The lost British summer

A lot of British beekeepers must be feeling pretty fed up right now. After a few days of glorious sunshine, the rain and winds returned. My aunt’s house in Aberystwyth (Wales) was flooded after days of endless rain, so she was left pulling up sodden carpets. Now we seem to be in a pattern of occasional sunshine breaking through, combined with rain and gusty winds, usually all in one day, making it impossible to wear a nice summer dress, because it ends up over your head. The London Brockwell Park Apiary blog sums it up well in their recent post, ‘Everything goes wrong again‘: “For the last month or two, just about everyone I’ve bothered to listen to has been full of tales of queens that vanish, fail to mate, lay drones or succumb to idleness”. Yep, British beekeepers are not happy.

Yesterday was a nice day by this year’s standards, by which I mean that the sun came out occasionally and we had strong winds but no rain. Ealing beekeepers sat around eating cake and drinking tea – Emma and I also celebrated our new queen Ginger with a little supplementary gingerbeer.

Our apiary manager, Albert, has returned recently after some time away in Spain. He brought back the frame above from a Spanish hive with him (he thinks it’s either from a Dadant or Warre type hive). Isn’t it huge? They must be weight lifters over there. You can see our tea cups box in the background. Each week a nice person with a car takes them home and washes them.

Andy took this year’s beginner beekeepers from the association’s annual course round the apiary, checking on the new nucleuses and topping up their feed. Our National Bee Unit has issued another warning that inspectors are finding starving bee colonies, as the weather is stopping the bees foraging. They have a good advice leaflet on feeding here: National Bee Unit best practice leaflet on feeding bees.

Andy surrounded by attentive students

In the photo below the beginners are gathering round Andy as he inspects David’s bees, the moodiest hive in the apiary. They kept their cool regardless and I think will make excellent beekeepers.

Emma and I checked our two colonies… Ginger appears to be laying a lot of drone brood, including in the centre of the brood frames, which is a bit worrying. We spotted her, so it’s not a case of a laying worker. And she’s a New Zealand queen bought by John Chapple this year, so she should be properly mated. We’ll need to keep an eye on that. Luckily Neroli is laying like a star, just like her mum and gran did – frames packed with digestive biscuit colour brood. I’m confident we can build her colony up into a good size for winter, but not expecting any honey this year.

There was an interesting article in the Evening Standard this week, ‘Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off‘. It’s an interview with the forthright Angela Woods, Secretary of the London Beekeeping Association, who warns that there are too many bees for the amount of forage in this city. She’s also concerned about the trend for businesses to site hives on high rooftops, where the bees have to spend a lot of energy flying up and down.

I sometimes wonder whether by being a beekeeper here I’m doing more harm to bees than good. Until fairly recent history the people of London have been rampaged by a series of disease epidemics – bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis. Anywhere where large numbers of people gather together is a risk factor, and bees are no different. Emma and I obviously try our best to look after our bees and keep parasite and disease levels down, but of course the more colonies there are in an area the quicker diseases spread, due to worker drifting and drones paying visits to other hives.


Bees being inspected in an Omlet Beehaus hive on a roof, photo from thebeatthatmyheartskipped.co.uk blog

Unfortunately, more and more people taking up beekeeping isn’t the answer to help bees, because it results in lower honey yields per hive and the bees having to work harder to find the nectar and pollen. And what about the struggling native bees living here, the solitary and bumble bees, who are having to compete for a limited amount of forage with ever increasing armies of honeybees? Are city beekeepers like me doing more harm than good? Would be interested to hear people’s opinions.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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52 Responses to The lost British summer

  1. Hello. I am checking my bees today to see if I have a laying Queen (it’s been 5 weeks now since the big swarm). As I said in my last post, I was getting extreme Hive Envy from my friend Darren’s hives that were bursting with bees and a very active Queen.

    Also. I keep getting conflicting information on ratio of sugar to water when feeding bees. I most recently read 1Kg of sugar to 1L of warm water. But other books/articles say 1Kg of sugar to 500ml-630ml of water.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Hope you get some good news today. You are probably getting conflicting info because there are two feed strengths – 1:1 or 2:1, depending on what time of year you’re feeding.

      For spring or emergency feeding, a weaker one pint of water to one pound of sugar is generally recommended. For autumn feeding use two pounds of sugar to a pint. It should be white sugar, not brown, which would give the bees digestive problems. Syrup is better for the bees when they need to draw comb or build up stores, while fondant is better for the bees in winter.

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  2. Anna says:

    What an interesting post. I often wonder the same thing: there has to be a critical mass of pollinators that an area can support.
    One of our beekeepers said he tried for several years to have three hives in a particular area but one always needed to be fed and seemed to struggle. He decided that two (from him, didn’t know how many others there were) was the most this particular location could support, and no issues since then. By the way, that frame is really neat.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Anna. Interesting about the beekeeper who told you that. It makes more sense to have two strong colonies than three weaker ones if that’s all the local area can support, less work for both the bees and the beekeeper.

      Like

  3. I’m glad this topic about city bees and forage is finally out in the open and being discussed. At our Federation’s beekeepers day earlier this year, the talk based on research from Reading University identified loss of natural habitat as a key cause of insect pollinator decline. If a city is going to keep more hives then it also needs to make sure there is enough natural habitat and forage to support them. However, research needs to be done to collect evidence-based statistics of the amount of forage needed for inner city hives and the amount of forage actually available, at the moment it is a little anecdotal with experts commenting on the changes in their hives.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      More research would be good… I feel there’s lots the local parks could do to help, but of course the council’s top priority is not helping bees or even helping wildlife generally. Letting the grass grow a bit longer in the parks would cost nothing, but our society is obsessed with neat lawns. We’ve also got lots of plane trees in London, which look pretty but are useless for bees.

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      • I agree, there are a lot of spaces in London that could be better used to provide natural habitat for local wildlife and there needs to be as much publicity given to this as to encouraging people to keep bees. Whenever I speak to people about growing bee-friendly plants they are happy to know and to help out. There are lots of plane trees in the road outside my work and they make me sneeze every morning with an assault of pollen!

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      • I have to say that Ealing rangers/park managers seem quite good at leaving some unmown grass in all of their parks/green spaces to support wildlife. It does seems to be a deliberate management strategy that they are now using.

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      • willowbatel says:

        I haaaaate plain lawns. My neighbors and I actually got in a bit of an argument over it, because I leave my lawn long and the front lawn full of clover (70% of the lawn is clover). There’s usually a dozen species of bees on it at any time, and it looks and smells amazing. My mom finally forced me to mow it yesterday (her foot’s broken so she’s unable to do it herself).
        I suppose I’m lucky enough to live out in a more rural area than London, so there are lots of flowers available elsewhere, but I still feel obligated to leave flowers available to wildlife. Especially since it actually requires less work than keeping the flowers out. Its also frustrating that it’s socially unacceptable to do so, and to be berated for it. My neighbors and I honestly stopped talking for a day because they were so persistent in telling me to mow my lawn. They even offered to do it for me, because it bothered them that much.

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        • Emily Heath says:

          I really like clover honey 🙂 Shame your neighbours can’t relax a little. It’s not like you’re piling a load of rubbish up in front of your house, you’re just letting the grass produce pretty flowers.

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          • willowbatel says:

            Yeah, and its hidden behind a row of day-lilies for the most part, so you don’t see it while you’re driving by. Besides, it smells wonderfully sweet in the heat of the day. My mom will be able to mow the lawn again soon though and she mows it to keep it the length they like.
            As for clover honey; last years honey was so thick and dark, a bit of clover in it would help dilute the color and the intense taste. A friend of mine tried a tea spoon of it, and commented on the heat it produced in the back of her throat. I’m not kidding when I say it warms you up!

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  4. I agree about the unproductive areas of lawn. London has such an vast area of parks and I am sure the public would love “bee friendly” areas with native plants and flowers throughout the year for the bees.
    People are enticed into coveting exotic species for their gardens and parks without realising the downside.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Garden centres could also promote bee friendly plants more… at my local farmers market every Saturday there’s a plant stall that uses bee & butterfly friendly stickers, which is great.

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  5. Maybe it’s because I’m a gardener, but I feel like the answer is not to reduce the number of beekeepers but increase the amount of plants, trees and flowers that bees like. Also, the weather must be taken into account when using honey yields as a factor in the analysis. We had a wet summer in Ohio last year, and hardly anyone’s bees did well. The availability of forage simply wasn’t a factor.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Deborah, I would like to see that too. There’s a lot of pressure on space here – people have even started renting out sheds in their back gardens – but we could do more with the space we have. Planting more bee friendly trees would be a big step. I’m a big fan of the Trees for Cities charity – http://www.treesforcities.org – and have already used them to plant some fruit trees.

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  6. I second what Deborah said. I have been wanting to be a city bee keeper with just one hive, but always wondered that my bees would flee because no one else in our area has gardens with plants the bees really need. Native plants are sparse, but a block and a half west is the Niagara gorge. I think my bees would relocate and leave my new hive behind. My yard is teeming with a variety of wild bees, so I have been pretty content with them, but I so enjoy reading your posts here. I thought this year there would be less bees and it seems to be so compared to last.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I think bees are unlikely to abscond for lack of forage reasons, though I’ve heard they will sometimes do that in response to bad varroa infestations. More likely they would become weakened and starve – once they have brood they’re very reluctant to leave it. They usually forage within a three mile radius. It’s great that your yard is so attractive to the wild bees, as well as to those of us who read your blog!

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  7. Kathy says:

    Interesting post! My daughter in London is moaning the “spring” weather. I’ll tell her that even the bee-keepers are moaning! We are not city beekeepers, but I always wondered about the supply for bees that are in the cities. The cry out here is for more beekeepers.

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  8. Nice post Emily. As a country bee keeper, I had thought that urban beekeepers had it best with many gardens and green spaces, whilst we have oil seed rape and more oil seed rape. I rely on our acre an a quarter garden of flowering shrubs, hawthorn, black thorn, willow, apple trees and wild meadow flowers to supplement my girls.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Admittedly I don’t envy you the oil seed rape, it sounds like such a pain to extract. Your garden must be very beautiful though, I do envy you that as I’d love to have somewhere peaceful to sit outside on a warm summer’s evening.

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  9. Denise Pedemont says:

    Thank you, I’m in Australia just an interested onlooker, I wish you well. Denise

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  10. mcfwriter says:

    I have wondered similar things, Emily, especially since honeybees aren’t native to North America. Before I stared keeping bees, I rarely saw honeybees – mostly just bumbles (that would never take up residence in my bumblebee home). But in the end I agree with Deborah – rather than reduce the bees, let’s increase the forage! I live in a rural area, with lots of agriculture within flying distance, not to mention plenty of native forage (and non-native Himalayan blackberry and Japanese knotweed – two well established invasives that carry our bees through the wet winters and cool wet spring), so this generally isn’t an issue for me, but if not for the blackberry and knotweed, most beekeepers here (Seattle area, U.S.A.) would really struggle. After our miserable-wet March weather, we had a reprieve with April and May, now we’re back to typical June gloom – rainy and cool for much of the month so far (the first week of June rained enough for the whole month, with rainfall equaling our average monthly total). The bees are doing okay (I’m getting an awful lot of drones as well…hmm), though I’ve gone back to feeding the new hive. Usually things turn after July 4 here, so we should start seeing some sun soon (and, bees aside, some sun and heat will be very welcome!). The blackberries are already blooming (seems early this year) so the bees have forage…when they can get out.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      The bumbles are very awkward – they never do set up nests in those nice wooden bumblebee boxes. Blackberry brambles are very popular with the bees here too. Sorry to hear you’re having June gloom too – best of luck to you and your bees, wishing you some sunshine.

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  11. Chris Slade says:

    Apart from the beekeeper, the worst enemy of a colony of bees is another colony of bees. Given an adequate choice of nesting sites, they tend (bees do nothing invariably!), naturally to space their colonies about half a mile apart. This must reduce competition for forage and transmission of pests and diseases. In recent years urban beekeepers reportedly have been doing well, due to the year-round forage in parks and gardens, not too many hives on a site and (this has just occurred to me and needs testing) higher ambient temperatures.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Yes, left to their own devices bees are sensible and space themselves well apart. Whereas us beekeepers come along and group loads of colonies together for our own convenience, and sometimes transfer combs between different hives.

      Your higher ambient temperature theory is interesting. We always think our hives don’t do too well for honey because they’re under trees. Sometimes it can be nice and warm outside and then you go in the apiary and need to put a cardie on. But I can imagine hives in sunnier parts of London get very warm.

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  12. Pingback: Thoughts on my modern rose « a french garden

  13. daveloveless says:

    I’ve wondered the same (overpopulation of bees in a regional area). I know that there are at least 7 hives within half a mile of my house (my 5 and 2 more down the street). I also know that there are at least another 10 within another mile and probably plenty more. My city is heavy on the fruit trees, flowers, and what not. Most of my neighborhood is populated by students renting old houses, and to say that they don’t care for their yards is a gross understatement. It’s dandelion heaven here.

    So far everything seems to be going well enough, but I do wonder what the saturation point is.

    Oh, and sorry for the rain. That sounds like our spring last year: Cold, damp, and miserable. Most of the local beeks I spoke to last year lost a good 50% of their hives due to the cold spring. 😦

    This year is hot, dry, and very sunny. We could honestly use just a touch of rain to encourage the blossoms.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I suspect there are a similar number of hives within half a mile of my house. Ealing’s about 21 square miles in size and I think the association estimates there to be a couple of hundred beekeepers here.

      Glad that at least someone somewhere’s getting some sunshine! Wishing you some light evening rain.

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  14. whitt98 says:

    Your last paragraph asks some very provocative questions! I’m looking forward to people’s opinions. On another note, we could do with a little cooler weather here in Sacramento California where it hit 105 F this past weekend!

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I like to ask provocative questions! I went to California last summer and the weather was lovely but could be very intense at times. I still have a tan line from the time I foolishly went kayaking in San Diego without putting sun tan lotion on; I could barely walk the next day.

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  15. alderandash says:

    Hello! Thanks for writing about this…I’m just finding out a beekeeping, hoping to have a hive here (I’m in rural Suffolk). But I have wondered what impact that would have on the wild bumble and other bees I can see around me. Would my ‘brought in’ bees eat all the food?! I’m researching as much as I can about flowers/trees to plant, so if I do add bees, I can also add food! Thanks again.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Hello! I imagine there’s a lot less beekeepers in rural Suffolk. The best way to find out how much forage is available is to get in touch with your local association, and also walk about your local area – bees can forage within a three mile radius. The British Beekeepers’ Association has a page listing the local association’s here: http://www.bbka.org.uk/about/local_associations/find_an_association.php.

      Brilliant if you can add food. Bees are colour-blind to red, so red flowers are unlikely to be appreciated (unless they appear ultra-violet, which bees do see, e.g. poppies). Blue and purple flowers tend to be popular – lavender, borage, heather. Herbs are also well-visited and have the bonus of being sweet smelling and good for your cooking, e.g. rosemary, marjoram, mints, chives, thyme.

      Plant flowers in clumps by type, not singly or in twos, and in a sunny spot of the garden as much as possible. Something else to bear in mind is planting flowers which bloom during varying times of the year. Planting early flowers – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils – which help get the hive going in the spring or late flowers – buddleia, heathers, ivy, Michelmas daisies – which provide a final boost to honey stores is of great help.

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  16. theresagreen says:

    Sorry to hear about your poor Aunt’s flood problems, having been in the area then I can vouch for how bad it was. In Spain I have noticed that some bee-keepers take their hives to where the flowers are – might it be an option to take hives out for ‘foraging breaks’ on a farm or in an orchard, or could you lose your bees that way?

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Poor old Wales, it always gets lashings of rain. My aunt’s neighbour apparently was even more unlucky and had water up to halfway up their ground floor windows.

      Traditionally some UK beekeepers move their hives, for instance Yorkshire and Scottish beekeepers would take their bees to the heather in late summer. Other beekeepers might rent out their hives to farmers for pollination.

      In London our nearest big crops are oil seed rape, which bees go mad for. Some beekeepers feel this is more of a curse than a blessing, as oil seed rape honey is bland and granulates very hard in cold temperatures, which isn’t so great for the bees’ winter stores.

      I’ve noticed that the London Honey Company offer hive moving services – http://www.thelondonhoneycompany.co.uk/Hive-management-scheme. They say “We constantly move them around to gather the best varieties of nectar. It might be heading to Salisbury Plain early in the morning or long drives from Shropshire up to isolated heather moors in Yorkshire and North Wales.”

      When bees are moved over three miles they do reorientate themselves, but I can’t help feeling that moving them constantly must be stressful for them. I suspect long-distance journeys is one of the stressors of bees in the US, where bees are trucked mad distances to pollinate crops like the Californian almonds. Trying to move my bees to Shropshire would certainly be stressful for me! For a start we’d have to hire a suitable car…doubt many hobby London beekeepers would want to start moving their hives about all over the place.

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      • I’m shocked!
        “Some beekeepers feel this is more of a curse than a blessing, as oil seed rape honey is bland and granulates very hard in cold temperatures, which isn’t so great for the bees’ winter stores.”
        The major crop I took last year, all 130lbs of it was 95% Oil Seed Rape honey and yes it sets like concrete initially. Yes also as a beekeeper you have to watch and learn when to harvest it before it granulates in the comb! However using one of the methods for processing it to make soft set honey (I used a warming cabinet to gently warm it and then stirred it before bottling) has produced the most wonderful tasting and textured honey that I have so far tasted! Maybe it is just me being proud of my own honey but I would definitely say that OSR is not a curse!
        Also as a rural / country beekeeper it provides a massive boost to colonies building up in spring ready for the summer and hopefully another honey crop.
        This year I took another 230lbs of OSR honey and now my colonies have started collecting and storing nectar from the Summer flowering plants,
        Back on the original subject, I have read with interest several discussions regarding the over population of bees in London and agree whole totally with Deborah DeLong we should all look at ways of increasing the amount of forage available.
        Apologies for the very long comment!

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        • Emily Heath says:

          Admittedly I haven’t had any experience of harvesting oil seed rape honey myself, that was just the feedback I’d heard from a few sources. Good to know some beekeepers appreciate it! You are certainly doing infinitely better on the honey front than me.

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  17. I have tried to summarise all I have learnt about Bee-Friendly Plants here, if that’s helpful.

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  18. milapostol says:

    Sorry about all the rain there. Poor bees.

    Interesting topic about urban bees becoming over-crowded. I just read a letter in Bee Culture where a New York beekeeper addresses that very subject. He contends that because metropolitan bees run out of natural forage, they resort to rummaging through garbage cans. Gross thought, but he says he has seen many bees in the garbage.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks – it’s still raining! I read about the New York bees that found discarded maraschino cherry syrup at a factory and made red ‘honey’ from it last year.

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  19. Phil says:

    Interesting conversations. I think studies of bees in cities would be vague to say the least. When you consider the huge area covered there is still a vast area of gardens and waste ground for them to visit, the country bee keepers have it harder, all those fields are pretty much in reality barren or have two week hits flowers off mono crops and then nothing. Ok I have hives in west London with some large gardens but all those railyway lines are heaving with bee friendly plants and long extended seasons of flowering plants. We have been replacing ‘manicured’ grass banks with native meadow turf and its been amazingly succesful, its been more to do with saving time and money but directly below that priority is native insects and education reasons. Also seen areas of Richmond borough parks are putting areas of wildflowers (although shame they are not all native displays). But this year has been weird for bee keeping. But looking up I think.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      I agree country beekeepers must be struggling with all those fields of monocrops. They probably have less competition from other hives though. We are lucky with the railway lines and gardens, great to hear about the grassy banks too. Letting more areas grow wild saves time, money and is better for wildlife – it’s a win-win situation. I am worried about all the gardens getting paved over/built on though – Ealing has the most ‘beds in sheds’ of any area in the UK.

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  20. I have spoken to beekeepers down here in Devon who say that even in Devon towns the bees are doing better than in the countryside because of the wide variety of forage. I wonder if anyone has any feelings about the effects of insectides in towns (gardens, golf courses and parks are all likely to be treated)

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    • Emily Heath says:

      That is interesting to hear Philip. I don’t know how much insecticide is used round here. I know one beekeeper who had their hive vandalised by someone putting insecticide directly in the hive, the poor bees all died.

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  21. Pingback: The London Honey Show 2012 | Miss Apis Mellifera

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