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.

The season of the bee

The season of the bee is upon us and it was good to be back in the thick of it at the apiary yesterday. Thomas Bickerdike was running the beginners’ session on Saturday afternoon as efficiently as a bee. His workers and drones were organised into two groups to take turns at looking inside the hives and learning about other practical aspects of the craft.

Emily was showing the first group one of our hives – Hope’s colony – so I went to watch the beginners watch the bees. It is always fun to see hive life again through new eyes.

Our oldest hive of six years now is booming. Bees were bursting out of the brood box and every frame was almost full of brood and stores. It was a delight to see after their challenging season last year struggling to build up after a mild, damp winter and multiple queen failures. But they had persevered. “How many queens have you had?” asked a beginner. “Lots,” I said. Queen Hope appeared on cue. She is the tenth queen in a line of eight generations of queens, of the same line, since Emily and I have started to share the hive in 2011. I’ve made a family tree from the record that has been kept for our queens (below) which may be clearer to look at than the table.

As Hope isn’t marked – she first made her appearance to Thomas who looked after the hive from September to October last year while Emily and I were both away, and this was only the third or fourth proper hive inspection of the year, I think – I got out my queen marking kit for Emily to demonstrate caging and marking a queen for the beginners; although Hope’s workers did protest, Emily managed to mark the queen.

With the queen put safely back inside the hive, it was the turn of the next group to look at Dinesh’s hive, which is also doing well. It looks like it may be a good year for the bees at Ealing apiary. The session was soon over, and some of the beginners had floated off to watch John Chapple inspect last week’s shook-swarmed hive while others opted for tea and cake. Emily and I watched John going through the frames – he is always a pleasure to watch working with the bees – and then also decided to get a cup of tea. Emily and Kathy had both baked this weekend so there was a good choice of Saturday afternoon cake and biscuits.

Thomas was teaching the beginners how to make a frame – using our pack of super frames as you can see above. At the end of his workshop there were seven very neatly made super frames ready to put into a super for Hope’s hive. The colony is getting bigger, however, in the end we left the super off until next weekend. The weather forecast for the week ahead is supposedly colder – with icy winds arriving from Iceland – and we still need to swap out three old frames for new in the brood nest. We want the bees to fill these before moving up into a super.

Of course, a super might also slow down the bees from starting preparations to swarm – or it might simply create a cold empty space above the colony depending on the accuracy of the weather forecast for the week ahead – but then again, we might need the workers to make us some spare queens for our other colony which may be queenless.

As the day got cooler, I lit up the smoker to inspect our second hive. There was still no sight of the queen, Patience, or any sign that she was there – no eggs or young larvae, and the worker bees being less patient than usual. There are a few things that we can do:

• shake the bees into one box and keep them warm and fed in the hope that this might stimulate the queen to lay and show herself, while also putting in another test frame of eggs this time from Hope’s hive;

• or simply combine the colony with Hope’s after a thorough frame-by-frame inspection to make sure that Patience isn’t hiding in there somewhere.

We settled on thinking about it for another week – the situation is unlikely to get better or worse in the meantime – and to carry out our plans next weekend when the apiary is less busy. Perhaps Hope’s hive will conveniently produce some queen cells between now and next Saturday – and even more conveniently on one of the remaining three brood frames that we need to swap out for new frames (wouldn’t that be nice!). We could then use these to either test or re-queen Patience’s hive, while exercising swarm control on Hope’s hive. (If only things always worked out that well!)

The smoker had gone out and it was time to leave. As you can see, I have a beautiful new basket to carry my beekeeping kit – a present from my friends Prakash and Beata. The sun came out hot from behind the clouds as I walked home and enjoyed spotting the honeybees and bumble bees foraging along the path.

We’ve had some really sunny days in April and although the month is likely to end on a cold snap, here are some beautiful photos for you to enjoy of Easter weekend in Hereford and of a walk on the Malvern Hills. The familiar sight of the golden fields of oilseed rape will provide a bounty of forage for the bees.

Edit 1 May 2017: The bees read my blog, so it seems. I found five queen cells (three unsealed) in Hope’s hive yesterday afternoon (Hope is still inside the hive) and all were on an old frame that needed to be swapped for a new frame anyway. So I took out the queen cells to give to Patience’s hive (who are so ill-tempered now they are most likely queenless) and gave Hope’s hive another new brood frame (well, two actually) to play with.

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”.

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.

April showers bring May flowers

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Ups and downs in beekeeping are about as surprising as the rain in April. After Pepper’s colony had been lost to winter in February, Emily and I delayed the comb change in March due to the cold weather and dwindling sizes of our two surviving hives.

It was a puzzle. These small colonies were just too big for a nuc and yet too weak to keep themselves warm in a regular hive. They needed something inbetween. I had bought a roll of foil insulation that you might use for insulating lofts, which I cut into squares with a pen knife and wrapped around the dummy boards and old empty brood frames to keep both nests warmer. The bees weren’t taking their syrup in the chilly weather either. I left the winter fondant under the roof with more insulation, closed up and hoped for the best.

Andy Pedley took a photo of my insulated dummy board. The other beekeepers were somewhat impressed by my use of odds and sods, at last my induction as a beekeeper was complete.

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Meanwhile, regular readers of mine and Emily’s blogs will know that my hive partner has gone on maternity leave to look after a very special little drone. Congratulations to Emily and Drew on the arrival of their wonderful baby boy Thomas who you can read all about on Emily’s blog!

I haven’t told the bees yet, but here’s what they did next.

April

On the odd bright day in April when I opened up the hive it was like inspecting winter colonies. The bees were clustered over two or three frames with some patchy brood. They were being kept alive through warmth and food, but their situation wasn’t improving much. I managed to reduce Melissa’s colony into one box when visiting the apiary with Jonesy on a Sunday. The colony had nested in the super over winter because it was the warmest spot at the top of the hive beneath the fondant, but they had left behind a couple of frames of bees in the brood box below.

I removed the old brood box and put the super holding the nest on the floor with a new brood box and frames above shaking in the rest of the bees. The forecast was fairly warm for the week ahead and I hoped the bees would be encouraged to move onto the fresh comb, but a week later they had not touched it. It become cold and rainy again, and I abandoned the attempted Bailey comb change.

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I could hardly blame the bees. When the nights dropped to 1-4•C and daytime temperatures peaked at 9-12•C, it was a lot to ask these small colonies to keep the hive warm, and draw new comb, and forage for new stores, and rear brood.

It was barely warm enough for some humans to want to go outdoors, but I managed to encourage my dad to the apiary to help clean-up some hive equipment. He enjoyed it once there. He does like to blowtorch stuff.

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And seemed a bit disappointed when the job was done.

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The queens hid away in April with no sight of new eggs being laid. It was only the workers bringing home pollen and calmly carrying on with their tasks inside the hives which gave me any reason to believe that the colonies were still queen-right. The brood and bees that were there were largely workers, not drones, which also gave me hope that neither the queens had become drone layers nor the workers started laying.

May

The queens surprised me for May Day. It was the first time this year that Melissa had been spotted as Jonesy pointed over my shoulder at the queen poking her bottom in a cell. Peppermint too was seen walking steadily across the comb and I hadn’t seen her since March.

Melissa is somewhere to be spotted in this photo taken by Jonesy, towards the right of the frame there is a faint pink dot revealing the queen. Despite my joy in seeing her, I didn’t keep her out for long. “Put her back before she gets shy,” said Jonesy.

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The days and nights were getting warmer. When opportunity allowed I transferred the frames of brood from both Melissa’s and Peppermint’s colonies into clean brood boxes, standing on clean floors with a clean crownboard and roof above. As the bees were still only occupying three or four frames in the nest, I filled the gaps with insulated dummy boards. I’m pretty sure that the extra insulation in our hives has been vital in keeping them alive this far.

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A normal comb change wasn’t going to happen this year, the colonies just weren’t up for it. Instead, I would swop the insulated dummy boards and old brood frames for new foundation as the nests, hopefully, expanded in May and June. I feel it is going to be a year of slow progress for our bees.

Peppermint’s ladies had made quite a fuss when I moved them. I had caged the queen on the comb so I knew where she was during the transfer and her workers were not happy about that. “It would be much easier if you could just put up a sign with an arrow saying ‘This way’,” said Pat who happened to be walking past me. I agreed.

If April showers bring May flowers then I hope the bees will be as bountiful as the forage. Just to be safe, I will keep their syrup topped up and the nests insulated till both hives fully recover.

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Pat kindly gave me a bottle of Hive Alive to add to the syrup. I had noticed a few spots of dysentery on the old brood boxes and thought the bees needed a tonic to boost their health.

The apiary was also starting to spring back to life with some hives small and weak like ours and others already booming with bees. John Chapple brought over some drone comb culled from a colony for varroa control. I felt sorry for the drones but good husbandry can be helpful to the overall health of the hive.

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John Chapple and Alan Gibbs have been kindly caretaking some new arrivals at the apiary. These beautiful emerald hives used to belong to Alan Kime who sadly passed away, but thanks to the hard work of John and Alan his bee legacy has continued. I sometimes watch their activity at the entrance after inspecting my hives and they are very nice bees.

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In the garden

At home in the garden I was having more luck with mason bees than honeybees. A reward for patience came in April when I saw the first mason bee emerge from his cocoon.

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Since then almost all the masons have chewed a hole through their mud-capped tubes and are busy foraging plants at the bottom of the garden. I caught this loved-up couple on a dandelion.

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I took advantage of the sunshine last week to tackle the plot at the back and divided the land between humans and bees: half vegetable patch and half wild flower meadow. I left the dandelions and forget-me-nots for the bees and butterflies; John thinks I’m crazy ‘weeding’ around the weeds. 

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The new insect mansion is also taking shape thanks to my dad’s donation of three wooden pallets and some bricks. I hope to have it finished next week in time for the mason bees to start making their new homes.

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My other life as a backyard birder has attracted a sparrowhawk to the garden. I was surprised to see him one day from the kitchen window. He sat conspicuously next to the feeders and the sparrows watched him from a safe distance.

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From the birds and the bees to pond life, we lost our oldest fish Richard coming out of winter.

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I don’t know much about ponds, yet, but think Richard died of swim bladder brought on by old age. I found him floating on his side and after looking up advice on goldfish forums, gently lifted him out to try an Epsom salt bath for five minutes. He didn’t struggle and the bath made no difference. I put the poor fish in a shallow glass dish and placed him on a shelf in the pond to die peacefully. The other goldfish came over to have a look, but couldn’t disturb him too much in his glass bed. I told them visiting hours were six to nine. He was dead by morning and buried by John beneath a bush.

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A few days later I cleaned the pond pump, pulled out some weed, and gave the fish a water change. Two frogs had found the pond over winter and provided a frogspawn buffet for the fish. I scooped out half the spawn into buckets to give the tadpoles a chance. You can see the fish were rather curious about where the tadpoles had gone.

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The frogspawn has since hatched and I now have two tubs of tadpoles sitting by the pond.

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I’ve fed them crumbled fish pellets and lettuce leaves, which they love, along with half water changes each week and they seem to be thriving. It looks like I may end up having more frogs than bees this summer.

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The decay of spring

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“Morning drizzle at ten a.m. We open the hive, bee friend, last time & it’s like entering Pompeii…I did not expect to see a bee’s point of death.” From Bee Journal by Sean Borodale.

Pepper’s hive had been losing weight for some time. The bees had stopped flying in and out of the hive entrance. It wasn’t too much of a surprise when Emily sent a text to say the colony had perished. I followed up her grim discovery a couple of days later by opening the hive to find comb upon comb of frozen bees. Each one had a purpose, a job to do, cleaning, foraging, feeding, until they just stopped moving.

It must have been the arrival of winter in February. The mild weather had tricked the bees into using all their stores and when a sudden cold spell blew through their starved house it swiftly took each and every one. I didn’t look for the queen, it was too sad.

I bagged up the dead bees and empty brood comb for the bonfire. Pepper is the first hive that Emily and I have lost to winter in around five years.

That was two weeks ago. Today Emily and I met at the apiary to inspect Peppermint’s and Melissa’s hives for the first time this year. We wanted to see what was what before the spring comb change. The story was much the same in both hives: plenty of bees, some leftover honey stores, and almost no brood except for two or three patchy frames. We consolidated the hive boxes by removing empty frames and combs of useless hardened honey and replaced with dummy boards to keep the bees warmer and bring the fondant closer to their nests.

As for the queens, we spotted Peppermint walking across a frame, but there was no sign of Melissa. The bees were well behaved, if a little skittish for their first proper inspection in around five months, and workers were bringing home pollen. These were perhaps signs that Melissa is alive and well, and perhaps indicated that both queens are still capable of laying enough brood to build up their colonies again this spring.

I propped up the empty super that had been taken off Melissa’s hive to the entrance. It was occupied by around 50-70 bees. This is something I like to try when unsure whether the queen is still inside or not, and it has worked in the past. The bees walked inside the hive entrance and cleared the super in 10 minutes suggesting that the queen could be with the colony, or maybe they were simply attracted to the colony’s common scent. It was clinging to a small straw.


Emily suggested that the persistent cold weather could have prevented the queens from laying much brood, and it seemed that both colonies had the appearance of only just surviving on the remaining stores and fondant. They were hanging on, they weren’t ready for a comb change.

We decided to close up and feed the bees sugar syrup for a couple of weeks to see whether this stimulates the queens to lay, and to find out whether Melissa is still inside the hive, before springing into action. We’ll then reassess the situation after Easter.

Spring is in decay this year. The mild winter has left autumn leaves in the garden at the same time as daffodils. I think the worst of the cold weather is behind us, but nature may struggle to spring back to life. A lot of TLC is needed.

A beekeeper’s notes for March

“It’s going to be cold till June,” said a courier dropping off some boxes to our house on Saturday. I was dismayed to hear his gloomy forecast, because it meant the bees would wait a long time for spring to return. The bright yellow daffodils had come up in our garden and the robins were fighting sparrows for fat balls on the feeder. Hopefully, the birds and the plants knew differently.

White, blue and pink flowers greeted me along the apiary path as I arrived in the late afternoon. It was heavily overcast and windy, and there was a feeling of dampness in the chilly air. The poor weather hadn’t deterred beekeepers from turning up for Clare’s tea and chocolate cakes. “What are you going to do with your bees?!” demanded John Chapple. I was wearing my bee suit, but explained this was to check the feed under the roof and nothing more. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to open up the hive and expose the bees to unfriendly elements, John returned to his tea.

A beekeeper who is also a doctor was standing next to me. She doesn’t visit the apiary often but I enjoy talking to her when she does. A few years ago I was stung by a bee while checking Pat’s hives at Osterley. The sting was my fault – the hive roof had a sign saying ‘Nasty bees’ and I opened up without my gloves. The next day the sting on my finger had swollen half my arm and I was at A&E.

“Is there a way to be test for allergy to bee stings?” I asked her. She shook her head to explain that the allergic reaction depended on many factors from how quickly the sting is removed and the amount of venom received, to how warm your body is, the flow of blood, and many other variables. Wearing a bee suit at all times is the best precaution we both agreed, watching Tom and Jonesy venture behind the green netted area without their suits.

The afternoon wasn’t getting any brighter so I put over my veil and went to visit the bees. German beekeeper Jochen had arrived to lend a helping hand. The sky was very dark by now. I lifted the roof of each hive to empty the feeders of old syrup and pour in ambrosia from a spare can that Jonesy had brought over. Chamomile’s bees had drunk all their feed and one of her workers was determinedly trying scare off Jochen.

Fortunately Jochen was more delighted to see how well Chamomile’s and Chili’s workers appeared to be doing from their vigorous climbing around the feeders. “What a lovely change,” he said.

It was disappointing not to look inside the hives to check the queens and brood nest. The bees were spilling in and out of Melissa’s and Pepper’s colonies where we had removed the old sugar and cleaned up the crownboards with a damp cloth. Bees, beekeepers and flowers were ready for spring but the weather wasn’t.

The kit boxes are prepared for the season to start too. You can see the pine cones for smoker fuel that John and I foraged for in Rye last autumn.

After Jochen and the others had left, I sat at the apiary table to catch up on writing hive records for March. I put each record in a sleeve under the roof, then wiped down the varroa boards and left one under each hive.

Using a bucket of soda water and old cloths I wiped down all the equipment of our three empty hives and evicted some huge spiders. During the week I had made up the frames for the comb change. The British weather forecast is notoriously unreliable, which means that next week’s chilly outlook could get sunnier.

On my way out I noticed a worker bee clinging to the side of her hive. A few breaths of warm air and she was ready to fly home. With a quick turn to look back, I had left the bees and hives at the apiary as ready as they can be for the clocks to go forward to British summertime.

When does spring come for the bees?

bee crocus

As every beekeeper, and aromatherapist, knows spring can come more than once for the bees and the flowers. Today was a perfect spring day with glorious sunshine, balmy blue skies and a warm 14–15°C. There would be only one thing on the minds of beekeepers across the UK – the comb change.

Each year many British beekeepers give the hives a spring clean. The bees are moved onto fresh comb in cleaned-up brood boxes to start the season again. The comb change may be carried out using a shook swarm or Bailey depending on the health and strength of the colony, and also relying on ongoing warm weather with availability of local nectar and pollen.

emily blowtorching

The reason for the comb change? To keep down the diseases and pests in the colony. The timing of the comb change? That’s up for discussion.

There are some beekeepers who like to shook swarm their hives as soon as the weather allows in late February to early March. The reason being that the earlier you shook swarm the less brood you lose, and the bees can get a head start to the season.

Then there are some beekeepers who prefer to change the comb from late March to early April. They like to wait for consistently warmer days and for the trees to be blossoming.

bee drinking

In March the weather is not always consistent and spring can come and go a few of times before it stays. It is important to get the timing right for the comb change: too soon for a weak colony or before a string of warm days might make it more difficult for the bees to recover from a shook swarm or to build-up a Bailey; too late in the season means losing more brood (in a shook swarm) and perhaps leaving the bees less time to yield a honey harvest that year.

A couple of experienced beekeepers at the apiary had already shook swarmed some or all of their hives. If you’re a more professional beekeeper or commercial bee farmer with 50, 100 or more hives, I can understand the eagerness to get going early in the season.

For the hobbyist or backyard beekeeper with three or five hives, perhaps we have more time on our side to do a couple of inspections first and wait for the warmer weather to hold before carrying out a comb change.

a jonesey beekeeping

When do you prefer to do your comb change? And how do you decide when spring has arrived for your bees?

The first best day of the year at Ealing apiary brought bigger concerns for the beekeepers. Who was making the tea and would there be cake? Luckily Emily had baked a cake and Elsa was busy making tea to keep everyone content. We had a couple of German beekeepers visiting the apiary who were fascinated to learn more about our bees. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake, Emily and I satisfied their curiosity, and ours, by taking the first look inside the hives this year.

emilys cake

A feast of tea and cake for beekeepers.

a robin feast

A feast of mealworms and biscuit crumbs for the robin.

Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives were doing very well with bees busily pouring in and out. Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives were weak and though both queens were spotted there was virtually no brood. We closed up the weaker colonies with dummy boards to keep them warm and fed them spring sugar syrup to try and stimulate their activity.

a queen chili

Pink-crowned Queen Chili was easy to spot.

a queen chamomile

Queen Chamomile sees her first sun of the year.

Jonsey kindly helped us to blow torch the empty brood boxes in readiness for the comb change, and Emily and I have started to make new brood frames. Tomorrow forecasts rain with cooler temperatures to follow next week. Spring should be here to stay, hopefully, by the end of March and we can move our bees into cleaned hives, though we may need to make a decision about our weaker hives before then.

bees play crocus

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

Waterfall

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

Nature magic: twilight for the bees and a mystery object at the apiary

00 Dreamy hives

I arrived at dusk at the apiary after the last bee had floated home. It was my regular mid-week visit to bring sugar syrup since shook swarming the hives. Strangely, the apiary takes on a life of its own in the twilight hours. The place is silent of beekeepers clamouring over tea and cake and beginners enquiringly asking questions, and the air is empty of humming honeybees. The hives sit quietly in rows, nettles and bluebells sway gently in the soft glow, and trees secretly rustle. I think this is a time for nature magic.

01 Overgrown apiary

As you can see the path to the apiary is now overgrown – nature has taken over and the bluebells have arrived early. There are lots of wildflowers for the neighbouring shrill carder bees who have been frequent visitors. However, something else was waiting inside that gave me a start. What is this mystery object standing in the gloom in the middle of the apiary? What have the elder beekeepers been up to now?

02 Mystery object mating nuc

I took a picture and tweeted it. Replies soon came back suggesting it was a mating nuc or bait hive, or perhaps bumblebee nesting box. Whatever it is, I may now have to wait till after Easter to find out.

The daylight was fading fast so I lifted the roof from Myrtle’s hive and saw half the syrup in the feeder had been taken down. This is our nicest, and slowest, colony, so I was pleased. I emptied out the remaining syrup – homemade sugar syrup grows mould – and cleaned the feeder – because I’m an obsessive cleaner – placing it back on the crownboard filled with ambrosia. Ambrosia is a special mix of syrup that lasts longer and contains other nutrients for the hive. The bees love it, and the hive raised its hum as workers rushed up to drink.

03 Ambrosia bees

There is plenty of nectar and pollen about, of course, and our bees are probably strong enough to forage to feed themselves. I like to keep feeding, particularly after a comb change, until the hive has fully built up again. The feeders filled with sugar syrup in the roof are for a rainy day – if our girls don’t want it then they won’t take it.

04 Ambrosia bees close up

I fed Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives next. These colonies had taken down all the syrup and were hungrily licking their tongues around the bottom of the feeder for more. I’ve been worried about Chamomile’s hive since her colony tested positive for nosema and we found unhealthy looking larvae in there on Saturday. Cold weather at the weekend delayed the comb change, and though we’re eager to get this hive onto clean frames, Chamomile has had to wait.

Beekeeping done, at the end of my evening visits I enjoy walking around the apiary to check all is well with the other hives and to Instagram pictures of the other residents. Flowers looks so pretty at dusk.

05 Apiary white flowers

06 Bluebells

07 Cherry blossom

A small mouse peeked out from between the flowers and looked up curiously, but I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture before she ran away. The bees were tucked up and well fed for Easter, and it was time to leave.

Happy Easter to humans and Hymenopterans alike!