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?

Posted in Bee biology, Exams | Tagged | 13 Comments

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)


Posted in Exams, Foraging | Tagged | 19 Comments

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
Posted in Exams, Foraging | Tagged | 17 Comments

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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London Honey Show 2014: part 2, Judy Earl

Judy Earl

Judy Earl

Our first speaker at the London Honey Show was Judy Earl, who is a master at turning hive products into something beautiful, useful or tasty. Judy has been beekeeping 10 years and has 12 hives in Harrow (northwest London). I was amazed to find that she knew me when I approached her table of goodies, as she reads this blog! Hello Judy!

She had a mind blowing number of hand-made things on show – beeswax & honey soap, body butter, wax crayons, candles, wax chocolates and wax biscuits to name a few.


Display by Judy Earl

Can you believe these aren’t edible? Judy should be working at Madame Tussaud’s! Several British classic biscuits replicated in all their glory here – the Jammie Dodger, the Custard Cream, Scottish Shortbread and the chocolate Bourbon. I have forgotten the name of the round chocolate sandwich biscuit.

Wax biscuits by Judy Earl

Wax biscuits by Judy Earl

The shine and precision of these ‘chocolates’ is astounding too. Really wish Judy could take my Module 2 exam on bee products for me.

Wax chocolates by Judy Earl

Wax chocolates by Judy Earl

In her talk she gave us plenty of ideas for creative things to do with our honey and wax, here are just a few of the ones I jotted down…

Medicinal uses

Judy was brought up on a honey & cider vinegar mix when she had colds. She uses a honey & chilli rub for aching muscles. She’s made a honey & garlic chest rub before too, though she admitted that didn’t smell too good!

Beauty products

Honey & yoghurt makes a great face mask, but don’t put it on and get in the bath, as the honey melts and stings your eyes!

Lipbalm recipe

6g beeswax – cappings wax from untreated supers is generally cleanest.
60g oil – for example, almond, avocado or olive.

Melt the beeswax and mix with the oil.

Food & drink

A nice thing to do with vodka is soak your honey cappings in it for about a month, along with some frozen fruit, to give the vodka a sweet, fruity flavour.

Judy also had a beautiful blackberry honey vinegar on display, which she kindly gave us the recipe for.

Blackberry honey vinegar

600ml white wine vinegar
450g sugar
450g blackberries
225g honey

Put vinegar and blackberries in a big jar. Leave to steep for a week, shaking daily. Strain and bring to the boil, add the sugar and honey, remove from heat and stir till all dissolved. Bottle into a sterilised suitable bottle.

She says “Someone I know made it with damsons this year and that was lovely too. I suspect it would also be good made with blackcurrants and redcurrants … it would make a lovely display of different coloured vinegars.”

Here’s a photo of her honey mustard and the vinegar – I just love its rich red colour.

Honey mustard & Blackberry Honey Vinegar by Judy Earl

Honey mustard & Blackberry Honey Vinegar by Judy Earl

Around your home

100g beeswax
250ml turpentine
Use rough beeswax for this and mix the two together. To make soft polish for leather, add soap flakes.

Judy commented that the hardest part of polish making is finding decent polish tins to put it in!

Emma has done a great post on Judy’s talk and the show in general: The London Honey Show 2014

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London Honey Show 2014: part 1, Dave Goulson

On Monday 6th October I went to the fourth annual London Honey Show, an event celebrating London’s honey and bees in general. As well as a honey tasting competition, there are stalls selling food, beekeeping books and beauty products, plus expert speakers doing short talks. This year’s show was a lot of fun, especially as I knew several people there and warming honey cocktails & mead samples were on offer.

Dave Goulson’s talk

Here are some notes from the talk by Dave Goulson, the second speaker. Dave is well known as a Biology Professor at the University of Sussex, writer of books A Sting in the Tale andBuzz in the Meadow and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in 2006, a charity which now has 8,000 members.

Dave Goulson speaking

Speaking to a room of honey fans, Dave wanted to remind us that honeybees are not the only bees! There are an incredible 22,000 known species of bees worldwide, including around 250 species of bumblebee.

He gave a quick explanation of the life cycle of bumblebees to us. Emerging from their winter hibernations, bumblebee queens visit pussywillow and lumpwort flowers in early spring. They look for ex-mouse or vole cavities, preferably with some soft bedding material already inside. After laying their precious first eggs, they sit over them like birds on their nests, shivering their muscles to keep the eggs warm. So cute!

We think bumbles first originated east of the Himalayas about 30 million years ago. They have adapted to live in cold weather and tend to be scarce in warm areas like the Mediterranean. Bumbles can keep their body temperature an incredible 30ºC higher than the surrounding air temperature, allowing them to fly in the Arctic in temperatures below freezing. Dave showed us a photo he took of a buff-tailed bumblebee flying in January, feeding on Mahonia amongst the snow.

The downside to this ability to stay warm is that it takes them huge amounts of energy to stay in the air. Bumblebees need LOTS of flowers. This appetite and their ability to do buzz pollination makes them major pollinators of crops like oilseed rape, field beans, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries and strawberries. I took the photo of the bumblebee below on chinese anemone and seem to remember she was doing some buzz pollination, intensely vibrating her muscles to shake the flower and release extra pollen from its anthers.

Bumble on chinese anemone

Bumble on chinese anemone

Unfortunately bumblebees are not doing as well as they used to be. For instance, as recently as the 1950s the great yellow bumblebee used to be found in many different sites in England, Wales and Scotland, from Scotland’s Orkney Islands to England’s most southerly county, Cornwall. It is now confined to Orkney, the Hebrides and the northerly coast of Scotland. Why?

Dave gave us his opinions on the reasons some British bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee and the short-haired bumblebee, have declined in their range:

1. Changes to farming
England lost 98% of its hay meadows and chalk downland during the 20th century. Like the great yellow bumblebee, Corncrakes, birds which used to nest in hay meadows all over the UK, now live only in remote corners of Scotland where farming has changed relatively little.

2. Disease
The commercial trade in bumblebees shipped for pollination has spread diseases such as nosema ceranae between bumblebee populations. This has happened in Chile, where accidental releases of European bumblebees being used for pollination have spread disease to native bumbles there.

Dave begged us not to buy bumblebee colonies from garden centres. They are supplied from factory reared colonies from Europe used for tomato pollination, and are often full of parasites and diseases. Read more about this issue at Buzzaboutbees.net’s Bumblebees for sale? page.

3. Neonicotionoids (Neonics)
For this part I’ve added to my notes using the chapter ‘The Disappearing Bees’ in Dave’s recent book A Buzz in the Meadow. Introduced to the world in the mid-1990s, this type of insecticide works by attacking the nervous system and brain of insects. Their advantage is meant to be that they can be applied as a seed dressing before the crop is sown, which the growing seedling then absorbs, spreading the chemical throughout the plant. This prevents the farmer having to spray insecticides several times as plants develop.

The trouble with a insecticide present in all parts of the plant is that nectar and pollen produced by the plant contains the insecticide too. Each time a pollinator visits the plant, they consume a small amount of the neonic. This stuff is highly toxic – just 1 teaspoon of neonicintinoids is enough to kill over a billion bumbles.

Research carried out by Dave and his team, published in the journal Nature, found that bumblebee nests fed on nectar and pollen mixed with very low field-like concentrations of the neonic Imidaclaoprid (used to treat oilseed rape seeds) produced 85% less queens over a season than nests fed with clean nectar and pollen. The control nests fed with untreated food produced an average of about thirteen new queens each, the nests fed with treated food an average of just two.

Disturbingly, most of the neonic seed chemical coatings, between 80-98%, end up not in the plants themselves but in the soil. Once in the soil, most published estimates of the half-life of neonics are anywhere between 200 to 6,000 days, depending on soil type and conditions. They are also water soluble. So these chemicals are everywhere in our soil and waterways, having who knows what effect on the insects within them. Please, please don’t add to the chemicals in our world by treating your lawns and garden plants with insecticides.

4. Gardening
Don’t buy “hideous annual bedding plants – an absolute travesty”. They often have no scent, no nectar and some no pollen. Instead, grow perennial cottage garden type flowers. Dave’s favourite is viper’s bugloss.

If you have no garden, badger your local council to stop wasting your money on mowing verges and removing habitat for bees.

I’ve done some other posts on books/talks by Dave:

And Emma’s done a very entertaining post on the London Honey Show with lots of photos:

Below is Dave speaking in front of a photo of Toby, a army-trained sniffer dog who helped one of Dave’s Phd students hunt for bumblebee nests. You can read about him in Dave’s book A Sting in the Tale.

Dave Goulson speaking

Posted in Events, Urban beekeeping | Tagged | 24 Comments

Cats on guard

Inspired by bee guard-dog Lucky, Ealing Chairman Clare Vernon has kindly sent me photos of her cats Simba and LeoRex for our next Ealing newsletter and has also let me put them up here.

She says “Fame for the Boys!! I think they are very handsome but l am their Mum. They don’t seem to have any trouble with the bees and do seem to enjoy watching them.”

No robbing going on whilst Simba keeps watch…

Simba keeping watch

Simba keeping watch @Clare Vernon

Is he sleeping, or just pretending? No doubt he is ready to leap into action if trouble occurs.

Simba @Clare Vernon

Simba pretending to be fast asleep @Clare Vernon

Meanwhile deputy guard cat LeoRex keeps an eye on Clare’s equipment. Making sure this nuc is suitably cosy for the bees is an important job.


LeoRex @Clare Vernon

Aren’t they gorgeous? I love Simba’s thick fluffy tail! Does anyone else have bee-guard pets?

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