Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016

A little bumble bee John found in the morning that hitched a ride.

March is going to be a busy month with Mothering Sunday, my fiancé John’s birthday, a Marriage Preparation Course, Easter and, of course, the start of the beekeeping season. The last throes of winter may be felt in February, but I feel spring will jump out suddenly.

The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Associations’ Beekeepers Day often feels like the start of the beekeeping season when beekeepers from in and around Middlesex gather to talk about bees and beekeeping. This year’s annual gathering was hosted by Barnet and District Beekeepers Association, on Saturday 20 February at Arkley Village Hall, in Arkley, Greater London.

There were three lectures by expert speakers, a wax exchange, and a general congregation of the Middlesex beekeeping associations for the Annual General Meeting. It was a bit of a trek from where I live in Ickenham to Arkley, I gave up at Edgware and got a cab. “I think we’ve arrived,” said the driver on seeing a beekeeper in full suit standing outside the village hall. It smelt of beeswax inside. I grabbed a seat and got out my notebook and pen ready for the first talk to begin.

This is a long post so I’ve made it easier to navigate with jump links.

Beekeepers Day 2016 lectures

1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.

2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper

3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.

1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.

The first lecture was given by Professor Linda M Field who works at Rothamsted Research on understanding insecticide mode of action and resistance at the biochemical/molecular level towards developing better pest control strategies. You can read about Professor Field’s research on the Rothamsted website. Her talk was about why we need and use pest-and-disease control, in particular focusing on a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics), which were subject to a restricted-use ban, preventing seed treatment on crops that flower, by the EU in 2013, and taking an overview of the current position on neonics in the UK given that the ban is due for review.

foraging bee

Professor Field opened her lecture looking at how to feed the world’s growing population, last estimated at around seven billion, with a large percentage of current agricultural crops dependent on pest-and-disease control like pesticides. This wasn’t intended to lead us down the path of different approaches to agriculture, but instead to frame a picture of why we have used pesticides in the past and continue to do so, and to explore whether pesticides and insect pollinators can ever go together.

Pesticides are made to kill insects that cause damage or disease to crops. Some examples of insects that are seen as pests in the UK are certain types of aphids and beetles. “Aphids are sap suckers. And although you need a lot of aphids to kill a plant, they can breed asexually,” said Professor Field. The peach-potato aphid spreads viruses to oilseed rape (OSR) and sugar beet. The grain aphid and the bird cherry oat aphid spreads viruses to cereals. As a reader of Don’t Forget the Roundabouts blog, I rather like aphids but I can understand how they could make themselves unpopular by sucking the sap out of crops.

Other pests to OSR crops include the pollen beetle and cabbage stem flea beetle, both of which have quite nice-sounding names.

Quick guide to the history of pesticide use

Professor Field gave a quick history of pesticides from 1940s DDT to today’s neonics. DDT, which everyone agreed was just bad news all round, was replaced by organophosphates and carbonates in the 1950s-70s but these were also quite toxic to both mammals and insects. In the mid-1970s new synthetic pyrethroids were seen as a breakthrough because they offered pest-and-disease control against insects with relatively low toxicity to mammals. Apparently the reason for the effectiveness of this group of chemicals was clearer for scientists to see in hindsight.

Pyrethroids bind with a particular protein in the nervous system which both insects and mammals have, but which is slightly different in insects and affects them differently. Pyrethroids were widely used till the 1990s when resistance developed and their use declined. This was when a new group of chemicals came on the market called neonicotinoids (neonics), which brings us up-to-date with where we are now.


Professor Field gave a nod to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which she said did a good job of raising awareness about the risks posed by certain chemical substances to the environment, and which is as relevant today as it was then. About 50 years later, as Andy Pedley later reminded me, Poison Spring by E.G. Vallianatos picks up where Carson left off.

I read Silent Spring. As a beekeeper and aromatherapist, and having been taught a natural approach to life by my grandmother, Rachel Carson’s words deeply resonate with me. However, my fiancé’s family are famers and my dad is a butcher, and I have a pragmatic view of the food industry.

Most of us worry about insecticides till their dog has fleas, the cat has ticks, or their children have lice, then they rush to buy insecticides from the pharmacy, commented the speaker. I could see that this was partly true, although my mum successfully treated our cats for fleas using garlic capsules in their food and my first resort to hair or skin afflictions might be lavender or tea tree oils.

Is the answer to always replace one pesticide with another? I’m not convinced that it is, nevertheless the search continues to find a pesticide that can target specific chemical pathways in insects seen as pests rather than those insects seen as beneficial, such as bees.

Pros and cons of neonics

We were shown some of the advantages and disadvantages of neonics:

  • Selective. Neonics bind with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in insects which, since the pesticide’s introduction and subsequent widespread use, selectively binds to that receptor in insects but doesn’t bind as well to the same receptor in mammals.
    Systemic. Neonics are systemic when used as a seed dressing, they travel up through the plant into the leaves and flowers. This was seen as a breakthrough because it meant avoiding spraying crops, which could be more costly and more damaging to local wildlife. However, neonics applied systemically have been found in trace amounts in nectar and pollen which might affect bees, including honeybees, solitaries, bumbles and so on. (I also wonder whether systemically applied pesticides are an advantage over spraying crops at certain times, such as when bees aren’t foraging.)
  • Low resistance. Unlike other pesticides like pyrethroids, pests are so far taking a long time to develop a resistance to neonics.

So what are the problems with neonics?:

  • Sub-lethal effects. Neonics end up in nectar and pollen at a very low dose which might still be harmful to bees. The pesticide may not kill bees directly but it may have a sub-lethal effect through low levels in nectar and pollen, which could have subtle effects on bee behaviour. It is these subtle effects that are not fully understood. I think it is also worrying because pollen is used by nurse bees to make brood food for larvae.

Where are we now with neonics?

On 24 May 2013 the EU implemented Regulation (EU) No 485/2013 to prohibit use of neonics, or more specifically clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, as seed treatment on crops that flower. Has the regulation made any difference to bees? Unfortunately the EU has not provided research funds to monitor the effects of the ban. Its most recent report Ecosystem services, agriculture and neonicotinoids (April 2015) by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) provides some conclusions, but I find it disappointing that more effort hasn’t been made to monitor the effect of the ban, and in closer collaboration with farmers, bee farmers, local wildlife groups, beekeepers and so on.

The EU report’s conclusions in summary (page 29):

  1. Ecosystem services provide significant economic benefits to agriculture. Maintaining strong functional ecosystem services is a critical part of a sustainable agricultural system.
  2. Biodiversity has significant positive impacts on the provision of ecosystem services but is also an objective in its own right under global and European international agreements.
  3. Insects providing ecosystem services have shown major declines in recent decades (pollinating wild bees, natural pest control providers, etc.).
  4. Protecting honey bees is not sufficient to protect pollination services and other ecosystem services. Honey bees have been the main focus in assessing the risks from neonicotinoid use, and much debate has focused on whether honey bee colonies are being affected. Yet the honey bee colony structure provides an exceptionally resilient buffer against losses of its foragers and workers. In contrast, bumble bees have just a few hundred workers at most, while solitary bees and other insects have no such buffering capacity.
  5. There is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target organisms that provide ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest control.
  6. There is clear scientific evidence for sublethal effects of very low levels of neonicotinoids over extended periods on non-target beneficial organisms. This should be addressed in EU approval procedures.
  7. Current practice of prophylactic usage of neonicotinoids is inconsistent with the basic principles of integrated pest management as expressed in the EU’s Sustainable Pesticides Directive.
  8. Widespread use of neonicotinoids (as well as other pesticides) constrains the potential for restoring biodiversity in farmland under the EU’s Agrienvironment Regulation.

Professor Fields felt that while there is an ‘increasing body of evidence’ about the negative effects on non-target organisms (5), she had also read research papers to the contrary. She also felt ‘prophylactic’ in this context was misleading as it implied that neonics were used on crops at times when they were not needed.


Beyond neonics

Unfortunately some pests come back when neonics are not used, such as the outbreak of cabbage stem flea beetle on OSR in autumn 2014. Pyrethroids were sprayed to protect crops, which are more damaging and largely failed due to pests’ previous resistance to the pesticide. In autumn 2015 the UK government did allow 5% of farmers to use neonics on OSR for those who saw a high level of resistance to pyrethroids in cabbage stem flea beetles. However, without adequate pest control farmers might choose not to grow OSR, which is an important source of forage for bees in certain areas, and turn to other crops like beans and pulses.


Perhaps we needed to start looking at the wider debate such as ‘land sharing’ and ‘land sparing’. In ‘land sharing’, farmland is shared with wild habitat to protect biodiversity and preserve agriculture. While this tends to protect a larger number of species, it is often the common species and not the rarer ones that are in greater need of protection. In ‘land sparing’, farmland is kept for agricultural use but other land is spared for wild habitats, and while this helps fewer species it tends to be the rarer species that are protected. For me, ‘land sparing’ by preserving more areas of wild habitat seems a better approach, but could we do it with growing, and ever-hungrier it seems, human populations?

We were shown the the COLOSS 2014–15 winter losses data for honeybee colonies in the UK and Europe, and a drop in overall honeybee colony losses, but also illustrated that honeybee losses are multifactorial, due to varroa, queen problems, and other influences.

We were still no closer to finding out whether pesticides and insect pollinators could ever work together. My feeling is that they probably can’t given that pesticides are designed to kill or harm insects. There are so many different types of bees from honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutters, miners, and each species has a slightly different biology that reacts slightly differently to pesticides like neonics. It’s a big ask for the next designer chemical to target specific chemical pathways in just target insects without subtly effecting the various chemical pathways of non-target beneficial organisms.

Professor Field looked at approaches to pest management other than pesticides:

  1. Biological control including the ‘lure and kill’ method which uses pheromones to trap pests in a small area and kill them with fungi.
  2. GM crops that could be used to repel pests, although I’m not convinced this would work or be greatly preferable to pesticides. It also opens up an entirely different debate.
  3. Crop rotation as a first resort before using pesticides.

A question from the audience probably drew a line under the discussion, for now. A retired microbiologist recalled the lessons that her generation of scientists had learnt with DDT, and thalidomide, which gave her misgivings about today’s new designer pesticides like neonics. Professor Field acknowledged this but asked: “How do we feed the world?”

The first lecture had given us all food for thought, something that would be the subject of the second lecture on honeybee nutrition.

A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.

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2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper

From food for humans to food for bees, the second lecture of the day was by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper. Her talk focused on the importance of high-quality nutrition for honeybee health and why the honeybee colony needs a varied diet.

Bees are forest insects with an instinctive fear of fire. Smoking the entrance makes the colony think there is an impending risk of fire and triggers the 'fight or flight' response. They eat up honey in preparation to leave the hive but this also makes them less inclined to sting.

Like all animals, bees need nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and micronutrients) for energy to build and repair tissue, maintain essential organs, produce enzymes, and replace cells. The foods that provide these nutrients for bees are:

  • Nectar: not just sugar and water, nectar provides carbohydrates, trace vitamins, and aromatic compounds.
  • Pollen: is a precious source of protein with fat and minerals, vitamins, lipids, micronutrients, pigments and so on.

A good supply of nutrition to the honeybee colony is essential for all individuals inside the hive, including a healthy and productive queen. A brood frame that has capped worker brood with well-defined borders and stores of honey is one sign of a well-fed colony.

The metatarsus that rocks the cradle

A recurring theme in Pam’s talk was the influence that nurse bees have upon the colony. “Butterflies are horrendous and drop an egg on a leaf and fly off,” said Pam, “Whereas bees look after their larvae at every stage in their development.” In Pam’s view of the honeybee democracy, it is the nurse bees who control the colony with the queen, although well-fed and pampered, just an egg-laying slave.

Nurse bees’ hypopharyngeal gland develops at around six days after they hatch and this allows them to convert pollen into brood food. Protein-packed pollen is itself an essential nutrient in the development of the nurse bee’s hypopharyngeal gland. Younger larvae are fed brood food, made by the nurses’ hypopharyngeal gland, and older larvae are fed pollen.

purple crocus bee

Thus, pollen is an important nutrient in early spring which helps the hive to build up at the start of the season. A varied mix of pollen grains provide a wide variety of nutrition and this is preferable for the honeybee colony, as can sometimes be seen from the differently coloured pollen grains fallen out of the hive floor onto the varroa monitoring board below.

Pam showed us a figure of a hypopharyngeal gland in a young bee fed a protein-rich diet, which looked like a bunch of plump grapes, and a hypopharyngeal gland in an older forager bee fed largely carbohydrate-providing nectar, which looked like a bunch of dried grapes. It illustrated the difference that nutrition can make.


Made up of saccharides, or sugars, carbohydrates can be simple or complex molecules built from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and used by bees, like in all animals, for energy and storage.

  • Polysaccharides are complex sugars such as glycogen and chitin, the latter of which is the tough outer wall of bees and other insects.
  • Oligosaccharides are made from 2–10 sugars.
  • Disaccharides are made from two sugars.
  • Monosaccharides are made from one sugar.

The hydrolysis of sucrose for energy involves the enzyme sucrase which converts it to glucose and fructose. Most nectars contain glucose and fructose hydrolised from sucrose, but a few nectars have high levels of sucrose such as borage. Borage has so much sucrose, said Pam, that it required a change in honey regulations to accommodate it.


Storing nectar as honey is vital for the survival of the honeybee colony in winter, and it is why the honeybee colony can survive winter. In comparison to the Asian honeybee (Apis ceranae), the European honeybee (A. mellifera) appears to be a better honey producer. Pam observed the Asian honeybee doesn’t need to produce as much honey because it lives in smaller colonies and endures shorter winters. However, when humans first exported the European honeybee to Asia, and back again, they subsequently introduced the ‘harder-working’ honeybee to varroa.

The European honeybee needs on average 40kg of honey to overwinter, and around 200kg per year for the colony. There were lots of experienced beekeepers in the room who had heard this before, but I think it can never be said enough. With changing weather causing mild winters, later springs and wetter summers in some years, it’s seems more important than ever to assess whether the hives are building up enough honey stores for the season before taking the harvest.

Pros and cons of nectar

Nectar may be a superfood for bees but it’s not a perfect food.

Nectar starts as a weak watery solution with a mix of fructose and glucose, and some sucrose. Foraging bees collect nectar to return to the hive where it’s transferred from cell to cell between bees, mixed with their hypopharyngeal glands, and fanned with their wings until its water content evaporates to 20% and the honey is ready to cap. Pam took a moment to marvel at this: “Science needs machines to measure water content in nectar yet somehow the bees just know.”

Nectar may be valuable forage but the problem is its availability. It’s secreted by plants into nectaries and there are many factors that can affect its production, such as temperature, humidity, moisture, wind factor, sunshine (for example, dandelions only produce nectar following two hours in direct sunshine), time of day, and the age and vigour of the plant.

Pros and cons of pollen

Pollen is a less fragile source of forage and it provides all-important amino acids in protein that are necessary for animal growth. As most of us are familiar from school biology classes, proteins are large complex molecules which must be broken down into simpler components (amino acids) to be absorbed into tissue and then rebuilt into complex molecules again for the body’s needs. It is the same in bees, proteins are absorbed by the epithelial lining of a bee’s gut, which helps younger bees develop strong, healthily functioning bodies. Essential amino acids, such as those you might see on a cereal packet (eg arginine, lysine, and leucine) cannot be manufactured within the body (by humans or bees) and need to be provided by nutrition; arginine is not needed by humans but it is needed by bees.


Not all pollens are made equal. Around 20–30% of protein content in crude pollen is a good source for bees, but this can vary from plant to plant. For example, the protein content of Cupressus arizonica pollen is 2–3%, but this is to be expected from a wind-pollinated plant.

Unlike nectar which can be stored for long periods of time, pollen’s nutritional value decreases rapidly. “Get rid of pollen-clogged frames,” said Pam. After a year, the protein value of pollen decreases by 75%. Thus a fresh supply of pollen is needed all year round. Plants like late Michaelmass daisies and sedum in autumn provide protein for hives going into winter, and hazel catkins early in the year provide protein for colonies building up in spring. “Hazel is wind-pollinated but bees can be opportunistic and will take the pollen nonetheless.”

A wide range of vitamins are found in pollen, especially water-soluble ones, such as B complex vitamins like biotin, riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid and so on.

Vitamin C is present in large quantities in most pollen and also fat soluble vitamins like A and K. Then there are around 3-8% of trace minerals and pigments, plus carotenoids and polyphenols. And, of course, throw in flavonoids which are always good (pollen is like chocolate and wine for bees!).

“While you can get all these goodies from pollen, it’s not a panacea for humans.” A lot of pollen is needed to have any sort of healthful effect on humans, and it must be fresh, by which time the honeybee colony has been depleted of an essential nutrient. I particularly agree with this. Whereas honey can be produced in surplus, other products of the hive such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly generally are not, and I prefer not to harvest these because the bees need them more.

Fat bees

Fat is needed for muscle contraction, conducting nerve impulses, and for cell membranes. It’s also needed for larval growth and development as larvae fed an inadequate supply of fat can have an increase in deficiencies, explained Pam. Although, she added, some lipids could inhibit brood production but this was not much understood.

Fat is important for those house bees going into winter and living off fat reserves for up to six months. There is a significant difference in the fatty bodies stored by winter bees compared to summer workers and, like pollen, fat is an important nutrient to the colony during the spring build-up and autumn preparations for winter.

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

Goldilocks and the bees

Larvae in eusocial insects are more dependent on stable nutrition and regular temperature. Their fragility is similar to the adult bees who, despite being opportunists, depend on their environment and nutrition being ‘just right’.

Nurse bees decide what’s taken from foragers – nectar, pollen, water and so on – and in doing so, they tell foragers what they want and need for the good of the colony. Pam feels they judge it well to decide what nutrition is needed by the hive to:

  • produce a strong queen who has been fed well at larval stage.
  • build up the hive’s reserves for times of dearth or winter.
  • continually feed adults who have fewer fat reserves and lower glycogen than larvae.

Pam explained fewer pollen supplies can reduce the amount of larvae produced or even lead to larvae being canabalised. Poor quality pollen could reduce immunity, thus a mixture of pollen is best. A study by Degrandi and Hoffman et al (2010) suggested that levels of viruses can be reduced within the colony if it is fed sufficient levels of pollen.

A deficiency of pollen can cause the hypopharyngeal gland in nurse bees to be less well developed, which would impact the brood food they produce, and could cause colonies to become aggressive; although I’ve noticed a lack of forage in general (nectar and pollen) and a lack of brood can cause colonies to become more irritable. Little wonder if the colony is hungry or does not have enough to do (is bored) with fewer brood to rear. Uncapped brood also produces a pheromone to stimulate pollen collection and the hypopharyngeal gland to develop. It is a reminder how wonderfully interconnected the world of the honeybee is.

Variety is the spice of life

Pam concluded that bees need a variety of good-quality food to stay healthy. She quoted a study that the longevity of bees can be affected by the quality of the pollen that they eat. (Schmidt et al Journal Econ Entomol 88 1591 (1995)). For example, bees feeding on rapeseed pollen lived 51 days longer, whereas bees feeding on sunflower pollen lived for 31 days. There were vast areas of sunflowers near French farms at the time of banning neonics, said Pam, could the less nutritious sunflower pollen have been another factor affecting bee longevity? “But bees love sunflower pollen even if it is not as good for them as rapeseed.”

I enjoyed Pam’s although I was familiar with most of it. It makes good sense that high-quality nutrition and a varied diet is as important to the health of the honeybee colony as it is to all animals. Along with pesticides, forage is another important factor affecting all bees and insect pollinators and with spring fast approaching, beekeepers will be mindful of what’s flowering in their local area.

Pam also recommended the resource: Somerville, Doug (2005) Fat Bees Skinny Bees, A manual on honey bee nutrition for beekeepers. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Australia.

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3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.

The third talk of the day was as topical as spring forage. For beekeepers who have lots of beeswax – and that’s a lot of us – Dr Sara Robb’s lecture was brimming with ideas of how to clear up last year’s honey-and-wax buckets before the start of the season.


Dr Robb studied neuroscience in Pennsylvania, US, before finding her way to Scotland then England, where she started to make soap. The scientist was a meticulous soap-maker, but she grew impatient till one day she threw away the thermometer, “Soap had been made for centuries without thermometers”, and came up with same-day soap. When a Polish neighbour brought back a gift of honey from Poland, Dr Robb decided to make honey soap for her baby Jasmine. One bar and she was sold. The soap was beautifully fragranced and moisturising and worked wonders as a baby bath.

Dr Robb’s talk covered a beekeepers’ favourite – what to make with honey and beeswax: “I’m not a beekeeper but I am a beekeeper groupie.”

The products of the hive, such as honey and beeswax, can be added to many cosmetics, which in the EU is anything that is applied to the body from toothpaste to shampoo. Bee products can be used to make lip balm, body butters, cerate, cream, soap, and more.

Dr Robb gave a summary of why we use honey, beeswax and propolis for their cosmetic properties:

  • Beeswax (Cera alba) – emollient, emulsifying, film foraging, perfuming.
  • Honey (Mel) – emollient, humectant, moisturising; add small amounts to soap transforms it and different types of honey lends different fragrances and characteristics to cosmetics; Dr Robb feels honey is more moisturising than beeswax.
  • Propolis (Propolis cera) – antiseborrhoeic, moisturising, smoothing; good for acne, problem skin, improves roughness and irregularities.

Cosmetics can be made easily using equipment that most people have in their kitchen including scales, a microwave or stove, handmixer, bowls, spoons and containers. There are three main methods of making cosmetics:

  • Mixtures: lip balms, body butter, waxeline, cerate.
  • Emulsions: moisture cream, body lotion.
  • Chemical synthesis: soap (ingredients + chemical reaction = product).

Dr Robb explained the chemical synthesis of soap is by saponification: hydroxide + triglycerides = soap + glycerine.

Soap can be made using various ingredients from oils (olive, sunflower, rape, almond, coconut), butters (cocoa, shea), fats (lard, tallow, vegetable), waxes (beeswax, plant). While people tend not to use fat for making soap at home anymore, commercial soaps may contain tallow. Dr Robb noted that beeswax doesn’t saponify well and has a higher melt temperature, which can make it difficult to use for homemade soap.


Soap-maker’s top tips

As soap-making is Dr Robb’s specialty, she gave us some top tips on what we need to know before getting started.

  • The precise amount of sodium hydroxide needed for soap to saponify must be calculated against the given oils used in the recipe. It’s really important to get this right because a soap with a high pH can be dangerous to use as it could burn skin.
  • Olive, coconut and sunflower oils are good for lathering, although olive oil lathers the least. Dr Robb avoids using almond oil in case people have nut allergies.
  • Lovely colours and subtle fragrances can be added to soap from adding just a small amount of honey.


Beeswax beauty

Waxeline: While candle-making is the most likely way to use up all the leftover beeswax at the end of summer, Dr Robb likes using wax for simple recipes such as alternatives to shop-bought cosmetics. One of her favourites is waxeline (her twist on Vaseline) made from 40g beeswax and 160g rapeseed oil.

Cerate: She makes cerate mixture, originally made with animal fat, using: 40g beeswax, 80g olive oil, and 80g honey. It is all thrown together and mixed, melted and stirred till emulsified. A cerate mixture is like a healing salve that coats a small area of skin. The recipe is similar to balms that I make to deeply moisturise dry, cracked heels or soften rough skin on elbows.

Emulsions: Emulsions are also easy to make from beeswax, cocoa butter, rapeseed oil and water. Again, Dr Robb likes the easy method of throwing all the ingredients together, heating, mixing, and melting to make a beautiful emulsion. Once the base is made then honey, fragrances and preservatives can be added to make various emulsion products.


During the Q&A we got more top tips about the ingredients that make emulsions and creams easy to use and longer lasting:

  • Distilled water can be substituted for a good-quality mineral water, but adding water still shortens the shelf life and any product that contains water needs a preservative.
  • Vitamin E can be used as antioxidant but not as a preservative because it won’t inhibit fungal or bacterial growth.
  • Honey should be added in tiny amounts to emulsions and creams, particularly those worn during the day otherwise you may feel quite sticky!

Selling cosmetics in the EU
After formulating the perfect recipe, Dr Robb explained a little of what is involved in selling a cosmetic in the EU.

  • You need to prepare a Product Information Pack (PIP) and send the recipe, with a sample if it contains water, for a safety assessment, and a challenge test for aqueous products, to go through the Cosmetics Products Notification Portal (CPNP). You can find out more about the regulations for selling cosmetics here. The challenge test for recipes with water is squirting a cocktail of bacteria and fungus into a sample and monitoring their growth.
  • For beekeepers using their own beeswax in recipes, the beeswax needs to be analysed before use.
  • Products need to labelled correctly, including address, batch no/use-by date, weight, and ingredients listed in the correct nomenclature.


As Dr Robb closed her talk, I felt motivated to get to work on the last buckets of honey-and-wax gubbins from last year’s harvest. But it was pouring with rain outside Arkley Village Hall and there was still a wax exchange, an AGM, and a two-hour journey home to go. My enthusiasm would have to wait.

You can read more about Dr Sara Robb’s wonderful products and recipes on her website.

The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016 had been a great success, three brilliant lectures, and an opportunity for the associations to get together to talk about their beekeeping experiences. Thanks very much to Barnet and District Beekeepers Association for organising a great day.

A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.

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It has been a while since I’ve been to a Beekeepers Day due to work the past two years and then moving house. Here is my write up to a lecture in 2012.

Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2012: Disappearing bees or countdown to catastrophe

A beekeeper’s notes for December


Winter hasn’t come for the bees. They were enjoying the mild weather today bringing home lots of pollen. A drone sat comfortably on a hive roof looking well fed and a young-looking worker was resting on the side of the hive boxes. Else was over-the-moon about the unseasonably warm weather, which brought back memories of Christmas in Australia. She produced a box of deliciously festive cup cakes to cheer up the British beekeepers complaining about the prospect of a sunny Christmas.


The cakes were baked by Else’s friend and were scrumptious with raisin-and-spice sponge and frosted-chocolate icing.

The unseasonably warm weather meant it was unlikely that the hives would be treated with oxalic acid today. The bees hadn’t slowed down for Christmas. “One hive is heavier now than when I put on the fondant in October,” said Andy. He had treated his hives last month during a brief cold snap on a day when the bees were less likely to be active and protest about being disturbed.

Oxalic acid is usually given as a midwinter treatment when the days are frosty and there is little or no brood inside the hive. It’s most effective when applied during broodless periods, or as close to broodless as you can get, because the varroa have fewer places to hide. The fixed points on the beekeeping calendar are turning as the seasons become uncertain, however. Perhaps it’s best to say the bees can be treated with oxalic acid when the weather is wintry and conditions inside the hive are right, rather than in the winter. That’s assuming you treat your hives to oxalic acid.


After tea and cake, Emily and I checked that our three hives still had enough stores. Pepper’s and Melissa’s hives were a generous weight when hefted and Peppermint’s hive had also pulled off the trick of getting heavier since putting on the fondant. The hive entrances were as busy as a mild spring day and the weight of the hives suggest the bees might be finding nectar as well as pollen to fill up the boxes.


Melissa’s bees has tucked into their fondant despite having two supers of honey at the end of autumn. These bees do like their sugar.

That done, we got the bees ready for Christmas with tinsel and festive decorations. The apiary needed a little sparkle if the frost wasn’t coming this year.


Beekeepers take note for December – it’s the tinsel that gets the bees through winter.

A beekeeper’s notes for September

spider dangling

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

A stocking filler from the bees

candle 1

Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year in the UK. For a moment the Earth tilts furthest away from the sun in the northern hemisphere, before it turns back towards the light.

My pagan friends celebrate the winter solstice, Yule, by lighting candles to mark the sun’s rebirth. While it is a long time till spring from this point on we can all welcome back the lengthening of days.

candle 2

I’m not pagan, well maybe a tiny bit…

In beekeeping traditions the darkest day of winter is a point of stillness inside the hive. The queen has stopped laying and the workers cluster around her in a broodless nest. A perfect time to give the bees a solstice stocking filler of warmed oxalic acid in syrup.

Yesterday was bright, cold and dry at the apiary. The beekeepers were feeling festive as they ate mince pies and drank home-brewed beer. Everyone was soon very merry!

Andy Pedley was amused that I had decorated our hives a few weeks ago with pine cones and berries to look Christmassy, he tweeted:

andys tweet

There also had been exciting news from Andy during the week, he wrote: “This might justify a special email?” He and John Chapple had been interviewed for Alan Titchmarsh’s The Queen’s Garden, which airs on Christmas Day at 3.10pm on ITV. Wow, beekeeping royalty to follow the Queen’s speech. I can’t wait till Christmas! (You can see John Chapple looking like Father Christmas in his red coat and white beard above.)

Elsa helped us to warm the oxalic acid that we were giving to the bees by standing the bottles in an upturned lid of a teapot. As we marvelled at her practicality, she said in her gentle Australian accent, “I wasn’t a Girl Scout, but I was raised in the bush”.

The sun was dropping fast through the trees and the mince pies had all been eaten. It was time to give the bees their stocking filler.


I’ve blogged about giving the bees oxalic acid before, this year two beginners gave it to the hives. They will make excellent beekeepers. The oxalic acid is meant to burn the mouths and feet of varroa mites feeding on adult bees, so they drop off. It is given in midwinter when the colony is thought to be almost broodless and the varroa mites have fewer places to hide.


Some beekeepers now check their hives for brood a few days before giving the oxalic acid following last year’s findings by Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects (LASI), which caused something of a stir among beekeepers. The research suggests any time between 10th December and Christmas is a good time for oxalic acid treatment and that you check for sealed brood, and destroy it, around two days before. I hadn’t forgotten the advice but we didn’t do this. I could tell by looking at the way the bees were moving around and over the frames that there is likely to be sealed brood inside the hives. Perhaps it is a knock-on effect of a longer brooding season due to a milder autumn and winter? What effect that will have on the oxalic acid treatment, I don’t know.

Even so, all’s looking well inside the four hives. Chili’s bees were playful, Melissa’s bees were peaceful, Chamomile’s were curious (a good sign) and Pepper’s were spirited!


Merry Christmas lovely bees!

This is my last post of the year as I take a break for Christmas. So, as an aromatherapy beekeeper, I’ll leave you with a picture of the apiary on the darkest day in winter and a stocking filler from the bees – a home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm that you can make quite easily. The recipe is in the Postnotes below, along with more details about The Queen’s Garden.

All that remains to be said is a Very Happy Christmas bees, humans and everyone!

goodnight apiary

See you all in the New Year xx


Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm


  • 40 ml olive oil
  • 10 g beeswax
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil


  1. Heat the oil gently in a saucepan over a low heat.
  2. Add the beeswax, stirring till completely melted.
  3. Mix in the honey then pour into a warmed bowl.
  4. Add the lavender essential oil and stir quickly before the balm starts to set.
  5. Pour the warm balm into small pots and leave to set, then lid and label your honey-and-lavender lip balm.

Of course, the lip balm is meant as a gift – you can’t sell home-made cosmetics without special safety requirements. As an added precaution too, skip the lavender oil if you are pregnant. Aromatherapy texts differ on which essential oils to use in pregnancy and at which stage of pregnancy, and the proper advice is actually a lot more involved than this. I’m not going into that now, so skip the lavender to be on the safe side – the balm really is as nice just as honey and beeswax.

The recipe is also posted on the Ealing and District Beekeepers’ website which I run, as a news item along with a link to the recent Bee Craft live episode on using hive products.

The Queen’s Garden
Don’t forget to watch The Queen’s Garden on Christmas Day! Elsa is sure from a preview that you’ll at least see John Chapple, the Queen’s Beekeeper, pull a frame from a hive!

The Queen’s Garden
Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV
Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th-century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Download a free ebook stocking filler here, a Christmas gift from me and the bees.


Winter breaks for bees

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

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.


Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.


Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.


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


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

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

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


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

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

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



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



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

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

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

Wasps begone


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


A puff of smoke to clear the bees…


… as David cleans up wax from the queen excluder.

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


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

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

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

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

The wasp palace


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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