Getting our bees winter-ready

Last week Emma and I met up to check on our two hives. It was a warm day for November and we wanted to make sure our larger colony was set up well for winter, with not too much empty space which the bees might struggle to heat.

Here’s Emma glowing as she lights up the smoker. Particularly toasty feet – she had two pairs of socks on!

Emma with FLIR camera

We had been considering removing the super and overwintering the bees on a single brood box, but we found they were covering several frames in the super and appeared to be using the honey. So instead we made up some insulated frames to place either end of the super, which should help keep them cosy. They also have plenty of silver foil thermal insulation sheets in the top of the hive (the kind you buy in rolls to help insulate lofts and walls).

Insulated frames

Below is a FLIR thermal camera image of our polystyrene nuc. Inside the bees are doing great, they are covering all the frames and were bringing back two colours of pollen, dark and light yellow. I expect one is ivy but am unsure what the other might be.

Nuc hive with FLIR camera

I am skeptical about how exact that 11.4C reading is, as I would expect the colony to have brood, with frames containing brood kept nearer 34-35C by the bees.  I also took a photo of a empty hive and found the camera read a similar temperature of around 9C! Philip over at the Mud Songs beekeeping blog has a useful post on Beekeeping With a “Flir One for Android”, with links to tutorials in the comments. I wish I had more time to investigate the software, but everyday life with Tommy is pretty full-on.

Look how much extra comb the nucleus bees have been busy building along the top of the glass.  We have left them some fondant in the feeder hole.

Poly nucleus hive

Mouseguards are on now. The next thing to do will be oxalic acid treatment in December. Now that the law has changed, this should be done with Api-Bioxal. Annoying as it is a bit more expensive and doesn’t come ready-mixed.

Best of luck to everyone over-wintering your bees.

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Autumn changes

It’s easy to take certain things in life for granted – at work, at home, in our local environment. We get used to things being the way they are. And then suddenly they might change very quickly, leaving us reeling. Last year my neighbours cut down a beautiful fruit tree which used to blossom in their front garden. I’m sure they had their reasons. Perhaps it cut out their light. Still, I miss that tree.

In London we can never assume our green space is going to stay green. We are constantly on the back foot as time and again developers come after land we thought belonged to the local community.

And so it is with Northfields allotments, where Tom and I share a plot. It will come within the 10% of the allotments which Pathways, the housing charity that owns the allotments, plans to build on. They are aiming to create 18 new social homes for the elderly and four private homes for sale. For Halloween the plot holders got together to hold a pumpkin trail running through the allotments, to raise awareness of what will be lost if we don’t prevent the building work. Thousands of people turned up to see the pumpkins and enjoy hot soup, mulled wine and a BBQ, plus face painting, a tombola and cake/jam/honey stalls.

Here’s a few photos of the allotments so you can see their beauty too. The Chief Executive of Pathways has suggested we could have allotments on the roofs of the new homes, but we can hardly relocate our apple and cherry tree up there.

Apiary allotments

FLIR hives

The photo above was taken using a FLIR thermal camera for the iPhone. It’s a very light little camera. I want to take more photos using it as the season goes on, to see how the cluster moves over winter. Need to read the manual some more though as I think I’m not using it to its full capabilities. Phillip has done a useful post on ‘Beekeeping with a Flir One for Android‘ on his Mud Songs blog – a great blog about beekeeping in chilly Newfoundland by the way.

Shed allotments


Scarecrow allotments

Halloween cupcakes


These allotments are home to stag beetles, birds, bees, butterflies and many other vulnerable small creatures. They’re a wildlife haven in a busy urban area. It’s so sad to think of losing them. We do need more affordable homes and social housing but should we destroy all our green space to do so?

To read more about the proposed development, see:

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Cake testing time at the apiary

Autumn has come to the apiary. Crisp dry leaves litter the floor. Some flowers are still around – purple michaelmas daisies, ivy and the last of the himalayan balsam along canal banks. The bees come and go, but no longer in the same numbers or with the urgency they had earlier in the season.  They are winding down, preparing for the long retreat.

apiary in autumn

I took Tommy for his first visit to the apiary. He seemed to enjoy the attention of being the youngest beekeeper there, even if he couldn’t join in with the cake testing. He was asleep when I first got to the apiary but woke up just as I started topping up the feeders with syrup, so no time for further beekeeping! Luckily big Tom was able to transfer our smallest colony into a poly nuc for winter. I have never overwintered a nuc so fingers crossed.

Tommy at the apiary

We had a triple whammy of sweet treats this week – Clare’s chocolate and banana bread, Jones’s lemon honey cake and my chocolate biscuits. Plus tea of course.

Jonesy was testing his lemon honey cake for the National Honey Show at the end of October. The recipe it has to be made to is on the National Honey Show website (class 85). Most of us thought the cake was very nice, moist and light, though not everyone agreed and he did also get some feedback that it was too dry! Does anyone have any tips for winning the cake class? I quite fancy making the honey fruit cake recipe.

Here’s a little bee climbing up inside a lily.

Bee in lily

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A long delayed visit to the bees

I have been missing my bees. It is tricky visiting them as so far Tommy has refused to drink his milk from a bottle, meaning that I’m the only person who can feed him. It is easily a two hour round trip to the apiary by public transport and he usually feeds every 1-2 hours in the day. So you can see the difficulty. However on Saturday Drew drove us down and entertained him for a while, so that I could concentrate on a little beekeeping.

I was enchanted to find new comfy picnic tables and a much improved fence. Tea and cake at the apiary will taste even better now.

Apiary benches

Emma and I have sold off a lot of equipment, Tom built us a lovely new equipment stand and Emma has done some tidying, so our once towering equipment empire is now much more manageable.


After several days of a freakishly warm September, in contrast Saturday was overcast and chilly. So I didn’t inspect but did some tidying – removed the empty Apiguard trays and ekes, took out the varroa monitoring boards which were taped up for the Apiguard treatments and topped up the syrup feeders.

Pepper and Melissa hives

Melissa’s colony is smaller than we would like, so I added a couple of dummy boards to help them keep warm. We may need to put them in a nuc over winter.

Melissa's hive

It felt a bit painful visiting the bees, a reminder that I have been neglecting some parts of my life. But it was also nice to lose myself in the actions of caring for them. Lift the hive roof off, lay it down on the ground, gently lift off the feeder and prise off the crown board. Physical work is satisfying.

I spend a lot of time walking around to keep Tom entertained. In one of my local parks these pretty pink and white autumn crocuses cyclamen (thanks Lucy Garden for correcting me in the comments!)  are flowering. I noticed a little brown carder bee visiting them.

Autumn crocuses

Ivy flowers are out now too – an important late source of forage for many pollinators. There’s even a bee which specialises in visiting them, the Ivy bee, Colletes hederae. It forages almost exclusively on ivy’s delicate green and yellow flowers, flying only from September to mid-November. The Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) has a Colletes hederae mapping project, so keep an eye out for these bees if you live in southern England or Wales. They were first recorded as new to Britain in 2001 when Ian Cross discovered specimens at Langton Matravers in Dorset.

Hoverfly on ivy

Hoverfly on ivy

A short visit but I hope to go again soon.

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Walking for bees

Thanks to a comment left on my blog, I found out about a fun walking project being carried out by activist and gardener Meg Beresford, called ‘Let’s Make a Beeline’.

Meg is walking for 8 days between Aug 30th until Sept 6th – from Edinburgh Botanical Gardens to her home in Wiston Lodge, Scotland – to raise money for a bee-themed weekend gathering there. Each day she is covering 10 kilometres (6.2 miles), as bee expert Dave Goulson has found that a bumblebee can travel up to 10 kilometres to make its way home. At the gathering she plans to “bring together internationally renowned authors, speakers and academics to engage in bee conversation”, with bee themed workshops and music.

You can follow Meg’s adventures via her blog at, which she is updating daily. Along her route she is visiting gardens and other bee friendly projects to connect with other like minded folk. I am enjoying reading about her travels and seeing the beautiful scenery of Scotland. She also has a donations page.

It cheers me up to know that other people are out there that care about nature, in a week when I’ve heard of depressing developments both locally and globally: in Ealing some of our treasured local allotments will be lost to a new housing project, while in South Carolina millions of bees have been killed by spraying, partly because inadequate prior warnings were given to beekeepers.



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Test yourself on honey bees, Mastermind style

For those of you who have never seen it, Mastermind is a British TV show in which four contestants are tested on both their general knowledge and a chosen specialist subject. Thanks to Di Drinkwater for her post ‘Bees on Mastermind‘, which alerted me to the recent appearance of beekeeper Gill Taylor on the show, with the specialist subject of ‘The honey bee and beekeeping’. Gill is based in Airedale, West Yorkshire, and manages her local association’s website: Viewers in the UK can catch the episode on iPlayer during the next couple of weeks.


Here’s the questions asked – answers further down…

1. The cells of the bees’  honey comb are constructed in which distinctive geometric shape?

2. What term derived from the latin for ‘little basket’ is used for the haired structure on the hind leg of a honey bee carrying pollen?

3. What astrological name is widely given to the shifting swarm-like formations of male bees in flight as they pursue the honey bee queen?

4. What item of beekeeping equipment is used to pursue the bees in a hive and typically incorporates a fire box and bellows?

5. What name is generally given to the crescent shaped dance performed by worker bees during foraging that represents an intermediate phase between the round dance and the waggle dance?

6. To what genus does the honey bee belong that includes a widely investigated species called Mellifera?

7. For what purpose does a beekeeper use a baldock or crown of thorns cage?

8. What is the common name of the British climbing plant Hedera helix, which provides the honey bee with a nectar source late in the year?

9. What is the name of the protein that consists of 26 amino acids and is the principal constituent of the honey bee’s venom?

10. What is the common name of the disease caused by the fungus Ascophaera apis, that results in a bee larva being transformed into a mummy of fungal spores?

11. Which deadly parasitic mite of honey bees now endemic in the UK includes the common Destructor species?

12. The honey bee Apis mellifera ligustica resident in the United Kingdom originates in which European country?

13. In the early 1850s which American clergyman and beekeeper identified the bee space in a hive, which enabled him to develop removable frame beekeeping?

14 The black honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera has been legally protected on the Hebridean island of Oronsay and which neighbouring island?

15. What sticky substance – also called bee glue or bee gum – is collected by bees from tree or plant resins and used for constructing and sealing their hives?

16. What name shared with the gland in the worker bees’ abdomen is given to the pheromone that includes nerol and geraniol, used for orientation, marking and guidance?


  1. Hexagonal
  2. Corbicula
  3. Comet
  4. Smoker
  5. Gill passed – the answer is Sickle dance
  6. Apis
  7. To capture the queen
  8. Ivy
  9. Gill passed – the answer is Melittin
  10. Gill answered Sacbrood – the answer is Chalkbrood
  11. Varroa
  12. Italy
  13. Langstroth
  14. Gill passed – the answer is Colonsay
  15. Propolis
  16. Nasonov

How many did you get right? When put on the spot it’s surprisingly hard to speedily recall answers – even to a subject you know well – so I think Gill did brilliantly to get her score of 12. She looked so calm and composed too! I can imagine her steadily at work amongst her bees, unruffled by any angry workers pinging off her veil.

Who won the show? Can mere mortals beat a beekeeper? You’ll have to watch it and find out.

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What’s been flowering: July

Writing is difficult at the moment. It’s rare that I get the chance to sit down and type without Tommy’s eyes popping open and requiring attention. But here are a few photos from my walks round the local parks and Kew Gardens.

Red clover 

An important plant for bees, particularly bumblebees. Clover florets (florets are the individual flowers that make up the flower head) drop once pollinated so that bees know not to bother visiting them. When red clover first flowers it has too deep a flower for a honey bee to reach the nectar, but if the clover is cut and then grows back, the flowers are shorter and can be accessed by honey bees.

Red clover

White clover 

The legume family, including clovers, vetches and trefoils, have special bacteria in their root nodules. These bacteria are able to turn nitrogen from the air into nitrates that enable the plants to manufacture protein for growth – in other words, they make their own fertilizer. This means they can afford to put more protein into their pollen, making it especially nutritious to bees.

White clover nectar is also very important for bees. According to an information board I saw recently at Kew Gardens, white clover contributes more nectar than any other plant species in the UK. Elizabeth Gowing describes clover honey in her ‘Little Book of Honey‘ as “sweet and light, with a citrus tang which changes to a sourish aftertaste that stops it being sickly to eat”.

White clover


When I think of July flowers, I think of yellows and purples. Bright yellow ragwort flowers grow alongside members of the thistle family in all the wilder parts of my local park. They’re tough and can grow on waste land, road sides, rough grassy areas etc. The plants are an important food source for orange & black striped Cinnabar moth caterpillars. Ragwort contains toxic alkaloid substances, which the caterpillars cleverly absorb and assimilate, to become unpalatable to predators.

Celia Davis in The Honey Bee Around & About (2007) describes ragwort as being “very attractive to bees… likely to produce quantities of extractable honey which smells horrible when it is fresh. If it is allowed to stand and granulate, the flavour improves and some beekeepers use it to blend with other, less flavoursome honeys.”

Clive de Bruyn is also positive about ragwort honey, commenting in his classic book Practical beekeeping (1997) “The honey is a deep yellow with a strong flavour thought by some to be obnoxious. I personally find that it adds a bit of interest.” Has anyone reading tried it?

Hoverfly on ragwort

Some more yellow flowers below – a sunflower, the one with pink petals I think is a species of echinacea and I’m not sure what the flower with a bumble bee in the middle is called – any ideas?

Presumably it is the sunflower nectar the bees are after, as a number of experts I’ve heard speak have said that sunflower pollen contains a particularly poor percentage of crude protein – only around 13% compared to 22-24% for an average pollen.

Thistles, teasels and knapweeds

I find the different members of the thistle and teasel family hard to tell apart. They come in various shades of purple and levels of prickliness! Below are photos of a bumblebee on what I think is common teasel and a honey bee on what I think is a species of thistle. Teasel seeds are an important winter food for some birds, such as goldfinches. Interestingly there is some evidence that teasels may be partially carnivorous and able to absorb nutrients from dead insects in rainwater which gathers in a cup-like receptacle formed by leaves on their stem – see ‘Carnivory in the Teasel Dipsacus fullonum — The Effect of Experimental Feeding on Growth and Seed Set‘.

The pics below were taken by Drew on a better quality camera, as you can tell. I’m not quite sure what purple flowers these are, so if you do know please leave a comment!

Some more purple flowers – verbena, cornflower and globe thistle.

Himalayan balsam

Recognise this? It grows in watery areas, so you can see it along the edge of canals and rivers. An invasive weed, but useful for beekeepers. It leaves a light grey pollen stripe on the middle of a honey bee’s back, the part she can’t quite reach to clean.

Himalayan balsam

Blackberry bramble

Over now in London, but the flowers continued during early July. We have blackberries available to pick already. It grows everywhere of course so is very useful for our bees. Did you know that there is a special word for the scientific study of brambles – batology?

Bumble bee on bramble

Homo sapiens

A young and sprightly example of the human genus. Not known to attract bees. Does gain attention from elderly ladies on the bus.

Thomas Scott yawning

Thomas Scott

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