Winter breaks for bees

It’s getting chillier. How are the bees enjoying their winter break?

They’re building igloo hotels from honeycomb.

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Climbing the sugar slopes to ski downhill.

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Relaxing on heated sunbeds to get a winter tan.

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Bringing home gold-wrapped gifts from shopping malls for Christmas.

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This autumn’s warm weather and unusual bee behaviour has puzzled beekeepers. Facebook beekeeper groups are abuzz with posts about bee activity; workers still foraging, queens still laying, drones still sighted. The hot topic: “Should I inspect my hive or not?” is dividing opinion between “This winter breaks all the rules” to “leave the bees alone”. Personally I would leave the bees to get on.

If I open a hive to find a queen cell or a virgin – how is she going to mate with fewer drones about? Hive combine, perhaps? But is the old queen still inside? These things are never straightforward in summer and in winter it’s often too late to fiddle with the bees.

The bees don’t worry. Does this bee look worried?

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I think she may be a young worker from her fluffy coat, enjoying a brief rest from an orientation flight.

Beekeepers worry in winter because they have to leave the bees alone. The sight of bees flying out and about is a concern, because it means they are using up their winter stores to generate energy for all that increased activity. They are finding plenty of pollen to bring home, but are they finding enough nectar to replace the stores they are using? An Ealing beekeeper who keeps his hives at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew says the flowers there are continuing to bloom, so I’m hopeful that our bees will find forage too – closer to home.

This winter I am going to enjoy watching my bees, something I never have enough time to do in summer. Like surprising this bee by catching her in the less graceful yoga pose of ‘face-in-sugar with bum-in-air’.

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What could be more fun for a bee than a winter coasteering adventure? Experiencing breathtaking honeycomb coastlines with towering cliffs, caves and jumps.

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While beekeepers scratch their heads at the sight of bees enjoying an unseasonal winter break, the bees know winter is coming and they are making the most of the sun.

EDIT: What do beekeepers do on their winter break? Well, I’ve refreshed the website of my beekeeping association, Ealing and District Beekeepers, to tell people who we are, what we do and where to find us. If you’re in London next summer, check out how to visit. I’m never far from a bee book most of the year and spend much of winter buried in them. My winter study posts about bees will start again soon.

I’ve also refreshed my blog pages with a new blog index to find more easily posts about beekeeping, bumble bees and solitary bees, nature and wildlife, aromatherapy, travelling, photography and more. There’s an updated About me page and I’ll be bringing out new pages about beekeeping and aromatherapy with useful downloads, and an updated blog roll directory over the winter months.

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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?

A story in which there is snow, bees and snowdrops

The snow queen visited London this weekend and our plans were changed from going to the Chelsea Physic Garden snowdrop theatre to exploring my new home, Northolt Village, under spell of winter.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen was my favourite fairytale – as a child I would breathe a hole on frosted windows to look outside for her snow bees – so I couldn’t resist going to the apiary to see if our bees were enjoying the snow too.

Here are a few of my favourite photos from the day in a short video story.

My first video movie created in iMovie! I hope that you enjoyed it.

If you are interested, the Chelsea Physic Garden is running snowdrop days until 12 February 2012.

10 years of pretending to be a beekeeper

The bees at our apiary playing, 'pretend the beeks keep us'.

While I have only pretended to be a beekeeper for two years, some people have been pretending for much longer than that. A group of beekeepers from Ealing and District Beekeepers Association met last Thursday evening to celebrate Pat’s 10-year anniversary of being a beekeeper.

The average life span of a beekeeper is said to be the same as the queen, which is about three years. One year to find out what you have to do, another year to understand why you have to do it, and a third year for things to go wrong. This is why Pat’s 10 years of beekeeping is a real achievement and worth celebrating! This will be my third year.

With the bees on their winter break, beekeepers congregate like drones at the local pub.

We met at the Duke of Kent pub in Ealing and it wasn’t long before talk turned to our favourite topic – bees. Alan was telling us how he marks his queens with a ring, while John, who is an expert queen catcher, preferred the queen marking pen. Don commented ‘I would like to put a bell on mine so that I can find her’ and I joined in with ‘maybe a crown and a little dress’.

Knowing our bees I suspect orders would swiftly come from the top to remove any paraphernalia used to dress the queen. They quickly dispatched Emily’s queen cage last year.

Towards the end of the evening, after a pint or three, resolutions were made, ‘I am going to be ready for the shook swarm this year’ and promises given, ‘I am going to bring sausage rolls to the apiary on Saturday afternoons’. Beekeepers are, by nature, quite cautious so this was followed by, ‘Let’s not let the sausage rolls get out of hand’.

Emily wearing a very stylish bee hat for winter hive inspections. It saves time putting on a full suit, but protects from the odd bee flying and getting caught in long hair!

The following Sunday morning Emily and me checked our hives. February is a perilous month for bees, because it is the time of year when colonies are most likely to perish. The bees will have almost depleted their winter stores, the queen will begin to lay again, and they await good fortune in both weather and plants to forage. They are at their most vulnerable and more susceptible to pests and disease.

Sunday morning at the apiary, Emily comes across a purple crocus that is waiting for a bee to find it. If you look closely at the middle flower with petals starting to part, you can see a glimpse of the luminous orange pollen inside.

Emily found our bees flying into the hive dusted with yellow pollen. We hefted both hives to check the weight of honey stores and opened the roof to see how much fondant had been eaten. All was well and there was no sign of dead bees or disease at the entrances, so we took a stroll around the apiary to check the other hives.

Spring is coming. Snowdrops budding at the apiary.

Having not done a bad job of pretending to be beekeepers, there was little to do but go home for a cup of tea and cupcake, and dream of months of bees and honey to come.

A cake fit for a fairly good beekeeper, sugar sprinkled by the bees.

Emily took a great video of our bees returning home with pollen on her post ‘More signs of spring‘.

Not much beekeeping doing

There is not much beekeeping to be done in mid-winter. The bees stay in and surround the queen in a cosy cluster. There are no brood, or drones, to care for. Workers may leave the hive on a warm day for a cleansing flight or to drop-off dead bodies.

The more hardier beekeepers – and Emily and me – continue to visit the apiary in winter, but this weekend had a definite bite in the air and I wondered who would turn up to drink tea. A generous-sized tupperware cake box sitting on the apiary long table was a clue that my hive partner had arrived. I found Emily and Albert wandering around the hives, and hefting a few to check the weight of food stores. It was too cold even for Albert’s or John’s bees to fly out.

I had brought a bag of bubble-wrap to insulate our hive roofs, but first we needed a cup of tea and a slice of coffee-and-walnut cake. Chat around the long table ranged from monkey-fish (inspired by the random exhibit of a Japanese merman at my work) to the question: can crocodiles climb trees? The deductive reasoning of beekeepers settled this debate, ‘Crocodiles are very good jumpers and they have long bodies,’ said Andy. ‘A croc could jump quite high and grip the trunk, and with its long mouth could reach up the tree.’ So if you get chased by a crocodile and climb up a tree, keep climbing.

After drinking tea and munching cake, we decided it was time to bubble-wrap our bees. First, we visited Rosemary’s hive to put a layer of bubble-wrap inside the roof. We startled, and were startled by, a bee who flew up from the entrance. She may have been a vigilant guard bee disturbed by the movements in the roof, but she looked equally surprised to see us mid-flight and flew past so quickly that I think the little lady was desperate for a cleansing flight.

Emily thought our bees might want to send some Christmas post

Next we visited Lavender’s hive and a heft test reassured us that our baby hive has enough food stores. We insulated this hive with bubble wrap too. Emily had already padded the roofs of both hives with jiffy bags, and this, with a layer of bubble-wrap, should keep our ladies nice and toasty.

Bees bubble-wrapped for Christmas!

Bees can heat the hive extremely well themselves and you can feel the heat that they generate if you hold your hand over a hole in the crownboard. But as Thomas reminded us, ‘Insulating the hive is the least that you can do for your bees in winter.’ Condensation and damp is more a problem for bees than cold, but the open mesh floor of modern hives provides enough ventilation.

Winter is a great time for beekeepers to catch-up on their reading, attend meetings, clean and mend equipment, and to keep up with tea drinking. In about three months, there will be plenty of beekeeping to do.