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.

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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.

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Drawing the curtains for winter

Last weekend I took my Module 2 exam, Honey bee products and forage. I think it went well! Until the last five minutes, anyway. I had been wondering how I’d managed to finish on time and why I wasn’t frantically scribbling away like usual. Then I looked back through the paper and realised I’d forgotten to answer two parts of one of the questions. So I asked for more paper and just about managed to scrawl down the answers in extremely sloppy handwriting.

Apart from that I was very lucky with the questions, lots on flowers, pollination and the composition of nectar/honey. Felt sorry for any expert wax moulders, mead makers or honey producers doing the exam, who must have felt peeved at the lack of opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. I was planning to wait till I got the results of Module 2 before deciding whether to do another exam, but as I’m hopeful that I’ve passed I’m going to crack on. It’s a big ‘un next, the one everyone says is tricky: Module 5, Honey bee Biology.

The revising should keep me busy over winter, but there won’t be much Emma and I can do for our bees meanwhile. This weekend I put slabs of fondant over their crown boards (just in case, they have plenty of honey too). In December we’ll treat with oxalic acid. Then there’s a lull until March, when suddenly it hits us that we need to get busy making frames for the spring shook-swarms. And everything bursts into action again.

I was fascinated to see that Brian’s bees in their top bar-hive have reduced their entrance holes using propolis. Much easier to defend against wasps when the holes are this size and presumably warmer too.
Brian's bees propolis holes 3

I wonder if the propolis would actually keep mice out. It does go firm in cold weather, but also quite brittle, so probably a mouse could bite through it? Terrible photos I know – light conditions were very low, but hopefully you can see that the propolis is dark brown and beyond that is the dark of the hive.
Propolis holes

How are your bees doing, are they hunkering down for winter?

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4th Honey bee products and forage revision post: the location and function of the extra-floral nectaries of broad bean, cherry laurel, cherry and plum

Before I became a beekeeper, I can’t remember ever learning about extra-floral nectaries. No-one goes to an extra-floral nectary show, or walks down the aisle clutching a bouquet of exquisite extra-floral nectaries. The world goes by without most of us ever thinking about them. Yet they are very useful to insects such as ants and bees.

So what the heck is a extra-floral nectary anyway? Well, it’s a patch of glandular tissue which secretes sugar but is not part of the plant’s flower, which is why it’s ‘extra-floral’, i.e. not floral. These glands have been observed in at least 2000 different species of plants, including broad bean, cherry, cherry laurel and plum. Below is a picture I drew showing where they are located on these four examples.

Extra floral nectaries

Since these nectaries aren’t near the sex parts of a flower, they obviously have no connection with pollination. So what are they for?

There are a couple of different theories about the function of extra-floral nectaries. One is that the nectaries may act as ‘sap valves’ to regulate sap pressure within the plant. The thought is that if the sap in the phloem tubes (which transport sap around the plant) become too concentrated with nutrients, the plant releases nectar from its extra floral nectaries to reduce osmotic pressure.

Another theory, which seems to be more commonly accepted, is that the nectaries are a defensive mechanism to reward ants, which will then stop other animals from eating the plant. In The Honey Bee Around and About, Celia Davis mentions an experiment which found that when broad beans had a proportion of their leaves removed to simulate damage by herbivores, the plant produced a lot more extra-floral nectaries within one week.

Extra-floral nectaries: the unobtrusive, unshowy nectar pools of the insect world.


  • Beekeeping study notes (Modules 1, 2 & 3), J.D. & B.D. Yates (2013)
  • Module 2 study notes, Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association (2012)
  • The Honey Bee Around and About, Celia F.Davis (2009)


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3rd Honey bee products and forage revision post: an account of the information that clover, field geranium, forget-me-not and horse chestnut communicate to the honey bee

2.19  an account of the importance of nectary guides to the foraging bee using a named example and describe how the following flowers, having been successfully pollinated, can indicate to bees that their visits are no longer required – clover, forget-me-not, horse chestnut.

The Module 2 exam is next Saturday November 8th, and I’m afraid I’m well behind on revising. However, I’ve decided not to give myself a hard time about that. The exam is just for “fun”, and if I don’t pass it’s not a big deal – I’ll still have learnt something. And I can retake in March.

How pollination works is something that interests me. Perhaps you have seen bees fly around a plant ignoring some flowers and landing on others, seemingly randomly. But it is not random! They are picking up on all sorts of messages which we often either can’t perceive or don’t know how to interpret – perhaps a pheromone scent, an electrical charge or ‘nectar guide’ patterns on the flower petals.

Below is a drawing I did illustrating some of the physical changes clover, forget-me-not and horse chestnut flowers use to show pollinators that they have already been pollinated and therefore are no longer providing nectar and pollen. It is in the interest of plants to help pollinators do their job efficiently, so that they can concentrate on visiting un-pollinated flowers.

Flowers - signs of pollination

Both forget-me-not and horse chestnut use yellow to attract the bees initially when their flowers are un-pollinated and excreting nectar. When the forget-me-not’s yellow bulls-eye corona fades to white, this highlights the central nectaries less.

Although a red/pink magenta tone may seem like a more eye catching colour for the horse chestnut flower to change to, actually bees are red colour-blind, so red appears rather dull to them. Additionally the horse chestnut flower’s colour change is accompanied by a change in scent that is perceived by bees, so that they can distinguish between younger and older flowers.

My lurid attempt at drawing a field geranium’s nectar guides is below. The lines of the nectar guides on the petals draw attention to the flower’s nectaries at its centre, like arrows pointing the way. The field geranium flowers between July to September and is a good nectar source for bees.

Field geranium nectar guides

Many nectar guide patterns are not visible to the human eye but can be seen by bees, as they can perceive UV light. So for instance a bee sees some dandelions as having a purple outer ring and a central disc of yellow. This is because the outer florets of the dandelion strongly reflect UV light. However, the UV markings can vary between different micro species of dandelion, for instance the dandelion photographed in Bjørn Rørslett’s brilliant UV flower catalogue has a red centre and pale blue outer ring: Dandelion under UV light.

Bees can see other things we can’t too – like the electrical field surrounding a flower. Scientists have found that bumblebees can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower and use this information to work out whether a flower has been recently visited by other bees. If it has, it’s likely to be low on nectar. Read about this on the National Geographic website: Bees can sense the electric fields of flowers – and here’s the original study: Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees.

I’m sure there are many things we have yet to learn about how bees and flowers interact.


  • Module 2 study notes, Mid Bucks Beekeepers Association (2012) – note, in 2012 the syllabus required knowledge of the field geranium nectar guides, in 2014 it does not and just asks for a “named example” of nectary guides
  • Plants and Honey Bees: their relationships, David Aston and Sally Bucknall (2009)
  • Flowers in Ultraviolet, Bjørn Rørslett
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A musical interlude…

A guest post by musician Joe Holiday, who contacted me via Twitter to ask if I could spread the word about his bee music. He says:

“Hello Bee People!

I have composed eight Bee songs and have recently recorded two of them. Have a listen. I would love to hear what you think!

For my next CD, I would like to record all of my Bee tunes–
Hive Life, Queens Life, 2 Mile Buzz, Stinger, Nurse B,  and Honey

Here are links to the actual mp3 files and a brief description of the tunes:

Drones (from the Bee Suite)
This speaks of the sadness of being a drone, hearing their call and realizing their purpose.  As the queen leaves the hive, flying high up in the air, the drones follow to mate with her. The harmonic energy towards the end of the piece evokes their moment of joy.

Drones: http://music.sonomaholiday.com/6Drones.mp3

Drone face

A handsome drone, photo taken by Drew Scott.

Worker Bees (from the Bee Suite)
In Russia, which I was fortunate to visit in the 1980s, workers seemed to be honored. In this piece I imagined the worker bees doing their job day in day out. I also imagined an ancient tribe of hardworking people who tended their sacred bees while singing to them as they honored their mutual work. I invented the “bee language” to reflect this.  Musically the piece is composed of one-chord vamps with small cued sections separating them. This allowing the musicians a bit of a breather where they don’t have to read so much and can just play.

Worker Beeshttp://music.sonomaholiday.com/3Worker.mp3

Busy worker bees

Busy worker bees

On my website, you can even download the sheet music for Drones if you would like to play it. http://www.senightmare.com

If you would like to hear the rest of the songs on the CD Strength and Kindness, you can listen here. http://www.cdbaby.com/m/cd/somebodyelsesnightmare

I would love to hear any comments or suggestions you have on the Bee songs.

Thank You, Joe”

I am happy that Joe has been inspired by the bees!

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