Surrounded by bees: a tale of four swarms

What happens when a beekeeper gets behind on their inspections in May?

SWARMS. This was the first:

It was rather high up…

The hives underneath are my comical attempt to tempt the bees down. I smeared lemongrass oil inside the empty hives and waited. Soon, a swarm moved in. But not the swarm I was expecting!

So the nucleus is now occupied with what is presumably either a different swarm or part of the tree swarm (if it had multiple queens?!). And a few weeks later, the bees in the tree remain stubbornly there. It seems this tree is their chosen permanent location. If you stand under the swarm and look all the way up, yellow comb is now visible. I have to admire their toughness in the face of some pretty serious wind, rain and hail since they moved in, but I fear they won’t last the winter.

The next swarm arrived a few days later, settling on a wall near my in-laws’ back door.

Swarm on wall

Shaking the wall wasn’t going to do much, so to collect this one I held a empty nucleus hive underneath and gently brushed the bees downwards into it. Not quite bee by bee but it did take a while! I was lucky enough to spot a mated queen, she tried to hide in the centre of the cluster but I managed to brush her into the box. As soon as she was in I knew the rest would follow. I turned the nuc entrance to be a queen excluder and gave them a frame of honey from one of my other hives, along with frames of foundation.

Swarm on wall closeup

Can you spot the queen? 😉

The third swarm arrived last week. The bees considerately came on a day I had off and in a tree low enough to reach! As he has a few inches on me, Drew stood on a precarious plastic chair with some secateurs and gently lopped off the branches into yet another nucleus box.

By now I was thinking “This must be the last swarm”. Wrong! While on an anniversary weekend by the sea, the most recent (I will not say last anymore) swarm descended on a honeysuckle bush. Once I arrived back I took a look and observed some frantic waggle dancing happening on the surface of the swarm.

As I sat nearby on the lawn with Tommy, suddenly the bees took off, filling the air above us. The bees passed over our heads, not in one coherent mass but moving as thousands of individuals in one direction. Gradually they moved past the house and into the distance, moving too far for our eyes to follow them. It was quite something to sit underneath them while they swirled over us.

Once they had gone, a few bees returned to the branch they had been on. These must have been scout bees returning to the swarm too late. I had never thought about it before, but of course a few scout bees are inevitably left behind, as they are still out scouting when the colony decides on a permanent location. I have since read that these scout bees will sometimes return to the old colony they swarmed from.

By the way, when I last inspected Nessa the bees had produced queen cells in the super. These bees don’t like to make things easy.

If you’re thinking of visiting Cornwall, this is a nice spot. Trevaunance Cove, near St Agnes. Tommy hated the beach (too sandy!) and the sea (too wet!) but zoomed up a sheltered path along the cliffs with freakish toddler energy. The delicate scent of apple blossom filled the air. The pretty white flowers of hawthorn (May) were out too, attracting bees and hoverflies. The path was its own little sheltered microclimate, surprisingly still and warm after the windswept beach below, with handy benches in every possible place along the way up so that you could take in the view. A lovely place.

Walk by St Agnes

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Garden before and after photos & average hive loss survey

I looked back at some garden photos from when we first moved into our house in 2017, and was quite taken aback at the change in the patio area! There is a lot more green.

I know that some people would look at the before photo as ‘neat’ and the after photo as ‘messy’. And that’s ok with me – I like messy! Messy is life, messy means homes for insects and birds.

We have two resident crab spiders at the moment – the apple tree spider is particularly successful, catching one to two bees a day on a sunny day. Many different species of bees have been caught, from honey bees to bumbles to solitary bees, he or she pounces on them all with a paralysing bite. At least their death seems fast, for they are always perfectly still when I come across the spider feeding.

And finally…

I completed a winter hive loss survey for COLOSS (Prevention of honey bee COlony LOSSes) today. The email from Dr Anthony Williams, COLOSS Survey Coordinator for England, contained some interesting information on colony losses during 2017:

“Last year beekeepers in your region participated in the COLOSS survey for Winter Losses in 2017.   Thanks to your support for the first time in a number of years we were able to submit a return to the pan European COLOSS Monitoring initiative.   I can report that overall Winter losses were on average 28% for England.  Losses in Europe were on average 16%.  Losses varied from region to region from 9% in Cornwall to  33% in Warwickshire and 41% in Leicestershire, my home regions which were above the national average.  A more detailed note of Winter losses will shortly be presented in the Journal of Apicultural Research… Last year we received approx 500 valid responses which represents about 1.7% of all beekeepers in England, this year I hope we can improve on this and get a more accurate picture of Winter losses at a Local, National and European level.”

A fair number of the beekeepers whose blogs I follow lost bees overwinter, so it’s good to know that winter losses are not as high on average as we might think.

If you want to help COLOSS by completing the survey, the link is: It’s scheduled to close on the 5th June. Let’s improve on the 1.7% reply rate!

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A visit to the bees in April

It was the first sunny day in ages – or the first day not filled by wind and rain in ages – and I was out in the garden sweeping up vast pink piles of camellia blossom when my phone rang. It was my father-in-law, Tom, and he informed me that the bees were very busy, busier than he remembered them being last year.

I suspected that the bees were probably just happy to get some sun at last, but thought it best to check they weren’t about to swarm into someone’s chimney, so I headed over.

When we moved to Cornwall Tom and Carol took in our cat Bob. A bit of a change for him from our old London flat. He was eager to head out in the sunshine too.

Having had a nice cup of tea with Carol and Bob first, I crouched down by Kensa’s entrance and took a look. Kensa (pronounced Ken-za) is a Cornish word for ‘first’. I named the queen heading up this hive Kensa as her colony was my first in Cornwall, rather conveniently swarming on a low tree in Tom and Carol’s garden. Her bees were bringing back fat yellow and orange pollen baskets.

I opened up the hive and found the bees were not particularly pleased to be interrupted. They had taken advantage of the break in inspecting during winter to stick everything together with propolis. I like to see plenty of propolis as it’s hygienic and helps keeps drafts out of the hive, but it makes for slow inspecting. Kensa’s bees used to be very gentle but not so this week! They had developed a disconcerting technique of rushing at my fingers as I picked up each frame. While trying to prise the frames apart with my hive tool, they grumpily gathered around the tool, making the job harder. I didn’t actually get stung through my thin latex gloves, but I wouldn’t have liked to inspect them barehanded as I did with some of my old London colonies.

I found eggs, larvae, no queen cells, a few adult drones and a small amount of drone brood.  The brood box is packed full of brood and honey and they are making good progress in drawing out the super frames I added this month. Now that the weather has changed again I think they will keep me on my toes. My prediction is they try to swarm in 2-3 weeks time, but it could be earlier!

Below is a photo of my other hive, Nessa. I bought this colony from a local beekeeper last year (Nessa means ‘second’ in Cornish) and they’re a similar dark colour to Kensa. Within some bee colonies you see a wide variation in colour between the workers, depending on their fathers, but in these colonies all the workers are dark. My friend Thomas asked if they are Cornish dark bees – I don’t know but hope they might have the black honey bee genes!

Nessa seemed a little bit weaker than Kensa. Bizarrely I found some water had accumulated inside the hive. Though the hives were tightly strapped together, some of the horizontal rain we’ve been having must have found a way to get in. I was glad to be able to get rid of it for the bees.

Inside the colony was at a similar stage to Kensa’s bees. They had gathered even more propolis in big wads around the frame lugs. I concentrated hard on moving slowly and gently, aware that the colony’s buzzing was at an irritated pitch. There is a big difference between the hum of a happy colony and the buzzing of angry bees. I had to use smoke to get them to stay calm, something I rarely did with my London colonies. It was on the second-to-last frame when one of the worker’s patience broke and I received a sharp hot jab in the thumb. I hastily smoked my hands to mask the sting pheromone and set about putting the hive together again.

Back in my garden again, I observed what I think is a female hairy-footed flower bee

going back and forth between our mini apple trees. A very welcome little visitor. They like primroses too and we have plenty of those in our garden.

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What’s flowering now: late March/early April – a bee update – and an oil beetle

By now I think I can tentatively say both my hives – Kensa and Nessa – have survived winter. Over the past couple of weeks my priority has changed from getting the bees through the cold months to being on the alert for swarming!

On Tuesday I popped down to try to check inside the hives and sort a few things out. But the Cornish weather just wasn’t playing ball. The sun would come out while I was getting my smoker going, only for a downpour of hailstones just as I was trying to inspect. The belligerent rain defeated me and I retreated inside with only my Kensa hive peeked at. At least I managed to quickly confirm that Kensa is laying and both colonies have begun to draw out the supers of foundation I put on at the weekend.

We did have some sunshine for Mothers Day luckily. Drew took Tommy and I to Glendurgan Gardens in Cornwall. As Drew ran energetically round the maze there with an ecstatic Tommy bouncing on his shoulders, I had a look at a spectacular bank of wildflowers and was rewarded by an unexpected sight. A large hole had been dug in the surface of the bank and the occupant was coming slowly out. At first I couldn’t work out if I was seeing its front or back – the creature looked almost like a tiny black mole with a wiggling blue nose. Then its face emerged and I realised I was looking at a rather pretty large black beetle with a blue sheen to its front legs.  I took a video and uploaded it to YouTube: Black Oil beetle at Glendurgan gardens, Cornwall

Back at home, I joined a Facebook group for British beetles (or for people into British beetles, I expect beetles have better things to do than go on Facebook). Some kind people on this group quickly identified it as a oil beetle, which they explained rely on solitary mining bees to complete their life cycles. The beetle I saw was a female Black oil beetle laying her eggs. After her larvae hatch they will climb up a suitable flower and jump on a solitary bee, riding back to its nest.

Once inside the bee’s nest, the larva disembarks and begins to feed on the bee’s eggs and her carefully gathered store of pollen and nectar. The larva develops in the bee burrow until it emerges as an adult oil beetle ready to mate and start the whole cycle again. Like solitary bees, these rather special sneaky beetles are becoming rarer in the UK due to loss of their habitat.

Having enough wildflowers is so important for our wildlife. The charity Buglife have an information sheet on oil beetles which says that the adult black oil beetles prefer Lesser celandine and soft grasses as food plants, but Dandelion and Buttercups may also be important.

Here are a few photos I’ve taken over the last couple of weeks of the flowers around Cornwall:

Spanish bluebells and forget-me-nots have now turned my garden blue. Our pale pink cherry tree has come out and our two mini apple trees have dark pink buds. Lots of dandelions, still a profusion of primroses – I don’t remember seeing so many primroses anywhere else I’ve lived before Cornwall. I love seeing all the different flowers coming out as the year goes on. This week I bought some sunflower and borage seeds – to plant when the rain stops!

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A day in the life of a beekeeper

The children’s clothes company JoJo Maman Bebe contacted me recently and asked me to write a post about ‘The day in the Life of a Beekeeper‘ – so here it is! A day in the life of a very small-scale and winging-it hobby beekeeper, that is.

I actually did some intense beekeeping prep earlier in the week, by banging together a whopping eleven frames and organising my beekeeping shed. As usual this took far longer than it should have done.  Most of the time taken seemed to involve gingerly rooting around in the spider infested shed trying to find the hammer, nails, foundation and frame parts.

Old foundation/new foundation

Above is a photo of old and new wax foundation. The old foundation has been sitting around unused too long and has gone all brown and brittle so is probably unusable now. The nice new yellow foundation on top was bought this year.

Finished frames

And here’s the finished frames. After a decade of frame making I must be improving slightly as this was the first time I didn’t bang a nail in wonky and have to pull it out.

Cornwall has been blasted by storms recently which have been battering the poor garden, so I was relieved when we got a break from the rain most of the day on Tuesday. The foxgloves and lambs-ear seem to be thriving in the wet. A queen buff-tailed bumblebee spent some time investigating a hole in a little stone wall in the garden but decided against it as a nest site. Probably too small to hold a nest! Her buzz was so loud that I heard it from several feet away.

My next beekeeping job is to paint my new nuc that I bought in the winter sales. I will then have two spare nuc boxes ready if my two existing colonies, Kensa and Nessa, want to try swarming.

I’m hoping to start selling over-wintered nucleuses after next winter (at a reasonable price), to try and make some money back from beekeeping. This seems to me a preferable way of making a small profit compared to the sticky job of extracting honey, jarring it up, labelling it and finding a buyer for it. To sell honey you need to buy or borrow rather a lot of equipment: an extractor, uncapping fork, jars, labels. To sell nucs you just need a nucleus and some healthy bees, so the focus is on the bees, which are my favourite part of beekeeping. That’s the plan anyway!

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What’s flowering now: late February

This week the UK has been enjoying warm air from Africa and the Canary Islands coming our way – I even felt toasty enough today to happily sit outside eating lunch and walk around without a coat on. A record winter temperature of 21.2°C was recorded in Kew Gardens (west London). So our flowers are out early too – but are there enough to feed all the bumblebees which have come out of hibernation?

Here’s a few of the flowers out in Cornwall now.

Yellow flowers –

Good old dandelions and daffodils

Purple flowers –

The little light purple star flower below grows everywhere in my garden. Anyone know what it’s called?

Pinky purple flowers –

At the weekend Drew and I have been doing a little work in the garden, with some great help with weeding/toddler distracting from Drew’s family. Drew and his niece Bella planted the purple scabious, which is meant to be a bee-friendly plant. I’m not sure what the pink blossom on the right is, a fruit tree?

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Eden project bee exhibition – and a bee update

Last weekend we sheltered from the lashing rain under the Eden project’s enormous biomes. I had been drawn there by the current exhibition on bees. A set of three hives are placed in a prominent position up on a hill as you approach Eden – with a sign asking people to keep their distance!

The bee exhibition was a mix of paintings and sculptures by Kurt Jackson, plus a immersive interactive artwork by Wolfgang Buttress and magnified closeup photos of honey bee body parts.

The art work is gorgeous, as you can see. I would have liked to take more photos of Kurt Jackson’s atmospheric beekeeper paintings, but most of his work was behind glass, which makes for bad photos.

Wolfgang Buttress is well known for his artwork ‘The Hive‘ at Kew Gardens. ‘Reverie’ is on a much smaller scale but I appreciated the scents of the bee friendly plants, accompanied by the sounds of the Eden colonies. A little seat was included in the middle so that you could sit and imagine yourself amongst the bees on a beautiful summer’s day (while outside torrential rain and gales battered Eden’s biomes).

There was some information on the native dark honey bee as Cornwall is meant to be a stronghold of this subspecies. In 2019 the Eden Project is going to become the third dark honey bee reserve in the county (or Duchy as some locals prefer to call it!).

Conserving the native dark honey bee info

Conserving the native dark honey bee

We spent an action packed day playing with Tommy – Eden has lots to do with small children. He was enchanted by the birds darting among the biomes. A few tantrums were also had, for instance he took against the many ants in the tropical biome and panicked when some got on him. He has also started disliking getting his shoes muddy. I try to encourage him to play outside and not worry about mud, so I hope he’ll grow out of it.

Eden had one final – but gigantic – bee for us as we left.

Giant honey bee at Eden


Bee update

Nature doesn’t slow down for long during a Cornish winter, so already we have multiple clusters of frogspawn jelly in our pond and vibrant yellow daffodils mixed in with snowdrops, primroses and crocuses.

Hives surrounded by flowers

I’ll probably remove my mouseguards and woodpecker protection in the last week of February/first week of March. The bees were still alive and inquisitively buzzing last time I checked on Saturday, busy high up in the brood boxes eating their fondant.

Swarm season always comes as a surprise to me. Although I’ve tried to be more prepared than usual by buying in the winter sales, no doubt all of a sudden frames will need to be made up and my new nucleus hives painted.

In the human world I’ve been helping my local association keep their website up-to-date and answering email enquiries. We’ve had a couple of enquiries recently from people looking to buy wax to make beeswax wraps and cosmetics. Beeswax wraps have really taken off and I can think of at least three different shops in Truro which are selling them now.

Also someone wanting honey from apiaries meeting ‘ethical’ specifications such as using no varroa treatments, no queen excluders, no feeding of sugar and completely unfiltered honey.

Sometimes people are looking to start businesses using local bee products but have quite strict limitations about what they require, and I do wonder if they’re likely to find chemical-free beekeepers (for example) who can supply honey or wax in large enough quantities. Anyway, it’s interesting hearing from members of the public and hopefully we can encourage new beekeepers or people wanting to help bees.

Pink primroses

Pink primroses

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