Bees, honey, flowers, cake and a party

In an unexpected turn of events, a rainy, miserable week was followed by a gorgeous sunny Saturday. So off to the apiary it was, where I met Brian checking out his super. He has placed a queen excluder and normal National super on top of his top-bar hive and the bees are now starting to go up there and draw out the foundation. Brian sees it as a way to get the best of both worlds – foundationless brood frames with easier-to-extract super frames.

Brian's hive

Once Emma arrived we inspected our hives. We found lots of this beautiful stuff…


And more perfectly capped HONEY. Our boxes are heavy. I can just about lift a super (which contains around 30 pounds of honey) on my own, but it is much easier with a hive partner to help. Trying to move the boxes around without squashing any of the 60,000 constantly moving bees inside is a task and a half too, but we try to keep casualties to an absolute minimum.

Capped honey

As one of the artificially swarmed colonies from May containing a new queen had gone queen-less, last week we combined it back with their mother Chamomile’s hive. So five hives have become four.

We combined using the usual newspaper method, placing newspaper with a few slits in above Chamomile’s brood box and then placing the queen-less brood box on top (we checked through several times to make sure there was no queen in there). I was more nervous about this than usual as there were a few cells with multiple eggs in, a sign of laying workers. Would these workers kill Chamomile?

The answer this week is nope. I found plenty of neat eggs up in the top brood box, one per cell, so Chamomile has been up there investigating. Down below we spotted Chamomile, a long golden queen, although perplexingly we also found a few queen cells. It’s late in the season to swarm and there were only a few cells, so we’re hoping this is a case of supersedure and are leaving the bees to get on with producing their new queens.

Beehive cake

Bee cake made by Penny Pedley – can you spot the queen?

After a hot couple of hours inspecting we went on to Andy’s 60th birthday party. The party had a bit of a bee theme to it, with this spectacular honey cake made by Andy’s wife Penny. The little bees were made of chocolate raisins with almond wings.

Andy Pedley and Scarlett blowing out his cake

Andy and his great-niece Scarlett blowing out his cake.

We all got a piece of cake, as well as plenty of other delicious food, beer and Pimms. Scarlett Johansson and Benedict Cumberbatch were also at the party.

Andy's birthday card

A few more photos from the week…

Cupcake decorating

Cupcakes from a evening cake decorating course I did at City Lit, near Covent Garden.

Radbourne Walk poppies

Poppies and cornflowers growing along the Radbourne Walk wildlife gardening project I helped out earlier with this year. Unfortunately Council staff turned up a few weeks ago (even though it had been agreed earlier in the year they wouldn’t) and strimmed down many of the newly planted flowers. So some of my taxes this year went on destroying the work I and many others sweated over. An allotment holder noticed and managed to stop them, but by that time most of the alleyway had been strimmed. The Council have again agreed not to do this next time.

To end on a more positive note, here is a bumble bee enjoying a pumpkin flower.

Bumble in pumpkin flower

Thoughts on keeping bees alone

I’m finding inspecting my allotment bees a new thing, quite different to the beekeeping I’ve done in the past. These are the first bees I’m inspecting alone on a regular basis.

I cycle to the allotment alone – this in itself is a new experience! Before Drew gave me my bike a year ago I hadn’t cycled in city streets since I was a teenager. And back then I’d cycled on pavements and in parks, not on the roads. Cycling gives me a peculiar feeling of freedom tinged with fear. It is a joyful thing to zoom along with my heavy beekeeping equipment balanced in a basket, but cars behind me in narrow streets bring an element of stress.

Cornflowers and daisies

Once at the allotment, I unlock the gate and wheel my bike down the grassy paths between the plots, past beautiful flowers and a huge variety of vegetables. It doesn’t take long to reach my plot, where I light my smoker alone on a bench under the apple tree. This week, I had a huge problem getting any of my matches to turn to flame. Maybe they had got soggy at some point. It was a relief when I heard that rushing noise and got my egg boxes to burn. Then the smoker went out – twice!


Without any other humans around, it’s just me and the bees. I concentrate and lose myself in their hum. My main focus is on trying not to squash any as I move the combs out to inspect. I am afraid not of them but for them – they are so little, so delicate! A misplaced thumb can still them forever. It is they who should be terrified of me. Like cycling, for me beekeeping is freedom and joy with nagging twinges of worry. I hate the crunching noise of a squashed bee.

Bee in bindweed

Absorbed in slow, steady movements, looking out for eggs and potential queen cells, I have no time to think about anything else. Troubles are forgotten as I twist the frames round and watch the bees dancing on the comb. This is the gift the bees give me.


This year the allotment hive, headed up by the newly named Queen Stella, have been curiously well behaved. They have made no attempt to swarm – but neither have they made much honey. They are plodding along. The photo below is of a super belonging to a luckier beekeeper.

Honey super

I’m not sure whether beekeeping alone makes me a better beekeeper or not. I probably make less silly mistakes, because I’m not being distracted by trying to carry on a conversation or answer questions while I inspect. I lose my hive tool slightly less often.

On the other hand, if I always did beekeeping alone I could miss out on alternative ideas and ways of doing things that have not occurred to me. It is always good to learn from other beekeepers, to watch them and pick up on successful or indeed disastrous movements and techniques they use. And of course the bonus of having a hive partner is that you have someone to help lift heavy boxes and chat with over tea.

What do you think, do you prefer beekeeping alone or with a audience?

A tale of two queens

After a gloriously hot Friday, it was disappointing to be making my way to the apiary in rain on Saturday afternoon. Luckily the rain soon cleared and even turned to sunshine later, leaving Emma and I free to inspect our five hives.

A bee came to inspect our smoker, so Emma removed her before she got overheated.

Emma rescues a bee from the smoker

Emma rescues a bee from the smoker

Inside the hives all was well. The new queens have started laying in our two new unnamed colonies, formed from artificial swarms on Chilli and Chamomile’s hives on 10th May. This is good, but we still have a lot of decisions ahead as five hives are too much for us. We are likely to sell one or two later in the summer, or possibly combine colonies. After inspecting Myrtle’s hive too, and putting a super on top, we stopped for a tea break.

My cousin Joanna gave me some bucks fizz marmalade for our wedding, so I had brought along a marmalade cake to keep our energy levels up. It’s a bit nutty, a bit spicy and of course orangey.

Marmalade cake

After tea and cake Freddie and Emma inspected Chilli and Chamomile’s colonies. I was distracted by Jonesie’s hive as he had discovered gazillions of queen cells in there, all containing a larvae and unsealed. As the cells were all unsealed we expected the colony had not swarmed yet and went through looking for the queen. Four times we went through checking every frame, the bottom of the box and super too, in case she was slimmed down for swarming and had got through the queen excluder.

Considering she was marked and had been seen a week ago with her mark on, we came to the conclusion that she wasn’t in the hive. Although it is unusual for a colony to swarm before queen cells are sealed, perhaps the spectacular weather on Friday encouraged them to get going. Jonesie decided to take most of the queen cells down and leave a couple, to reduce the likelihood of further cast swarms from the already depleted colony.

Queen cells

Removing queen cells

Tom found a queen cell in his hive too. He has been noticing a lot of queen cells at the top and middle of frames this year, instead of at the bottom as queen cells often are. Has anyone else been experiencing this?

Queen cells

Here’s Jonesie holding up one of his foundationless frames. It’s interesting to see how the bees begin building. To produce wax, worker bees older than 10-12 days old eat nectar and hang in chains; this raises their body temperature and causes their eight wax glands on the underside of their abdomens to secrete tiny flakes of wax. They then chew the wax and manipulate it into the precise shapes of comb using their mandibles and forelegs.

Foundationless frame

After all the inspecting was done Tom and I stopped by at his hive in Hanwell on the way home. There I was lucky enough to see the rare sight of two queens in one hive.

Here’s mum…

Marked queen

And here’s her new blonder daughter. I’ve added little crowns to help you spot them :)

Double queens

Now you have to find them on your own…

Two queens 2

I’ve heard bee inspectors say two queens in a hive is commoner than most beekeepers think. Often beekeepers will be looking for one queen and stop looking for others once they see her. When superseding the old queen it makes sense for the colony to keep her around until her new daughter queen has got into the swing of laying.

A lovely end to a day of inspecting!

Busy beekeeping on a June weekend

Today is the first day since Saturday I’ve really had time to sit down and write, but Saturday seems a long way away now. A rainy morning had turned into a sunny afternoon when Emma and I met to check our five (five!!!) hives.

We are trying to inspect more quickly recently, both because we have more frames to inspect and because we hope if we keep the hives open for less time ultimately the bees might do better and we’ll get more honey. This is tricky as obviously at the apiary beginners are often watching; they want to try inspecting for themselves and have plenty of questions to ask. This is good and I enjoy answering the questions, but at the same time we need to balance their needs with the wellbeing of our bees, plus our own desire to enjoy the beekeeping we do.

One of our queens - not sure which!

One of our queens – not sure which!

Luckily our five hives weren’t particularly naughty this week. We have been feeding over the last fortnight as the June forage gap hit London; also the hives had been weakened after Chamomile and Chilli’s colonies were split when they produced queen cells. Obviously we would rather not have to feed sugar syrup – it’s a lot of work to keep making it up! – but eating syrup is better for the bees than eating nothing. As Emma said to a beginner who commented “I’ve read that feeding syrup is bad for bees?” – well, starving is bad for bees too.

Queen in cage

In the photo above we had put one of our queens in a cage in case we needed to do anything with her later, for instance if we had found any queen cells whilst inspecting the colony we might have wanted to do an artificial swarm and split the hive. I liked how quickly the bees surrounded the cage, drawn to her pheromones as if engaged in a rescue attempt.

We managed to inspect all five colonies with only one sting received, which was caused when I accidentally squashed one, so my fault. Myrtle’s ladies continue to be the sweetest bees on the planet, while Chamomile’s and Chilli’s are rather more feisty. It’s too soon to say what the two new colonies created by the artificial swarms will be like in temperament. Although we’ve spotted a new queen in both, neither queen is laying yet. We are giving them a couple more weeks to prove themselves.

Allotment apiary

Of course, there is a sixth hive too. All is going well at the allotment apiary. I enjoy how easy it is to ride my bike there, my equipment in my basket. The bees there are fairly low on stores too, but luckily not so low they need feeding. As this hive is all my own now rather than shared with Emma, I’ve decided to name the queen after my favourite great aunt, who passed away a few years ago. She will be Queen Stella.

Queen Stella’s bees display a remarkable behaviour that I’ve seen two weeks running now and previously had never seen before in our hives. It’s the  DVAV (dorsoventral abdominal vibrating dance). When I was revising for my Module 6 exam on honeybee behaviour, I learnt that this is believed to be ‘get a move on’ message. A worker will mount or grab another bee and vibrate their abdomen on top of her. It’s used to recruit more foragers during a nectar flow and also on queens just before a swarm exits the nest.

As the colony was low on stores, perhaps Queen Stella’s bees felt it was about time some foragers went out shopping. I saw a few of them going around, grabbing other workers and vibrating them for a second, then letting go and moving on. I tried to discern some pattern to which bees they chose to vibrate, but all the bees looked the same to me. In reality perhaps they were choosing to buzz older foraging bees rather than younger nurse bees.

I’ll leave you with a few photos of bees and flowers I took around the allotment.

Bumble on bramble

Bumble on bramble

Bumblebee on blue flower

Tiny bee on wildflowers

Bramble flowers against the sky

Big pink and white flower



Beasts of Borneo

Some photos taken by Drew on our honeymoon. Disclaimer: no bees or cake, just plenty of fascinating animals.

Our first proper destination in Borneo was Danum Valley, a rainforest in Sabah (Malaysia, North-East Borneo). We had hikes organised for us in the jungle, which we wore special ‘gaiters’ (leech socks) for. A leech did get me once, but it didn’t hurt, just left a big mark after I wrenched it off. It was very hot, but bearable because the huge trees provided shade. In the evenings the eerie sound of cicadas throbbed round our ears, echoing far around the forest.


Fish under water, Danum Valley. We had climbed high up a steep hill in the rainforest to an ancestral place of burial for the local people, panting and sweating all the way. We were rewarded on the journey down by stopping to swim in a pool beneath a waterfall inhabited by these fish. As soon as you stuck any part of your body in the water, the fish were upon you nibbling away with rather sharp teeth. They were a lot bigger than the fish used for foot massages in spas!


On the final day we left the rainforest, we were excited to spot a small herd of pygmy elephants. As we watched from the car this mother and calf quickly headed into the dense trees.

Our next destination was the village of Bilit, along the Kinabatangan river. Our hotel ran a morning and evening boat trip to see the wildlife along the river – here we saw orang-utans, long-tailed macaque monkeys, pig tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys and silver languor monkeys. Lots of birds too – rhinoceros hornbill, pied hornbill, oriental garter, blue-eared kingfisher, fish eagle, crested serpent eagle, storm stork and purple heron.

The monkeys in particular were hard to photograph as they were shy and high up in the trees. I like this photo of a sleeping monitor lizard – it looks so comfy, doesn’t it?

Monitor lizard

Monitor lizard

Hotels in Borneo tend to have open air restaurants, so that you can eat and watch the wildlife around you. The night time revealed huge beetles, moths and butterflies drawn to the lights. In turn predators were attracted to the flapping insects – bats whooshed past, lizards darted and this huge spider cast a wide net. Very successfully, judging by the size of it! Although its underside is white, its front had dramatic yellow and black markings.



Trees by the river

Trees by the river

The morning mists make the river look especially beautiful.

Gomantong caves

Gomantong caves

We also took a trip to Gomantong caves, where thousands of bats and swiftlets live. The cave is guarded day and night because the swiftlets make the valuable nests of solidified saliva that go in Birds Nest Soup! I felt sorry for the guards inside as it’s proper stinky, but apparently they are paid well.

Before going in we made sure to have hats on. I wore my rain jacket and pulled the hood over my head. I was careful to look down whilst walking and only look up whilst standing still, as the floor was extremely slippery with guano. Torches were needed, both to see and to scare away the cockroaches that scuttled round our feet. The cockroaches feed on dead birds and bats that fall to the cave floor. It was a majestic sight but amazingly disgusting too.

Cockroaches on the wall

Cockroaches on the cave wall

After our stay in Myne Resort by Bilit we moved further down the river, staying by the village of Abai. When we put our hand in the water, it was as warm as a bath!


Crocodiles lurk deep down below, but, even better, we came across more pygmy elephants. As we were on the boat we could get really close, close enough to look them in the eye as they ate. They made low rumbling noises that would have terrified me had I been standing by them on land.

At night the magical sight of hundreds of twinkling fireflies revealed themselves. Our guide whistled ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’. Did you know some fireflies are cannibals? Females of certain species will be attracted to the lights of males for a meal rather than a mating.

Junior the "wild" boar

Junior the “wild” boar

Breakfast in Abai was served in the forest, surrounded by greedy monkeys on the look out for a free meal, plus this “wild” boar named Junior. We took it in turn feeding him slices of bread, with the warning not to get our hands too close to his mouth. I was a bit slow for his liking and he was quick to nose-butt me with that gorgeous snout.

After Abai we took a boat to stay in the sprawling town of Sandakan. This young gentleman was at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, on the outskirts of Sandakan. We had been watching orang-utan feeding time, when the orang-utans are fed fruit. They are deliberately fed a monotonous diet of limited fruits to encourage them to find food for themselves in the surrounding 43 sq km of protected land, but some still choose to take the food. They had interesting eating techniques. Some swung from ropes with one arm whilst holding a piece of fruit in their free hand and two feet. They then ate from one foot at a time, peeling bananas like we do. Others used a method similar to bungee jumping, hanging from a rope with their feet and then bouncing up and down with arms stretched out until they managed to grab a leaf beneath them.

The young male above had not yet lost his attachment to people and caused a stir when he walked towards us visitors. We were told to back away quickly as an orang-utan is strong enough to cause serious injury such a nasty bite or a damaged limb if they chose to. In fact he only wanted a hug and managed to grab a startled man’s leg before a member of staff managed to drag him away.

proboscis monkey

Male proboscis monkey eating a long bean

This attractive specimen is a dominant male proboscis monkey. His big nose is attractive to females, creating an echoing honk. The big nostrils also release heat to cool him down. They are the heaviest monkeys (not apes) to live in trees. He lives at Labuk Bay proboscis monkey sanctuary, near Sandakan. We saw many of these monkeys along the river, but only from a distance high up in the trees, as they are shy and hide when boats come near. At feeding time in the sanctuary we were able to get much closer.

There are so many more photos I could show you, but this is a very long post already. The wildlife of Borneo is awesome :)

A wedding present from the bees

I see the last time I posted was April 21st. Since then I have become a married lady named Emily Scott and met the wildlife of Borneo. And in Beeland… the bees have been equally busy.

The day of my wedding, May 10th, had sunny spots but was often overcast and drizzly. I said to Emma, who was one of my bridesmaids, “Well, at least we haven’t missed a good day’s beekeeping.” Little did we know what our bees were plotting! You can read what their plans were in Emma’s post ‘Bees or honey?‘. Long story short, Jonesy and Thomas found queen cells in Chili and Chamomile’s hives and did splits to stop them swarming, turning three colonies into five. A wedding present from the bees!

Me and Drew running inside from the rain

Me and Drew running inside from the rain

Our photographer did attempt to take some photos of us outside at one point, but rain sent us hurrying back in! Doesn’t Drew look good in his kilt?

Hurrying in from the rain

Hurrying in from the rain

But you don’t read this blog for wedding photos, you want to read about bees. Well, I did see some bees on honeymoon in Borneo.

A mengaris tree, home to Apis dorsata bees

A mengaris tree, home to Apis dorsata bees

Please excuse the bad photo, which was taken from a canopy walkway with an iPhone. See the curve hanging from under the lowest branch on the right? It’s an Apis dorsata honeybee comb. I could just about make out the bees by their movements – they were covering the whole comb and their wings seemed to shimmer in waves.

Mengaris tree info

Information on the bees: “This tree in front of you is a 40m tall mengaris (Koompassia excelsa). For a mengaris, it is quite short. Some individuals have been measured at 86m tall, making it one of the tallest tropical tree species! Perhaps mengaris trees are best known as the home of the world’s largest honey bee, the Asian rock bee (Apis dorsata). Their hives are up to 6 feet across and may contain as many as 30,000 bees. One mengaris tree may contain more than 100 nests!”

Mengaris tree footholds

Mengaris tree footholds

Can you see the bumps up the side of the tree? Our guide Mike said these were caused by people hammering in bamboo footholds to climb up and steal the honey. They must have been brave as that tall smooth trunk is not made for climbing – it’s a long way down. Indeed, I read online that the bees choose the tree as their home because its smooth bark is tough for predators like the sun bear to climb.

During our travels we did see another of these trees which was covered with combs. It was far away, but Drew got a good photo of it:

Apis dorsata combs

Apis dorsata combs

Although the combs are easy to spot, individual bees proved hard to come across. The rainforest in Danum Valley had few flowers near the forest floor – I suspect most of the flowers must be higher up near the canopy. We saw plenty of butterflies floating around, but no bees.

So I was very happy to come across this bee whilst staying at Myne Resort, which is located along the Kinabatangan River by the village of Bilit. We went for river cruises to spot the monkeys, birds, orang-utans and monitor lizards that live along the river bank, but one of my favourite creatures spotted was this carpenter bee. Its wings shimmered with blue and green colours. I suspect this piece of wood was its territory, as every so often it would take off and do a short circuit of the surrounding flowers before returning to rest on the wood.

Carpenter bee

Carpenter bee

If anyone can identify the bee beyond it being a carpenter bee that would be much appreciated! Drew got some fantastic photos of the Bornean wildlife so a separate post showing off his animal photos may follow.

I feel like including a couple more wedding photos, as I can say they’re bee themed. Our wedding cake! Gorgeously decorated by Michelle at Maya Cakes – I asked her if she could include little bees somehow and she made it so with marzipan and almonds for the wings. Everyone commented on how tasty it was too.

Our sponge, jam and cream wedding cake, decorated with fruit, flowers and marzipan bees. Made by Michelle at Maya Cakes -

Our sponge, jam and cream wedding cake, decorated with fruit, flowers and marzipan bees. Made by Michelle at Maya Cakes –

Close up of marzipan bees.

Close up of marzipan bees.

Easter inspections; a new queen emerges

There was a lot going on at the apiary on Saturday. Naive people might think that on a bank holiday Easter weekend the apiary would be quiet. Not so when there is tea to be drunk, hot cross buns to be eaten and even some beekeeping to do!

Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns

These were my first ever attempt at hot cross buns. They looked fine but the texture was more like that of a weapon than a squishy doughy bun.

I left the buns on the table and watched Jonesie inspect his hive. Here’s a chunk of drone comb he sliced off to check for varroa. He’ll put it in his freezer and then break it open to look for mites once it’s frozen. There’s something very appealing about the chunkiness of drone comb, the regular golden bumps. The workers were reluctant to leave it.

Drone comb

Drone comb

In the foreground below is a strange little bee Jonesie found in his hive. She was a honeybee, but so bedraggled and black that it was hard to recognise her as one. Her sisters seemed to be trying to clean her up – could she have fallen in some kind of oily substance? Poor wee thing.

EDIT: Thanks to commenters westernwilson and thomas73640, who have identified the black bee as probably suffering from chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This is a virus associated with the varroa mite, which probably helps transfer it between bees. It is also associated with crowded hives, as close contact between overcrowded bees breaks hairs from the cuticle, allowing CBPV to spread from diseased bees to healthy bees via their exposed epidermal cytoplasm.

Wet bee?

Below you can see a new hive that has landed in the apiary. It belongs to Brian, who has taken an old abandoned top-bar hive in the apiary and made it his own. I can’t wait to see what bees do with it. To the left is a bait hive he’s made, sitting on the top of the main hive. Here you can see Brian explaining the hive to Andy Pedley. Andy is always full of enthusiasm and told Brian that even if the hive is a complete disaster, at least it will be very entertaining and a great experiment.

Brian and Andy

Andy (l) and Brian (r)

Tom inspected his hive, which last week he suspected was queen-less. He had put a frame of eggs and larvae from Jonesie’s hive in there last week to see if the bees made a replacement queen for themselves. There were no new queen cells made – but suddenly Tom said ‘There she is!’ and pointed at a little virgin queen walking around a frame. Mysteriously, there was no sign of any queen cell she might have emerged from – did the workers remove all evidence of it?

Virgin queen

Virgin queen

You need sharp eyes to spot a virgin. At the moment she’s about the same size as the workers, but her abdomen is more pointed at the end. Some sunshine is forecast at the end of next week, so hopefully she can get out and mate then. Most of the hives have begun to produce drones now.

“There’s always summat takes you by surprise with bees” Tom said. “I open them up expecting them to have made a queen cell and instead I find a virgin running around.” That’s the joy of bees!

As for our bees, Myrtle and Chilli are doing well, although Chilli’s workers have drawn out about three frames more than Myrtle’s. Myrtle is our favourite queen as she and her mother, grandma and great-grandma etc before her have produced the gentlest of bees. I hope her colony will be ok!

Chamomile’s colony was decidedly narky and kept going for me, which I’m not used to with our bees. It could have been the weather as it was chillier than I would have liked, so I gave up on any ideas of starting the Bailey comb change off this week. I noted more perforated cappings and exposed dead larvae in a small patch of brood.

Chamomile’s bees are on a double brood box and I’d really like to get them down onto a single to make them easier to inspect for queen cells etc. If Myrtle produces any queen cells I would feel tempted to replace Chamomile with a new princess from Myrtle. I dislike getting rid of queens, but I don’t like inspecting bees that try to sting me either.

When I got back from inspecting all the hot cross buns bar one had disappeared, so hopefully they weren’t as bad as I thought, although they did get called “hot rock buns”. Andy left me a comment on my Facebook page afterwards to say:

“They were delicious, thank you so much …. The beekeepers are just teasing … And it might be that they think by “challenging” you, you will bring more the next week. We might allow you a week or two off but bring double when you get back from honeymoon, because we will all be starving!”

Yep, I will be getting married on 10th May, so don’t expect many posts in May!