A beekeeper’s notes for September

spider dangling

The spiders spin their crafty webs between the autumn sedum in September. Thousands of tiny pink star-like flowers open to welcome honeybees in their dozens to drink from a forest of nectar.

The bees trip over themselves to visit every single flower. They fly carelessly close to silken strands where garden spiders dangle beneath the leaves waiting to pounce. The bees’ tantalising electrical charge in the air attracts the webbing even closer to their wings.

IMG_9528

I think the variety of sedum in our garden is autumn joy? The large clump of ungainly leaves growing out from the bottom of the decking had looked suspiciously like a weed to untrained gardeners’ eyes. “I’ll dig it out for you,” my dad said, eager to clear away overgrown foliage from our garden. “No” I replied, “We’re waiting to see what everything turns into this year.”

The green clusters have slowly exploded into bright pink blooms over the past couple of weeks. “Is there a nest of bees in the garden?” John and dad both had asked me. “No, just the autumn sedum,” I replied.

IMG_9530

I was tempted to brush away the spiders’ webs to protect the foraging bees. But who am I to interfere and deprive a spider of her dinner? The sedum looks well established and it’s likely this dance between spiders and bees has been going on for decades in our garden. So far I’ve counted only one mummified bee in a web, the spiders are hardly winning.

The nectar flow is usually considered to be over by many beekeepers come late summer to early autumn. However, as I watch the bees in the garden few appear to be pollen collectors. Their baskets are empty as they search for every place on the flower beds to drink. This gives me hope that autumn forage will bring both more nectar and pollen to the hives, if the bees can withstand the chilly drop in temperatures.

IMG_8914

This hardy warm-blooded bumblebee in a garden centre seemed less bothered by the cool day than the cold-blooded honeybees.

At the apiary table beekeepers were taking a pause for tea, and honey fudge bought by Emily from her holiday. “This looks far too posh to eat,” complained John Chapple. “I think you should wrap it in Christmas paper,” agreed Stan. Emily cut the fudge into cubes for the beekeepers to (reluctantly) eat.

Talk was on about this year’s National Honey Show with Jonesy being persuaded to take part. I shared a tip passed-on by Dev from last year’s honey judges. To get out more air bubbles, spread cling film on the surface of the honey and leave (perhaps 20 minutes) then peel off…

IMG_9586

… air bubbles cling to the film and lift off. I’m not sure of the physics behind it, but it works. Clearer honey!

IMG_9587

Our three hives have ended the summer queen right. With the honey crop off and the Apiguard treatment finished, we’re checking the bees are bedding down properly for winter. To prove the point, Melissa’s colony had stuck down the hive roof hard with lots of propolis.

Peppermint’s hive was low on nectar stores (we hadn’t harvested from this artificially swarmed colony) although packed-full of bright orange pollen. There were also piles of beautiful orange pollen dropped at the bottom of the hive. Be more careful with your shopping, ladies! Going through the frames it was clear this hive would need autumn feeding to meet their quota of 20–30 lb of honey to survive winter. The bees were well behaved despite the low amounts of stores and brood in the nest, which would usually make a colony quite grumpy.

IMG_9584

In Melissa’s and Pepper’s hives the August wash-out had made the bees tuck into their put-away stores and left the returned wet supers unfilled. A reminder of how quickly things can change in bee land. Emily and I may decide this month whether or not these supers now need to be taken off for safer storage against wax moth. There’s no hurry, we’ll wait and see if the forecast Indian summer makes any difference.

We didn’t spot the queens this weekend, but the bees were behaving as good as gold so their majesties must be at home. I wondered if it might also be the effect of Jochen standing nearby. This German beekeeper seems to have a calming influence on our bees.

IMG_9585

Emily holds up a brood frame from Melissa’s colony. The hive had completed a Bailey comb change in the spring, yet how quickly the golden honeycomb turns brown after one summer of brood. It makes me think of how many bees have emerged from each cell leaving behind a cocoon.

The summer holidays felt like a distant memory as we talked about getting ready for winter. Autumn is always a reminder of how fast time flies.

IMG_9366

Two bees chat about their summer holidays while sticking propolis to the hive roof.

Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

009

Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

004

Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

011

Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

012

This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

002

I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

005

006

What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

010

007

While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

Wasps begone

IMG_3958

“How long do bees live?” Ruth asked me at work. It’s a good question. I replied, “Six weeks in summer and around five months in winter, while queens can live for two or three years.”

It was funny to hear Pat get asked the same question by a family of new beekeepers on Saturday. Though it’s late in the year for visitors, a curious crowd had gathered to find out more about the bees. “The workers live for six weeks in summer, but now they’re fattening up to live longer over winter,” said Pat, as Jochen, Emily and I hovered behind to listen. David had opened his green hive to give the new colony a quick inspection before winter.

An observant beginner pointed at workers on the side of the hive with raised abdomens. I could hear Emily explain about nasonov glands and releasing pheromones for other bees to find their way home. “Sort of like a homing signal,” said the beginner.

IMG_3981

It was lovely to enjoy a beekeeping lesson at the apiary and to hear the ‘oohs’, ‘ahhs’ and gasps of beginners. With not much beekeeping doing, the winter months are a chance to enjoy the company of beekeepers.

Emily and I put the mouseguards on our four hives this week, with a few pins from Jonesy, and topped up the feeders. Our dry sugar experiment hadn’t worked out, so I took away the bags. Like children who realise they can no longer play with an unwanted toy, it was only then bees scrambled up to drag down spilled sugar.

IMG_3994

Melissa’s clever bees had also built their own honeycomb cover for one of the holes in the crownboard.

Chamomile’s hive had more diarrhoea at the entrance. It is a worry but there is not much we can do to treat nosema. Emily has Thomas’s thymol recipe to make up at home, but I’d be happier to get this colony shook swarmed in spring.

The mild autumn has kept bees, and wasps, active for longer. The wasp problem seems to have sorted itself out with only one or two lingering around hives. As I told a beginner, I hoped the bees flying out and about could find forage to replace all that honey they were eating to sustain their unseasonal activities.

IMG_3966

A puff of smoke to clear the bees…

IMG_3968

… as David cleans up wax from the queen excluder.

In fact, this autumn seems to have confused bees and beekeepers alike with some still opening hives for inspections. I asked Alan and John their views. Alan was firm this does more harm than good, “You’re letting out all that warmth and breaking up the propolis. Leave them alone.” When I said that some had even found queen cells in the hive, Alan just shook his head and shrugged: “They’re not going to mate now and there’s nothing you can do. Wait till spring and if you have a drone layer, then replace her.” Personally I agree. Sometimes we have to let nature alone and accept what will be.

IMG_3996

Jochen puts his hand over a hole in the crownboard to feel the warmth that the bees generate inside the hive, probably around 30°C. 

Sitting at the table I remembered how much I enjoyed being an Ealing beekeeper. Perhaps one day when I keep bees away from the apiary I’ll be able to enjoy visiting just for tea and cake. Jonesy and Stan checked out the suspected wasp nest, confirming it was indeed a wasp nest. Stan even offered to remove it, but we all agreed that the wasps will die out soon. Better to give the wasp queen a chance to fly away first and find somewhere to hibernate till next year.

That done, the Ealing beekeepers cleared up tea cups and brushed off biscuit crumbs. It was time to leave the apiary gently humming in the warm autumn sun.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

The wasp palace

IMG_5547

The afternoon had turned out perfectly nice for beekeeping. A low sun brought its warmth closer to the bees who were flying out and about like on a spring day. Mushrooms with long shadows had popped up all over the place to remind me it was autumn.

It was the second Saturday of the month which meant that Ealing beekeepers were at the scout hut for a workshop. But I was not the only visitor to the apiary, there were also the wasps. Last Sunday I had laid a couple of traps to deter wandering wasps from bothering our hives. Yesterday I found out it might not be so easy.

IMG_5576

This is as close as l’m going to get to a (suspected) wasps’ nest, even in a bee suit. A small burrow in the ground with fast-flying insects coming and going in a blur. Too small for bumbles and too many for solitaries. Had I stumbled on a wasp palace?

Wherever the wasps were hiding, the Wasp Queen had given orders to attack Queen Chamomile’s bees. As Emily arrived and stepped through the mushroom path, I had found a dent in the woodwork of Chamomile’s hive that hadn’t been there before. It seemed too early for woodpeckers who would still have lots of other tasty things to eat. “They don’t usually become a problem until the ground gets hard,” said Emily.

IMG_5549

EDIT: wood damage from rot, woodpeckers or very determined wasps! Some helpful suggestions in the comments below.

Irritated by the wasps circling the hive boxes like sharks in the water, I looked at the front and saw a row of wasps scraping and gnawing at the wood, determined to get inside.

Luckily, Emily and I had some spare duct tape and together we taped around the vulnerable seams of wood between the hive boxes and the crownboard. The wasps weren’t happy and retreated back to their queen for new orders.

IMG_5580

There is nothing more tempting to a beekeeper on a sunny day than a wooden box full of insects. But we resisted the temptation to open the hives. The opportunity for wasps to fly in and stress the bees would be too great. Instead we cleaned and topped up feeders with syrup.

We also left small bags of dry sugar under the roofs of Melissa’s and Chamomile’s hives as an experiment. Emily had read that some beekeepers feed hives dry sugar in autumn and spring, leaving the bees to add the water themselves. Though all our colonies are heavy with winter stores, Melissa’s inquisitive workers immediately checked out the spilled sugar. We’ll see next week if they liked it or not, as it’s a useful tip to know if we’re ever caught short of syrup or fondant.

IMG_5584

We then walked around the apiary to visit the other beekeepers’ hives. The new bees living in David’s old green hive seemed much better tempered and were content for us to watch them come and go. Although I spotted a hitchhiker on a returning forager (image above, bottom left).

Emily found a worker crawling beneath the apiary’s top bar hive with shrivelled wings, likely caused by deformed wing virus (DWV). Another clue that varroa was always lurking and that we must be ever vigilant against bee diseases even after a good season.

IMG_5583

The wasps would probably finish off the hapless bee. They are, after all, useful scavengers. Incidentally, we should also thank wasps for beer and bread.

A new beekeeper had arrived not realising that everyone else was at the scout hut. He had recently got a colony of bees from John Chapple and was giddy with excitement. “I can’t stop watching them.”

John Chapple would tell us to leave the bees alone as, despite appearances being contrary with bees flying in and out with brightly coloured pollen, they were making preparations for winter. Preparations that would be undone by nosy beekeepers pulling at frames to say hello.

IMG_5581

With that we closed the gate and left the bees, and the wasps and the mushrooms, to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Postscript notes
Aside from the wasps, this has been a great year beekeeping. Check out my new blog index for posts on this year’s and past year’s beekeeping adventures, along with posts about lots of other things!

An Ealing beekeeper at Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina

049

The last of autumn’s leaves fell as my plane departed London Heathrow leaving behind grey skies and rain. Sunshine and blue skies awaited my arrival at Raleigh Durham.

Welcome to fall in North Carolina where forests splash the landscape with dramatic oranges and reds, and dazzling mirror-like lakes reflect the vibrant colours of turning trees.

041a

041b

051

048

Last month I was invited to Thanksgiving by good friends, Alison and Rick, who live in Wake Forest in Wake County, located north of Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina. Wake Forest is a beautiful, historic town surrounded by forests, woods, meadows and lakes. The climate is subtropical with hot, humid summers, mild winters (relatively) and boasting temperatures of around 20°C in spring and autumn. I felt that the days were warm and the nights were frosty; my friends ‘reckoned’ it was ‘so cold it was gonna snow’.

I was lucky to stay at Ali and Rick’s beautiful home and to explore the surrounding woods and forests. I set myself the challenge of keeping my camera on manual mode for the entire trip to capture the incredible range of colours, textures and lights of North Carolina.

004a

005

003

002

001

011

016

014

As well as its human inhabitants, Wake Forest is home to many forest animals including squirrels, deer, coyotes and a wide variety of birds; the mountainous region of North Carolina even has bears! The red cardinal, the official state bird, was a frequent visitor to the bird table. I found that forest wildlife was less bold than London’s urban wildlife and rather shy of having their picture taken!

I was also excited to see red squirrels, which I’ve never seen in London!

006

102

The clearings in the woods behind the house, where we took the dogs for walks, were heavily populated by stripy, stingy insects that Ali called ‘bees’.

008

095

… but closer inspection revealed that they were wasps. I wasn’t entirely sure, but one photo tweeted later confirmed that they were yellow jackets, the common name in North America for a predatory and temperamental wasp. Poor bees, falsely accused!

We also came across lots of lovely pine cones in the woods, perfect fuel for beekeeping smokers.

115 116

While I didn’t spot a bee, it wasn’t long until I met a beekeeper.

A meeting of beekeepers

Ali suggested a visit to the North Carolina State Farmers Market where I spotted the beekeeper’s stall almost immediately!

071

072

Here I met Berry the Beeman, a crop pollinator and beekeeper of Bee Blessed Pure Honey. Berry teaches children about bees and was happy to share stories about his hives. He likes to keep some Carniolan colonies, because they are gentle in nature, and he often gets Kona queens from Hawaii, because they breed fast and are, apparently, very big bees! (He may have been pulling my leg.) My hive partner, Emily, and I prefer big queen bees because they are much easier to spot on the frame!

Berry invited Ali and me to sample his honey crop. The clary sage honey was mildly floral and delicately textured, while the basswood was powerful and tangy with complex layers. ‘As you know, no two honeys should taste the same,’ said Berry, who told us that clary sage and clover have replaced the tobacco fields as major forage for honeybees in North Carolina. I would like to have tasted tobacco honey!

073

The Beeman, who reminded me of Ealing’s beekeepers, would have been at home sitting at the apiary table drinking tea and eating cake on a Saturday afternoon, so I told him a little bit about our association. When I mentioned that John Chapple, a mentor to many new beekeepers, often tastes interesting and exotic varieties of honeys on his travels, Berry said he should try the basswood honey; Ali excitedly threw in ‘He is the queen’s beekeeper!’

I bought three jars of honey for John, Andy and Pat, who always help Emily, me and others with our hives; you can see what they thought in the epilogue to this post. Berry’s stall was very popular, so after buying my honey and asking for a photo we moved on to look at the Christmas trees.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

Thanksgiving was an amazing affair – I have never seen so much food even at Christmas! Traditionally a harvest festival, Thanksgiving is now celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in America; being English this was my first Thanksgiving Dinner. Rick is an excellent cook who made sure that I got the best experience of this American holiday. Turkey, bacon, stuffing, mashed potato, sweet potato and marshmallows, squash, cous cous, jello, green bean casserole, three kinds of dessert… they would have to roll me back on the plane to England!

021 021b 022

All that eating, drinking and being thankful was followed by more forest trails to walk off the Girl Scout cookies Thin Mints.

034 036 037 040

My last two days in North Carolina were spent exploring historic Wake Forest downtown where it seems that the British had been before.

086 087

As everyone knows, an Ealing beekeeper is 80% tea and 20% cake so a cuppa in The Olde English Tea Room was obligatory. It was lovely inside – like a cosy tea room in the West Country, except that the cucumber sandwiches and lavender tea were much nicer! The atmosphere was warm and friendly, I love those southern accents!

088 091

The antebellum southern architecture of downtown was reminiscent of sprawling plantation properties and ranch-style houses with beautiful wood panelling, gabled roofs and huge balconies. I also liked the random planting of ornamental cabbages in flower beds – very accommodating for friendly neighbourhood insect pollinators. Local councils in London could take note!

094 062

Rain clouds loomed on the morning before my flight back to London and provided the perfect photographic backdrop for my tour of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Cobalt blue skies and bright sunshine are beautiful, but not always the best conditions for taking photos. Overcast conditions provide interesting contrasts and hues.

The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary was established in 1950 on the campus of Wake Forest University. The campus and college buildings have an older history dating back to the 1800s, and tours of the picturesque grounds are available on Tuesday and Friday mornings. I am always fascinated to find out the history, culture and architecture of the places that I visit. My tour was led by Josh who told me all about the tobacco fields that once grew in Wake Forest, the migration of the original college to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the inception of the seminary, which has an impressive international programme. I was rather envious of his travels.

Like everywhere in Wake Forest, the seminary was very friendly and, after my tour, I was free to explore the grounds and take photos of the elegant buildings, pretty gardens and a gnarly, twisted, old tree that I found particularly interesting!

104 105 108 109 110

All too soon it was time to say farewell to Wake Forest and to the new friends that I had made there. The warmth of days was matched only by the southern hospitality and the charm of the people of North Carolina. I look forward to when I can return.

030

A huge thank you to Ali and Rick who welcomed me into their home and to their friends, Lydia, Heather, Carol, Jen and Mickey who made me feel like part of the family.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Epilogue

Back in Blighty, I am no longer worried about crossing the road, but everything looks smaller. Gazing out of my window at the Royal College of Physicians, the trees in Regent’s Park look like saplings compared to the tall pines and oaks of Wake Forest. It is also so cold that it has actually snowed.

At the apiary everyone was interested to hear about my trip to the States over a pot of tea and Emily’s homemade chocolate cake. I gave John, Andy and Pat their Bee Blessed Pure Honey, and John and Pat wasted no time tucking in.

Ealing beeks eating honey

(L-R) Who needs spoons? Pat and John tuck in to alfalfa and basswood honeys from Berry the Beeman, North Carolina.

My Facebook album of Thanksgiving in Wake Forest, North Carolina, is available to view here.

Related links

Wake Forest, North Carolina

North Carolina State Farmers Market

Bee Blessed Pure Honey.

Berry the Beeman

The Olde English Tea Room

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

No incidental music please, say the squirrels

Before going on holiday to North Carolina, my options were to leave incidental music playing on my blog or a time-release post about squirrels. I chose squirrels.

So here’s an exposé of the infamous squirrel mafia at Regent’s Park. Enjoy!

A generous passerby looks for a biscuit in her bag to feed a hungry squirrel.

She is too slow for the squirrel who decides that he will do a better job of looking for himself.

Mission accomplished.

Here’s my beautiful, kind friend Helen. Also foolish and unsuspecting – not realising she is being set up…

…for a squirrel ambush!

You wanna piece of me?

As naughty as they are, I was having a lot of fun taking pictures of squirrels until they called in the paparazzi police…

‘No photo!’

This cheeky squirrel even had time to stick out his tongue before making a quick getaway.

Not all wildlife in Regent’s Park is shy about being papped. Apologies to my friend, Danielle, if she is reading this post, for the pigeon…

Magpie, squirrel and… ‘Don’t forget me!’, says the pigeon.

There were a lot more squirrel photos too, but I was feeling quite unwell at the time of preparing this incidental piece. So for more squirrel shenanigans do check out this fun post at Garden Walk, Garden Talk: Shock and Awe – Squirrel Style. And happily, as you read this, I’ll be curled in a comfy armchair beside a log fire in North Carolina, still sleeping off Thanksgiving Dinner!

A study of autumn colours and lights in Regent’s Park

The sun is playful in October. It races across the sky low and bright catching fire to vibrant colours, then hides behind mists and raindrops teasing the day with soft light and vivid tones.

Autumn is a fleeting time of year and so I have enjoyed lunch time walks in Regent’s Park, which has been the perfect canvas for the tantalising display of colour and light.

The days started with golden sunshine, leaves on fire and sparkling fountains…

Gloomy clouds arrived bringing overcast light and saturated autumn colours…

Then the mists fell upon wet leaves capturing spectacular hues, waterfalls and reflections…

Light played with raindrops in the dying rose garden and mists wreathed fading flowers…

I hope you are enjoying autumn as much as I have been!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Related links

If you would like to visit or find out more about Regent’s Park, visit the website of the royal parks.

Autumn colour: The science of nature’s spectacle is a great video from the BBC that explains how the ‘elements have conspired to give us a particularly spectacular display of autumn colour’.

Check out this post of beautiful fall photos by Donna: Autumn Kalaidescope.