Fate of a drone

Who’d want to be a drone at the end of summer?

Chucked out drone

This drone has been harassed out of the hive by his sisters, who bit and tugged at him, dragging him away from the sweet benefits of their labour. Collapsed on the hive landing board, he makes a sad sight.

Wasp eating drone

His brothers have already come to an end. Their dried out, desiccated bodies litter the floor. And he has attracted the attention of a wasp, who perhaps views his large abdomen as a moving honey pot of juicy reproductive organs.

Wasp eating drone 2

The wasp is smaller, but has the advantage of a sting. He tries to move away, but he has been weakened by his earlier struggles with his sisters, and his feeble motions are no match for the persistent wasp.

Wasps eating drone 3

A second wasp joins in. His future looks set for a grisly end. I’m afraid there is no happy ending.

Here are some pretty flowers to make up for it. Everyone is out blackberry picking in the local fields.


Spiky though the thistles are, their flowers turn into soft downy seeds that drift on the breeze. Summer blowing away.

Thistle seeds

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Honey bee pests, diseases and poisoning exam feedback

In March this year I took the British Beekeeper Association’s Module 3 Honey bee Pests, Diseases and Poisoning exam. I was lucky enough to pass, but still asked for feedback as the examiners always give titbits of information I’ve never come across before.

Here it is in pdf format - Module 3 feedback - includes ideal answers on the lifecycle and damage caused by acarine and amoeba, seven integrated varroa management methods that could be used to combat varroosis and the characteristic signs of EFB and AFB.

Like last year, the examiner’s comments come from Margaret Thomas, an incredibly experienced beekeeper who has been keeping bees since 1973.

I feel a bit embarrassed about some of the answers I gave in the exam. I found remembering the latin names (and even all the common names!) of the multitude of bacterial infections, viruses, spore forming organisms, cyst forming organisms, pests and parasites that prey on honey bees very tricky. Looking back through my answers, I’m not sure I deserved to pass –  but I’m not going to ask for the pass to be taken away!

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What’s flowering now: late July

For the last few weeks it feels like I have been living in a country that is not England. A dream world where I haven’t needed an umbrella for weeks at a time, where my 7am walk to the bus stop has felt warm enough not to wear a coat, and where sandals and shorts can be worn. Never have I known a summer so hot. I have genuinely enjoyed the heat, but I did want rain to come for the sake of the plants, and for the bees. Eventually the sky burst and the deluges came, bringing some relief to the parched grass.

Late July is a time of yellow, purple and pink, of ragwort, thistles and rose-bay willow herb. The hogweed has shrivelled up into dry seed pods and the bramble flowers are turning into blackberries already, so it’s lucky we have the thistle family.

Honeybee on thistle

Honeybee on burdock

The internet tells me there are around 20 different species of thistle native to the UK. I certainly can’t identify them, but I can look around and see that the purple spiky flowers in the park come in different shapes and sizes. Theresa at Everyday Nature Trails has done a great post on some different types of thistles: Pretty prickly thistles.

I think this type of thistle may be the burdock, the root of which has traditionally been used to make the British drink Dandelion and burdock.

Buff tailed bumble

These are tough, sturdy flowers, capable of supporting the weight of the largest bumble bee foragers.

Red tailed bumblebee

These flowers are daintier and I believe may be creeping thistle, being visited here by a Red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus Lapidarius. Helpful commenters have revealed that these  little purple flowers are actually knapweed, part of the same family of plants. Mark says that “Thistles like rich fertile soil whilst knapweed thrives on nutrient poor soil”.

Ragwort and thistles

Ragwort and knapweed

I found a humming field of these knapweeds and ragwort. The yellow and purples together, with red-tailed bumblebees darting everywhere between them, was a marvellous sight.

Ragwort has other common names – ragweed, staggerwort, stinking billy, stinking weed or yellow weed. It can be fatal to some grazing animals, such as horses.

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Field of ragwort

Field of ragwort

With so many thistles and knapweeds to visit, the rosebay willow herb (fireweed) seemed to be under appreciated this year, but I still observed a few bumbles hanging on to its pretty pink flowers. Mark has left me a comment to say “Your willow herb is actually hairy willow herb and not rosebay willow herb – differences in growing habit and flowers but noticeable hairy leaves and stem”.

Rosebay willow herb itself is a well known bee plant which provides both pollen and nectar, producing very pale, almost water-white honey (info from ‘Twelve months of forage: Plant list for talk’ by Andy Willis,  included in Reading Bee Keepers Association’s March 2013 newsletter - scroll right to the end of the newsletter for the forage chart).

Bumble bee on rosebay willow herb

Bumble bee on hairy willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Hairy willow herb

Proof that flowers for bees are not tricky to grow. They grow just fine on waste ground and fields, without needing any fertiliser or nurturing. They are just the local wildflowers that spring up in your area, anywhere they can find that’s not concreted or mowed over.

Entranced by the flurrying of bees on thistles, I stayed longer than intended on my walk. I had a lemon and poppyseed cake in the oven, and it was due to come out.

Whilst hurrying back, I had an unexpected encounter. A large bee was crawling slowly across the concrete footpath in the more formal part of the park. I recognised her at once as a Queen buff-tailed bumblebee, her tail a darker buff colour than a worker’s would be.

Concerned for her health, I put my hands down in front of her and she immediately climbed on, as gentle and trusting as could be. I carried her about 100m to a buddleia bush; she eagerly dismounted onto the purple scented flowers and began drinking nectar enthusiastically. Hopefully this helped her regain enough energy to fly. A lovely meeting – and my cake was fine when I got home too.

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on buddleia

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on buddleia

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A bad day’s beekeeping

Feeling quite demoralised after yesterday’s beekeeping session. Things started off well. I spotted one of our new queens, Emma pinned her down in a queen cage and marked her perfectly with a neat blob on her thorax. Yellow as we didn’t have any other colour. She seemed laid back and relaxed, so we have named her Chamomile (all our bees are named after essential oils as Emma is a trained aromatherapist).

Then onto Queen Rose’s hive. We had spotted queen cells there the week before, but had taken them down as we had no equipment to do an artificial swarm. This week there were three capped queen cells in the centre of a frame. They were short and stubby cells, obviously emergency cells drawn out in haste from older uncapped larvae. Looking through the hive, we could see a few uncapped larvae but no eggs. Emma is holding up a frame below –  the brood which has hatched has not been replaced by new baby bees. Rose was found and captured in a cage while we thought about what to do.

Emma inspecting

The hive already made queen cells in May, at which point we split them. So they are not an especially large hive, and it’s late in the season for swarming, making the balance of probabilities more likely that they are trying to supersede (but of course you can never be sure with bees).

Deciding what to do was hard – should we leave the queen cells and let the bees get on with it? Or combine with Chamomile’s hive, as she is a young, prolific queen?

Another beekeeper, Brian, was there and he had been saying earlier that he needed queen cells as one of his hives was queen-less. I was minded to give him the queen cells and Rose and combine Rose’s hive with Chamomile’s. Our nucleus colony, headed up by Queen Chilli, is in urgent need of more space, so I thought we could move Chilli’s colony into Queen Rose’s old brood box to allow them to grow. However, some other beekeepers present thought we’d be better off leaving the colony to supersede themselves.

So it was a tricky decision. Beekeepers rarely agree! In the end we went for combining, but a few things went very wrong. We placed newspaper (from 2008!) on top of Chamomile’s hive and made a few slits in it – all good. The idea being that the newspaper acts as a barrier to give the two colonies time to acclimatise to each other’s smells and accept each other without fighting. They chew through it within a few days.

Uniting with newspaper

Uniting with newspaper – a photo taken last year

Then we left the queen cage containing Rose on top of her hive, picked it up and placed it on top of Chamomile’s hive. But in the process of doing that, Rose’s queen cage came open and released her. Which was very bad, as two queens in a colony will fight. We were saving Rose to give to Brian, we really didn’t want her in there with the bees. The process of moving the bees had made the bees testy and we’d ended up with a lot of squashed bees. We decided to abort the mission, put Rose’s hive back where it was and try again on Monday. We still gave the queen cells to Brian.

It’s sad hearing the crunch of squished bees and seeing them unable to get back up, knowing that it’s my fault. I hate it. Hopefully on Monday we’ll have more of an idea what we’re doing and can avoid making all the mistakes. You can read Emma’s version of events and see photos of the stubby queen cells on her post yesterday, ‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

As a cheerier ending, here are some photos from my lunch break this week. The annual Cart Marking ceremony was going on in the Guildhall. Since the fourteenth century or earlier, only licensed and marked carts can be hired out in the City of London. The ceremony takes place in the Guildhall Yard, with the cart owners bringing their vintage trucks, vintage vans, waggons and carriages to be inspected by the Master of the Carmen’s Company and branded or marked.

Cod & Rock skate

Milkman's van

Fruit and veg stall

Lastly, check out my awesome Lego mini figures set, the IT geek and Beegirl were sent to me by the fab @LizzyAB and the Librarian by the awesome @andrewGouw (I am a librarian and my fiance Drew is an IT geek). It’s not possible to buy a particular figure from Lego, they operate a lucky dip system, so I really appreciate being sent them as otherwise I’d have to get them off eBay.

Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl

Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl

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Book review: A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson (2013)

I bought this new book by Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, after hearing him speak at the ‘Future without bees‘ talk at the Southbank Centre. And it’s brilliant: entertaining, an insight into a life spent investigating nature and an education in all things bumblebee.

Amelia at A French Garden has already done a proper review of this fantastic book, so instead I thought I’d do a quick list of seven things I learnt from it:

1) Bumblebee workers in a particular species can vary in size dramatically (p.157-163).We only ever see the bigger foragers with large eyes and bigger brains out and about – there are smaller workers who spend most of their time hidden away in the nest rearing young. This is somewhat like ant castes and a different way of doing things to honey bees (worker honey bees are all the same size and graduate to more complex tasks as they get older).

Bumblebee melee

2) Bumblebees are better suited to colder climates (p.31-34).
Their furry coats help them keep heat in, and the contractions of their flight muscles – bumbles flap their wings 200 times per second – generates a lot of heat. This heat can be difficult to get rid of if the surrounding air temperature is high; if their body temperature exceeds 44°C they will die. For this reason, on very hot days in summer (like we’re having now in England) bumbles will tend to have a rest around midday and begin foraging again in the early evening as the air cools down. Dave once had a buff-tailed bumblebee colony that survived a night in the freezer at -30°C, the workers gathered over the brood, the queen in their centre.

Red tailed bumble bee
3) The European commercial trade in bumblebees for pollination probably requires around 500 metric tonnes of pollen each year to rear the bumblebees (p.180-181). This pollen is bought in from honey-beekeepers all over Europe and is almost inevitably contaminated with a range of bee diseases. After the bumblebees consume the pollen they are despatched all over the world, very possibly spreading diseases to honey bees, other bumble bees or native bee species.

Bee on clover

4) In the wild, some bumblebee species seem to get nearly all their pollen from legumes such as clovers, trefoils, vetches, peas and beans. Not all pollen is equal – legume pollen is especially rich in protein and essential amino acids which bees cannot manufacture themselves.

Lots of clover

What bumbles need more of – please don’t mow all the clover out of your lawn!

5) The UK bumblebee species struggling the most are particularly fond of clover, particularly red clover and other wild legumes such as tufted vetch and bird’s foot trefoil, that produce this protein-rich pollen (p.209-211). These plants also have deep flowers, requiring the long tongues that most of our rare bumblebee species possess – such as the great yellow, short-haired and ruderal bumbles. The rare species tend to be meadow specialists, favouring the legumes that grow in meadows and the deep meadow flowers. No wonder they are struggling – we hardly have any meadows left.

6) Dumbledore is an old English word for bumblebee, possibly originating in Somerset or Sussex (p.214). Cute.

Double bees

7) Badgers are particularly fond of eating bumblebee nests in dry summers when worms have burrowed too deep for them to find (p.96). The bumblebee nests can be located by smell. Dave says “You can create a similar odour by pouring black treacle and sherry over a pair of dirty running socks, sealing them into a Tupperware box and then leaving it in a warm place for a month.”

Finally, a lovely quote from Dave, p.208:

“I began studying bumblebees not because they are important pollinators but because they are fascinating, because they behave in interesting and mysterious ways, and because they are rather lovable. But as I became more familiar with what was known about them, it was made clear that they were in urgent need of help.”

I always say this, but it’s particularly relevant for this book of all books – if you choose to buy it or indeed any other items from Amazon, please consider going through the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Fundraising page. Each time you access Amazon.co.uk via their link and make a purchase this brilliant charity receives a donation worth 8% of your total purchase, at no extra cost to you.

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Life in beeland, as of July 2013

The story so far… Emma and I started the year with one hive, headed up by Queen Myrtle. We then bought one colony, were very kindly given another, and split the colony we bought into three as swarm control in May. That makes five hives! Inspecting has become quite different. Although we turn up at 2pm, often we hardly get time for a cup of tea and suddenly it’s 4.30, everyone is leaving and we’re still finishing off our inspections.

Hectic for sure. The good news is, the Bailey comb exchange that seemed to go on forever is very nearly completed in Myrtle’s hive. Looking back at my blog posts, in ‘Exams over – and the Bailey comb exchange begins…‘ we started the Bailey comb exchange on 26th March. They just seemed to draw out the new brood comb very slowly, even though we fed sugar syrup. Also we probably weren’t as on the ball with hurrying them on as usual, because we were distracted by all the new hives.

To finish off the comb exchange, last week we moved the old bottom box with now-empty frames (apart from some honey stores). We put Myrtle and her brood on the hive floor, a super above to provide empty space, and then the old bottom box on top. I did some slashes with my hive tool in the remaining stores in the old bottom box, and hoped that the space provided by the super would encourage the bees to think the box was not part of their colony, rob it out and move the honey downstairs. We can then burn up the old frames without wasting any honey.

Honey scramble

Honey scramble

Confused yet? It’s proving tricky to explain! Above is a photo of the bees crowding excitedly round the slashes I made.

Naughty bees make comb

Being bees, of course our cunning plan did not go entirely to plan. Instead the ladies used their week to build a small empire of beautiful white comb in the empty space provided by the super. We went about removing this before they built a whole new city with gates barred to beekeepers.

I made the mistake of trying to break the comb off with a hive tool and my bare hands (after smoking most of the bees off). As the comb was very new and the weather very hot, it went all floppy and I accidentally squashed some unfortunate bees, getting a couple of sore stings on my fingers.

Comb on lid

This was all the comb removed and placed on my cake tin lid. A few of us tried drinking from it- they hadn’t capped it yet so it wasn’t honey but still runny sweet nectar, but that tastes good too! The wax itself is very chewy and doesn’t break down no matter how much you chew it, so I tend to spit it out.

In-between sorting out this fiasco we also inspected our other hives, some pics are below.

Emma and Michael Caine

Emma and Michael Caine

Emma showing beginner beekeeper Michael Caine a frame.

Frame of bees

Honey in the corner. Some of the beginners were finding it hard to tell the difference between capped brood and capped honey, something I remember I struggled with in the beginning too. I tried to explain that the colour and texture is different. Healthy capped brood is usually digestive biscuit type colour, whereas capped honey will be whiter – though can appear darker if it’s old and the cappings have been walked over a lot.

Frame of brood and nectar

Above, capped brood in the centre surrounded by nectar and pollen stores. Below, mixed pollen and nectar. Pollen can throw beginners too, just because it comes in so many different colours.

Bees on pollen

And here is a queen on capped brood. She will try to run around the sides and bottom of the frame to get out of the light as you hold it up.


I find trying to teach people at the apiary very hard. I get distracted by what I’m doing with the bees, and sometimes I get a bit clumsy with the bees when people are asking questions and I’m using part of my brain on trying to answer them.

Also there’s often a very mixed group in terms of knowledge, as some beginners have been coming for several months and done a course, whereas others have literally just turned up that day. I know I’m not as good at explaining things as some of the other beekeepers are, I find it easier to write than talk as writing gives me time to think about what I’m trying to communicate. Ah well, we all have different talents!

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What’s flowering now: early July

A walk on a summer’s evening.

Bee on white flowers

Honey bee on hogweed. They appear to get very little pollen from these flowers, but instead swish their proboscis enthusiastically about in the nectar like a watercolour artist swirling their brush. I recommend Theresa Green’s post Hogweed days to find out more about this plant, including why its flowers mimic the smell of pigs!

Bee against sky

And this beetle likes them too. I was surprised when the beetle suddenly took off and flew away, I got the photo just in time. Doesn’t its bum look like it could be its face?

Beetle on flowers

A pretty pink version.

Pink and white flowers

An important flower has come out. When you’re walking around on shortish grass, tread carefully. For there might be a delicate bee hidden in a clover flower. Can you see her beady eyes below?

Bee on clover

Bee on clover

This beauty you can’t miss.

Clover honey is one of my all-time favourite honeys. Elizabeth Gowing describes it in her Little Book of Honey as “sweet and light, with a citrus tang which changes to a sourish aftertaste that stops it being sickly to eat”.

Red clover is very popular with bumble bees but not honey bees, as their tongues are too short. Both bumbles and honey bees love white clover.

Lots of clover

One of the beekeepers at the apiary today told me that the local bees were going absolutely crazy about the blackberry bramble bush at his allotment, so much so that passers by were getting afraid. It has been around 26C today – a real treat and about as hot as it ever gets here – and sun-loving plants will be excreting more nectar than usual.
A nectar flow is on! These photos were taken last Sunday, on a nice but less intensely hot day.

Bees on bramble

Bee on rose

The thistles are favourites too. In The Little Book of Honey Elizabeth Gowing also tries thistle honey, which she says is “fragrant, spicy, reminiscent of… wait a minute – this honey really does taste like geraniums. My mind boggles; so what would geranium honey taste of?”

EDIT: identified by standingoutinmyfield in her comment below as a Canada thistle. 

Bumble bee on thistle

These flowers were much taller than me. They reminded me of fireworks going off against the sky.

EDIT: identified by standingoutinmyfield in her comment below as likely to be hemlock. 

Flowers against sky

Being out in the sunshine makes me happy. And the bees too.


The next flowers to come along in the park during August will be rosebay willow-herb and ragwort. I’m gradually getting to know my local wild flowers, which I never knew much about before the bees came into my life.

Hope the weather’s good where you are, not too cold and not too hot, not too rainy but not too dry… if that’s possible.

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