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)
Posted in Bee biology | 33 Comments

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?

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Will the honey flow for you?

Everyone who uses the internet has probably heard about the ‘Flow’ hive by now –, “It’s Literally Honey on Tap Directly From Your Beehive!”. As I’ve never made a poll before, I thought this post would be a good chance to learn how to do one, so I’ve made one about the Flow Hive.

EDIT: And it’s launched! $300 USD for six frames fitting a Langstroth super, $350 for eight frames, $600 for a full hive:

Flow Hive frames

How does it work?

See the FAQs section of the Flow website: “The Flow frame consists of already partly formed honeycomb cells.  The bees complete the comb with their wax, fill the cells with honey and cap the cells as usual.  When you turn the tool, a bit like a tap, the cells split vertically inside the comb forming channels, allowing the honey to flow down to a sealed trough at the base of the frame and out of the hive, while the bees are practically undisturbed on the comb surface.

When the honey has finished draining, you turn the tap again in the upper slot which resets the comb into the original position and allows the bees to chew the wax capping away, and fill it with honey again.” – 

My thoughts on it: Having read through the patent, I do believe it will work, at least with uncrystallised honey… but with oil seed rape or ivy honey that has set hard in the combs? – we shall see. I probably won’t be rushing in to buy one, but I shall be interested to see how other English beekeepers find it and then perhaps consider buying one, depending on how much they cost. Here’s an email written by the famous Michael Bush about the design, he seems mostly positive about it:

I don’t have any objections to the product itself, but I do have some worries about the way it’s being marketed. Their website says “In our area it is normal to inspect the brood nest of each hive twice a year for disease. In some areas beekeepers check more frequently.” Twice a year is not enough to notice diseases and stop swarming, so this could give people the wrong impression of how much work keeping bees involves. Let’s say you check in April – no sign of disease – then you check again in September – perhaps now your colony shows signs of American Foul Brood (AFB). Well, all that time your bees could have been infecting other colonies, all of which under UK law would have to be destroyed.

Not such a problem in rural areas with no other hives around, but not good practice in cities or densely populated countries such as the UK. Their patent also makes some odd claims – for instance, “traditional hives leave spaces for pests and diseases.” Well, most diseases spread in the brood combs, so since it seems this product is used to replace the super combs, I don’t see how it will help. Or what they have in mind by spaces causing diseases either. Perhaps more details on this will follow.

Some of the comments written on Facebook by non-beekeepers about it are a bit disturbing – people seem to think that easy extraction of honey will benefit the bees, e.g. “I sure hope this keeps the world’s honey bee populating flourishing!!” and “You may have singlehandedly saved the world’s bee population: this invention is poised to bring beekeeping to the masses, exponentially increasing the bee population.

The problem facing most bees in the world – and there are roughly 19,300 species of them, so this device affects a teeny weeny percentage – is a lack of habitat and flowers. Being able to easily take honey from honey bees is going to do absolutely nothing to help that. Arguably, if we have too many honey bees that could actually mean the wild bees, such as bumbles and solitary bees, lose out because there aren’t enough flowers to go round. Plus a high density of hives kept by people only inspecting twice a year would be a recipe to spread disease.

Anyway, that’s enough of me ranting on! I’ll get off my box now. What do you guys think?

Honey buckets

Honey extraction – the labour intensive way

Posted in Hive types, Honey | 79 Comments

The coming of the snowdrops

Each year I wait for this and it always fills me with optimism. The apiary snowdrops are now in full spectacular bloom, all white and green against the winter. Quite a few people were saying how much bigger they look this year.


Snowdrops 2

The apiary was silent and still, with no bees flying out to greet us. Only a magpie and a robin flew. Under the hive roofs I found our bees clustering round their fondant, their little eyes peering upwards at the blast of cold air. I did not peek long. Under the hives, the varroa boards had few mites on them – around 3-10 had fallen on the various boards during the week. The oxalic treatment has worked.

More snowdrops

Snowdrops and tree

The crocuses are out too. I suspect they must open for the morning sun as I always seem to find them closed for business. Their little clumps always seem more fragile than the cavorting snowdrops.

February crocuses (unopened)None of us had brought any cakes, so we had to make do with hot tea and soft biscuits. A cold has kept me sniffling this week and not in the mood for baking, but today I’m feeling better. Standing around the table, stories were told. A decorator who wanted to charge £450 to put up wallpaper in a small box room. Students paying £500 a week to rent a room. Poor Stan has had to deal with a new enemy – a fox who was seen knocking two of his hives over and eating the contents. Let’s hope more foxes don’t pick up this trick.

Crocuses semi-open


According to the Met Office, meteorological spring runs from 1 March to 31 May, whereas astronomical spring runs from 20 March to 21 June 2015 (see When does spring start). The 20th March is in four weeks time, so if all five hives are still alive by then we can truly say we have got all our bees through winter.

Looking back at my blog, we have shook-swarmed the bees before on either the 2nd, 3rd or 4th weekends in March, depending on which weekends turned out to be sunny. Alan was saying that he plans to shook-swarm his in the next couple of weeks, as he feels that if left too late you end up destroying more brood and it sets the colony back more. He did say that you need a good sunny location and a big colony, preferably in two brood boxes, to do it in February.

Once we do the shook-swarm the beekeeping year will kick off and the work involved in having five hives which need to be inspected weekly will truly begin.

Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments

An evening spent peering at sexual material

Plant sexual material, that is of course. Sorry to disappoint any of my readers hoping to hear about the sexual parts of bees or indeed any other species.

Last Thursday I was busy on the first evening session of a London Beekeepers Association three evening microscopy course. I can reveal that the first challenge of going on a microscopy course is learning how to say the damn word. Cue me lisping ‘Mi-cross-cospy’ again and again.

We began by looking at some slides of brassica and dandelion pollens, as well as a varroa mite, under compound microscopes. The microscopes are an expensive piece of kit that need to be treated carefully; the ones we were using cost between £180-350. We also prepared some of our own pollen slides from fresh flowers and did some Melissopalynology by testing the pollen in our own honeys.

Microscopy course

Pollens of course are the plant’s way of making love – they contain male genetic material. Bees and other pollinators – beetles, bats, midges, moths, butterflies, to name a few – help some plants spread their pollen to reach the female parts of other flowers of their species. Other plants, such as grasses and some trees, rely on wind pollination, while aquatic plants use water pollination.

“For to the bee a flower is the fountain of life. And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love.” (Kahil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923)

Under the microscope, pollens reveal themselves to have a multitude of complex and wonderful shapes that often remind me of primitive sea creatures. The trained eyes of someone who has studied Forensic Palynology can identify pollens on a murder victim or suspect and link them to a particular location.

Another use for pollen identification is to check the geographical origins of a honey. All honey should have at least a few grains of pollen – a complete lack of pollen indicates that either 1) the substance tested is not honey or 2) it has been micro-filtered to remove all pollen and conceal its origins. A 2011 survey by Food Safety News famously found that more than three-fourths of the honey they tested from U.S. grocery stores had been ultra-filtered and technically wasn’t honey. If you are a Chinese producer, concealing the origins of your honey can be a way to sneak it into the U.S. and avoid paying the correct import tariffs. Another reason to buy from local beekeepers who you trust!

Back at home I have been practising my pollen drawing, to give you an idea of the fantastic microscopic shapes lodged in the pollen baskets of bees.

Hairy willow herb pollen

Corncockle pollen

Michaelmas daisy pollen

Some pollen resources:

  • The pollen grain drawings of Dorothy Hodges (IBRA, 2009) – reproduced from the iconic and difficult to get hold of 1952 original by Dorothy Hodges, The pollen loads of the honey bee. Black and white drawings of the pollen grains.
  • A colour guide to pollen loads of the honey bee by William Kirk (IBRA, 2006) – colour charts of common pollens.
  • Pollen chart – interactive with toggles for different seasons, from Sheffield beekeepers
  • Pollen guide – Bristol Beekeeping Association have produced an interactive pollen guide, access by clicking on ‘Pollen guide’ along their top navigation menu
Posted in Events | Tagged | 17 Comments

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