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. 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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Book review – Bees in the city by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum (2011)

It’s been a while since I did a bee book-review. Partly this is down to lack of time and partly because I’ve been busy reading lots of other books, as I’ve been catching up with new ones by several of my favourite authors, like Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Mosse and Donna Tartt.

Whilst looking in my local library, I was surprised to come across a bee book I hadn’t read! Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are a double-act who have also written the better known A world without bees and Keeping bees and making honey.

Bees in the city cover

Bees in the City: The urban beekeepers’ handbook is a book of three parts. Part I, ‘The Urban Beekeeping Revolution’, introduces us to several different types of British urban beekeepers, including ‘The school beekeepers’, ‘The rehabilitation beekeepers’ and ‘The office beekeepers’. Our very own Ealing treasure John Chapple pops up as early as page 9! Their interviews give an insight into the wonderful variety of people keeping bees in cities – it certainly isn’t only old men with beards.

The reasons people get into beekeeping vary too. Some individuals are interested in bees as pollinators, some in the honey, while schools find the bees can bring out the best in previously difficult pupils and companies often want hives to encourage team-building and to fit with their brand values and reputation.

Part 2, ‘Making our urban environment more bee friendly’, focuses on the important question of whether our bees have enough to eat. John Chapple features in this part too, telling the authors how his honey yields are at a low compared with twenty years ago. He found two of his hives at Regents Park (he keeps several hives in different London locations) suffered dramatically when another beekeeper installed 40 hives nearby.

Other urban beekeepers are more optimistic and there has been no definitive research produced yet into how many hives London can support. Alison and Brian say in this chapter “two thirds of London [is] given over to green spaces”, which I expect is a wild over-estimation. Part of the challenge is assessing how bee-friendly a green space is, in a rapidly changing city where front gardens are constantly being concreted over. A lawn is technically a “green space” but if kept cropped short and dandelion-free can be entirely useless for bees.

This may be a good point to mention research recently published by Professor Dave Goulson and others in Science: Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers – thanks to for leaving me a comment about this. Interesting sentence from this on changes during the past 50 years – “Global honey bee stocks have increased while wild bees appear to have declined substantially, as evidenced by data for bumblebees and very scant data for other bee species.” Also, “there is evidence that high concentrations of domestic honey bee hives can displace wild bumblebees from their preferred foodplants and from whole areas if hive densities are sufficiently high“. Any keeper of honey bees who thinks they are ‘saving the bees’ is sadly mistaken. The European honey bee Apis mellifera is not endangered and its presence in large numbers could actually be a bad thing for local bumbles.

Some hopeful projects are mentioned, like the north London River of Flowers, which is expanding to other cities, Brighton & Hove council’s planting of wild flowers along roadsides and the 4,000 semi-mature trees planted in the Olympic Park. An organisation called the Bee Guardian Foundation is mentioned as doing good work, but sadly I fear they may be a goner since the book was written, as their website no longer works and their Facebook page was last updated in 2013.

Image of gardeners on London tube from

Image of gardeners on London tube from

Finally ‘Part III, How you can become an urban beekeeper’, turns to the practicalities of keeping bees in urban areas. This is not so different to keeping bees in the countryside, but extra considerations like increased potential for disputes with neighbours and keeping hives in very restricted spaces are mentioned. The advice is sensible and I agree with their preferences for replacing old comb each spring and keeping good-tempered local bees rather than importing bees from abroad.

Have you read any good bee books lately?

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Summer bee / winter bee picture

Below is a drawing I did showing the difference between a winter and a summer bee’s abdomen. The colours are for fun and to show the different parts more distinctly, obviously the bee is not really pink, blue and yellow inside!

In the summer, you can see the bee’s crop, her nectar collecting stomach, is enlarged. In the winter, when a bee has been stuck inside the hive for several days due to cold weather, waste builds up in her rectum – that’s the big pink shape – and the rectum enlarges to take up nearly the whole abdomen. A bee will never deliberately defecate within its home, so if you see brown trails of poop on the combs you know something is really wrong.

Summer bee/winter bee abdomens

The ventriculus is the light blue segmented shape you can see. It’s the main digestive organ of the bee. In the summer bee’s abdomen it has plenty of space, in the winter bee’s abdomen it has been pushed right up as the rectum enlarged.

The white worm-like shapes you can see are the malpighian tubules. About a hundred of these connect into the digestive system, joining the gut at the junction between the ventriculus and the small intestine. The small intestine is the light pink curl leading into the rectum. The malpighian tubules absorb waste products excreted by the various organs into the bee’s haemolymph (the equivalent of our blood) and pass them into the small intestine for disposal.

It seems so clever to me that a bee’s organs can move around that much to accommodate the different lifestyles of a summer and a winter bee.


  • Understanding bee anatomy: a full colour guide by Ian Stell (The Catford Press, 2012)
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Hunting for flowers and sunshine

Many days this week have been sunny and I’ve been able to enjoy sitting outside to eat my lunch, basking in the sunshine before descending back into what feels like a dark office. I have started spotting a few insects zooming about, including honey bees. Below is a photo of my latest discovery – magnolia trees have started blooming. The flowers were not quite open yet when I passed by, but the white candles were reaching skywards in preparation.

There is a sea of crocuses on the green in front of Ealing Broadway station, but the crocuses at the apiary are past their best now. Spring blossom will take their place; many white and pink cherry trees are starting to show off their pretty little flowers.

Crocuses ealing broadway

On sunny days I hear the excited chattering of birds. They sound happy to have the sun’s warmth around them. It is getting light when I leave work at 5pm now and sometimes I can hear a blackbird calling by Liverpool Street station, even above the noise of rushing footsteps and traffic.

Below is a honey bee I watched as I ate a huge burrito from a local food market. Getting food is so much easier for me than for her. If the burrito would have done her any good, I would have shared it.
Bee on hyacinth

Being the weekend, of course the sunshine turned to overcast skies and a chill wind when Emma and I went along to the apiary. We were hoping to take a couple of frames of brood from our stronger hives and use it to strengthen the two weak ones, but sadly even the two stronger hives, full of bees though they are, had little brood to take. We left them alone apart from adding Nektapoll, a pollen substitute that the bees love.

On quickly inspecting Chamomile’s hive I realised that the frames were extremely light and they had gone through nearly all their stores. We took a frame of honey from Chilli’s hive and gave that to them, as though they have syrup they may not want to leave the cluster to reach it. This may actually be part of the reason that Chamomile is not laying very much. It’s a difficult situation as the old winter bees cannot survive for ever and we need new young bees to replace them, but a weak colony is not going to be able to raise a large amount of brood. The hope is that slowly, slowly we can help them build up to a reasonable size.

We are using dummy boards to try to keep the smaller colonies warm, though they are not the insulated ones you can get. Does anyone have any recommendations for UK suppliers of insulated dummy boards?

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Our 50:50 hives

50:50 because two are doing well and two not so well, and 50:50 because that’s probably the chance of the two doing not so well making it.

Today was a magnificent spring day, sunny and warm, around 14ºC (57ºF) I believe. Such a bonny day that we dared peek inside our hives for the first time in 2015.

Llyr inspecting

Above you can see Jonesie inspecting. He had quite an audience of excited beekeepers – it has been very hard for us not being able to see our bees all winter. All was well in his hives, the bees were in a good mood and they were packed full of honey.

Llyr inspecting 2

After some tea, cake and chatting, Emma and I went down to look at our bees. Since October we have only been peering in at the top, checking up on the fondant and only once very quickly removing the crown board to do the oxalic acid anti-varroa treatment.

Inside Melissa and Pepper’s hives, it was obvious all was well as they were bursting out from the crown board, busy eating their fondant. Stuck inside Pepper’s mouse guard I found a recently deceased drone – so perhaps Pepper is laying the first drones of the season already! Either that or he overwintered with the colony, that is quite unusual but not unheard of. I removed their mouse guard as the colony was so vibrant no intruding mouse’s nose would stand a chance.

I ventured further inside Chili and Chamomile’s colonies to pull out frames, as they seemed worrying quiet. It does not look good in there – mouldy honey stores in Chili’s and some brood which had been uncapped by the bees. It looked like Chili’s bees were struggling to keep the brood warm, so Emma placed dummy boards around the three frames the bees were on to try and keep them insulated. She also gave them some sugar syrup as well as fondant, now that the temperatures are rising we can start using syrup again.

We saw both Queen Chili and Queen Chamomile, but both of them are barely laying, there was very little brood in either hives. There could be a few reasons for this – running out of sperm, a lack of nurse bees to care for the brood or perhaps nosema infection. Nosema can damage a queen’s ovaries and cause them to shrink. Sigh.

Plan for next week – transfer one of the weak colonies to our spare nuc. Consider combining the two and plan when to do our shook-swarms. Will be busy hammering up new brood frames this week, eleven needed per hive!

To end on a cheerier note, here’s some pics of pretty crocuses and snowdrops. Some of the less sunny photos were taken last week.

Open crocuses

One open crocus

Open crocus close up


Snowdrops with hive in background

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