What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ’emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

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On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9

Bee Health Day at the London Beekeepers Association

‘We are going to talk about varroa, which you will ignore at your peril,’ said John Chapple, chair of the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) in his opening comments at Bee Health Day. Emily and me had attended this varroa workshop with talks by the National Bee Unit’s (NBA) inspectors and hosted by LBKA, because it is vital that all beekeepers remain up-to-date on how to manage the varroa mite.

Varroa destructor – a truly insidious creature – is the mite that propelled the plight of the honeybee into the public eye. While there are many causes behind the decline of the honeybee, varroa is responsible for more colony losses than any other bee disease.

Varroa destructor – the insidious mite that afflicts honeybees and infects them with nasty viruses. © Crown copyright 2012

Since its discovery in England in 1992, the mite has spread rapidly across the country and invaded the hives of unsuspecting honeybees. This was a reconnaissance mission – Emily and me had come to find out more about the enemy.

We learned a lot – so here are highlights.

‘Know your enemy’ Alan Byham, south east regional bee inspector

‘Imagine what it feels like to have one of these on your back,’ said Alan, holding a life scale drawing of a varroa mite on his shoulder. ‘It would get in your way.’ Varroa mites feed on adult honeybees and their brood by clinging tooth and claw to suck their blood (picture a small, vampiric rabbit biting your back), weakening the bee’s immune system and transmitting a vile cocktail of harmful pathogens. Varroa accounts for thousands of colony losses each year in comparison to 800 hives lost annually due to European foul brood or American foul brood.

Varroa mites clinging to the back of a honeybee and sucking its blood! © Crown copyright 2012

As a parasite that frequently kills its host, varroa might not seem very effective. However, it was originally a parasite of the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) which has natural defenses against the mite, and spread to the defenceless European honeybee (Apis mellifera) through globalisation and the transport of honeybees around the world.

Varroa is incredibly well-adapted to the life cycle of the honeybee and spends its entire life within the colony. It is so highly specialised that the female mite can sense the pheromone given off by bee larvae ready to be capped before the worker bees! The mother mite buries herself underneath the larval food unseen by workers as they cap the cell. Sealed inside, she waits for the larva to eat the food and release her. The mite then feeds on the juicy larva as it develops into a bee. During this time, she lays eggs that hatch and mate with each other (inbreeding is not a problem for varroa) and the entire mite family are released when the fully-grown bee emerges from its cell. Insidious.

Mother mites hide in cells and then feed on bee larvae as they develop. © Crown copyright 2012

Varroa are hitchhikers too, and spread from hive to hive by drifting bees who are mostly drones. ‘Drones can do bed and breakfast in any hive,’ said Alan. ‘The workers don’t see them as a threat and so they are well tolerated.’ Beekeepers may be unaware of varroa in their hives during spring and summer, because the mites are mostly hidden within the brood. Varroa particularly prefer drone brood because they take longer to develop, which gives the mite more time inside the cell. Queen cells are rarely invaded by varroa because the queen larva develops very quickly, thus if a queen cell does have varroa this indicates that the colony is overrun.

Varroa counts may appear to rise suddenly in hives at the end of summer, but this is because there is less brood as the queen slows down her egg laying in preparation for winter. Winter or summer, varroa is always there.

You may not be able to see the varroa in your hive, but it is there.

Varroa is a problem to larger colonies because they have more brood, whereas its natural host, the Asian honeybee, tends to live in smaller colonies. Varroa can also rise to harmful levels inside the hive when the colony does not swarm very often or is prevented from swarming, whereas again the Asian honeybee swarms frequently. Swarming is a natural method of varroa control because the queen flies away from the nest with half her bees and leaves behind the brood and varroa.

This is a risk of beekeeping, explained Alan. European bees are usually kept in large ‘super’ hives, sometimes with double brood boxes, in order for the beekeeper to get more honey. Their natural swarming instinct is managed by various swarm control methods to make sure that half the colony doesn’t fly off with the honey! However, beekeepers often report that their biggest and strongest colonies succumb to varroa over winter. So it seems the mite problem is exacerbated by the lifestyle of bees living in hives and, unlike feral honeybees living in the wild, requires good husbandry methods to keep it under control.

Varroa can cause a lot of damage to colonies as seen by this varroa-infested hive. The comb and bees look very unhealthy, or, um, dead. © Crown copyright 2012

Alan’s talk prompted plenty of questions from the audience, including can we breed varroa-resistant bees?

No one has bred varroa-resistant bees yet and using breeding principles to replace good husbandry is risky, because when a queen swarms her progeny will mate with local drones that are not varroa-resistant. In a city like London where most bees are mongrels, it would not be possible to control breeding. It may be possible that a varroa-resistant bee is bred in future, or that Apis mellifera itself adapts to life with the mite, but in the meantime good husbandry techniques are essential to control varroa.

If you keep bees you keep varroa…

…I remembered this comment from Scott, a member of Ealing’s beekeepers, at last year’s Bee Health Day. All beekeepers keep varroa as well as bees no matter what we do or don’t do with our hives, so we may as well learn how to ‘keep’ it!

Alan took us through the treatment options available to beekeepers to kill varroa many of which are based on naturally occurring chemicals, such as thymol and oxalic acid. He explained that beekeepers are also dealing with a food product (honey) and so need to be careful what treatments they use and when. For example, the thymol-based Apistan varroa control strips taints honey with a strong smell and can only be use after the honey crop is removed at the end of the season.

While you can treat the brood nest for varroa, treatments shouldn’t be used while supers are on the hive and being filled with honey. Here I caught a little bee flying off from the comb!

The group asked about the effectiveness of using natural methods like sugar dusting. Bee are dusted in a light coating of icing sugar, which encourages them to clean each other and knock off the varroa. However, sugar dusting only knocks off around 29% of varroa mites and an effective treatment must kill 80% of the mites. It is a useful method during spring and summer when the supers are on the hive, because it won’t taint the honey, but it should not be used alone against varroa. Alan advised a multi-approach to managing varroa and to keep records of what works and what doesn’t.

A practical apiary session followed with Caroline Washington, bee inspector for North of the Thames, and the inspector who visits our apiary. Caroline is an effortlessly glamorous beekeeper and very, very firm. No bee would misbehave for Caroline!

Caroline gets her smoker going with a pine cone.

After getting her smoker going with a pine comb, Caroline demonstrated an inspection of a hive that she described as ‘very boring’. I think the bees were too in awe of Caroline to do anything other than what they should.

The bees behave for Caroline while she inspects their hive. In the background, my lovely hive partner, Emily!

It was a lot of learning for one Sunday morning, so we took a break for lunch and sat on the lawn of LBKA’s base at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth.

‘Virus in varroa’ Caroline Washington, bee inspector North of the Thames

The afternoon sessions kicked off with a talk about the world of bee viruses by Caroline. She listed the top six bee viruses that we should all know:

  1. deformed wing virus*
  2. sacbrood virus
  3. chronic bee paralysis virus
  4. acute bee paralysis virus
  5. black queen cell virus
  6. Kashmir bee virus

The virus that should most interest London beekeepers is deformed wing virus, which is often transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. Caroline commented that there has been much talk lately in the beekeeping world about failing queens, but no one ever thinks to look at the drones.

I demonstrated uncanny queen-spotting skills in the earlier apiary practical session by spotting this queen winding her way across the frame before it had even been lifted out!

The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) suggests that deformed wing virus is associated with most colony collapse, and the problem has become worse because there are many more beekeepers now and not all are managing varroa. Bees have the same problem as people living in crowded cities like London – disease spreads faster. Hives that are not treated for varroa will have bees that will infect neighbouring hives, which seem very antisocial!

‘The claw chooses who will go and who will stay’

The most valuable lesson that Caroline gave us was to use a pair of tweezers for inspections – not to groom the bees and make them more lovely, but to look for nasty stuff on the comb. ‘I have been trying to get beekeepers to look more closely at the comb for years,’ said Caroline. ‘Bad comb is easier to spot than disease or mites.’ Caroline passed round some particularly grotty-looking frames and got us to have a close look at them.

‘Husbandry techniques’ Brian McCallum, seasonal bee inspector 

The final workshop of the day was with Brian McCallum who talked us through a practical checklist of good husbandry including using open mesh floors and varroa monitoring boards, a varroa calculator (available on the NBU website) and drone monitoring.

Drone monitoring is an effective method of checking levels of varroa in a hive, because the mites are most attracted to drone brood. This is done by taking out of frame of drone brood and de-capping it, then counting how many larvae are infected with varroa rather than counting the number of mites. This number can then be checked on the NBU varroa calculator, which will indicate if varroa has risen to harmful levels and requires treatment.

A capping fork is used to un-cap drone brood on a test frame and to count the number of larvae that have varroa – like the one here with a big red mite. © Crown copyright 2012

At the end of the day I suspected that my brain is not much bigger than a bee’s because it was hurting quite a bit. So Emily and me wandered round the beautiful garden of Roots and Shoots, and were introduced to the resident solitary bees by the gardener, David Perkins.

After all that varroa nastiness, here are some lovelier pictures of solitary bees and bumbles happily not worried about mites.

A little bumble bee John found in the morning that hitched a ride. Morgan Bowers, who comments below, says. ‘Your ‘little bumble bee’ is Andrena fulva, the Tawny Mining Bee.’

A solitary bee flies home. They are brilliant carpenters and make little homes for themselves. 


David has made a bee tower for the solitary bees at Roots and Shoots. These bees may be Osmia rufa, Red Mason Bee – thanks, Morgan!


A bee hurries off to get the last nectar of the day. She has no time to stop for photos and passes like a blur!


Useful links
National Bee Unit
London Beekeepers Association
Roots and Shoots

Related posts
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?

The case of foul brood and the diabolical baby

Emily and me did less tea drinking and more proper beekeeping last weekend, captured beautifully on camera by Emily's 'entourage' Drew Scott!

Things can happen fast in bee-land. Barely a month has passed since the Bailey comb change, but there has been a drone-laying queen, a suspected case of foul brood and the unexpected appearance of a virgin queen. That’s just one hive. I sat on this post for a while thinking back on the lessons learned in the past few weeks.

Rain had prevented our hive inspections for two weekends following the Bailey comb change, but when the sun came out after Easter bank holiday Emily went to check on our bees. What she found inside Queen Rosemary’s hive would worry most beekeepers, so she raised the alarm by emailing the secretary of our association, Andy Pedley.

‘I am worried our hive has some kind of brood disease,’ wrote Emily. ‘There is virtually no healthy worker brood, lots of drone brood, and some dried up larvae, some that look a bit scaly, and some that look a bit bloated.’

Emily thought our bees were grumpy and a bit aggressive, which can be a sign of a failing queen or being queenless. She spotted cells filled with pollen with a film of honey on the top, which can also indicate being queenless.

Andy is a very experienced beekeeper, a sentinel apiarist for the Middlesex area, and apprentice to the queen’s beekeeper, John Chapple. So he really is the bees knees! Andy offered to meet at the apiary on Saturday to test our hive for bacterial disease.

What followed was a week of worry as I wondered how our bees could have declined so quickly. At the last inspection every cell in every brood frame had been scrutinised while we tried to find the queen and eggs, and there was no sign of disease. But now we had a suspected brood disease like European foul brood (EFB), which is not good but can be treated, or American foul brood (AFB), which is untreatable – destroy the hive, burn the remains and salt the earth!

I downloaded these educational images of EFB and AFB from the National Bee Unit.

Healthy bee larvae are curled in half-moon shapes inside cells and are pearly white with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat. © Crown copyright 2010

Unhealthy brood with EFB look misshapen, dark and slimy. © Crown copyright 2010

The classic 'snot test' for AFB, a matchstick is dipped into a cell – if a stringy mess of slime is pulled out there may be bacterial disease. © Crown copyright 2010

On Saturday we arrived at the apiary to find Andy was already there. When I told how beekeepers from New York had kindly tried to help identify the brood disease on Emily’s blog, Andy shook his head in amazement and marvelled at the inter-web, then he said cheerfully, ‘Right, let’s go have a look’.

Andy used tweezers to pull out and examine a few larvae, then disposed of them in the smoker for hygiene. The first few were healthy white grubs with yellow tummies from the pollen they had eaten. So far so good. He then found a couple of larvae that were discoloured and slimy, and used the EFB and AFB kits to test for disease. The kits are similar to pregnancy tests: a sample is dropped onto an indicator, then you wait three minutes and…

One larvae is popped into a vial of spirit and shaken. It is important to use only one larvae for the test or this can affect the results, Andy explained, because EFB is always present in bee colonies at low levels.

Andy used a pipette to drop a sample on the indicator. Then we waited three minutes. Breathe.

One line under 'C' for 'control' is a negative result, two lines under 'C' and 'T' for 'test' is positive. Both our tests for EFB and AFB only had one line under 'C', phew! You can't see it clearly on this photo so I have drawn a pink line.

All clear! Both tests for bacterial disease were negative, phew! But it was not over…

This was not a case of EFB or AFB but a lack of TLC. The larvae had become cold and hungry because Rosemary was a drone-layer, explained Andy, so there were not enough workers inside the hive to nurse the baby bees. Unless the queen was replaced the whole colony would die out.

This is the moment I had been dreading as a beekeeper – disposing the queen for the good of the hive. In the past, our bees have been very good at superceding their own queens, and Emily and me have preferred to let them do this. However, they may have been unable to supercede Rosemary without enough viable fertile larvae. I felt I should step up to the plate and get the job done, but Andy kindly and quickly did the deed. It seemed fitting because he has a history with our flighty queen.

Andy mashed the honeycomb around the young larvae to encourage the bees to find it and build a queen cell.

Blissfully unaware of the untimely death of her sister, we took a frame from Queen Lavender’s hive that had young worker larvae and placed this inside Rosemary’s hive hoping that our bees would now raise a new queen. Andy mashed the honeycomb around the larvae to encourage the bees to find them and build queen cells.

A frame of young larvae placed in Rosemary's hive so her daughters can raise a new queen to ensure the colony survives. They will have to work fast as there are not many workers left, I caught one on camera immediately flying over the frame to where we had put the new larvae.

Lavender’s hive was thriving with healthy-looking bees, lots of workers and brood. I found Lavender happily climbing on a frame so we caged her to complete the Bailey comb change. With Lavender now in the top brood box and queen excluder beneath, all the bees can move up into their new home.

Emily releases Queen Lavender from her cage and into the top brood box. (She is the largest bee in the colony, I have put a pink circle around her.)

Emily’s boyfriend, Drew, took these lovely shots of us doing some proper beekeeping.

Looking for the queen. © Drew Scott

Still looking. It's difficult to spot one bee among hundreds of fast-moving insects on a frame! © Drew Scott

It was a busy day at the apiary, Andy and Pat were also shook swarming a couple of hives.

Andy shook swarming the hive belonging to David. This is a prolific colony of very fierce bees. Ghetto bees.

Drew took a shot of me shooting Pat! I gave David's bees oxalic acid treatment in December which they didn't enjoy, so I kept my distance in case they remembered. © Drew Scott

The business of beekeeping done for the day, there was still the afternoon meeting at the scout hut for the second Saturday of the month. Elsa had brought a chocolate celebration cake and I got the tea on.

On Monday the bee inspector visited the apiary and there was a surprise email from Andy titled ‘Rosemary’s baby’:

‘When Caroline checked the hive, we found an emerged queen cell in the bottom corner of one frame. Caroline then spotted a queen – very dark coloured. The frame that we put in had not got queen cells pulled out and indeed the section that was prepared for queen cells was being repaired!’

I thought we were one step ahead of our bees. Silly beekeeper. The workers were already preparing a new queen. © Drew Scott

So it seems our bees were one step ahead of us as usual, and were already raising a new queen to replace Rosemary. While we are hoping that Rosemary’s baby is not diabolical, it has inspired a name for our new queen thanks to Deborah Delong of Romancing the Bee who gave me this verse about myrrh:

‘Its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom.’

Queen Myrrh has emerged in a storm of rain and wind this week – not good for a virgin queen who must fly out and mate. Fingers crossed that our diabolical queen will have fair weather soon!

Eight simple rules to build a beehive

It’s not every girl that asks for a new beehive for Christmas, but I am odder than most. ‘One national please’, I requested, ‘Complete with ventilated mesh floor, brood body with frames and dummy board, harmless plastic queen excluder, two supers, crown board and roof’. It was all going so well, ‘Yes, you can order it all from Thornes – flat packed’.

Rule#1: If you own a pink hammer never order flat packed

My new hive arrived after Christmas in an impossibly large box, which caused a proportionate amount of grumbling from my dad who insisted on carrying it himself up three flights of stairs. Why do men insist on carrying things without assistance and then grumble about it? The box sat in my living room for three weeks waiting for the next, most important, arrival – an Uncle David to help put my hive together.

Rule#2: Never underestimate the ability of men to talk DIY

Five minutes later, David had recovered from discovering that I had not opened the box to admire its flat-packed contents. Ten minutes later he had started to assemble the hive parts as easily as Lego. (Imagine that, Legoland hives for bees.) There was a Slightly Tricky Moment when we tried to work out ‘bee space’, but this was cleared up by the innate ability of men to communicate to each other in DIY. One phone call to the ever-helpful and kind Don, a beekeeper at my association, and: ‘I know bee space’ said David. Bee space is 8mm – the magic space that allows two bees to pass each other when building comb.

Rule#3: Let gravity do the work for you

While I may not have understood why we were doing everything that we were doing, I ably assisted with enthusiastic hammering. I also learned that if you hold the hammer at the end of the handle, gravity does most of the work for you. Who knew? Also, there are different types of hammers. David gave me a lighter one for making frames.

Rule#4: Have a cup of tea and admire the best beehive in all the land

A few hours later, David had left and a complete National hive stood grandly in my living room. I promptly made a cup of tea and sat down to admire it. I was sorely tempted to get out my paint box and stencil the brood and supers with flowers and honeybees, but resisted the urge. I am not sure how safe it is to paint a hive – opinion about this varies – and I didn’t want to suffocate Queen Jasmine and her bees with toxic paint fumes.

Rule#5: Post your step-by-step ‘How to build a hive’ on Facebook and amaze all your friends

Step 1: Build a floor with varroa board, entrance block and wire mesh for ventilation.

Step 2: Make the brood box. The queen lives here and lays eggs, while workers raise the larvae.

Step 3: Knock up 11 deep foundation frames for the brood box and 20 shallow foundation frames for the supers. The workers draw out the wax foundation into honeycomb for the queen to lay eggs in the brood box and to store honey in the supers.

Step 4: A handy harmless queen excluder. The slots are big enough for workers to pass between but the queen is too large to get past it.

Step 5: Place the queen excluder over the brood box to keep the queen in the nest and prevent her from laying eggs and rearing larvae in the honey stores. You don't want to eat honey with bits of baby bees, yuk!

Step 6: Make a couple of supers and fill with 10 frames each. One super of honey for the honeybees, and one super for me!

Step 7: Put the crown board on top of the supers to prevent naughty honeybees from climbing into the roof and making messy brace comb. The crown board can also be used as a clearing board in summer for honey extraction by placing it between the supers and the brood box. The slots are covered with rhombus escapes which allow workers to go down into the brood box, but don't allow them to get back up. This empties the supers of bees so that they can be taken away for honey extraction.

Step 8: Put on the weather-proofing roof and you have one National bee hive ready to put in your bees. And don't forget a handy Uncle David to help you put it all together!

Rule#6: Don’t tell your dad that you built a hive without him

One week later, my new hive and I waited for my dad to kindly drop us off at the apiary for a shook swarm. ‘How did you build that?’ he asked, amazed, and was then miffed that I had asked for help from another DIY expert. However, he was soon appeased when he saw that some of the wood in the brood and supers had moved apart. I was dismayed – how had this happened? Apparently, wood needs to breathe. ‘You should have kept the wood outside for a while to let it breathe before putting it together,’ said my dad smugly, before producing a scary-looking power drill and reinforcing the brood and supers with huge nails. No wasps are going to get into that hive and rob my bees now!

Rule#7: Keep your bees alive!

Retreating at the first sign of a bee, my dad left me at the apiary to set up the hive. I was so excited. A little bee landed on a frame as I was putting it into the brood. Not knowing if she was one of Queen Jasmine’s ladies-in-waiting or an interloper, I gently shooed her away. She flew to a nearby leaf and then sat there and closely watched me put the hive together.

Sadly, the tale of my new beehive does not have a happy ending. Without dwelling on terribly upsetting details, the shook swarm revealed that Queen Jasmine and her family had not survived the winter. A few were left, bravely hanging on, but there were many little dead bodies to be cleared away and burned with the frames.

Deep breath, and don’t embarrass oneself by crying in front of other people.

Rule#8: Get yourself a hive partner

One cup of tea later, a much needed and appreciated hug from Emily, a few sympathetic pats on my shoulder, and I returned home a little heavy of heart but determined to find out more about this horrible disease, nosema, which had destroyed my hive and at least two others at the apiary. There is a medicated fondant that you can order from the US which protects bees against nosema throughout winter when they are at their most vulnerable. Ok, nosema, this means war!

Later that evening I received a lovely email from Emily asking if I would like to share her hive and I happily accepted. So I have a new hive and a new hive partner, and beekeeping is now much more fun!

I named our queen, Rose, and our hive is really flourishing! Already the bees have been trying to make a new queen or two, and we have had to split the colony into a nuc. In a couple of weeks we may well have two hives! You just never know what adventures you will have in beekeeping.

All’s well that ends well!

Read similar stories from beekeepers: sadly colonies can die at any time of the year, although lessons are always learned: The day my first ever colony died by The Surrey Beekeeper.