What’s flowering now – mid April; and a new allotment site for our bees

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that in the summer I like to go for a walk round my local park (Elthorne Park in Hanwell) and see what wild flowers are out. Last week I managed to continue this tradition and get out in the sunshine to find me some pretty flowers and bees.

Bumble on nettles

Bumble on nettles

I wondered if this bumble on white dead-head nettles might be a queen – she seems pretty big. That tail looks a nice clean white, do you reckon she’s a White- tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)? In ‘Plants and Honey Bees: their relationships‘ by David Aston and Sally Bucknall it says “Special mention must be made of the importance of white dead-nettle as a bumblebee forage plant for queens emerging from hibernation in spring” (p99).



Forget-me-nots I believe. They like moist habitats and these ones are growing near a river that runs through Elthorne Park.



Bluebells of various colours. The Spanish kind rather than native English bluebells I expect.

Mystery plant

Anyone know what this is?

This was one of the last flowers I spotted – not one I’ve seen in Elthorne Park before. Lots of bees were on it, but I have no idea what it is. I know some flower experts follow this blog so I’m hoping one of you can help me out!

Bumble approaching flower


Dandelions are so cheerful – and great for bees.



Lots of blossom out now too. Suddenly nature is exploding into life all around us. May is my birthday month and I love this time of year, full of hope and expectations for the summer ahead.

Tree blossom

On Friday Drew and I went down to Northfields allotments to meet Tom and make a start on getting our new plot ready. I am no gardener so am glad Tom knows what he’s doing. I found out about the plot as a result of helping out with the Radbourne Walk nature project behind it. I mentioned to someone I was a beekeeper – and it turned out one of the allotment managers had been hoping to find a beekeeper to take over a plot that none of the gardeners wanted.

Here’s a ‘before’ photo of Drew standing in front of the plot. There was a fair bit of rubbish to clear but most of the work involved chopping down brambles to make a flat space for our hives. Even though the allotments have a huge waiting list (85 people as of March 2014), people kept turning this plot down because it was overgrown, has stony ground and they think the apple tree makes it too shady. However it is a lovely plot for bees and we found it sunny on Friday.

Drew before work started

Drew before work started

I’m very excited about this new site for our bees. Northfields allotments is only a ten minute bike ride for me. Plus it’s so much fun to walk around looking at all the different flowers and fruit & veg being grown. One person has put a mini pond in theirs! Tom reckons the stony, poor soil in our plot would suit growing wild flowers, which thrive in soil like that. If I keep going to the Radbourne walk sessions I can get tips on doing this.

An after pic, after Tom got going with the strimmer. We have a plum tree (not pictured) as well as an apple tree  - fantastic!

Tom surveying his work

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How it’s all going: two weeks after shook-swarming

The apiary entrance is getting really pretty now as the wild flowers shoot up. White dead nettle, green alkanet and bluebells decorate the floor. Buzzing can be heard as bees on a mission zoom past your ears.

Today was overcast with a breeze that proved chilly at times. Coats were needed at the apiary, so inspections were quick.

Sluggish bees

Sluggish yellow bees

When I arrived Tom and Jonesie had arrived already and were busy inspecting. Tom is worried about the hive above, which has no brood and so is probably queenless. Being queenless usually makes colonies aggressive, but these bees were moving sluggishly and didn’t seem bothered by the inspection. Tom is going to test them for nosema, in case this is causing their slow-moving behaviour. He took a frame of brood from Jonesie’s hive to see if they try and make a queen cell from it.

Tom inspecting Ken's hive

Tom inspecting Ken’s hive

Above Tom is inspecting Ken’s hive. In the middle is Freddie, on the right Jonesie. Unusually they all look really serious and solemn, this isn’t usually the case! These bees are much darker and also seem healthier, with plenty of brood and stores.

Ken's dark bees

Ken’s dark bees

Sometimes I like looking at these photos of multiple bees afterwards and taking in what they’re all up to. It’s sweet seeing their little heads peeping up from the top of the frames. Some on the fifth frame from the left have found a patch of dark honey to feed on, left behind after Tom scraped some rogue comb away.

Some of the beginner beekeepers helped Emma and I inspect our hives. Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies both have capped brood two weeks after the shook-swarm. Chili’s are definitely busier and have managed to draw out more comb. Emma has been great at going to the apiary mid-week and topping up their sugar syrup.

We would really like to get Chamomile’s colony onto fresh comb now we know they have nosema, but are waiting for a nice sunny day to do that. Today I noticed a few uncapped larvae in the middle of a patch of capped brood in her hive. They worried me as they were in an upright position, not coiled and segmented as uncapped larvae should be. I used tweezers to take one out and it was quite watery, definitely not right. We popped it in the smoker to burn it.

Tom thought perhaps sacbrood could cause this. Looking back at my photos of sacbrood from this 2012 National Bee Unit workshop – Honeybee viruses – I think this could well be the case. The notes I took on the day say “Not a serious disease, as many hives have little patches of it. If it becomes a larger problem, it’s best to requeen or shake the colony onto clean comb.” Our battle to keep our bees healthy and happy continues! 

Oh by the way here’s some photos of the community wildlife gardening I helped out with at Radbourne Walk recently, featuring rather a lot of bottoms in the air!  http://ealingdean.co.uk/radbourne-walk-april-work-day 

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Building comb and a home

Last weekend was warm, so Emma and I did a shook-swarm on our two strongest hives, Myrtle and Chilli. We worked as a team, Emma shaking the bees into a fresh brood box with new foundation, then passing me the old frames to bag up in bin bags. Pat kindly got a fire going for us, into which the old frames and brood went, hopefully along with a load of varroa mites. Emma has written a great blog post about the day and her thoughts on the shook-swarm: A tale of two colonies.

Old brown comb in Myrtle's hive

Old brown comb in Myrtle’s hive

Above you can see Emma looking at a frame in Myrtle’s hive. It is old, brown comb which could be harbouring disease.

Emma shaking the bees in

Emma shaking the bees in

Emma shaking the bees in – she was very good at this and our bees are so gentle they didn’t get at all moody with us. As you can see, it was a nice sunny day. The gap in the middle gives space to shake the bees in and then we filled up the gap with frames of foundation before putting a feeder on top of the crown board and closing the hive up.

Shook swarming

If you look closely, you can see a grey clip protruding in-between the top bars of the new hive. We hung Queen Myrtle in a cage between the frames so that she stayed safe and the workers felt comforted by her smell. They will notice very quickly if her pheromones are missing and become unsettled.

We fed the colonies with strong 2:1 sugar solution syrup, which is essential to do following a shook-swarm. Worker bees have eight wax glands on the underside of their abdomens. To produce wax, they will consume nectar (or the sugar solution we provide) and hang together in chains for warmth. The sugar and warmth causes tiny wax scales to be secreted from their wax glands, which they then chew and manipulate into comb using their mandibles and forelegs.

Emma has gone back several times in the week to top up their syrup. Colonies differ in how much syrup they take in after a shook-swarm – Chilli’s hive has consumed a lot more syrup, even though she probably has slightly less bees. Myrtle’s hive has been taking less down, so they are probably collecting nectar instead. Green alkanet (evergreen bugloss) is out now and we saw lots of sweet common carder bees working it. It’s a member of the borage family but more common than borage, so a very important wildflower for bees.

carder bee

Carder bee on green alkanet (evergreen bugloss)- photo taken last May

Yesterday we did a quick check inside Myrtle and Chilli’s hives to make sure all was well after the shook-swarm. The workers were on about five central combs in Myrtle’s hive. We saw Myrtle and – even better – rows of neatly laid eggs! The workers had been even busier in Chilli’s hive and were on about eight frames. We spotted Chilli but did not see any eggs yet, though the sky was quite overcast so we may have missed them.

Fresh new comb in Myrtle's hive

Fresh new comb in Myrtle’s hive

Look how white and clean the new comb the bees have been drawing is.

Tom did a test last week on Chamomile’s hive using a small sample of about 30 worker bees, and was able to determine that nosema is present, though his test does not tell him how badly the bees are infected. He has kindly made us up a thymol solution, which we will spray lightly on her bees next weekend.

Honey loaf

Honey loaf

Afterwards, we had some cake. Jayne had brought some fab scones with jam and this is a honey loaf I made.

Today I went down to Northfields allotment to help out with their Radbourne walk wildlife project again. We cleared another section of soil before planting it with a wildflower mix containing poppies, cornflowers and some other wild flowers. English bluebells will also be going in. Nettles and green alkanet are being left to grow along the fence as they are good food for butterflies and bees.

Another stag beetle loggery was created. The logs need to be put deep in the soil, as the stag beetle larvae prefer rotten wood. The protruding wood will be good for solitary bees to nest in.

Stag beetle loggery

Stag beetle loggery

My reasons for helping out with the project are not entirely altruistic, as a nice lady called Jasmine makes sure we are very well catered for. There was a tea break with three types of cake followed by a later lunch of delicious vegetable curry with rice and tomato chutney. In-between eating/digging I also paid for our new allotment plot so that Thomas and I can move our bees there, once we’ve got the plot ready. Everyone I met seemed very happy that bees will be coming and appreciative of the benefits of having pollinators on the allotment.

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Notes from a talk by David Rudland, ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’

On Wednesday evening I went to a London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) talk by David Rudland on the topic of ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’.

David and his wife Celia (who came to the meeting too) are commercial beekeepers in Surrey with around 180 hives, producing honey, selling bees and running training courses. David is also a FERA seasonal bee inspector. There are only about 350 commercial beekeepers in the UK, representing about 1% of total beekeeper numbers here.

His talk reminded me that you can never say “I know it all now” – researchers are constantly making new discoveries that have deeply practical relevance to the best way to look after our bees. This is a post about practical beekeeping – it may not make much sense to beginners and probably won’t be very interesting for non-beekeepers! You have been warned.

Winter management – jobs to do over the winter

“I like being controversial”, David said with a big grin on his face. He then proceeded to tell us why all sorts of things most UK beekeepers do over winter are unnecessary/a bad idea.


Lots of beekeepers avoid opening their hives during winter, for fear of chilling the bees and brood. David however recommends doing a quick two minute check in December and January (as long there’s not a blizzard or horizontal rain going on). The idea is to check for brood if you’re considering treating with oxalic acid and also make sure that the bees are near stores.

Oxalic acid

Seasons have changed quite dramatically over the last couple of decades; David now finds that the majority of his hives have brood all year round. Unfortunately oxalic acid, which is used by many UK beekeepers as a winter anti-varroa treatment, is only about 20% effective when there is brood in the hive, as the mites will all hop into the brood. David feels it’s only worth doing oxalic if there’s no brood in the hive, otherwise disturbing your bees isn’t worth it.

This relates to my post in December, ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. LBKA Committee member Mark Patterson was at the meeting and spoke up to say that when he checked his bees in early-mid December they were broodless, so he was able to go ahead and do the oxalic treatment. If there is brood when you check, destroying it and coming back a day or two later is an option.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Hefting and feeding

“How many of you heft your hives?” asked David. Many of us put our hands up, only to be told not to bother. David believes it is a meaningless exercise, as it tells you nothing about where the bees are in relation to their stores. What you want to know is, have the bees got access to food? If brood is present the bees will be extremely reluctant to leave it, even if honey stores are on the next frame. This can result in them starving to death. In this situation you could dangle rolls of fondant down between the frames (thanks Mark Patterson for this tip).

If you are in any doubt, feed! Once you start feeding candy (fondant) you have to keep feeding it because they’ll put their brood nest there.Ambrosia fondant


Make sure your bees have water nearby. Water is very important for bees, even in winter, as they need it to be able to dilute their stores. David and Celia use upturned dustbin lids with stones in. Compost piles are also very good sources of moisture.


Build new frames but don’t install the wax foundation until needed. Bees don’t like building on old foundation. Warm up old foundation that’s got cold by leaving it in a warm room or, best of all, heating it gently with a hairdryer until you smell the oils. A hairdryer will warm all the way through the wax.

Spring management – jobs to do in the spring

Comb changing

April is a good time to change comb, as by then there are new young bees in the hive. The optimum age for bees to begin wax building is around 12 days old. If the shook-swarm or Bailey exchange is done too early on, the older bees which have lasted all winter will be forced to build wax. This is like asking a group of pensioners to build their own nursing home!

David and Celia find that getting the bees to draw out new comb helps maintain a good brood pattern when the queen begins laying in it.

Brushing a frame

Nice new comb – yellow, not dark brown


Shook swarming 

See FERA’s ‘Shook swarm’ fact sheet for step-by-step instructions on how to do a shook-swarm.

David’s favourite way to change comb is the shook-swarm method (shaking the bees onto new foundation, burning the old brood frames). Colonies need to have at least five frames of bees and a laying queen. The amount of brood doesn’t matter so much as the amount of adult bees. Don’t do this on colonies which are on less than five frames, as they will be too weak.

It should take an average sized colony about a week and a half to draw a new brood box’s worth of comb out in April. Always feed heavy 2:1 sugar to water ratio syrup after shook-swarming, even if a nectar flow is on. David finds the cost of wax and syrup are more than recovered through the subsequent strength of the colony.

Shook-swarming can be used as a great anti-varroa technique. If you take two combs of open (uncapped) brood when shook-swarming and place them in the middle of the new brood box, all the mites feeding on the adult bees will jump into the larvae to reproduce. Once the larvae has been capped, you then remove these frames before the bees and varroa hatch twelve days later! If you forget to do this in time, congratulations you’ve just bred varroa.

Someone asked if doing the shook-swarm puts colonies backwards, but David finds the contrary – the sense of urgency to replace the comb really makes the bees go for it. He knows a commercial beekeeper who shook-swarms all his bees in May – it improves his honey production as the workers then don’t have to worry about feeding brood.

The shook-swarm can also work well as a quick technique to unite two colonies. Pick one queen and shake the two colonies in together. Spray a little sugar water over to distract them from fighting and they should be fine.

Bailey comb change

See FERA’s ‘Replacing comb’ fact sheet for step-by-step instructions on how to do a Bailey comb change.

David’s method of Bailey comb change uses multiple dummy boards on both side of the brood boxes to create a ‘chimney’ effect. The bees in the bottom brood box warm up the bees above, making it easier for them to draw new comb. Once mature brood is present in the new comb, move the queen up into the top box and put a queen excluder between the two boxes.

The Bailey change is gentle, not too drastic and preserves brood. This makes it more suitable for small colonies. If a small colony has nosema, the Bailey change will not destroy all the spores but will get the colony in a better shape to cope with the nosema. However, any pathogens on the old comb are transferred up to the new comb as the bees move about and the varroa are also preserved because the brood is left to hatch.

In both methods, ultimately the comb is discarded but the wooden frames can be reused. David and Celia use a team of 34 geese to eat up the wax from the sides of old frames – apparently they love it. They’re then boiled in washing soda (the frames, not the geese).

Does the queen have space to lay?

Don’t let your brood nests become clogged with stores. If there are no empty brood cells free, the queen won’t have space to lay. If you have any drawn out comb you could put this in and remove a couple of frames of stores.

Thoughts on MAQs anti-varroa strips

“Anyone tried MAQs yet?” asked David. Mark P had bought some but not used it yet; no-one else had tried it.

Apparently people have reported mixed results with MAQs. The biggest issue is often loss of brood, because the formic acid will permeate through the brood cell cappings. Yes it kills varroa in the brood, but it kills brood too! In that way it’s like doing a shook-swarm. It has some advantages over Apiguard as it can be used safely whilst the bees are storing honey. It will eat any metal work inside the hive and even kill grass in front of the hive!

You can find David and Celia’s website at www.eastsurreybees.co.uk. What do you think of his methods, would you consider using any of them?

Drone brood after MAQs strips

Drone brood after MAQs strips. Downloaded from the BBKA online Gallery.

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Our empire expands and I see beautiful wild comb up a tree

When I walked into the apiary, Albert said to me “I hear you’ve gone commercial”. He pointed past his shoulder, where a row of three new hives had been set up next to our existing three, all six neatly labelled “Emily and Emma”. Emma had been busy!

Our new empire consists of the first six hives you see on the left. The newer hives are obvious as they are all light and unstained. Emma said some of our bees came out to check ‘em out, plus a queen bumblebee was nosing around! She’s blogged about her hard work at ‘A string of warm days and daffodils‘, accompanied by some beautiful cheery photos of the apiary and daffodils.

Our new empire

Our new empire

We are now ready to do our comb changes. I must remember to mark our new frames with the month and date, plus 1-10 so that we know which order they started off in. This makes it harder to put them back in the wrong order when inspecting. Must also remember to, er, make them. Kinda haven’t done that yet.

During tea and cake chatting I met a very enthusiastic new beekeeper. He had only just visited the apiary for the first time, but had already joined the association, bought a smoker and bought a bee suit. He also plans to get two to three hives soon! I was a bit worried that he’s rushing into things too quickly, but he said his grandfather was a beekeeper so perhaps he’s picked up a few tips from him.

“Who’s happy being up a ladder?” asked John Chapple. Tom volunteered himself; the reason was that our Chairman Clare Vernon has a neighbour with bees living in their tree. The house is currently being done up and the neighbour may not be happy to move back in with the bees still there. The most amazing thing is that these bees aren’t nesting in a hole but just in comb hanging from the tree.

Tom, Clare, Albert and I went to have a look so that Tom could make plans to remove the bees. On the concrete path leading up to the garden were some unmoving bees, which probably landed there and then got too cold to fly off again. They were the darkest honeybees I’ve ever seen, black in every single abdomen segment. I placed two dead ones in my pocket to study at home. 

When we got inside the garden (the builders let us in) I gasped when I saw the comb up the tree at the end. It was magnificent, seven combs graduated in size hanging high up. The end comb was marked brown so had obviously contained brood at some point. They arrived as a swarm last summer; Clare said that when the colony was at its largest the comb was completely hidden and she could just see a ball of bees in the tree.  There were a few bees entering the comb but not many, so Tom thought maybe it’s just being robbed out now – that would be sad if such a hardy colony has died out.

Combs in tree

Combs in tree

On our way out I picked up a black bee which was moving slightly on the concrete path and blew hot air on her. She soon perked up and began walking around on my hand. I left her on a plant. When I got home I removed the two dead bees from my pocket, only to find to my horror that they had come alive again in the warmth. Sadly one had stung my coat and had her sting hanging out, while the other had two damaged legs. I had to put them out of their misery – I won’t assume that unmoving bees are dead again. Poor wee things. 

bee colony in tree

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First peek under the bonnet

Yesterday wasn’t predicted to be sunny. And yet it was. The whole apiary was lit up; the daffodils glowed, the bees zoomed.


It was the first practical session for this year’s intake of newbee beekeepers doing the Ealing association’s beginners course. There was some moaning from a few of the men as apparently the rugby was on! But they were very lucky really – if it had been raining we wouldn’t have been able to do anything, but instead they all helped me inspect our three hives. Exciting for me too as it was the first time I’ve seen inside the hives since early October.

Stan teaching the newbies

Stan teaching the newbies

Freddie inspecting

Freddie inspecting

There were six newbies (four men & two ladies – incidentally mostly in their late twenties/early thirties I think), none of whom had ever looked inside a hive before. So they were learning the very basics: checking the crown board for the queen, prising frames apart with a hive tool, holding the frames vertically so that nectar doesn’t fall out, keeping the frames over the hive in case the queen falls off and how to put the hive back together without squashing bees.

There is quite a lot to learn which you take for granted once you’ve had practice. For instance, I found it hard to distinguish between dark capped honey and capped brood in the beginning. Many people mistake drones for queens at first. Is that bell shaped bit of comb you’re looking at a ‘charged’ queen cell with a larvae inside, or just a play cup?

Glowing frame of bees

I was pleased that everyone had a go and no-one seemed afraid of the bees. One person had no gloves on at all and the rest thin latex gloves. Our bees are really docile so there were no stings or even any agitation. Plus we saw all three queens, what a treat!

Looking at beautiful capped honey

Looking at beautiful capped honey

The only downer from my point of view was that Chamomile’s ladies in their two brood boxes has very little brood – only about a frame and a half. There’s a load of honey and pollen in the top box but not much going on down below where Chamomile is. The other two colonies (headed up by Queens Myrtle and Chilli) had at least double that amount of brood.

Beautiful pollen colours

Beautiful pollen colours

Inspecting a frame of bees

Being slow to build up in spring is a classic symptom of nosema, so I’m wondering if feeding some thymol syrup would be a good idea. Does anyone know any good recipes? Thornes is selling Vitafeed Gold, which they say “is particularly effective when applied to colonies infected with nosema” – but I have no experience of using this myself. In the past I’ve used Fumadil B as a preventative, which is no longer licensed for use in the UK.

Also, having just read Randy Oliver’s post on The Nosema twins: alternative treatments, he says “A recent study by Eischen (2008) indicates that feeding pollen supplement during winter may be as effective as fumagillin treatment for promoting health of colonies with light infections!”. I have some Nektapol supplement, so this may be the best colony to give it to. It’s also possible that Chamomile was poorly mated after she emerged last year and is running out of eggs, causing her to slow down production. Welcome to the beekeepers’ guessing game.

After a cup of tea I went to meet up with Tom and one of the managers of a local allotment site. We were checking out a plot to see if we can put bees there. Even though there is a huge waiting list for the allotments, several gardeners have turned the plot down as it’s bordered by trees and a bit overgrown with brambles. However, with a bit of tidying up it’ll be grand for bees. And for the tidying we may even get the help of some young offenders doing community service! 

As long as none of the other allotment holders turn out to be allergic to bees, it looks hopeful that we can move our bees there from their current location in Hanwell, as their current site is a bit problematic for a few reasons. Fingers crossed.

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Return of the piper

What a beautiful day it was yesterday. Today is predicted to be even better, a very un-March like 15°C/59ºF in London!

As Jonesie said, there was a “buzz in the air” at the apiary. The bees were zipping in and out with purpose, returning with bulging yellow pollen baskets. Shopping time!

Us humans needed to stock up too. Before any beekeeping could be done, tea and cake were required. This cake is a true work of art. The lady who made it used a template she found online and drew round it on her computer screen – ingenious.

Bee sponge cake

Nothing like a cake bulging with jam and cream.

Cutting the sponge cake

Tea inside us, it was time to see our bees. We had a young visitor named Benjamin. He lives nearby and is still at school. It was a good day for him to visit, as it was the first day of the year we’ve been able to take the crown boards off and quickly peek inside.

What we saw made us happy. Jonesie’s two hives and mine and Emma’s three are all alive and thriving, on between six-eight frames. As so much pollen was coming in I removed our mouse guards – they can cause pollen to be lost as the bees push through.

It will also be easier for them to bring out the dead now. The winter bees are dying off; until May developing brood will outnumber adult bees in the hive. It is a difficult time for the few adults as they try to feed all their young charges. Benjamin noticed a “bee graveyard” in front of one of the hives, a macabre pile of dead bodies on the floor.

Yellow pollen

Yellow pollen

Tom has been mentoring me and Jonesie and was pleased with the results. We have been using insulated roofs which Tom made, plus additional polystyrene insulation inside the roof cavity above the fondant feed. “Place your hand on the fondant” he said, “feel how warm it is”. He believes the insulation helps keep that heat in the fondant, assisting the bees. They need to maintain the brood nest at a toasty 34-35°C so that the growing larvae develop properly.

So far we have only had one hive die overwinter in the apiary. We started with eleven colonies, which has gone down to ten after one nucleus died. I think a combination of regular comb changing, using Apiguard and oxalic acid anti-varroa treatments, making sure the bees have enough food (Emma and I only took a couple of frames from one hive last year), good insulation and loving care is the secret. We have been lucky with the mild winter too.

As we walked around watching our bees, the sounds of the local bagpiper floated insistently through the air. He often practices on sunny Saturday afternoons; I think it was the first time I’ve heard him this year. There are rumours that he stands in the middle of a field wearing his kilt as he blasts out his notes. It felt like he was triumphantly announcing the coming of spring for us.

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