Notes from Cornwall ‘Bit of a do’ Beekeeping conference 2018 – Chris Park, Skep beekeeping (3.)

The final talk I’m going to write up from the joint Cornwall Beekeepers Association and West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a do‘ day is Chris Park’s talk on skep beekeeping.

Chris keeps bees on organic farmland around the Oxfordshire / Wiltshire border and the Upper Thames valley. After researching and experimenting with varying styles of skep beekeeping, Chris teaches and lectures on skep making, beekeeping and beekeeping heritage / history around the UK. He says that the practice of skep-beekeeping is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be educational, rewarding and bee centred, in his experience creating healthy and happy stock.

I enjoyed this talk more than I was expecting. Chris comes across as quite a romantic character, into folklore and going back to old ways of doing things. He told us that before Britain was inhabited it was called the ‘sea-girt green space’, or ‘Clas Myrddin‘. And then after it was inhabited it was called the ‘Honey island’, or ‘Y Vel Ynys’. Chris has written online about what that name means to him: ‘The Honey Isle by Chris Park‘.

The history of skeps – ‘skep’ means basket and is an old type of woven beehive which is rarely used nowadays apart from for catching swarms. They were made from many materials in the past, with wicker and straw being popular options. Skeps need to be placed under a shelter to stop them getting wet and rotting. Rich men used ‘bee boles’, alcoves in a wall. Poor men used wooden shelters. To try and make them more weatherproof, skeps were dressed with cows dung and hog saliva!

Heligan Gardens bee boles

Heligan Gardens bee boles and skeps

He made some observations about the benefits of skeps to his bees:

  • The comb is renewed every 2-3 years when it collapses or the bees die out/move on, so the bees are on fresh, chemical free comb
  • There is less manipulation and hive inspections involved, so less stress for the bees
  • The bees possibly seem a bit calmer in skeps – a visiting bee inspector remarked that they were the calmest bees he’d ever seen
  • Skeps have fewer winter losses, he finds

And also about the disadvantages:

  • Time spent (my notes didn’t cover time spent on doing what – maybe on making the skeps?)
  • Difficult to inspect brood comb
  • You lose any swarms
  • More etiquette involved in where you site skeps, as you can’t predict when they’ll swarm

There are some practical things which can be done to improve on the basic dome shaped traditional design. Putting cross sticks inside supports the comb, otherwise it can fall out when you look inside the skep and then put it down again. Chris learnt this the hard way the first time he put a skep down and then heard a thump as the comb landed down too. You can use an open mesh floor or tray underneath for ventilation and catching varroa. You can also make a multi-layered brood skep with a removable super skep on top, to make harvesting honey less intrusive.

Not many beekeepers use skeps other than for swarm collecting nowadays, but there are a few people out there doing skep beekeeping still. The Dartford association have bee boles in their apiary walls. (While writing this post I discovered this 2013 article: ‘Dartford beekeeper recounts his war ordeal‘, which has a picture of William Mundy, the Chair of Dartford beekeepers, with the bee boles and skeps. He was held as a prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation of Singapore; after managing to catch a swarm he was able to donate honey to the prison hospital so that it could be used to treat wounds and burns).

If you want to read more, check out these articles by Chris for the Dave Cushman website:

Bee bole close-up Heligan gardens

Bee bole and skep at Heligan gardens, Cornwall

Posted in Events, Hive types | 10 Comments

Notes from Cornwall Beekeeping conference 2018 – Honey bee dances: new insights (2.)

Our first talk of last week’s conference was given by bee farmer Dan Basterfield and was all about honey bee dances and ‘The dance language controversy’.

Dan Basterfield

Dan Basterfield

About Dan:

Dan grew up with beekeeping around him and now helps to run the family beekeeping business in Devon, expanding the business and building a brand new honey farm.
He is an active member of the Bee Farmers Association, was trustee and Chairman of the International Bee Research Association, is a BBKA Master Beekeepers and Examiner; and holds the National Diploma in Beekeeping. He runs 120 – 140 double brood Modified Commercial hives, migrating between various farm crops in East Devon, and raises queens for prolific, productive and healthy qualities. Outside the beekeeping season, Dan undertakes teaching for the BBKA and NDB.

What is the dance language controversy?

Dan began by explaining that he was surprised to hear Tom Seeley make a casual comment along the lines of: ‘Of course, there’s really only one honey bee dance’. The standard information given by beekeeping books is usually that there’s at least two or three: the direction-less round dance, saying ‘go out and look for it’ for forage within 15m of the hive; sometimes included is the transition dance, for food between 15-100m away; and the famous waggle dance, giving directions for food over 100m away.

Dan decided to investigate Tom’s comment further – in fact, his talk took us all the way back to 1744!

John Thorley (1744)
“Bees certainly have a language among themselves which they perfectly understand, tho’ we do not, or at best do very imperfectly.”

I love those old beekeeping quotes. Dan used this quote while explaining that we have gained an ever better – but still imperfect – view of the dances since then. He said that what he loves about bees is that the deeper you dig, the more there is to look at, the more little tangents they send you off on.

The discovery of the waggle dance

Karl von Frisch won his Nobel prize for decoding the dance language of bees. Just two years into his research career, in 1914 the young von Frisch published a paper demonstrating that bees could see in colour, through an elegant experiment that trained bees to go to syrup on a blue square. By 1923 he had produced a paper which described ’round’ and ‘wagtail’ dances. And in 1946 he published  the book “Die Tänze der Bienen” (The dances of the honey bee), which described two dances, round and waggle. At the time it was a quite revolutionary discovery that bees had their own crude language.

Other experiments since have reinforced von Frisch’s discovery that the waggle dance indicates the direction of the nectar or pollen in relation to the sun. For instance, if you anaesthetise bees for a couple of hours, when they wake they don’t realise the sun has moved since they observed the dance, so they set off in what would have been the right direction, but arrive at the wrong location!

Fascinatingly, there are even regional dialect differences! For instance, French & Italian bees seem to misinterpret the distance when watching each others’ waggle dances.

But not everyone agreed…

The honey bee dance language debate was led by two scientists called Weiner & Wells between the late 1960s-early 1980s. They had a competing theory: odour finding, supported by experimental data.

Criticisms of the dance language included that:

  • Stingless bees use buzzing runs to recruit other stingless bees to forage; are honey bees similarly just dancing to encourage other foragers to go out, after which they find the forage by scent?
  • Why do only honey bees do these dances, when no other social insects do?
  • Many recruits fail to find the forage and return empty-stomached, are they just generally searching in response to the dance? (Dan pointed out that the bees are observing the dance in the dark, within a busy, jostling environment full of thousands of other moving bees – no wonder they make a few errors!)

The debate led to experiments being repeated. The end result was that Von Frisch’s theory was generally agreed as correct, but how odour attracts foragers became more clearly understood.

The great honey bee researchers

Dan ran through some famous names who turn up time and again in the big honey bee dance language studies. In the 1980s-1990s the round dance was redefined by researchers including Kirchner, Lindauer & Michelsen as being effective from 1m upwards.

Martin Lindauer carried on Von Frisch’s research into honey bee behaviour. Lindauer then in turn developed a working relationship with Tom Seeley, who has now also become a renowned expert on honey bee behaviour.

In 1997 Jensen, Michelsen & Lindauer slowed down videos of honey bee round dance and showed a little waggle – there is a ‘waggle phase’ present in round dances.

And in 2008 the idea that there are different dances was challenged by Gardner, Seely & Calderone in the paper ‘Do honey bees have two discrete dances to advertise food sources?‘. They concluded that the round and waggle dance are really two ends of the same  continuum, both containing information about distance and direction, with no clear switch between the two. They are just variants of the same recruitment dance.

In 2012, further experimental data was published by Griffin, Smith and Seeley: Do honeybees use the directional information in round dances to find nearby food sources? They verified Seeley’s earlier study with new experiments to show that the round dance communicates direction too. They used two feeders, one with a much stronger and therefore more appealing sugar syrup, placed at varying distances under 100m from the hive. They found that most of the bees went to the stronger syrup feeder after observing the round dance. Directional bias in recruitment was found for food sources as close as 5m from the hive.

Honey bee on echinacea?

A honey bee forager – had she watched a dance first?


Does all this matter? Maybe not, unless you are taking exams on honey bee behaviour! But still… I think it’s interesting to know. There is always more to find out about bees.


There was an interesting question from the audience: “Do bees communicate height in the waggle dance?” For instance, in a wood, would the dance communicate if the forage was up in the trees or down on the ground?

Don said he didn’t know! He thought von Frisch had done some experiments on this, but couldn’t remember their outcome. We also don’t know how bees communicate finding food above them in the hive, for instance when a feeder is put inside. This seems to lead to general robbing in the area.

Posted in Bee behaviour, Events | Tagged | 12 Comments

Notes from Cornwall Beekeeping conference talks – Bit of a Do 2018 (1.)

The two local Cornish associations (the Cornwall Beekeepers Association and West Cornwall Beekeepers Association) put on a great ‘Bit of a do‘ day of talks and trade stands. I’m going to write up Dan Basterfield’s talks on ‘Honey bee dance language’ and ‘Reading bees’ and Chris Park’s talk on ‘Skep beekeeping’ over the next couple of weeks. Here’s a few photos from the day.

The first exhibit as soon as you walked in was an Asian hornet nest and special hornet proof ‘Ultra Full‘ suit made by BBWear. The hornet is on everyone’s minds at the moment as we’ve just had three sightings in Cornwall – two nests have been destroyed in Fowey now and a single hornet sighting confirmed in Liskeard. We are an Asian hornet hotspot 😦

Asian hornet proof suit

Look closely at the nest in this photo and you can see a couple of little orange heads poking out, these hornets died just before they could hatch. The nest itself is quite remarkable, it’s amazing what insects can create. Like a wasps’ nest it is very fragile and light.

Asian hornet nest

Spot the heads

There was a lot of discussion about the Asian hornet in the final Q&A session, including the best type of bait to use and whether monitoring traps should be put out.

Most of the five panellists (Dan Basterfield, Chris Park, Anne Rowberry, Dr Peter Kennedy and Will Steynor) were in favour of using monitoring traps in spring and checking these daily to remove any beneficial pollinators. Dan Basterfield goes as far as sticking his hand in the trap to let any European hornets climb out on him! Some of the panellists were in favour of using killing traps in the autumn as they believe most of the insects trapped at that time of year will be wasps.

Different bait seems to be successful in different areas. Dr. Peter Kennedy, a field ecologist, mentioned that in Jersey protein based baits have not been that successful. There they use a specialist wasp attractant – the name sounded like ‘Sectera’ (edit: thanks to Di and Chris for confirming in the comments that it’s Suterra). In Spain the hornets seem more attracted to fish based baits – prawns are often used. There has been speculation that the hornets may have reached the island of Majorca on fishing boats.

There was also a question about a proposal in the new Agriculture Bill that bee imports should be banned and that all beekeepers should be registered. Dan Basterfield, who is a commercial bee farmer, felt that banning imports would not stop bees being brought in within people’s pockets. Anne Rowberry, a master beekeeper from Avon, was in favour of banning imports, particularly as the small hive beetle is now in Italy, where many of our imported bees come from. One of the panel noted that Jersey has compulsory registration but there are still unregistered beekeepers there.

This was the winner of the Gadget competition – a useful stand for all your equipment during inspections.

Gadget competition winner Bit of a Do 2018


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Book review: A honeybee heart has five openings by Helen Jukes

I first found out about this beekeeping memoir after reading a review of it on the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group blog – Helen Jukes was a member of the group while she lived in Oxford.

A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings has already received favourable reviews in the national press (for example, in the Guardian). The story goes like this – busy as a bee, but one working in frustrated disharmony with her surroundings and hive mates, Helen is persevering at her new charity job based in Oxford. She is sharing with a friend in a rented house which they are trying to make feel more like a home. She’s recently moved from London, where she assisted commercial beekeeper Luke Dixon with some of his inspections (Luke has written Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities, which I also own).

Helen’s friends cotton on to how much she misses Luke’s bees, so they cluster together to buy her a colony of bees for Christmas. On the advice of Luke, she buys a top-bar hive to host the colony. This leads her to join the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group. I was amused by her description of her first group meeting, in which clear divisions were obvious between the members. Even in a group all about ‘natural’ beekeeping, there is a wide spectrum of keeping behaviours, from never opening the hive to regularly checking for disease. As always, there seem to be as many ways of beekeeping as there are beekeepers.

Helen takes us through her beekeeping journey and the year following the fateful Christmas present, slowly revealing the stages of her colony’s progress, from being collected from a remote rural honey farm to her eventual small harvest.  She uses a simple ‘crush and strain’ method to extract the honey – but as her hive has no queen excluder there is brood within the honey combs, so bees are hatching out in her kitchen as she tries to collect the honey!

The book takes its time – she doesn’t actually get the bees home till page 127 – so you must slow yourself down to bee time to take it all in properly. You can tell that she caught the ‘bee bug’ which I and so many others have been through. In-between long hours in the office she comforts and distracts herself with long hours reading about the history of beekeeping, particularly the experiments of Huber and the trials of Langstroth. She visits an entomologist friend to view a honey bee in magnificently hairy close-up through a microscope. But she doesn’t seem to focus so much on learning the practical side of beekeeping, so it is Luke who explains the basics of swarm control for her colony’s first summer.

Helen Jukes, author

I’ll try not to ruin the ending, but along the way she falls in love with a man who her friend thought was a beekeeper… but it turns out he merely has an uncle who’s a beekeeper. Though a young man himself, his hair is “almost completely white”, complemented by eyes which are very blue. She mentions in the book’s final climax that she might have “called something up” through the experience of beekeeping. She has a feeling sometimes that this man she loves is not entirely separate from her hive.

I liked this idea and was playing with it in my mind, musing that perhaps the bees called a man up for their keeper, a man with hair white as fresh new honey comb and blue as their favourite flowers. Or that they opened something up in her which made her better able to cope with the stresses of her job and so more receptive to romance. The bees may not speak in human words, but they call to us in other ways, and they change those of us who feel their pull.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in finding out more about beekeeping history and the meaning of certain words connected to bees. Through a friend who works for the Oxford English Dictionary, Helen explore the origins of words like ‘keep’ and ‘hive’, which turn out to be quite complex when you discover their many shades of meaning. It’s a very thoughtful book – but its many meanderings may try the patience of some!

I contacted Helen on Twitter asking for her sources behind a mention of commercial beekeepers culling colonies over winter to save money on feeding them. Within 24 hours she had emailed me a number of quotes and links. Very nice, right? So thank you Helen, I enjoyed your book.

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‘The Cornish Bee’ – notes from a talk by Rodger Dewhurst, Gwenen Apiaries

Last Sunday I went to a ‘Bee Fayre’, which is an annual weekend event held at Enys Gardens in Penryn, Cornwall. It was a haven for bee fans, filled with stalls selling every bee themed product you can think of, from honey ice-cream, breads and cakes to soaps to cosmetics to beekeeping equipment (I got myself a nice large new smoker from BJ Sherriff for £20).

There were also short talks… I’m a bit sad I couldn’t go on Saturday too, as I missed an eclectic set of talks about making Truro bee friendly, the Help for Heroes bee project, Cornish cider, encouraging young people to become bee farmers and beekeeping in the Scottish borders (presumably from a beekeeper on holiday!).

Enys Gardens

Anyway, here’s my notes from Rodger Dewhurst’s talk. Rodger and his wife Carol run Gwenen Apiaries (Gwenen is the Cornish word for honey bee). Rodger started beekeeping all the way back when he was a twelve year old school boy, in the Lizard peninsula. He told us beekeeping was different back then, as there was more unimproved grassland around. Now more honey bees are imported and many more pests and diseases have been introduced.

Rodger’s beekeeping has changed over the years too. Nowadays he aims to breed Cornish dark bees, Apis Mellifera Mellifera. He has also mainly stopped using smoke and gloves.

He looks for a variety of characteristics in the colonies he breeds from – hygienic cleaning and grooming behaviours, including biting him! – which he takes as a sign that they will bite varroa too. Also good temper, good honey production and flying characteristics – ‘maritime bees’ that will fly in wet weather.

Another anti-varroa trait he looks for is what he calls the ‘geriatric shuffle/shiver dance’ – a motion in which the bees agitate their abdomen to dislodge varroa mites. On the monitoring boards under the hives he looks for dented varroa mite shells, a sign that the mites have dropped through after being bitten at by the bees.

Rodger’s breeding plan is to:

  • Identify best stocks
  • Build these up to strength, with plenty of healthy nurse bees
  • Get them to produce healthy drones (he sometimes treats for varroa so that the drones aren’t carrying viruses)
  • Grafts into pre-prepared cups smeared with royal jelly – about a 90% success rate
  • He squishes any that show signs of varroa poo in the cups
  • He puts the cells in ‘apidea’, special little hives for queen-rearing, containing a mugful of nurse bees which happily rear the queens. These go to mating apiaries in a few different Cornish locations.
  • Once the queens are mated, he will sometimes put multiple caged queens on top of a colony to see which virgin most of the bees prefer to cluster round. He makes a note of those as ‘Alpha’ queens to breed from.

Endearingly, apparently the best drones have “big hairy bums”, because the native Apis Mellifera Mellifera drones are larger. They also fly later in the year than other imported sub-species of Apis Mellifera.

I was also pleased to see a ‘Celebrity beekeepers’ display featuring celebrity Ealing beekeeper John Chapple, his beaming photo appearing next to Scarlett Johansson’s. Well done John!

Celebrity beekeeper John Chapple

The day finished with a Bumblebee Safari led by staff from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. It had been sunny up till the end of the day when the Safari started, at which point the Cornish mizzle began coming down.

That didn’t put the hardy bumblebees off though, and we found plenty of them enjoying a large lavender patch. It was good to see small children getting to stroke a male bumblebee and overcome their previous fears.

Posted in Disease prevention, Queens | Tagged | 6 Comments

Winter is coming – getting the bees ready for hail, frost and snow

You might think I’m crazy talking about winter. We’ve just had some of our hottest days of the year, when parts of England reached over 35°C. Yet the summer solstice was a summer bee’s lifetime ago. The bees are always looking ahead, thinking of the long dark days to come, so we should too.

Both my colonies are doing well. The swarm has not yet filled out the brood box – about three frames remain to be drawn out. They are lovely, gentle bees that I feel a special connection with.

My newer hive, purchased from a local beekeeper, is absolutely booming, every cell in the brood box heavy with brood, pollen or honey. The bees were originally on Langstroth frames – but I keep National hives – so with the help of some clever conversion equipment the queen was moved onto National frames and then the old Langstroth frames removed once the brood had hatched out. I was relieved once the process was complete as I find the Langstroth frames very awkward to hold, with their larger, heavier size and teeny weeny little lugs!

Water sourceHives






I was planning to press ahead with Apiguard (a thymol based varroa treatment) last weekend, but then realised I didn’t have ekes ready. I got a couple more delivered this week. By getting varroa levels down now, the colony will have a better chance to produce healthy bees going into autumn. Apiguard’s manufacturers say it is most effective at outside temperatures of at least 15ºC (see Apiguard guidance), so now is a good time to do it before Cornwall returns to its usual mellow dampness. The autumn bees must keep the colony going through everything the winter can throw at us, huddling round the queen, waiting for the first hopeful days of spring.

There are lots of bee-themed events coming up soon in Cornwall. One is going on this weekend – a Bee Fayre at Enys Gardens – lots of short talks about bees, including getting young people into bee farming, beekeeping in the Scottish borders, an insect hotel workshop and a bumblebee safari. Hoping I can get to some!

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Book review – The Beekeeper: Rescuing the stolen women of Iraq by Dunya Mikhail

The beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail - book coverThe Beekeeper by Dunya Mikhail – available on Amazon (or your local independent bookshop)

I discovered this book while browsing my local library’s catalogue for beekeeping books. Yet it is not a book about beekeeping at all.

Instead Dunya Mikhail tells us about the ongoing work of Abdullah, a beekeeper who courageously uses his business contacts to save Yazidi women of Iraq who have been stolen by Daesh (Isis). He says:

“With the money I made selling honey in Iraq and Syria I was able to help save women captives. […] I cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to help save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves. We worked like in a beehive, with extreme care and well-planned initiatives.”

With Abdullah’s help, Mikhail – who is an Iraqi poet and academic now living in the US – has gathered together first-person accounts from Yazidi men and women of their experiences with Isis.

Warning: this is a non-fiction book which contains many heartbreaking narratives, so please do not read any further on in this post if you do not feel emotionally up to hearing about the events which have occurred.

The stories the Yazidi recount within the book follow a similar pattern. They flee Isis troops, who pursue them across the country. They leave their homes in a hurried panic, leaving behind their animals and possessions, abandoning everything they ever knew and had worked for. Families with small children and pregnant women flee on foot or donkey across high mountaintops or countryside terrain, where they are inevitably overtaken.

Once captured, the men, women and elderly are separated. Elderly people are thrown into a pit, along with any small children that refuse to leave their grandparents. There they are buried alive. Younger men are lined up in rows and shot in trenches or buses. Not shot in the head, but multiple places across the body, and then left to die, lying on top of each other bleeding to death.

The young women and small children that are left suffer possibly the worst fate. Now grieving, since they have lost all their male or elderly family members in a matter of minutes, they are taken off to be sold at market to the highest bidders. Once sold, the women and children will spend long, gruelling days doing housework or making rockets for their new owners. If their work is not considered good enough, they are savagely beaten. They may or may not receive food; if they do it is only rice. At night, the women – and girls as young as ten too – are raped, sometimes by multiple men. Even being heavily pregnant or just having given birth does not spare them this torture.

Abdullah the beekeeper is one of their few chances of escape. The odds are against them, as their phones are taken away by Isis, they often don’t speak fluent Arabic and they may only have the non-Islamic clothes they were wearing when captured. If they do manage to slip out or break down a door, suspicious eyes watch them and may report them as fugitives. Asking to use a phone in a local business is risky as the owner may demand money or simply turn them in. If, somehow, they manage to get through to a relative or friend who is still alive, who can then contact someone like Abdullah, they may have some hope of making it out. Alternatively many of Abdullah’s rescues are arranged in advance after he manages to identify where a captured woman is living.

There are some photos in the books of those who made it – and those who didn’t. One of the hardest to see was that of three little boys wrapped in sheets. Their mother, Maha, had escaped along with her twelve year old daughter – who helped her carry her three sons, aged three months, eighteen months and three years. She stopped to ask a shopkeeper for directions to a bus station, but her poor Arabic made the shopkeeper suspicious and he reported her. Her ‘owner’, an Isis hospital director, took them back home and poisoned the three little boys, who died in agony as he beat their mother and sister “with all his strength”.  The tiny bodies of the dead boys were wrapped in sheets and thrown out in the garden – the photo shows only their still little faces emerging from their shrouds, finally at peace. A neighbour who witnessed Maha transfixed next to their bodies finally helped her and her daughter escape – but she cried to Abdullah, “What good is it that I survived? I wish I had died there with them. I wish they had buried me in that garden.” 

What can any of us do to help the survivors who have lost so much?  One option might be giving to a charity like War Child, which is running a Yazidi appeal, or Doctors without Borders, which provides medical aid to communities around the world, including Iraq.
And reading the book and/or recommending it to others helps spread the word, so that these stories are shared.

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