Tucking the bees in for winter

It has taken a while to come, but at last we have proper see-your-breath-in-the-air, see-the-sparkling-frost-in-the-mornings cold. The kind of cold that stops honey bees flying. I walked round the apiary yesterday and the hives could have been abandoned, so quiet were the entrances. Hiding inside – several thousand bees, hundreds of woodlice, a few gigantic spiders and at least one hibernating queen wasp.

Apiary in November sunshine

It is too cold for syrup now, so a slab of fondant has been placed over their crown-boards. Pepper’s girls also have one super, Melissa’s two. Peppermint’s bees were a new split from Pepper’s hive this year and didn’t manage to fill out a super, but they do have plenty of honey in their brood box.

Apiary in November

Mouse-guards are on, chicken wire to protect against woodpeckers has been placed around the hives and we are using special insulated roofs Tom made for us. Varroa boards left out so that the hives have ventilation from below through the open-mesh floors. I think of it as going into battle, assembling all the weapons we have against the elements and creatures that prey on bees. The bees will do most of the work of course, huddling protectively round their queen as outside the wind howls, the rain lashes and the frost bites.

Woodpecker chicken wire protection

These are a few last details but really preparing the bees for winter goes on all year long. You are always preparing the bees for winter – because the best weapon is having healthy bees to begin with. A combination of luck, the local environment and how well you looked after the bees during the year.

It’s things like how clean your equipment is, how recently you replaced your brood combs, how low you kept varroa levels, how much honey you left them, how many times you managed to inspect the colony without squashing the queen or tripping over and dropping boxes of bees everywhere. What was the weather like, were new queens able to mate well, could the foragers fly often, were there good sources of forage around for them to find? If all that went well, then the colony has a good chance of surviving whatever winter can throw at them. Just don’t forget to put your mouse-guard on.

What are your beekeeping weapons of choice against winter’s fury?

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A visit to the country… with bonus bees

Last weekend brought a perfect start to November. An appropriately misty October 31st was followed by a sunny Sunday, showing off the dew glistening on the enormous spider webs hanging from the scaffolding outside our house.

To take advantage of a rare Sunday with no jobs to do, Drew and I took a trip to the country in our camper van. Our destination was the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. As Drew has lifetime National Trust membership we both get in for free. Having traversed through a labyrinth of multi-laned roundabouts, which we always seemed to end up in the wrong lane for, we arrived at a beautiful manor house with an even more beautiful garden full of gently falling leaves.

Hughenden Manor

Here’s what the house looks like. It used to belong to our (so-far) only Jewish born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. I’m sure he would have approved of its use as a cartography centre during World War II, churning out painstakingly accurate hand-drawn maps which our pilots crossing Germany used to find their targets.

War time food, Hughenden Manor

A war-time display in the manor’s basement shows the type of food the artists who lived there ate. My father was a war-time baby and is very fond of condensed milk; sliced bananas with half a can of condensed milk poured over the top was a common snack while I was growing up.

Bee hives, Hughenden Manor

I had genuinely not come looking for bees, but I found them. I leaned over the fence and took in the scent of the hives. As it was a sunny day, with bees zipping frantically in and out, I could catch the sweet smell of nectar. Apiaries definitely have their own aromas which perhaps are more noticeable to a beekeeper familiar with them, as Drew couldn’t detect it.

Honey bee on mallow flower

I tracked the bees down inside the sheltered vegetable garden. I think this may be a mallow flower, or at least related to one. Please correct me if I’m wrong. The 1st November and the bees were still enjoying themselves on these and a wall full of mature ivy.

Honey bee on mallow flower

Not just honey bees either. I was astonished to see this bumble bee.

Bumble bee on mallow flower

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering it’s been a warm autumn and there have been reports of buff-tailed bumble bees breeding throughout the winter in Southern England. Is anyone else still seeing bumbles here?


This gentleman looks ready for winter.

Autumn leaves

The trees were ablaze in their autumn shades, glowing amber, russet, red, gold and green. We walked lazily along the paths, kicking up dry piles of leaves and observing fat squirrels hopping up trunks.

Autumn leaves 2

Drew and autumn leaves

Today London has turned soggy and we’re huddled inside watching rain steaming up the windows. My cat Bob is wisely staying warm and cosy under the duvet. I expect the bees are at home too, taking stock of their stores. Will their weighty vaults of honey combs be enough for the coming months of winter? Now is an anxious time for beekeepers. All we can do is watch and wait; and I have my own waiting of another kind to do too.

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London Honey Show 2015

Today I went to the fifth annual London Honey Show at the Lancaster London hotel. The Show includes the honey competition, talks and stalls to visit. This was the first year it’s been held at the weekend rather than a weekday evening. It seemed a bit less busy than usual, but that may have been because it was on for longer.

Below are the London honeys entered in the tasting competition. You can see the variety of colours from pale yellows to dark reds.

Honeys for tasting

Some cute art work done by children at a local school.

Children's art work

I especially liked the ecstatically grinning bees below, which have wings the size of butterflies.

Children's art work

Hotel hives

The hotel has hives on their roof; one of the two employees who helps looks after the bees showed us up to a room with a view of the hives. Though there are nine hives down there, only one is occupied at the moment, following problems with colonies dying out due to varroa.

Lancaster London hives

I missed the first talk but arrived in time to hear James Hamill, “Tales of beekeeping from around the world”.

James owns the Hive Honey Shop, a family-run business on Northcote Road, SW11. He has over 100 beehives and practises migratory beekeeping, moving the hives to secret locations in remote areas. He does rooftop beekeeping in London too and has kept bees for the royal family at St James’ Palace and Highgrove.

He meets with the beekeepers whose honey he sells to make sure their honeys are minimally processed, rather than heat treated and blended together from multiple hives.

His life made me very jealous, as in-between running the shop he likes to travel internationally to meet beekeepers in other parts of the world. He showed us photos from many places including Uganda, St Lucia, Turkey and Tuscany. He donates equipment to the beekeepers he visits and also purchases honey and old hives for his collection of historical beehives. His attic contains hundreds of honeys!

He has trekked to watch the honey hunters of Nepal, who construct their rope from natural materials gathered that day, then scale cliffs to take the giant combs of Apis Dorsata bees. They will slaughter a goat before setting off – if the goat had a healthy liver they go ahead, if not this is a sign from god not to go. The honey hunting expedition is a perilous one.

James watched the local children standing underneath the cliffs as the honey was collected. They held their mouths open in delight as the honey rained down, not caring despite getting stung all over by the wrathful bees. Not just the honey is taken but the larvae too, which is a great source of protein. It’s eaten boiled up with saffron.

A member of the audience asked how many colonies James lost last winter – he said none (apart from two nucs). He puts this success down to “absolute cleanliness”. He changes his equipment each season, using different summer equipment and winter equipment. Frames are changed each year. He uses wooden hives so that he can scorch them with a blowtorch and destroy potential diseases and pests (as Emma and I do too). For this reason he dislikes polystyrene or plastic hives, as they require chemicals to clean them. He uses thymol as a varroa treatment and has also used eucalyptus and peppermint oils.

Competition winner!

Jonesy won the best packaging award for his Kew honey. A win for Ealing!

Jonesey winning

Kew Honey

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‘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?!

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