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.


Olympic Queens!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Both Neroli and Ginger were superceded about a month ago, causing another setback for the colonies because of the three- to four-week period for a virgin queen to hatch, mate and begin to lay.

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

A few frequently asked questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily shows our bees to the beginners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An evening with the Selborne Society of Perivale Wood

Lying in wait behind the wrought iron gates of the Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve was the lost British summer. The ancient oak woodland is a well-kept suburban secret that is deeply hidden in the heart of north-west London, and reveals a wildlife habitat that has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Perivale Wood is owned and managed by the Selborne Society who kindly invited me to attend their summer barbecue as a ‘thank you’ for writing an article in The Selborne Society Newsletter.

The society’s hospitality extended to two guests, my hive partner Emily and her boyfriend Drew, with whom I spent a sociable evening enjoying late summer sunshine, well-charred food and a little adventure in the wood.

The Selborne Society rustled up the sunshine for their summer barbecue.

Emily and me arrived at the barbecue with Andy Pedley, honorary secretary for the society, who kindly drove us from the apiary after beekeeping. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon with balmy sunshine so much better than has been expected of this dreary wet summer. Drew turned up soon after and we were all surprised by the strong sun suddenly beaming down on the reserve.

Perivale Wood is the second oldest nature reserve in the UK, and the Selborne Society is also one of the oldest conservation groups in the country. The society was founded in 1885 to commemorate Gilbert White (1720–93), the Curate of Selborne, Hampshire, and the father of British natural history.

Perivale Wood has a rich variety of habitat and is home to hundreds of woodland species as listed on the Selborne Society website: 600 species of fungi, 544 species of moths, 30 species of molluscs, 17 species of mammals, 24 species of trees, 350 species of vascular plants, 36 species of mosses and liverworts, and 115 species of birds.

Sadly, the ancient woodland habitat and its creatures are now under threat by the government’s high-speed rail project HS2.

While we planned to explore the woods that evening, the reserve hut was also well-worth visiting – filled with home-made jams and several other curiosities…

The nature reserve hut was like a scene from My Family and Other Animals.

An old wasp nest displayed among pinned butterflies and stuffed birds. A naturalist’s treasure trove!

Home-made jams cooked with locally foraged ingredients by Clare, beekeeper and jam-maker extraordinaire!

A few sausages and fizzy drinks later, Emily asked if we could explore the wood past the meadow area. Elsa tried to give us directions to the location of the bees in the wood, but instead we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost on the dense woodland trail.

Perivale Wood is home to birds, mammals, insects, fungi and plants – all hidden inside the dense overgrowth.

Emily exploring the wood.

Woodland flowers reaching up to the sun.

Spotted – a heron.

Although I had visited the hives in Perivale Wood in January, when the trees were bare and moth traps were being laid on the ground, I was not much good as a guide. Then Andy and Elsa had led the way through the dark with Elsa’s son, Chris, and myself following blindly behind.

Night falls on Perivale Wood earlier this year in January.

The path is occasionally lit by spooky-looking moth traps for the 544 species of moths that roam the wood after dark.

The trail had led us past an oak that is home to feral honeybees, and a few feral mice too.

The Beehaus! A new Omlet hive provides a modern home for bees in an ancient oak woodland.

By daylight I couldn’t remember the way back to the hives and so the woodland bees remained undisturbed, but we did get to visit Elsa’s bees and her chickens.

A hen walks past a bit indignant to have her pen disturbed.

Clare and Elsa placate the hens with mealworms.

Elsa’s bees live in a very charming hive beautifully crafted by her son, Chris.

Before we left for the day (with fresh eggs from Elsa and jams from Clare) Emily, Drew and me signed up as members of the Selborne Society having paid a staggering £4 annual membership fee!

As a new member I am looking forward to finding out what other secrets lie hidden in the wood. However, Perivale Wood – and blogging – will have to wait for a little while as I study for my first beekeeping assessment. Fingers crossed, I’ll pass!

Meantime, in spite of my rather rushed post between revision this week, our beekeeping adventures last week were beautifully posted by a very special guest, Deborah Delong of Romancing the Bee: My Visit To The Ealing Apiary.

Related links

Dances with bluebells and rain – my post on the Selborne Society Open Day
Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve and Selborne Society website
North Ealing against HIGH-SPEED-RAIL (HS2)
STOP HS2 – the national campaign against high-speed rail 

In other news: I have started my blog award pages this week and will soon unveil the Bumblebee Award!