A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

The National Bee Unit (NBU) issued a starvation risk this week and urged UK beekeepers to check their colonies for food supplies:

‘With the continued spell of poor weather in many areas of the UK, reports are coming in from Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors of starving bee colonies, where the beekeeper is not aware that the bees are severely short of food, or the colony(s) have already starved to death.’

While in May it seemed unusual that we were still feeding our bees, the NBU’s latest news alert – a starvation risk in June – reinforced what an unsettled year this has been for many UK beekeepers and their bees.

There is forage for pollinators like this hoverfly I spotted in my workplace’s medicinal garden, but the rain has made it difficult to collect nectar and pollen.

Bee colonies at particular risk of starving include those with the supers (honey crop) removed, hives which have been split or artificially swarmed, nucleus colonies, colonies collected from swarms, and even larger hives which haven’t swarmed but which haven’t gathered sufficient food due to rain. So basically most hives are at risk because of the poor weather in the UK!

‘Please, sir? Can we have some more?’ Nucleus hives which are smaller and more vulnerable may be at risk of starvation.

Emily and me have fed our bees all season as a combination of rain and drone laying queens has prevented our hives from growing to full strength. Yet I was concerned by the NBU’s alert and emailed Andy Pedley to send the news to Ealing beekeepers. On Saturday morning I mixed enough sugar syrup for our two hives and the other colonies at the apiary.

Hefting a heavy bag of beekeeping supplies on tube and foot, I arrived at the apiary in time to tag along with Andy’s beginner beekeepers session. Emily, Albert and me have all taken the introduction to beekeeping course, but we watched and listened to Andy’s practical tutorial with interest. In beekeeping it never hurts to be reminded of the basics and there is always something new to learn when observing an experienced beekeeper inspect a hive.

Spotted – a group of beginner beekeepers at the apiary.

Andy picks out a frame from a nuc to show the group. There are black bees and light gold bees which may indicate that the queen has mated and is laying different coloured bees, or that two colonies were combined to make a nuc.

Andy and the beginners had fed the colonies they visited, so Emily and me opted for ginger beer and cake before inspecting our bees. Emily had brought a bottle of ginger beer and there was plenty of cake to choose – almond and fruit to chocolate and pecan. It was like Jubilee all over again!

Beekeepers well fed, we visited our recently combined hive and the new nucleus colony with Albert and Pete, a beekeeper-in-training.

A gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park was found sitting next to our spare hive last week!

Last Saturday we had received a gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park, which the apiary has given us to keep as a training hive for beginners. The Osterley bees had filled their five-frame nuc, so we moved them across to a hive and I spotted the new queen, another bright orange beauty, who we named Ginger. We had closed up the small colony with dummy boards and insulation in the roof to keep them warm, and, of course, left a full feeder of syrup above the crownboard.

This Saturday was our first real inspection of the Osterley bees, but they were not doing as well as hoped. The extra frame of foundation was barely drawn out with comb and there was not much sign of worker brood.

Our new Osterley bees are gentle and calm – Emily and me have always been lucky to have good natured bees.

Albert noticed that the queen was moving too fast and erratically across the frame, and Emily observed drone cells in the centre of the comb – two signs that all might not be well with the queen. Without knowing the full history of these bees, it was too early to decide what could be happening so we closed the hive with insulation and freshly made sugar syrup in the roof.

Fortunately, our combined hive is doing well and Neroli has settled into her queenly duties. On the Jubilee weekend we had combined our two hives because one hive had failed to re-queen and was too weak to continue. But last week revealed that the colonies had not combined successfully and the bees in the top box were bad tempered. It was one of those moments in beekeeping when three beekeepers stand in front of a box of bees scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Believe me, it happens quite often!

Grumpy bees – last week the drones in the top box of our combined hive were not too happy!

Albert had been there that Saturday and the three of us managed to work out the problem. The queen excluder above the bottom box had also excluded the drones (who are larger than workers) in the top box from moving down. The poor frustrated drones had been trapped in the top box for a week and were letting us know that they were not happy by buzzing loudly.

It was easily remedied by removing the queen excluder and remaining newspaper allowing the two colonies to meet up. We had separated the two brood boxes with a super to encourage the bees to move honey from the top box into the bottom box.

The bees have started taking the honey from the comb in the top box to move into the bottom box. Notice the large holes in the wax comb at the bottom of the frame – our bees also tend to rob wax from frames to use in other parts of the hive.

Happily, this week the bees had followed the books and were getting along just fine. The frames of honey in the top box directly above the brood nest had been emptied, good girls! Albert suggested giving our bees a helping hand by using a hive tool to score across the remaining combs of honey, and then place these above the brood nest again. The workers seemed to appreciate our efforts and immediately got to work. Hopefully, next week the top brood box can be removed completely and both colonies will be in one box.

Emily uses a hive tool to score across the comb and make it easier for the bees to rob out the honey.

We carried out a quick inspection of the bottom box because there was no need to disturb the recently mated queen and her bees. There were signs of healthy worker brood nicely patterned across the comb, growing stores of pollen and nectar, and even a propolised ‘dance’ floor at the entrance of the hive. Neroli appears to be an excellent queen like her mother Lavender.

It was another good Saturday’s beekeeping. Here is a short clip of our activities.

Related links

National Bee Unit guidelines on feeding bees: the NBU has provided advice for beekeepers who are concerned or unsure about food supplies in their hives:

  • Heft a hive by lifting the hive from below the floor to check its weight. If the hive is light, it should be fed.
  • Feed with sugar and water mixed at 2:1 ratio or using a ready mixed syrup from a beekeeping supplier.
  • Use fondant in an emergency if nothing else is available, although liquid feed is more appropriate for this time in the season.
  • Large starving colonies will take 1 gallon (5 litres) of syrup and smaller colonies can take ½ gallon (2.5 litres), but the hives should be checked after feeding within a few days.

Further guidance on feeding bees is provided in the National Bee Unit Best Practice Guideline No. 7.

Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off

This interesting article in the London Evening Standard explores an area that has worried the city’s expert beekeepers for some time. Are there too many hives in London and not enough forage for bees? Read about it here.

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The red-headed queen of the Diamond Jubilee

‘For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.’ The moment a princess became a queen, by Rosie Waites, BBC News Magazine 

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brought street parties with red, white and blue bunting this weekend to mark 60 years of HRH. As the queen is an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians where I work, we celebrated Jubilee Day last week and held a charity cake sale with all the proceeds going towards the Prince’s Trust. There was traditional English food on offer in the buttery including roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

At the apiary on Saturday there was also lots of cake, which is not that unusual. I had brought a cake from my holiday in Rome called ‘Dolce del Papa’, or ‘Dessert of the Pope’, which I was bemused to see John Chapple, the queen’s beekeeper, eyeing a bit suspiciously before taking a slice.

Dessert of the pope – it’s heavenly delightful!

Emily and me had our own queen to celebrate – a beautiful bright orange virgin which had been spotted by Emily in our swarmed hive while I was in Italy. To our delight, the queen’s enlarged abdomen indicated that she had mated and she was happily running round the comb being attended by her revenue of ladies-in-waiting.

Queen Neroli, our bright orange Diamond Jubilee queen!

Emily thinks her mother, Lavender, mated with New Zealand drones, which would explain why our new queen is very orange. We have decided to call her Neroli, which is the oil obtained from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. The essential oil (Citrus aurantium var. amara) takes its name from the 17th-century Italian princess of Nerola, Anna Maria de La Tremoille, who famously wore the oil to scent her gloves. A royal name fitting for a queen bee who took her crown on the Diamond Jubilee.

Salvatore Battaglia says the aroma of neroli is light, refreshing and floral, citing Valerie Worwood’s The fragrant mind which describes the essential oil to be ‘ageless, forever young in a spring-like way’. Emily and me hope Queen Neroli will live long and bring good fortune to her hive.

A queen cell from our swarmed hive placed in Myrrh’s dwindling colony has not produced an heir.

Sadly, Myrrh’s old hive remained queenless. The queen cell that I had placed in the colony from our swarmed hive two weeks ago was still capped. Queen bees usually emerge eight days after the queen cell is sealed, so it seemed unlikely that the larva had survived this long. John suggested uncapping the cell to be certain and showed us how to do this gently with a hive tool. If the queen was alive then this would allow her to emerge – but the uncapped cell revealed a shrivelled, blackened, dead queen bee inside the cell. John thought she may have died from black queen cell virus.

A blackened and shrivelled dead queen which may have died from black queen cell virus, associated with the hive disease nosema.

This hive has been unlucky with queens – a drone-laying queen after winter, an unmated queen in spring due to bad weather, and two failed attempts to re-queen using frames of larvae and finally a queen cell from Lavender’s hive. This latest bit of bad luck – a dead queen in her cell – decided the colony’s fate. Emily and me had given these bees enough chances, it was time to combine our two hives.

As the new queen of our swarmed hive, Neroli, had mated it was safe to combine the hives, whereas before it may have risked stressing the virgin queen or have caused confusion when she returned from her mating flight. Combining two hives is really easy – here’s how it’s done in two simple steps…

A sheet of newspaper is placed on top of the brood box which has the queen in the nest, and a hive tool is used to make a few small holes through the queen excluder as Emily demonstrates here.

The brood box of bees without a queen is placed on top. During the week, the bees will chew away the newspaper, which will give them time to become accustomed to each other’s smell and prevent fighting – they will be the best of friends. At least, that’s the plan.

Hopefully, next week we will return to our newly combined hive and our girls should all be getting along! John explained that hive combining should be done in the evening or early morning when the foragers are inside the hive. This is because moving a hive – even by an inch – can cause foragers to lose their way home. However, as it was already late in the afternoon he thought it should be fine.

Emily and me waited as long as possible for Myrrh’s foragers to return and circle the area where their old hive had been. When they settled on the mesh floor we carried and brushed the bees into the combined hive, but we could not get them all. Eventually the circle of returning foragers disappeared and we hoped that they had bribed their way into other hives with their loads of nectar and pollen.

Our newly combined hives – and what is this mysterious empty hive next door?

It seemed that we were down one hive, but John and Pat were busy scheming. In April Emily and me had helped John set up nucleus hives at Osterley Park and the nucs were now ready to bring to Perivale apiary. ‘Would you like another colony?’ Pat asked, to which we both replied ‘Yes!’. So before we left for the day, we used our spare woodwork to set up a new hive next door to Neroli’s. We reflected that both our hives were now in the sunniest spot of the apiary, which should help them to flourish before summer ends.

Happy Jubilee Bees!

Neroli, lavender and rose facial oil
In honour of our new queen, Neroli, and her royal mother and grandmother, Lavender and Rose, here is a hauntingly beautiful essential oil blend that can be used for a rejuvenating facial massage or for an anti-aging and nourishing night oil.

  • 9 drops neroli
  • 6 drops lavender
  • 3 drops rose
  • 30ml jojoba oil
As with all aromatherapy blends, remember to patch test before general use and don’t use during pregnancy without advice from your midwife or doctor.

Related links
The official website of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, where you can also send a message to the queen.

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.