A break in the clouds

our hives

After a perilous week of tube strikes in London and crocodile scares in Bristol, yesterday was a reminder that this is the most perilous time of year for honeybees.

The apiary was unexpectedly a buzz with beekeepers due to a change in the association’s calendar that had postponed the scout hut meeting till next weekend. There were two types of cakes on the table and I was advised to have a slice of each so as not to offend anyone. But it was too blustery for even the hardiest of Ealing beekeepers to stay for cake. John Chapple was the first to leave, wearing his festive Christmas-pudding style woollen hat.

The wind was getting stronger, so Emily and I went to quickly check the weight of the hives and fondant in the roof before we both were blown away. ‘There are purple crocuses out already, and snowdrops!’ Emily said excitedly, ‘Spring really is coming!’

Here are the purple crocuses that Emily was so excited about.

purple crocuses

What a difference a week makes though. Myrtle’s and Chili’s hives were about the same weight, but Chamomile’s was much lighter. All three hives have plenty of fondant in the roof, so there is little that we can do except watch and wait.

This time of year is a waiting game for beekeepers. After over-wintering, the colony will soon be in need of new stores and new bees to forage. The winter bee reaching the end of her life must find the reserves to nurse and rear the first of a new generation of summer bees. How will she manage it? Ted Hooper explains in Guide to Bees & Honey how the lives of workers are extended, sometimes as long as six months, to carry the colony through winter and to start again in spring:

‘The winter bee is a rather different animal from the summer worker, the difference being brought about by feeding and lack of work. In the late August and early September the workers feed very heavily upon pollen, and this brings their hypopharyngeal glands back into the plump form of the young nursing bee. At the same time, a considerable amount of fat, protein and a storage carbohydrate called glycogen, or animal starch, is stored in the fat body. This fat body is an organ composed of a sheet of large storage cells spread along the inside of the dorsal part of the abdomen. It is present in all honeybees, but is considerably enlarged in the winter worker. It provides an internal store of food, which is probably used to start brood rearing in the spring. These physical changes in the worker occur when it is not involved in rearing brood; in fact its lifespan appears to be inversely proportional to the amount of brood food produced and fed to larvae.’

Of course, after all that, the workers will still need good weather and a plentiful flow of nectar to start the season. The apiary’s snowdrops felt like a small ray of hope amid news of storms and floods.


Snowdrops instil a child-like and spring-like feeling in everyone. My mum has a lovely memory of these pretty flowers from when she was six years’ old: ‘When I was six, I thought I was going to hospital to be a nurse, instead they took my tonsils. Afterwards my mum took me home, and she’d put a vase of snowdrops by my bed.’

Hopefully the apiary’s bees will appreciate the snowdrops lying beside the hives as much, during a break in the clouds.

Links of interest:

The Chelsea Physic Garden’s snowdrop theatre opened this weekend and I can highly recommend a visit. There are snowdrops, tours and, of course, delicious afternoon tea and cake in the Tangerine Dream Café. Emily and I visited for a honey tasting a couple of years back, and really enjoyed the Garden.

Blogs to read:

If only British beekeeper Ted Hooper MBE (1918–2010) were alive to share his experience and words of wisdom through blogging. Well, I’ve found the next best thing – Professor Simon Leather, entomologist and blogger! His blog Don’t Forget the Roundabouts shares stories and teaches on things of entomological interest, urban ecology and conservation, and there’s quite a bit about aphids. I really like his recent post: It’s a Wonderful Life – an Inordinate Fondness for Insects. You can also follow on Twitter @EntoProf.


Turning over a new leaf


Autumn is a season of consolidation and resolution in many traditions. For me, it is a time to reflect on the year that has passed, to consolidate losses and gains, and to make room for something new. I have a lot of energy in autumn and prefer autumn cleaning to spring cleaning and autumnal resolutions to new year resolutions.

The thing that inspires me about autumn is that ‘back to school’ feeling, which I never lost, and the opportunity to give birth to new ideas and to learn, study and gather information. It is about resetting the clock and planting seeds for the future.

Taking time-out is a big priority going forward. After a busy year, I’ve learned it’s OK not to do everything all the time and that taking time-out to catch-up is much more productive. That’s a lesson I’m putting into action on my blog by posting fortnightly and spending the week inbetween to read the blogs I follow, or go for a walk with my camera, or blend my aromatherapy oils.

Another leaf I’m turning over is to be more prepared. Having a sudden proliferation of bees took me by surprise in spring. Next season I’m going to be ready. That starts with consolidating this year’s bees.

This afternoon at the apiary I cleaned up. I scraped wax off crownboards, cleared roofs of old paper and debris, rearranged hive boxes, filled feeders with sugar syrup, wiped varroa boards and stuffed leaves into entrances to prevent robbing.


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Our tidied autumn bees from far left: Queen Myrtle’s hive on a double brood and one super, with heavy stores; Queen Chili’s hive on one brood, light on stores; and Queen Chamomile’s hive on double brood, modest stores. The bees have done better than last year but will still need feeding, insulation and generally ‘keeping’ over winter.

The bees consolidated, I then took time-out to stroll around the apiary and take pictures of mushrooms, or are they toadstalls?

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By the time I returned to the apiary table, the crowd was getting restless… and hungry. ‘I hope that’s cake you’ve got in that bag,’ said John Chapple. I was sorry to disappoint him. Elsa had made tea and I enjoyed time spent just sitting and listening to everyone chatter, before coming home to write this post.

Happy autumn everyone!

Next post: 5 October ‘Street lights’

Upcoming posts in 2013:
26 October 2013
9 November 2013
23 November 2013
7 December 2013
21 December 2013