A stocking filler from the bees

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Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

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I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

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There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.

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I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.

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Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!

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Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

goodnight apiary

See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil

Method:

  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.

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Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

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Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.