A bad day’s beekeeping

Feeling quite demoralised after yesterday’s beekeeping session. Things started off well. I spotted one of our new queens, Emma pinned her down in a queen cage and marked her perfectly with a neat blob on her thorax. Yellow as we didn’t have any other colour. She seemed laid back and relaxed, so we have named her Chamomile (all our bees are named after essential oils as Emma is a trained aromatherapist).

Then onto Queen Rose’s hive. We had spotted queen cells there the week before, but had taken them down as we had no equipment to do an artificial swarm. This week there were three capped queen cells in the centre of a frame. They were short and stubby cells, obviously emergency cells drawn out in haste from older uncapped larvae. Looking through the hive, we could see a few uncapped larvae but no eggs. Emma is holding up a frame below –  the brood which has hatched has not been replaced by new baby bees. Rose was found and captured in a cage while we thought about what to do.

Emma inspecting

The hive already made queen cells in May, at which point we split them. So they are not an especially large hive, and it’s late in the season for swarming, making the balance of probabilities more likely that they are trying to supersede (but of course you can never be sure with bees).

Deciding what to do was hard – should we leave the queen cells and let the bees get on with it? Or combine with Chamomile’s hive, as she is a young, prolific queen?

Another beekeeper, Brian, was there and he had been saying earlier that he needed queen cells as one of his hives was queen-less. I was minded to give him the queen cells and Rose and combine Rose’s hive with Chamomile’s. Our nucleus colony, headed up by Queen Chilli, is in urgent need of more space, so I thought we could move Chilli’s colony into Queen Rose’s old brood box to allow them to grow. However, some other beekeepers present thought we’d be better off leaving the colony to supersede themselves.

So it was a tricky decision. Beekeepers rarely agree! In the end we went for combining, but a few things went very wrong. We placed newspaper (from 2008!) on top of Chamomile’s hive and made a few slits in it – all good. The idea being that the newspaper acts as a barrier to give the two colonies time to acclimatise to each other’s smells and accept each other without fighting. They chew through it within a few days.

Uniting with newspaper

Uniting with newspaper – a photo taken last year

Then we left the queen cage containing Rose on top of her hive, picked it up and placed it on top of Chamomile’s hive. But in the process of doing that, Rose’s queen cage came open and released her. Which was very bad, as two queens in a colony will fight. We were saving Rose to give to Brian, we really didn’t want her in there with the bees. The process of moving the bees had made the bees testy and we’d ended up with a lot of squashed bees. We decided to abort the mission, put Rose’s hive back where it was and try again on Monday. We still gave the queen cells to Brian.

It’s sad hearing the crunch of squished bees and seeing them unable to get back up, knowing that it’s my fault. I hate it. Hopefully on Monday we’ll have more of an idea what we’re doing and can avoid making all the mistakes. You can read Emma’s version of events and see photos of the stubby queen cells on her post yesterday, ‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

As a cheerier ending, here are some photos from my lunch break this week. The annual Cart Marking ceremony was going on in the Guildhall. Since the fourteenth century or earlier, only licensed and marked carts can be hired out in the City of London. The ceremony takes place in the Guildhall Yard, with the cart owners bringing their vintage trucks, vintage vans, waggons and carriages to be inspected by the Master of the Carmen’s Company and branded or marked.

Cod & Rock skate

Milkman's van

Fruit and veg stall

Lastly, check out my awesome Lego mini figures set, the IT geek and Beegirl were sent to me by the fab @LizzyAB and the Librarian by the awesome @andrewGouw (I am a librarian and my fiance Drew is an IT geek). It’s not possible to buy a particular figure from Lego, they operate a lucky dip system, so I really appreciate being sent them as otherwise I’d have to get them off eBay.

Lego characters: Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl.

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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32 Responses to A bad day’s beekeeping

  1. theresagreen says:

    Oh dear, girls, what a palaver! Bee housekeeping sounds very complicated. I like the idea of naming your queens after aromatherapy oils-I’m a trained aromatherapist too; queen patchouli might be nice..a bit exotic but quite grounded! Wonderful carts-shame shops don’t still come to us like that. We used to get fortnightly visits from the library van when I was growing up in the middle of nowhere- I always fancied that job.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Another aromatherapist! I must tell Emma. Thanks for the Patchouli suggestion! Mobile libraries are a great thing but with these government cuts sadly lots have been lost.


  2. I always wondered how you named the queens. They all have such pretty names. Glad you found her too. I asked if she was hiding after reading Emma’s post. I love those horse drawn carts. What a wonderful time period to live in when they roamed the streets.


    • Emily Heath says:

      I used to think that I’d like to live in the time of horses and carts, until I saw a QI TV show episode where they mentioned the problems in New York with horses. Before cars, as everyone was using horses, there was too much horse poo manure to sell so it got left on the streets. And horses were dying on the streets, but weren’t removed that quickly so there was a delightful smell of manure and decomposing horses everywhere.

      No wonder people took to cars when they arrived! Of course the environmental problems of cars weren’t realised back then.


  3. Ah, the more hives the more problems! Seriously, sorry to hear about your bad day at the hives. Of course, you know I would have gone for the leaving them alone for a while and see if they resolve things themselves. But then I don’t have additional hives that could use a bit of an injection. Let’s see what Monday brings…Good luck!


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks. As our numbers of hives increase, getting enough equipment is becoming more of a problem. We both work on weekdays and have no car, so receiving deliveries and getting equipment to the apiary is an issue. Plus we have nowhere suitable to bang together brood boxes, even if we did have the skills to do so! Chilli’s colony is so short on space now in the nuc that they might consider swarming, so we’re keen to give them a bigger hive asap.


  4. hencorner says:

    Love the Lego and it was great to see you at the apiary yesterday x


  5. Emily, I have been in that “oh dear, this is not what I expected” place in the middle of a bee inspection. It helps (usually) to have another beekeeper to chat with to decide what to do. But 9 times out of 10, I am such a noob I find that if I am not sure what to do, it is best to put it all back together the way I found it and think about what to do overnight. It gives me time to consider my options more carefully, calm down and get my equipment needs met as well. Then I can return with a plan I feel good about and prepared for. Of course, if the weather is going to turn, the pressure is on. But even a “sit and think” in the beeyard for a bit helps. This time of year, there is also pressure to get the hive queenright and preparing for overwintering ASAP. I would say you are at the very end of the “make a new queen” window, but you could give this hive a frame of eggs and brood to make a less emergency queen? It will still take a month for her to get up and running though…perhaps if someone has queens for sale I would pull Rose (with whom they seem unhappy, and who is not performing well) and give the hive a new queen.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Thanks 🙂 I often feel envious of beekeepers with bees in their garden as it’s so much easier to return the next day. Part of the problem is that Emma and I only have limited time to get together. It’s two bus journeys for me to get to the Ealing apiary, so popping down there quickly isn’t that easy. Taking time for sitting and thinking is a good tip.

      This colony is the original colony which we did Chamomile’s artificial swarm from, so I thought it would make sense to reunite them and then use the spare hive to put Chilli’s bursting nucleus colony into. But I can see the advantages of letting the colony re-queen itself too, in that you get an extra queen that way. We usually avoid buying queens in as our queens have produced such calm bees and are adapted to our local weather. So many options, there are pros and cons of every decision!


  6. cindy knoke says:

    Wow! A totally foreign and fascinating world to me!


  7. cecilia says:

    I just combined my hives and forgot to do the slits! Oh dear, well I did it two days ago, so maybe they have just eaten through it by now.. I might have to quickly check. i hate the sound of squished bees too .. misery.. Once again though lucky lucky you two for having such a system of support.. and clever to find your queen and mark her.. awesome! Will you get honey this year, i won’t.. mine are still too small.. c c


    • Emily Heath says:

      The slits are just to get them started I think… if they have any sense they’ll chew their way out I’m sure. We will get honey from one of our hives, but it’s the one in the vicarage garden, so we owe the vicar most of that as thanks for letting us keep bees there!


  8. disperser says:

    This last week I found out one of the new employees we have is a beekeeper. The first thing I asked him was if he found it to be a lot of work. His answer was “It can be, but I find the less I do, the better they do”.

    It gave me hope . . . except I am an anal-retentive, OCD-type of guy who would not let well enough alone.

    Still thinking about someday having a go at it.


    • Emily Heath says:

      Fantastic, a possible future mentor for you.

      How much work it is depends a lot on your location and what you’re trying to achieve. In a packed city like London, we want to try to avoid having swarms everywhere which might annoy neighbours, giving beekeepers a bad reputation. I imagine you don’t have as many neighbours, so apart from losing half your bees, swarming might not bother you so much.

      Somewhere with lots of sunshine and fewer hives about competing for forage, your bees will naturally do much better and require less looking after. Australia is the ultimate place to keep honey bees as they have kept varroa mites out so far and the weather is so warm. When I read blogs from beekeepers in Northern Canada or Iceland, they have things much tougher and are having to really fight just to keep their bees alive.

      I haven’t lost any bees in five years, so hopefully I’m doing something right. I put this down to following the advice of the experienced Ealing beekeepers. They have taught me to do regular varroa treatments (Apiguard (thymol based) in Autumn and oxalic acid in winter), plus annual comb changing which prevents diseases building up on brood comb. I’d be very surprised if your colleague was doing no varroa treatments and had a 100% survival rate each year.


      • disperser says:

        I don’t think so . . . not someone I am looking to have more than a casual familiarity with (good morning, good night, GTF-out-of-my-way, and the like).

        If and when, I will do some research and seek out clubs.


  9. daveelliott says:

    Thanks for that post Emily, I always think its the time we feel things have gone wrong that are the most difficult to write about, but they are always the ones that give others the best opprtunity to learn and are often the most appreciated. Hope you have your plan sorted now, am not going to chip too much as have been told many times before that if you ask 6 beekeepers their opinion on what to do you will get at least 7 different answers. I always try and step back, even if only for a few minutes… think it over in terms of their lifecycle and what fits best with that, and then go for it. Even if it doesn’t quite work out it sounds like you are doing your best for them, and that is a pretty good start.

    Good luck!


  10. I love the Lego figures, I didn’t know they did random figurines. Hope the bees are easier today.


  11. whitt98 says:

    I feel your pain having recently experienced one of those bad days of beekeeping. Death and mayhem. I put on a bee escape in order to harvest some frames of honey, but when I checked on things the next day, found dead bees and melted wax, honey, the works, in the bottom of the super. Because the upper super was cut off from the rest of the hive, the bees couldn’t ventilate the upper super. Temperatures rose, melted wax, etc. etc. It was a horrible mess. The day was hot, hot, hot. I learned a painful lesson. No more bee escapes! Living in Sacramento CA where summer temperatures often top 38 Celsius presents its own challenges!


    • Emily Heath says:

      Oh no, that’s awful 😦 It’s hot here too and we just went back and combined the two hives tonight, hope something similar doesn’t happen to us. Perhaps you could brush the bees off the super frames instead next time?


  12. willowbatel says:

    It sounds like our bees are doing a bit of the same thing! I hope things work out for you two. Its such a shame that queen Rose isn’t working out properly. One of my new queens didn’t seem to mate very well, and is only laying drones, but very sporadically and inconsistently. I wonder if the bees aren’t feeding her much because they know she’s not fertile? She’s still in the colony because I saw a few new eggs when I opened them up yesterday (and by few I mean 3-4 in the whole hive). I’m really not at all sure what to do and would love some advice!


  13. Pingback: What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell? | Miss Apis Mellifera

  14. Wendy says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your bad day, I certainly feel a bit down when that happens. Well done for finding and marking the queen well, I’ve all new queens to mark at the moment. I do my beekeeping on my own, so my problem is that I can spot a queen but can’t keep my eye on her when I reach for the cage and the pen. And queens can always move quickly! I had a very unsuccessful trying-to-spot-and-mark this weekend. Hope all goes as planned on your next visit to the apiary.


    • Emily Heath says:

      I see what you mean about it being more difficult on your own, usually one of us holds the frame and the other finds the cage to pin her down. You need an accomplice!


  15. Granny Roberta in nw CT USA says:

    Your Lego photo didn’t even show for me, but it still forced me (FORCED I say) to go order the bee girl from eBay. Also, I’m reading this six years after you posted it, and somehow I was not aware of this mini figure.


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