A wedding present from the bees

I see the last time I posted was April 21st. Since then I have become a married lady named Emily Scott and met the wildlife of Borneo. And in Beeland… the bees have been equally busy.

The day of my wedding, May 10th, had sunny spots but was often overcast and drizzly. I said to Emma, who was one of my bridesmaids, “Well, at least we haven’t missed a good day’s beekeeping.” Little did we know what our bees were plotting! You can read what their plans were in Emma’s post ‘Bees or honey?‘. Long story short, Jonesy and Thomas found queen cells in Chili and Chamomile’s hives and did splits to stop them swarming, turning three colonies into five. A wedding present from the bees!

Me and Drew running inside from the rain

Me and Drew running inside from the rain

Our photographer did attempt to take some photos of us outside at one point, but rain sent us hurrying back in! Doesn’t Drew look good in his kilt?

Hurrying in from the rain

Hurrying in from the rain

But you don’t read this blog for wedding photos, you want to read about bees. Well, I did see some bees on honeymoon in Borneo.

A mengaris tree, home to Apis dorsata bees

A mengaris tree, home to Apis dorsata bees

Please excuse the bad photo, which was taken from a canopy walkway with an iPhone. See the curve hanging from under the lowest branch on the right? It’s an Apis dorsata honeybee comb. I could just about make out the bees by their movements – they were covering the whole comb and their wings seemed to shimmer in waves.

Mengaris tree info

Information on the bees: “This tree in front of you is a 40m tall mengaris (Koompassia excelsa). For a mengaris, it is quite short. Some individuals have been measured at 86m tall, making it one of the tallest tropical tree species! Perhaps mengaris trees are best known as the home of the world’s largest honey bee, the Asian rock bee (Apis dorsata). Their hives are up to 6 feet across and may contain as many as 30,000 bees. One mengaris tree may contain more than 100 nests!”

Mengaris tree footholds

Mengaris tree footholds

Can you see the bumps up the side of the tree? Our guide Mike said these were caused by people hammering in bamboo footholds to climb up and steal the honey. They must have been brave as that tall smooth trunk is not made for climbing – it’s a long way down. Indeed, I read online that the bees choose the tree as their home because its smooth bark is tough for predators like the sun bear to climb.

During our travels we did see another of these trees which was covered with combs. It was far away, but Drew got a good photo of it:

Apis dorsata combs

Apis dorsata combs

Although the combs are easy to spot, individual bees proved hard to come across. The rainforest in Danum Valley had few flowers near the forest floor – I suspect most of the flowers must be higher up near the canopy. We saw plenty of butterflies floating around, but no bees.

So I was very happy to come across this bee whilst staying at Myne Resort, which is located along the Kinabatangan River by the village of Bilit. We went for river cruises to spot the monkeys, birds, orang-utans and monitor lizards that live along the river bank, but one of my favourite creatures spotted was this carpenter bee. Its wings shimmered with blue and green colours. I suspect this piece of wood was its territory, as every so often it would take off and do a short circuit of the surrounding flowers before returning to rest on the wood.

Carpenter bee

Carpenter bee

If anyone can identify the bee beyond it being a carpenter bee that would be much appreciated! Drew got some fantastic photos of the Bornean wildlife so a separate post showing off his animal photos may follow.

I feel like including a couple more wedding photos, as I can say they’re bee themed. Our wedding cake! Gorgeously decorated by Michelle at Maya Cakes – http://mayacakes.co.uk. I asked her if she could include little bees somehow and she made it so with marzipan and almonds for the wings. Everyone commented on how tasty it was too.

Our sponge, jam and cream wedding cake, decorated with fruit, flowers and marzipan bees. Made by Michelle at Maya Cakes - http://mayacakes.co.uk

Our sponge, jam and cream wedding cake, decorated with fruit, flowers and marzipan bees. Made by Michelle at Maya Cakes – http://mayacakes.co.uk

Close up of marzipan bees.

Close up of marzipan bees.

Easter inspections; a new queen emerges

There was a lot going on at the apiary on Saturday. Naive people might think that on a bank holiday Easter weekend the apiary would be quiet. Not so when there is tea to be drunk, hot cross buns to be eaten and even some beekeeping to do!

Hot cross buns

Hot cross buns

These were my first ever attempt at hot cross buns. They looked fine but the texture was more like that of a weapon than a squishy doughy bun.

I left the buns on the table and watched Jonesie inspect his hive. Here’s a chunk of drone comb he sliced off to check for varroa. He’ll put it in his freezer and then break it open to look for mites once it’s frozen. There’s something very appealing about the chunkiness of drone comb, the regular golden bumps. The workers were reluctant to leave it.

Drone comb

Drone comb

In the foreground below is a strange little bee Jonesie found in his hive. She was a honeybee, but so bedraggled and black that it was hard to recognise her as one. Her sisters seemed to be trying to clean her up – could she have fallen in some kind of oily substance? Poor wee thing.

EDIT: Thanks to commenters westernwilson and thomas73640, who have identified the black bee as probably suffering from chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This is a virus associated with the varroa mite, which probably helps transfer it between bees. It is also associated with crowded hives, as close contact between overcrowded bees breaks hairs from the cuticle, allowing CBPV to spread from diseased bees to healthy bees via their exposed epidermal cytoplasm.

Wet bee?

Below you can see a new hive that has landed in the apiary. It belongs to Brian, who has taken an old abandoned top-bar hive in the apiary and made it his own. I can’t wait to see what bees do with it. To the left is a bait hive he’s made, sitting on the top of the main hive. Here you can see Brian explaining the hive to Andy Pedley. Andy is always full of enthusiasm and told Brian that even if the hive is a complete disaster, at least it will be very entertaining and a great experiment.

Brian and Andy

Andy (l) and Brian (r)

Tom inspected his hive, which last week he suspected was queen-less. He had put a frame of eggs and larvae from Jonesie’s hive in there last week to see if the bees made a replacement queen for themselves. There were no new queen cells made – but suddenly Tom said ‘There she is!’ and pointed at a little virgin queen walking around a frame. Mysteriously, there was no sign of any queen cell she might have emerged from – did the workers remove all evidence of it?

Virgin queen

Virgin queen

You need sharp eyes to spot a virgin. At the moment she’s about the same size as the workers, but her abdomen is more pointed at the end. Some sunshine is forecast at the end of next week, so hopefully she can get out and mate then. Most of the hives have begun to produce drones now.

“There’s always summat takes you by surprise with bees” Tom said. “I open them up expecting them to have made a queen cell and instead I find a virgin running around.” That’s the joy of bees!

As for our bees, Myrtle and Chilli are doing well, although Chilli’s workers have drawn out about three frames more than Myrtle’s. Myrtle is our favourite queen as she and her mother, grandma and great-grandma etc before her have produced the gentlest of bees. I hope her colony will be ok!

Chamomile’s colony was decidedly narky and kept going for me, which I’m not used to with our bees. It could have been the weather as it was chillier than I would have liked, so I gave up on any ideas of starting the Bailey comb change off this week. I noted more perforated cappings and exposed dead larvae in a small patch of brood.

Chamomile’s bees are on a double brood box and I’d really like to get them down onto a single to make them easier to inspect for queen cells etc. If Myrtle produces any queen cells I would feel tempted to replace Chamomile with a new princess from Myrtle. I dislike getting rid of queens, but I don’t like inspecting bees that try to sting me either.

When I got back from inspecting all the hot cross buns bar one had disappeared, so hopefully they weren’t as bad as I thought, although they did get called “hot rock buns”. Andy left me a comment on my Facebook page afterwards to say:

“They were delicious, thank you so much …. The beekeepers are just teasing … And it might be that they think by “challenging” you, you will bring more the next week. We might allow you a week or two off but bring double when you get back from honeymoon, because we will all be starving!”

Yep, I will be getting married on 10th May, so don’t expect many posts in May!

What’s flowering now – mid April; and a new allotment site for our bees

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that in the summer I like to go for a walk round my local park (Elthorne Park in Hanwell) and see what wild flowers are out. Last week I managed to continue this tradition and get out in the sunshine to find me some pretty flowers and bees.

Bumble on nettles

Bumble on nettles

I wondered if this bumble on white dead-head nettles might be a queen – she seems pretty big. That tail looks a nice clean white, do you reckon she’s a White- tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)? In ‘Plants and Honey Bees: their relationships‘ by David Aston and Sally Bucknall it says “Special mention must be made of the importance of white dead-nettle as a bumblebee forage plant for queens emerging from hibernation in spring” (p99).



Forget-me-nots I believe. They like moist habitats and these ones are growing near a river that runs through Elthorne Park.



Bluebells of various colours. The Spanish kind rather than native English bluebells I expect.

Mystery plant

Anyone know what this is?

This was one of the last flowers I spotted – not one I’ve seen in Elthorne Park before. Lots of bees were on it, but I have no idea what it is. I know some flower experts follow this blog so I’m hoping one of you can help me out!
EDIT: several nice people below have commented to say that it is comfrey, a favourite with bees.

Bumble approaching flower


Dandelions are so cheerful – and great for bees.



Lots of blossom out now too. Suddenly nature is exploding into life all around us. May is my birthday month and I love this time of year, full of hope and expectations for the summer ahead.

Tree blossom

On Friday Drew and I went down to Northfields allotments to meet Tom and make a start on getting our new plot ready. I am no gardener so am glad Tom knows what he’s doing. I found out about the plot as a result of helping out with the Radbourne Walk nature project behind it. I mentioned to someone I was a beekeeper – and it turned out one of the allotment managers had been hoping to find a beekeeper to take over a plot that none of the gardeners wanted.

Here’s a ‘before’ photo of Drew standing in front of the plot. There was a fair bit of rubbish to clear but most of the work involved chopping down brambles to make a flat space for our hives. Even though the allotments have a huge waiting list (85 people as of March 2014), people kept turning this plot down because it was overgrown, has stony ground and they think the apple tree makes it too shady. However it is a lovely plot for bees and we found it sunny on Friday.

Drew before work started

Drew before work started

I’m very excited about this new site for our bees. Northfields allotments is only a ten minute bike ride for me. Plus it’s so much fun to walk around looking at all the different flowers and fruit & veg being grown. One person has put a mini pond in theirs! Tom reckons the stony, poor soil in our plot would suit growing wild flowers, which thrive in soil like that. If I keep going to the Radbourne walk sessions I can get tips on doing this.

An after pic, after Tom got going with the strimmer. We have a plum tree (not pictured) as well as an apple tree  – fantastic!

Tom surveying his work

How it’s all going: two weeks after shook-swarming

The apiary entrance is getting really pretty now as the wild flowers shoot up. White dead nettle, green alkanet and bluebells decorate the floor. Buzzing can be heard as bees on a mission zoom past your ears.

Today was overcast with a breeze that proved chilly at times. Coats were needed at the apiary, so inspections were quick.

Sluggish bees

Sluggish yellow bees

When I arrived Tom and Jonesie had arrived already and were busy inspecting. Tom is worried about the hive above, which has no brood and so is probably queenless. Being queenless usually makes colonies aggressive, but these bees were moving sluggishly and didn’t seem bothered by the inspection. Tom is going to test them for nosema, in case this is causing their slow-moving behaviour. He took a frame of brood from Jonesie’s hive to see if they try and make a queen cell from it.

Tom inspecting Ken's hive

Tom inspecting Ken’s hive

Above Tom is inspecting Ken’s hive. In the middle is Freddie, on the right Jonesie. Unusually they all look really serious and solemn, this isn’t usually the case! These bees are much darker and also seem healthier, with plenty of brood and stores.

Ken's dark bees

Ken’s dark bees

Sometimes I like looking at these photos of multiple bees afterwards and taking in what they’re all up to. It’s sweet seeing their little heads peeping up from the top of the frames. Some on the fifth frame from the left have found a patch of dark honey to feed on, left behind after Tom scraped some rogue comb away.

Some of the beginner beekeepers helped Emma and I inspect our hives. Myrtle’s and Chili’s colonies both have capped brood two weeks after the shook-swarm. Chili’s are definitely busier and have managed to draw out more comb. Emma has been great at going to the apiary mid-week and topping up their sugar syrup.

We would really like to get Chamomile’s colony onto fresh comb now we know they have nosema, but are waiting for a nice sunny day to do that. Today I noticed a few uncapped larvae in the middle of a patch of capped brood in her hive. They worried me as they were in an upright position, not coiled and segmented as uncapped larvae should be. I used tweezers to take one out and it was quite watery, definitely not right. We popped it in the smoker to burn it.

Tom thought perhaps sacbrood could cause this. Looking back at my photos of sacbrood from this 2012 National Bee Unit workshop – Honeybee viruses – I think this could well be the case. The notes I took on the day say “Not a serious disease, as many hives have little patches of it. If it becomes a larger problem, it’s best to requeen or shake the colony onto clean comb.” Our battle to keep our bees healthy and happy continues! 

Oh by the way here’s some photos of the community wildlife gardening I helped out with at Radbourne Walk recently, featuring rather a lot of bottoms in the air!  http://ealingdean.co.uk/radbourne-walk-april-work-day 

Building comb and a home

Last weekend was warm, so Emma and I did a shook-swarm on our two strongest hives, Myrtle and Chilli. We worked as a team, Emma shaking the bees into a fresh brood box with new foundation, then passing me the old frames to bag up in bin bags. Pat kindly got a fire going for us, into which the old frames and brood went, hopefully along with a load of varroa mites. Emma has written a great blog post about the day and her thoughts on the shook-swarm: A tale of two colonies.

Old brown comb in Myrtle's hive

Old brown comb in Myrtle’s hive

Above you can see Emma looking at a frame in Myrtle’s hive. It is old, brown comb which could be harbouring disease.

Emma shaking the bees in

Emma shaking the bees in

Emma shaking the bees in – she was very good at this and our bees are so gentle they didn’t get at all moody with us. As you can see, it was a nice sunny day. The gap in the middle gives space to shake the bees in and then we filled up the gap with frames of foundation before putting a feeder on top of the crown board and closing the hive up.

Shook swarming

If you look closely, you can see a grey clip protruding in-between the top bars of the new hive. We hung Queen Myrtle in a cage between the frames so that she stayed safe and the workers felt comforted by her smell. They will notice very quickly if her pheromones are missing and become unsettled.

We fed the colonies with strong 2:1 sugar solution syrup, which is essential to do following a shook-swarm. Worker bees have eight wax glands on the underside of their abdomens. To produce wax, they will consume nectar (or the sugar solution we provide) and hang together in chains for warmth. The sugar and warmth causes tiny wax scales to be secreted from their wax glands, which they then chew and manipulate into comb using their mandibles and forelegs.

Emma has gone back several times in the week to top up their syrup. Colonies differ in how much syrup they take in after a shook-swarm – Chilli’s hive has consumed a lot more syrup, even though she probably has slightly less bees. Myrtle’s hive has been taking less down, so they are probably collecting nectar instead. Green alkanet (evergreen bugloss) is out now and we saw lots of sweet common carder bees working it. It’s a member of the borage family but more common than borage, so a very important wildflower for bees.

carder bee

Carder bee on green alkanet (evergreen bugloss)- photo taken last May

Yesterday we did a quick check inside Myrtle and Chilli’s hives to make sure all was well after the shook-swarm. The workers were on about five central combs in Myrtle’s hive. We saw Myrtle and – even better – rows of neatly laid eggs! The workers had been even busier in Chilli’s hive and were on about eight frames. We spotted Chilli but did not see any eggs yet, though the sky was quite overcast so we may have missed them.

Fresh new comb in Myrtle's hive

Fresh new comb in Myrtle’s hive

Look how white and clean the new comb the bees have been drawing is.

Tom did a test last week on Chamomile’s hive using a small sample of about 30 worker bees, and was able to determine that nosema is present, though his test does not tell him how badly the bees are infected. He has kindly made us up a thymol solution, which we will spray lightly on her bees next weekend.

Honey loaf

Honey loaf

Afterwards, we had some cake. Jayne had brought some fab scones with jam and this is a honey loaf I made.

Today I went down to Northfields allotment to help out with their Radbourne walk wildlife project again. We cleared another section of soil before planting it with a wildflower mix containing poppies, cornflowers and some other wild flowers. English bluebells will also be going in. Nettles and green alkanet are being left to grow along the fence as they are good food for butterflies and bees.

Another stag beetle loggery was created. The logs need to be put deep in the soil, as the stag beetle larvae prefer rotten wood. The protruding wood will be good for solitary bees to nest in.

Stag beetle loggery

Stag beetle loggery

My reasons for helping out with the project are not entirely altruistic, as a nice lady called Jasmine makes sure we are very well catered for. There was a tea break with three types of cake followed by a later lunch of delicious vegetable curry with rice and tomato chutney. In-between eating/digging I also paid for our new allotment plot so that Thomas and I can move our bees there, once we’ve got the plot ready. Everyone I met seemed very happy that bees will be coming and appreciative of the benefits of having pollinators on the allotment.

Notes from a talk by David Rudland, ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’

On Wednesday evening I went to a London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) talk by David Rudland on the topic of ‘Bringing bees from winter into spring’.

David and his wife Celia (who came to the meeting too) are commercial beekeepers in Surrey with around 180 hives, producing honey, selling bees and running training courses. David is also a FERA seasonal bee inspector. There are only about 350 commercial beekeepers in the UK, representing about 1% of total beekeeper numbers here.

His talk reminded me that you can never say “I know it all now” – researchers are constantly making new discoveries that have deeply practical relevance to the best way to look after our bees. This is a post about practical beekeeping – it may not make much sense to beginners and probably won’t be very interesting for non-beekeepers! You have been warned.

Winter management – jobs to do over the winter

“I like being controversial”, David said with a big grin on his face. He then proceeded to tell us why all sorts of things most UK beekeepers do over winter are unnecessary/a bad idea.


Lots of beekeepers avoid opening their hives during winter, for fear of chilling the bees and brood. David however recommends doing a quick two minute check in December and January (as long there’s not a blizzard or horizontal rain going on). The idea is to check for brood if you’re considering treating with oxalic acid and also make sure that the bees are near stores.

Oxalic acid

Seasons have changed quite dramatically over the last couple of decades; David now finds that the majority of his hives have brood all year round. Unfortunately oxalic acid, which is used by many UK beekeepers as a winter anti-varroa treatment, is only about 20% effective when there is brood in the hive, as the mites will all hop into the brood. David feels it’s only worth doing oxalic if there’s no brood in the hive, otherwise disturbing your bees isn’t worth it.

This relates to my post in December, ‘The great Facebook oxalic acid controversy‘. LBKA Committee member Mark Patterson was at the meeting and spoke up to say that when he checked his bees in early-mid December they were broodless, so he was able to go ahead and do the oxalic treatment. If there is brood when you check, destroying it and coming back a day or two later is an option.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Treating with oxalic acid. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Hefting and feeding

“How many of you heft your hives?” asked David. Many of us put our hands up, only to be told not to bother. David believes it is a meaningless exercise, as it tells you nothing about where the bees are in relation to their stores. What you want to know is, have the bees got access to food? If brood is present the bees will be extremely reluctant to leave it, even if honey stores are on the next frame. This can result in them starving to death. In this situation you could dangle rolls of fondant down between the frames (thanks Mark Patterson for this tip).

If you are in any doubt, feed! Once you start feeding candy (fondant) you have to keep feeding it because they’ll put their brood nest there.Ambrosia fondant


Make sure your bees have water nearby. Water is very important for bees, even in winter, as they need it to be able to dilute their stores. David and Celia use upturned dustbin lids with stones in. Compost piles are also very good sources of moisture.


Build new frames but don’t install the wax foundation until needed. Bees don’t like building on old foundation. Warm up old foundation that’s got cold by leaving it in a warm room or, best of all, heating it gently with a hairdryer until you smell the oils. A hairdryer will warm all the way through the wax.

Spring management – jobs to do in the spring

Comb changing

April is a good time to change comb, as by then there are new young bees in the hive. The optimum age for bees to begin wax building is around 12 days old. If the shook-swarm or Bailey exchange is done too early on, the older bees which have lasted all winter will be forced to build wax. This is like asking a group of pensioners to build their own nursing home!

David and Celia find that getting the bees to draw out new comb helps maintain a good brood pattern when the queen begins laying in it.

Brushing a frame

Nice new comb – yellow, not dark brown


Shook swarming 

See FERA’s ‘Shook swarm’ fact sheet for step-by-step instructions on how to do a shook-swarm.

David’s favourite way to change comb is the shook-swarm method (shaking the bees onto new foundation, burning the old brood frames). Colonies need to have at least five frames of bees and a laying queen. The amount of brood doesn’t matter so much as the amount of adult bees. Don’t do this on colonies which are on less than five frames, as they will be too weak.

It should take an average sized colony about a week and a half to draw a new brood box’s worth of comb out in April. Always feed heavy 2:1 sugar to water ratio syrup after shook-swarming, even if a nectar flow is on. David finds the cost of wax and syrup are more than recovered through the subsequent strength of the colony.

Shook-swarming can be used as a great anti-varroa technique. If you take two combs of open (uncapped) brood when shook-swarming and place them in the middle of the new brood box, all the mites feeding on the adult bees will jump into the larvae to reproduce. Once the larvae has been capped, you then remove these frames before the bees and varroa hatch twelve days later! If you forget to do this in time, congratulations you’ve just bred varroa.

Someone asked if doing the shook-swarm puts colonies backwards, but David finds the contrary – the sense of urgency to replace the comb really makes the bees go for it. He knows a commercial beekeeper who shook-swarms all his bees in May – it improves his honey production as the workers then don’t have to worry about feeding brood.

The shook-swarm can also work well as a quick technique to unite two colonies. Pick one queen and shake the two colonies in together. Spray a little sugar water over to distract them from fighting and they should be fine.

Bailey comb change

See FERA’s ‘Replacing comb’ fact sheet for step-by-step instructions on how to do a Bailey comb change.

David’s method of Bailey comb change uses multiple dummy boards on both side of the brood boxes to create a ‘chimney’ effect. The bees in the bottom brood box warm up the bees above, making it easier for them to draw new comb. Once mature brood is present in the new comb, move the queen up into the top box and put a queen excluder between the two boxes.

The Bailey change is gentle, not too drastic and preserves brood. This makes it more suitable for small colonies. If a small colony has nosema, the Bailey change will not destroy all the spores but will get the colony in a better shape to cope with the nosema. However, any pathogens on the old comb are transferred up to the new comb as the bees move about and the varroa are also preserved because the brood is left to hatch.

In both methods, ultimately the comb is discarded but the wooden frames can be reused. David and Celia use a team of 34 geese to eat up the wax from the sides of old frames – apparently they love it. They’re then boiled in washing soda (the frames, not the geese).

Does the queen have space to lay?

Don’t let your brood nests become clogged with stores. If there are no empty brood cells free, the queen won’t have space to lay. If you have any drawn out comb you could put this in and remove a couple of frames of stores.

Thoughts on MAQs anti-varroa strips

“Anyone tried MAQs yet?” asked David. Mark P had bought some but not used it yet; no-one else had tried it.

Apparently people have reported mixed results with MAQs. The biggest issue is often loss of brood, because the formic acid will permeate through the brood cell cappings. Yes it kills varroa in the brood, but it kills brood too! In that way it’s like doing a shook-swarm. It has some advantages over Apiguard as it can be used safely whilst the bees are storing honey. It will eat any metal work inside the hive and even kill grass in front of the hive!

You can find David and Celia’s website at www.eastsurreybees.co.uk. What do you think of his methods, would you consider using any of them?

Drone brood after MAQs strips

Drone brood after MAQs strips. Downloaded from the BBKA online Gallery.

Our empire expands and I see beautiful wild comb up a tree

When I walked into the apiary, Albert said to me “I hear you’ve gone commercial”. He pointed past his shoulder, where a row of three new hives had been set up next to our existing three, all six neatly labelled “Emily and Emma”. Emma had been busy!

Our new empire consists of the first six hives you see on the left. The newer hives are obvious as they are all light and unstained. Emma said some of our bees came out to check ‘em out, plus a queen bumblebee was nosing around! She’s blogged about her hard work at ‘A string of warm days and daffodils‘, accompanied by some beautiful cheery photos of the apiary and daffodils.

Our new empire

Our new empire

We are now ready to do our comb changes. I must remember to mark our new frames with the month and date, plus 1-10 so that we know which order they started off in. This makes it harder to put them back in the wrong order when inspecting. Must also remember to, er, make them. Kinda haven’t done that yet.

During tea and cake chatting I met a very enthusiastic new beekeeper. He had only just visited the apiary for the first time, but had already joined the association, bought a smoker and bought a bee suit. He also plans to get two to three hives soon! I was a bit worried that he’s rushing into things too quickly, but he said his grandfather was a beekeeper so perhaps he’s picked up a few tips from him.

“Who’s happy being up a ladder?” asked John Chapple. Tom volunteered himself; the reason was that our Chairman Clare Vernon has a neighbour with bees living in their tree. The house is currently being done up and the neighbour may not be happy to move back in with the bees still there. The most amazing thing is that these bees aren’t nesting in a hole but just in comb hanging from the tree.

Tom, Clare, Albert and I went to have a look so that Tom could make plans to remove the bees. On the concrete path leading up to the garden were some unmoving bees, which probably landed there and then got too cold to fly off again. They were the darkest honeybees I’ve ever seen, black in every single abdomen segment. I placed two dead ones in my pocket to study at home. 

When we got inside the garden (the builders let us in) I gasped when I saw the comb up the tree at the end. It was magnificent, seven combs graduated in size hanging high up. The end comb was marked brown so had obviously contained brood at some point. They arrived as a swarm last summer; Clare said that when the colony was at its largest the comb was completely hidden and she could just see a ball of bees in the tree.  There were a few bees entering the comb but not many, so Tom thought maybe it’s just being robbed out now – that would be sad if such a hardy colony has died out.

Combs in tree

Combs in tree

On our way out I picked up a black bee which was moving slightly on the concrete path and blew hot air on her. She soon perked up and began walking around on my hand. I left her on a plant. When I got home I removed the two dead bees from my pocket, only to find to my horror that they had come alive again in the warmth. Sadly one had stung my coat and had her sting hanging out, while the other had two damaged legs. I had to put them out of their misery – I won’t assume that unmoving bees are dead again. Poor wee things. 

bee colony in tree