Poems written at the hive

‘The smaller bees are kittenish.
Tapped hive, the noise continues long.
Supposed to be a sign of health.
The drones are vast, bothersome.’


As the beekeeping year draws to an end I have been reading Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, a collection of poems written at the hive. The poem-journal gives an account of the relationship between a beekeeper and his first hive. It is intimate and beautiful storytelling.

The journal starts in May with the collection of a small nucleus hive, charting the life and death of the colony and the arrival of a swarm two years later. Each poem freezes a moment in time like bees frozen on the comb. Queens, drones, summer, honey, wasps, spiders, winter, varroa… it is all here: ‘All day they have dragged in jewel-pins of nectar’.

As the seasons pass, the colony casts its spell upon the beekeeper who, like many before him, reorients his life around the hive. ‘Bees at the bottom of the garden’ becomes ‘the house at the bottom of the apiary’ as Borodale begins to see the world through the multifacted eyes of a bee: sources of pollen, waggle dances, locality of water, the position of the sun.

As a beekeeper I understood the author’s initial curiosity and fascination, recognised as this turned to awe and wonder, and smiled as it became affection. The poems gave me nostalgic feelings for my first summer of beekeeping with my first hive and my first queen, the long dark-gold Jasmine.

‘Jewellery box: I did not expect this strange calmness.
Eyes go steady with study of larvae,
womb, light, wax, bee eggs.

Still I have not seen the fountain of all,
where is
Must learn to find this instrument by heart.’


Non beekeepers will love Borodale’s exquisite description of life inside the hive and beekeepers will enjoy his expression of familiar thoughts and emotions. A poem about inspecting the brood nest made me remember my first visit. Like the author, I found a strange calmness in holding before my eyes the frame of bees, eggs, larvae, comb – and my mind was consumed with the thought of finding her. Borodale doesn’t name his queens, but she is never far from his thoughts.

The author’s observation of the bee world is poignant. As a keeper of bees he becomes more aware of the changing seasons, more observant of what is in flower, and more interested in local weather patterns. The single-line entries for March are simply: ‘Catkins’ (1st March) and ‘Snowdrops’ (7th March); just as my thoughts in spring this year were ‘Daffodil’ and ‘Crocus’.

My favourite poem is of the little bee drinking water…

‘I assume this creature is my bee.

There it is: one pulsing abdomen;
light brown, familiar, gently striped. Tongue
at drinking water.

Frail, how it concentrates
not solely for
It makes one part.’

I shared this poem with a beekeeping friend. He appreciated ‘the author’s perception of the paradox of individual drinking, but being one part of the organism, while the organism would not exist without its components…’ This is something that all beekeepers come to grasp but it never ceases to amaze.

I went through a box of tissues as the author gives a stark account of the death of the hive and releases an intense feeling of loss, ‘I go to the shelf where the honey lives, and say, this is testament: bees did exist’. All beekeepers who have lost a hive will know what he is feeling. The discovery of Jasmine’s dead city after our first winter was devastating: grief, guilt, disappointment, frustration.

But there is also hope with the arrival of a new swarm and a surprise revelation of the circle of life.

This is Borodale’s debut as a poet as well as his genesis as a beekeeper, and you can tell that there is a deep discovery taking place. Bee Journal is a soulful reflection of a year in beekeeping that captures the thoughts and emotions of a novice beekeeper. I am even more impressed that the author wrote this poetry in veil and gloves, while I struggle to make notes for our hive records!

‘bees batting this pen and poem’s paper.
Bee on my gloved hand,
heads of bees brushing over.’

Related links

Bee Journal
Sean Borodale
Published by Jonathan Cape, Random House; London: 2012
ISBN 978-0-224-09721-5

A useful tip from my hive partner, Emily, if you access Amazon via this link on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website they receive a donation worth 8% of the total purchase, at no extra cost to you. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust says: ‘Last year, we raised in excess of £3,500 through this Amazon associate scheme. That’s a lot of wildflowers for our bees.’

Also read:

The Urban Beekeeper and Bee Journal: review by Ian Douglas
Sean Borodale biography

More goodbeereads!

A Honey of a Good Book: review of The Beekeeper’s Bible by The Garden Diaries
‘Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming and beekeeper in Kosovo’ review by Adventuresinbeeland’s blog
On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

My book reviews are collected on my blog page here.


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…


… 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.


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

A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

The National Bee Unit (NBU) issued a starvation risk this week and urged UK beekeepers to check their colonies for food supplies:

‘With the continued spell of poor weather in many areas of the UK, reports are coming in from Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors of starving bee colonies, where the beekeeper is not aware that the bees are severely short of food, or the colony(s) have already starved to death.’

While in May it seemed unusual that we were still feeding our bees, the NBU’s latest news alert – a starvation risk in June – reinforced what an unsettled year this has been for many UK beekeepers and their bees.

There is forage for pollinators like this hoverfly I spotted in my workplace’s medicinal garden, but the rain has made it difficult to collect nectar and pollen.

Bee colonies at particular risk of starving include those with the supers (honey crop) removed, hives which have been split or artificially swarmed, nucleus colonies, colonies collected from swarms, and even larger hives which haven’t swarmed but which haven’t gathered sufficient food due to rain. So basically most hives are at risk because of the poor weather in the UK!

‘Please, sir? Can we have some more?’ Nucleus hives which are smaller and more vulnerable may be at risk of starvation.

Emily and me have fed our bees all season as a combination of rain and drone laying queens has prevented our hives from growing to full strength. Yet I was concerned by the NBU’s alert and emailed Andy Pedley to send the news to Ealing beekeepers. On Saturday morning I mixed enough sugar syrup for our two hives and the other colonies at the apiary.

Hefting a heavy bag of beekeeping supplies on tube and foot, I arrived at the apiary in time to tag along with Andy’s beginner beekeepers session. Emily, Albert and me have all taken the introduction to beekeeping course, but we watched and listened to Andy’s practical tutorial with interest. In beekeeping it never hurts to be reminded of the basics and there is always something new to learn when observing an experienced beekeeper inspect a hive.

Spotted – a group of beginner beekeepers at the apiary.

Andy picks out a frame from a nuc to show the group. There are black bees and light gold bees which may indicate that the queen has mated and is laying different coloured bees, or that two colonies were combined to make a nuc.

Andy and the beginners had fed the colonies they visited, so Emily and me opted for ginger beer and cake before inspecting our bees. Emily had brought a bottle of ginger beer and there was plenty of cake to choose – almond and fruit to chocolate and pecan. It was like Jubilee all over again!

Beekeepers well fed, we visited our recently combined hive and the new nucleus colony with Albert and Pete, a beekeeper-in-training.

A gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park was found sitting next to our spare hive last week!

Last Saturday we had received a gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park, which the apiary has given us to keep as a training hive for beginners. The Osterley bees had filled their five-frame nuc, so we moved them across to a hive and I spotted the new queen, another bright orange beauty, who we named Ginger. We had closed up the small colony with dummy boards and insulation in the roof to keep them warm, and, of course, left a full feeder of syrup above the crownboard.

This Saturday was our first real inspection of the Osterley bees, but they were not doing as well as hoped. The extra frame of foundation was barely drawn out with comb and there was not much sign of worker brood.

Our new Osterley bees are gentle and calm – Emily and me have always been lucky to have good natured bees.

Albert noticed that the queen was moving too fast and erratically across the frame, and Emily observed drone cells in the centre of the comb – two signs that all might not be well with the queen. Without knowing the full history of these bees, it was too early to decide what could be happening so we closed the hive with insulation and freshly made sugar syrup in the roof.

Fortunately, our combined hive is doing well and Neroli has settled into her queenly duties. On the Jubilee weekend we had combined our two hives because one hive had failed to re-queen and was too weak to continue. But last week revealed that the colonies had not combined successfully and the bees in the top box were bad tempered. It was one of those moments in beekeeping when three beekeepers stand in front of a box of bees scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Believe me, it happens quite often!

Grumpy bees – last week the drones in the top box of our combined hive were not too happy!

Albert had been there that Saturday and the three of us managed to work out the problem. The queen excluder above the bottom box had also excluded the drones (who are larger than workers) in the top box from moving down. The poor frustrated drones had been trapped in the top box for a week and were letting us know that they were not happy by buzzing loudly.

It was easily remedied by removing the queen excluder and remaining newspaper allowing the two colonies to meet up. We had separated the two brood boxes with a super to encourage the bees to move honey from the top box into the bottom box.

The bees have started taking the honey from the comb in the top box to move into the bottom box. Notice the large holes in the wax comb at the bottom of the frame – our bees also tend to rob wax from frames to use in other parts of the hive.

Happily, this week the bees had followed the books and were getting along just fine. The frames of honey in the top box directly above the brood nest had been emptied, good girls! Albert suggested giving our bees a helping hand by using a hive tool to score across the remaining combs of honey, and then place these above the brood nest again. The workers seemed to appreciate our efforts and immediately got to work. Hopefully, next week the top brood box can be removed completely and both colonies will be in one box.

Emily uses a hive tool to score across the comb and make it easier for the bees to rob out the honey.

We carried out a quick inspection of the bottom box because there was no need to disturb the recently mated queen and her bees. There were signs of healthy worker brood nicely patterned across the comb, growing stores of pollen and nectar, and even a propolised ‘dance’ floor at the entrance of the hive. Neroli appears to be an excellent queen like her mother Lavender.

It was another good Saturday’s beekeeping. Here is a short clip of our activities.

Related links

National Bee Unit guidelines on feeding bees: the NBU has provided advice for beekeepers who are concerned or unsure about food supplies in their hives:

  • Heft a hive by lifting the hive from below the floor to check its weight. If the hive is light, it should be fed.
  • Feed with sugar and water mixed at 2:1 ratio or using a ready mixed syrup from a beekeeping supplier.
  • Use fondant in an emergency if nothing else is available, although liquid feed is more appropriate for this time in the season.
  • Large starving colonies will take 1 gallon (5 litres) of syrup and smaller colonies can take ½ gallon (2.5 litres), but the hives should be checked after feeding within a few days.

Further guidance on feeding bees is provided in the National Bee Unit Best Practice Guideline No. 7.

Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off

This interesting article in the London Evening Standard explores an area that has worried the city’s expert beekeepers for some time. Are there too many hives in London and not enough forage for bees? Read about it here.

The red-headed queen of the Diamond Jubilee

‘For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.’ The moment a princess became a queen, by Rosie Waites, BBC News Magazine 

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brought street parties with red, white and blue bunting this weekend to mark 60 years of HRH. As the queen is an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians where I work, we celebrated Jubilee Day last week and held a charity cake sale with all the proceeds going towards the Prince’s Trust. There was traditional English food on offer in the buttery including roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

At the apiary on Saturday there was also lots of cake, which is not that unusual. I had brought a cake from my holiday in Rome called ‘Dolce del Papa’, or ‘Dessert of the Pope’, which I was bemused to see John Chapple, the queen’s beekeeper, eyeing a bit suspiciously before taking a slice.

Dessert of the pope – it’s heavenly delightful!

Emily and me had our own queen to celebrate – a beautiful bright orange virgin which had been spotted by Emily in our swarmed hive while I was in Italy. To our delight, the queen’s enlarged abdomen indicated that she had mated and she was happily running round the comb being attended by her revenue of ladies-in-waiting.

Queen Neroli, our bright orange Diamond Jubilee queen!

Emily thinks her mother, Lavender, mated with New Zealand drones, which would explain why our new queen is very orange. We have decided to call her Neroli, which is the oil obtained from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. The essential oil (Citrus aurantium var. amara) takes its name from the 17th-century Italian princess of Nerola, Anna Maria de La Tremoille, who famously wore the oil to scent her gloves. A royal name fitting for a queen bee who took her crown on the Diamond Jubilee.

Salvatore Battaglia says the aroma of neroli is light, refreshing and floral, citing Valerie Worwood’s The fragrant mind which describes the essential oil to be ‘ageless, forever young in a spring-like way’. Emily and me hope Queen Neroli will live long and bring good fortune to her hive.

A queen cell from our swarmed hive placed in Myrrh’s dwindling colony has not produced an heir.

Sadly, Myrrh’s old hive remained queenless. The queen cell that I had placed in the colony from our swarmed hive two weeks ago was still capped. Queen bees usually emerge eight days after the queen cell is sealed, so it seemed unlikely that the larva had survived this long. John suggested uncapping the cell to be certain and showed us how to do this gently with a hive tool. If the queen was alive then this would allow her to emerge – but the uncapped cell revealed a shrivelled, blackened, dead queen bee inside the cell. John thought she may have died from black queen cell virus.

A blackened and shrivelled dead queen which may have died from black queen cell virus, associated with the hive disease nosema.

This hive has been unlucky with queens – a drone-laying queen after winter, an unmated queen in spring due to bad weather, and two failed attempts to re-queen using frames of larvae and finally a queen cell from Lavender’s hive. This latest bit of bad luck – a dead queen in her cell – decided the colony’s fate. Emily and me had given these bees enough chances, it was time to combine our two hives.

As the new queen of our swarmed hive, Neroli, had mated it was safe to combine the hives, whereas before it may have risked stressing the virgin queen or have caused confusion when she returned from her mating flight. Combining two hives is really easy – here’s how it’s done in two simple steps…

A sheet of newspaper is placed on top of the brood box which has the queen in the nest, and a hive tool is used to make a few small holes through the queen excluder as Emily demonstrates here.

The brood box of bees without a queen is placed on top. During the week, the bees will chew away the newspaper, which will give them time to become accustomed to each other’s smell and prevent fighting – they will be the best of friends. At least, that’s the plan.

Hopefully, next week we will return to our newly combined hive and our girls should all be getting along! John explained that hive combining should be done in the evening or early morning when the foragers are inside the hive. This is because moving a hive – even by an inch – can cause foragers to lose their way home. However, as it was already late in the afternoon he thought it should be fine.

Emily and me waited as long as possible for Myrrh’s foragers to return and circle the area where their old hive had been. When they settled on the mesh floor we carried and brushed the bees into the combined hive, but we could not get them all. Eventually the circle of returning foragers disappeared and we hoped that they had bribed their way into other hives with their loads of nectar and pollen.

Our newly combined hives – and what is this mysterious empty hive next door?

It seemed that we were down one hive, but John and Pat were busy scheming. In April Emily and me had helped John set up nucleus hives at Osterley Park and the nucs were now ready to bring to Perivale apiary. ‘Would you like another colony?’ Pat asked, to which we both replied ‘Yes!’. So before we left for the day, we used our spare woodwork to set up a new hive next door to Neroli’s. We reflected that both our hives were now in the sunniest spot of the apiary, which should help them to flourish before summer ends.

Happy Jubilee Bees!

Neroli, lavender and rose facial oil
In honour of our new queen, Neroli, and her royal mother and grandmother, Lavender and Rose, here is a hauntingly beautiful essential oil blend that can be used for a rejuvenating facial massage or for an anti-aging and nourishing night oil.

  • 9 drops neroli
  • 6 drops lavender
  • 3 drops rose
  • 30ml jojoba oil
As with all aromatherapy blends, remember to patch test before general use and don’t use during pregnancy without advice from your midwife or doctor.

Related links
The official website of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, where you can also send a message to the queen.

The Bad Beekeepers Club

© Drew Scott

Emily and me have joined the Bad Beekeepers Club – our bees have swarmed.

The weekend before my holiday to Rome, I visited our hives to see the bees enjoying the warmer weather. Emily was on holiday in Albania and I was to check Lavender’s hive for queen cells and to make a decision about Myrrh’s failing colony.

We rarely smoke our bees but there was a lot of beekeeping to do after weeks of rain. So I lit my new smoker for the first time this year and strolled through the dappled sunlight of the apiary towards Lavender’s hive. It was around 1.30pm in the afternoon and I expected to see bees happily flying in and out of the entrance with heavy baskets of bright yellow and orange pollen. Instead, I was surprised to see a very large, very loud buzzing cloud of bees circling the hive.

I wondered if our hive was being attacked by a mob of robber bees, but there were no skirmishes with guards at the entrance. What could have disturbed our ladies? I opened the hive and realised almost immediately what had happened. Inside the frames held half as many bees as last week – Queen Lavender and her court had swarmed.

Beekeepers smoke a colony before an inspection to ‘calm’ the bees. The bees think there is a fire and they gorge on honey which calms them and makes their abdomens too full to sting. However, Emily and me rarely use a smoker because our bees are normally very calm. © Drew Scott

Swarming is a natural phenomenon of honeybees and it is how the species reproduces itself. Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum explain the process of swarming very well in A World Without Bees: ‘When a colony decides to swarm to reproduce, usually in early summer, it starts by raising a number of queens, one of which will take over the hive while the existing queen flies off to find a new home. The workers do this by building a number of larger queen cells and either forcing the queen to lay an egg in each one or transporting in newly laid fertile eggs. Again, feeding the eggs lots of royal jelly turns them into queens. Before the virgins emerge from their cells, the old queen will leave the nest with all of her young foragers in tow, leaving behind the older foragers and the house bees – those members of the colony that are not yet old enough to forage… The travellers gorge on a huge breakfast, equivalent to three days’ worth of food, to see them through their quest for a new home.’

Lavender’s bees – as seen the previous week – have flown off with their queen to find a new home, the splitters. © Drew Scott

During spring and summer – the swarming season – weekly inspections for queen cells are essential for swarm management, and within beekeeping circles it is said that those who manage their bees keep their bees (and their honey). In populated areas, swarming is also a nuisance when swarms land in gardens, in streets, or on houses and other beekeepers are called to collect them.

Head hung in shame that this had happened on my watch, I tried to look through the hive to find out what Lavender had left behind. However, our normally mild-mannered bees were dive-bombing my veil and attacking my gloves making a hive inspection impossible. I remembered my introduction to beekeeping course: if the hive is very bad tempered, close it and walk away. So that’s what I did.

Myrrh’s hive was not much happier and this unfortunate little unmated queen had started to lay drone. So I retreated to the apiary long table. While I am not sure if a Bad Beekeeper deserves tea and biscuits, I had them anyway and a chat to Rosemary, a newbie beek, about the strange behaviour of our hives.

Our bees are usually only mildly curious when we open the hive and a few fly out to say ‘hello’ like this bee in the picture. © Drew Scott

The tea did the trick and I decided to revisit the bees with reinforcements. Thomas, a more experienced beek, and Rosemary kindly offered to help and the three of us approached Myrrh’s hive first.

There was no improvement in Myrrh’s colony and Thomas agreed that something needed to be done soon. However, the decision would be influenced by the situation in Lavender’s old hive, so we found and caged Myrrh before visiting Lavender’s colony.

The cloud of swirling bees had completely vanished and the colony was now calm – had I caught the tail-end of the swarm earlier? As the hive had already been opened once, we tried to be quick. Thomas, Rosemary and me looked through the frames to be sure Lavender was gone and saw she had left behind several frames of biscuit-coloured worker brood. ‘She must have been a good queen,’ commented Thomas. I sighed. Bad Beekeeper.

Lavender made very nice bees. I hope she and her ladies found a good home. © Drew Scott

Lavender’s legacy was sealed within five queen cells on the middle frames, and one of these queens-in-waiting might ensure the future of Myrrh’s hive. Thomas suggested that we choose a frame with one strong-looking queen cell to put in Myrrh’s hive, then pull the two weakest-looking queen cells to prevent further swarming of Lavender’s hive.

Leaving two of Lavender’s royal daughters to decide a new ruler for her bees, Thomas carefully carried over the frame with a queen cell for Myrrh’s colony. Frames with queen cells must be handled with care, Thomas explained, because shaking can separate the queen from her royal jelly and cause the larva to die inside the cell.

A frame of bees is shaken for inspection – it doesn’t hurt the bees but it may damage any queen cells that are present. © Drew Scott

Sadly, Myrrh was dethroned because it was unlikely that the bees would accept a new queen cell while she remained in the hive. Her bees had been given a second chance to change their fortune – if they accept the new queen and if she has good weather for her mating flight. With any luck, Thomas suggested, the workers would soon be climbing over the new queen cell and coveting it like ‘that bit of chocolate you girls often hide for yourselves’.

The chances of getting honey this year are slim, because varroa treatments start in early August and then preparations for over-wintering, but I will be very happy to help our bees recover from an unlucky spring and become strong, flourishing hives for next year.

Worker bees will cluster around queen cells tightly like a ball. This is often how the new queens-in-waiting are spotted on a frame. © Drew Scott

The following week I enjoyed a holiday to Rome and when I returned Emily had emailed with mixed news:

‘I had a look today – Myrrh’s hive wasn’t looking good and were quite moody, but the exciting news in Lavender’s old hive is that I saw a new virgin queen in there! She does not look at all like her mother, which is a bit of a shock – she’s orange! Hoping she can mate successfully.

Looking on the bright side, we were told at the varroa day that colonies which have swarmed get their varroa levels down thanks to the break in brood, so that’s good. I hope Lavender and her ladies found a good home!’

Emily and me have been thinking of a new name for our orange queen: Ginger if she is feisty like her mother, Lavender, or Neroli if she is gentle like her grandmother, Rose. With the Diamond Jubilee this weekend, Neroli would be a name fit for a princess!

A worker bee waiting for orders from her new queen. © Drew Scott

Related links
More information about swarms is available on the websites of the British Beekeepers Association, the London Beekeepers Association and Ealing and District Beekeepers Association.

The title for this post was inspired by Bill Turnbull’s The Bad Beekeepers Club, which is a highly enjoyable read for new and old beekeepers alike.

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!

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 

BBC Gardeners’ Question Time and why we should take lavender to Mars

BBC Radio 4 Gardeners' Question Time – a panel of horticultural experts answer gardening questions with wit and wisdom

What do unruly rubber plants, sulking evergreens and intergalactic colonisation by plants have in common? They were all questions to a panel of horticultural experts on BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time. The show was recorded beside Regent’s Park on Monday 23 January and featured practical advice about gardening served with inspiring ideas and sparkling banter.

Triffids, peashooters and quail eggs

I went to the show with Emily, although first we enjoyed the host’s drinks and canapés. After sampling a quail egg, Emily was left to ponder how you go about eating more of these delicious mini foods. Filled with quail eggs, stuffed green olives and cheese straws, we made our way to the recording in the Wolfson Theatre.

Tiny quail eggs – I am constantly plotting and scheming how to eat more

The programme was presented by Eric Robson with a group of gardening experts, Chris Beardshaw, Bob Flowerdew and Christine Walkden. The panel answered a variety of questions from what to do about a rubber plant that was growing like a hooligan (some clever pruning) to how to grow a vertical garden (involving a peashooter).

My favourite question was ‘What plant would you take to another planet?’ As an aromatherapist and beekeeper, I have often thought a packet of garden seeds and a nuc of bees essential to terraforming another world. If I could choose only one plant it would be lavender, because it is the most versatile herb and essential oil, and bees love it.

Lavender is also a friendly plant and least likely to mutate into a triffid.

Absconding bees

From alien plants to disappearing bees, there was a sad discovery at the apiary this Saturday. A hive belonging to one of the beekeepers was found mostly empty with little dead bodies frozen on the comb. It looked like the colony had succumbed to varroa as the mite count had risen sharply in January.

The gentle and hard-working Italian bees were very active during a mild autumn and winter at our apiary, but this may have contributed to the rise in varroa among the winter bees

This is a common problem for winter bees who are more susceptible to varroa. As the colony grew smaller they would have been unable to keep each other warm and the remaining stragglers probably froze to death. We also found newly hatched bees dead in the cells because there were no nurse bees to feed them. There was plenty of uneaten honey leftover that could be harvested for marmalade and mead.

However, in a strange turn of events another beekeeper reported that his colony had almost doubled in size and, unlike his black bees, the new bees were light coloured. So we suspect that many of the golden Italian bees from the dying colony had absconded and bribed their way with honey into a new home. It was nice to think that the collapsed hive was enjoying a second life.

Did these light-coloured Italian bees find a secret second life in the hive across the path?

Listen to BBC Gardeners’ Question Time from Regent’s Park

Eric Robson chairs a programme of BBC Gardener’s Question Time from the Royal College of Physicians beside Regent’s Park, London, with Chris Beardshaw, Bob Flowerdew and Christine Walkden on the panel.

BBC Radio 4 Gardeners’ Question Time 
Friday 3 February, 15.00
Sunday 5 February, 14.00

To find out more about BBC Gardeners’ Question Time visit the website.

Read more about how to live with lavender (not on Mars).

Beebase have lots of advice for beekeepers on how to manage varroa.

10 years of pretending to be a beekeeper

The bees at our apiary playing, 'pretend the beeks keep us'.

While I have only pretended to be a beekeeper for two years, some people have been pretending for much longer than that. A group of beekeepers from Ealing and District Beekeepers Association met last Thursday evening to celebrate Pat’s 10-year anniversary of being a beekeeper.

The average life span of a beekeeper is said to be the same as the queen, which is about three years. One year to find out what you have to do, another year to understand why you have to do it, and a third year for things to go wrong. This is why Pat’s 10 years of beekeeping is a real achievement and worth celebrating! This will be my third year.

With the bees on their winter break, beekeepers congregate like drones at the local pub.

We met at the Duke of Kent pub in Ealing and it wasn’t long before talk turned to our favourite topic – bees. Alan was telling us how he marks his queens with a ring, while John, who is an expert queen catcher, preferred the queen marking pen. Don commented ‘I would like to put a bell on mine so that I can find her’ and I joined in with ‘maybe a crown and a little dress’.

Knowing our bees I suspect orders would swiftly come from the top to remove any paraphernalia used to dress the queen. They quickly dispatched Emily’s queen cage last year.

Towards the end of the evening, after a pint or three, resolutions were made, ‘I am going to be ready for the shook swarm this year’ and promises given, ‘I am going to bring sausage rolls to the apiary on Saturday afternoons’. Beekeepers are, by nature, quite cautious so this was followed by, ‘Let’s not let the sausage rolls get out of hand’.

Emily wearing a very stylish bee hat for winter hive inspections. It saves time putting on a full suit, but protects from the odd bee flying and getting caught in long hair!

The following Sunday morning Emily and me checked our hives. February is a perilous month for bees, because it is the time of year when colonies are most likely to perish. The bees will have almost depleted their winter stores, the queen will begin to lay again, and they await good fortune in both weather and plants to forage. They are at their most vulnerable and more susceptible to pests and disease.

Sunday morning at the apiary, Emily comes across a purple crocus that is waiting for a bee to find it. If you look closely at the middle flower with petals starting to part, you can see a glimpse of the luminous orange pollen inside.

Emily found our bees flying into the hive dusted with yellow pollen. We hefted both hives to check the weight of honey stores and opened the roof to see how much fondant had been eaten. All was well and there was no sign of dead bees or disease at the entrances, so we took a stroll around the apiary to check the other hives.

Spring is coming. Snowdrops budding at the apiary.

Having not done a bad job of pretending to be beekeepers, there was little to do but go home for a cup of tea and cupcake, and dream of months of bees and honey to come.

A cake fit for a fairly good beekeeper, sugar sprinkled by the bees.

Emily took a great video of our bees returning home with pollen on her post ‘More signs of spring‘.