Telling the bees


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.


The Watch


A moving sunrise to sunset vigil at the Cenotaph in London on 23 October launched the 2014 Poppy Appeal. ‘The Watch’ was inspired by the repatriation of the Unknown Warrior in 1920 where Guards of the Watch kept vigil by the coffin.

I support the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal each year, because I believe it’s important to remember the brave soldiers who fought in past and present wars for the freedom to live as we choose. I pin my poppy brooch with pride when I remember the stories of my grandparents.

This story about my grandfather, Kenneth Spooner, was retold by my mother. It reminds me what a rascal he was!


The night before my grandfather went overseas to Europe, he left camp to visit a friend (a girlfriend, perhaps). As he was late getting back, the police called at his parents’ house in Norwood Green in London. Luckily, Ken returned to camp just as the trucks were leaving. His senior officer was furious and said: “I will deal with you Spooner, when we get back.” My grandfather never saw him again.

They crossed over to Europe at night, though not at the Normandy beaches, Ken said he was landed further along nearer to Belgium. It was pitch dark, except for the explosions, and my grandad’s troop had to climb across several rafts tied together to get to shore. Once on the beach, they were told to fight their way to the ‘green light’ in the distance. Ken couldn’t remember anything after that, except all the confusion and running across the sand with explosions all around him.


His next memory was driving an armoured car through the forest, which he volunteered to drive so that he would always have a place to sleep. Ken’s troop had the task of flushing out any remaining pockets of German aircraft.

From his memories and nightmares, my mum thinks this must have been my grandad’s most frightening experience during his service. So it reminds me of his great courage.


Eventually Ken came to Hamburg which he said was flattened by bombs, and the German children came to their camp to get food and shoes. That was how he eventually met my grandmother, which is, of course, another story.

I will never forget what an inspiration my grandparents were and I hope they would be proud that I wear my poppy today.


Has the June gap come early?

june gap

After spring has flowered and before summer has quite arrived, there is a lull in foliage in the UK and Ireland which is called ‘the June gap’. As nature takes a breath before the summer rush, there are some perennial plants in gardens that help to bridge the gap but usually not enough to satisfy all pollinators.

The June gap is significant in beekeeping because by this time most colonies have built up their numbers and have many more bees to feed, or they have been split after swarming and may be small, weak and low on stores. It is another date in the beekeeping calendar when hives might, suddenly and unexpectedly, need feeding. This year I wondered if the June gap had come early after finding our colonies low on stores at the end of May.

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen's place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

Buckingham Palace is five minutes up the road from where I work. I enjoy eating my sandwiches at lunch in the rose gardens opposite the Queen’s place. I wonder how her hives are doing?

With this in mind, I left work on Wednesday night after the Queen’s parade and went to the apiary to feed the bees. All the hives have feeders under the roofs except for the hive split from Chamomile’s colony, which, not ideally for the time of year, has a bag of fondant above the crownboard. We ran out of feeders after the sudden increase in hives.

I lifted off each roof to find the feeders drained dry of syrup and bee proboscis eagerly poking under the rims to lick up the last drops. I refilled all the feeders and closed up, leaving behind happier bees.

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

Northolt Village every shade of green after another June storm on Wednesday night

So today when John drove me to the apiary, I was again heavily laden with litres of syrup and an umbrella. The forecast was dark and stormy, and though the storm had passed early this morning, the air was close and thundery. “Go and stroke all your bees,” John said, “Though it may take some time.”

A question asked by a beginner the weekend before had popped into my head as I walked towards the hives, “Isn’t it bad to feed the bees? I read that sugar is not very good for them.” Honey is better for honeybees, of course. But isn’t it also bad for the bees to starve? It’s an inconvenient truth at certain times of the year that hived bees might need feeding or they will starve and probably die.

If the bees don’t want the sugar, then they won’t take it. Experience with stronger hives, or when there is plenty of forage about, has taught me that bees wilfully ignore syrup in the roof when they don’t need it, and this often tells the beekeeper to stop feeding.

I always wonder when we are feeding our bees how other pollinators are surviving. The bees in London have beautiful gardens to visit and I have seen many big fat bumblebees foraging together.


A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that bumblebees prefer safety in numbers and feed on flowers where other bees are feeding safely. You can read about it in PhysOrg ‘Safe(bee) in numbers‘.

Emily and I currently have five hives at Perivale apiary and we hope soon to combine some colonies and perhaps sell one, which will leave us with fewer, bigger and stronger hives.

Today’s inclement weather made it unlikely that we would be deeply inspecting the hives. This didn’t matter, however, as Pat had advised to give the new queens two to three weeks to lay, then decide which queens were best before uniting colonies.


The sun came out long enough for us to inspect Myrtle’s hive, which is full of bees and has brood on eight to nine frames. The stores are still lower than we would like, so we decided to feed this colony another week before putting on a super.

We saw Myrtle and tried to cage her in case we needed her. However, she clearly didn’t feel like being caged and escaped twice. Myrtle’s brood pattern is patchy which might mean she is getting old. She is almost two and a half. The bees could supersede her in the autumn, which is how Myrtle herself took over the hive from her mother.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Bees flying in and out of an African-style top bar hive.

Next we checked Chili’s hive and didn’t spot the queen, but the bees were looking purposeful and Emily saw some eggs, so she is in there.

The bees were now getting fractious because of the heavy air and Alan had arrived at the apiary, so we took a break for a bee chat before inspecting the remaining three hives.

Chamomile’s bees were, as Alan said, not happy to perform. Emily spotted the queen, so we quickly closed up and fed them.


Finally, our two swarmed hives. Things were not looking good here and the bees were not happy. In one hive there was no sign of the queen spotted last week and no brood. In the other we spotted a small, probably virgin, queen but again no brood. We’ll give the two new queens a week’s grace to prove themselves worthy rulers.

Sorry for the lack of honeybee and beekeeping photos in this post – the June weather hasn’t been good for either. Yesterday, however, was the 70th anniversary of D-Day and like many people, my family remembered the bravery of those who fought for our country in the World Wars and any wars, for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Here’s a picture that my stepdad Bryan Howard posted of his RAF days on his Facebook yesterday. He’s looking very handsome in 1960 at RAF Bridgenorth.

bryanAnd here is my grandfather Kenneth Spooner, who passed away many years ago. My grandad told me tales of wild rivers, crocodiles and bush babies while on foreign duty during WWII. I hope there are no crocodiles here!


The Bee Shelter at Hartpury and the secret garden behind the waterfall

The Bee Shelter at Hartpury

‘Bee Shelter’ pointed the road sign with a pictogram of a church, leading tantalisingly off the motorway. I had seen the sign every time we drove through Gloucestershire to Hereford, and this time sighed ‘I wish we could see the Bee Shelter’. The van slowed and turned into a slip road. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. John replied ‘To find the Bee Shelter.’

It didn’t take us long to find the church of St Mary the Virgin at Hartpury, home to the Bee Shelter, and to learn there was a centuries-old tradition of beekeeping in these parts.

John parked outside and we got out to look around. There was no one else here other than sheep grazing in fields, birds warbling in trees, and bees humming in the air.

Bee Shelter sign

A sign outside the church told us that the Bee Shelter at Hartpury was rescued, repaired and rebuilt inside the church. John was intrigued and I was excited, so we pulled open the gate and went inside. St Mary’s is like a little window in time, we were both struck by its beauty and serenity. We walked along the winding path and past the source of humming – a cloud of busy dark-coloured insects so small and fast, I thought they were flies.

This way to bee shelter

There was a long stone structure up ahead that looked promising and my excitement grew as we approached. Two familiar-looking straw baskets were housed within – bee skeps! This was the Bee Shelter of Hartpury.

John stopped beneath the blossom tree to take pictures, while I ran my hands over the skeps and imagined what they must have felt and sounded like when bees lived inside.

blossom tree next to bee shelter

Here we found out more about the Bee Shelter and of beekeeping at Hartpury. The Bee Shelter is described by the International Bee Research Association as “an unique historic monument” – in fact, there are no similar structures known anywhere else in the world.

It was built in the mid-19th century by Paul Tuffley, stone mason, quarry master and beekeeper, using Cotswold stone. His exact intent is not known, but one theory suggests the Bee Shelter was for his ornamental garden in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. The structure showcases the skill of his stone masonry with gabled wall plinths, Doric columns and a ridge-crest roof. In 1852, the Bee Shelter was threatened with destruction after Tuffley’s house was repossessed by his mortgage. “It was saved by volunteers from the Gloucestershire Beekeeping Association, who dismantled it and, with the encouragement of the Principal of Hartpury Agricultural College, reassembled in the College grounds.” By the end of the 19th century, the ornamental stonework had begun to erode and the structure was saved for a second time by the Hartpury Historic Land and Buildings Trust. Restored, the Bee Shelter now “rests in peace” at St Mary’s, where it faces in the same direction (north) as its original home at Nailsworth.

Hartpury church

There is long tradition of beekeeping in Hartpury: “The Domesday Book states that Gloucester annually paid 12 sesters (23lbs) of honey to King Edward, and in 1260 it is recorded that tenants from the manor of Hartpury, owned by Gloucester Abbey, held land in return for payments of honey”. Honey and beeswax too have a close connection with the church. In ancient times, it was believed honey had a heavenly origin.

The bee shelter

I was particularly interested to find out more about the skeps used by beekeepers before the invention of the modern hive. They were traditionally made of wicker or straw and housed a smaller colony of bees than today’s wooden hives. “Contrary to current practice, a skep beekeeper encouraged swarming. He looked for swarms leaving his skeps, caught any he could and put these in an empty skep. By the end of the summer he might have two or three times as many occupied skeps as in the spring. The honey was harvested by destroying, usually over burning sulphur, a number of the colonies in the autumn, when the nectar flow diminished. These would generally have been the heaviest colonies and also any small ones than might not survive the winter. The intermediate colonies were overwintered in their skeps.”

By this time we were really running late for arriving at John’s family farm in Hereford. So we reluctantly left this peaceful place to go back to the van.

Bee boles

On our way out I stopped to look more closely at the strangely humming flies and suddenly realised they were bees! Hundreds of hundreds of tiny fuzzy black bees darting in and out of small bored holes in the ground. They moved too fast to get a good look or picture, though John got this short video:

What are these ground-dwelling and friendly bees, I wonder, masons, carpenters? They didn’t seem bothered by our curiosity – the mystery bees of Hartpury.

That was Good Friday at the start of our Easter weekend, and there was another surprise in store…

Hampton maze

On Bank Holiday Monday, John took me to the real Hampton Court in Hereford, to explore the pretty gardens and lose our way in the maze. We split up to see who would solve the maze first. I did, and then climbed the tower at the centre to wave John over. The view at the top was amazing, but there was something secret beneath.

Climbing down the narrow stone spiral staircase, we went into a long dark tunnel and emerged in a pocket of bright sunlight to find a beautiful secret garden beneath the maze and behind a waterfall…

Secret garden


Behind the waterfall

This was like magic! We had so much fun discovering sunken paths, hidden flower beds and stepping stones across overgrown brooks…

Secret brook

Secret steps

Sunken garden

What of our hives this spring? Visits continue to keep check of syrup and insulation in the roof (late April was chilly) and of early queen cells (unlike skep beekeepers, we don’t encourage swarming), but the bees must wait in May, which is the month of hen parties and weddings of beekeepers and beekeepers’ daughters. For now, here’s a happy honeybee foraging nectar and pollen off the cherry blossoms on the farm in Hereford.

Honeybee in blossom

Monkey Bones


Deep within the greenness of the rainforest, a very long time ago, lived a group of chimpanzees. They travelled through the trees and climbed down from branches to forage on the forest floor. On the hottest days the females lay on mossy rocks beside narrow streams to feel the cool spray of the water. Crouched high above the rest of the group, a baby chimpanzee watched his mother and aunts, and looked beyond his family to the darkness between the trees. The sound of a cracking twig and the rustle of leaves attracted his attention and, unnoticed by his mother, he clambered across the rocks and disappeared into the trees never to be seen again.

That is, until a small skeleton of a baby chimpanzee was crated from the Horniman Museum to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London. Standing erect and staring out behind a glass case on the marble hall, this little chimp led an ‘exploration of ideas’ at the evening lectures ‘A race of mankind’: Chimpanzees and anatomy at the RCP.

I went along to the talks on Monday 24 June to see the most recent unusual monkey from the Horniman Museum on display at the RCP.

‘Some of you might remember a monkey who was here last year who was so popular that we couldn’t resist getting another,’ said Beth Wilkey, assistant curator at the RCP. She was, of course, referring to another weird monkey that I blogged about: Monkey-fish.

‘You may think: what has a monkey and physicians got in common?’ Beth introduced the evening’s speakers, Dr Bernard Wood of the George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution, and Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum, who would tell us.


‘When physicians were polymaths’

Dr Bernard Wood traced the history of comparative anatomy (the study of anatomy between species) and molecular biology by pioneering scientists, and fellows of the RCP, who studied the close relationships between modern humans and primates.

Starting with Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life that shows how all species on Earth have evolved from common ancestors and are closely related, Bernard pointed to the tips of the tree and its neighbouring branches: ‘All the animals that are alive today are on the top branches, and the lower branches show all the species that have existed and are now extinct.’ Humans belong on the same branch of the tree as apes and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, and we share a common ancestor who lived around 8 million years ago.

From the origins of mankind, we were taken back to a time when our understanding of our place in nature was a blank canvas waiting to be painted by minds burning with scientific curiosity. Such a mind was RCP fellow Edward Tyson (1651–1708), widely considered to be the founder of modern comparative anatomy. A fellow of the then College of Physicians, Tyson was an anatomy reader at Surgeons’ Hall – and maybe not a physician at all: ‘He spent most of his time cutting for surgery, so if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then this guy’s a surgeon,’ said Bernard.

There was, frankly, nothing Tyson wouldn’t dissect, Bernard commented. But it was his dissection of a chimpanzee in 1698 which led him to write Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man (catchy title), the book that was the common link between the skeleton on loan and the evening’s lectures. Tyson’s exploration of the anatomy of the chimpanzee, particularly the brain, resulted in his conclusion that humans and chimpanzees were closely related.

The exploration of the similarities in anatomy between humans and apes continued with RCP fellow Emil Zuckerkandl (1849–1910), a Hungarian-Austrian anatomist who made significant contributions to the field of morphology (the study of the structural features of organisms such as bone, organs, muscle and tissue). ‘Although dissection seems old fashioned and low-tech, it is still going on,’ said Bernard on why dissection was crucial to our understanding of the human body and of evolution.

With a better understanding of what monkeys and physicians have in common, we moved on from the discussion of physicians as polymaths – exploring our place in the great scheme of things – to another perspective of the evening’s fascinating specimen.


‘The monkey tree puzzle’

‘He’s a rather nice little specimen,’ said Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum, whose talk also opened with Darwin’s Tree of Life, or ‘the monkey tree puzzle’.

Paolo traced the paths of curious explorers of the past who collected and brought back strange and wonderful objects from different parts of the world. Their discoveries and accounts of what they had seen were collected together as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, which would eventually become vast repositories of our knowledge of natural history – or museums.

An illustration of Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities showed that when you have a lot of stuff you need a way of grouping and storing it. ‘I say this from bitter experience of working in a museum,’ said Paolo. These early collectors’ attempts at categorising their collections could be seen as steps towards modern taxonomy.

It wasn’t until Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and reputed father of modern taxonomy, that we looked at ways of logically categorising species: ‘He grouped humans with apes and sloths!’ Paolo explained how we continue to group things – building bigger and bigger categories by looking for similar characteristics through comparative anatomy.

Paolo’s exploration of comparative anatomy and theories of evolution led to the famous evolution debate at Oxford University Museum in 1860 where eminent scientists and philosophers argued about Darwin’s recently published On the Origin of the Species. There was a heated exchange between two scientists Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley: ‘Wilberforce asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he was descended from apes.’

These various ideas on the origin of mankind and of our close relationship with apes has captured our imagination for centuries from King Kong, to Tarzan, to chimpanzees dressed up as humans. Paolo finished on the star of the show, the unusual baby chimpanzee skeleton standing on the marble hall about whose origins ‘we don’t know very much – yet!’ and who will be investigated closely.

‘A race of mankind’: Chimpanzees and anatomy at the RCP

The chimpanzee skeleton is on temporary display at the RCP as part of the ‘Object in Focus’ loan scheme from the Horniman Museum and alongside other rare objects from the RCP’s collection including rare books and a portrait of Tyson.