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.


When it doesn’t rain

When it doesn’t rain this is what a Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping looks like.

Emily and I now have four colonies at Perivale apiary: Queen Myrtle’s hive has almost completed the Bailey comb change after a late start in spring; Rose’s colony has been successfully transferred from a nuc into a hive; the second nuc is building up nicely; and we saw a new virgin queen in our hive from Charles. We closed up and left her to fly free.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s short snapshot – much more next week.

Happy beekeeping!

This could get out of hand…


Our bees are feeling swarmy.

Last Saturday afternoon Emily and I found three queen cells in the hive we bought from Charles recently. And in a surprising display of competent beekeeping, we demonstrated how to do an artificial swarm to an audience of three beginner beekeepers.

We found the queen and put her in a nuc (baby hive box) with four frames of brood and stores (honey and pollen), a frame of foundation (so the small colony can grow) and I had the (unenviable) task of shaking in two frames of flying bees. We then ‘took down’ (polite beekeeping term for ‘destroyed’) one queen cell in the original hive and left two queen cells inside.

As usual, beekeepers have different ideas about how many queen cells to leave inside a hive: too few might risk the colony becoming queenless if the new queen(s) fail, and too many might risk the colony trying to swarm again. But it seemed for now we had stopped the bees from swarming and had (potentially) a third hive.


Emily and Drew returned to the apiary on Sunday to move the nuc to the location of the original hive so that the foraging bees would return to the nuc and boost its numbers.

So far so good.

Today we returned to see how our swarmy bees were getting on.

And discovered they are still feeling swarmy.


Five new queen cells!

We decided not to destroy the new queen cells and ask if another beekeeper at our apiary needed queens.

We then inspected the nuc and found that the small colony will soon need to be moved into a grown-up hive. And we named the queen Rose, because she seems rather nice.

Luckily nothing as exciting was happening in Myrtle’s hive. Our well-behaved bees are doing the Bailey comb change exactly as the books say. We found and put Myrtle in the top brood box to encourage the colony to move upstairs into their new home.


Later that day Emily returned to the apiary and sent a text to say the elder beekeepers had advised making another nuc from the extra queen cells. So we now have four colonies at Perivale apiary and one at Hanwell which is also bursting at the seams. This could all get out of hand.



As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

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Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

snowbees1 snowbees2 snowbees4

By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow

Winter watch for bees

woodpecker damage

‘Do they ever do any beekeeping at this cafe?’ asked someone while we sat around the apiary table on Saturday afternoon. The first weekend after new year and Ealing’s beekeepers had made no resolutions to give up tea and cake.

Luckily, Pat had brought something to show why bees need keeping in winter – a feeder tray with a hole bored in the side of the wood by a woodpecker. Woodpecker damage to bee hives is not common in West London, but this case of break-and-entry shows why we should keep watch. The woodpecker had attacked Pat’s hive at Osterley first by boring a hole into the top of the feeder tray, where it wouldn’t have found anything interesting, next drilling the wood below before getting fed up or disturbed and flying off. ‘It must have been very disappointed,’ said Pat.

Bee larvae can make tasty treats for hungry woodpeckers in cold weather, and maybe bees too, while causing considerable damage to the brood nest. However, Ted Hooper says that woodpecker damage to bee hives is a learned behaviour:

‘Woodpeckers learn that they can find a good meal in a beehive much in the way that bluetits learn to open milk bottles for the cream. You may keep bees in an apiary for years with lots of green woodpeckers about without any damage and then suddenly they learn the trick and through the hive wall they go, leaving behind a dead colony and several 3 inch holes. Whether all the damage is done by the woodpeckers or whether rats finish the job off I am not sure, but I have seen brood chambers in which the frames have been turned into a pile of wooden splinters, no piece being larger than a match. Covering the hive with wire netting or fish netting before the first frosts is the usual remedy.’
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey.

The chicken wire is on order for the Osterley hives.

EDIT: Pat kindly let me use this photo of his hive at Osterley now safely protected by wire netting. He advises using chicken wire wrapped around the whole hive to keep woodpeckers off and to ‘make sure there’s a good clearance all the way round so they can’t peck through it’.


Image © Pat Turner

A walk around our apiary showed that the woodpeckers haven’t learned about the delicious morsels inside our hives – yet.

I carried out a few other winter checks including:

  • hefting the hive to check the weight of stores – it’s heavy
  • lifting the roof to look at the fondant – the bees are tucking in greedily and the hole in the fondant (a ‘window’ into the winter hive) suggests the cluster inside is loose
  • observing the entrance – foragers are flying home with bright yellow pollen suggesting that the queen has started laying.

Overall, the signs indicate that our bees are well and active, perhaps because of the mild weather, although in January they should be conserving energy. All that flying means eating a lot of honey, but at this time of year there won’t be much nectar about to replace it. We’ll need to keep a close eye on the hive’s weight and amount of fondant between now and spring.

I went back to the apiary table to report my findings. John agreed: ‘It’s much easier to get a hive through a very cold winter than a mild one, because they don’t fly about as much.’ I asked where the bees might be finding the yellow pollen and Pat thought it was from mahonia. There wasn’t much else to be done except have another cup of tea and try Cliff’s culinary invention – the ‘pake’.

the pake

It’s a mix between a cake and a pie, explained Cliff. ‘The top half is a raspberry muffin and the bottom half is a mince pie.’ I wasn’t entirely convinced but the men beekeepers were thrilled to find the mince pie half-way inside. A pake was left on the table for the apiary’s family of robins who swooped down as we left. Hopefully, it will satisfy any peckish woodpeckers too.

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

tinsel for our hive

Not to be outdone by the elder beekeepers reading books to bees, this afternoon Emily and I made sure our hive was the most festive at the apiary. A Christmas card to ‘Queen Myrtle and bees’ was also slipped under the roof.

However, if it sounds like we were having too much fun, there was some proper beekeeping to be done: giving the bees oxalic acid.

Pat giving his bees oxalic acid

Oxalic acid is a winter treatment for bees. Above, you can see Pat treating his hive with Emily looking on.

Oxalic acid burns the feet and tongues of varroa mites so they fall off bees. The treatment is particularly effective in winter when the mites are living on adult bees, because there is little or no capped brood for them to hide inside.

Our apiary uses a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and about 5ml is dribbled on each ‘seam of bees’, that is the gap between each frame which has bees. It is important to get the dosage right as over-dosing may be harmful. Last year I took this video of Giving the bees oxalic acid.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has a good advisory leaflet on oxalic acid. Not all beekeepers like to use this treatment for a number of reasons, such as: it is not ‘natural’ (although oxalic acid is a naturally occurring substance; although cyanide is naturally occurring too, so this might not say much!); accumulative effects of annual treatments may harm the queen (I haven’t read enough to know if this is a risk); it may harm the bees (the winter workers will die in spring to be replaced by new bees so its effects on the colony may not be long-lasting). I think it is advisable to treat hives in an apiary environment in a city, because disease may spread more easily.

giving bees oxalic acid

After a challenging year for our bees, it was great to see them alive and well for their midwinter oxalic acid ‘gift’. When we lifted the roof they were happily tucking into the bag of sugar fondant, although the hive is quite heavy with honey stores. They should be tightly clustered inside the hive, but today was quite mild and the cluster had become loose.

Above, Emily treats our bees with oxalic acid. They were much better behaved than last year and didn’t make much fuss. Myrtle must be a gentle-natured queen.

There was a small crowd led by Pat and John to treat all the hives at the apiary and after all that hard work it was time for tea with homemade mince pies and a generous-sized apple pie! There was also honey mead so the banter was quite lively. Yet another exposé on what Ealing beekeepers really get up to!

mince pies and apple tart

Soon it will be January and we will be looking for the first signs of spring when we can see our bees again. Merry Christmas everyone from Queen Myrtle and her bees!

Winter studies: The role of the worker bee

What is a beekeeper to do when there are no bees to keep? Read about bees for winter studies, of course!

After passing my basic assessment with the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) earlier this year, I was eager to learn more about bees and beekeeping. The syllabus of the BBKA examinations and practical assessments provide a framework to learn whether taking the exams or not (I’m not). In my first winter studies post, I’m looking at the BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour syllabus: item 6.1.

6.1 The function and behaviour of the worker honeybee throughout its life including the types of work done, duration of work periods under normal circumstances and the variations in behaviour due to seasonal changes in the state of the colony.

Days 1–3
A worker bee is ready to hatch. She is one of thousands of honeybees who will hatch that day and emerge to see the hive for the first time. She chews away the wax capping of her cell and struggles to push herself out as her older sisters trample over her head. She is lighter and fuzzier than the adult workers, but her soft hairs will soon get worn off working in the hive.

Her first job is to clean the cell she was born in. That done, she is hungry for protein-rich pollen, which she must eat to develop her hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands (to produce brood food and royal jelly) and her wax glands (to build comb).

She’ll spend her early days eating lots of pollen, cleaning cells, and sitting on brood to keep it warm.

The worker bee spends her first two to three days eating pollen and cleaning cells, and sometimes sitting on brood to keep it warm. By day four she is sent to work in the food-processing factory and builds comb, turns nectar into honey and head butts pollen into cells.

Days 4–6
Our young worker has become a nurse bee with fully developed hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. Her brood-rearing duties include feeding brood food to young larvae and honey and pollen to older larvae. If the colony should decide to make a new queen (to supercede the old queen or to swarm) then she will feed royal jelly to the larvae specially chosen to become queens.

Days 10–12
Her wax glands have started to produce wax, so she moves from the nursery to the food-processing factory. She builds waxy honeycomb, turns nectar into honey and packs pollen into cells, and helps maintain the temperature of the hive by fanning her wings. She will even undertake removing dead bodies, and other waste or debris, from the hive.

But it is not all work and no play. The worker often spends a lot of her time resting or walking (patrolling) around the hive. A pool of resting bees is necessary should the circumstances of the colony suddenly change and a number of bees become needed for a particular task.

Worker bees often spend a lot of time doing nothing at all! They rest or walk (patrol) around the hive, or just try to out-stare their keepers.

While many of her duties depend on glandular development – building wax comb (wax glands) and guard duty (sting gland) – she is a flexible worker and can change jobs when needed. For example, if the colony has recently swarmed she may revert to a nurse bee to help rear new brood. The worker’s life is only loosely structured by the roles accorded by her chronological age, in reality she will work according to the needs of the colony.

Days 16–20
Her hypopharyngeal gland is now shrinking and starting to produce the enzymes needed for honey production: invertase and glucose oxidase. Soon she will become a forager and her world will become much bigger. As a young house (indoor) bee, she will have taken short flights to orientate herself with the environment outside the hive.

Days 19–21
Our worker is living on the edges of the brood nest. Her sting gland is fully developed around 21 days old and produces venom as well as sting pheromones (isopentyl acetate) and alarm pheromones (2-heptanone). She is now able to guard the colony. She also fans at the entrance to help ventilate the hive and occasionally stretches her wings on longer orientation flights.

Worker bees are sometimes found clustered at the entrance and fanning, like these bees that we found at the entrance of the hive on a cold, rainy day. Fanning their wings helps to ventilate and maintain the temperature of the hive.

Days 20+
Our worker is now a forager. She spends her days flying to trees and flowers collecting nectar, pollen, propolis and water for the hive. When she returns home, she dances for her sisters to tell them the best places to go.

In spring and summer workers live between 6–7 weeks: her life is cut short by her foraging activities as she works herself to death collecting food and water for the colony. Her flight muscles are fuelled by the glycogen reserves that she built up as a young worker, but as an adult worker she cannot replenish these stores. Her wings have limited flight miles of around 800km and once she has flown this mileage (whether over 5 or 20 days) she will fall to the ground and die.

The worker bee will grow weary on her last foraging flight. Her tired wings will fail her and she will rest and become cold. One evening I saw this bee stumbling on the echinacea in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, and by morning she was frozen on the ground.

It happens one day in late summer while foraging in a plentiful bed of echinacea. Her baskets of pollen are too heavy for her worn and tattered wings. She tries to lift herself but she is too tired, so she rests. Night falls as the weary forager sits patiently on the echinacea and away from the warmth of her sisters huddling in the hive. By morning she is cold and slow but the rising sun encourages her to try again. She has precious loads of nectar and pollen to return to the hive and her dances will tell her sisters where to find this abundant crop. She weakly staggers forward and tumbles off the echinacea on to the ground.

Day 0
Our worker dies far away from the hive and, unlike her birth, entirely alone. By clever design of nature, she serves the colony even in death by dying on a foraging flight. Her sisters will not need to expend time and energy dragging her body out of the hive.

Inside the hive another worker has chewed away the wax capping of her cell and caught the first glance of her sisters. She pushes herself out and starts to clean her cell. Her life as an autumn and winter bee will be very different to the summer worker.

Autumn and winter worker honeybees
The colony is preparing for winter: the drones are being evicted and the queen is laying fewer eggs. The young worker will produce little or no brood food and the pollen that she eats will make her body stronger and extend her life. She may take a few short orientation flights or the occasional ‘cleansing flight’, but she will not need to forage. She will live for around four to six months eating the honey and pollen collected by her summer sisters. In winter she will join the workers in a cluster around the queen, shivering her wings to help the colony to stay warm until spring returns.

Related links
BBKA examination path and BBKA modules application forms and syllabus to download
Before sitting for BBKA examinations, beekeepers must pass the basic assessment. Here’s my post of Taking the BBKA basic assessment on a rainy Sunday afternoon
A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 1st Honeybee behaviour revision post: bee jobs
Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading
Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513

The last days of our summer bees

Summer has stretched into autumn this year and the sunshine has drawn a crowd of visitors to the apiary for the past two weekends. The apiary’s communal area is often a place for sharing homegrown food and drink, like these beautiful grapes from Matwinder’s allotment. It is also a place of show and tell, particularly for John who brings mystery items with the promise of a prize of marmalade. See if you can guess this week’s Mystery Beekeeping Object…

More Mystery Beekeeping Objects from John Chapple for show and tell.

It is a miniature queen excluder cage for introducing a new queen to a colony; the large square cage is the original invention and the smaller round cages are copies. The idea is to introduce a queen to the bees gradually – the workers eat through fondant to reach her by which time they are accustomed to her smell.

A round up of last week’s show and tell…

Patrice models a Mystery Beekeeping Object – there’s a prize of a jar of posh marmalade to be won. Emily and me guessed: bee gym!

John’s coveted marmalade and a giant beetroot from Matwinder’s allotment.

Not so lovely. Albert shows what he found on his varroa board – moth poo and propolis – evidence of life inside the hive. His bees are bringing home propolis to bed down for winter, but a moth has decided to bed down too!

Despite posting on Twitter, I still haven’t identified last Saturday’s Mystery Beekeeping Object; John’s marmalade is safe – for now.

At this time of year, honey is also on show and John brought a pair of honey glasses to demonstrate how to grade honey for competitions. There are three grades of honey – light, medium and dark – and two types of honey glasses: light and dark. ‘Hold up the honey glass next to the jar of honey,’ he held the light glass to a jar. ‘If it is the same colour or lighter then you have ‘light’ honey.’ The same is true for the dark glass – if the honey is the same shade or darker, you have ‘dark’ honey, while inbetween the two glasses is ‘medium’. John said the judges put honey into categories because they get thousands of entries and need away to disqualify a few. ‘If you enter in the wrong category, you’re out! If your jar isn’t full to the right level, if there are a few granules at the bottom, or it isn’t labelled right, then you’re out!’

John shows how to use honey glasses to grade honey as ‘light’, ‘dark’ or ‘medium’. He holds up a white background so that the contrasting shades are easier to see.

Emily and me have no honey to show so we are disqualified, but we do have bees to show. We recently combined our two hives for winter as one hive had a drone-laying queen, and so far so good. The colony is medium size with modest stores, and they seem happy and content. Myrtle is a good queen.

I recently started to include frequently asked questions in bee posts, here is another:

Q: Do bees become like their keepers in personality and characteristics?
A: While it helps to handle bees gently and patiently, the temperament of the hive is largely due to the queen. A gentle-natured queen makes gentle bees and a feisty queen makes feisty bees.

The queen also gives off pheromones to bring the colony together as a cohesive whole and to modify the behaviour of the workers. If the queen is lost or removed from the hive, the workers may soon become irritable and distressed. As the queen ages her pheromones become weaker, and her egg laying decreases, eventually leading the workers to replace her with a new queen.

Myrtle is our surviving queen of the summer and her job is to get the colony through winter, emerging in spring to lay eggs and start over again.

Here’s a little video of our winter queen and also some pretty New Zealand bees.

Last week’s inspection was interrupted by a flurry of New Zealand invaders as those golden-coloured bees tried their luck with our bees’ honey again. This week’s inspection was cut short by a cold nip in the air, leaving us to reflect that this may be the last time we fully open the hive. The next four to six weeks we will feed our bees as much sugar syrup as they want to take down and when they stop taking the syrup we will leave a bag of fondant in the roof for winter.

Epilogue: What do beekeepers do when there are no bees to keep?

Last Sunday the sun stayed for the rest of the weekend and I enjoyed a stroll around my favourite National Trust park at Osterley with my friend Dani. I used to ride here when I was at school and there was an unexpected reunion with my riding teacher, Kay, and, to my delight, my first pony, Gally.

The beekeeper and the pony.

Osterley is home to a unique house and beautiful park – The Dark Knight Rises used the interior of the house to film Wayne Manor. Here are a few favourite photos from the Sunday afternoon ramble. With fewer opportunities to photograph bees for several months, I will be exploring London’s ‘secret places’ for other wildlife – and enjoying stories, pictures and videos of wildlife from bloggers like these:

How To Photograph Zoo Animals – It’s Not About Looking Cute
Bobolinks: migratory songbirds of Abaco & the Bahamas

Related links

Things to do at Osterley Park and House
Chelsea Physic Garden upcoming events
Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London
London Secrets Meet Up Group
London Zoo What’s On

The story of our summer bees

Life has twists and turns with surprises on the way. In a turbulent year for UK beekeepers, stories of prolonged rain and poorly mated queens have proved an unfortunate combination for the honey crop. However, beekeeping is not all about the honey – it is about keeping bees and making sure that the season ends with a strong and healthy colony.

Our bees have kept on going through a bad summer and we have helped by providing feed, insulation, opportunities to make new queens and combining colonies, if necessary, to ensure the survival of the many. While not the best example of the principle of survival of the fittest, at times nature does get stuck in a dead end.

The disappearance of our Jubilee queen, Neroli, and yet another drone layer, Ginger, this time in the Osterley hive, left us worried that neither colony would be prepared for winter. So that’s where we left our bees in August with all hopes pinned on our Olympic queens, Myrtle and Mandarin.

Manna from heaven – a worker bee is relieved to find that sugar syrup drops from the sky as well as rain!

Mandarin was poorly mated and laid drone, or nothing at all, for over a month and her workers became increasingly agitated. The beginner beekeepers visiting our hives at the last inspection noticed the difference in temperament between the two colonies: Mandarin’s bees were noticeably irritable and moving erratically on the frame, and Myrtle’s bees were calm and working industriously.

While Myrtle was laying nicely, her colony was not strong enough to spare a frame of brood for a new queen for Mandarin’s colony. Individually, both colonies were small and weak and low in honey stores. Together, they would be a stronger, medium-sized colony with more stores of honey. It was time to hive-combine again.

Queen Myrtle on a frame and clearly cosseted by her workers in a tightly formed retinue. She is laying as well as her mother, Neroli, let’s hope she doesn’t disappear like her too!

The next day we returned late in the afternoon. We opened the Osterley hive and found our drone layer quickly enough, caging her with two workers. Emily wisely cautioned against making a decision about Mandarin until we had checked Myrtle’s hive and reassured ourselves that all was well. Once we were certain that Myrtle was alive and laying, I killed Mandarin.

When I became a beekeeper I vowed never to kill a queen, because I felt that the bees know best when to overthrow a queen and make a new one. (Also, because I don’t like to harm living things.) This year I have killed two queens and both times it was a choice between the death of a queen or an entire colony; not really a choice at all.

Most UK beekeepers are hobbyists and I don’t think even bearded beeks get used to ‘dethroning’ queens. I heard once that an experienced beekeeper in our association retired a favourite old queen to a nuc rather than kill her, and we did consider this. However, the queen can’t care for herself and as her workers died off, she would slowly starve and freeze to death.

Emily points to Queen Mandarin on her frame. Sadly, she mated poorly and laid drone. Image © Drew Scott

That done, we placed the brood box of Mandarin’s now queenless colony on top of the brood box of Myrtle’s hive with a sheet of newspaper between them. We made a few slits in the paper with our hive tools to get the bees started and didn’t make the mistake of putting the queen excluder between the two colonies, which trapped angry drones in the top box the last time we combined two hives.

The newspaper method is a proven and reliable method of combining colonies. Still it was a relief to return on Friday to find that it had worked. I took off the roof and crownboard, removed a few frames from the top brood box and looked at the bottom to see the newspaper chewed away and the two colonies working happily together.

What a difference a queen makes! Mandarin’s former colony was now calm and the bees were moving methodically on the frame each with a job to do. We even had a nice surprise of finding Myrtle walking on a frame in the top brood box showing that she had accepted Mandarin’s bees into her colony and they had accepted her.

We gave our newly combined hive their first tray of Apiguard, which is a thymol-based treatment to lower levels of varroa. Thymol also helps to fight nosema, which can become a problem for bee colonies going into autumn and winter.

To complete the hive combining, we put Myrtle back inside the bottom brood box with the queen excluder on top and placed an empty super between the two boxes to get the bees to ‘rob’ the top stores of honey. This way, we’ll have a medium-sized colony of bees and stores in one brood box, which is better for over-wintering.

So that’s how we left our summer bees. Emily picks up the story in her post Hungry New Zealanders hunt for food.

A reminder that the year is moving on was the sight of several workers harassing drones across the frames. Poor drones: over the next few weeks their sisters will turn on them and throw them out of the hive where they will die of cold and starvation or be eaten by wasps and spiders! It’s a drone’s life! The following week Emily sent me a photo of a grisly discovery outside the hive: lots of little drone bodies efficiently massacred by Myrtle’s workers who have no need of fat drones to guzzle on honey during the autumn and winter.

There are far fewer drones than workers now. I noticed workers harassing drones inside the hive – pulling and pushing, biting and dragging them. Sisters turn upon their brothers and evict them from the colony at the end of summer.

An exciting twist of the summer has been the offer of a new site to keep bees next year. I had mentioned to Thomas, an Ealing beekeeper, that I was thinking of finding a site sunnier than our shady apiary to keep bees. He then put Emily and me in touch with a vicarage in Hanwell where the vicar would like beekeepers to keep a hive. Thomas, Emily and me went to visit the vicarage, which was just lovely – a secret garden behind the church – and blue-egg laying hens there too!

We’re hoping to share the site with Thomas next year, who has kindly offered his help in setting up. We’re grateful for the generous vicar who would share his land with the bees. Habitat loss is a major cause of insect pollinator decline in the UK and in Europe, so it’s nice when people can give a little bit of land back to nature.

We met this pretty bee (shrill carder bee, perhaps) as we left the vicarage. She seemed very happy there – as happy as I hope our bees will be!

I think this pretty bee may be a shrill carder bee? She seemed happy living at the vicarage.

An interesting link

Fellow blogger Ruth E Reveal left a link to a short film about two London beekeepers made by two students on her Visual Anthropology course at Goldsmiths. It’s really great, I hope you enjoy it! Thanks, Ruth!


Olympic Queens!

A spectacular opening ceremony on Friday night started the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in style. The Queen made her acting debut leaving Buckingham Palace with James Bond to climb aboard a helicopter and arriving at the Olympic Stadium for a surprise entrance. My family and me watched in astonishment – it was an Olympic gold moment!

Excitement was building last week as the Olympic Flame drew nearer and those strange London 2012 mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, were suddenly everywhere. I took a stroll through Regent’s Park one evening after work and spotted an American tourist sitting in the sun with Wenlock.

There are Monsters in Regent’s Park, but don’t worry. Someone told the Americans.

Good fortune shone on the first day of the Games with glorious sunshine and I hoped that luck would shine on our bees too. The celebrations had reached the apiary where a small crowd gathered and three cakes were on offer. I enjoyed munching lemon cake baked by a novice beekeeper before visiting the hives.

Thomas was inspecting a hive from one of the Osterley nucs, which after an uncertain start is doing well. Thomas is a great believer of using insulation to help the hive stay warm, particularly for small colonies: ‘A hive needs to maintain a temperature of around 30 degrees which is quite hot. The warmer it is inside the hive the more bees can fly out and forage, rather than stay at home and heat the colony.’

Thomas is a great beekeeper who has a very natural way with bees.

An insulating dummy board helps this small colony that was recently transferred from a nuc to stay warm inside a National brood box.

This little bee has flown home with beautiful terracotta-coloured pollen in her baskets. Our pollen chart suggests she has foraged dahlias.

Happy to see the Osterley bees settling in, we went to check on our new queens. Both Neroli and Ginger were superceded about a month ago, causing another setback for the colonies because of the three- to four-week period for a virgin queen to hatch, mate and begin to lay.

I opened the hive formerly ruled by our Jubilee queen, Neroli, now ruled by an Olympic queen! The bees had not made much progress in terms of brood and stores since last week, probably due to replacing the queen. A beginner spotted her on a frame looking for cells to lay eggs. She seemed nervous of the crowd, flexing her wing muscles, so I carefully returned the frame in case she took after her flighty great aunt Rosemary! We didn’t see eggs but there were young larvae curled in their cells, so the queen is laying. We have named her Myrtle.

A few frequently asked questions

The beginner beekeepers are very curious about our bees and ask lots of questions. I thought it might be useful to start putting frequently asked questions here.

FAQ: What are you looking for?
The most common question is: ‘What are you looking for?’, which is on the syllabus of the British Beekeepers Association basic assessment. The answer depends on the time of year, although Ted Hooper’s advice is very useful and is included on my study notes.

1.4 the reasons for opening a colony
Here I refer to Ted Hooper’s advice:
‘Every time you open a colony you should ask these five questions. They are vital and should be memorised.

  1. Has the colony sufficient room?
  2. Is the queen present and laying the expected quantity of eggs?
  3. a (early in season) Is the colony building up in size as fast as other colonies at the apiary? b (mid season) Are there any queen cells present in the colony?
  4. Are there any signs of disease or abnormality?
  5. Has the colony sufficient stores to last until the next inspection?’

FAQ: Do the bees get cold when the hive is open?
A visitor asked if the bees can get cold during inspections – the answer is ‘yes’. A routine hive inspection should take between 10–15 minutes so that the colony does not lose too much heat. The hives at the apiary are used for training which means that inspections may take longer than usual.

If the colony is small (or bad tempered) or if the weather is cool, use a cover cloth or clean tea towel to shelter half the brood nest during an inspection. This helps to keep the colony warm and makes sure less bees fly out to say hello!

FAQ: Why should you put brood frames back in the same order?
It takes a colony two days to recover from a hive inspection and repair any damage that is caused by the beekeeper. So it is important to handle the hive gently and carefully, and to avoid disrupting the nest by putting brood frames back in the same order and facing the right way. (However, I aptly demonstrated my clumsiness after saying this by accidentally dropping one side of a frame. Luckily there were few bees on it and they didn’t seem to mind.) Inspections should be no more frequent than once a week during swarming season and perhaps fewer at those times of the year when it is less necessary to inspect the hive.

Emily shows our bees to the beginners.

Emily opened Ginger’s old hive which is now ruled by our second Olympic queen, Mandarin. The bees were irritable and had not done much to draw out comb and collect stores. There was little worker brood and the drone brood was peppered in the middle of the frames when it should be on the outer edges.

Before we could fear the worst, Thomas advised us to wait another week. It was good that he was there to look over our shoulders as we were reassured that the new queen may need more time to settle in. Mandarin was running all over the frame, but Thomas said that she may be the progeny of drones that run about a lot and has inherited this trait.

Myrtle and Mandarin make the sixth and seventh queens this year – Rosemary, Lavender, Myrrh, Neroli and Ginger were superceded, de-throned or swarmed – presenting a challenge to our hives and making it difficult to track hive records. I have started a family tree to trace the generations of our bees: the Rose Dynasty and the Osterley Dynasty!

The family tree of our queens since Emily and me became hive partners last year. Although as my friend Chris would say, that I have made this perhaps proves beekeeping like many hobbies straddles the line between ‘hobby’ and ‘mental illness’…

It will fall to the Olympic queens to get both colonies through winter and we’ll be closely observing that the hives progress sufficiently in August. Ted Hooper says that late summer queens can be good news for colonies. The virgins mate later in the year and continue laying for longer to produce younger bees for overwintering. Hives with late summer queens often overwinter better than hives with spring queens, which was proven by Rosemary and Lavender this year. Rosemary, our spring queen, came out of winter a drone layer, while Lavender, our July queen, came out of winter laying strong.

There is a lot to know about bees and each year we learn more.

Inspections done for the day we went to watch the Italian bees crowding at the entrance of John’s hive. Italian bees love to fly and there is always a lot of traffic. It is the job of the guard bees to protect the hive from intruders and to make sure that the only foragers who enter have the ‘right smell’ of the colony. Occasionally, foragers from other colonies try to go inside because they lose their way and will display submissive behaviour or bribe the guards with goods of nectar and pollen. Drones are allowed to enter any hive.

I noticed these bees patiently waiting to be let in by the guards at the nest entrance (see the bee looking out on the other side of the mouse guard). Are they returning foragers or drifters trying to bribe their way inside?

The bumblebees were also out on her majesty’s secret service yesterday – on a mission to collect lots of lovely lavender nectar and wildflower pollen. I spied on them for a while and took some photos. Notice the smaller honeybee foraging with the bumbles in the third picture below. To paraphrase Bond, ‘Hope you enjoy the show’.