‘The Bees Knees’ – notes from a talk by Dave Goulson

I went to see bumble bee expert Dave Goulson speak recently at a London zoo lates talk. Security guards escorted the audience through the darkening zoo to the B.U.G.S (Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival) House, giving us glimpses of graceful pink flamingoes on the way.

With half an hour before the event began, we were able to walk round B.U.G.S. It celebrates biodiversity rather than just containing insects, so I could see tunnelling naked mole rats, waving jellyfish and enormous piranhas. But it was at the honey bees that I had a chance encounter with Dave.

There was a flat two-sided observation hive protruding from the wall. I think it had about three or four vertically arranged combs which I could see both sides of. I was spending some time watching them because a) they’re bees and b) they looked a bit unhealthy. The combs were very dark and large patches of brood had not hatched out – you could see the heads of the larvae but they were clearly dead. Perhaps chilled brood or bald brood.

They don’t look too happy, do they?” Dave said, and we had a short conversation about how bees in observation hives never seem to do that well as the set-up is quite unnatural, but they are a great educational tool. Then he heard his name being called so went to see who needed him. I carried on round the exhibition until I reached the new free-range ‘In With The Spiders‘ installation, which it turned out Dave was being given a tour of.

In this new room of spiders there is no barrier between you and the spiders.  Huge tropical spiders hang high up above in trees, watchfully looking down at their human prey, which they could pounce on and devour at any moment. No… in reality the keeper said the spiders hardly ever move, unless she dangles a tasty fat mealworm beneath them. However the spiders have already been embroiled in controversy, as a woman has claimed she was bitten on the hip and needed hospital treatment after going through their enclosure.

Onto the talk… I know a number of people following this blog are bumblebee fans and have read Dave’s two books, A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow. Dave has been studying bumbles for about 20 years and is on a mission to educate the public about the diversity of bees out there. To many people, bees means honey bees, but in reality we have one species of honey bee in the UK, around 26 bumblebees and a whopping 220-ish species of solitary bees. We just don’t notice the solitary bees!

Dave Goulson books

The pretty front covers of Dave’s books

Worldwide, there are around 250 known species of bumbles. They are large, hairy and mostly found in cold regions. They’re also warm blooded – an exception to most insects, which are usually cold blooded. The highest density of species – 60 – is found in the eastern Himalayas, where bumbles are believed to have first originated. One species, Bombus polaris, even lives in the Arctic circle. Bees in general are of course descendants of wasps. Wasps first became bees (which are basically wasps turned plant-eating vegetarians) back in the time of the dinosaurs.

Map of bumble bee distribution

Map of bumble bee distribution

In the spring bumblebee queens set up new nests after hibernating over winter. Being able to flap their wings 200 times a second produces lots of heat, enabling queens to fly in February/March when temperatures are just above freezing. The queen will stock her nest with a ball of pollen from the first spring flowers, then lay eggs and incubate them like a bird, shivering her flight muscles to generate heat. She can only survive one reproductive year, so will never leave her nest again. The new queens she produces will mate only once, then go into hibernation from as early as June.

Being warm blooded means bumbles have high energy requirements – they need a LOT of flowers, in a world where humans are reducing flowers. Some scientists have estimated that if you were a man-sized bumble bee (what a fantastic creature that would be), you’d burn the energy provided by a Mars Bar in 30 seconds of flight – whereas that takes a human runner an hour. If bumbles can’t find enough nectar, they sometimes struggle to generate enough heat to take off – then they’re in trouble. Don’t do what Dave did as a child and gently cook them on a hob to warm them up!

Warm blooded bee

Warm blooded bee

Causes of decline

Dave says there is a simple answer – we’ve lost most of the flower-rich grasslands we used to have. We lost 97% of these during the twentieth century, as farmers switched to grass silage production for their animals rather than hay meadows. Silage is usually sown with one or two species of grass and lots of fertilisers. Fine for cows but rubbish for bees.

The soil in our natural old hay meadows is really low in nitrogen – so grass can’t grow – the meadows were full of beautiful flowers with their own source of nitrogen. Peas, vetches, clovers, legumes. These flowers put lots of protein in their pollen. Chucking fertiliser on a field ruins the balance, so that grass starts up and smothers the flowers.


Wild bees are now exposed to many new diseases and parasites. Diseases are spread by the movement of honey bees and commercially farmed bumblebees. Farmers used to employ people to pollinate tomatoes, using vibrating wands. But that changed when a Dutch man figured out how to breed them for commercial purposes. Every tomato you’ve ever eaten since about 1988 was most probably pollinated by a bumble bee.

Trouble was, no-one was checking that the nests provided to farmers for their growing tunnels were clean. It turns out that the majority of nests farmers buy in have one or more parasites. Escapees from the commercial nests then spread these parasites to the wild populations. In Chile European bumbles were deliberately released to help with pollination, but (in an echo of what happened when European humans first arrived in South America) their diseases are wiping out Chilean bumbles.


Despite the two year EU manditorium on using neonicotinoids, Dave said their use actually increased in 2014. DDT has a deserved reputation as a wildlife killing baddie pesticide. Well, here’s a comparison of the LD50 (dosage which kills 50% of a test population) in honey bees for the neonicotinoid insecticide Imidaclopid and DDT:

Imidaclopid 4 ng/bee
DDT 27,000 ng/bee

Yep, it actually takes a much lower dosage of Imidaclopid to kill bees. Imidaclopid is one of the most widely used insecticides in the world.

Human pollination China

Orchards being pollinated by hand in China, after pesticides destroyed native pollinators

How we can help

The great news is, we can all do plenty to help. At the top end, if you happen to own a meadow or farm, try to restore/recreate a flower-rich meadow.

But you don’t have to have land to help! You can also:

  • Raise awareness – tell people there are lots of species of bee, they’re in trouble and need our help.
  • Engage children. Most love bugs as young children but want to squash them by the time they’re teenagers. Stop them growing out of the loving bugs phase!
  • Citizen science. A project called the Buzz Club – http://thebuzzclub.uk just launched. Dave said this is hopefully a long-term citizen science project which aims to gather useful data on pollinators. The data will be collected by volunteers and analysed by University of Sussex scientists.
  • Bumblebee Conservation Trust bee walks – help the Trust (which Dave founded) by doing a regular walk once a month between March to October and recording how many bumble bees you see.
  • Wildlife friendly gardening, even if it’s just a window box. The University of Sussex website has a long list of bee-friendly plants.

Don’t plant!

Begonias, Petunias, Busy Lizzies, Pansies

Most of these don’t have nectar or pollen and have been treated with pesticides before being sold at garden centres.

Do plant

Cottage garden perennials, Wildflowers

If you have a little bit of sunny space and want to grow just one plant, make it… Vipers Bugloss

Vipers Bugloss

Vipers Bugloss at Kew Gardens

Bumble bee nest boxes

They don’t work! Even home-made ones. But solitary bee nests work really well. You can just get a block of wood and drill 8mm diameter holes in it. Dave did this by drilling holes in a fence post and was rewarded within 20 minutes of putting it up by a mason bee moving in.

What does work to attract bumbles is old undisturbed compost heaps – these are warm and have tunnels made by small mammals. Dave said there’s about a 50% chance of getting a nest in these each year.

So there’s plenty of ideas here – do something for bees tomorrow! Or even today!

Bumble bee flying from bramble


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Stamp art competition – we have a winner!

The winner of the fd covers limited edition art print competition (see my previous post), chosen at random, was Barbara Maddock! Congratulations Barbara.

To enter the competition, you needed to leave a comment telling me either your favourite thing about bees or a memorable experience you had with a bee. Barbara’s comment was:

“I grew up in the country and most of the plants my mother grew were bee-friendly so the garden on a warm day always had a friendly hum from the bees! I love their shape and the fuzziness of their bodies.

This July I went on an excellent bee keeping course at Hen Corner in south London to find out more. This was terrific and gave me so much confidence about handling bees and frames and knowledge about their life style and how to raise them. I also got my bee identifier chart just recently from Friends of the Earth but I’m not yet proficient!”

Barbara’s prize is the beautiful art print below, which is available on the fd covers website for £32.00, along with other beautiful bee themed stamp art.

Signed FD cover

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Stamp cover competition – free limited edition print (for UK readers only)

*Competition now closed*

I have a prize to give away! I have been contacted by fdcovers, a stamp collectibles company who have released some art work for the new Royal Mail Bees of Britain stamps issued in August 2015. The six stamps have been designed by Anna Ekelund and beautifully illustrated by wildlife illustrator Richard Lewington. It’s nice that some less well-known bees have been chosen – would you recognise the Scabious bee (Andrena hattorfiana) or Bilberry bumblebee (Bombus monticola) if you saw one?

Great Yellow Bumblebee

Fdcovers produce art work to accompany the stamps:

  • We purchase new stamps from the Royal Mail prior to the issue date. We design a special envelope called a ‘cover’ and a presentation album.
  • Once the stamps have been fixed to the covers they are cancelled on the day of issue with a postmark designed by us (also called a Special Hand Stamp). Hand stamping on the day of issue can never be repeated.
  • All our covers and albums are limited edition. For example, for ‘Celebrating Bees’ we have limited the issue to 1000 per cover.
  • You can see the full bees product range at bees.fdcovers.com

I’m particularly impressed that their bee album contains an everlasting sweet pea fragrance! Also they will be supporting bees with a donation to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the British Beekeeping Association.

Fdcovers’ limited edition signed art print (which is limited to 120) retails for £32.00 and they have kindly offered me a free one to give away to a lucky reader. A picture of this beautiful print is below.

To enter:

  • Please leave a comment telling me either your favourite thing about bees OR a memorable experience you had with a bee. I will number the comments in the order they’re left and pick the winner at random using a random number generator.
  • UK readers only please and the closing date will be Thursday 17th September. If you win I’ll contact you using the email address you commented with.

Signed FD cover

Terms and conditions

1. The promoter is: Fdcovers.com (company no. 09119257) whose registered office is at 40 Queen Anne Street, London W1G 9EL.

2. Employees of Fdcovers.com or their family members or anyone else connected in any way with the competition or helping to set up the competition shall not be permitted to enter the competition.

3. There is no entry fee and no purchase necessary to enter this competition.

4. Closing date for entry will be Thursday 17 September. After this date no further entries to the competition will be accepted.

5. The promoter reserves the right to cancel or amend the competition and these terms and conditions without notice in the event of a catastrophe, war, civil or military disturbance, act of God or any actual or anticipated breach of any applicable law or regulation or any other event outside of the promoter’s control. Any changes to the competition will be notified to entrants as soon as possible by the promoter.

6. No cash alternative to the prize will be offered and the prize is not transferable. The prize is subject to availability and Fdcovers reserve the right to substitute the prize with another of equivalent value without giving notice.

7. By entering this competition, an entrant is indicating his/her agreement to be bound by these terms and conditions.

8. The competition and these terms and conditions will be governed by English law and any disputes will be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England.

*Competition now closed*

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The path to honey

The path to honey is a long and arduous one. Arguably it starts in September after you’ve extracted your summer honey. Then the beekeeper can treat for varroa and prepare the colony for winter. As the cold nights draw in mouse-guards go on, insulation can be put in the roof and the long wait to see whether the bees will survive winter begins.

Come spring, if all goes to plan and your bees have emerged healthy and well, you may be able to put supers on in April or May. The bees fly high and far, gathering nectar wherever they can. You inspect and wait, making sure the queen is laying and preventing any swarms occurring.

Finally, after much heavy lifting, stings, breaking of nails, splinters, sweat and pain, hopefully the bees have managed to fill and cap a super(s). Now is honey time. But your efforts are not over yet. In fact, some of the worst times are still to come – do any beekeepers really genuinely enjoy honey extraction?

Honey frame before uncapping

The job that faces you first (at least for frames built from foundation) is to uncap the heavy honey frames, using a knife or uncapping fork. This is best done in hot weather (to help the honey flow) in a room with all the windows closed (to stop the bees and wasps coming to get their honey back).

Frames ready to uncap

Here’s the resulting wax cappings. These can be given back to the bees to clean up and then turned into candles or wax blocks afterwards. Ideally nothing goes to waste. The heady, almost boozy scent of the honey rises around you. A few licks are all it takes to start feeling slightly sick from the sweetness. I understand why bees go into a robbing frenzy if honey is spilt around the hives – it’s an enveloping, intoxicating smell. Your hands are covered with gooey, sticky honey by this point – probably along with your clothes, the floor and everything around you.
Wax cappings

Once you’ve uncapped the honey, now you can spin it out. Last year we got to this stage and put the frames in Emma’s extractor, only to find nothing came out. We had extremely stubborn, viscous honey. It must have been thixotropic, which means that it becomes temporarily fluid when shaken or stirred but a gel again when left standing. We got all sorts of sceptical looks from other beekeepers who hadn’t experienced this when we told them about it! People kept asking whether we’d uncapped the frames properly or said we weren’t putting enough welly in (despite it being an electric extractor which span faster than any human!).

In the end Emma had to stir each cell individually with a sterilised key to get it to flow out – see her post, ‘How to extract honey too thick to spin out of a perfectly good extractor‘.

This year my allotment honey was a dark, rich brown. Would it spin out?

Two uncapped allotment frames

Allotment honey uncapped

Much to our relief, the answer was yes. We took turns cranking the handle around, with Emma’s boyfriend John joining in at one point too. A tiring job but at least we could see results as the honey gradually built up at the bottom of the extractor. We drained the extractor after every super of frames, as it can only be used whilst on the floor and then must be lifted up onto a surface so that the honey can flow into a container below. If you extract too much honey before draining it, the extractor will be extremely heavy/impossible to lift!

Oozing honey from extractor

The honey you can see oozing out above is lighter honey from our apiary hives. Emma has some more photos of the extraction at http://missapismellifera.com/2015/07/25/a-beekeepers-notes-for-july/

The job is not over yet, as the honey must be filtered through a sieve to remove wax particles before finally being bottled. I hope this post conveys some of the work hobby beekeepers go through to produce honey and explains why local honey costs more than the mass produced supermarket kind, which has been churned together from multiple hives and sometimes even from colonies in several different countries. This process, in combination with intense micro-filtering and pasteurisation by heating, usually results in a loss of flavour.

By the way I’d be interested in hearing from other beekeepers as to how you store your honey. I saw keeping it in a fridge or freezer recommended in a magazine this month, as at under 4.5°C granulation stops. Have you ever done this? And what did your family think about the fridge or freezer being full of honey?!

Posted in Honey | 53 Comments

Book review – Do beekeeping/The secret to happy honeybees by Orren Fox (2015)

The Do Book Company publish books designed to help you learn something new and motivate you to do it. Other books in their series include ‘Do Sourdough’, ‘Do improvise’ and ‘Do grow’. They gave me this book to review – one of the perks of being a beekeeper is you occasionally get free books about beekeeping!
The secret to happy honey bees cover

I was impressed when the book arrived, as it is beautifully laid out, with lots of colour photos, pencil drawings and recipes. It also has that fresh new book smell!

The publicity blurb says:

“By sharing the journey of 18-year-old beekeeper Orren Fox – who clearly remembers what it’s like to be a rookie – you’ll discover that keeping your own honeybees is easier than you think. Find out:

  • How and where to set up your hive
  • The tools and equipment you need to get started
  • The job of inspecting the hive
  • How and when to harvest your honey

With delicious honey-based recipes shared by talented and resourceful chefs and cooks, including Honey & Co., you’ll learn all about bees and their inspiring world of work and honey production. And may even be tempted to buy your first bee suit.”

Things I liked about the book:

1) Orren Fox obviously has a huge amount of enthusiasm and love for bees. He has put that into the book so that the wonder of bees themselves takes centre stage.

2) He tells us lots of amusing and atmospheric beekeeping anecdotes which would give newbies an insight into what it’s like being a beekeeper. His writing is quite poetic, for instance his honey tastes like “apples, peaches and the Atlantic Ocean”.

3) Though Orren is from the U.S., effort has been put into updating the book for the British market, with references made to the UK notifiable diseases and bee inspectors.

4) The book has been well edited and spell-checked, with no obvious grammatical errors or typos (unlike some beekeeping books in my collection). It’s been professionally done and well put together.

5) There are practical and realistic tips, for instance Orren prepares his readers for bees being a money commitment which you might take a few years to earn back through honey sales. He also takes a gentle approach to his bees, carefully using a bee brush to move the bees out of the way before replacing boxes.

Things I wasn’t so keen on:

There are some sections of the book which I feel are misleading, puzzling or omit important information. For example, page 15 says “The queen is rather easy to find in a hive due to her size”. Hmm, that must be why I have sometimes had to go through a hive multiple times before finding the queen amongst her 40,000+ daughters. Easy? I wish! She could do with being a bit bigger – perhaps the size of a hamster or even a small hedgehog.

Page 16 says “Workers live for the smallest amount of time, just over a month” – this is true of the summer workers busy at their nursing and foraging duties, but not of autumn-born bees, who can live for several months through the winter until early spring.

Page 33 says about wax foundation super frames that “they don’t last beyond one harvest, while the plastic sheets last for many seasons.”  I don’t know what Orren is doing to his frames as most beekeepers I know use their drawn-out wax super frames for several years!

Page 41 has a photo of blackened gauntlets – the most unhygienic gloves possible, which he admits have become gradually covered with propolis, wax and honey, so that his bees have become more and more attracted to them and cover his gloves during inspections. This doesn’t sound like a good thing! His hive tools also look like they could do with a good clean with some washing soda.


This would make a nice present for someone interested in honey bees and who wants to find out more about what beekeeping is like. It’s a nice light read without getting too overwhelming; I can imagine a non-beekeeper reading it for pleasure – which I can’t say about Ted Hooper’s Guide to bees and honey, excellent though it is!

It isn’t a book which a beginner could rely on to see them through their first season or that a more experienced beekeeper could learn anything new from. I say this because there is only one page on varroa mites and one on swarming. So a fun book for a non-beekeeper wanting to find out more about beekeeping, but not the only one they should read before getting bees!

You can find Orren on Facebook, on Twitter at @happyhoneybees and on his blog at http://happychickenslayhealthyeggs.blogspot.co.uk – by the way he has a fascinating post about going beekeeping in Nepal.

About Orren Fox


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The beauty of bees

This weekend I have been thinking about how lucky I am to have access to the inner world of honey bees. I must have seen inside hundreds of different hives by now, but I never get bored of watching the bees. There is always some small detail that fascinates me, like one worker sticking out her proboscis to feed another, or a bee with glowing red propolis beads clinging to her legs, or a multi-coloured frame of pollen hexagons that reminds me of a stained glass window.

Brood frame containing honey

At this time of year the honey vaults are particularly impressive. Lacking a queen in their brood box for a month has led to Andromeda’s ladies packing the brood frames with wall-to-wall honey. See how perfectly smooth and white the wax cappings are! And now imagine how impossibly heavy I find their brood box to lift. A frame like this weighs something like 5 pounds (2.2kg) and there are eleven frames in the brood box. They won’t all be that packed with honey but still I can imagine the brood box could easily weigh about 40 pounds (18kg) upwards now.

With some complicated juggling around of frames and spare boxes I did manage to inspect both Andromeda’s brood boxes and came to the depressing conclusion that either they’ve killed her or she’s just not laying. After finding her in the super and then moving her down into the brood box last weekend I had such high hopes of coming along yesterday and finding some lovely new frames of eggs and larvae. Instead there are three new supersedure cells. I have left them to it, I doubt they have plans to swarm this late in the season. Just hope they can produce a mated queen from one as some colonies are already beginning to kick their drones out.

Emma inspecting a super frame

Above is Emma inspecting a similarly delightful but smaller frame of honey in Melissa’s super.

Bees on natural comb

Due to the various distractions of life and general absent mindedness, we had accidentally left a space in Melissa’s super as well as Pepper’s. In this case they built perfectly white undulating mounds down from the crown-board, so I was able to lift this beautiful comb out and insert a frame in the space. Bees are often incredibly reluctant to leave natural comb they’re working on, so it took a lot of smoking to persuade them to move away so I could ease the comb off. It was very flexible and soft from the heat of the hive.

Bees on top of super

Above you can see the bees busy on the tops of the super frames. At this time of year inspecting is a difficult business as there are just so many damn bees. Around 50-60,000 of them. Everywhere you try to put your hands on a frame, a bee pops up. I have been finding that inspecting without gloves amongst this mass of bees concentrates the mind wonderfully. I am actually getting stung less – because I move my fingers very slowly and carefully to secure a hold amongst the bees. Before I would get stung by accidentally squashing them, but this hasn’t happened now for weeks. The catch is very sticky, mucky hands which are harder to eat cake with afterwards!

Flying bumblebee

The main summer nectar flow is probably over now that blackberry is finishing flowering, but we will still have a little from ragwort, rosebay willow herb, himalayan balsam and then ivy will be the last main nectar crop in autumn. Our focus will now turn to harvesting the honey and luckily Emma has a lovely new extractor to help with that. She has already begun spinning some of the honey out, as you can read in her post Summer surprise. The beekeeping adventures continue!

Bumblebee on pink flower

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Case of the disappearing queen: mystery solved

It is always satisfying to solve a mystery. Even when you turn out to be the culprit.

You may recall me mentioning that Queen Andromeda has been missing in action since I combined her colony with Queen Cassiopeia’s on 6th June, as poor Cassiopeia had turned out to be a drone layer. Two test frames of eggs/larvae kindly donated by Tom had resulted in no queen cells being produced – usually an indication that a satisfactory queen is already present. Yet I could find no eggs or uncapped larvae in the brood box and could not find Queen Andromeda, who had previously been a star layer.

Well, yesterday I looked in my super properly. At first it seemed to be bursting with incredibly heavy capped honey. But then – a tiny bit of worker brood on one of the frames. Could it be?… and there, climbing up a super frame with an egg emerging cheekily from her abdomen, was the elusive, much looked-for, Queen Andromeda. A face-palm moment. She has now been moved down into her rightful home, her two brood boxes.

Poppies and hives at allotments

This colony at the allotment has given me no end of trouble this year but I have learnt a few things from it:

  1. Trust the test-frame. If they don’t make queen cells from a test-frame you put in containing eggs and larvae, you can be pretty certain they already have a queen they’re happy with, even if you can’t find any evidence of her.
  2. If something goes wrong, it’s probably your fault! Beekeeper error seems to cause the majority of queen problems and indeed most beekeeping problems in general.
  3. Inspect supers more closely. I have been avoiding doing this because the bees are so tightly packed in there it’s hard to take frames out without rolling the bees and squashing them, but smoke would help with that. We have discovered a queen cell in the top of Melissa’s two supers this year!

Here’s another amusing thing we found in Melissa’s super yesterday.

Wall of comb

It’s a wall of comb. They have done away with the bottom bee space and joined the top and bottom frames in the two supers together. Such naughty bees.

Natural comb in super

Oh and here is another brilliant example of beekeeper error. This is what happens when you leave a super one frame short in the hottest week of the year. The bees fill the space in for you with a perfect comb which makes it impossible to take the super off to inspect the brood box. We will have to put bee escapes in next weekend and then harvest some cut comb the next day once all the bees have left.

Honey bee on buddleia

Meeting this sweet little honey bee was a high point of my Friday lunch break. I was walking along by some ruined roman walls, a busy walkway used by tourists and office workers. Stopping to look at pretty wildflowers growing along the walls, I noticed a honey bee crawling on the pavement. I touched her but she didn’t fly off. This concerned me as she seemed sluggish and so perhaps likely to get stepped on. I put my hand down to her and she climbed on. Cupping her gently in my hands, I carried her to this buddleia flower, as she seemed in need of sustenance.

To be honest, I think she probably died soon after I left her. She seemed barely able to move. But I was comforted that here was somewhere fragrant and peaceful for her to pass away. Better for this tired summer worker to die surrounded by the enveloping heady scent of nectar – her life’s work – than to be trodden underfoot by someone’s unseeing shoe.

Poppy with overfly

In honour of her memory, and in honour of all her hard-working nectar and pollen carrying relatives, here is a pretty poppy.

Posted in Honey, Queens | 22 Comments