Bees, bees everywhere

It was a hot summer’s evening. I stuck my head out of our attic window and looked down the hill over Truro as the sun came down. The cathedral spire in the distance, pastel pink, blue and cream rhododendrons in the garden opposite. Seagulls swooshed through the sky and the blackbirds sang goodnight.

I turned my head to the right and a familiar silhouette caught my eye. It landed on the chimney, dark against the sky. First one, then another, then another. Not just one honey bee out alone. A colony. An entrance.

My eyes travelled down the chimney pot and my mind travelled back to Drew telling me our wood fired burner had stopped working – he thought there seemed to be some kind of blockage in the chimney. He had tried to look up there, but couldn’t see anything.

The bees continued to land, buffeted about by the rooftop wind as they returned home. The colony look strong. Did they know this was a beekeeper’s house?

Since discovering the bees I have been trying to think about what I can do to persuade them to leave the chimney. Even if I could safely get up on the roof, I suspect they will be inside a cavity only bees can reach. There was a post by a beekeeper on the British and Irish Beekeepers group who had done a chimney removal – as well as being a beekeeper, he also happened to have “qualifications in working at height, PASMA, CSCS, Asbestos trained…a MEWPS licence…Gas Acop Certified”. I don’t even know what most of those qualifications are, but I know I don’t have them!

Having read more, I do know that we should definitely not start a fire underneath. That can be dangerous and cause a flash fire, as all the honey and wax will melt and run down.

I think the best solution is leaving the bees up there, as I expect without varroa treatment the colony will not keep on going indefinitely. Then we can have a look at removing the comb, so that new swarms are not attracted to it. If anyone has any other suggestions, please do let me know!

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Tips from Cornwall’s Bee Health Day 2019: How to keep healthy bees

I enjoyed Bee Health Day at the weekend – it’s an annual day run by the two Cornwall Beekeeping Associations (CBKA and WBKA) and the National Bee Unit Bee Inspectors. There are talks on keeping healthy bees, varroa and the Asian hornet as well as a practical apiary session and the chance to look at some diseased foulbrood combs up close. We were at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus, which has a team of talented bee researchers led by Professor Juliet Osbourne and some incredibly beautiful flower displays. Here’s my notes from the day.

Bee health introduction

David, one of Devon’s Bee inspectors, gave us a quick intro into how to keep healthy bees. He reminded us that beekeepers are usually the number one culprit for spreading disease. You should:

  • Wash your suit and hive tools with washing soda between each apiary visit
  • Take a bucket with washing soda solution to the apiary and wash your tools in it between inspecting different hives
  • Use disposable gloves – or Marigolds which can be washed in washing soda
  • Avoid swapping frames between apiaries. He told us about a commercial beekeeper who extracted honey from hives and then gave the frames back to hives in different apiaries to clean up. The beekeeper got disease in every single hive. Mark your super frames and give them back to the same colony to clean up after extracting. Don’t leave super frames out in the open for bees to clean up.
  • Aim to change your brood frames every 1-3 years. The inspectors have quite different views between them about how to do this. David greatly favours shook-swarming whereas one of the Cornish inspectors, Eric, dislikes shook-swarming. Eric gets his bees to draw out a brood box worth of brood frames each spring (with a queen excluder underneath so no brood is laid in it) and then distributes these between colonies to gradually replace a few frames each year.
  • Twice a year inspect the brood combs solely for disease, rather than focusing on the usual things like whether the queen is laying or looking for queen cells etc.

Inspect brood comb regularly for brood disease. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

Varroa workshop

Something called something like ‘Parasitic mite syndrome’, which is probably spread by varroa, is a problem at the moment. The symptoms are:

  • Brood dying in capped cells
  • Colony breaking down (because it’s struggling to produce healthy new bees)

I’ve written more about this in the practical apiary notes underneath.

The inspectors also mentioned that they’re also seeing a lot of Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) this year. The rainy weather may be behind this as when bees are cooped up inside their hive for longer periods than usual hairs are broken from their cuticles, allowing CBPV to spread from diseased bees to healthy bees in the exposed gaps.

Open mesh floors

I was interested to hear about a paper by Harris & Harbo (2004) – ‘Effect of screen floors on populations of honey bees and parasitic mites‘ which found that 0pen mesh floors (or open screen floors as they’re called in the US) cause adult varroa mites to stay on the adult bees longer, so they reproduce less regularly inside the brood cells. It’s not known why this is. However, open mesh floors are definitely A Good Thing when it comes to keeping mite levels down – every little helps.


This was mentioned as the only authorised treatment in this country which can be used with honey supers on. The inspector running the varroa workshop asked if anyone had used it – one person said “Yes… never again”.

The inspector told us that he’d been called out this year to a beekeeper who used MAQs in March on his 12 colonies – 9 out of the 12 queens failed afterwards. He suspected too much treatment had been used. With MAQs the instructions must be followed to the letter as it’s very powerful stuff.

Thymol treatment

The inspector recommended rotating thymol treatments each year, even though there’s less chance of resistance with thymol as it attacks varroa mites in a number of different ways.

He’s a fan of Apiguard (as am I). The queen will go off lay while you treat with Apiguard, but this can be seen as an advantage in reducing mite numbers.

An audience member commented that he had more success with Apiguard in his double brood box hives when he put the trays between the two brood boxes rather than at the top. He didn’t use an eke, just put the tray under the brood frame bee space.


Apiguard treatment

Oxalic acid

Someone asked how oxalic acid works – how does it kill mites? The answer was that we don’t know how it works yet, just that it does! Even the manufacturers of oxalic acid based treatments don’t know at the moment. There are various theories such as that the acid burns the mouthparts of the mites, causing them to fall off the adult bees, but nothing has been conclusively proven yet.

When trickling you need to keep the mixture warm to avoid chilling the bees, so the inspector uses a cool bag with a hot water bottle in to keep it warm. He commented that the HMF levels in pre-mixed treatment do build up and he wondered whether the HMF levels in the old pre-mixed trickles (which Thornes and other suppliers sold a few years ago) must have been quite toxic to the bees. Only make up the oxalic acid mixture just before you intend to use it.

Apibioxal drizzling

Apibioxal drizzling

PolyVar Yellow

I hadn’t heard of this before, but PolyVar yellow is a plastic mouse guard which gives the bees a flumethrine treatment as they squeeze through it. Shouldn’t be left on longer than nine weeks and not while honey supers are on. There were some concerns that it might knock pollen off but this doesn’t appear to happen.

Apiary inspection

We had the privilege of watching one of the inspectors look inside a hive belonging to the University of Exeter – I think I was in Eric James’ group.

Miraculously, it wasn’t raining!! It was even warm enough to sit outside without coats on (not a given in a Cornish summer).

The hive Eric inspected was struggling. It had two supers with plenty of honey and bees in them. And yet… inside the brood box the bees were only on about four frames. They had been shook-swarmed in May due to disease and seemed not to have built up again since (perhaps not surprising after a month of rain). Judging by the smell of thymol they’d also been treated for varroa with a thymol-based treatment, which may have knocked them back too.

Eric opened up some of the brood and showed us dead bees within apparently healthy looking capped brood cells which hadn’t hatched. He said the inspectors had some disagreement between them over what this was being caused by. David, the Devon bee inspector, would call it the Parasitic mite virus mentioned earlier, whereas he thought it was something new and not named yet.

Whatever it is, it’s being discovered in hives across the country. They are at a loss on how to treat it – getting the bees on new comb doesn’t seem to help. It may be transmitted by the queen or in the sperm of the drones. Some of the brood will be healthy and hatch, whereas there will be patches where the brood doesn’t and the bees will be dead inside the cells. Sometimes you will see rough perforated cappings where the bees have started opening up the cappings to try to remove the dead larvae.

After the apiary was lunch. We had been warned to bring our own packed lunch, but in the rush of leaving the house with a toddler I’d only packed a tiny croissant. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll go to the campus shop”. I had walked past this on the way and seen a sign which said it opened at 10am on Saturdays. It was about a ten minute walk back to the shop… which was in darkness. It was then that I saw another sign underneath which said the shop was now closed on weekends. I walked to another far flung part of the campus and asked the reception staff there if there was any food about, but they told me there was none at all for sale anywhere on campus and even the one vending machine was broken. It’s a weakness of mine that I don’t function well when I’m hungry, so at this point I gave up and got the train home just so I could get some food! Unfortunately this meant I missed the diseased combs and Asian hornet workshops – next year I will make sure to pack an extra big packed lunch.

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Going on a (mini) bee safari

Last weekend I went on a very enjoyable mini bee safari at the home of two Cornwall Beekeepers Association members. For their privacy I won’t give any names and shall just say the location was central Cornwall.

A bee safari means you get to look in other people’s hives and then enjoy a cup of tea afterwards while talking about bees. The perfect way to spend a sunny morning, no?

Brood box

Brood box

There was a wide spectrum of beekeeping experience between us all, ranging from those who had never held a frame before to experienced beekeepers of many stings. The beginners were able to inspect through a hive for the first time and see a range of different beekeeping dilemmas.

Queen excluder

I do like these sturdy queen excluders.

Bees at entrance

Bees at the entrance

It was particularly interesting to look inside a hive which was possibly queenless – our host wasn’t sure. On one of the first frames, multiple eggs in some cells were observed. It was discussed that this was likely to be laying workers, as while the eggs were at the bottom of the cells, they were considered to be short cells.

After some discussion about what could be done to rescue this hive full of laying workers, one of our hosts raised an objection – she had spotted some cells which had just one egg at the bottom. Were we sure this hive was queenless?

The next frame was lifted out for inspection. This contained a mixture of capped and uncapped brood. Case closed and no action needed! Just to confirm things even further, queenie was spotted and efficiently marked in a sponge plunger style cage. I was pleased to see this demonstrated as I bought one of these cages recently, having only used the crown of thorns style press-in cage before. The trickiest part of the process was getting the queen in, as she was quite a runner. It was commented that this was a two person job – one person to hold the frame up, the other to catch the queen in the cage.

Ron Mishka’s recent blog post ‘At least one of these bees is a laying worker‘ has a good explanation of how laying workers come about, how to tell the difference between a laying worker and a newly laying queen and what to do about laying workers. Even if you know all this already, you should follow Ron’s blog because it’s great!

The pleasurable morning was capped off by tea and coffee accompanied by multiple types of home made cake – rock cakes (delicious), cheese scones which one person commented were among the best they’d ever had, a cake I think contained honey… plus biscuits and wrapped mini swiss rolls.

Back at my hives, my spring of bee chaos continues. I’ve combined one of the weak swarm nucs into my strong yellow colony, as it seemed to be queenless and struggling. The nuc you see on the left also seemed to be queenless, so I gave it a test frame of eggs. When I inspected last week they had created a capped queen cell from the test frame – but I stupidly turned the frame over to inspect it without thinking, which may have dislodged the growing queen. I realised my mistake the instant I turned it upside down 😦

Apiary shot

The nuc you see below is my strong one, and the only colony I have in which the queen is really going for it with laying. I’ve taken two test frames of eggs from this so far! Thank you queenie – at some point I’ll have to give you a name.

Painted poly nuc

Painted poly nuc

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The tree bees come down

You may remember from my last post, ‘Surrounded by bees: a tale of four swarms‘ that I had a swarm which was determined to stay high up in a tree. They had been there a few weeks and had been busy building yellow comb.

To my relief and surprise, they’ve come down! They must have been craving shelter after all the rain they’ve endured, as this time they landed under a thick bush, less than two feet up from the floor. Below you can see my father-in-law Tom cutting away some of the greenery so we could get at them.

Tom cutting a branch

It was an easy collect. Tom held a nucleus box underneath, while I brushed the bees in. I took a frame of eggs and honey from another hive so that they have brood pheromone and food in there to help persuade them to stay. In the photo below most of the bees had already been brushed in. I left the nuc on the ground; the bees gathered round the entrance and started busily fanning their Nasonov glands, telling the few bees left on the branch to come on down. Within about half an hour they had all gone in.

A couple of the other swarms I hived in nuc boxes this month have not done very well, I think they must have been headed up by virgins which got eaten by birds/didn’t manage to mate/suffered some other unknown fate. In both cases a few bees were clustered round the frames I’d given them and up in the feeder, but they hadn’t managed to draw out any new comb and there was no sign of eggs.

In contrast the colony which landed on the wall with a mated queen is booming. Since I hived them two weeks ago on 6th May they have completely drawn out every frame in the nuc and the queen is laying with gusto.

Normally I would now transfer them to a full sized brood box (with the help of dummy boards to keep them warm while they expand). However I’m thinking about overwintering them in the nuc so that I can sell the nuc in the spring. Do any more experienced beekeepers have any thoughts on what would be the best course of action? Is there more of a market for nucs or for full sized colonies?

Our foxgloves are out – they’re beautiful and attracting long-tongued bumble bees, which buzz pollinate them, vibrating their bodies inside to shake their pollen out. Dave Goulson’s blog on ‘The best garden flowers for bees‘ says they are a favourite with B. hortorum and B. pascuorum (the garden bumblebee and the common carder bee). Often you can hear the bee inside the foxglove but not see it!


Our bed of lambs ear sits next to the foxgloves. It is growing enthusiastically and I am excited for when it flowers later in the summer and attracts buzzy solitary bees. I have also planted some borage and sunflowers and leaves are emerging!

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Surrounded by bees: a tale of four swarms

What happens when a beekeeper gets behind on their inspections in May?

SWARMS. This was the first:

It was rather high up…

The hives underneath are my comical attempt to tempt the bees down. I smeared lemongrass oil inside the empty hives and waited. Soon, a swarm moved in. But not the swarm I was expecting!

So the nucleus is now occupied with what is presumably either a different swarm or part of the tree swarm (if it had multiple queens?!). And a few weeks later, the bees in the tree remain stubbornly there. It seems this tree is their chosen permanent location. If you stand under the swarm and look all the way up, yellow comb is now visible. I have to admire their toughness in the face of some pretty serious wind, rain and hail since they moved in, but I fear they won’t last the winter.

The next swarm arrived a few days later, settling on a wall near my in-laws’ back door.

Swarm on wall

Shaking the wall wasn’t going to do much, so to collect this one I held a empty nucleus hive underneath and gently brushed the bees downwards into it. Not quite bee by bee but it did take a while! I was lucky enough to spot a mated queen, she tried to hide in the centre of the cluster but I managed to brush her into the box. As soon as she was in I knew the rest would follow. I turned the nuc entrance to be a queen excluder and gave them a frame of honey from one of my other hives, along with frames of foundation.

Swarm on wall closeup

Can you spot the queen? 😉

The third swarm arrived last week. The bees considerately came on a day I had off and in a tree low enough to reach! As he has a few inches on me, Drew stood on a precarious plastic chair with some secateurs and gently lopped off the branches into yet another nucleus box.

By now I was thinking “This must be the last swarm”. Wrong! While on an anniversary weekend by the sea, the most recent (I will not say last anymore) swarm descended on a honeysuckle bush. Once I arrived back I took a look and observed some frantic waggle dancing happening on the surface of the swarm.

As I sat nearby on the lawn with Tommy, suddenly the bees took off, filling the air above us. The bees passed over our heads, not in one coherent mass but moving as thousands of individuals in one direction. Gradually they moved past the house and into the distance, moving too far for our eyes to follow them. It was quite something to sit underneath them while they swirled over us.

Once they had gone, a few bees returned to the branch they had been on. These must have been scout bees returning to the swarm too late. I had never thought about it before, but of course a few scout bees are inevitably left behind, as they are still out scouting when the colony decides on a permanent location. I have since read that these scout bees will sometimes return to the old colony they swarmed from.

By the way, when I last inspected Nessa the bees had produced queen cells in the super. These bees don’t like to make things easy.

If you’re thinking of visiting Cornwall, this is a nice spot. Trevaunance Cove, near St Agnes. Tommy hated the beach (too sandy!) and the sea (too wet!) but zoomed up a sheltered path along the cliffs with freakish toddler energy. The delicate scent of apple blossom filled the air. The pretty white flowers of hawthorn (May) were out too, attracting bees and hoverflies. The path was its own little sheltered microclimate, surprisingly still and warm after the windswept beach below, with handy benches in every possible place along the way up so that you could take in the view. A lovely place.

Walk by St Agnes

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Garden before and after photos & average hive loss survey

I looked back at some garden photos from when we first moved into our house in 2017, and was quite taken aback at the change in the patio area! There is a lot more green.

I know that some people would look at the before photo as ‘neat’ and the after photo as ‘messy’. And that’s ok with me – I like messy! Messy is life, messy means homes for insects and birds.

We have two resident crab spiders at the moment – the apple tree spider is particularly successful, catching one to two bees a day on a sunny day. Many different species of bees have been caught, from honey bees to bumbles to solitary bees, he or she pounces on them all with a paralysing bite. At least their death seems fast, for they are always perfectly still when I come across the spider feeding.

And finally…

I completed a winter hive loss survey for COLOSS (Prevention of honey bee COlony LOSSes) today. The email from Dr Anthony Williams, COLOSS Survey Coordinator for England, contained some interesting information on colony losses during 2017:

“Last year beekeepers in your region participated in the COLOSS survey for Winter Losses in 2017.   Thanks to your support for the first time in a number of years we were able to submit a return to the pan European COLOSS Monitoring initiative.   I can report that overall Winter losses were on average 28% for England.  Losses in Europe were on average 16%.  Losses varied from region to region from 9% in Cornwall to  33% in Warwickshire and 41% in Leicestershire, my home regions which were above the national average.  A more detailed note of Winter losses will shortly be presented in the Journal of Apicultural Research… Last year we received approx 500 valid responses which represents about 1.7% of all beekeepers in England, this year I hope we can improve on this and get a more accurate picture of Winter losses at a Local, National and European level.”

A fair number of the beekeepers whose blogs I follow lost bees overwinter, so it’s good to know that winter losses are not as high on average as we might think.

If you want to help COLOSS by completing the survey, the link is: It’s scheduled to close on the 5th June. Let’s improve on the 1.7% reply rate!

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A visit to the bees in April

It was the first sunny day in ages – or the first day not filled by wind and rain in ages – and I was out in the garden sweeping up vast pink piles of camellia blossom when my phone rang. It was my father-in-law, Tom, and he informed me that the bees were very busy, busier than he remembered them being last year.

I suspected that the bees were probably just happy to get some sun at last, but thought it best to check they weren’t about to swarm into someone’s chimney, so I headed over.

When we moved to Cornwall Tom and Carol took in our cat Bob. A bit of a change for him from our old London flat. He was eager to head out in the sunshine too.

Having had a nice cup of tea with Carol and Bob first, I crouched down by Kensa’s entrance and took a look. Kensa (pronounced Ken-za) is a Cornish word for ‘first’. I named the queen heading up this hive Kensa as her colony was my first in Cornwall, rather conveniently swarming on a low tree in Tom and Carol’s garden. Her bees were bringing back fat yellow and orange pollen baskets.

I opened up the hive and found the bees were not particularly pleased to be interrupted. They had taken advantage of the break in inspecting during winter to stick everything together with propolis. I like to see plenty of propolis as it’s hygienic and helps keeps drafts out of the hive, but it makes for slow inspecting. Kensa’s bees used to be very gentle but not so this week! They had developed a disconcerting technique of rushing at my fingers as I picked up each frame. While trying to prise the frames apart with my hive tool, they grumpily gathered around the tool, making the job harder. I didn’t actually get stung through my thin latex gloves, but I wouldn’t have liked to inspect them barehanded as I did with some of my old London colonies.

I found eggs, larvae, no queen cells, a few adult drones and a small amount of drone brood.  The brood box is packed full of brood and honey and they are making good progress in drawing out the super frames I added this month. Now that the weather has changed again I think they will keep me on my toes. My prediction is they try to swarm in 2-3 weeks time, but it could be earlier!

Below is a photo of my other hive, Nessa. I bought this colony from a local beekeeper last year (Nessa means ‘second’ in Cornish) and they’re a similar dark colour to Kensa. Within some bee colonies you see a wide variation in colour between the workers, depending on their fathers, but in these colonies all the workers are dark. My friend Thomas asked if they are Cornish dark bees – I don’t know but hope they might have the black honey bee genes!

Nessa seemed a little bit weaker than Kensa. Bizarrely I found some water had accumulated inside the hive. Though the hives were tightly strapped together, some of the horizontal rain we’ve been having must have found a way to get in. I was glad to be able to get rid of it for the bees.

Inside the colony was at a similar stage to Kensa’s bees. They had gathered even more propolis in big wads around the frame lugs. I concentrated hard on moving slowly and gently, aware that the colony’s buzzing was at an irritated pitch. There is a big difference between the hum of a happy colony and the buzzing of angry bees. I had to use smoke to get them to stay calm, something I rarely did with my London colonies. It was on the second-to-last frame when one of the worker’s patience broke and I received a sharp hot jab in the thumb. I hastily smoked my hands to mask the sting pheromone and set about putting the hive together again.

Back in my garden again, I observed what I think is a female hairy-footed flower bee

going back and forth between our mini apple trees. A very welcome little visitor. They like primroses too and we have plenty of those in our garden.

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