Beekeeping in a hail storm

Yesterday I did a session for a few Ealing beginners at the apiary. Clare, the Ealing association Chairman, had asked me to demonstrate lighting smokers and inspecting. But it wasn’t inspecting weather, so we could only really do the smoker bit. I am by no means an expert at lighting a smoker – I can get it going but it always seems to go out quickly – but I tried my best to pass on a few tips. I mentioned getting as big a smoker as possible and some fuels to use – cheap things like newspaper, sawdust and egg boxes. Last year Emma and I tried out lavender, which makes a lovely smell.

My friend Yasmine holding a smoker last year, with Emma in the background

My friend Yasmine holding a smoker.

We then popped our heads in the top of a few hives. The first one we looked in had a couple of huge queen wasps sitting on the hive insulation, so we got rid of those. They then tried to get back in, so we found some gaffer tape in the apiary shed and sealed over the holes. They probably wouldn’t have done much harm unless they’d managed to get under the insulation, but no point encouraging wasps in the apiary.

After the session had ended I got talking to Ian, an Ealing beekeeper who has been very kind to me and Emma. He told me about a very simple method of starting a Bailey comb exchange, which is just to place a queen excluder on top of the current brood box and then an additional box full of new brood foundation on top, with some syrup to help them draw out fresh comb. In a week or two we can move the queen up into the top brood box and remove the bottom brood box frames once the brood inside has hatched out. This is a very easy technique for getting the bees to produce new comb, so that the old dirty brood combs can be discarded.

The rain seemed to have stopped and the sun came out, so Llyr, Emma and I went down to start the Bailey exchange on our hives (Llyr has just bought the hive next to our two). At first everything was going well and Llyr had managed to put the queen excluder and new brood box onto his hive without any bother.

Then Emma and I started doing our bees. We soon noticed that they’d managed to make some brace comb. Suddenly Emma cleverly spotted our queen on the underside of the crown board, darting amongst the brace comb. Luckily she had a queen cage clip with her, so we got the queen to walk in the clip and popped her in Llyr’s pocket to keep warm. At this point the skies darkened overhead and a hail shower came along! So we had an open hive, hail pelting down, a queen in a pocket and brace comb still to remove. Emma wisely decided to put the crownboard over the bees to keep them warm until the hail passed.

Eventually the shower cleared, so we could return the queen to the hive, pop the queen excluder on top and put the hive back together. Miraculously the bees stayed calm and didn’t get violently angry during all of this. English beekeeping has to be done in-between the rain drops!

The reason for the queen being up in the brace comb soon became clear; she had been busy laying eggs in it. Can you see what look like small grains of rice in the photos below?

Honey bee eggs

In fact, occasionally she’d got so carried away that she’d laid two eggs in a cell! I’m hoping this was not a laying worker, as the eggs were right at the bottom of the cells and had been laid in a regular pattern.

Two honeybee eggs

A double yolker. Photos taken with my iPhone “macro” lens.

Today (Sunday) I went to the annual Perivale Wood open day. Perivale Wood is a very special ancient oak woodland; at this time of year it is absolutely carpeted with bluebells. It’s usually closed to the public, but if you join as a member for £4 a year you can get access. There is a very still, calm, atmosphere beneath the trees, even though cars and sirens can be heard in the distance. Here’s a few photos..

Perivale wood bluebells

Bluebell season

Perivale wood trees

By the way, there have been some political beekeeping events happening this week in London. I was stuck at work on Friday, but some beekeepers took to the streets in what is being called ‘The March of the Beekeepers’. The idea was to pressurise the Environment Minister, Owen Paterson, who will be taking part in an EU vote on Monday on whether to ban neonicotinoid insecticides. For those who are interested, Philip Strange has done a great blog post explaining these events: The March of the Beekeepers.

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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35 Responses to Beekeeping in a hail storm

  1. disperser says:

    Interesting, and it still looks like a lot of work.


  2. agnesandcora says:

    Fascinating! How lovely to see bluebells, it will be a few weeks till ours are out up here.


  3. Lavender in a smoker; that has to be awesome. Thank you for sharing your beekeeping experience. Any tips and tricks are greatly appreciated.


  4. Chris Slade says:

    When I do a Bailey type change, I fill the upper brood box with 1 frame placed centrally with a full sheet of foundation. All the rest have starter strips. The full sheet is to provide a ladder. I have found that the queen is so keen to lay in fresh comb that she goes up and starts laying very rapidly,as soon as a little comb has been drawn. Then a second queen excluder goes between the two boxes for 3 weeks or a little more, depending on whether you want to cull the drone brood and some mites or whether you are so pleased with the queen that you want to spread her genes.
    If you time it when the first oilseed rape is starting to flower, the farmer does all the feeding necessary.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks Chris. I was initially thinking of doing the moving the queen up first method, but thought the day was too cold to start going through the hive looking for the queen. As our bees are in an out apiary and we can only visit at the weekend, we have to work around the weather!


  5. Never ending chores! Weather really plays havoc with hives, huh? I went to see Dr. Seeley from Cornell today. He has been instrumental in decoding honeybee communication and the collective process of decision-making that goes on in a hive. You would have enjoyed his talk. It was a bit more involved than I understood in some instances. He also talked about what lies behind the making of honey too. That was easy to understand in comparison (from stuff I learned from you and Emma) to the scientific findings.


  6. mcfwriter says:

    We’ve been having a similar spring – Easter weekend was beautiful, and I was able to pop the hood and check on the girls (LOTS of hunny still in the hive – yay!); a week or two later the hail was coming down in buckets. Boooo!!
    I have the same problem with the smoker – I can light it fine, but it never stays lit. Half the time it’s mostly out before I get to the hive (light it before putting on my veil and gloves). I like the idea of lavender smoke. Next time I prune I’ll save the trimmings for my smoker.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Hail storms in April – ridiculous! Nice idea to keep the prunings. It always seems that my smoker is puffing away happily until a moment when the bees get crotchety and I actually need it.


  7. Man oh man, you do it tough in the UK. And so do your poor bees!

    Besides the weather, we have a much easier way to clean out our old brood comb. Our supers are the same size as our brood boxes so we take a frame or 2 of brood out of the brood box and move it up to the lowest super whenever we rob honey and replace it with a sticky so over a season we pretty much replace all the dirty old brood comb. So simple for us.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Interesting – so your supers must be very heavy to lift!


      • VERY. No way could I lift a super full of honey. Honestly, my husband struggles. He can move them about if they just have some honey, but if they’re full it takes 2 of us to safely move a super. Of course when they’re full we normally take out the frames and then carry them in their honey box to the extractor. That honey box holds 10 frames and wow is it heavy with 10 frames ready for extraction! Again, a 2 person lifting job.


  8. I was very impressed with the pictures of the eggs in the cells, the phone has done a great job.


  9. solarbeez says:

    Does it ever stop raining in London? I thought the Oregon Coast was bad….well, actually it is. I just looked up your average annual rainfall…it’s about 23 inches. Oregon Coast is about 55 inches annually. It’s just that we get our rainfall in the winter months like you’re supposed to. 🙂
    Nice going on the Bee Keeper’s Protest Walk…even if Owen Patterson voted the wrong way. I just read this…
    It’s not just the bees that won here, but the food supply…try pollinating by hand sometime.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Sometimes that’s how it feels… it was amusing last March as it hadn’t rained much for a few months, so the water authorities paid for lots of advertising asking people to conserve water. This was followed by one of the rainiest springs in recorded history, with floods up and down the country. Eventually they had to concede that there was no longer a water shortage!

      Great news to wake up to that the EC has voted in the ban, despite Owen Patterson, who seems to be more of an anti-Environment Minister. He’s also come up with the bright idea that companies can pay to develop on ancient habitats such as woodlands and meadows, as long as they recreate them somewhere else nearby. Yep, makes perfect sense.


      • It’s very good news about the ban. Do you think there is any way that beekeepers could look for evidence for any effect of the ban? Might winter losses change? For urban beekeepers the withdrawal of garden products containing neonics might be important??


        • Emily Heath says:

          I expect the ban will have more effect on country bees. There will still be plenty of nasty chemicals urban gardeners can pick up, if they are that way inclined. Trees tend to be very important for bees in cities, and I think they are less likely to be treated with anything – compared to crops, anyway. Although I support the ban, I feel varroa, lack of forage and destruction of habitat are the biggest challenges facing bees here.

          Will be interesting to see if winter losses do change at all, and also if charities like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust receive increased reports of bee activity during the years to come.


  10. willowbatel says:

    I’m glad you have such a robust queen to start the spring with! Hopefully you get a nice harvest of honey this year!


  11. We have had that experience with brace comb–they are very much into functional art!


  12. Pingback: A new beginning | Miss Apis Mellifera

  13. Just catching up on all your wonderful posts – it’s raining again. Wonderful info and quite fun. Re smokers: have you tried burlap? It’s the most common fuel used in our area. We get it from coffee roasters – so it’s food grade, no pesticides – then, of course, this is the US Pacific Northwest, land of coffee and coffee roasters.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks 🙂 England is the land of tea, so I’m not sure how to go about getting burlap. We have plenty of coffee shops though – do you mean you go and ask the staff for it?


  14. Alex Jones says:

    I am glad the neonicotinoid insecticide ban is in place, if only temporary.


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