Myrrh, Queen of the Monsoon

A tough little tree grows along the Red Sea and arid regions of Northeast Africa, Libya and Iran. Surviving against the odds, the little tree weeps a bitter red-brown resin with remarkable healing properties. Its name is myrrh.

Like her namesake, Queen Myrrh emerged from her cell into adversity. She arrived as the rains came to the desert bringing plants, trees and flowers back to life, while she waited inside the hive. Myrrh, who inherited a dying colony from her drone-laying mother, Rosemary, was desperate to go out on her mating flight, but every beat of her wings would have been a race against the wind and rain.

In Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper says, ‘The queen mates on the wing during the first ten to twenty days of her life. Once she has emerged from her queen cell she becomes mature within a couple of days, but by the time she is three weeks to a month old she is no longer capable of mating properly. During her mature period the worker bees become more and more aggressive towards her up to the time she mates. This behaviour has a possible value in driving the queen out for her mating flight before she is too old to accomplish it efficiently.’

A mild spring of sunshine and showers is vital for bees to forage and build-up their stores after winter, and fine days are needed for the mating flights of virgin queens. However, the torrential rain over the past six weeks has trapped bees inside hives and left hungry mouths to feed.

Warm, sunny days are needed for drones to fly out to congregation areas where they swarm about thirty to ninety feet above the ground and wait for virgin queens to fly past. No one knows for certain how drone congregation areas are found by drones and queens, but each spring they make amazing spectacles of life and death.

If the weather had been fine, Myrrh would have flown through the air like a comet with drones forming a comet’s tail behind her. The best and fastest drones would catch the queen and die in the act of mating, falling to the ground below. ‘At the time of mating the drone genitalia enters the queen and literally explodes, separating from the drone, which dies.’ (Ted Hooper)

During the course of three mating flights, the queen would mate with up to 40 drones, filling her abdomen with sperm and allowing her, potentially, to lay fertile eggs for the colony for two to three years. ‘Mating having been accomplished, the queen starts egg-laying within a few days, and is from then on very carefully looked after by the worker bees… now she produces a scent which causes them to turn and face her if she is close, thus forming the ring of workers usually found around the queen, and called her “retinue”.’ (Ted Hooper)

Queen Lavender is surrounded by her retinue – a circle of worker bees – as she walks across the frame. (Sorry the queen’s a little blurry – it’s tricky to hold a frame of bees, spot the queen and take her photo!)

However, the weather was not kind and Myrrh never left the hive. Unable to mate with drones from her own colony because of the risks of inbreeding, she could not lay eggs to replace the workers reaching the end of their life cycle and the drone her mother had laid. The colony had become quite small by the time Emily and me were able to open the hive for an inspection.

We were sad to see Myrrh walking across the frame without her retinue of workers and her small abdomen indicating that she had not mated. We continued to check through the hive to make sure that there were no eggs or larvae – the queen can also look small and slim before swarming when she is starved by the workers to make her fly, but this was unlikely to be the case with Myrrh. A few weeks ago we had put in a frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, but this was uncapped probably because there are not enough workers to raise brood. We didn’t find new brood.

Worker bees having a chat. Chilly temperatures this spring meant that opening the hives would do more harm than good, leaving nature to decide the fate of Myrrh. We could not introduce a newly mated queen while Myrrh was inside the hive, because the workers would see her as an intruder and kill her.

Emily and me talked over the options because, while there was nothing we could do for Myrrh, there were the surviving bees to consider. It was too late to give the colony another frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, because there were not enough workers to rear a new queen and her bees. For the same reason, it was too late to introduce one of the mated New Zealand queens recently bought for the apiary.

The dying colony was mostly drone, but could be saved by combining with Lavender’s hive. It was a big decision to finally collapse this colony, so we decided to close the hive for a few days to consult wiser beekeepers than ourselves.

Drones carry the characteristics of their hives to other colonies through mating with the local queens. Emily and me have good-natured, hard-working bees, and we would want our drones to survive and mate with other queens in the area.

Queen Lavender’s hive was a happier picture full of bees, brood and stores. The bees had completed the Bailey comb change by themselves – clever bees! – and the brood in the bottom had hatched and moved up to join the queen. We took away the old brood box and placed the new brood box on the hive floor, removing the dummy board to give them space to expand. The old brood box, with straggler bees shaken out into the queen’s nest, was placed on top with an empty super in-between for the bees to rob the remaining stores.

We saw signs that Lavender’s bees are trying to make queen cells – it is the swarming season – but with more space in the brood box this instinct may be delayed. We will have to watch them carefully over the next few weeks.

I spied a worker waving her abdomen in the air, exposing her Nasonov gland and fanning her wings to spread the scent to guide foraging bees back to the colony. She may have been doing this because we kept Lavender’s hive open longer than usual to complete the Bailey comb change.

Emily and Drew had brought along their friend Owen, who was scouting out the situation about bees for his girlfriend, Fran. So we wandered round the apiary for a while and topped up the sugar syrup in the other hives and nucs. In May we wouldn’t normally feed bees because the supers would be on the hive, which we would like the bees to fill with nectar not sugar. However, the wettest April on record for the past 100 years in the UK has bought famine to many bee colonies and the National Bee Unit has issued a starvation warning to beekeepers to continue feeding their hives.

At the height of summer, a forager bee visits around 2,000 flowers a day to collect enough nectar and pollen to feed around 50,000 hungry bees inside the hive, and new bees are hatching all the time. So if bees can’t fly out and stores are low, they need a lot of sugar!

Drew kindly took some nice shots on my new camera…

Me pouring Ambrosia sugar syrup – food of the gods and of bees. I hope the bumbles and solitary bees found food, warmth and shelter during the rainy spring.  © Drew Scott

Rain is needed to stimulate the nectar flow, but then sunshine is needed to evaporate the water from plants, flowers and trees so bees can forage. Too much rain dilutes nectar and washes away pollen leaving no food for bees. The honeybee relies on the delicate balance of nature for its survival or doom! © Drew Scott

Bees can be a bit forgetful so Emily and me use Pat’s sticky twig trick to remind them of ambrosia in the roof. A twig is soaked in sugar syrup and left inside the feeder hole leaving a trail of gooey sweetness for bees to follow. © Drew Scott

Beekeepers sharing a bee joke – hope the bees enjoyed it. © Drew Scott

Beekeeping done for another Saturday and the sun still shining, Emily, Drew, Owen and me ended the afternoon in the beer garden at The Fox Inn, in Hanwell.

The reign of Queen Myrrh has been painfully short and bitter, but she has inspired an aromatherapy blend.

Warming bath blend

  • 4 drops myrrh
  • 2 drops clove
  • 2 drops ginger
  • 4 teaspoons of olive oil

Run the bath and then sloosh round the blend to disperse the oil as much as possible (you can use full fat milk or cream or an unscented bath gel as a carrier agent, if preferred). Patch test the blend if you have sensitive skin. Do not use if you are pregnant.

This is a dark, smoky and reflective blend. In The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia describes myrrh’s effect on the mind as ‘one of inner stillness and peace, of an awareness free from restlessness and the mundane’. Clove and ginger were added for depth and warmth.

Emily and me attended the London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day on Sunday (we were really as busy as bees this weekend!) and listened to very useful talks from our local bee inspectors on how to manage bee diseases and keep happier, healthier bees, which will feature in future posts.

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Bailey comb change for spring bees

The sun arrived in London last weekend reaching highs of around 20°C and not a cloud in sight. It was perfect timing for my friend Marina to visit from Malmö, Sweden, and for Emily and me to shook swarm our bees.

On Saturday Marina, who is allergic to bee stings, went for coffee with Italian friends at Notting Hill, while I hopped on a bus to Stockdove Way in Perivale with instructions from my Swedish friend not to come home ‘all bitten’.

Blue skies at the apiary were a contrast to last week’s rain, when Emily and me had spent the afternoon blow torching hive boxes and getting frames ready for this year’s bees. Each spring we give our bees a clean brood box and fresh frames for the year ahead. It is like spring cleaning the house when the warm weather comes to clear out clutter and freshen the home.

Me blow-torching hive equipment to kill off all nasties. I didn't burn down the apiary but there were a few 'interventions'.

Bees naturally live with lots of different bacteria, viruses and fungi (just like people), but when the numbers of parasites rise above manageable levels this can cause problems. Changing the brood comb regularly helps prevent the build up of disease such as European foul brood (EFB), American foul brood (AFB) and nosema.

There are two methods of replacing the brood comb:

  • Shook swarm: bees are literally shaken into a new hive with fresh foundation and the old brood comb and unhatched bees are burned. The shook swarm gets rid of everything (including the varroa feasting on unhatched winter bees) and starts the year with almost no disease in the colony.
  • Bailey comb change: a gentler version of the shook swarm, bees are gradually moved into a new hive by encouraging the queen and her colony to climb up into a clean brood box frame by frame.

A picture of health – our bees were looking healthy and not much sign of varroa. It seemed a bit extreme to subject them to a shook swarm this year.

While chatting over tea and munching on Sarah’s lovely homemade ginger biscuits, Emily and me had a change of plans and chose to do the Bailey comb change instead of the shook swarm. With not much varroa in either hive, it seemed unnecessary to destroy all the unhatched brood.

That decided, we lit our smokers and went to open our hives for the first time this year. First, Queen Rosemary’s hive, our biggest colony going into winter, whose bees had been seen flying home with lots of bright yellow pollen in the past few weeks. Little faces peered up as we lifted the crownboard and a few bees buzzed curiously around our veils, but as usual this lot were pretty chilled and didn’t need much smoking. We found and caged our queen to keep her safe as we worked.

Queen Rosemary safely caught in Emily's queen cage. We put this frame aside to avoid damaging the queen during the comb change. Emily also re-marked Rosemary with a white dot, which makes her easier to find.

Emily and me were unfamiliar with the Bailey comb change method, so John kindly talked us through. John Chapple, beekeeper to the queen’s bees at Buckingham Palace, is a very experienced beek – he has a beard – and is a really good mentor to new beeks.

We put a clean brood box with new frames and foundation above the old brood box. Dummy boards were placed beside the brood nest in both the bottom and top brood boxes to encourage the bees to move up into the new box.

The method works because bees are naturally inclined to climb upwards and to fill empty spaces with honeycomb. It’s what they do, and it is understanding this principle that also helps beekeepers to manipulate bees to make surplus honey.

Me pointing to a dummy board (a plain wooden board) next to the last frame of brood in the bottom box to 'close' the nest and encourage bees to climb up. The same arrangement of frames is made in the top box.

Rosemary's hive now has two brood boxes for the Bailey comb change to be carried out over the next few weeks, and a third shallow super box on top to put a feeder with syrup under the roof.

John told us what the bees would do next: ‘They will climb up and find the new frames, and start to draw out wax comb. In a week or two, you should find the queen and put her in the top box with a queen excluder between the two boxes. The bees in the bottom box, including newly hatched bees, will move into the top box to join the queen.’

Hopefully, if all goes to plan, the bottom box will be removed and the old frames burned (the safest way to dispose of hive equipment). We’ll put the top box with the queen and nest on a new floor with a clean queen excluder, crownboard and roof above. A new hive for a season of flowing nectar ahead!

Happy to see our bees but the inspection of Rosemary's hive showed that all was not well...

I was so happy to see our bees again, but all was not well in Queen Rosemary’s hive. Our inspection showed signs that the queen may be failing: there were very few eggs and Emily noticed drone brood (male bees) in the middle of frames where there should be worker brood (female bees). Emily and me will have to check the situation over the next few weeks and decide what to do.

John, who was inspecting another hive at the apiary, brought over a frame of bees to show us. ‘What can you see?’ he asked. The frame was filled with drone brood, but John wanted us to look at the bees. The bees were small like workers, but their large beady eyes revealed that they were drones whose growth was stunted probably from being hatched in worker cells. Drones can’t look after themselves or future brood, so a hive with a drone-laying queen will collapse. ‘It’s all doomed,’ said John.

John shows us a frame of bees from a 'doomed hive'. The queen is only laying drone brood – you can see the raised domed-shaped cappings of drone brood in the middle of the frame.

Happily, Queen Lavender’s hive told another story. Our baby hive is flourishing – the queen is laying a healthy pattern of worker brood and the bees are building up honey stores. We carried out a Bailey comb change on this hive too, and fed both colonies with sugar syrup to help them along.

Winter bees feasting on sugar fondant under the roof in Lavender's hive. We took away the fondant and replaced it with sugar syrup for spring.

Lavender's hive is flourishing with lots of flat capped worker brood on the comb waiting to hatch. The pink rings show normal-sized drone bees (they have big beady eyes and fat bottoms) and the green ring shows a smaller worker bee going about her business.

Lavender, who is Rosemary’s sister, had a ride on my thumb after a new beekeeper, Rosemary, spotted the queen basking in the sun on the crownboard sitting next to the hive!

Emily kindly sent me this photo of Queen Lavender hitching a ride on my thumb back to the hive. Two workers are attending to her. Image © Emily Heath

I feel very honoured to have had a queen bee on my thumb, because they are notoriously shy.

On Saturday night the clocks went forward and British Summertime started. Sunday was another gloriously sunny day, so while our bees were out foraging Marina and me explored the local nature reserve just around the corner from my flat.

Then we climbed the hills at Northala Fields before stopping for ice cream. A wonderful weekend in spring, as Marina would say ‘It doesn’t get much better than that!’

A beautiful path of daffodils.

A tasty daff for bees to munch!

From the top of the first hill at Northala Fields – a local council project to construct four hills next to the A40 and surrounding nature reserve. This old bit of wasteland is now filled with families playing and people walking every weekend.

Useful links

The National Bee Unit has useful advice about replacing comb here, scroll down to ‘Fact sheets’. Many beekeepers also like the David Cushman method of Bailey comb change, which you can read here.

Emily’s posts on our Bailey comb change go into further detail about the method:

Exams over – and the Bailey comb change begins…
Lavender on the loose