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.

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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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Growing my bees

Not bigger bees, but more colonies! I have doubled the amount of hives I have – not too difficult when you only have one to start with.

New hives being put back together

I’ve purchased a colony (the one on the right in the photo above) from a very reasonably priced local source.  This gives me options if one colony goes queenless at some point.

The colony on the left is the swarm I took from Drew’s parents’ tree. They have been moved from a six frame poly nuc into a new National hive I’ve purchased from a Cornish supplier, Heather Bell Honey Bees. The hive cost £134 ready assembled, which is a good price. I just had to paint it with a special low volatile organic compounds (VOC) paint as the wood isn’t cedar – I chose a cheery yellow colour.

New hives

Here’s the hives all closed up and secured with ratchet straps – there are badgers in Drew’s parents garden. I left the nucleus propped up against the hive for a while so that the last few bees would leave and walk up into the entrance.

Back at home, I have been enjoying July’s balmy weather and the arrival of solitary bees in the garden. I had thought my Stachys byzantina (Lambs ears) purchased from Rosybee -plants for bees were a bust at attracting bees. How wrong I was! The wool carder bees I was hoping for haven’t arrived, but what I believe is a species of Anthophora (flower bees) has.

Solitary bee Anthophora on Lambs ear

A whizzy, high pitched little bee has been visiting the Lambs ear. It zooms up and down between the flowers, hovering hummingbird-like for a second before its long tongue darts in. When you get a momentary look at the tiny face – before it disappears again into a flower – the eyes are pale green.

I’ve been told by @apiculturalLdn and @rosybeeplants on Twitter that it may be Anthophora furcata, Anthophora bimaculata or Anthophora quadrimaculata. You can see a little video I made of it in action – Anthophora flower bee. Check out that tongue!

I am very pleased with the Lambs ear plants. Their silvery, elegant leaves feel so soft and velvety – perfect when you have a toddler running about. Lambs ears never seem to be plagued by aphids and need no watering as the furry leaves are so efficient at collecting rain droplets. And they are said to be good for soothing bee stings too!

In the recent unusually hot July evenings I have been enjoying pottering about in the garden, watching the local creatures – our fish nibbling at the pond surface, cooing wood pigeons, fledging thrushes being fed by their parents, the neighbours’ cat rolling in our catmint. And most of all the buzzing bees, going busily about their business. I think the plant below might be purple loosestrife and the cuddly gingery bee is a Common carder bee.

Common carder bee

Is there any greater pleasure than sitting out at 9pm reading about bees, no need for a coat, a mini magnum in your hand, while solitary and bumble bees patrol your Lambs ear?  Surely not.

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Tips learnt from Bee Health Day 2018

This weekend I went to Bee Health Day 2018, a day with local Cornish and Devon Bee inspectors learning about various diseases and pests. Accompanied by tea and pasties, so that you knew you were in Cornwall.

We had four sessions – one on the Asian hornet, one on varroa, a practical apiary visit and one looking at real-life frames containing various nasty brood diseases. I know you’re all jealous.

The main husbandry point emphasised during the day was… Change your comb

We were reminded that the reason brood comb turns increasingly brown to black over the years is that it contains poo. Not adult bee poo, but larva poo. They have nowhere else to go, so they poo in the comb. And any diseases the larvae or adults might have stay in the comb too – nosema, EFB, AFB, it will all stay in there. In the wild bee colonies would naturally die out after something like 4-5 years, wax moths would move in, and the old comb would be consumed by the moths. It’s not natural or hygienic to keep on using brood combs indefinitely.

To prevent cross-contamination from old combs, combs should be changed all at once through a Bailey comb-change, artificial swarm or shook-swarm method, rather than just replacing one or two a year.

Asian hornets

During the Asian hornet session we were given the tip to get a fishing net. If you think you have an Asian hornet visiting your hives, scoop it over the top, bring it down to the ground and carefully get it into a box and then your freezer. If you can’t catch one, get a photo. Stamping on one will temporarily stun it but not kill it – they are tough little buggers.

Asian hornet nest entrance

Asian hornet nest entrance, photo by Jean Haxaire, 2018. Courtesy The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

It is likely to be September when a nest is next discovered in this country, as that is when most previous sightings have occurred. They’re also more likely to be seen around your hives on a wet day, when there are fewer flying insects so the hornets turn to honey bees as a reliable source of food.

If you spot a hornet or hornet nest which you suspect may be the Asian hornet, then notify the Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS) immediately using their online monitoring form. NNSS Identification sheets for the Asian hornet are available. Our harmless native hornet looks like a larger version of a yellow wasp, whereas the Asian hornet is mostly black apart from a yellow band flashed across their fourth abdominal segment, complemented by yellow legs and a bright orange face. In flight they look like black cigars.

The bee inspectors did not sound optimistic that we can hold back the hornets forever. The hornets have no natural predators in France, so have rapidly grown in numbers there. They are bad news not just for honey bees but for all sorts of native insects.


Rather than using the same treatments year after year (something I’m guilty of! I’m an Apiguard fan) rotate your treatments regularly to avoid mites developing resistance to any one treatment. There are some relatively new ones on the market at the moment (see the Beebase Managing Varroa leaflet for a list).

A mix of husbandry methods  – for example drone brood removal, artificial swarm, shook swarm, comb trapping – and chemical methods can be used. MAQs is one of the few which can safely be used when honey is still on the hive, but its instructions must be followed to the letter as it is powerful stuff. We were told Apitraz is popular with commercial bee farmers in this country.

Practical apiary visit

My favourite part of the day, as we got to get off our bums and play about with bees. We used a local Association apiary, which the Bee Inspectors found disappointingly lacking in any diseases. They couldn’t even find any varroa to show us, not even after raking through the drone brood!

The bees were ‘teasy‘ as someone said, as it was a wet day and they’d been opened up twice already by the time our group went to see them. Despite this I enjoyed seeing the Bee Inspector go through the hive, we found a queen cell and he told us how he would deal with it (spoiler – not by automatically destroying any queen cell you find!) and explained a good method of doing an artificial swarm and culling some varroa while you’re at it.

I asked the inspector how having foundationless frames might affect varroa levels, as when they are left to their own devices to make comb, the bees will make more drones than they would in a hive filled with standard worker brood size foundation. As varroa mites prefer reproducing in drone brood, would the extra drones mean extra varroa, or counter-intituively might the extra drones be beneficial because the varroa could go into the many drone cells around and leave more of the worker larvae alone? The inspector said it was a good question but he didn’t know the answer. Does anyone have an opinion on that?

Bee Health Day 2018 apiary visit

The hive we inspected for the practical session. Three supers high.

Comb diseases

Before going into the room containing samples of American Foul Brood (AFB), European Foul Brood (EFB), chalk brood, sacbrood and various hive pests we were handed plastic aprons and gloves. We had to leave any bags and coats outside the room. Inside we were given a little paper quiz to try and identify what was in each frame, which was a clever way of getting us really looking.

Earlier in the day we were warned to isolate any swarms we catch and monitor them for signs of EFB. Avoid feeding the swarm for at least 24 hours, so that any contaminated  honey in their stomachs will be used to produce wax and there is some chance the EFB may be ‘sealed in’ to the comb rather than the honey being stored for food.

We were also told that the main culprit for spreading AFB and EFB is us – the beekeeper. Visiting other beekeepers, buying bees, moving bees about – it all has potential to spread disease. Wash your bee suit regularly and use disposable gloves, not leather gloves. Hive tools should be cleaned using a washing soda solution.

It was good to see the samples and smell the foul brood frames close up, as the last time I’ve ever seen foul brood was on a similar bee health day. Some people thought they smelt…well, foul, whereas to me they just smelt a bit musty.

It was a good day – nice to be around ‘bee people’!

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How I came to have bees again

This weekend I was still beeless, as there has been an outbreak of American Foul Brood (AFB) in my supplier’s area and movement of bees and hives has been suspended. “Let me know if any swarms come your way”, I said to my in-laws on Sunday.

On Monday evening, just before I started putting Tommy to bed, I got an unexpected call from Tom, my father-in-law. “We have a swarm!” he said. Can you believe it? The bees came to us.

Carol, my mother-in-law, kindly babysat Tommy while Tom and I went to collect the swarm. The bees had been kind on me and conveniently landed on a low-down apple tree branch, about six feet up. Even a shortie like me could reach them with a stepladder. My sister-in-law, Oni, and brother-in-law, Alan, were also on hand. As Oni is a similar size to me she got my spare bee suit and assisted me with the swarm collection. Al happens to be a multi-award winning documentary-style wedding photographer ( and, so he came in handy to take photos! A joint family effort.

I was excited but also a little nervous as I’ve never collected a swarm before. I’ve read lots about it, and heard talks about it, but that’s not quite the same is it? My plan was to collect them straight into my spare hive, as I didn’t have a nuc or skep ready. This made it a two-person job, as you can’t hold up a National hive with one hand. Although she has never done beekeeping before, Oni was very brave and held the hive steady for me under the swarm.

The swarm was hanging just above me in the evening light, settled down for the night. Away from home, on an adventure, with just each other in the world. They buzzed lightly and contentedly, a few circling the swarm but most clinging together in a perfect mass. Balancing on the stepladder, I counted ‘One, two, three!’ and proceeded to shake the apple tree branch.

Nothing happened. I shook it more vigorously, again and again. The swarm swayed, but held firm together. It would take more than my shaking to shift them. I had read in my books that you could try holding the skep or nuc box above them, as bees like to enter dark cavities. But I imagined that might take some time, the hive was heavy, and it was already gone 8pm. I decided I would need to move the bees in myself.

I stuck my hand into the swarm. Trying my best to be gentle, I used my hand to shake them loose into the hive box Oni was holding up for me. They were soft, warm, and miraculously put up with me doing this. Swarms fill up on honey before they leave, so as long as they still have plenty of honey in their stomachs they are usually good-tempered. Once I had a fair number in, I got Oni to put the box down on the ground.

The swarm in the hive

The colony stayed in the hive, lifted their abdomens and started to fan their wings, which told me that the queen was with them. Raising their abdomen exposes their Nasonov gland, releasing the attractive Nasonov pheromone to draw the rest of the swarm home. “Here we are!” the pheromone says. Meanwhile I used a empty feeder to scoop up more and more of the bees from the branch. Eventually only a hard-core group of irritable bees remained up on the tree, their indignant buzzing indicating their displeasure at their queen suddenly going missing. They clung desperately to the branch, which must have smelled like home to them, having being scented by their queen and fellow bees.

It was growing dark, so we positioned the hive in a corner of Tom and Carol’s garden and Tom dropped me back home. Today Tom collected the last few stubborn stragglers from the tree and put them in the hive with their sisters. I hope they are happy in their new home, and that all my readers have swarms coming their way too – if you want them, that is.

Oni in a bee suit, photo by Alan Law

Oni in a bee suit, photo by Alan Law


Posted in Swarms, Uncategorized | 42 Comments