A day spent talking about bees

I started July off by helping out at the annual Northfields allotment open day. Tom usually goes along with his observation hive and honey for sale but he couldn’t make it this year. He had warned me it would be busy but I hadn’t realised quite how busy. There were over 700 visitors and it felt like nearly every one came to see the hives! I’d borrowed a deckchair but it went unused as I was on my feet for four hours straight with queues of people waiting to come by.

Me at Northfields allotments open day - photo by EalingToday.co.uk


What do people ask about bees?

There were some common themes…

  • Do you get stung?
  • How much honey do you get?
  • How do the bees find their way back home?
  • What are the bees in my garden/wall/floorboards?

Some of the children were budding honey experts; one little boy was telling me all about his visit to France where he visited a honey farm. A few children didn’t like honey but most did and wanted to try some – I had a couple of different honeys for them to try. I discovered I should have brought wet wipes as towards the end everything got very sticky!

I had some photos up of some of the different solitary and bumble bee species and it was nice to see how amazed people were about the number of bee species we have here in the UK. It’s around 250! And only one of those is the honey bee.

Most people were very friendly and interested by the bees. I did get a bit frustrated by people who got grumpy about me not selling honey. That’s my personal choice! And I’m quite glad not to have spent days before hand labelling up honey and then an afternoon having to find the right change for people. A recent charity event I helped out at where someone ended up scamming us over a cash payment has put me off that kind of thing.

Many visitors were telling me that local honey helps their hay fever, privately I wonder if this is mere placebo effect but I wasn’t going to tell them not to buy it. Even if it doesn’t help it’ll taste good! The Apiarist has just published a blog post – Honey and hay fever – which sums up some of my reasons for being skeptical about it. For instance, most hay fever sufferers react to grass pollen – which of course honey bees don’t collect, because grasses are wind pollinated.

Anyway, it was a nice day, good to see people enjoying the allotments and appreciating the bees.

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Bee equipment review: National multi function crown board

I’ve been lucky enough to be sent a special crown board to review by a small beekeeping business in Kent called Bee Equipment Ltdwww.bee-equipment.co.uk. As well as selling beekeeping equipment online they also keep around 300 hives in the Kent area and sell nucs and queens.

As its name suggests, their multi function crown board (£16.65) can be used for several purposes: feeding, treatments and swarm control.

  • Feeding – Rapid top feeders fit easily onto this crown board. The depth allows shallow feeders.
  • Treatments – Treatments can be carried out when you turn the board over – so that there’s room for Apiguard trays, for instance.
  • Swarm Control
    1) Firstly find all the queen cells and allow to reduce to a single visible queen cell. Using the normal position, cover the hole in the Multi Function Crown Board.
    2) Find the queen! (easy, right?)….
    3) Place two frames of brood in a brood box above the Multi Function Crown Board and shake as many bees as you can from the box. Fill the bottom box with frames or replace existing ones.
    4) Release the queen into the bottom box, put the Multi Function Crown Board on followed by the second box full of bees with the yellow cap facing the opposite direction to the bottom box (there is a hole with a yellow cap on the side of the crown board).
    5) Take out the yellow cap, place the Multi Function Crown Board on top and close.
    6) Flying and foraging bees will leave the top box with only nurse bees remaining. Leave for approximately two weeks for the cell in the top box to hatch, and hopefully your queen will be laying.

Multi-function crown board

The swarm control idea is pretty exciting… especially if you are stuck for space and want to be able to do swarm control vertically. It’s too late for us to try it out this year, but I shall have a go next year if I can. Think it’s a similar concept to the Horsley Board.

I can’t review the swarm control function properly yet, but I can review their customer service – and I have to say their delivery service was maybe the best I’ve ever had from any company.

First I received an email to say the delivery date, giving a 1 hour delivery time slot and the option to change the delivery date, collect from a pick up point, deliver to a neighbour or have the order delivered to a safe place at my address. In a matter of seconds I was able to change the delivery date to a day I’d be at home. Brilliant!

Bee equipment order

On the delivery day I was sent another email giving me a 1 hour delivery slot – and it was delivered during that slot.

So useful! There’s been so many times I’ve had to stay in for hours waiting for orders from companies because their delivery time slot was all day. Especially not fun when you’re with an extremely active, easily bored toddler.

Order delivery













The product itself feels sturdy and well made. It’s good to support small local companies so if you want excellent customer service and competitive prices, plus a wide range of products, why not give Bee Equipment a try.

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‘Neonics: everything you need to know’ infographic

I’ve been in contact with an outdoor shelters company called Sun Leisure, who designed the infographic below and asked if I would share it. The graphic originally featured some US stats on honey bees – I gave feedback suggesting that stats on bumbles and other bee species should be included too.

To my surprise, they have been incredibly willing to listen to feedback and do further research, the outcome being that Chris at Sun Leisure updated the infographic stats. You can see an interactive version of the infographic at sun-leisure.com/blog/neonics-bees-infographic – I’m sure they would be interested to hear what you think. If you ask they might also reveal why an outdoor shelters company is creating bee themed infographics!

I also recommend reading Philip Strange’s recent blog post ‘Perfect poisons for pollinators‘, which highlights the results of Dave Goulson’s research into whether flowering plants sold in UK garden centres have been treated with chemicals which are actually toxic to bees. Unfortunately the results were not good, but at least as a result of the research B&Q have announced they will be going neonics-free (but not necessarily free of other bee-toxic chemicals) from February 2018.

What are neonics? infographic
Copyright Sun Leisure 2017

EDIT: Since publishing this post, new 2017 research has been published in Science that found negative effects from neonics on honey bees studied in Hungary and the UK:


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Our bees surprise us again

It had been roughly a month since queen cells hatched in our three hives. Emma had seen big new queens in all our hives – so far, so good. Two of the queens were happily laying away – great. Yet there was still no sign of eggs or brood in Patience’s old hive. We asked a couple of more experienced beekeepers whether a virgin queen could appear as large as a mated queen. The answer may surprise you – yes they can! David Evans, writer of the brilliant The Apiarist blog, told me “I’ve seen some teeny tiny mated and very successful queens and some great big bloated virgins”.

So we knew that the large ginger queen Emma had seen may not have been mated. As we were going through the colony there was no signs of eggs or brood. On the other hand, there were no laying workers and the bees were in a good mood. But the colony was getting smaller and had few stores. We were talking about either trying a test frame from one of our other hives to see if the bees would try and raise another queen, or recombining with another colony to save time, when I saw what we were looking for. A queen! A beautiful fairly dark queen, not the same ginger queen Emma had originally seen. And then Emma saw something fantastic – she had an egg coming out of her bottom! As we watched, she began to lay.

Seeing this lovely sight reminded me that jumping to conclusions in beekeeping is a bad idea. Sometimes you get an idea in your mind about something and you ignore the evidence pointing the other way. I was thinking the colony was queenless because it seemed like the new queen should have been laying by now, but I should have taken a lesson from its old queen Patience. I was ignoring the other signs that the colony was queen-right – the lack of laying workers, the good temper of the bees.

We looked through the other two hives and found plenty of brood and stores. Below is a beautiful frame of capped honey. England is having a crazy heatwave so the bees are having a good time. We need some rain though as I’m not sure how much nectar the plants can produce in such dry, hot weather.

Frame of honey

Emma has come up with some lovely new names for our queens. The queen in the hive which was ruled by Hope is Everlasting, as we’ve had that line of queens since 2008. The nucleus hive which we split half Hope’s colony into when we found queen cells is now headed up by Angelica, as our bees are always angelic. And our other hive, which Patience was once the queen of, has Rose-Jasmine (RJ). Welcome to our three new queens!

Below are a couple of wasps nests in an empty hive. Wasps are not a beekeepers’ friend come autumn, but they create such beautiful intricate constructions.

Wasp nests

The bees in some of the apiary hives are producing a beautiful dark honey which you can see John Chapple holding below. He thought it might be hogweed. There are also plenty of horse chestnut trees round the apiary.

John with honey - possibly hogweed

John with a honey frame – possibly hogweed

And here’s a special rose I saw a honey bee enjoying in the spectacular gardens at Winston Churchill’s house, Chartwell in Kent. It’s called ‘Rosa Masquerade’ and the sign said that its buds ‘unfurl a delicate shade of yellow, mature through soft pink to deep raspberry’.

White and red clover are out now. A lot of the clover is wilting in the heat but where the flowers are coping you can always see bees visiting them.

And finally… I know that a lot of beekeepers are very attached to their sheds. Well, Waltons are running their prestigious 2017 Shed of the Year contest. You can check out the previous winners’ sheds and find out how to enter at https://www.waltons.co.uk/blog/enter-your-shed-into-the-2017-shed-of-the-year-competition. One of the 2016 winners has a whole ‘shed village’ at the bottom of their garden which includes a mini theatre, pub and railway station!

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The life swap adventure

I keep coming across bees in unexpected places.

Amongst the sadness of recent events here in the UK, a happy reference to bees came up in the BBC’s new show ‘The Life Swap Adventure‘ – available for UK viewers to watch for the next 20 days.

George, a farmer from Malawi, swopped lives for a week with John, a fire officer from Essex (South-East England). George was hoping to find a way to make his farm more financially sustainable, to provide a future for his family. Meanwhile John was hoping to escape his workaholic routine and find the good life.

Luckily, on his visit to England George discovers a potential solution to his financial hardships – beekeeping! He goes on a road trip with John’s wife Cheryl to visit a Derbyshire bee farm, Troway Hall (46 minutes in, if anyone wants to fast forward through in iPlayer).

Upon seeing the bee farm owner, I wondered if the programme’s producers had wanted George to meet the most colourful beekeeper in England. Glorious Gloria Havenhand has a blonde perm and style that reminded me of Eastenders pub landlady Peggy Mitchell. Full of charm and bounce, she shows George her 70 beehives, instructing him: “Bees don’t like loud noises. A beekeeper who is noisy will never make a good beekeeper. Keep your voice down!”. After seeing the bees, George says “This has been one of the precious moments in my life”.

The voiceover informs us that there are an estimated 10,000 hives in Malawi, mostly owned by small scale farmers. 120 tonnes of honey is currently imported annually to Malawi to meet demand – so there is room for growth.

At the end of the show we hear that George is continuing to farm, to raise money for his new beekeeping enterprise. We can all help farmers like George by donating to the beekeeping charity Bees for Development, which supports beekeepers in developing countries. I hope George succeeds and together with his son Sam can build a business which is less of a daily struggle.

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Book review – Bad Beekeeping by Ron Miksha (2004)

Ron is the author of the excellent Bad Beekeeping blog, which has recently been selected by Beesker as “the world’s very best website on bees and beekeeping”.

Bad Beekeeping by Ron Miksha – available on Amazon

Bad Beekeeping is no ordinary beekeeping book. Instead it’s a memoir of Ron’s time as a commercial beekeeper, spending his summers in Canada, winters in the US and endless time driving between the two. He has an impressive memory, supplemented by photos and diaries from the time, which really brings the reader along with his journey.

I knew there was a huge chasm between being a hobby and a commercial beekeeper, but Ron’s book really rammed that home. Commercial beekeeping as Ron did it sounds incredibly hard. In my household, we know how much money will come in each month. Unless the worst happens and we both lose our jobs, it’s a reliable, stable figure. So too are our expenses. But when Ron was a commercial beekeeper, he was living on a financial knife edge. An almost infinite amount of factors could affect his income and expenses – bee diseases, weather, honey prices, even government border control policy. You might well ponder why our society puts so little value on the work of the people who provide our food.

Ron Miksha making nucs

Ron Miksha making nucs (photo from https://badbeekeepingblog.com)

Not only that, but the summer working hours are endless. Hot, sweaty hard labour with the bees and dangerous amounts of time spent driving hives through the night from one state or even one country to another. If you think your job is tough, you should read this book. There are some amusing stories along the way too. I enjoyed the one about Ron spending an hour late on one Friday afternoon trying to find a renegade queen, only for his beekeeper brother David to drop by and tell him her majesty was sitting on Ron’s hat.

“That spring, I had driven eleven thousand miles in twenty-eight days…I followed a similar routine for ten years.” – Ron Miksha, Bad Beekeeping, p.147

Once you’ve read the book, you might wonder why Ron or indeed anyone does commercial beekeeping. But I think all of us beekeepers have an idea deep down. It’s something to do with the smell of the hives on a summer’s day, all sweet and heady from the nectar flowing in. Something to do with the humming of the bees and the feel of their feet on your hands. If you have the bee bug, you understand.

It takes a little while to get used to the gentle pace, meandering storyline and sheer amount of detail contained in Bad Beekeeping, but I found myself sucked in by its charms. Ron meets a lot of characters in Saskatchewan, his part of rural Canada, and you find yourself rooting for him as he desperately tries to make money from honey.

See also:

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Pollen, nosema and the case of three missing queens

This Saturday Tom ran a nosema IDing demo at the apiary. He had a microscope attached to his laptop so that he could show us what he was seeing on the screen and even take photos. After finding zero nosema in two samples, including one from a small colony that was being slow to build up, he finally hit the jackpot in a third sample and was able to show us the small rice-like cells of nosema.

Thomas dissecting bees


Above you can see Tom diligently removing the heads, as just the abdomens are needed for the sample. The abdomens are then ground up using a pestle and mortar and placed on a slide with a drop of water. The water makes the nosema cells appear to swim but that is just the movement of the water on the slide!

Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae are extremely common spore-producing fungus parasites that live inside a honey bee’s gut. Nosema spores enter via the mouth parts of a bee as she feeds or cleans and travel into her mid-gut, where they invade her digestive cells. The spores germinate and feed happily away on the content of these cells, rapidly multiplying by cell division until the gut contains 30-50 million nosema spores once the infection is fully developed. As you might expect, this significantly shortens the bee’s lifespan (sources disagree on how much, with various books/websites quoting 50%, 10-50% and up to 78% – the earlier the bee picks up the spores, the more dramatically its lifespan is likely to be shortened).

Nosema apis

Nosema apis under microscope x1000. Crown copyright 2017

Tom checking out a sample.

Thomas looking in the microscope

As well as spotting nosema Tom also found a bee hair – isn’t it beautiful? It reminded us of a tree.

Bee hair - photo by Thomas Bickerdike

Bee hair – photo by Thomas Bickerdike

And lots of pollen. I wanted to try and ID the pollens using a book I own – or at least I used to own – but now I can’t find it. It was ‘The pollen grain drawings of Dorothy Hodges’ (IBRA, 2009), which I used to draw the pollens in my 2015 post ‘An evening spent peering at sexual material‘. Perhaps I lent it to someone, or maybe I’ll discover it hiding somewhere. Anyway, if any palynologists out there can identify these, that would be great. Is the small round one forget-me-not?

EDIT: Biologist and fantastic blogger Standingoutinmyfield has commented “Unfortunately, most of those pollen grains are damaged, so will be impossible to identify. This can happen when the osmotic balance of the solution is too high or low…probably if you used pure water, the pollen grains swelled until they exploded. However, I can tell you forget me not pollen is the smallest pollen known to man, at just 2 microns. It’s not round, though, it’s shaped like little dumbbells.”

As for the three missing queens, well unfortunately Emma and I appear to have mislaid them. We did a split on Hope’s hive on Saturday 6th May as it contained queen cells, but it’s possible the colony had already swarmed as the cells were sealed and there was no sign of Hope herself.  Emma also donated some queen cells from Hope’s hive to our other hive, Patience, as there was no sign of Queen Patience and the colony was grumpy.

When we checked on Sunday 14th May, the queen cells were hatched but there was no sign of any eggs yet – probably too early. That was still the case when I visited on Saturday 20th May. So we wait, and hope, for eggs. The virgin queens must successfully mate in the sky and return safely to their hives. It is a perilous and weather-dependent business. We have had a lot of cold days and some rain lately but I have my fingers crossed that surely at least one colony will reward us with a laying queen soon!

I’ll end with some photos of bees and birthday cakes – it was my birthday recently. It happens to be May 20th; the Slovenians are my new favourite nation as they have named May 20th World Bee Day. What better present could a beekeeper ask for?!

Birthday chocolate cake

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