How we kept the bees warm

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On a bright cold day in November even a bee wouldn’t say no to a hot water bottle and a warm blanket. Patience’s hive showed their appreciation by sending out a small welcome party as I wrapped them up in a polystyrene ‘blanket’ with a hot water bottle resting on the crownboard under the roof.

Honeybees do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter – if conditions are right within the colony and outside the hive – by drawing on honey stores for fuel and vibrating their wing muscles to maintain an inner nest temperature of around 33–35°C. Sometimes conditions aren’t right, and a colony that has eaten all its reserves, is unable to forage for more, and can’t keep warm inside an empty hive may succumb to the cold.

So how did Patience’s colony arrive at needing a hot water bottle and a blanket? (By the way, you won’t find this way of keeping the bees warm in any beekeeping book.) At the end of August I had left the bees in the good hands of Thomas Bickerdike, of Beekeeping afloat, and John Chapple while I went off to get married. Tom went above and beyond bee-sitting duties by moving our weakest colony to a polynuc, and fitting insulated brood frames at either ends of the nest in the larger colony before closing up the hives for winter. Tom reported both colonies to be queen-right and, with Patience ruling one hive, Emily and I named the queen of the polynuc ‘Hope’, because she was their last hope to survive till spring; as you may have read in my earlier posts.

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On my way to meet Emily for coffee last month, I stopped off at the apiary to fit the mouseguards and noticed that Patience’s hive was unusually quiet. Hope’s bees were flying to and from the polynuc with pollen and the entrances of the other hives at the apiary were busy too. This stillness outside Patience’s hive wasn’t typical of this particular colony, which is lively even in winter.

There are no ‘rules’ in beekeeping only guidance to help you decide what’s right to do for each colony on any given day. I decided to open up and look inside the hive. The super was half empty and a handful of bees looked like they were slowly freezing on the comb. I took out some super frames to look down into the brood nest where the bees were hardly moving at all. I quickly closed up. Inside the polynuc, Hope’s bees were happily climbing over the frames – I’ve never been a fan of polystyrene hives but it was clearly doing a good job of keeping this small colony warm. (You might notice a lot of bricks on top of the polynuc – these were to make sure it didn’t fly away when gale-force winds were predicted last month; although I really need to order some proper hive straps!)

When I joined Emily in Ealing, I reported my findings and we met up the following Sunday to open up the hive and move the bees into one box. Before the weekend, I went back to the apiary with radiator foil to wrap around the hive and a hot water bottle to put under the roof while I worked. It sounds strange, but it was the only thing I could think of to get some warmth back into the hive. Before I closed up, I saw a few bees starting to move around again on the top bars through the hole in the crownboard.

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On Sunday, Emily and I suited up, lit a smoker, and opened up the hive. It was bright and sunny but cold, so we needed to work fast. The colony was making use of frames in both the super and the brood, and we couldn’t get them into one box without shaking and more manipulation than we were willing to do on a winter’s day. Instead, we insulated the empty super frames with radiator foil and placed them at either ends of the super as were the insulated frames in the brood box beneath; as Emily mentions on her blog. A few bees started to fly in and out, and we were happy to see them looking livelier. (I’m not in the habit of trying to make bees more active in winter, but nor is the deathly stillness seen inside the hive the week before quite right.)

Not satisfied leaving the bees with insulated frames inside the hive, I returned again during the week with beehive insulation bought from the BBKA shop. I again left a hot water bottle under the roof as I placed the insulation around the hive. The bees were now occasionally flying in and out at a rate that I’ve come to expect of this colony, at this time of year, and they had already eaten a small hole in the fondant. Not surprising given they had nearly eaten all their reserves in the super, but I could see them moving around normally again, for winter bees. They were alive at least!

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I cut a hole at the top of the fondant to place another block on top – a trick that John Chapple taught us – which I find is a less messy way of swapping an empty fondant packet for a new block of fondant later on in winter.

With plenty of food above the crownboard, insulated frames inside both boxes, three hot water bottles, and a snug blanket around the hive, there’s still no guarantee the colony will survive till spring, but at least Emily and I know we’ve done all that we can. These must be the most pampered bees in London, but with only two colonies Emily and I can afford to spoil them – and we think they’re worth spoiling!

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A beekeeper gets married

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

In the garden

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I swapped blogging for gardening this year. The summer took a long time to arrive and I kept busy keeping my bees alive and nursing tubs of tadpoles as prolific as algal bloom. But as the rain streamed down the windows I realised there’s nothing worse than a beekeeper stuck indoors than a would-be gardener.

The weather finally broke with heatwave after heatwave pouring into the garden and both the ivy and bamboo threatening to grow across the lawn. At the apiary the bees briefly promised a good season until an unlucky setback with several missing or failed queens. With more waiting to be done around the hives, I got stuck into the garden.

It can take several years to get a garden how you like it, but my dad, John and I made a good start this summer. We got rid of the bamboo roots and all and cleared the jungle of creepers at the back to create a new plot. It’s still a work in progress.

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My dad helped to make a new bee house, which you can see in the background, but the mason bees chose to nest in the garden sheds this year. This meant we couldn’t get new sheds and instead tidied up the old ones. A place for a beekeeper to hang her smoker.

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The walled flower bed got some new friends. A pot of geraniums from John’s aunt, a clump of chamomile, and a neglected lavender from my dad’s front garden. The best spot was reserved for my myrtle tree, which finally found a home in our garden this year.

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After the frogs had hopped off into the sunset, there was an explosion of blanket weed in the goldfish pond. I got tired of pulling it out in clumps, then I read that snails might be helpful. I bought four pond snails in spite of warnings that they were unlikely to control the problem alone and that the goldfish might attack them. A few weeks later the pond was almost clear of blanket weed, the snails were enjoying a well-earned break on the floating water lilies, and the goldfish weren’t bothered at all.

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In July the garden came alive with all sorts of exciting visitors. A dragonfly on the prowl.

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An amazing array of flies like this sparkly specimen.

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And a magnificent sun fly, I think?

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The flying ants made an impressive display on the decking, gathering to swarm behind my back while I was none the wiser pruning the ivy. I turned around just as the queens took off and watched them fly away. It was rather a privilege.

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Something I really wanted to make a start on this year was planting a bee-friendly garden. The left side of the garden had several bee-pleasers like jasmine, sedum and cotoneaster.

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But the right side of the garden was surprisingly lacking. I spent a day pulling weeds and sieving the earth, before the fun could begin choosing a bed of new herbs like verbena, salvia, echinacea, and this pretty scabiosa.

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It was the garden birds that really stole the show this year and I discovered a new passion for birdwatching. A family of sparrows provided endless entertainment from the kitchen window.

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Of course, the sparrows were seen off by the robin when he wanted his mealworms.

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When the small birds were finished feeding, the larger birds swooped in. A standoff between a pigeon and a collared dove.

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And a more sinister-looking guest, the jackdaw.

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But the most fun was at bath time.

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And that’s where I’ll leave the garden, for now.

The past month I’ve been unable to go to the apiary. Thomas Bickerdike and John Chapple have kindly taken care of mine and Emily’s bees, and I’m very grateful to them. Emily had a reunion with the bees last Saturday too, which must have cheered them up greatly!

Meanwhile autumn is setting in and so are the final preparations for mine and John’s wedding. This won’t leave much time for blogging, [EDIT] so my stories about the bees, and some butterflies, must wait till after I get hitched. Till then.

The frog children

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Earlier in summer the weather was lovely for ducks, and also frogs. While the pitter-patter of raindrops on the hive roof kept my bees indoors, the tadpoles enjoyed every splish and splosh in their buckets.

The tadpoles turned out to be the surprise success of the summer. After a busy frog had filled up the goldfish pond with frogspawn in spring, it was moved to buckets to keep the spawn safe during the annual pond clean. A few weeks later, the buckets were teeming with tadpoles and John was worrying about a plague of frogs of biblical proportions on the lawn. “What are you going to do with them all?” he asked, and I replied, “Don’t worry, apparently only a very small number will survive.”

They all survived. I don’t know whether this was due to daily feeds of lettuce and chicken, or diligent water changes every other day (tadpoles are ravenous and mucky creatures). Perhaps it is just a good year for frogs? Anyway, the tadpoles got bigger and they got legs. A trip to the charity store for bric ‘o brac (much cheaper than aquatic store accessories) and the tadpoles also got some new furniture to make their lives more interesting. A tadpole tea party.

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One day a froglet hopped out while I was doing a water change. I was so surprised that I simply stared at it and it stared back at me. Then it hopped back into the water.

It was around about this time that I had been clearing up the garden and had rediscovered a disused frog pond under a pile of paving stones. With my dad’s help, we cleaned it up that afternoon and scooped up the tadpoles and froglets into their new home.

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Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier? The frog pond is like a deep well with earth, sludge and stones at the bottom which naturally seem to soak up the tadpole waste so the water stays cleaner. The tadpoles seemed to prefer the deeper, darker depths too, and the froglets were soon climbing out to explore their caves.

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I had read that froglets like to eat insects and rest in damp places out of the water. So I splashed out this time and bought them a frog house to sit by the pond and a solar lantern to attract insects at night. I did actually spy a couple of froglets sitting outside the frog house one evening and looking, I fancied, in the direction of the flickering light.

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Summer rain misted into warmer hazy summer days. I bought some more pond plants for the froglets and tadpoles, and occasionally scooped up some debris on the surface and topped up the pond with rain water. The tadpoles no longer needed feeding with the mosquito larvae and extra vegetation in the water, and the froglets spent hotter days floating on the elodea.

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Sometimes a froglet would come and say hello while I was gardening.

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I always put them back in the pond, but they soon hopped out again to return to their favourite spot in the long grass at the end of the walled bed. The spot that I wouldn’t let John or my dad mow down.

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In the shady part of the garden where only the Japanese anemone and the lemon balm will grow, I made a small frog cafe from the old bric ‘o brac that was leftover from the tadpole buckets.

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I found a froglet clambering out of the buried ceramic jug cave just once…

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…for they seemed to prefer the slug-ridden holes in the crumbling brick wall. Build a home for nature and it will come in if it feels like it.

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Eventually all the froglets did hop away. At least, I’m fairly certain that most of them made it safely out of our garden without being eaten by birds or mowed down by humans. Only one froglet now remains, I think, and I sometimes see him, or her, hopping around the long grass when I go out to look at our late summer blooms. My niece Lauren has named the froglet Hoppy.

While I’ll never know what happened to all the froglets, I hope that I gave them a good start in life. And when the solar lantern flickers on after dark and the frog pond appears to come magically to life, I like to think there are a few more frogs hopping happily around Ickenham.

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The name ‘frog children’ was inspired by a beekeeper in Iran, @reza__beekeeper, who I follow on Instagram.

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.

© Licensed to simonjacobs.com. 20.06.16 London, UK. A general view of a Taylor's of Harrogate specially commissioned bee hotel on Hampstead Heath. FREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE. Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

© Licensed to simonjacobs.com. 20.06.16 London, UK.
A general view of a Taylor’s of Harrogate specially commissioned bee hotel on Hampstead Heath.
FREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE.
Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

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.

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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.

Links:

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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