A beekeeper’s notes for September

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

A stocking filler from the bees

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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See you all in the New Year xx

Postnotes

Home-made honey-and-lavender lip balm

Ingredients:

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

Method:

  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.

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Winter breaks for bees

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

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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

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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?

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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’.

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

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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A puff of smoke to clear the bees…

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… 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Eight is the magic number, sort of

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When you first start learning to be a beekeeper, you may be taught that 8 mm is the magic number of the ‘bee space’. Perhaps this is easier to learn when starting to build your own hives. In truth, it’s closer to 6–9 mm.

What is bee space? Imagine an alley between the neighbouring combs within a bee hive, or indeed a natural bee nest. The ‘bee space’ leaves a gap so that bees can work on the opposite sides of the combs and have enough space to move past each other back to back.

This gap or ‘bee space’ is widely considered to be around 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) and is a key principle in the design of most modern bee hives allowing the bees free passage between the frames and the hive wall and above or below the frames.

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Bee space is the gap between the frames in the hive, and around the walls and above and below the frames. This gap gives the bees enough space to work on opposite sides of the comb and pass each other back to back.

I’ve read that the variation in spacing might be due to the varying sizes of the different species of honeybee, although 6–9 mm seems a pretty uniform measurement to me.

Why is it important to remember bee space? Because any gap that is too small (less than 6 mm) the bees will fill with propolis, a sticky resinous substance, and any gap that is too big (more than 9 mm) the bees will fill with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb). This, of course, makes it harder to move the frames and boxes of the hive during an inspection.

Beekeeper David A Cushman describes bee space as “A gap in a natural nest bees don’t fill up”. He provides an interesting list of the different types of bee space. He also suggests sometimes the bees will fill small gaps with pollen, perhaps to allow some light to filter around the hive.

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Bees filling a small space (less than 6 mm) above the top bars with stick propolis.

But whether it’s 6, 7, 8 or 9 mm, leaving a gap that the bees feel inclined to fill isn’t sensible. So, of course, that’s what Emily and I did. To be fair, this was during the four-week course of Apiguard treatments for varroa, where an eke (sort of an extension wooden frame) creates a space beneath the hive boxes where the Apiguard tray rests on the top bars.

In Melissa’s hive our bees had dutifully built brace comb to fill the gap bigger than 9 mm. And it wasn’t easy to scrape it off the bottom of the super without the help of a hive partner. The bees showed their appreciation of our efforts by munching the oozing honey.

Some beekeepers might consider leaving space for the bees to build brace comb a waste of valuable energy and resources when they could be getting on with other work: filling up super frames with honey or getting ready for winter. There might be some truth in this, but I always enjoy seeing my bees build brace comb. The beautiful curved shapes of freely expressed honeycomb gives an insight into the secret life of wild honeybees.

How do honeybees in the wild know about bee space? Well, I haven’t read much on this, but it seems they weren’t taught it by the beekeepers. Bee space, like the building of vertical combs, is all about gravity:

“Guided by their sense of gravity, though, bees can maintain a comb construction that is vertical, and oriented downward from the roof to the floor. The distance between the comb results from the space a bee occupies when standing on the comb. When moving over the surface of neighbouring combs, bees must be able to pass one another, back to back, without difficulty … and this minimal distance is strictly maintained.” (The Buzz about Bees, Jurgen Tautz, Springer, London, 2008.) Tautz says that gravity receptor organs are found on the bees’ leg joints and between their head, thorax and abdomen, which allows them to build combs vertically down in the dark. Amazing creatures.

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Last week we left Melissa’s amazing bees munching on the brace comb honey under the roof, which we hoped they would take down into the nest. Probably an unwise idea as our bees were likely to build more brace comb, but it seemed unfair to take away their secret stash of honey. This week, we would find out what the bees did.

The rainy morning had persisted into the afternoon and though the rain was drying up, the air was too damp and cold for inspections. I arrived to find a small crowd of people at the apiary sheltering under the awnings of the apiary hut. The air was filled with bees, unusual as they don’t often fly over the green netting that separates off the hive area. Perhaps they had also come for tea. In any case, they were happy to fly calmly about listening to the conversation.

Emily came with nuts to feed the magpies and robins. Jonesey was showing off his new iPhone 6 and a new beginner, Emma, was getting to know everyone. The crowd soon dispersed and it was time to see what our bees had done.

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In Melissa’s hive I’m pleased to say the workers had done exactly what they were supposed to do! They had taken down most of brace comb honey into the hive. Emily and I cleared up the empty wax and left the remnants around the crownboard holes for the bees to finish up. I saw a little wasp on the crownboard drinking a dreg of honey. Wasps are desperate at this time of year, starving and dying off. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her but couldn’t leave her inside the hive either. I picked up the piece of comb with the wasp and placed it on the roof of an empty hive.

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We had fed Pepper’s and Chili’s hives with pollen and syrup though they didn’t seem to need feeding, it has been a very kind autumn for bees. Chamomile’s hive was left to check.

We opened the roof and lifted the crownboard – and the wasps flew in! They must have smelt the scored honey frames feeding the bees above the crownboard. Quickly putting back the roof on the hive, there were at least a couple of wasps inside and many more buzzing around the outside, and trying to disturb the other hives.

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I lit the smoker to deter as many wasps as I could, while Emily used newspaper to make the hive entrances narrower. As the wasps cleared we lifted the roof from Chamomile’s hive again and the two trapped wasps flew out. There’s no space for wasps in our bee hives!

That done, we took a walk around the apiary. The rain had stopped, the sun had come out and wasps were still stalking most of the hives. It was time to leave.

Post notes If you’re interested, here’s some more information about bee space.

Top beeway or bottom beeway?
In a natural colony of wild honeybees, bees only leave a distance between the vertical-hanging combs and around the walls of the nest. There is no need for horizontal spaces above and below the honeycomb. But in a bee hive, the beekeeper needs horizontal spaces to move the boxes during an inspection. Here, the concept of bee space is again used by leaving a gap between hive boxes around 6–9 mm. (Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, Ed: HarperCollins Publishers, London 2010.)

“The bee space can either be at the top of the box, over the frames (as in the Langstroth, Dadant and Smith hives), where the bottoms of the frames are in line with the bottom of the box (known as ‘top bee space’) or at the bottom (as in the National, WBC and Commercial hives), below the frames, so that the tops of the frames are level with the top of the box (‘bottom bee space’).” (Collins) Obviously, you can’t mix boxes with top- and bottom-bee space in the same hive or the concept of bee space won’t work.

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Which is better? In Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper refers to this method of spacing as ‘top beeway’ and ‘bottom beeway’. He prefers the ‘top beeway’ design, which he says is most common in America, rather than the ‘bottom beeway’ design used in Britain (my fourth edition of the book was published in 1997, so I can’t say if this is still the trend on both sides of the pond, particularly as many beekeepers like to experiment).

“Top beeway is much more efficient in use and less of a strain on the beekeeper as supers can be lifted back and placed ‘cross-cornered’ on the hive and then slid around into place. With bottom beeway this cannot be done as the edge of the super box would run across level with the top of the frames and would decapitate any bee looking up between the frames and squash many of those walking about on top of the frames.” (Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper, 4th ed, Marston House, 1997.)

A short(ish) history of the movable-frame hive
American-born Reverend Lorenzo L Langstroth (1810–25) is credited with the invention of the movable-frame hive. It was Langstroth who recognised the concept of ‘bee space’ in a ‘Eureka’ moment, which became a vital component in modern hive design and which now allows beekeepers all over the world to freely move and lift frames and boxes without breaking up the honeycomb. (Collins)

There had been similar bar hives previously, such as the leaf hive invented by Swiss natural historian Francois Huber (1750–1831), and the multi-layered skep hive invented by Englishman Thomas Wildman (1734–81), an experimenter, showman and beekeeper. It is thought that a movable-frame hive was also first designed by Englishman Major William Augustus Munn, author of A Description of the bar-and-frame hive (1844). (Collins)

The theories that lay behind these models may have helped to pave the way to Langstroth’s discovery.

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When a space that is too big (more than 9 mm) is left in the hive, the bees will fill it with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb) as shown here above the top bars.

Langstroth was frustrated when his coverboards became stuck down with the sticky resinous substance propolis and like any good beekeeper he sought a practical solution. He cut a recess into the hive box that allowed him to drop the hive bars down to 9 mm below the coverboard, which seemed to solve the problem. Then he thought about similarly adjusting the spacing in the interior parts of the hive to make it easier to work with the bees:

“The critical aspect of his design was the space between the edges of the frames and the walls and floor of the box – an opening wide enough for a bee to pass through and hence termed the ‘bee space’.” (Collins) Langstroth initially used a space of 12.5 mm (1/2 in), before he further discovered that bees leave a 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) space between their combs and the walls in their nests.

A Polish beekeeper Reverend Dr Jan Dzierzon (1811–1906) had put thought towards a system of movable frames by spacing the comb 38 mm (1 1/2 in) apart. But it seemed that 6–9 mm was found to be the most practical movable-frame system and Langstroth’s design is used by 75% of all modern hives sold throughout the world today. (Collins)

Bees or honey?

beesorhoney1

“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

Queen cells x3

Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

beesorhoney2

The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

beesorhoney3

This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

beesorhoney

The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

The London Honey Show 2012

This week I went to the second London Honey Show at the Lancaster London Hotel, which followed the success of the first show in 2011. The London Honey Show is a celebration of the capital’s urban beekeeping culture with talks, bee-and-honey stalls, competitions and prizes. The show drew crowds of people from those who keep bees to those who are simply interested in bees and honey.

Karin Courtman, London Beekeepers Association (LBKA), gave a talk on ‘Stories from an urban beekeeper’, which was particularly pertinent given reports hitting the news again that London bee numbers ‘could be too high’. This is not news for beekeepers who have kept hives in the capital for many years and who have noticed a steady fall in honey yields. A healthy hive would normally produce 40lb of honey, but in 2011 the average was 20lb per hive and in 2012 just 9lb per hive.

‘There has been an explosion in urban beekeeping in recent years,’ said Karin. ‘The government figures on BeeBase show an increase in registered hives in the city from 1,617 in 2008 to 3,337 in 2012. However, Fera [The Food and Environment Research Agency] estimate that only 25% of beekeepers register their hives so numbers could be much higher.’

A single, healthy bee colony is home to around 50,000 bees during spring and summer, so if there are 3,337 hives and counting then that’s a lot of hungry honeybees in the city; add to that the numbers of other bees species like bumble bees and solitary bees, and other insect pollinators like butterflies that also live in London. Karin’s talk took a look at the maths: just one hive needs 120kg of nectar and about 30–50kg of pollen to sustain the colony throughout the season. That’s a lot of nectar and pollen, ‘Planting one or two lavender plants in your garden isn’t nearly enough!’

So is the question ‘Does London have too many bees?’ or ‘Are there enough flowers in London?’. Karin thinks, ‘We need to be looking at nectar and pollen across London in a much more joined-up way and thinking about food sources for other bees and butterflies too.’

Habitat loss is a major cause of insect pollinator decline throughout the UK. Are there enough bee-friendly plants in London to sustain pollinators like this bumble bee seen foraging on echinacea?

The good news is that by planting more bee-friendly trees and flowers in London’s parks and gardens will not only improve life for insect pollinators but improve life for humans too. ‘Kids love to visit wildflower meadows and see not just flowers but hundreds of bees and butterflies.’

LBKA is starting a survey with beekeeping partners in north London to gather evidence on honey yields. Karin reminded us that everyone can help bees, not just beekeepers, by spreading the word, joining the communities and discussions online, and by planting lots more bee-friendly trees and flowers.

I have lived in London all my life and it is easy to see how spaces around the city could be improved for wildlife. Councils need to be encouraged to buy plants that are not just beautiful for people to look at but useful for insects too. I would like to think that this news will spur on a similar explosion in insect-friendly gardening.

On that theme, Frank Minns, Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), gave a relevant talk on ‘Bee-friendly planting’ and how to plant trees and flowers for bees all year round. The RHS provides a list of plants for bees but Frank gave some interesting tips on types of gardening that bees love. ‘They go for “cold” planting as opposed to “hot” planting,’ he said. ‘Think of blues and whites, “cold-coloured” plants, which bees prefer to reds and oranges, “hot-coloured” plants.’ The traditional Mediterranean herbs are well-known favourite of bees and they are fond of daisies and echinaceas. These are all plants that are good to keep in the garden for culinary use too.

Bees love myrtle and the flowers provide a valuable source of forage in late summer and autumn. This pretty myrtle lives in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, but it can be planted as a border or hedging plant in parks and gardens.

I was pleased to hear Frank expound the virtues of myrtle (Myrtus communis) as an alternative evergreen border plant to privet. Myrtle is one of my favourite plants with pretty white flowers, dark berries and rich green leaves. It yields a beautiful essential oil.

James Dearsley, the Surrey Beekeeper and founder of The Beginner Beekeeper’s Page on Facebook, gave a good overview of bees and beekeeping from the plight of the honeybee and unprecedented hives losses in the US and UK in recent years, to the enjoyment of a wonderful hobby in which you never stop learning. ‘The waggle dance is a figure of eight motion performed by the bees to tell other bees what direction to fly to reach good sources of food. It is accurate to within one foot over three miles, despite the Earth moving slightly in the time that it takes for the bee to fly from the flower and back to the hive. That’s pretty accurate!’ There were also a few controversial facts like ‘male bees do all the work’, which, of course, we all know isn’t true!

James’s talk reminded us that beekeeping is a lot of fun – you get to do cool stuff like feeding this bee sugar syrup on my thumb!

James concluded with five useful tips on how to get started in beekeeping:

  1. Go on a taster day and see if you enjoy it
  2. Join your local beekeeping association and find a mentor
  3. Attend a course held by your beekeeping assocation
  4. Read and read and read!
  5. Have fun!

The talk was well-received by the audience. A lady from the US told me it had made her think about keeping bees in her garden. In her part of the world, black bears can be a problem to gardeners, but James’s talk had encouraged her to get in touch with her local beekeeping community to see how they tackle this challenge!

After the talks there were displays and stalls to visit and the Honey Ceremony to close the evening. A prize was given to Sharon Bassey, from LBKA, as this year’s winner of ‘Beekeeper of the Year’ for her work with children and beekeeping. James Dearsley presented the award and also made the generous gesture of auctioning a book on behalf of Bees for Development, a fantastic charity that supports beekeeping in Africa.

A display of different types of hives at the London Honey Show from old-fashioned woven skeps to WBCs and top-bar hives.

A huge thanks to Jo Hemesley and the beekeepers at the London Lancaster rooftop hives for running another great honey show to celebrate urban bees!

Related links
BBC news: London bee numbers ‘could be too high’

This is not new news:
The Lost British Summer, Emily Heath, Adventures in Beeland, writes a thoughtful post on whether there are too many hives in the city.
Are There Too Many Bees In London?, Deborah DeLong, Romancing the Bee, asks the question following a tough year for bees in the UK.

James Dearsley’s write-up of the second London Honey show: Was the London Honey Show as good as last year?

Why not also visit:
The London Beekeepers Association
Royal Horticultural Society
Bees for Development
The National Honey Show runs from 25–27 October 2012
Surrey Beekeeper for all your beekeeping needs
The Buzz around Lancaster Gate

Register your hive on BeeBase – the website provides a wide range of free information for beekeepers, to help keep your honeybees healthy and productive.

Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden:
RHS plants for bees
A plant study of myrtle

Follow bees on Twitter and Facebook
@Lancasterbees Jo Hemesley, beekeeper at the London Lancaster
@LondonBeeKeeper The London Beekeepers Association
@britishbee The British Beekeepers Association
@BeeCraftMag Britain’s bestselling beekeeping magazine
@beesfordev Bees for Development
@IBRA_Bee International Bee Research Association
@The_RHS Royal Horticultural Society
@surreybeekeeper James Dearsley, the Surrey Beekeeper, founder of The Beginner Beekeeper’s Page on Facebook and author of From A to Bee: My First Year as a Beginner Beekeeper

There is a huge beekeeping community on Twitter, which I have collected as a list Bees & Beekeeping.

EDIT: Following this blog post, there have been repeated reports in the news that unfortunately give an unhelpful view on beekeeping in London:

How do-gooders threaten humble bee
Beekeeping buzz may be doing harm
Are bees under threat from amateur keepers? Food supplies dwindle as trend in urban beekeeping sees population double

While it is worth opening debate to ask whether increasing numbers of hives may have an impact on both amounts of forage and populations of other insect pollinators, this nuance is lost in reports that are currently based on anecdotal evidence and opinion. Reporting of figures has become confused and journalists fail to capture other factors that have led to low honey yields this year, such as poor weather, bee diseases and perhaps badly mated queens, all of which may effect the amount of honey produced by a colony.

Several inaccuracies have crept into reports. For example, the Mail Online reports: ‘Without the necessary food, bees get sick as disease passes through the hive, infecting all the insects’. Again, there are many factors that could contribute to immune stressors and diseases within the hive, not just lack of food.

In addition, the forage debate appears to have become diluted with the separate topic of the education and training of beekeepers.

All in all, the style of reports has sparked much speculative comment without canvassing expert opinion or evidence-based research. The talk above is about opening debate based on some growing concerns, but it is too early to reach conclusions.

As the bees rest over winter, it is a good time for beekeepers to reflect on the season and to have debate. Let’s hope that future discussions involve garnering wide-ranging expert opinion, surveying the views of members from all local associations in London (of which there are many who represent urban beekeepers), and seeking out the evidence before making more statements to the public and press.

Myrrh, Queen of the Monsoon

A tough little tree grows along the Red Sea and arid regions of Northeast Africa, Libya and Iran. Surviving against the odds, the little tree weeps a bitter red-brown resin with remarkable healing properties. Its name is myrrh.

Like her namesake, Queen Myrrh emerged from her cell into adversity. She arrived as the rains came to the desert bringing plants, trees and flowers back to life, while she waited inside the hive. Myrrh, who inherited a dying colony from her drone-laying mother, Rosemary, was desperate to go out on her mating flight, but every beat of her wings would have been a race against the wind and rain.

In Guide to Bees and Honey, Ted Hooper says, ‘The queen mates on the wing during the first ten to twenty days of her life. Once she has emerged from her queen cell she becomes mature within a couple of days, but by the time she is three weeks to a month old she is no longer capable of mating properly. During her mature period the worker bees become more and more aggressive towards her up to the time she mates. This behaviour has a possible value in driving the queen out for her mating flight before she is too old to accomplish it efficiently.’

A mild spring of sunshine and showers is vital for bees to forage and build-up their stores after winter, and fine days are needed for the mating flights of virgin queens. However, the torrential rain over the past six weeks has trapped bees inside hives and left hungry mouths to feed.

Warm, sunny days are needed for drones to fly out to congregation areas where they swarm about thirty to ninety feet above the ground and wait for virgin queens to fly past. No one knows for certain how drone congregation areas are found by drones and queens, but each spring they make amazing spectacles of life and death.

If the weather had been fine, Myrrh would have flown through the air like a comet with drones forming a comet’s tail behind her. The best and fastest drones would catch the queen and die in the act of mating, falling to the ground below. ‘At the time of mating the drone genitalia enters the queen and literally explodes, separating from the drone, which dies.’ (Ted Hooper)

During the course of three mating flights, the queen would mate with up to 40 drones, filling her abdomen with sperm and allowing her, potentially, to lay fertile eggs for the colony for two to three years. ‘Mating having been accomplished, the queen starts egg-laying within a few days, and is from then on very carefully looked after by the worker bees… now she produces a scent which causes them to turn and face her if she is close, thus forming the ring of workers usually found around the queen, and called her “retinue”.’ (Ted Hooper)

Queen Lavender is surrounded by her retinue – a circle of worker bees – as she walks across the frame. (Sorry the queen’s a little blurry – it’s tricky to hold a frame of bees, spot the queen and take her photo!)

However, the weather was not kind and Myrrh never left the hive. Unable to mate with drones from her own colony because of the risks of inbreeding, she could not lay eggs to replace the workers reaching the end of their life cycle and the drone her mother had laid. The colony had become quite small by the time Emily and me were able to open the hive for an inspection.

We were sad to see Myrrh walking across the frame without her retinue of workers and her small abdomen indicating that she had not mated. We continued to check through the hive to make sure that there were no eggs or larvae – the queen can also look small and slim before swarming when she is starved by the workers to make her fly, but this was unlikely to be the case with Myrrh. A few weeks ago we had put in a frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, but this was uncapped probably because there are not enough workers to raise brood. We didn’t find new brood.

Worker bees having a chat. Chilly temperatures this spring meant that opening the hives would do more harm than good, leaving nature to decide the fate of Myrrh. We could not introduce a newly mated queen while Myrrh was inside the hive, because the workers would see her as an intruder and kill her.

Emily and me talked over the options because, while there was nothing we could do for Myrrh, there were the surviving bees to consider. It was too late to give the colony another frame of larvae from Lavender’s hive, because there were not enough workers to rear a new queen and her bees. For the same reason, it was too late to introduce one of the mated New Zealand queens recently bought for the apiary.

The dying colony was mostly drone, but could be saved by combining with Lavender’s hive. It was a big decision to finally collapse this colony, so we decided to close the hive for a few days to consult wiser beekeepers than ourselves.

Drones carry the characteristics of their hives to other colonies through mating with the local queens. Emily and me have good-natured, hard-working bees, and we would want our drones to survive and mate with other queens in the area.

Queen Lavender’s hive was a happier picture full of bees, brood and stores. The bees had completed the Bailey comb change by themselves – clever bees! – and the brood in the bottom had hatched and moved up to join the queen. We took away the old brood box and placed the new brood box on the hive floor, removing the dummy board to give them space to expand. The old brood box, with straggler bees shaken out into the queen’s nest, was placed on top with an empty super in-between for the bees to rob the remaining stores.

We saw signs that Lavender’s bees are trying to make queen cells – it is the swarming season – but with more space in the brood box this instinct may be delayed. We will have to watch them carefully over the next few weeks.

I spied a worker waving her abdomen in the air, exposing her Nasonov gland and fanning her wings to spread the scent to guide foraging bees back to the colony. She may have been doing this because we kept Lavender’s hive open longer than usual to complete the Bailey comb change.

Emily and Drew had brought along their friend Owen, who was scouting out the situation about bees for his girlfriend, Fran. So we wandered round the apiary for a while and topped up the sugar syrup in the other hives and nucs. In May we wouldn’t normally feed bees because the supers would be on the hive, which we would like the bees to fill with nectar not sugar. However, the wettest April on record for the past 100 years in the UK has bought famine to many bee colonies and the National Bee Unit has issued a starvation warning to beekeepers to continue feeding their hives.

At the height of summer, a forager bee visits around 2,000 flowers a day to collect enough nectar and pollen to feed around 50,000 hungry bees inside the hive, and new bees are hatching all the time. So if bees can’t fly out and stores are low, they need a lot of sugar!

Drew kindly took some nice shots on my new camera…

Me pouring Ambrosia sugar syrup – food of the gods and of bees. I hope the bumbles and solitary bees found food, warmth and shelter during the rainy spring.  © Drew Scott

Rain is needed to stimulate the nectar flow, but then sunshine is needed to evaporate the water from plants, flowers and trees so bees can forage. Too much rain dilutes nectar and washes away pollen leaving no food for bees. The honeybee relies on the delicate balance of nature for its survival or doom! © Drew Scott

Bees can be a bit forgetful so Emily and me use Pat’s sticky twig trick to remind them of ambrosia in the roof. A twig is soaked in sugar syrup and left inside the feeder hole leaving a trail of gooey sweetness for bees to follow. © Drew Scott

Beekeepers sharing a bee joke – hope the bees enjoyed it. © Drew Scott

Beekeeping done for another Saturday and the sun still shining, Emily, Drew, Owen and me ended the afternoon in the beer garden at The Fox Inn, in Hanwell.

The reign of Queen Myrrh has been painfully short and bitter, but she has inspired an aromatherapy blend.

Warming bath blend

  • 4 drops myrrh
  • 2 drops clove
  • 2 drops ginger
  • 4 teaspoons of olive oil

Run the bath and then sloosh round the blend to disperse the oil as much as possible (you can use full fat milk or cream or an unscented bath gel as a carrier agent, if preferred). Patch test the blend if you have sensitive skin. Do not use if you are pregnant.

This is a dark, smoky and reflective blend. In The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, Salvatore Battaglia describes myrrh’s effect on the mind as ‘one of inner stillness and peace, of an awareness free from restlessness and the mundane’. Clove and ginger were added for depth and warmth.

Emily and me attended the London Beekeepers Association Bee Health Day on Sunday (we were really as busy as bees this weekend!) and listened to very useful talks from our local bee inspectors on how to manage bee diseases and keep happier, healthier bees, which will feature in future posts.