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.