National Bee Unit Varroa Workshop – Part 2 – practical apiary session with Caroline Washington

A follow-up post from my one yesterday, ‘Varroa – Know your Enemy‘, about the series of workshops on varroa given by National Bee Unit inspectors this Sunday.

After Alan’s talk to all of us on the life-cycle of the varroa mite, we split up into three groups for some practical workshop sessions. Emma and I were in Caroline Washington’s group, Caroline being the NBU inspector north of the Thames.

Caroline speaks in a Joanna Lumley-like plummy accent and takes no nonsense, peering at any troublemakers over the top of her glasses. Beekeepers can just occasionally be somewhat awkward and stubborn, especially when it comes to being told what to do with their bees. Luckily Caroline is not adverse to a little shepherding and will happily quiet anyone trying to talk over her with a firm “Let me finish” or a simple “Shush!”. Here she is below, getting her smoker going with pine cones.

Caroline Washington

A hive had been put out for each of the groups, and Caroline told us to cluster round her as she started inspecting. This did not particularly please the bees, who were soon swirling all around our heads as they tried to get home. “Why are these cells shiny?”, Caroline asked, holding up a frame of pollen. I tried guessing that the pollen might have a thin film of nectar over it, but Caroline revealed that the cells’ shine came from being varnished with propolis. I had read about the bees doing this to take advantage of the anti-bacterial properties of propolis, but hadn’t realised just how much shine propolis could add.

“Why are these cells shiny?”

“This is a very boring colony!” Caroline said. The hive which had been brought for us to look at wasn’t particularly full of bees, and had very little brood, probably as a result of the terrible weather lately. She told us that if the hive was hers she would have used a dummy board midway through the frames to help keep them warm, as the colony was too small for all the space in the hive.

As we went through the frames Caroline was looking out for the queen when Emma pointed her out on a frame that was still sitting in the hive – uncannily impressive queen spotting skills!

We took out the varroa monitoring board to take a look, but it had obviously been cleaned recently as there was very little debris on it. Caroline pointed out some pure white wax flakes, which she thought had fallen from the bellies of young wax-building workers.

Caroline pointing out wax flakes

One of our group mentioned the brood nest as having a “rugby ball shape pattern”. Caroline looked at him over the top of her glasses. “What shape”, she asked, “is a rugby ball?”. Taken aback, he tried his best to demonstrate, making the shape of a rugby ball with his hands. Caroline looked doubtful and replied “I shall leave that analogy to you, I will never remember that”.

Below is a photo Emma took of me watching Caroline in action.

Copyright Emma Tennant

The next post will feature information Caroline gave us on honeybee viruses.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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9 Responses to National Bee Unit Varroa Workshop – Part 2 – practical apiary session with Caroline Washington

  1. ceciliag says:

    I love caroline but I am also very afraid of her, I would feel terrible if she called my hive Boring!! Brilliant! c


  2. willowbatel says:

    haha, no nonsense people are the best. Better if they’re nonsensical.
    I’ve never heard about that propolis bit, but I do have a recipe for a propolis varnish… I just assumed it required a bit of refining before it would be properly shiny.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Propolis varnish sounds fun!


      • willowbatel says:

        Once I figure out how to properly start harvesting some, I might have to try it out. Its supposed to smell like the beehive too, so its good to use it on new hives so the bees get more immersed in the smell of the hive faster. The recipe is in Warre’s book; the man who invented the Warre hive. He calls it The People’s Hive in the book. Its difficult to read (at least for me anyway) and a good portion of the book is spent comparing hives that are almost non-existent nowadays. Mathematically. In the metric system. Which actually shouldn’t be too bad for you, but for me it was a nightmare, haha.
        I learned more from google than I did from the book, but its still nice to have.


  3. I love Caroline Washington – she is so effortlessly glamorous. I bet she has very well-behaved bees too! 🙂


  4. Try shining a black light (UV) into comb to appreciate the reflective qualities of propolis polish.


  5. Thanks for sharing this series with us, very educational. And, I would consider ‘boring’ beehives the height of achievement about now…


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