When the queen’s away the bees will play…

After waiting a week to find out what our bees did next, it rained. Then it poured. So it seemed the Mystery of the July Queens would have to wait.

Last week Emily and I made the unexpected discovery of five queen cells in Rose’s hive. The jury was out on whether our bees were planning to swarm or trying to replace Queen Rose who was MIA for a second week.

A break in the clouds came and we rushed to the apiary to find we were the only ones mad enough to visit the bees on such a blustery day. I was expecting to find very grumpy honeybees, because our little ladies don’t like the rain. Instead, we found them behaving quite strangely.

Someone forgot her umbrella – instead of flying in and out, our bees were clustered at the entrance of the hive out of the rain.

Emily thought they might be fanning their wings to create warm air vents, keeping the baby bees in the brood toasty and dry.

Fascinated, we lingered a little too long and forgot basic beekeeping 101 – don’t block the entrance of the hive. When we moved away there was a little dark cloud of bees hovering behind us, patiently waiting to enter the hive with their pollen loads. We made them wait in the rain, how awful!

We decided not to disturb Queen Rosemary’s hive in unsettled weather and moved on to Queen Rose’s hive. A ray of sunshine penetrated the dark canopy of the apiary, so we took a look inside hoping that our bees hadn’t swarmed.

Our ladies were there, along with a bright golden New Zealand intruder.

Can you spot the golden New Zealand honeybee among our darker British bees?

I suspect she is one of Albert’s bees who bribed her way into our hive with some good pollen.

Three of the five queen cells were no longer there. I can only imagine the dark turn of events during the week: a new queen, or two, hatched and tore down the cells of her rival sisters in an act of royal genocide. There was no sign of Rose and I suspect her crown has been passed. We’ll miss her – she was a good queen who gave us happy-tempered, hard-working bees. But such is life in the hive.

We found two remaining queen cells heavily covered in workers. I wondered if they were ‘taking down’ these cells, but Emily thought they might be trapping the unhatched queens as an insurance policy should the new queen not survive her mating flight. ‘Trapped queens “quack” in their cells,’ said Emily. ‘To tell the workers to let them out.’

It was then that we remembered beekeeping 101 again – don’t open a hive for a couple of weeks when you suspect a new queen has hatched. A hive inspection could upset a queen returning from her mating flight and, not settled in the hive, she may abscond. Drat! In our curiosity to see if our bees had swarmed or chosen supercedure, we forgot that. That’s why our bees have queens-in-waiting – as insurance against our blunders. Silly beekeepers!

As we finished our inspection we came across yet more strange behaviour. Look what our bees have done, the little weirdos!

A rainbow of pollen on the honeycomb (pink arrow) but why are our bees eating holes through the wax (blue arrows)?

They had eaten tiny little holes through the wax. They are not supposed to do that! Perfectly round, I caught a couple of workers peering at each other through a peephole like these were the best thing ever. Perhaps this is what happens while the queen is away – anarchy. Does anyone know why our bees would do this?

More rainbows of brightly coloured pollen in the honeycomb suggests where our bees get their honey. Blue pollen may be from poppies.

It's a bit blurry, but peer closely and you'll see a worker carrying a basket of blue pollen. This might be from a poppy.

As we closed the hive, someone sped past and dropped a red dollop of propolis on the frames we had just cleaned. The culprit was a blur.

Hey! We just cleaned that. The culprit is caught on camera.

The forecast for the rest of the weekend was rain and more rain, so Emily topped up the feeder with syrup and the usual suspects clambered excitedly to drink manna from heaven.

During our inspection, we noticed that some of our bees had white stripes on their thorax, which wouldn’t rub off with our fingers. We found this same phenomenon on bees flying into other hives at the apiary.

White-striped honeybees that have collected pollen and nectar from Himalayan balsam – more clues about the origins of the honey from our apiary!

When bees forage on Himalayan balsam the white pollen rubs their back and leaves a white stripe that they can’t clean off. This also happens to wasps. So if you see a bee or wasp flying around with a white stripe, you know what flower they have just visited.

Not to be confused with white-bottomed bumble bees.


Eight simple rules to build a beehive

It’s not every girl that asks for a new beehive for Christmas, but I am odder than most. ‘One national please’, I requested, ‘Complete with ventilated mesh floor, brood body with frames and dummy board, harmless plastic queen excluder, two supers, crown board and roof’. It was all going so well, ‘Yes, you can order it all from Thornes – flat packed’.

Rule#1: If you own a pink hammer never order flat packed

My new hive arrived after Christmas in an impossibly large box, which caused a proportionate amount of grumbling from my dad who insisted on carrying it himself up three flights of stairs. Why do men insist on carrying things without assistance and then grumble about it? The box sat in my living room for three weeks waiting for the next, most important, arrival – an Uncle David to help put my hive together.

Rule#2: Never underestimate the ability of men to talk DIY

Five minutes later, David had recovered from discovering that I had not opened the box to admire its flat-packed contents. Ten minutes later he had started to assemble the hive parts as easily as Lego. (Imagine that, Legoland hives for bees.) There was a Slightly Tricky Moment when we tried to work out ‘bee space’, but this was cleared up by the innate ability of men to communicate to each other in DIY. One phone call to the ever-helpful and kind Don, a beekeeper at my association, and: ‘I know bee space’ said David. Bee space is 8mm – the magic space that allows two bees to pass each other when building comb.

Rule#3: Let gravity do the work for you

While I may not have understood why we were doing everything that we were doing, I ably assisted with enthusiastic hammering. I also learned that if you hold the hammer at the end of the handle, gravity does most of the work for you. Who knew? Also, there are different types of hammers. David gave me a lighter one for making frames.

Rule#4: Have a cup of tea and admire the best beehive in all the land

A few hours later, David had left and a complete National hive stood grandly in my living room. I promptly made a cup of tea and sat down to admire it. I was sorely tempted to get out my paint box and stencil the brood and supers with flowers and honeybees, but resisted the urge. I am not sure how safe it is to paint a hive – opinion about this varies – and I didn’t want to suffocate Queen Jasmine and her bees with toxic paint fumes.

Rule#5: Post your step-by-step ‘How to build a hive’ on Facebook and amaze all your friends

Step 1: Build a floor with varroa board, entrance block and wire mesh for ventilation.

Step 2: Make the brood box. The queen lives here and lays eggs, while workers raise the larvae.

Step 3: Knock up 11 deep foundation frames for the brood box and 20 shallow foundation frames for the supers. The workers draw out the wax foundation into honeycomb for the queen to lay eggs in the brood box and to store honey in the supers.

Step 4: A handy harmless queen excluder. The slots are big enough for workers to pass between but the queen is too large to get past it.

Step 5: Place the queen excluder over the brood box to keep the queen in the nest and prevent her from laying eggs and rearing larvae in the honey stores. You don't want to eat honey with bits of baby bees, yuk!

Step 6: Make a couple of supers and fill with 10 frames each. One super of honey for the honeybees, and one super for me!

Step 7: Put the crown board on top of the supers to prevent naughty honeybees from climbing into the roof and making messy brace comb. The crown board can also be used as a clearing board in summer for honey extraction by placing it between the supers and the brood box. The slots are covered with rhombus escapes which allow workers to go down into the brood box, but don't allow them to get back up. This empties the supers of bees so that they can be taken away for honey extraction.

Step 8: Put on the weather-proofing roof and you have one National bee hive ready to put in your bees. And don't forget a handy Uncle David to help you put it all together!

Rule#6: Don’t tell your dad that you built a hive without him

One week later, my new hive and I waited for my dad to kindly drop us off at the apiary for a shook swarm. ‘How did you build that?’ he asked, amazed, and was then miffed that I had asked for help from another DIY expert. However, he was soon appeased when he saw that some of the wood in the brood and supers had moved apart. I was dismayed – how had this happened? Apparently, wood needs to breathe. ‘You should have kept the wood outside for a while to let it breathe before putting it together,’ said my dad smugly, before producing a scary-looking power drill and reinforcing the brood and supers with huge nails. No wasps are going to get into that hive and rob my bees now!

Rule#7: Keep your bees alive!

Retreating at the first sign of a bee, my dad left me at the apiary to set up the hive. I was so excited. A little bee landed on a frame as I was putting it into the brood. Not knowing if she was one of Queen Jasmine’s ladies-in-waiting or an interloper, I gently shooed her away. She flew to a nearby leaf and then sat there and closely watched me put the hive together.

Sadly, the tale of my new beehive does not have a happy ending. Without dwelling on terribly upsetting details, the shook swarm revealed that Queen Jasmine and her family had not survived the winter. A few were left, bravely hanging on, but there were many little dead bodies to be cleared away and burned with the frames.

Deep breath, and don’t embarrass oneself by crying in front of other people.

Rule#8: Get yourself a hive partner

One cup of tea later, a much needed and appreciated hug from Emily, a few sympathetic pats on my shoulder, and I returned home a little heavy of heart but determined to find out more about this horrible disease, nosema, which had destroyed my hive and at least two others at the apiary. There is a medicated fondant that you can order from the US which protects bees against nosema throughout winter when they are at their most vulnerable. Ok, nosema, this means war!

Later that evening I received a lovely email from Emily asking if I would like to share her hive and I happily accepted. So I have a new hive and a new hive partner, and beekeeping is now much more fun!

I named our queen, Rose, and our hive is really flourishing! Already the bees have been trying to make a new queen or two, and we have had to split the colony into a nuc. In a couple of weeks we may well have two hives! You just never know what adventures you will have in beekeeping.

All’s well that ends well!

Read similar stories from beekeepers: sadly colonies can die at any time of the year, although lessons are always learned: The day my first ever colony died by The Surrey Beekeeper.