A post for bee and poppy lovers

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve joined the London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) mentoring scheme this year. Today I was joined at the Perivale apiary by one of my mentees, Chris. He is doing well and spotted lots of eggs as well as queen Pepper. He also got stung for the first time, so is now properly on his way to becoming a beekeeper.

Chris inspecting 2

Queen Melissa must have given her loyal subjects orders to destroy all records, as their hive records had a distinctly chewed appearance. Perhaps she is hoping to remove all evidence of her age before her daughters decide she is getting too old. Still no sign of queen cells and the bees are well on their way to filling up a second super. They really are the most perfect bees.

Chewed hive records

I enjoyed finding Albert’s new and rather upmarket hive stand.

Posh hive stand

We inspected all three hives and found them queen-right. While Chris was inspecting he noticed that Pepper’s bees had a few cells with dead larvae in – only about ten in total spread throughout the brood box – these looked like bald brood or chalk brood but I think in such small amounts nothing to worry about. Will keep an eye on it though.

Afterwards I had some lunch with Drew and then went on my own to check on the allotment bees. When you are having a hard time in life and things are not going your way, the allotment is a good place to come for some mental healing. Our wildflowers sowed a few months ago have burst into colour, with red poppies waving everywhere. In amongst them bumbles buzzed and chirping sparrows jumped from stem to stem.

Borage and poppies

Borage and poppies

Allotment poppies

Allotment apiary

Our cherries are turning red to match the poppies.

Poppies and hives

Allotment poppies

It’s harder to be sad while watching a bumble feeding on bramble flowers.
Bumble bee on bramble

Can you see how her pollen baskets are grey but with orange coloured stripes running through them? I loved that.

Bumble bee flying from bramble

Inside the hive things were not so comforting. Sadly my troubles with the allotment bees continue, after combining the two hives on 6th June it seems something has happened to Andromeda, who had been laying so well in the nuc. No sign of eggs last weekend so Tom kindly gave me a test frame with eggs to see if the bees would try and produce a queen cell to replace her. They had done nothing with the test frame this week.

Sometimes queens stop laying if there’s not much nectar coming in, but the blackberries are out now and there’s no shortage of food in the hive. It may be that she has accidentally been squashed at some point or something went wrong when combining the two colonies. But as they haven’t tried to make a queen cell from the test frame, is either Andromeda or another queen in there somewhere but not laying for some reason? Another of these bee mysteries. All thoughts or theories welcome.

Honey super

I still inspected without gloves or smoke, but I could sense a change in mood, without the calming effect of open brood pheromones they were more buzzy and irritable than in the past. They also have more honey to defend now. Above you can see them hard at work in the super. It’s not all capped yet but all the frames have been filled and it’s mighty heavy to lift off.

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Summer visitors to the apiary

We had some fascinating visitors to the apiary on Saturday. A dad and his little boy, who we lent a mini-sized bee suit. The little boy had sandals on, so he borrowed his dad’s socks. It was sweet to see an enormous grin come over his face as he watched the bees. Putting on bee suits

We also had a couple from Bulgaria, who had driven two hours across London to visit us in the wilds of zone 4. Alexa and her boyfriend are working in London for a few months and wanted to visit British beekeepers – because they are missing their bees.

And no wonder. When I asked Alexa how many hives they have, she replied “seventy”. Yep, 70! I thought perhaps they might be professional or semi-professional beekeepers, but no… in Bulgaria they both work full-time then travel 200 miles each weekend to check up on their bees. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what beekeeping does to you. You will go absolutely barmy through love for your bees.

Emma and I inspected and found our bees doing well. The new queen which emerged from a cell after we split Pepper’s hive has begun laying. Pepper and Melissa are continuing to lay beautifully. During the seven years I’ve had Melissa’s bees, the colony has tended towards superseding rather than swarming, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they try to supersede her late in the season this year. I just hope that goes off without a hitch as we’ve been through a lot with those bees and it would be sad to lose their line of gentle, hardy, non-swarmy ladies.

There were sad times at the allotment last weekend, as Cassiopeia turned out to be a drone-layer. She had to be dispatched and the colony combined with Andromeda’s bees, using the ever reliable newspaper method. This has turned it into a monster of a hive – three brood boxes, one super (Cassiopeia was on two brood boxes as I hadn’t quite finished the Bailey comb change). My challenge for the coming weekend is to mark queen Andromeda and reduce the colony down into two brood boxes.

A few photos of flowers, a bee, a horse and a pudding to finish the post.

Bumblebee on foxglove

The bumblebee above I found in the New Forest on Sunday. I found several horses too.
New Forest horse

These little white flowers look a bit like stitchwort – are they?

White flowers

The Barbican has some spectacular alliums this year. The bees adore them.

Alliums at Southbank centre


Bees eat flowers, I eat waffles.

Fruits of the forest waffle

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What’s flowering now: late May

It’s been a while since I’ve done a post about what’s flowering now. Today at the London Wetland Centre I found plenty of flowers, so it seemed like a good time. Most people who go to the Centre come away with photos of ducks, swans or otters, of course I managed to  get bees instead!

Carder bee on red clover

Carder bee on red clover

Red clover is just coming out now and I think this is a common carder bee, the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger. The first time red clover flowers it has too long a flower for a honey bee to collect the nectar, but red clover which has been cut and then grown back has a flower short enough for a honey bee to reach the nectar. Ted Hooper writes in ‘Guide to Bees and Honey‘ (5th ed, 2010) that it flowers from mid July to the end of August – which just shows how much our climate is changing.

Carder bee on red clover

Some herbs – always popular with bees – are starting to flower. These little pinky white flowers are thyme.

Bumblebee on thyme

But what bee is this? I think perhaps an Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum). This one has a wide yellow band on its thorax, so perhaps a male? The Bumblebee Conservation Trust website says “Early bumblebees are a particularly small species and the workers are markedly smaller than other foraging worker species appearing in the springtime. Males have a broad yellow collar that wraps around the thorax, and yellow hair on the face.” Mature nests are small, often with fewer than 100 workers.

Bumblebee on borage

This blue star-like plant is borage, a great favourite with bees. Lots of creamy pollen in the baskets. As males don’t have to collect pollen, this must be a female. Another Early bumblebee?

Bumblebee on borage

Garlic chives

Garlic chives

Garlic chives. You can’t see from the photo but bees were all over these, including a magnificently huge and fluffy common Carder bee.

Dog rose

Dog roses are popular with honey bees.

Yellow flag iris

I saw all kinds of bees working the yellow flag irises that lined the watersides.

Garden poppy

I didn’t see any bees on these garden poppies but included them anyway because they’re so beautiful.

Insect hotel

A pretty impressive insect hotel.

White flower

Now, a couple of flowers I’d like help with. I keep seeing these lovely clusters of white flowers everywhere – what are they?

EDIT: Thanks LindyLou and Lucy Garden for identifying this as the UK’s native viburnum, Guelder Rose.

Pink flower

And what about this lollipop-shaped pink one? Thanks!

EDIT: Thanks LindyLou for identifying this as Bistorta officinalis, commonly known as bistort or European bistort.

Posted in Foraging | Tagged , | 31 Comments

How warm is your bra and are you afraid of ants?

“How warm is your bra?” said John Chapple to Clare as she arrived at the Ealing apiary yesterday. This seemed like a slightly nosy question to ask a lady and I wondered if the torrential rain had left John concerned that Clare was soaked through. However all became clear as, in the style of a magician, John pulled two queens out of his pockets. Each queen was soon snuggled away tightly inside Clare’s bra (in a cage, not roaming freely).

Although there were not that many people around on a rainy bank holiday, we had three lots of cakes. Mine was coffee and walnut, Clare’s a strawberry sponge and Rebecca had bought fairy cakes. They were all demolished by the time I finished inspecting our hives. I left the crumbs for the robin. Conversation over tea was mainly to do with the benefits of ale and drinking in general.

Clare's strawberry cake

Clare’s strawberry cake, modelled by John Chapple

Pepper’s hive seems to be doing fine after we split them two weeks ago and has not produced any new queen cells. I put a super on; if the rain stops they can start collecting some nectar. The other half of the artificial swarm split hopefully has a new queen in there, but she’s not laying yet. No point worrying unless she’s not laying in a couple of weeks time. Melissa’s colony is lovely as ever, full of bees and honey, and showing no signs of swarm preparations so far.

Tom took Jonesy and me to see the hives at Perivale Wood, which was a bit of a treat. The hives there have an unusual set up as they’re inside a shed.  “Are you afraid of ants?” he asked as he removed the lid from one of the hives. I did get quite a shock as an entire ant colony with mounds of eggs was living in the roof. The bees don’t seem to be suffering for it and were thriving. Perhaps the ants like the warmth they give off.

Perivale wood bee shed

Perivale wood bee shed



Drone brood

Lots of drone brood! Foundationless hives tend to produce more.

I have signed up for the London Beekeepers Association mentoring scheme this year. This involves being assigned mentees who have taken the LBKA beginners course and then come and help me with inspections over the summer. This year there have been an unusually high number of people on the course who want mentors, so I have been given four mentees. Julie and Jeff were away for the bank holiday but Bertrand and Chris were able to meet me at the allotment today.

It was nice to have company and help as sometimes it can get a bit lonely at the allotment when I’m on my own. Below is Chris looking at a frame of honey and pollen.

Chris inspecting

We didn’t see the new queen, Cassiopeia, but there were a few eggs and uncapped larvae so she seems to have just started laying. Worryingly Bertrand spotted one uncapped queen cell. Surely they are not going to want to try to swarm again and just one cell suggests supercedure rather than swarming to me. So I left the cell in case they know something I don’t about Cassiopeia. Perhaps the time she spent under the hive (see previous post ‘The queen who went in the wrong place‘) has weakened her.

Inside the nucleus Queen Andromeda is laying well. Frustratingly I couldn’t find her to show Chris and Bertrand, but she’s certainly there somewhere. This colony can probably be transferred to a full sized hive with the help of some dummy boards next week. I am hoping the main madness of the swarming season is now over!

Opening the nucleus box

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The queen who went in the wrong place

Today I found a mystery awaiting me at the allotment. Ever seen this many bees under a hive? Just hanging out? And bees with pollen disappearing within their midst?

Bees clustering under hive 3

Bees clustering under hive 2

Usually you might get maybe a couple of bees wandering around under the floor. I had several thousand. I had a look through the hive to see if that might help solve the mystery. And found these:

Queen cell on side

Queen cell

Both of the two queen cells which were capped last week are now empty. The only brood left in the hive now is sealed. Either I have one queen or two – possibly there was a fatal fight, perhaps the older queen stung the younger one while she was still in the cell, or possibly one queen left with a swarm.

Bees at entrance

All looked well at the entrance, the bees were enjoying the sunshine after a pretty miserable and rainy week.

I texted Tom about the mysterious cluster. He very kindly volunteered to come and help, as he thought it best to take the hive apart, turn the hive floor upside down and shake the bees back in. I am glad he could help as the colony is a big ‘un on two brood boxes and a super, making for a lot of heavy lifting.

Having pulled all the boxes off, Tom turned the floor upside down, revealing the huge mass of bees collected there. He rested the floor on one of the brood boxes and the bees immediately quietly began walking down into the darkness of the frames. I didn’t fancy our chances of spotting any queen present in the midst of all the bees. Then suddenly Tom saw her – a lovely dark and surely mated queen, her abdomen longer than that of a virgin. After a bit of walking about, down she went too.

While all this was going on, bees were flying all over the place as returning foragers were coming home to find their hive mysteriously missing. So it was a bit awkward that one of the other allotment holders chose that moment to bring her two young children over to look at the bees through the netting. While she told them how gentle the bees are, Tom and I were nervously hoping no stings were about to occur.

After they had left, we put the hive back together and peace was restored. So what happened? Well, Tom has a theory that after her mating flight the queen came home and got confused – instead of going in the entrance she went under the hive. There had been a large amount of bees clustering under the hive last weekend too, possibly to keep cool. She may have smelled their Nasonov glands and thought under the hive was the place to be. I am glad she’s not out in the cold tonight.

The curious thing is, queens are only supposed to be ready to mate 5-6 days after emerging. I inspected last Saturday and the cells were still sealed. If she emerged last Sunday, the earliest she would have been ready to mate would have been Thursday, a very rainy day. Did she only just go out to mate yesterday? Would her ovaries have developed enough to make her a full sized queen already? Or did I somehow miss an older queen cell – not impossible, with three boxes to inspect. Another beekeeping mystery.

I’ll finish with another mystery – a pretty pink flower which I saw a bumblebee enjoying. I’m hoping someone will know what it is.

Pink flower with bee

Pink flower

EDIT: Many kind people have now told me it’s comfrey. Lindylou has commented: “I think it’s Comfrey too. In English sometimes referred to as knitbone because of its healing components. Let dogs eat it if they want too it is good for them if they are experiencing leg and hip pain. You can roll mince etc. up in it like you can with cabbage and grape leaves too.”

And nessaplantlover says “your mystery flower is comfrey. I have plants with white flowers and purple flowers. Cut the plant back and put on the compost heap or put it in a big bucket ifvwater and leave for a couple of weeks to fester. It will stink but you can then use the stinky water diluted to feed your garden plants or your veggies. They will love it.”

Posted in Queens | Tagged | 33 Comments

Getting my bee-jo back

I didn’t post about the bees last weekend because I felt especially down about my beekeeping skills after an intense catalogue of failures on Saturday. First, I failed to find Queen Stella in my allotment bees, which would have been particularly useful given that they had produced some queen cells. Next, I improvised with swarm control by doing a split that afterwards didn’t make much sense to me. Lastly, for the second week running I failed to find our queens Pepper and Melissa so that we could finish off the Bailey comb change. A complete hat-trick of bee failures.

Luckily, yesterday was not so bad. With both Emma and I inspecting, we miraculously found both Pepper and Melissa! Last week I had put queen excluders between each colony’s three boxes to try and narrow down which box the queens were in. We then knew that frames with eggs in = the box containing the queen. Pepper and Melissa have now been moved up into their box of new frames drawn out by the bees. These look like the frame Emma’s holding below, all fresh and clean.

New brood frame

Now that these frames are drawn out in each hive, the queens can start laying in them. A queen excluder below stops the queens laying in the old combs. The brood hatches out in the old combs and then we can throw them away, or give them to anyone who might want to boil and reuse the frames. Alternatively we could destroy the brood before it hatches, as a varroa control technique – bees with deformed wings have been spotted. Emma put monitoring boards below the hives, so we can see how bad the mite drop is next week.

Here’s Jonesie finishing off his Bailey comb change with Jochen helping – the bees were not too happy at their boxes being pulled apart.

Jonesie inspecting

Shaking bees

Lots of pretty flowers are out now. Forget-me-nots are smart – once the flower is pollinated, the yellow centre fades to white to indicate to pollinators that no more nectar is available.



Today Tom helped me out with the allotment bees. You may have heard the news that a new royal princess has arrived in the world – well, my bees had been busy making new royal princesses of their own. And not just one but so many I lost count… possibly as many as 15 queen cells were scattered across the frames, some on the sides, some on the bottom. Luckily I found Queen Stella and Tom helped by taking her away with some of her bees in a nuc. Reduced down the queen cells to just two, one sealed, one unsealed as insurance. Destroying queen cells is not something I enjoy, but if the hive produced several cast swarms most of them would probably not survive and could create a nuisance if they start building in people’s homes.

I finally found bees on a dandelion… right outside Tom’s hive, they were going mad for it. I had been wondering why everyone says dandelions are so good for bees as I’d never seen any on one, but now I have! Mark Patterson from the London Beekeepers Association told me on Facebook that “Lots of bees frequently visit dandelions. The problem with them is they need 3 hours of un-interrupted direct sun exposure before they start to secrete nectar. If you get a very warm sunny morning the bees go mad for them. They collect both nectar and pollen.”

Bees on dandelion

This is what Tom’s entrance looked like, after a rainy morning the bees were loving the sunshine.

Bees flying home

Occasionally I do things that don’t involve bees. Sometimes I do things involving cats instead:

Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium

Cat lattes

And anything that involves eating is a big hit with me, like this carrot cake at Lady Dinah’s cat emporium.

Carrot cake

And a veggie dim-sum platter at Shikumen, Ealing. Yum.

Posted in Colony management, Swarms | Tagged | 32 Comments

Inside an ancient bluebell wood

Today was the annual Perivale Wood bluebell open day. Most of the year the wood is closed unless you are a member, but in April each year thousands of people come to enjoy the bluebells. This year a record 2023 visitors came to see their beautiful blues.

Bluebells, Perivale wood

Bluebells sign, Perivale Wood

Bluebells, Perivale wood

The Perivale wood website says “Perivale Wood is a typical English bluebell wood, with some 4-5 million flowers in spring. On a calm day in late April or May, the scent of the massed blooms is delightful. Bluebells are long-lived plants, lasting for 20 or more years, as long as the leaves are not trampled in spring, and each year the bulb grows larger; they only flower after several years, when the bulbs are large enough.”

White bluebells, Perivale wood

Bluebells are not always blue!

Bluebells, Perivale wood

Bluebells, Perivale wood

Bluebells, Perivale wood
Not all bluebells in the UK are our native bluebell. Some are Spanish or a Spanish/British hybrid. The Natural History Museum website explains:

“The easiest way to tell the difference between native and non-native bluebells is to look at the colour of the pollen.

If it is creamy-white then the bluebell is a native.  If it is any other colour, such as pale green or blue, then it is definitely not native.

When the pollen is shed, the empty anther can be a pale cream colour, so make sure you look at the most recently opened flowers at the top of the spike, to find the true colour of the pollen.”

The Perivale wood bluebells are native – a sign of an ancient woodland.

Popping up here and there amidst the bluebells were Greater stitchworts, a white flower that grows in hedgerows and woodland edges from May to August.

Greater stitchwort sign, Perivale wood

Bluebells and Greater stitchwort, Perivale wood

Greater stitchwort, Perivale wood

Greater stitchwort and bluebells, Perivale wood

There are even a few pink flowers – red campion?

Pink flower Red campion?, Perivale wood

Thanks to the organisers of the Perivale Wood open day for a grand time. As well as the bluebells, very good value food and drink was available, plus stalls and events like archery and morris dancing. It must have taken a lot of work to put together.

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