Behind The Bee Book

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My friend Joanna asked me to recommend a book about bees and beekeeping several years ago. I gave her a spare copy of Bees at the Bottom of the Garden from the beginners’ course that I took at Ealing and District Beekeepers Association. Bees at the Bottom of the Garden by Alan Campion is a bestselling book for novice beekeepers that explains very simply how to set up a hive and what to expect in your first few years of beekeeping. It’s an easy-to-understand, practical guide for beginners with useful diagrams and seasoned advice from an experienced beekeeper. Joanna found the book interesting but too technical, for her: “I don’t want to keep bees, Emma,” she said, “It’s a very good textbook, but I just wanted to have a read about bees and beekeepers for enjoyment.” I was surprised by her comment; by then I was already a beekeeper in my second year and still closely reading Alan Campion’s book alongside all my beekeeping activities.

When Alastair Laing, an editor at Dorling Kindersley (DK), approached me to write a section for The Bee Book, I thought of my conversation with Joanna. The publisher had an idea for a book that would open a window onto the amazing world of bees and show what the beekeeper does for everyone to enjoy. There would also be a section on planting gardens for bees and pages of recipes for making the most of bee bounties like honey and beeswax at home.

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My family and friends have asked many questions about bees and beekeeping over the years: “What’s the difference between honeybees and bumble bees?”, “Why do bees swarm?”, “How do you get the honey?”, and “What do beekeepers do in winter?” I have always enjoyed telling people about the bees, although I have seen a few glazed eyes from sharing too much information. DK is well known for their beautifully illustrated books that make a detailed topic accessible to every reader – so I loved the idea of being part of a book that would allow my non-beekeeper family and friends to enjoy the wonder of bees. Alastair needed a writer for a section that showed how a beekeeper cares for bees and for a recipe section. So I accepted the job. I hoped that my pages would provide a helpful look at the year ahead for the novice beekeeper about to take their first steps, as well as an enjoyable read about a fascinating hobby for the arm-chair enthusiast.

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Writing for The Bee Book was a lot of fun and I felt lucky to be part of the team as the pages were brought to life by the beautiful design of Kathryn Wilding and the wonderful photography of Bill Reavell. Alastair commissioned Judy Earl and Bill Fitzmaurice of Harrow Beekeepers Association for their expert knowledge on crafting with beeswax, candle-making and recipes on honey, beeswax and propolis, and to take part in the photoshoots as well. My favourite story from the making of the book is how a swarm of honeybees happened to settle on a tree around the corner from a photoshoot one day. This allowed Bill Reavell to capture Bill Fitzmaurice demonstrating swarm collection in action (pages 158–159)!

The chapters that I enjoyed reading most, however, were on the amazing world of bees by Fergus Chadwick, and how to plant a garden to attract bees by Steve Alton. I hadn’t seen these pages during the production of the book and was full of curiosity by the time my copies arrived in the post. Fergus reveals a treasure chest of bees around the world including the Himalayan honeybee, Australia’s sugarbag bee, and the blue carpenter bee of southern Asia. His section is beautifully illustrated by Bryony Fripp. Steve explores how to attract bees to your garden with an array of bee-friendly plants and guides to making bee homes.

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I wrote my pages with my first year of being a beekeeper in mind. I remembered there was so much to learn and I couldn’t know everything at first. The Bee Book is a great introduction to bees and beekeeping for those who would like to become beekeepers but are not quite ready to own a hive yet, and for the novice beekeeper about to take their first steps, it illustrates what might be expected of the year’s work ahead.

My acknowledgements thank my first-year mentors Ian Allkins, Andy Pedley, Pat Turner, John Chapple, and Alan Gibbs, and also my hive partner Emily Scott of Adventures in Beeland. Mentoring doesn’t stop after your first year and there is always more to learn, which is why it’s so important to be part of a beekeeping association. I’ve enjoyed keeping hives at Ealing apiary alongside practical beekeepers like Thomas Bickerdike, of Beekeeping Afloat, and Llyr Jones, often a beekeeping partner-in-crime, and many more. I’d also like to say special thanks again to David Rowe for his assistance during the photoshoot at Ealing apiary, to John Chapple for his tip about the winter tunnel (page 166), and a huge thanks to Ealing and District Beekeepers Association and Harrow Beekeepers Association for letting DK photograph the hives at their apiaries.

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You can find out more about The Bee Book and order a copy from DK or Amazon. And if you are thinking about becoming a beekeeper, do follow one of the most important pieces of advice in the book – join your local association and take their introductory course! You won’t learn everything you need to know about bees and beekeeping even with a library of books at your disposal, but hopefully The Bee Book will be one of many that you’ll enjoy reading.

The Bee Book published by DK (1 Mar. 2016). ​ISBN-10: 0241217423 | ISBN-13: 978-0241217429. Order from DK or Amazon.

Links

Ealing and District Beekeepers Association website
Harrow Beekeepers Association website
William Reavell Photography
Bryony Fripp Illustrations
Bees at the Bottom of the Garden by Alan Campion

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A beekeeper’s notes for February

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On Saturday 14th February I saw the white snowdrops in flower and the purple crocuses opening. Winter aconite and catkins of the hazel and the willow will also blossom bringing the year’s first forage for bees.

Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for their monthly meeting. I stood outside the entrance of the hives and noticed not a single bee took to the wing. The stillness made all other movements sharper.

I watched a red-breasted robin hopping in the thorny foliage and breathed as a magpie swooped down to pick a twig to build her nest.

I found a spider crawling on the fondant under the roof of a hive and two slugs sliding in the dead leaves beneath the floor of another.

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Alan Gibbs arrived just as I had put under varroa boards to check this month’s mite drop. He had come with his spade on this cold, rainy day to lay more paving stones in the communal area. Betty Gibbs was sensibly waiting in the car outside the apiary, reading a book.

We then looked at the fondant under the roofs. I had brought more in case it was needed, but Alan said they had “quite enough”.

A chilly February can be a time of uncertainty for beekeepers with thoughts of wakeful bees kept inside the hive as the winter larder runs bare. I gave each hive a heft for weight of stores. In particular Melissa’s and Pepper’s were very heavy, while Chili’s and Chamomile’s were lighter. Nothing to do but observe, February is also a time to rest and wait as everything unfolds.

With that, I said goodbye to Alan and the bees, and waved to Betty on my way out. John too was sensibly waiting for me in a warm car. There were flowers, cards and chocolates sitting at home.

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This is a short and sweet post like the month.

Emily and I have decided to use paper records for our hives again. Our blogs provide an online diary of beekeeping, and I’ve found electronic records or apps sometimes difficult to access or just fiddly to use on my phone during a hive inspection. Also, it seems better to keep records under the hive roofs at the apiary, in case other beekeepers need to read them.

Here’s a start on preparing our hive record sheets for the season ahead, based on others we have used and ideas for monthly reminders. Let me know in your comments if there’s anything you would include, I’d be interested to know how to improve them:

Hive records 2015 pdf
Hive records 2015 Word doc

And a note on something less practical and more frilly… Sometimes there is snow in February, which makes me remember my favourite passage from The Snow Queen, A Tale is Seven Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen.

In the second story about a little boy and a little girl, Kay and Gerda sit by frozen windows to watch the snowstorm. They lay heated copper farthings on the windowpane to make a peep-hole to look outside…


”Look! The white bees are swarming,” said the old grandmother. “Have they a queen bee, too?” asked the little boy, for he knew that there was a queen among the real bees. “Yes, indeed they have,” said the grandmother. “She flies where the swarm is thickest. She is biggest of them all, and she never remains on the ground. She always flies up again to the sky. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets and peeps in at the windows, and then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful patterns like flowers.”

“Oh yes, we have seen that,” said both children, and then they knew it was true.

“Can the Snow Queen come in here?” asked the little girl.

“Just let her come,” said the boy, “and I will put her on the stove, where she will melt.”

But the grandmother smoothed his hair and told him more stories.

In the evening when little Kay was at home and half undressed, he crept up on to the chair by the window, and peeped out of the little hole. A few snowflakes were falling, and one of these, the biggest, remained on the edge of the window-box. It grew bigger and bigger, till it became the figure of a woman, dressed in the finest white gauze, which appeared to be made of millions of starry flakes. She was delicately lovely, but all ice, glittering, dazzling ice. Still she was alive, her eyes shone like two bright stars, but there was no rest or peace in them. She nodded to the window and waved her hand. The little boy was frightened and jumped down off the chair, and then he fancied that a big bird flew past the window.

The next day was bright and frosty, and then came the thaw—and after that the spring.”

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A beekeeper’s notes
A beekeeper’s notes for January

My insect reflection

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The frost arrived as silently as the dew on a crisp and cheery morning in December. I grabbed my camera and raced outside, struck by the simple beauty of sparkling crystals of ice on earth, grass and leaves.

Winter is a surprising season for photography. The sun is low in the sky, the light is soft, and the colours and textures subtly blended. But my eyes were drawn that day to a hidden world of star-like beauty and wonder.

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Frost is dazzling in macro. A million little crystals of glittering frozen icicles on mosses and grass. I got out the extension tube to fix to my standard kit lens and zoom in closer, with elbows rested on knees for a make-do tripod. My shoestring macro method worked. Look, nature is magical even in a patch of scrub growing next to a concrete car park.

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For me spending time in nature can help to bring a positive perspective. There are amazing things to be seen from the smallest to the largest objects in the universe. How do you compare the spectacular rings of icy water droplets swirling around a gas giant planet to the simple crystallisation of water on a frosted flower?

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The sharp delicate flakes shone like stars. I can understand the frosty glow must be a lure to the light-receiving ocelli eyes of a bee as she peeks out of the hive and sees the ground glistening on a winter’s day.

I’ve heard it said that each sugar crystal of honey too is as unique as a snowflake.

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Getting into macro photography lets me imagine the world through the eyes of the smallest creatures. How differently does life appear to a bug in all its wonderfully infinite and diverse combinations? In their tiny environments do they see nature more widely than we can?

I hope 2015 brings more time to notice the simplicity and beauty in the world around us.

A Christmas gift from the bees

It has been a fantastic year of beekeeping. To celebrate I’ve made a book to say thank you to everyone for reading my blog. I’ve enjoyed sharing the ups and downs, queens and swarms, honey and drones, with you all. This is a gift from the bees.

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The industrious honeybee has inspired people for centuries, while the treasures of the hive bring sweetness in honey and light in candles. What is life like through the compound eyes of the bee? This little book of bee magic journeys through the honeybee year, from season to season.

You can download the ebook for free on Blurb books here to read on iBooks for iPhone and iPads. Or send an email using the form below and I will send you a copy of the ebook. I’ll wait a week to receive everyone’s requests before sending copies.

This is my first ebook, I hope you have as much fun flipping through the pages as I did making them. Let me know what you think, because I’m planning more ebooks with all funds raised donated to a charity Bees for Development.

A winter’s tale

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There is a bee legend handed down from bee generation to bee generation about the great sparkle.

“Ooh the great sparkle,” say the bees as they see the twinkling stars and the early evening frost. “Get inside quickly before the instant freezing grips you in its icy hold.” Then they all settle down in their nice warm hives to listen to the tales about Jack Frost.

It is a fable, of course. Frost fell on the farm in Hereford last weekend. I imagined the bees peering out at the frozen earth.

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Yesterday was another beautiful winter’s day when Emily and I met for lunch in Ealing, back home in London. A mushroom risotto warmed us before getting the bus to Perivale. The clear blue sky was tinged orange in the late afternoon sun.

Emily’s marmalade cake caused a stir among the beekeepers who had gathered for tea. “Your bees have been flying like hell,” said Stan, as I cut a slice of cake.

Another bee legend at Ealing apiary, Alan, gave Emily and I tips on insulating the hives with the foil bubble wrap. Here he is showing Emily how to cut squares around a queen excluder to fit into the roof.

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Alan then helped us to fit the foil bubble wrap inside the roof of each hive. The colony will do a good job of keeping themselves warm in winter, but the foil will help to reflect the heat back into the hive. Hopefully, the bees will feel even more cosy.

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Bees tucked in for winter, I got a surprise when lifting the roof off an empty hive to put away some equipment. A sleeping wasp with her wings folded neatly by her legs. A bit further along the wood was a desiccated spider and a ladybird who may have died in suspicious circumstances… What dark fairy tale had unfolded?

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I gently placed the roof back on the hive trying not disturb the sleeping beauty. She looks small for a wasp queen, perhaps a worker who had abandoned her dying nest? In any case, few hibernating wasp queens survive the winter, either succumbing to the cold or spiders, she’ll have as good a chance as anyone else.

The hives had become still as Emily and I got out the chicken wire to make a start on wrapping the bees for Christmas. The dusk was chasing away the day.

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… As usual, and as happened every year, there were those bees who didn’t heed their sisters’ warnings. They were caught by Jack Frost’s creeping, sometimes sudden, appearance. The late returning foragers caught frostbite on their wings, or even worse turned into instant bee statues on a flower. Those who returned home too late could only be saved if they happened to land on the hive roof, so that their beekeepers could breathe on them warm air and thaw their frosted wings. These lucky bees were the ones who told the tales that were handed down.

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It is a story, of course, as we left the quiet hives behind us to keep their winter secrets.