Beekeeping through the camera lens – a talk by Simon Croson

On Wednesday night I went to a talk by Simon Croson at the London Beekeepers’ Association in south London. Simon had travelled all the way down from Lincolnshire to share his expertise in taking photos of bees with us.

He has taken an impressively quick journey from novice to small-scale bee farmer and bee photography prize winner. He started beekeeping in 2006 and then took his Basic Beekeeping exam in 2007. Since then he has won the Apimondia Gold medal for bee photography in 2011 and 2013 and launched his own honey company, The Artisan Honey Company Ltd. A tall, imposing man with broad shoulders and what I call a ‘badger beard’, he was previously in the RAF. See the article ‘Honey, I found a new career‘ to find out more about his progress.

Why take bee photos? (as if most of us needed much persuading!)

  • Helps you get a better understanding of bees – why and how they do what they do
  • Build your own teaching reference library to show others
  • Photos make you question things

The first “real bee photo” Simon took was of varroa mites on his bees, which had been given to him by a certain supplier. Thanks to the photo, word got around that this supplier was selling varroa infested bees. Simon found himself being tapped on the back at a beekeeping event and asked by the supplier “What’s this I hear that you’ve been saying my bees have varroa?”. Simon showed him the photo, only for the supplier to say “So that’s what they look like!”. It just goes to show that even very experienced beekeepers can be ignorant of bee biology and diseases.

Simon’s kit

  • Olympus DSLR, various lenses, ring flash
  • Uses a 50mm macro lens for most of his work
  • Recommends a purpose built macro lens rather than an adapter if you can afford it.

You can find out more about his equipment on his website at:

Simon’s tips for getting a good photo:

  • Try to move in close rather than zooming in – get within a couple of inches of your subject.
  • Move in gradually and slowly towards bees you are photographing, so you don’t startle them off.
  • You might need artificial light – a flash on a camera could be shadowed out as you get close. Simon uses a ring flash, which produces nice diffused light to let you get lots of detail.
  • Foraging bees are quicker but are less aggressive than when in the hives. Find a flower bees are visiting and wait by it.
  • Put your camera on manual focus.
  • Use f-stops to isolate the subject or increase the area in focus. F-stops range from 1.2 to 45 and control the size of the lens aperture.
  • Use shallow depth of field with a low f-stop number to get small parts of the bee in focus. The eyes will usually be the most interesting part to focus on.

Photo of trophallaxis (food sharing) between bees by Drew Scott. Note how the eyes are in focus and the background blurry.

More on F-stops

A shallow depth of field using a wide aperture (low f-stop number – f2.8/f4 etc) to let lots of light in results in a soft and blurry background which helps draw the eye to the bees in the foreground.

F45 is really deep depth of field with a narrow aperture restricting light into the camera – you need an enormous amount of light around to be able to see much in the resulting photo. When using an f22 or higher stop Simon recommends using a ring flash, unless it’s a really bright sunny day.

Basic principles

  • Understand how your bees react to cameras. Wear protection around bees at unfamiliar hives. Cameras generate electromagnetic fields which the bees can sense and might be bothered by.
  • Get in as close as you safely can, don’t zoom.
  • If wearing a veil, don’t press your camera close to your face to look through – a recipe for getting stung. Try to use your camera’s live view screen instead.
  • No point using a tripod or monopod as bees move around too much. Instead brace your camera with your hands and hold it as tightly as you can to reduce shake.
  • Use flash to freeze movement and add detail.
  • During brood inspections, keep the frame as parallel to the lens as possible so that the cells are in focus. A ring flash is good for clear photos of eggs.
  • Get creative – there are lots of cheap apps that let you convert parts of your photo to black & white and do other exciting special effects.
Get in close. Photo by Drew Scott.

Get in close. Photo by Drew Scott.

There are certain times when bees are easier to photograph. For instance, newly emerged bees are more docile and move more slowly on the frames. If you’ve accidentally broken brace comb during an inspection, resulting in exposed larvae or dribbled honey, the bees will be preoccupied in cleaning this up and often too busy to notice you. Foragers will clean their antennae just before they set off; drones clean their antennae and eyes when returning.

Bee tending to a larvae which had unfortunately had its cell accidentally broken during a inspection. Photo by Drew Scott.

Bee tending to a larvae which had unfortunately had its cell accidentally broken during a inspection. Photo by Drew Scott.

Simon is a big user of Facebook and posts photos there nearly every day, for instance in the community ‘From Virginia to Lincolnshire – Beekeeping Across The Pond‘. As he says, the great thing about photos is they can be appreciated by everyone, no matter what language you speak. He has 80,000 photos stored on his Macbook, so there’s a lot to post! A book is being planned, but he’s rather secretive about it.

After the talk I do feel inspired to have a go with Drew’s fancy camera, though he will have to explain to me how to switch between f-stops. All the technical terms are still a bit mysterious to me, think I really need a practical session experimenting with all the settings to understand them.

Some more excellent bee photographers:

  • Rose Lynn-Fisher – never mind macro, Rose’s thing is microscopic photos of bee parts. They’re even more fascinating (and hairy!) up this close.
  • Elise Fog – Elise commented below. Her close-ups of pollen showered bees of all kinds are spectacular. Checkout her camera setup, which she told me via Twitter weighs 5 lb 9 oz.
  • Eric Tourneret, ‘The Bee Photographer’ – Eric travels the world taking beautiful photos of bees and beekeepers. There is probably no aspect of bee behaviour he hasn’t yet captured and his website has useful captions explaining each photo.
  • Mark Berkery – Mark has a fascination and love for insects of all kinds, which he photographs up close, taking great care not to harm them. His posts are very philosophical as well as containing amazing photos.
  • Stephen Falk – recommended by Philip Strange in the comments below. Nice closeups of native bees, flies and wasps.
  • Zachary Huang – recommended by theprospectofbees in the comments – “Zachary Huang, an associate professor at Michigan State University, has a nice bee photography site at We do not know what all his tricks are.” I especially like his UV flower photos.

Photographers who blog about how to take good insect photos:

I know I’ve read some other great posts about taking insect photos, but can’t recall the authors/find the links now, so do comment and let me know about any others (even if you wrote them yourself, don’t be modest!).

Posted in Events | 31 Comments

Mind your beeswax

On Friday a fierce cold came over me while I worked. My eyes weeped and my nose sneezed. As the day progressed, I felt so miserable that I skipped the Burns night dinner I had booked that evening – losing the chance to eat oaty haggis and creamy Cranachan. I feared I might have to miss Saturday’s Harrow Beekeepers wax workshop.

Desperately trying to cure myself, I drank two lots of lemsip with honey from my hives and went to bed early. In the morning, I woke to find the wretched sniffing and sneezing had stopped. I can’t prove it was the honey, but I like to think it was.

What a relief that I was able to go. The Harrow association had put on a packed practical day of learning how to roll, dip and mould wax candles, plus make furniture polish, soap and hand cream. Wax is a valuable product that beekeepers, including myself, tend to underuse. It takes the bees a considerable amount of energy and effort to produce it, after all – we should value it just as much as honey. It’s excreted from the eight wax glands on the underside of bees’ abdomens, before being kneaded by the bee with its mandibles, adding a secretion from the mandibular glands. A worker bee needs about 4 minutes to complete the preparation of each tiny scale of wax, after which it can be moulded into place to form comb (Jürgen Tautz, The Buzz about Bees (2008).

There were twenty of us doing the workshop, split into four groups of five. Each group took it in turn to do an activity with four instructors from Harrow. My group’s first class was candle rolling using wax foundation, taught by Doreen Pattenson. Doreen has a website at and is on Twitter at @NWBees. Below you can see some of her expertly rolled candles.

Rolled candles
Doreen gave us lots of tips on candle rolling. One was not to do it on a cold day (like it was, being winter). We had a bit of trouble with the wax as it gets quite brittle and cracks easily when cold. She buys her wax foundation from Thornes – – and also from, which she feels has the best quality wax. It should be unwired, of course. If you buy Langstroth frame sized foundation you get more for your money.

Below she is demonstrating cutting the wax at an angle to start the candle.

Cutting candle wax

Cut your wick to size and dip one end in molten wax. Lay the wick at one end and carefully wrap the foundation tightly around it, as tightly as you can.

Doreen beginning to roll a candle

Doreen beginning to roll a candle

Keep rolling till you reach the end. The tighter you’ve rolled it, the longer it will burn. Doreen’s candles were extremely tight.

Doreen rolling a candle

Doreen rolling a candle

To decorate her candles, Doreen uses cookie cutters to cut out different coloured wax shapes such as little hearts. She then presses these into the rolled candle. If reluctant to stay on, the shapes can be encouraged into place with a hairdryer. But do not overdo the hairdryer, as the candle wax may start to melt and lose its pattern. She also buys little plastic bee pins for extra prettiness.

Next we went on to Bill Fitzmaurice, who demonstrated how to make beeswax polish in about ten seconds, followed by how to make dipped candles in considerably longer time.

Bill pouring polish

Bill pouring polish

Prepare your candle wicks for dipping by straightening out the wick, pulling it down gently. You will need a long tall pot – Bill was using an asparagus boiler.

Bill Fitzmaurice preparing candle wick

Bill Fitzmaurice preparing candle wick

Quickly lower the string into molten wax, then draw it out again, keeping it straight. Repeat until enough wax has built up to look like the examples below. This is how people made candles before they used moulds or rolled sheets of foundation.

Dipped candles

Dipped candles

Bill has a winning lady. Here she is in pink.

Glowing queen mould

And here she is in yellow. Smooth and immaculately turned out, yet hefty and capable of giving someone a good whack. Cheaper than the real thing too, as she doesn’t require a palace to live in or a pack of corgis.

Waxy queen

When we stopped for lunch, the bees were busy revelling in the sunshine. Water seemed to be on their minds, probably to dilute honey stores. Harrow have about twenty hives in their apiary, so we had no shortage of curious visitors. Lucky they didn’t know what we were up to with their precious wax.

Bees at water butt 2

Bees at water butt

After lunch we had a candle moulding class with Jo Telfer. Jo has a clever trick involving pasta to hold the wick away from the wax when you pour it in. Below is my phone box candle.

Wax in candle mould

And here’s Harrow beekeeper Nabaa pouring wax into her mould. She did the workshop last year and was taking it again because she enjoyed it so much last time.

Pouring wax into candle mould

Nabaa pouring wax into candle mould

Finally the last class was with Judy Earl, whose immaculate wax creations have featured on this blog before. No photos from this class, as Judy kept us busy measuring out ingredients and stirring them together to produce delicious smelling cold process soap and hand cream. Goggles and gloves were required.

At the end of the day we all had several goodies to take away from each class – our rolled candles, dipped candles, moulded candles, furniture polish, soap and hand cream. Bill sent us this photo yesterday afternoon, along with a nice email which said:

 “Just to thank you for coming on the workshop today, a group photo is attached. We really enjoyed running the day and hope it’ll inspire you to make more products from the beeswax you produce. If you have a local Honey show, please consider entering the wax/candle classes, maybe even have a go at the National! “

Harrow beekeepers wax workshop

If you’re interested in going on one of the courses, there are two a year and Bill already has several people on the waiting list for the next one. So get in there quickly – info on the course can be found at

EDIT: See my hive partner Emma’s post ‘A beeswax and lavender butter‘ for a lovely moisturising butter recipe which is easy to make at home.

EDIT 2: Helen Worwood from Epsom Beekeepers has also written a blog post on the workshop, ‘Beeswax treasure‘, with lots of photos of the day and especially the soap making process.

Posted in Events | 23 Comments

Happy news and a honey tasting

Yesterday I came home to find a letter waiting. It had a nice surprise – I passed Module 2, which means I now have the BBKA’s Intermediate Theory Certificate. Please forgive me for posting about this, but I have so little going for me to show off about that I take every opportunity I get!

Module 2 exam results

Of course, I’ve forgotten most of what I learnt already. I have the kind of brain which is good at cramming things in for the short-term, but bad at remembering things long-term. For instance, there are very few books or films I can recall the plot for and indeed sometimes I can pick up a book and not be sure whether I’ve read it or not.

Module 2 paper 2014

Above is part of the exam paper. I did Q11, 13, 14, 15 and 16. You can see how lucky I was with the questions, I got away with writing lots about pollination and honey composition and not much about the tricky subject of extracting honey and preparing it for sale.

The Ealing Association committee asked me if I would do a talk at one of our regular beekeepers meetings, so I decided to do one about pollination and honey, with some honey tasting afterwards. I was very happy that lots of people brought honey along, especially our Chairman Clare Vernon. We must have had about thirty different honeys to try.

Emma took some lovely photos which show off the warm and glowing colours we had in front of us. She has kindly let me post them here – all of the photos below were taken by Emma. You can find her blog at

The ‘Hunang’ honey is very special honey from Iceland. You can read about how it came to London in Emma’s blog post ‘Beekeeping in Iceland‘. I have been slow in eating it because I respect the effort the bees made in producing it in such cold, windy conditions, so want to savour it gradually.

Icelandic and Welsh honey

Icelandic and Welsh honey

I made some little honey cakes for us to eat. Elsa brought along lemon drizzle cake, plus we had breadsticks and baklava. Quite the meeting of hungry bears.

Honey and cakes

PollenThere was much debate going on about the best honeys.

Elsa, Betty and Sara

Elsa, Betty and Sara

Here are Hanwell beekeepers Pat and Jackie.

Jackie and Pat

At the end we all had a vote on our favourite. I was surprised at how different our tastes all were, some people loved a dark, strong honey which I didn’t like at all. And a gloopy honey from Texas really divided people too. However, some clear winners did emerge:

  1. Alan and Betty Gibb’s honey – full of deep floral flavours
  2. Kew Gardens honey
  3. Ivy honey – this was honey I bought from Stephen’s blog ‘In a Beekeepers Garden’, see his post ‘Late ivy honey harvest‘. It had a pale colour and firm texture, causing a lot of disagreement over whether it had been creamed or not.

Even though we had honeys from all over the world – including Turkey, Italy, Borneo, the U.S., Iceland, Germany – we picked three British honeys as our favourites! Are British honeys best?!

Betty and Alan with their winning honey

Betty and Alan with their winning honey

The honey tasting was definitely worth doing as at the end Alan and Betty gave me their jar of winning honey. Thank you!

Posted in Exams, Honey | Tagged | 40 Comments

Thoughts on beekeeping and mental health

“You are all mad!”, one of our apiary visitors declared, shaking his head in wonder. He had just listened to John and Andy talking about how to painstakingly prepare honey entries for the National Honey Show, including the best ways to air-dry jars so that no pesky water marks remain.

Plenty of non-beekeepers probably think the same thing, but for a different reason – the famous bee sting. Who knows what they would make of the Ealing member who is highly allergic to stings, yet continues beekeeping due to her love of the bees. Or the sight of Ealing members gathered outside at the apiary to drink tea and talk bees with drifts of snow around us.


But I am going to make a different argument – that beekeeping and similar hobbies could actually be good for your mental and physical health.

This Christmas I was able to do some reading and one of the books I found in my local library was ‘Crow Country‘ by Mark Cocker (2008). It’s all about his love of corvids and rooks in particular, which thrive around his home near Norwich.

Towards the end of the book, Mark talks about how birders and others with a single obsession are often viewed as ‘sad’ by the general public.

“why is it that people who are absorbed by something are seen as sad? I can’t explain it. But for me it reverses the true state of affairs. To be engaged is to be a part, to be absorbed and fulfilled. To be cool, to be detached from things and to have no passionate feeling is the real sadness. At the heart of depression, that quintessentially modern malaise, is a deep sense of separation from the rest of life.

At its fullest, studying the life of another living creature is a way of engaging all of your faculties. In short, it’s a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so. At the same way it is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.”
(Mark Cocker, Crow Country, p.186-187).

As Mark puts it, “enquiring becomes a way of loving”. So I shall continue loving my bees by watching them, talking about them, reading about them and learning more about life through them.

Beekeeping, or indeed any other hobby or obsession, is a chance to become connected to others and the world around us. I have met so many fascinating people both at the apiary and online through the bees. And there is something physically satisfying about being outside with the bees, taking in rain, wind, sunshine and fresh air, being surrounded by nature.

Beekeeping can inspire creativity too, perhaps in the form of a beautiful piece of carpentry, a delicious honey cake, melliferous mead, or stunning wax creations like those made by Judy Earl. These acts of creation can bring us a sense of achievement, of having made something real and tangible, that can often be shared with others to bring them joy also. That can only be good for our mental wellbeing.

We are truly lucky to have access to so many wonderful products produced by the bees and so many potential crafts and skills that naturally spin off from beekeeping. Skep making, microscopy, photography, baking, cosmetics, candle making….the list is long and vibrant. To paraphrase a comment I made in an earlier post, we need the bees much more than they need us.

What do you think – is beekeeping good for your health? Even when you’re sweating buckets in your beesuit and hopping around in pain after the bees found some particularly delicate spots? I hope so!

Bee sponge cake

Display by Judy Earl


Posted in Uncategorized | 37 Comments

Looking back on 2014, a fantastic year of beekeeping

I first started beekeeping in the summer of 2008, having taken the Ealing Association’s excellent annual beekeeping course for beginners in spring 2008. Since then, beekeeping has taken me on a journey I could never have anticipated – to exams, having a blog, meeting beekeepers from distant countries, being sent a book to review, getting interviewed for a podcast and student dissertations, helping teach beginners on the Ealing course and most of all having so much fun with the bees and beekeepers at the apiary.

I’ll tell you a secret – I need the bees much more than they need me. So thank you to our bees for a fabulous year and all the honey. Here’s some memories of 2015:

Snowdrops in February

I’m always excited to see the first snowdrops of the year. This photo was taken in February 2014 – I reckon they’ll appear at least two weeks earlier in 2015.

Clare's banana & chocolate chip loaf

Clare’s banana & chocolate chip loaf

Eating Clare’s chocolate and banana loaf in February – one of the first of many delicious cakes and warming cups of tea.

Close up crocuses

Can you see the bee?

The first crocuses follow the snowdrops. Happy Days.

Looking at beautiful capped honey

Looking at beautiful capped honey

A beginner inspecting our hives on a sunny March day. Once March is over I feel our bees have safely survived the winter. I’ve been very lucky and haven’t lost any bees yet since I started in 2008.

Bumble on nettles

Bumble on nettles

How I love to see bumbles flying again too. This was taken in April 2014.


One of our beautiful queens.

Hurrying in from the rain

Hurrying in from the rain

And here I am being a queen for the day :)

Apis dorsata combs

Apis dorsata combs

Seeing Apis dorsata colonies from far away, on honeymoon in Borneo.

Bramble flowers against the sky

It was such a glorious summer, one of the best I can remember. Warm and sunny, with light rain now and again to keep the nectar flowing.

Andy Pedley and Scarlett blowing out his cake

Andy and his great-niece Scarlett blowing out his cake.

Andy Pedley had a birthday, here he is blowing out the candles on his magnificent skep cake.

Honey buckets

How happy and grateful we were to finally harvest some honey, after many years of barely any. And we left plenty for the bees – each hive went into winter with a super of honey as well as a full brood box.

Honeycomb held up to the light

Comb = home.

Simba keeping watch

Simba keeping watch @Clare Vernon

Photo of Clare’s cat Simba included because, well, he’s incredibly cute. Best mouse guard  any beekeeper could hope for.

Wax biscuits by Judy Earl

Wax biscuits by Judy Earl

Judy Earl’s stunning wax biscuits at the London Honey Show in October.

Christmassy hives

And so here we are. A successful year, in which Emma and I kept our bees alive and harvested honey. It was not a good year internationally in many ways, full of harrowing events. Locally too, there have been tragedies. I am so grateful to have had a good year and to have my bees and a beekeeping partner with plenty of common sense and organisational skills :)

Happy Christmas everyone, wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful 2015.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

On the cusp of the solstice

Tomorrow – the 21st December – is a special day for me. It comes every year and always promises a new start, a return to life. It’s the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A longer day must follow the shorter day, bringing with it the promise of spring.

Beekeeping keeps you in touch with the seasons. Today was a bright crisp day as Emma and I, with the help of two beginners, opened up the hives to apply oxalic acid. The bees are alive in all four hives and look fine, with the clusters on average covering about four to five frames. Mostly the bees seemed to be near the top of the hives, feeding on the fondant.


Above you can see us warming the oxalic acid over the teapot, an idea Elsa had. It’s nicer for the bees if the acid isn’t dead cold.

Christmassy hives

And here is Brian talking to a young man who was visiting the apiary for the first time (I’m sorry, I have a terrible memory and can’t remember his name – perhaps Stefan?). Emma has beautifully decorated the hives with garlands of cones and berries. I think we can safely claim to have the best hives in the apiary, along with the best bees (deliberately provocative statement in case any Ealing beekeepers are reading this).

John Chapple gave us some useful advice on putting on additional fondant. No need to wait until the bees have finished their fondant block. Instead, cut a hole in the middle of the old block’s plastic wrapping top. Cut a corresponding hole in the middle of the new block. Put the new block on top of the old fondant block so that the two holes meet and the bees can climb up into the new block once they’ve finished eating the old fondant.

By the way, John will be on TV on Christmas Day –

Thursday 25th December at 3:10pm on ITV

Queen’s Garden, Episode 1: The first of two programmes in which Alan Titchmarsh gets exclusive access to the royal gardens at Buckingham Palace for a whole year. He watches the garden change over the four seasons and reveals its hidden treasures that have evolved over five centuries. In the first part, he arrives along with 8,000 others to attend the Queen’s summer garden party, but unlike the other guests, he has a different itinerary. He begins by venturing into the garden’s wilder spaces where nature has been left to rule. He meets the Queen’s bee keeper John Chapple, delves into the history of the garden and finds its oldest tree. Late summer is the ideal time to visit the rose garden with its 18th century summer house. Later, as Christmas arrives, Alan helps royal florist Sharon Gaddes-Croasdale bring in plants to decorate the palace.

Pretty impressive – but I shouldn’t be surprised as John is true beekeeping royalty.

Mince pies

Here’s some mince pies I made. I did two lots this week, one with a plain shortcrust pastry and this batch with ground almonds and icing sugar added, which makes for a rich, crisp pastry. Not sure which I prefer – more experimentation and eating needed!

Sunday’s Sunrise: 08:03 Sunset: 15:53
Tuesday’s Sunrise: 08:04 Sunset: 15:54

The days enlarge ever so gradually. But out in the apiary we saw green shoots – probably snowdrops – at least a couple of weeks earlier than usual. Anyone else seen signs of spring already?

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Burdens of bees

Last week, as I walked home in the dark evening with heavy food shopping bags cutting into my hands, I started thinking about the hefty burdens worker bees carry.

It looks idyllic when bees fly past with leg baskets laden with bright pollen. A successful trip; they have found food to bring home to their sisters. But those little bees are often carrying around half their own body weight in water, propolis, nectar and/or pollen. Female bees weigh 90mg and typically bring home around 40mg of nectar in their honey stomach. Strong though they are, there must be a physical strain associated with that. Perhaps even pain?

Bee with orange pollen

I feel pain in my arms and shoulders when I carry heavy bags, so it doesn’t seem an unreasonable thought to me that the workers might be feeling discomfort too. Not only that but perhaps stress – after all they must dodge multiple obstacles on their way home. Birds looking out for a tasty snack, zooming cars, people who dislike insects.

What a relief it must be for a forager bee to return safely back to her colony. To unpack her pollen into a cell or pass her nectar to a eager house bee. A load unburdened – it feels good to come home, doesn’t it? To wipe your feet and rest for a moment.

Each time she leaves the hive and flies out into the outside world, she takes a risk. I hope that landing on a flower is a joyous, sensual experience for her, as her feet taste the nectar and her brain takes in the heavy scent. A reward for the weight her little body is carrying. During the short 4-6 week typical life span of a foraging bee, she will work herself to death, her wings fraying and her body gradually wearing out.

Bee on dog rose

A winter bee lives such a different life to the summer sisters she never knew. A winter bee will never feel the warmth of summer sun on her back. Instead she spends most of her life in the dark, huddling round her mother and fellow winter sisters, slowly feeding on the energy filled honey her summer sisters spent so much time and effort gathering. Hemmed in by the cold. Who has it easier, I often wonder. Which would you rather be?

Dead bee with pollen. She never reached home.

Posted in Foraging | 34 Comments