Bee Health Day at the London Beekeepers Association

‘We are going to talk about varroa, which you will ignore at your peril,’ said John Chapple, chair of the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) in his opening comments at Bee Health Day. Emily and me had attended this varroa workshop with talks by the National Bee Unit’s (NBA) inspectors and hosted by LBKA, because it is vital that all beekeepers remain up-to-date on how to manage the varroa mite.

Varroa destructor – a truly insidious creature – is the mite that propelled the plight of the honeybee into the public eye. While there are many causes behind the decline of the honeybee, varroa is responsible for more colony losses than any other bee disease.

Varroa destructor – the insidious mite that afflicts honeybees and infects them with nasty viruses. © Crown copyright 2012

Since its discovery in England in 1992, the mite has spread rapidly across the country and invaded the hives of unsuspecting honeybees. This was a reconnaissance mission – Emily and me had come to find out more about the enemy.

We learned a lot – so here are highlights.

‘Know your enemy’ Alan Byham, south east regional bee inspector

‘Imagine what it feels like to have one of these on your back,’ said Alan, holding a life scale drawing of a varroa mite on his shoulder. ‘It would get in your way.’ Varroa mites feed on adult honeybees and their brood by clinging tooth and claw to suck their blood (picture a small, vampiric rabbit biting your back), weakening the bee’s immune system and transmitting a vile cocktail of harmful pathogens. Varroa accounts for thousands of colony losses each year in comparison to 800 hives lost annually due to European foul brood or American foul brood.

Varroa mites clinging to the back of a honeybee and sucking its blood! © Crown copyright 2012

As a parasite that frequently kills its host, varroa might not seem very effective. However, it was originally a parasite of the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana) which has natural defenses against the mite, and spread to the defenceless European honeybee (Apis mellifera) through globalisation and the transport of honeybees around the world.

Varroa is incredibly well-adapted to the life cycle of the honeybee and spends its entire life within the colony. It is so highly specialised that the female mite can sense the pheromone given off by bee larvae ready to be capped before the worker bees! The mother mite buries herself underneath the larval food unseen by workers as they cap the cell. Sealed inside, she waits for the larva to eat the food and release her. The mite then feeds on the juicy larva as it develops into a bee. During this time, she lays eggs that hatch and mate with each other (inbreeding is not a problem for varroa) and the entire mite family are released when the fully-grown bee emerges from its cell. Insidious.

Mother mites hide in cells and then feed on bee larvae as they develop. © Crown copyright 2012

Varroa are hitchhikers too, and spread from hive to hive by drifting bees who are mostly drones. ‘Drones can do bed and breakfast in any hive,’ said Alan. ‘The workers don’t see them as a threat and so they are well tolerated.’ Beekeepers may be unaware of varroa in their hives during spring and summer, because the mites are mostly hidden within the brood. Varroa particularly prefer drone brood because they take longer to develop, which gives the mite more time inside the cell. Queen cells are rarely invaded by varroa because the queen larva develops very quickly, thus if a queen cell does have varroa this indicates that the colony is overrun.

Varroa counts may appear to rise suddenly in hives at the end of summer, but this is because there is less brood as the queen slows down her egg laying in preparation for winter. Winter or summer, varroa is always there.

You may not be able to see the varroa in your hive, but it is there.

Varroa is a problem to larger colonies because they have more brood, whereas its natural host, the Asian honeybee, tends to live in smaller colonies. Varroa can also rise to harmful levels inside the hive when the colony does not swarm very often or is prevented from swarming, whereas again the Asian honeybee swarms frequently. Swarming is a natural method of varroa control because the queen flies away from the nest with half her bees and leaves behind the brood and varroa.

This is a risk of beekeeping, explained Alan. European bees are usually kept in large ‘super’ hives, sometimes with double brood boxes, in order for the beekeeper to get more honey. Their natural swarming instinct is managed by various swarm control methods to make sure that half the colony doesn’t fly off with the honey! However, beekeepers often report that their biggest and strongest colonies succumb to varroa over winter. So it seems the mite problem is exacerbated by the lifestyle of bees living in hives and, unlike feral honeybees living in the wild, requires good husbandry methods to keep it under control.

Varroa can cause a lot of damage to colonies as seen by this varroa-infested hive. The comb and bees look very unhealthy, or, um, dead. © Crown copyright 2012

Alan’s talk prompted plenty of questions from the audience, including can we breed varroa-resistant bees?

No one has bred varroa-resistant bees yet and using breeding principles to replace good husbandry is risky, because when a queen swarms her progeny will mate with local drones that are not varroa-resistant. In a city like London where most bees are mongrels, it would not be possible to control breeding. It may be possible that a varroa-resistant bee is bred in future, or that Apis mellifera itself adapts to life with the mite, but in the meantime good husbandry techniques are essential to control varroa.

If you keep bees you keep varroa…

…I remembered this comment from Scott, a member of Ealing’s beekeepers, at last year’s Bee Health Day. All beekeepers keep varroa as well as bees no matter what we do or don’t do with our hives, so we may as well learn how to ‘keep’ it!

Alan took us through the treatment options available to beekeepers to kill varroa many of which are based on naturally occurring chemicals, such as thymol and oxalic acid. He explained that beekeepers are also dealing with a food product (honey) and so need to be careful what treatments they use and when. For example, the thymol-based Apistan varroa control strips taints honey with a strong smell and can only be use after the honey crop is removed at the end of the season.

While you can treat the brood nest for varroa, treatments shouldn’t be used while supers are on the hive and being filled with honey. Here I caught a little bee flying off from the comb!

The group asked about the effectiveness of using natural methods like sugar dusting. Bee are dusted in a light coating of icing sugar, which encourages them to clean each other and knock off the varroa. However, sugar dusting only knocks off around 29% of varroa mites and an effective treatment must kill 80% of the mites. It is a useful method during spring and summer when the supers are on the hive, because it won’t taint the honey, but it should not be used alone against varroa. Alan advised a multi-approach to managing varroa and to keep records of what works and what doesn’t.

A practical apiary session followed with Caroline Washington, bee inspector for North of the Thames, and the inspector who visits our apiary. Caroline is an effortlessly glamorous beekeeper and very, very firm. No bee would misbehave for Caroline!

Caroline gets her smoker going with a pine cone.

After getting her smoker going with a pine comb, Caroline demonstrated an inspection of a hive that she described as ‘very boring’. I think the bees were too in awe of Caroline to do anything other than what they should.

The bees behave for Caroline while she inspects their hive. In the background, my lovely hive partner, Emily!

It was a lot of learning for one Sunday morning, so we took a break for lunch and sat on the lawn of LBKA’s base at Roots and Shoots in Lambeth.

‘Virus in varroa’ Caroline Washington, bee inspector North of the Thames

The afternoon sessions kicked off with a talk about the world of bee viruses by Caroline. She listed the top six bee viruses that we should all know:

  1. deformed wing virus*
  2. sacbrood virus
  3. chronic bee paralysis virus
  4. acute bee paralysis virus
  5. black queen cell virus
  6. Kashmir bee virus

The virus that should most interest London beekeepers is deformed wing virus, which is often transmitted to queens when they mate with infected drones. Caroline commented that there has been much talk lately in the beekeeping world about failing queens, but no one ever thinks to look at the drones.

I demonstrated uncanny queen-spotting skills in the earlier apiary practical session by spotting this queen winding her way across the frame before it had even been lifted out!

The Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) suggests that deformed wing virus is associated with most colony collapse, and the problem has become worse because there are many more beekeepers now and not all are managing varroa. Bees have the same problem as people living in crowded cities like London – disease spreads faster. Hives that are not treated for varroa will have bees that will infect neighbouring hives, which seem very antisocial!

‘The claw chooses who will go and who will stay’

The most valuable lesson that Caroline gave us was to use a pair of tweezers for inspections – not to groom the bees and make them more lovely, but to look for nasty stuff on the comb. ‘I have been trying to get beekeepers to look more closely at the comb for years,’ said Caroline. ‘Bad comb is easier to spot than disease or mites.’ Caroline passed round some particularly grotty-looking frames and got us to have a close look at them.

‘Husbandry techniques’ Brian McCallum, seasonal bee inspector 

The final workshop of the day was with Brian McCallum who talked us through a practical checklist of good husbandry including using open mesh floors and varroa monitoring boards, a varroa calculator (available on the NBU website) and drone monitoring.

Drone monitoring is an effective method of checking levels of varroa in a hive, because the mites are most attracted to drone brood. This is done by taking out of frame of drone brood and de-capping it, then counting how many larvae are infected with varroa rather than counting the number of mites. This number can then be checked on the NBU varroa calculator, which will indicate if varroa has risen to harmful levels and requires treatment.

A capping fork is used to un-cap drone brood on a test frame and to count the number of larvae that have varroa – like the one here with a big red mite. © Crown copyright 2012

At the end of the day I suspected that my brain is not much bigger than a bee’s because it was hurting quite a bit. So Emily and me wandered round the beautiful garden of Roots and Shoots, and were introduced to the resident solitary bees by the gardener, David Perkins.

After all that varroa nastiness, here are some lovelier pictures of solitary bees and bumbles happily not worried about mites.

A little bumble bee John found in the morning that hitched a ride. Morgan Bowers, who comments below, says. ‘Your ‘little bumble bee’ is Andrena fulva, the Tawny Mining Bee.’

A solitary bee flies home. They are brilliant carpenters and make little homes for themselves. 

David has made a bee tower for the solitary bees at Roots and Shoots. These bees may be Osmia rufa, Red Mason Bee – thanks, Morgan!

A bee hurries off to get the last nectar of the day. She has no time to stop for photos and passes like a blur!

Useful links
National Bee Unit
London Beekeepers Association
Roots and Shoots

Related posts
Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?


Beautiful skin rituals – teatime toners

I love the scent of sweet apple-like chamomile tea in the morning, so soothing and delicious with a spoonful of honey. The uplifting aroma of Moroccan mint tea in the afternoon clears my mind, and the enchanting fragrance of jasmine tea helps me to unwind in the evening.

My daily tea rituals are good for my skin, because tea is not only healthy to drink but it makes a lovely skin toner too. Good skin care should be simple and natural, and what is more basic than making a cup of tea? After brewing a herbal tea, I pour a little into a small cup or bowl to use as a toner for my face – so easy!

Rain on Saturday meant that Emily and me put off the shook swarm – bees don’t like to be shaken but they dislike wet weather even more – to spend the afternoon spring cleaning last year’s brood boxes with a blow torch. By the evening, I felt in need of doing something more feminine, so I made some recipes for herbal teas to enjoy with mum on Sunday. I used my favourite herbs – chamomile, lavender, peppermint and rose.

Chamomile and honey tea toner

I love the sweet smell of chamomile. It is one of my favourite herbs, so good for drinking and lovely for my skin.

Chamomile has anti-inflammatory properties and is soothing to skin, being particularly useful for irritated skin, rashes, allergic reactions, spots, acne and eczema. By reducing swelling and inflammation, chamomile calms the skin and supports healing. This herb is generally good for promoting healthy skin for all skin types, and can be used as a daily toner even for sensitive skin. Honey is soothing and moisturising, and this time I used manuka honey which is particularly antibacterial.

I like to use a Bodum tea infuser to make pots of herbal tea at home. It is so handy, I can infuse regular or herbal tea bags or loose leaf tea and herbs in any combination. The infuser gradually steeps the herbs and keeps them covered. This is important to make sure that the beneficial chemical constituents in the herbs are not lost through evaporation, and as the steam cools it condenses back into the infusion. That’s the science bit.

This Bodum tea infuser pot is brilliant, I am always using it to make my own fresh herbal teas.

You will need:

  • dried chamomile flowers
  • manuka honey
  • tea pot with infuser

How to make:

  1. Add 3 tsp of dried chamomile to a tea pot with infuser; pour over hot water and cover to steep and cool for 10 minutes.
  2. Pour a little chamomile tea into a measuring cup or bowl, and add 1/2 tsp of manuka honey; stir until the honey has dissolved.
  3. Soak a couple of cotton wool pads in the chamomile and honey tea, then remove and squeeze excess liquid before sweeping across your face.

A little chamomile tea with 1/2 tsp of manuka honey in a small measuring cup to soothe my skin.

Herbal tea toners are meant to be used the day that they are made, because any homemade beauty product that uses water as an ingredient has a short shelf life – and these are mostly water! You could let the tea cool and jar it in the fridge for one or two days, but as I drink a lot of herb tea I prefer to use a fresh batch of toner each day.

Green tea and peppermint toner

I like to add a few herbs to my plain green tea to make it tastier, it goes well with peppermint.

I use green tea bags when I am in a hurry, although I prefer loose leaf green tea because only a sprinkle is needed and it seems to have a more delicate taste. To make green tea from bags more tasty, I’ll add a little peppermint or lavender to my mug using a mesh tea infuser.

Green tea is very beneficial for skin. It is high in antioxidants and often drunk as an anti-aging remedy. Topically, it is astringent and toning, helping to improve skin texture, while also being anti-inflammatory and helpful for irritated or blemished skins. Peppermint is a herb that is both cooling and calming to skin. This toner was very refreshing on my skin.

You will need:

  • green tea bags
  • dried peppermint
  • mesh tea infuser

How to make:

  1. Simply steep the green tea bag in a mug with a scoop of dried peppermint leaves inside a mesh tea infuser.
  2. After about three minutes remove the green tea bag (green tea is not so tasty when it is brewed too long) but let the dried peppermint continue to brew for another seven minutes or so.
  3. Remember to cover the infusion with a saucer or tea cloth, so the chemical properties don’t evaporate.
  4. Pour a little into a small cup and allow to cool. Soak with a cotton wool pad and wipe over your face.

My mesh infuser is great for adding loose herbs to a mug for a quick herbal tea.

Green and mint tea is so refreshing and really wakes me up. I also make rosemary tea like this, because it is a great substitute for coffee and stimulates the mind.

Jasmine, rose and lavender toner

Rose smells heavenly and makes a lovely cup of tea with lavender and jasmine-infused green tea leaves.

This luxurious herbal tea was the one I chose to make for my mum on Sunday. It has the delicate taste of jasmine and smells gorgeous because of the rose and lavender. I prefer to drink it with a spoonful of honey in my cup.

As a toner, this tea has many lovely properties for your skin including all the benefits of green tea. Jasmine is soothing, softening and hydrating; lavender is antiseptic, astringent, anti-inflammatory and also balancing to skin; rose is cleansing, refreshing and hydrating. My skin felt and smelt lovely after I used this!

You will need: 

  • loose leaf green tea with jasmine
  • dried lavender
  • dried rose petals

How to make:

  1. Add 1 tsp of jasmine green tea to a tea infuser pot with 1/2 tsp of dried lavender and 1 tsp of dried rose petals. Pour over just boiled water.
  2. Steep the infusion for 10 minutes and allow to cool for a further few minutes.
  3. Pour the infusion into a small cup and enjoy the scent of jasmine, lavender and rose as you use it on your skin.

My jasmine, rose and lavender tea ready to drink and to pour a little for a pretty skin toner.

Beautiful tea and cake for Mother’s Day

On Sunday there is usually cake for teatime and as today was also Mother’s Day the cakes were especially beautiful!

Smell of roses and cupcakes – heavenly!

With a card perfect for a beekeeping daughter to give to her mother…

Happy Mother's Day, mum! Enjoy your scents of roses!

The perfume is ‘Pure Essence Eau de Parfum No.2 Rose’ from Neal’s Yard. My mum loves it – and I do too!

I’m looking forward to drinking my green tea and peppermint infusion again tomorrow morning – exactly what’s needed for a Monday! With a bit of luck, this week’s forecasted fair weather should bring our shook swarm!

I would like to say a big thanks to Donna of Momma E blog for nominating my blog for a Sunshine Award. It is so lovely to be appreciated and I’ll be sure to pass along my own nominations soon. 

A taste of honey at the Chelsea Physic Garden

The delicious Tangerine Dream Café at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

When the Chelsea Physic Garden held an afternoon of honey tasting, Emily and me went to represent the honey-eating skills of Ealing’s beekeepers.

The afternoon began with a talk about honey from Peter James, or Peter the Beekeeper, who traced the trail of honey from the earliest rock paintings to the modern-day industry largely in Europe, South America and Africa. Honey has been valued for food and medicine throughout history, and more recent research suggests that manuka honey is useful against the superbug, MRSA.

Peter explored the alchemy of honey production from the insect’s manipulation of a flower to the transformation of nectar into honey inside the hive. As it turns out, there is as much to say about honey as there is about bees. When honey crystallises each sugar crystal is as unique as a snowflake. ‘A fantastic array of shapes,’ commented Peter. ‘It’s a different world in every jar.’

Last summer I spotted this honeybee foraging with a hoverfly on echinacea in the RCP medicinal garden. She was moving very slowly and seemed to be at the end of her lifespan.

We paused to stop at a slide of a honeybee foraging on a flower. ‘Look closer and you’ll see that her wings are frayed and falling apart,’ said Peter. Honeybees have limited flying miles and spend them carrying nectar and pollen back to the hive. ‘She will work, work, work until she drops down dead,’ said Peter dramatically.

Bees also use their wings to fan the nectar inside cells to evaporate its water content. When the water level is low enough the newly made honey is capped off by the bees and ready for beekeepers to harvest. The water viscosity of honey must be 20% or less because honey is hydroscopic, meaning that it attracts water. If you leave the lid off a jar of honey it will draw water from the air, and honey with high water viscosity could ferment. ‘That’s how mead was discovered, someone left the lid off the jar,’ mused Peter. Did bees introduce us to alcohol too? It’s a nice thought. Peter passed around a refractor with a drop of honey so that we could all look at the viscosity.

Then it was time to taste the honey.

'Mutiny on the Bounty' honey from the Pitcairn Islands tasted dark and interesting.

The first honey pot was a delicate acacia the colour of white gold and elegantly floral. Peter asked us to describe our taste experience and it was interesting how much this varied from ‘like flowers’ to ‘woody’, and even ‘Inoffensive, it didn’t taste of honey’.

Next we tried a honey harvested from the lavender fields of France. It smelt and tasted like lavender, but it was also buttery and mellow with citrusy notes.

Two honeys from the Chelsea Physic Garden crop showed what a difference a season makes: the spring honey was full of mint and the summer honey was bursting with ripe fruit. Chelsea’s bees have a rich diet thanks to the botanical garden’s trees and flowers.

My favourite was ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ honey from the Pitcairn Islands, which was dark in colour and complex in flavour. Its taste created a vivid image of tropical rainforests followed by layers of sweet sensations from woody, minty, caramel and toffee.

Last but not least, Peter let us sample a tiny jar of South American honey foraged from Yucatan trees. It was almost black and treacly with a strong exotic flavour a bit like rum. Someone said ‘aggressive’.

Home-made honey cake drizzled in honey with crème fraîche.

The day was getting on and usually by three o’clock on a Saturday Ealing beekeepers are full of tea and cake. Emily and me were starting to feel a bit fidgety, but luckily Peter must have known we were coming because he had arranged a great spread of tea and honey cake with crème fraîche.

It was an afternoon well spent and though the first event of its kind, Peter said the Chelsea Physic Garden was planning to hold more honey tastings. All that honey and cake had warmed-up our appetites, so Emily and me rushed off to the garden’s Tangerine Dream Café to enjoy a spinach and cheese tart with lentil, olive and pomegranate salad.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is a great place to visit and even in winter there are interesting things to see, like these four trees in a row…

A tree full of grapefruit. It smelt lovely.

A tree made of cork. It felt spongy and warm.

And late afternoon sunshine melting snow from branches.

Last year I wrote a blog on: ‘How to extract honey‘, and you can read more about our honey exploits in ‘Hunny time‘ and ‘Bringing home the honey‘ on Emily’s blog.

Feeding our autumn bees

Last Saturday was a balmy 16 degrees in London, which is warm enough for bees to fly out. What will they find to eat? At this time of year the forage is scarce for bees and they may have little choice than to collect nectar from ivy. Honey from ivy nectar crystallises very quickly inside the hive and sets like hard candy, which is almost impossible for bees to eat. This can cause starvation if all, or most, of the colony’s winter food reserves are ivy honey.

Emily and I have been continuing to feed both our hives syrup and the bees have been taking this quite happily. Usually, we stop feeding syrup between the middle and end of October, but an unusually mild autumn has tricked our bees into eating their precious honey reserves so they can fly out and forage for more nectar and pollen. We want to make sure that our ladies are re-stocking their larder with honey made from sugar syrup and not from ivy nectar.

I played hookie this weekend and skipped the Saturday afternoon apiary session for an art class at the studio of artist Nick Malone. Painting bees instead of keeping them. Meantime, Emily reported that Lavender’s hive has drunk all their syrup and that a heft test showed the hive has built-up its winter reserves. Rosemary’s hive has not drunk all their syrup but this is not surprising. Rosemary’s hive had good honey reserves even after we extracted the honey crop and has continually eaten syrup throughout late August and September. The colony probably has little room spare to store more sugary goodness.

We have bought two bags of fondant – one for each hive – from our apiary, which I am impatient to put in the roof. It is fun to see bees climbing through the holes in the crownboard to tuck into a mountain of sugar. However, Pat advised that we wait until December to give them fondant, because it is better for them to stay warm inside the brood nest eating up their honey reserves first.

A second spring for bees?

I have been reading the BBC’s Autumnwatch blog and found a great guest post called Mild autumn, second spring by Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s naturalist-in-residence, who reports on the repercussions for our wildlife of November’s record-breaking mild weather.

Matthew says that flowers are enjoying a second spring: ‘dandelions and white dead-nettle prominent along verges, and Aubretia, Kerria, Magnolias, Skimmias and Viburnums blossoming in gardens’. He also comments that this has been a fascinating autumn for insects: ‘Butterflies, moths and dragonflies just won’t stop’. Our bees won’t stop this autumn, it seems! I just hope that they have been finding their flower friends waiting to greet them in gardens and not their nemesis ivy!

10 reasons to have a hive partner

Following on from my post Reflections on a year in beekeeping, I have been lucky to share my bee adventures this year. Here are 10 reasons why every beek should have a hive partner.

#1 Beekeeping is a two-man woman job. An extra pair of hands (and eyes) is handy for hive inspections. You can both lift parts of the hive when they are sticky (particularly propolised queen excluders) and work with levers and smoke to close the hive without squishing bees.

#2 You have to make a lot of frames. 11 frames per brood box and 10 frames per super (National hive). With a hive partner you can knock these up in half the time when you need to put another brood box or super on the hive. At least, that’s the theory.

#3 A super of honey weighs around 60 pounds. If like Queen Elizabeth I you have the heart and stomach of a beekeeper but the body of a weak and feeble woman, you will need a hive partner to help lift a full super of honey. This is true.

#4 There are about 50,000 bees and only one of you. A hive partner helps even the odds.

#5 Queens can be tricksy. Even experienced beeks can sometimes have trouble spotting and caging queens – she is good at running and hiding. Try holding up a frame covered by about 2,000 bees, spotting the queen, caging her and marking her as the workers try to free her – with only two hands. Good luck! Three beeks couldn’t cage and mark our flighty queen.

#6 Two beeks are better than one. Staying one step ahead of the bees and predicting what they will do next is not easy. When you find a queen cell, or perhaps five, it helps to discuss a plan of action with a hive partner preferably over tea and cake.

#7 Extracting honey is a lot of work. Clearing bees from supers is the easy bit, but it helps to have a hive partner to shake off stragglers and take home bee-free frames. Then there’s decapping frames, spinning off the honey, filtering, jarring and labelling. It’s more than an evening’s work for just six frames one hive, so it helps to share honey extraction with a hive partner.

#8 Beekeeping is an expensive hobby. Bees are high-maintenance. Assume one extra hive for every colony for a shook swarm or bailey comb change, nucs and spare hives for artificial swarms, spare frames, jars and labels, mouse guards, sugar and fondant, medicines… It’s easier to spread the cost of a year in beekeeping between two beekeepers!

#9 You will have more than one hive. Once you are started on this dodgy path there is no stopping. By the end of your second year beekeeping, it’s likely you will have at least two hives to keep.

#10 Beekeepers don’t have holidays. We don’t joke about this. You don’t know what naughtiness your bees will get up to while you are away. A hive partner can cover your holidays between March and September.

And finally..

#11 Beekeepers need tea and cake after hive inspections. I forgot to add this, but it is essential. Make sure you get a hive partner who bakes.

Bees do read books

Last week we left a small gap between the brood box and crown board to let our bees munch on a bit of honeycomb. When we opened the hive today we found out that our bees do read the books after all…

Golden rolling waves of rogue honeycomb

‘Give bees a space and they will fill it.’

Our ladies built these beautiful honeycomb structures in less than a week and were already filling them with honey.

Sadly we had to take away their handiwork as we needed to remove the gap and close the brood box. A few puffs of smoke persuaded our bees to leave their newly made larder, which we scraped off with our hive tools…

Our bees enjoy making their own honeycomb creations free from the foundation of the frames

I enjoy seeing our bees build rogue comb because it gives a clue about what it might be like inside a wild honeybee colony.

It won’t be long before we close our hives for winter. I will miss seeing our bees’ cute faces peering up at us, but we’ll catch glimpses of them nibbling fondant under the roof.

Between now and then, we’ll need to keep feeding them lots of syrup to make sure that they have enough stores inside the brood box for overwintering. We found five frames of honey in Rosemary’s hive today. Each colony needs about 35lb of honey and I read that one frame weighs about 6.5lb, so we are nearly there.

It started to spit with rain before we could open Lavender’s hive so we topped up the feeder with ambrosia syrup and left our ladies to enjoy a sugary slurp.

The secret beekeepers

Secret goings on inside the hive by our September bees

Every second Saturday of the month, Ealing’s beekeepers have a workshop at the scout hut. While the apiary is free of visitors, Emily and I can do some secret beekeeping.

At this time of year we need to check that our hives have enough stores. One hive needs about 35lb of honey for winter. When I hefted our hives a few weeks ago they felt a little light, so I have been feeding both colonies syrup twice a week and it has made a real difference. Emily has written a great post about feeding bees for winter: Some good advice.

Our bees squirrel away stores for winter

We got our lavender-scented smoker roaring with flames, although we only need a few puffs for our ladies. Rosemary’s hive was very busy as usual. Bees were frantically flying in and out overloaded with bright golden and orange pollen, trying to make the most of the last days of sunshine.

It took both our hive tools to get the crown board off Rosemary’s hive. This is why…

Our ladies were too busy sticking propolis on frames to notice that we had opened the hive

Our ladies were so busy chewing and sticking propolis to the top bars of the frames that they barely glanced up to say hello. Propolis is a resin that bees collect from trees to seal up the hive for winter. You can buy it in health-food stores as a supplement to boost the immune system because of its anti-microbial properties. We don’t harvest the propolis from our hives as London bees have a tendency to collect resin from road tar and roofs. Not very healthy!

I lifted out the dummy board to find that a foil lid from an Apiguard tray had been stuck down with propolis. Our bees are like Wombles, they investigate everything that they find inside the hive!

Foragers push their sisters out of the way looking for a place to unload. You can see some larvae cosily curled up here too (pink arrow)

Rosemary’s hive has about five frames of honey and six frames of worker brood (they have stopped making drone). I think this colony will be strong and healthy going into winter. We say plenty of forager bees waddling on the frames. They look funny trying to walk with heavy baskets of pollen, and I noticed that they elbow other bees out of the way looking for a cell to unload their shopping.

Bees use pollen as a source of protein and not just for making beautiful patterns for us to admire…

Autumnal varieties of pollen tightly packed into cells

Emily spotted Rosemary running across a frame, alive and well, but her blue dot is hard to spot. Here she is…

The camera spotted Rosemary even if I didn't! Our queen is marked with a blue dot on her back that is quite difficult to spot

We took the honey off this hive at the beginning of August, but left a space between the brood and the super to encourage our bees to take the remaining honey into the brood. They mostly cooperated, but there was one frame that still had a patch of precious honey.

Mmm, it's all about the honey!

I used my hive tool to scoop out the honeycomb and placed it on the top bars of the brood. It didn’t take long for our ladies to start chowing down. We left Rosemary’s hive happily munching on fresh comb oozing with golden-amber honey. Mmmm.

'Gosh! Where did all this honey come from? Rub it all over yer face!'

A little wasp was spotted loitering, so we were careful that she didn’t sneak inside as we closed the hive.

Wasps are starving at this time of year and desperately scavenging for food. This little wasp sat so quietly and innocently as we inspected our hive – she almost looked cute. Almost

We opened Lavender’s hive to find the bees had taken all the syrup that I gave them on Thursday (only two days ago) and were desperately poking their tongues through the feeder trying to get the last sugary drops.

'I can just reach it'

Last week Emily and I wondered if Lavender had mated with Albert’s New Zealand drones, because our ladies looked lighter and more golden in colour. Here is the proof…

Evidence! Our golden ladies have built a Kiwi-bee style conservatory in the roof

We opened the hive to find that our bees have built a conservatory in the roof – identical to the little hang-out that Albert’s bees have built in their hive! Sadly we had to remove their play area as we don’t want them to store honeycomb in the roof for winter. Emily observed that our bees seem to enjoy making their own comb. I suggested that we experiment next year by alternating frames with and without foundation – we’ll have a 50:50 chance of either practice working.

Lavender seems to have taken after her mother and sister. She is a hard-working queen who has produced quite a lot of brood in the past few weeks and who continues to give us gentle-natured bees.

Lavender has been hard at work creating lots of winter bees

The honeycomb in the last frame was flat and hard on one side. ‘This is the dance floor,’ said Emily. ‘The bees sometimes store propolis in the last comb to make a flat, hard surface for the waggle dances to be heard throughout the hive.’ Bees are so clever!

A propolis 'dance floor' for bees to communicate by vibrating messages to the rest of the hive. Genius

On the other side of the frame we saw foragers head-butting pollen of many varieties tightly into cells.

Lavender's ladies are still finding sources of blue and grey pollen. I wonder what is flowering nearby?

We put a mouse guard on this hive last week to help our smaller colony defend itself against would-be intruders, such as wasps, robber bees and mice. There was quite a lot of activity around the entrance showing that this hive is growing from strength to strength.

A mouse guard helps protect our bees in autumn and winter from would-be robbers and pests. You can see a little guard bee vigilantly peering out (pink arrow)

We closed the hive and topped up the feeder to keep our ladies happy and busy till next week.

Finally, I apologise in advance to my hive partner for the next photo…

These curious autumn spiders intrigue me. What are they?

Every autumn I am intrigued by these pretty-patterned spiders with enormous webs. What are they? I much prefer this spider to the big hairy sort that rampage like a lunatic around your house in September. This fellow wasn’t at all bothered when I poked a bright pink camera in his face.

This weekend we will be feeding our bees fumidil with their syrup – if I can just do the maths! I hope our ladies will still be hungry!

Reflections on a year in beekeeping

This year has been all about the queen. Queen Rose split from her court in early spring and was succeeded by her daughter, Queen Rosemary. Taking objection to her coronation, Rosemary briefly abdicated in a royal huff before returning to her throne. Rose, in her newly founded kingdom, made fewer public appearances before eventually going MIA. We then discovered five queens-in-waiting in July. Our royal saga concluded with the coronation of Queen Lavender.

Lavender made her debut at the end of a busy afternoon’s beekeeping: bees had been cleared, our honey crop removed and Apiguard given to treat varroa. The beekeeping year starts and ends in August. The honey crop summons the end of our annual activities as preparations for overwintering begin the new year. Bees are a bit pagan.

Emily brought dried lavender for the smoker to calm our late summer bees, while we nicked their honey and gave them medicine. So it seemed appropriate when Sarah spotted our new queen running across a frame in our baby hive that she was christened Lavender.

Remembering the drama of our runaway queen earlier this year, Lavender was swiftly caged without hesitation and marked white – on her head, wings and thorax! Future inspections will tell if she survived my clumsy coronation attempt intact.

I think I may have squashed two workers while securing the queen in her cage. Ugh, more guilt! Catching and marking a queen is tricky business. Try to catch one bee from thousands on a frame inside a cage, then mark her as the workers try to set her free. That’s when you need a hive partner! It is a good idea to practise caging and marking with drones early in the year. They are bigger and fairly amiable about it, and it doesn’t matter quite as much if you damage a drone.

So our beekeeping year ends with Queen Rosemary reigning over our fully grown hive, which is bursting at the seams with bees, and with Queen Lavender inheriting our baby hive, which is slowly filling the brood box. Emily and I wondered how well our July queen mated late in the season and with August rains. So we were happy to find new brood and larvae during our last inspection.

I thought that the bees in our baby hive looked lighter and more golden, unlike Lavender who inherited her mother’s dark looks. Emily suggested that Lavender may have mated with Albert’s drones. We might have Kiwi bees!

As an aromatherapist, I named my first queen after an essential oil and this tradition has continued with the hives I share with Emily. So far the queens have taken after their namesakes of Jasmine, a beautiful relaxing oil, Rose, a warm mothering fragrance, and Rosemary, an energetic invigorating aroma. Lavender is renowned for its gentleness and effectiveness, I hope our new queen has these qualities.

Our adventures in beekeeping have kept us busy this year – building hives and shook swarms, frame-making workshops and beards of bees, runaway queens, a new nuc, rainbows of pollen and honey, a quintet of queen cells, weird bees, a honey crop, and a honey festival! I haven’t even taken my basic beekeeping assessment yet!

With a new year around the corner, I wonder what our bees will do next!

It’s all about the honey

I went to the London Honey Festival on Sunday hoping to eat more honey than Pooh. The seasonal festival celebrated the capital’s honey crop and offered honey tasting, honey massages, bee-themed music and movies, and a chance to meet your local beekeeper.

The London Honey Festival at Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London on Sunday 21 August 2011. The five-hour festival was sponsored by Capital Bees and free for beekeepers and the public, and for bees.

With over 2,500 hives in the city, you are never far from a bee, and at a bee event you are never far from a beekeeper. So I was surprised to see so many non-beekeepers. People are more curious than bears about bees.

Who will bring the best honey in all the land?

The honey tasting was easy to find with people lining up like drones. Little pots of sugary goodness in more varieties of gold than an alchemist’s workshop. Heavy-scented floral flavours, mellow fruity fragrances, and subtle citrus aromas reflected the wide range of London forage. Town bees have more choice than their country cousins thanks to imaginative urban gardening, city parks and allotments.

My favourite honey made me think of my old bees, who made a beautiful, delicate honey that tasted of lime blossoms and was the colour of sunshine.

A honey map of London showing where urban bees like to forage.

Emily and I have been guessing all year where our bees fly off to collect their pollen and what their favourite flowers might be. Many of our ladies have been returning with white stripes on their backs from Himalayan balsam and I spotted a forager return with more blue pollen in her basket last Saturday, which might be from poppy. Our honey crop this August was thick like treacle, amber-gold and mildly floral. Any ideas where our bees like to hang out?

I love that beekeeper's suit!

Every stall at the festival had a crowd of people fascinated by the magic of keeping bees. There was also a lot of information on how to help London’s bee population by growing bee-friendly plants or your own fruit and vegetables. People really wanted to know how they could help even if they couldn’t keep a hive.

From far right: Ron (beekeeper), Doreen (beekeeper by proxy), me (beekeeper) and Andy (the man who set us on this dodgy path)

It wasn’t long before I bumped into Andy, who introduced me to some Federation beekeepers, and a bit later we were spotted by more familiar faces congregating around the Middlesex stall.

The Middlesex Federation Beekeepers stall neatly displays bees who died in suspicious circumstances.

Fortunately, no one noticed that I was wearing a Capital Bee badge. I’m not a splitter, but I got pinned by a man wearing wings while signing up my pledge to help London bees.

He's got wings.

There were no tea stalls, but there was an observation hive…

Who's watching who?

And bumble-bee making…

Bumble-bee making ages 4–99 years. Mmm.

And honey jam…

London honey jam is jammin'

Sadly, I don’t have a honey stomach like bees. After finding out that there is actually a limit to the amount of honey I can eat in a few hours, I went for chowpatty on Southbank beach and a stroll in the sunshine along the river.

It did the trick and when I got home I was happy to discover a piece of chocolate-honey fudge in my pocket to enjoy with a cup of tea.

Bee celebrity.

The London Honey Festival was sponsored by Capital Bee, which is a Capital Growth campaign for community beekeeping in London. Capital Growth aims to support 2,012 new community food-growing spaces for London by the end of 2012.

Capital Bee is asking Londoners to support their local beekeepers and bees by growing bee-friendly plants and buying bee-friendly food. To pledge your support click here.

How to extract honey

In the UK the honey harvest usually starts around July until August. When all the honey on a frame is capped it is ready to harvest.

I wrote this post one year ago on my old blog and, with the exception of a few edits, the process of clearing bees and extracting honey are the same. Our adventures took a few different twists and turns this summer, but here is how it’s supposed to be done.

I am aware that this is a slightly long post, so I have divided it into two parts and an addendum:

Part one: How to clear bees
Part two: How to extract honey
Addendum for treacle honey

It has been a good beekeeping year and you have a super or two of frames filled with capped honey. Great, but how do you get hold of it?

Part one: How to clear bees

Step 1: Clear bees from the supers

First, you need to remove the honey from the hive. Guarded by about 50,000 bees this could be Mission Impossible, but is in fact only Mission Slightly Difficult. There are these handy little inventions called ‘bee escapes’ that allow bees to leave supers, but which do not let them back in. You can get various bee escapes from beekeeping suppliers with instructions for use. I am reliably informed that rhombus escapes are very good, but we used Porter bee escapes and they worked quite well.

Bees don't give up their honey easily. Clearer boards trick them into leaving the supers overnight, so you can harvest a bee-free honey crop the next day.

Ideally, you need two crown boards to carry out the process of clearing bees from the supers. Place a crown board between the brood box and supers with the Porter bee escapes in the two holes.

The second crown board (with something covering the two holes like a tile or brick on top) should go on top of the supers before you put back the roof. This is because you are now going to leave the hive for 24 hours or overnight, during which time supers will be cleared of bees and left vulnerable to robbers. 24 hours is more than enough time for wasps to invade and clear out your honey. Check your hive, particularly around the roof and supers, for any holes or gaps, and seal with tape. Wasps are crafty.

Step 2: Remove the supers from the hive

Return to your hive 24 hours later and find the supers almost empty of bees. A bee brush or shaking can help to remove any remaining stragglers from the frames, before you take the supers back to your kitchen to start extracting honey.

If, like me, you have a kitchen in a studio flat not big enough to swing a cat, you will want to make sure you don’t bring any bees. Trust me, it’s not fun sharing your flat for a night with about 50 lost bees. You won’t sleep.

Your bees will try to help extract your honey unless you shake or brush off stragglers and quickly cover the frames.

So if you are super-organised (sorry for the pun), go to the hive with a partner in crime. Shake and brush bees off the frames, then quickly wrap each frame inside a plastic bin liner and hang on an empty super. This method makes sure that no bees hitch a ride back home.

This is a more laborious method of taking honey off the hive, but well worth it to take home bee-free frames. Emily and I did this, and enjoyed a bee-free extraction process.

My dad, who is highly suspicious of bees, was secretly relieved we brought home bee-free frames.

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Part two: How to extract honey

Step 1: De-cap the honey

Ok, so that was actually the ‘slightly difficult’ bit. You have your supers, or box with honey frames, standing on your kitchen work surface. Now you need:

  • A de-capping fork
  • A centrifugal extractor
  • Buckets to collect your honey
  • A kitchen wire mesh strainer
  • Storage jars and labels

All of the above can be purchased at Thornes.

Be careful to keep your work area dry and free from water. Water is the enemy of honey.

Take a frame and place it over a bucket. Use the de-capping fork to run along the surface of the honeycomb and remove the wax caps. Super easy!

Hold a frame of honey over a bucket, and get a de-capping fork to take off the wax caps of the honeycomb

Run the fork lightly up the frame to remove the wax caps. Turn over the frame and repeat on the other side. Some honey will drip into the bucket but can be drained off from the wax later on

Place the wax from the honeycomb into the bucket. It can be separated from the honey dripping into the bucket at a later stage, cleaned up and used to make beeswax pellets for cosmetic recipes (face and hand creams) or to make candles

Step 2: Spin off the honey

Now place two frames of de-capped honey into a centrifugal extractor. Most are manual and are really hard work, so if you are going to do beekeeping seriously invest in a mechanical one.

A centrifugal extractor has a metal basket in which to place frames of honey. Put on the lid and spin the frames round as fast as possible for about a minute. Then turn the frames around inside the extractor basket (so that the opposite side of honeycomb is facing out) and spin again

Honey spun off from the frame at the bottom of the extractor

A frame of honeycomb with the honey spun out. You'll notice how much lighter the frames are when you remove them from the extractor

Step 3: Drain off the honey

Spin off as many frames of honey as you can in the extractor until the level of honey at the bottom starts to reach the metal basket. It is harder to spin round the extractor with honey restricting the motion.

Lift up the centrifugal extractor to the kitchen work surface (if it is full with a couple of litres of honey, you may need someone to help you do this) and put another bucket in the sink. Open the tap of the extractor and let the honey pour out. Some manipulation of the extractor is needed to get the last dregs of the honey out.

It takes one bee a lifetime to collect one teaspoon of honey, so try and get every last drop.

Open the tap of the extractor and let the honey pour out into a clean honey bucket

A bucket filled with freshly extracted honey ready to be filtered and strained off into glass jars

Step 4: Products of the hive

Remove the froth from the top of your extracted honey into separate containers. This can be used as a ‘marmalade’ on your toast or fermented for mead. As enjoyed by Vikings – ARG!

Filter honey from the buckets through a kitchen strainer into jars and label for family and friends.

Filter the honey in the bucket of wax to ensure you get as much honey harvested into jars as possible. Clean the wax in warm water and leave to dry. You can mould beeswax into pellets for beauty products or use to make candles.

Clean the extraction equipment, including centrifugal extractor, with washing soda and scrubbing brushes to get rid of stubborn sticky bits.


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Addendum for treacle honey

My old boss, Bob Allan, kindly gave me his electric honey extractor this year. Bob used to keep bees but he gave up the craft, because his mother-in-law was allergic.  ‘One
winter the hive died out,’ said Bob. ‘It seemed only polite not to re-stock the bees.’ Most beekeepers at my apiary have balked at this. However Bob says, ‘I am rather fond of my mother-in-law’.

After last year’s hard graft of extracting two supers of honey manually, I was excited to try the mechanical extractor. Disaster! The first three frames almost spun apart on the highest setting. So we cleared up and started again, this time using a lower setting. Nothing. Our honey was like treacle! It didn’t even drip out of the comb when we de-capped it.

Plan B. So we decided to make cut-comb honey instead. An evening of delicate operations began and the result was rather spectacular.

Taster pots of cut-comb honey for all our family and friends.

You can read all about it on Emily’s blog: Hunny time and Bringing home the hunny!

This post is dedicated to Bob Allen, who retired as medical director of publications at the Royal College of Physicians this year and to who we said a fond farewell, and to my dad who let us take over his house to extract our treacle honey.

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