Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?

The familiar sight of the European honeybee (Apis Mellifera) pollinating flowers in spring and summer. Image © Shutterstock

‘You would have to be living on Mars for the past few years not to be aware of the bee problem,’ said Dr Stuart Roberts of Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research, speaking at the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Association’s annual Beekeepers Day on Saturday 25 February.

Like many new beekeepers, I had heard about the ‘bee problem’ and started beekeeping to find out why this was happening and what I could do to help. So I was excited to find out that Dr Roberts would be giving a talk on ‘The decline of insect pollinators’ at our Beekeepers Day. His presentation looked at whether bees are disappearing, what are the drivers of their decline, why does it matter, and what can be done about it.

But first, what do we already think that we know about the bees disappearing?

Bee decline – a widely held belief?

‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’

This quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, may have catapulted the plight of the bee into the public imagination. However, there is no real evidence that Einstein said this – the earliest written record is from a group of French beekeepers in 1992 – and also the statement is not entirely true. While life on Earth would be considerably less pleasant without bees, it is unlikely that we would vanish with them.

Yet almost every week there seems to be another headline about bee disaster and imminent catastrophe – from varroa mites and chemical pesticides to giant Asian hornets and zombie parasites, the poor old bee isn’t having much luck. The media has helped to raise public awareness about the bee, but also may have promoted a few bee myths.

Dr Roberts’ talk sorted fact from fiction with evidence-based research from Reading University, and left me feeling encouraged that we can all do something to help both the honeybee and other bee species.

Are the bees disappearing? A lightning overview

Bumble bee feeding on burdock flowers. I love bumbles! Image © Shutterstock

To discover if the decline of bees is real or imagined, we need to ask the question: ‘Does it affect all bees everywhere?’ said Dr Roberts. While in the UK we have only one species of honeybee (Apis mellifera), which the media often refers to as ‘the bee’, we also have around 25 bumble bee species and around 240 other bee species such as solitary bees. Worldwide there are about 9 species of honeybees, 240 species of bumble bees and 19,300 other bee species of incredible variety. So counting numbers of bees to determine whether all bees are in decline is a huge task.

Diversity of bee species is not the only challenge to scientists. Data also presents a problem because it is inconsistently gathered across different countries, and often widely scattered in obscure journals. The migration of colonies across vast areas for the pollination industry, such as in the US, makes it more difficult to gather reliable information about bee colonies.

Therefore, Dr Roberts and his colleagues at Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research have spent the past four years collecting data on the numbers of honeybees, and other bee species, in the UK and the Netherlands. Their findings revealed that there has been a 23% decline in bee colonies and a 36% decline in beekeepers in central Europe since 1985. The diversity of bee species is also now in decline, although, as Dr Roberts commented, it is worth noting that some species of bees are simply rare! Unsurprisingly, this research suggested parallels in the decline of insect pollinators and the plants that they pollinate in both the UK and the Netherlands.

So: ‘Are bees declining?’ Yes
But also: ‘Does it effect all bees?’ Yes.
And: ‘Does it occur everywhere?’ Yes.

This led to the next question.

What are the drivers of decline?

For each theory on why the bees are disappearing, there is an outlandish suggestion, said Dr Roberts. Some of these are merely fanciful from car exhausts and electro-magnetic fields, ‘For which there is not enough evidence’, to mobile phones, ‘Responsible for every evil on the planet’. Then there are theories that are just bonkers from Osama Bin Laden, ‘At least now testable’, to the Rapture, ‘Difficult to test’.

Unfortunately, the most likely driver of decline is an unlikely driver of news headlines around the world. The cause of the decline of pollinating insects is multifactorial, Dr Roberts explained: ‘Science would be easier, but a lot less interesting if everything could be hung upon a single cause’.

A variety of stressors are affecting bees:

  • Monoculture
  • Exposure to agricultural chemicals
  • Long-distance migration

So basically:

  • Boring diet
  • Exposure to pollution
  • Too much travel

All things that make humans feel stressed and unwell too!

Combine the bee’s stressed and weakened immune system with varroa, the small hive beetle and a pathogenic cocktail of other bacteria, viruses and parasites – and you can see why there might be a problem.

However, there is one headline on which most experts do agree.

Habitat loss is a major cause of bee decline

Perhaps the bees are all hiding in flowers. Image © Shutterstock

There is already a concern among some London beekeepers that there may not be enough plants to support the increasing numbers of urban hives. While you might imagine that this could be a potential problem for city bees, who face the same problems as people living in densely populated areas, unfortunately their country cousins aren’t doing much better. Reading University is continuing to look at the synergy between insect pollinator decline and the decline of their natural habitat, but other studies show that this is very likely to be a significant driver of decline.

Climate change is currently not too much of a threat, said Dr Roberts, although it has the potential to be a clear driver for the future.

Who cares if bees disappear?

Beekeepers and farmers do. Häagen-Dazs is also quite worried about the bees disappearing, apparently, because many ingredients of their flavoured ice cream are dependent on insect pollination. Wider society should also be worried: the value of insect pollinators to UK agriculture is £402m per annum; of which honeybees contribute £38m per annum. Everyone who enjoys eating apples should care, because they are solely pollinated by bees.

What’s the alternative to insect pollination? There isn’t an alternative. Dr Roberts sent a group of students from Reading University armed with paint brushes on a mission to find out how long it would take for people to pollinate plants. The results were painstaking and confirmed that the value of protecting insect pollination is high.

Human pollination vs insect pollinators. The bee is a much more effective pollinator than us! Image © Shutterstock

This is similar to a story that I have heard before. Last year, John Chapple of Ealing and District Beekeepers Association and beekeeper to the queen’s hives at Buckingham Palace, told us about his visit to Oman, as part of a group of beekeepers, to help reintroduce the honeybee to the country. One of Oman’s major exports is dependent on bee pollination – dates! The Omani government is now investing in a state-funded national beekeeping programme, after finding out to their cost that human labour to pollinate date palms is not a viable option.

What can we do to help the bees?

‘Is it a catastrophe? Not yet, but it could be,’ said Dr Roberts. Fortunately, we may have become aware of the bee problem in time to stop the honeybee, and other bees, disappearing from the world, and with them perhaps strawberries, watermelons, tangerines…

Dr Roberts said that governments could help bees by adopting agri-environmental policies, promoting conservation action and continuing to raise public awareness about the bee problem. He stressed the need for monitoring programmes, investment in sound science that is evidence-based, and consistent data that is made readily available.

While government strategies may have the greatest impact on the decline of insect pollinators, applying individual measures will maximise the effect. This means that we can all help the bees, as Dr Roberts suggests:

  • Bees need gardeners – plant bee-friendly plants in your garden and make sure that there are enough flowers for bees to forage from early spring to autumn.
  • Solitary bees need keeping too – put up a ‘bee hotel’ to make a home for other bee species in your garden.

Other ways to help bees include telling your family and friends how they can help too, taking part in a sponsor-a-hive scheme, and fundraising for bee charities by organising a cake sale or a book swop!

So it seems the disappearing bee is one to watch rather than a countdown to catastrophe. Dr Roberts gave me a clearer picture of why bees are starting to decline and also what we can do to prevent it.

Miss Apis Mellifera isn't gone yet and hopefully we can stop her from flying away altogether. Image © Shutterstock

Parallel declines in insect pollinators and insect-pollinated plants

Dr Roberts very kindly sent me the paper on which his talk was based, ‘Parallel Declines in Pollinators and Insect-Pollinated Plants in Britain and the Netherlands‘ by JC Biesmeijer, SPM Roberts, M Reemer et al. The abstract below describes the probable link between the decline of insect pollinators and the loss of habitat and insect-pollinated plants:

‘Despite widespread concern about declines in pollination services, little is known about the patterns of change in most pollinator assemblages. By studying bee and hoverfly assemblages in Britain and the Netherlands, we found evidence of declines (pre- versus post-1980) in local bee diversity in both countries; however, divergent trends were observed in hoverflies. Depending on the assemblage and location, pollinator declines were most frequent in habitat and flower specialists, in univoltine species, and/or in nonmigrants. In conjunction with this evidence, outcrossing plant species that are reliant on the declining pollinators have themselves declined relative to other plant species. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest a causal connection between local extinctions of functionally linked plant and pollinator species.’
Science 21 July 2006: Vol 313 no 5785 pp 351-354 DOI: 10.1126/science.1127863

With thanks

I would like to say a special thanks to Dr Roberts for speaking at our Beekeepers Day and for sending a copy of his paper. You can find out more about Dr Stuart Roberts work on his web page at Reading University’s Centre for Agri-Environmental Research.

A few useful links

You can read more about Dr Roberts’ talk ‘The decline of insect pollinators’ on Emily’s blog and I highly recommend her post on John Chapple’s talk about the disappearing Omani bee.

Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) is the national society dedicated to studying and recording bees, wasps and ants (aculeate Hymenoptera) in Britain and Ireland, of which Dr Roberts is the chair.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is the UK’s leading organisation representing beekeepers with useful information on planting bee-friendly plants, bee hotels for your garden, and an adopt-a-bee scheme.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCCT) aims to prevent further declines, and to raise awareness of the problems bumble bees face.


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.

Giving the bees oxalic acid

Oxalic acid is an effective treatment against varroa. It burns the feet and tongues of the varroa mites so that they fall off the bees! The treatment is only given in winter when the mites are living on adult bees and there is no brood for the acid to damage.

This weekend the apiary gave the hives oxalic acid as a way of saying ‘Happy New Year’ to our bees. The bees were not pleased, as they do not like their cosy cluster being disturbed in winter, and flew up as soon as the crown board was lifted. John Chapple, who is rarely seen behind a veil, observed that even he wears a bee suit when giving oxalic acid to the bees. Although the bees were not pleased, Emily and I enjoyed saying hello to our ladies again, and both hives looked healthy and strong.

The treatment is given as a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and warmed slightly so that it won’t chill the bees. About 5ml of solution is dribbled in-between each gap in the frames where the bees are clustered, called seams of bees. The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) have a good advisory leaflet on oxalic acid cleansing. It is a simple treatment to do, but it is critical to get the dosage right as over-dosing will harm the bees.

Lavender’s ladies were quiet and well behaved for their treatment, while Rosemary’s ladies were livelier. Believe it or not, our bees are much calmer than this in the summer! My first video, I hope to do more this year, shows Emily treating Rosemary’s hive:

Look how disgusted our bees are that we tore apart the sticky propolis insulating the hive! Sadly one bee was squashed as we closed the hive, but we rescued stragglers who had got cold and slow in the roof and carried them around to the entrance of the hives. It was fun to watch them climb in and re-join their sisters.

The BBKA say that oxalic acid is an important part of varroa management alongside other treatments and methods to keep varroa ‘below a level that damages the colony’. As varroa levels at the apiary increased in late autumn, it is hoped that the oxalic acid will help all the hives to stay healthy until spring. There is some talk among beekeepers about replacing treatments like oxalic acid and fumidil with ‘natural’ treatments, but I will write about this in another post in 2012 alongside a re-launch of my blog coming soon.

Happy New Year to bees, beekeepers, everyone and world!

Note: If you have not given oxalic acid to bees before, Glyn Davies of the Devon Beekeepers Association demonstrates the method very well. Emily has more videos of our apiary receiving oxalic acid treatment that are less shaky than my shots!

The day my mum met the bees

My mum who is highly suspicious of bees, wasps, gnats and ‘flying things’ finally met my bees this Saturday.

She visited the apiary on the promise of no bees, ‘The bees will be sleeping because it is almost winter’, I said. This isn’t entirely true. Bees don’t sleep. But the apiary is generally quieter in late autumn and winter, except for a few bees taking a chance flight in a pocket of warm air and a few crazy beeks huddled around the apiary long table in the hope of tea and cake.

A small crowd greeted my mum, step dad and me on Saturday afternoon and enjoyed watching my mother nervously approach the hive area. We visited Rosemary’s hive first and no one was flying so mum was very happy. ‘That’s very nice,’ she said of the hive. Opposite, Albert’s and John’s bees were active, but we walked past unnoticed.

Next we visited Lavender’s hive and I attempted to show my mum the mouse guard. She raised her head from where she stood at the back of the hive and pretended to see it: ‘Yes, that’s very nice’.

My step dad, Bryan, then became fascinated with inspecting the canal that runs behind the apiary. Meantime, I carefully lifted the roof off Lavender’s hive to see if they had drunk their syrup. About half an inch of syrup was left in the feeder and three bees were drinking. I beckoned my mum over so that she could see a real live bee, promising that it couldn’t fly out of the feeder. She quite liked watching it drink and said, ‘Ooh, look at that’.

I quickly put the roof back to keep our bees warm. Emily and I probably won’t open our hives until the apiary does the oxalic acid treatment in December. We do this to keep down the levels of varroa inside the hive until spring. I pulled out the varroa board underneath Lavender’s hive and showed mum and Bryan a few varroa. Most of the debris on the board was clumped together in one area, which suggests that our bees are clustered on brood frames towards the entrance of the hive.

So we left the bees in peace and went to enjoy a cup of tea. There was no milk and as my mum is not a hardened beek accustomed to drinking black tea I found her some coffee instead.

Don arrived with his dog Annie, a gorgeous, friendly alsatian. Mum and Bryan love dogs (and so do I) so this delayed our goodbyes. As we left, my mum and step dad were invited by the beeks to come back for summer inspections on the promise of ‘much more bees and also cake’.

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.

Happy October bees!

Hand-feeding our gentle bees.

Our ladies enjoyed a second summer this weekend thanks to a heatwave in October. The entrance to Rosemary’s hive was busier than Heathrow with foraging bees flying in and out, and Lavender’s hive was almost as busy as Gatwick. Our bees were loving that sunshine!

Betty, an experienced and super-successful beekeeper at our apiary who gets gallons of honey every year, warned that the unseasonal warm weather might not necessarily be good for British bees. The heat stimulates bees to fly out and forage for nectar to make honey, but one of their few sources of nectar at this time of year is ivy. Ivy honey hardens and granulates inside the comb so bees can’t eat it over winter and starve.

Emily and I are still feeding our bees sugar syrup and both feeders were drained dry when we opened our hives, so hopefully they are using this to make their winter stores. A good tip to stimulate bees to climb inside the feeder and take down syrup is to soak a twig in syrup and place it inside the feeder hole. The bees will lick the twig and climb up to find more sugar.

Slurp! Slurp!

Emily opened Rosemary’s hive to find bees crammed inside an empty feeder waiting for their weekly feed, and naughty bees who had found a way get in the roof and investigate. While Emily inspected the second half of the hive, I tried a little experiment by dipping my finger in some syrup and hand-feeding our bees.

Hmmn, what's this pink thing?

Yum! It tastes sweet!

It's finger-lickin' good!

They seemed to like it and gently licked my finger clean of syrup then climbed off to see if they could find a few more drops on the feeder.

An idyllic day at the apiary with beekeepers sharing stories and tips. I got a great piece of advice on how to smoke bees without distressing the hive too much. Don’t point the nozzle of the smoker downwards because this blows heat and dust (as well as smoke) inside the hive. Instead, point the nozzle across the hive and puff smoke over the top of the frames.

The peaceful afternoon was momentarily disturbed by a slight calamity when a tree fell on a hive belonging to another beekeeper, David. Fortunately two hero beekeepers were ready to rescue upturned bees, and then to enjoy a well-earned cup of afternoon tea.

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!

How do you get bee honey without bee babies?

'We're like Marmite, man. Love us or hate us' / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

I was recently asked this question by friends: ‘How do you keep baby bees out of bee honey?’ At this time of year, when the honey crop is due, FAQs about beekeeping are popular. ‘I watched a nature program that showed bee larvae in honeycomb,’ said Damien, quite concerned. ‘Is it the same honeycomb that you use for honey?’

It is a good question: bees do make honeycomb both for raising brood and to store food. However, wily beekeepers manipulate bees to make sure only honey is harvested from the hive. Don’t worry, you are not spreading baby bees on your toast!

The hexagonal array of honeycomb is all the bees handiwork. / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

People sometimes think that the honeycomb in hives is man-made. How could this geometrically-perfect hexagonal array be made by stripy little insects? But the bees do make it, because they are clever. They make the comb for bee babies and the comb for our honey.

Here are some secrets of the comb and how beekeepers get the honey bit.

#FAQ1: Why do bees make honeycomb?

Bees use honeycomb as a nursery, honey factory and food store. The queen lays eggs inside the cells, which hatch into white grub-like larvae. The larvae pupate and emerge as bees. Collectively, rows of larvae in honeycomb are called brood. Worker bees also use the cells in honeycomb to store nectar, which they convert to honey, and to store pollen, which they pack inside a cell by head-butting. Nectar, or honey, is a carbohydrate food source and pollen is a source of protein.

Honeybees head-butting pollen into cells. Pollen is a source of protein for bees. / image © Andrey Davidenko / 123RF

#FAQ2: How do bees make honeycomb?

Bees build honeycomb from wax secreted by their abdominal glands, which is passed along the legs to the mouth and moulded into hexagonal cells. The honeybee builds row upon row of geometric six-sided cells, each exactly the same size, in a precise interlocking hexagonal array.

#FAQ3: Why is honeycomb made of hexagons?

Marcus du Sautoy, on BBC’s The Code, explained why bees choose a hexagon rather than any other shape to build honeycomb. ‘The bees’ primary need is to store as much honey as they can, while using as little precious wax as possible,’ says Marcus. He describes honeycomb as an amazing piece of engineering, but asks why bees have evolved to produce this hexagonal pattern? ‘Actually they don’t have too many choices,’ explains Marcus.

The light shining through this honeycomb reveals the precise geometric sides of each hexagonal cell. / image © Olena Kornyeyeva / 123RF

To produce a regular-shaped interlocking network, bees can only choose three shapes: triangles, squares or hexagons. A hexagon requires the least amount of wax to build, which makes it the most economically efficient shape. ‘It is a solution that was only mathematically proven a few years ago. The hexagonal array is the most efficient storage solution the bees could have chosen,’ says Marcus. ‘Yet with a little help from evolution they worked it out for themselves millions of years ago.’

You can watch Marcus explore the mathematics of honeycomb in Behind the beehive on the BBC’s The Code.

#FAQ4: How do you keep baby bees out of the honey?

So how do beekeepers extract honeycomb that has only honey and not larvae or pollen? The answer is simple: by confining the queen to one area of the hive.

The queen is the egg-layer. She spends most of her life laying eggs inside the cells of honeycomb, which become female workers or male drones, or potentially a new queen. A beekeeper uses a ‘queen excluder’ to trap the queen inside the brood chamber of a hive.

A handy harmless queen excluder. The slots are big enough for workers to pass between but the queen is too large to get past.

This is a sheet of slotted plastic or a metal grid with holes large enough for worker bees to crawl through, but too small for the larger queen to pass. Unable to climb above the brood chamber, the queen cannot enter the main honey stores of the hive and lay eggs.

There are different types of hives, but most have a brood chamber (the nest containing the queen and larvae) and supers (boxes that store honey). The most common hive used in the UK is the National hive. Here’s one I built earlier.

This is the hive I built at New Year. You can see it is made of different-sized boxes. The deep bottom box is the brood chamber and the two shallow boxes above are the supers.

The queen excluder is placed over the brood box to keep the queen in the nest and prevent her from laying eggs in the honey stores. You don't want to eat honey with bits of baby bees, yuk!

With a queen excluder fitted between the brood chamber and supers, the queen can only lay eggs that hatch into larvae in the brood chamber. This leaves the supers baby-bee free and full of honey!

#FAQ5: Why do bees make bee-free honey?

So why do worker bees leave the cosy brood nest and the court of the queen to climb past the queen excluder into the supers and make us lovely bee-free honey? I want to believe it is out of the goodness of their tiny bee-sized hearts. Not true. It is all about instinct.

Honeybees have an instinctive drive to climb upwards and to fill whatever space they find with comb. If you place a super with empty frames on top of the brood, worker bees will instinctively climb up and start to build comb. The comb in the super is usually pollen-free too. Workers store this source of protein where it is most needed in the brood chamber.

Honeycomb showing capped and uncapped honey. Uncapped cells glisten with ripening nectar. Capped cells contain honey covered by white wax. Beekeepers harvest honey when all cells are capped. / image © Laurent Dambies / 123RF

So there you have it. That’s how beekeepers extract only honey-filled honeycomb and no mystery bits.

#FAQ6: How do you get the bees to leave the honey?

One final question remains. How do you get the worker bees out of supers so that you can nick their honey? In the height of summer, one hive is home to around 50–60,000 honeybees with many of these individuals busily working inside supers or guarding them. Beekeepers use a process called ‘clearing bees’ to make the bees leave the supers before the honey is taken off the hive.

I’ll cover clearing bees in my next post, which is all about the hunny! My hive partner, Emily, and I extracted the honey from our hive last weekend. You can read about our exploits in her Adventuresinbeeland’s blogHunny time and Bringing home the hunny.

This post is dedicated to Helen and Damien, who both enjoy ‘bee honey’.

All images on this post, with the exception of the hive, were taken from 123RF. Until I get a macro lens, you won’t see honeycomb as sharp with my pink camera!

Find out: How to extract honey