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

Ants

Ants!

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.”

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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.

Forget-me-nots

Forget-me-nots

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.
IMG_4910

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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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Beekeeping – the frantic way

I think I can now safely say that all of our five colonies made it through winter. I am not completely satisfied with this result as two are small, only on about four to five frames. A perfect result would have been five booming colonies with brood boxes full to the brim.

Still, I know we are lucky to have our bees safe and well, as the blogs I read around the world remind me that not all colonies make it through winter. We have not opened our hives to find the heartbreaking sight of a tiny dead cluster. Our success has probably been aided by a 2014 which was a dream year for weather, with plenty of warm, sunny days interspersed by light rain to keep the nectar flowing.

Blossom flowers

Lots of beautiful blossom out now for the bees

Having five colonies does mean a lot of work though, especially at this time of year. Endless hammering together of frames (my least favourite job) and stirring sugar into water to make syrup to encourage the bees to draw out fresh new combs as part of the Bailey comb exchange. Then transporting the heavy syrup to the bees, trying to find a space to fit with my bulky bee equipment on a packed Saturday bus. Rushing down to the allotment before work, or rushing over afterwards when it’s nearly getting dark. Broken nails and yellow propolis stained hands.

I am grateful for the sunshine though, and am enjoying watching all the new flowers coming along. The bluebells are here!

Bluebells, Ealing apiary

Bluebells at the Ealing apiary

Bluebells under allotment tree

Bluebells under a tree at the allotment

Last weekend I helped out at a practical session for the new recruits taking the Ealing association’s annual beginners course. I supervised them inspecting a few hives, showing them how to turn the frames and what they were looking at. There were about thirteen of them, so as you can imagine there were plenty of questions. Everything is new; they are learning the complete basics of what pollen, nectar, honey and brood look like. Some of them didn’t know what a varroa mite was (such blissful innocence).

When opening up hives with beginners my main worry is not that the bees will hurt them, but that they will hurt the bees. It’s hard for them to remember that they should hold the frames over the hive, as otherwise the queen could fall or fly to the floor and get squashed. Still, I did think the lady who watched without a veil on was extremely brave; she obviously has not been stung under the eye before. Beginners tend to be obsessed by two things: honey and finding the queen. We found some queens and saw plenty of honey so that was good.

When I told Drew about the beginners session, he said “Will the first lesson be how to eat cake?”. I explained to the beginners that the association is really just a tea and cake club with the beekeeping as an excuse on the side, but I’m not sure they believed me. They’ll learn.

Orange, pine nut, honey and yogurt cake

Orange, pine nut, honey and yogurt cake

When I visited the allotment bees, I was amused to discover that they’ve propolised the block of wood that sits over one of the crown board holes so that it’s propped up at a jaunty angle. The power of propolis!

Lift off

Bees hanging out underneath the wood. They’ve built some comb under there too.

Bee bottoms

The second time I’ve spotted this flower emerge at the Barbican centre. It’s a snake’s head fritillary, official name Fritillaria meleagris. They used to grow in meadows alongside the river Thames and were collected in huge quantities to be sold in London markets, but have now become a rarely seen wildflower. A lot of their habitat was destroyed during World War II, when most of the ancient meadows became used for food crops.
Snake's head fritillary

The running around after the bees recently has left me partly happy to see them again but also quite exhausted. We are arranging to sell two colonies, but sometimes I have thoughts about giving up beekeeping completely, or at least giving up one of the sites. The main thing stopping me is that I enjoy being with the bees and it would be a shame to lose the skill. I would miss the bees but not all the logistics of storing and transporting equipment. Perhaps I’ll see how it goes this summer. Have you ever thought about giving up beekeeping?

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A box full of bees

My complaining about the weather worked – it has responded by sending sunshine and warmth our way. It has actually been so bonny that I have been walking around without my coat on! And thinking about getting my sunglasses out!

This has coincided with some holiday I booked off, so I’ve been able to inspect the allotment bees for the first time this year. I felt strangely apprehensive when I opened up the hive, partly because it’s been so long since I’ve properly looked at them. Early October was probably my last inspection. This is what I saw in the super:

Super of bees

Now that – THAT is a box full of bees. A sight we have been longing to see in our hives at Perivale. And below it was another box full of bees, because I left them on a brood box with a super on top over winter. I decided not to use my smoker, as I dislike disturbing the bees too much by blowing smoke in their sensitive eyes. The bees look daunting at first, so you move slow and gentle. A couple were buzzing round my head, but you hold your nerve and before you know it twenty-two frames later you’ve inspected the lot, no smoke and no stings either.

Brood box

 

Nearly every single frame of the super had young brood or eggs in it. Above is the brood box stacked underneath the super, which was also packed with bees. Inside I found older brood and wonderful golden rainbow walls of pollen. My only worry is they are quite low on nectar/honey compared to the amount of pollen they have. And in a hive this big, with drone brood and drones walking the frames, they will be thinking of swarming soon.

Part of the reason I took time off was to get a hive delivered from Thornes. So I have a spare brood box now, plus eleven frames of foundation, all ready to do a Bailey comb change to get them to draw out new clean frames of comb. That should take their minds off swarming. The only problem is I have to get the brood box and frames down to the allotment, which will take a taxi and probably also the help of Drew when he gets back at the weekend.

Would appreciate thoughts from other beekeepers on how to do a Bailey comb change with a brood-and-a-half (as a brood box plus a super containing brood is known). Should I place the foundation frames above both boxes? Or in-between the brood box and the super for extra warmth to draw the combs out? I have two queen excluders.

Just as I was finishing the inspection, an old man approached behind the fence. He asked me the usual questions about whether I get stung and how much honey I get, telling me he finds the bees interesting. “I’m glad you like them” I said. “Oh no”, he replied, “I don’t like them! I got stung once and I’ve never forgot it”. As he was saying this, I noticed with dread a little worker climbing on his hair. I froze – wondered whether to tell him – the bee flew off. Such as a relief as when bees climb on your hair they have a tendency to burrow in and get stuck. I have received some of my nastiest stings from bees doing this, because the skin is quite thin on your scalp. He walked away unaware of the bee’s investigations.

As I left he shouted out “You’re a better man than me” across the allotments. Thanks, I think!

Here’s something else I found – dead, but proof that stag beetles roam the allotments.
Stag beetle

The warmth has brought the flowers out. The bees like red deadnettle.

Red deadnettle

Red deadnettle

And I was excited to find this pinky/purple pulmonaria, also known as common lungwort, on our plot. I only know what they are because some kind people on Twitter told me.

Pulmonaria, also known as Lungwort

Pulmonaria, also known as common Lungwort

A magnolia on Tuesday evening in Walpole Park. Drew and I were walking home, having had our first after-work picnic of the year. It’s lovely to enjoy spending time outdoors again.

Magnolia tree, Walpole park

Magnolia tree

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Spring frustrations interlaced with flowers

The days just keep on coming – cold, wet, soggy, cloudy, gloomy. Occasionally it’ll be sunny and warmish and then we’ll be at work. So it’s been impossible to do a proper inspection of the bees for weeks. No chance to do a shook-swarm or Bailey comb change yet.

Leaving me awful grumpy. It has been six months since we stopped inspections – October, November, December, January, February, March. And now it is April and still too cold. The time we get to spend with our bees is so short.

I went down yesterday and topped up their sugar syrup – some of the colonies are still low on stores after winter. They ate up their honey and haven’t had enough of a chance to collect new nectar yet, what with the slow start to spring. I am still worried about the two weak colonies, Chili and Chamomile, but as I was shivering in my bee suit didn’t want to disturb them.

Just as I was leaving the apiary two young men approached me at the gate. Looking uncertain of themselves, they asked me ‘Are you… a beekeeper?’. They had been wandering down the road trying to find our well hidden location. I showed them round the apiary and our hives and I think they enjoyed it. Oliver works at a magazine in central London which has hives on its roof looked after by Luke Dixon, a theatre director/part-time professional beekeeper and author of ‘Keeping bees in towns and cities‘.

Jonesie and Alan arrived so I left the two visitors in their capable hands. A couple of bus stops and a short walk later and I arrived at Perivale Wood for a wildflowers walk led by flower expert Nic Ferriday. Here’s some photos of the flowers brave enough to show us their faces.

Lesser celandine

Above is lesser celandine, a type of buttercup. It comes out early in the year so is good for bumble bees.

Primroses 2

Primrose

Primrose. The wood had some enormous clumps of these.

Wood anenome

Wood anenome. Pretty little flower.

And then these last two were tweeted by David Howdon, @BlotchedEmerald.

This huge plant is a Butterbur! So called because its big leaves were once used to wrap butter in. It likes damp soil and is fairly rare.

And finally a sweet little Turkish squill. Turkish squill

David also showed us a Peacock butterfly overwintering in a shed. He thinks it will be leaving soon. And the first few bluebells are out, getting ready for the magnificent annual Perivale Wood open day at the end of April. Their leaves already carpet the wood’s floor. The bluebells are coming!

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