank holiday. This was an attempt to requeen the colony after the old queen, Patience, had disappeared without leaving behind any daughters. Had more than one queen emerged? Perhaps this dark mystery queen had killed her sister for the throne?

Or did the orange beauty get eaten by a bird or fly into a spider’s web on her mating flight, (a queen’s mating flight can be a perilous journey), or even fly away in a cast-off swarm? We’ll never know.

The hive was not out of the woods. The new queen and her old workers faced the huge task of rebuilding the nest. So Emily and I put in a frame from our stronger colony and refilled the syrup feeder above the crownboard.

John arrived as we closed up. He had a surprise to show us.

A wasp queen and her workers had also been busy nest building and their creation was a work of art. I’m not sure if this is a paper wasp nest or a wood wasp. Does anyone know?

What we named the queens

A heatwave was about to hit London (this time last week) and I hoped that the foragers would fly home with stomachs full of nectar and baskets heavy with pollen for all three queens and their colonies.

Emily and I name our queens after essential oils – partly because I’m an aromatherapist and had started this tradition with my first hive, and partly because of the intricate relationship that exists between the honeybee and these vital essences of flowers.

The queen of our largest hive – an amber-and-black striped amazon – is named after the essential oil of everlasting, because she comes from such a long line of queens. The queen of the nuc hive – who has a long dark tail with orange–brown flecks – is named after the essential oil of angelica, which reflects the angelic nature of our bees. And the newest queen – who is small and dark – is called Rose-Jasmine (RJ) as these were the names of Emily and my first queens respectively at around the time that we became hive partners in 2011.

I’ve added the new queens to our honeybee-family tree:

What the bees did next

When the hottest day for forty years arrived on Wednesday (sounds biblical doesn’t it) and temperatures in London soared to almost 35°C, I went to the apiary to put a super on Everlasting’s hive and to transfer Angelica’s colony from the polynuc to a full-size hive. This was to give the bees more space and to stop them from having ideas about swarming.

On Saturday I was eager to open up the hives and find out what the bees had done during the heatwave. Everlasting and Angelica were building up their brood nests nicely. Rose-Jasmine did not show herself again and disappointingly had not laid any more eggs. Had yet another queen failed for this unlucky colony?

Emily and I looked at the signs. The workers had drawn out honeycomb on a new frame and were forming strings of wax builders, polishing out cells, bringing home pollen and glistening nectar, and behaving calmly and purposefully – all of which suggests that a queen was present and keeping the colony working as a whole. There were no signs of laying workers, which might have suggested that the queen was gone.

When the workers prepare to swarm, they starve the queen to make her skinny to fly and to slow down her egg-laying. Perhaps something similar was happening here. The workers were not preparing to swarm, but they had not brought home much nectar and the queen might be simply too hungry to lay eggs.

We decided to give the colony one more chance by feeding it as much as possible for the next two weeks to see if this will stimulate the queen to lay. If she doesn’t produce the goods, then she may lose her throne. We’ll have to wait and see.

The queen drama in June reminded me that the bees never put all their eggs in one basket. The workers may build up to sixteen queen cells to make a new queen even though the colony needs only one. To make life you need a lot of chances.

Queen Hope left behind at least two daughters who have proven to be good egg-layers for their colonies. Here is Everlasting with her long beautiful orange tail and black markings – I think she has the looks of her great, great, great, great grandmother Neroli.

This is something that particularly hits home for me. In the past twelve months, my husband and I have had two failed IVF cycles and the loss that comes with it. It can take some time to move on from that.

That is why I felt a pang at the idea of taking down any of the queen cells in May, and instead used them to requeen the queenless colony and to create a split colony in the nuc. It is a pleasure to see that all three colonies did produce a queen and that two, at least, are alive and laying. And as ever, it feels like a privilege that the bees tolerate and allow me to be a part of their world.

That done, Emily and I helped John Chapple to take off some honey from his hives and then we all had a well-deserved sit down and a slice of cake at the apiary table. You can read about the cake in my previous post, in which Stan did the honours of cutting it with a hive tool.

Tom was giving a beginners session on queen-rearing by showing the beginners how to graft young larvae onto starter cells. Yet more queen drama about to begin at Ealing apiary!

Last weekend, my husband John discovered a butterfly meadow just around the corner from where we live and took me to see it as a surprise. I’ve never seen so many butterflies. So you see, you never know what lies around the corner in life and that’s why it’s a good idea to enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.

This weekend rain is forecast for the week ahead and to be honest it is needed for the trees and flowers to continue producing nectar for the bees, butterflies and other pollinators. After that, the sun is welcome to come again.

The backwinter

In Finland a cold snap in spring is called ‘backwinter’, because winter has come back. Yet it was only a few weeks ago in April that everything was coming to life in the garden.

As this is my first year as a Maund, I took a photo of these delicate white blooms on a shrubby bush on Maundy Thursday, which fell on Thursday 13 April. In the Christian calendar Maundy Thursday marks the beginning of the three-day period before Easter, while in many Pagan beliefs it was Green Thursday and celebrated the return of nature in spring. Until not so very long ago, and perhaps it happens still, it was traditional for country churches to decorate the altar with white-and-green flowers for Maundy Thursday.

But on the first of May the unopened buds were stubbornly refusing to wake up and everything was cold and still in the garden once more. In London winter coats have made a comeback. I was tempted to pick a bunch of the white flowers for a vase in the kitchen window, before they all fell off, but then remembered that there is a wealth of folklore warning us not to pick white blossoms and bring them indoors, unless you also want to invite misfortune.

My mason bees have not yet emerged from their cocoons and now I fear they won’t. Even if they do awake, our apple blossom has fallen and the dandelions have gone to seed puffs. All that remains of spring is the memory of glorious yellow lions on the lawn shaking their manes at the sun, pretty cowslips gathering in hedgerows and bright orange marmalade flies hovering on leaves (both the marmalade fly and the cowslips below taken on a visit to the old cathedral city of Wells in April).

The tiniest flowers in the garden, escapees from the wild, appear to be the hardiest like this Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), I think, growing around the apple tree. If it is a Herb Robert, then it’s also known as dragon’s blood. Well, just look at those splendid red claws.

In the pond the frogs have returned, but they too were fooled by the warmer temperatures in spring and spawned too early. The frog spawn became frothy with the black eggs turning white as temperatures dropped, and it has now all dissolved away. So it seems we will have no tadpoles either this year. At least the frogs have the fish for company.

And the occasional eyes-in-the-sky to stare at.

At the apiary the queens are coming. It seems that the bees do sometimes read my blog. Last bank holiday Monday, I found five queen cells (three unsealed) in Hope’s hive (Hope was still inside the hive) and all were on an old brood frame that needed to be swapped for a new frame. I took out the queen cells to give to Patience’s hive (who are so ill-tempered they are most likely queenless) and gave Hope’s hive another new brood frame (well, two actually) to play with. As there were no other queen cells (that I could see) in Hope’s hive, and the bees had two new frames to work and a cold week ahead, I thought it was safe to close up and wait till Saturday to inspect again. Not so.

Yesterday, we found out that the bees had not been told about backwinter and they had been very busy. During the beginner session at the apiary, around three or four frames (maybe more but it was difficult to keep count during the class) had queen cells – some sealed and some unsealed – and this time the queen could not be found. Instead, we did a split of the hive by removing a frame of queen cells and putting these with some frames of brood, bees and stores in the polynuc. After the past year of failed queens, I’m not going to complain about having too many queens this year!

In Patience’s hive the queen cells were still intact and being nursed, it seemed, by the workers. So we have three hives waiting for new queens to emerge. Quite exciting!

After the beginners had left the apiary, Jochen and I went with John Chapple to look at his hives, which are all doing well after their shook swarms, with the exception of one that might be headed by a drone layer or else entirely queenless. John had brought a few empty queen cells for show-and-tell earlier and Kathy had talked about dealing with queen cells, splits and culls.

For me, the queen cell shown above was a rare glimpse into the secret life of the honeybee queen. It had been found perfectly intact and before the workers could efficiently take it down to make use of the wax. You can see where the virgin queen had carefully ‘taken off the lid’ as she emerged from her cell into the complete darkness of the hive. As I held the cell in my hand, I wondered whether she was the first of her sisters to emerge and whether she would stay to rule the hive or fly off in a swarm. But even when still inside their cells, the ‘unborn’ queens sometimes ‘quack’ to make the others aware of their presence and of the deadly duals that may follow if they cross each other’s path after emergence.

As a beekeeper I can only wait-and-see which queens will emerge first in our hives – and keep my fingers crossed for a ‘backspring’ to welcome them.

From one secret dark place of the earth to another – mysterious glowing eggs seen in the caves at Cheddar Gorge in April. I’ll leave you to contemplate this strange mystery, while the bees are left to theirs.

Springing to life

Spring is such an exciting time of year with everything springing to life. I picked the dandelions off the lawn yesterday, before John mowed, to save them for a salve. There are plenty of dandelions left in the flower beds for the bees and other pollinators.

I love these golden flowers that open like bright stars to greet the sun or which sometimes seem to resemble a fluffy lion’s mane. How can they be called weeds? Folklorists suggest that dandelions were once a ‘shepherd’s clock’ because they open at sunrise and close at sunset. As the dandelions in the garden were all wide open, I took it as an indication that it would be a good day for beekeeping.

At the apiary both mine and Emily’s hives were flying well. I arrived to get started before the crowds – the Grand National was on later and I didn’t want to miss the start. First, a look inside Hope’s hive.

Emily had moved this colony from the polynuc to a full-sized hive last weekend and I wanted to see how they were doing (also, congratulations Emily for winning the Walton’s blog award!). As you can see they are doing very well, almost bursting from the seams, in fact. It is such a different picture for this colony than for this time last spring where they had come out of winter very weak. I’m convinced that the insulation provided in the past year, and that spending the winter in a polynuc (thanks Thomas Bickerdike), has saved this colony from dying out.

Hope’s bees have really got back on their feet – well done girls! – and were buzzing very loudly and contentedly, it was a deep vibrating sound and not high pitched. They had taken down most of the honey from the beautiful honeycomb sculptures in the roof, which I removed without much fuss, and the workers in the brood box were drawing out fresh golden comb on the new frames.

I found Hope on the third frame in and caged her just in case I found queen cells further along. I didn’t find queen cells but took the opportunity, while the queen was caged, to take out two old brood frames, shaking off the bees, and to put in two new frames. We’re taking a frame-by-frame approach to the comb change for the hive this year. Because the bees have only just got back on their feet, a full shook swarm seems a bit harsh. They have been moved to a clean hive and only three old frames remain which we can swop out as they continue to build up.

Emily arrived as I was closing up and writing the hive records. As you can see, the bees are still trying to eat their homework.

Next, Emily looked inside Patience’s hive as a small group of visitors arrived and I busied myself with getting our hive equipment ready for a comb change for this colony, either at or after Easter. I could hear lots of questions being asked and all seemed to be going well.

Patience’s colony had been left to overwinter inside a brood box and a super with insulated frames and a ‘winter blanket’ around the hive. The queen had been laying in the super (as is probably to be expected when the queen excluder has been left off overwinter), but it was largely drone brood and could even be an advantage for the upcoming comb change.

The varroa mite tends to be more attracted to drone brood because drones have a longer period of gestation inside their cells – they emerge around day 22 to 24, unlike workers who emerge around day 21, or the queen who emerges around day 16. This is probably because the queen and workers have a lot more work to do inside the hive and are in more of a hurry to get started!

Where a lot of drone brood has been laid in the super, we might be carrying out effective chemical-free varroa control by getting rid of these frames during a comb change. We might use a decapping fork to decap the drone brood and see whether there are mites inside the cells before they are discarded.

While there were a lot of bees inside Patience’s hive, there was little brood, no eggs and no sight of the queen. But it is early days yet and the bees were well behaved and keeping busy. As usual, they probably have a much better idea of what is going on inside the hive than we do. So, we may give the colony and its queen a couple more weeks to pick up before making a decision about whether they need to be requeened or combined with Hope’s colony – the latter option only providing that they are healthy with low levels of disease.

As we were closing up, a worker bee managed to sting through my thin marigold gloves. I had a bad reaction to a sting several years ago – my first honeybee sting, in fact, and this was only my second – that had seen a short trip to A&E for some swelling and nausea. I put on some clove oil as my hand started to burn, which had an almost immediate effect on the pain, and went to sit down in the cool shade of the apiary benches. One of the apiary visitors also gave me an antihistamine.

Luckily, an hour or so passed and I felt fine. John picked me up and I was home in time to watch the Grand National. John had put a bet on for my horse, One for Arthur, which won by the way!

With the first smoker of the year having been lit, the bees looking in a much better position than they did last spring, and the dandelions marinating in olive oil in the sunshine, it had not been a bad day’s beekeeping.

Meantime, Emily, Tom and I have been nominated again for best beekeeping blogs by WhatShed. Ealing beekeeping blogs are really doing very well this year!

I plan on making some simple dandelion salves with the marinated oil and beeswax for hands and chapped skin after gardening. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dandelions have so many uses and were once considered a very useful herb in folk medicine and cooking. I wonder when we stopped noticing the usefulness of ‘weeds’? As Culpeper wrote in his Complete Herbal in the 17th century, the French and Dutch seemed to commonly use dandelions in spring, and to which he concluded with his usual tact that “foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people”.

Telling the bees

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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.

A beekeeper’s notes for December

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.