The Hive at Kew

Try to imagine yourself inside a bee colony. Close your eyes so that it’s dark. Imagine yourself to be one of many thousands now, crawling amongst the comforting scent and hum of your sisters. You can feel their vibrations speaking to you, shaking out many messages. The wax combs carry throbbing tales of flowers for the taking, of your queen, of work to be done. You touch a sister with your antennae and she stops to give you sweet nectar; you pick up a heady regal waft as she does so, and you know your queen is amongst you.

Communication – vibrations – messages – the busy world inside a hive. The magnificently bearded artist Wolfgang Buttress has tried to recreate some of this experience for visitors in his new artwork at Kew Gardens, ‘The Hive‘. Ealing beekeepers have even had some involvement in this as one of our members, Llyr Jones (Jonesy) looks after the bees at Kew. Jonesy also keeps bees on the rooftop of the John Lewis HQ – you can read about this on the ‘Meet our honey bees‘ section of their website.

The Hive long shot

The Hive

The Kew website explains how The Hive works:

“The installation is made from thousands of pieces of aluminium which create a lattice effect and is fitted with hundreds of LED lights that glow and fade as a unique soundtrack hums and buzzes around you.

These multi-sensory elements of the Hive are in fact responding to the real-time activity of bees in a beehive behind the scenes at Kew. The sound and light intensity within the space changes as the energy levels in the real beehive surge, giving visitors an insight into life inside a bee colony.

With a wildflower meadow leading the way to The Hive, it will be a truly immersive, multi-sensory experience taking visitors on a journey, exploring the vital role of bees and other pollinators in feeding the planet.”

The activity levels of the bees are transmitted through ‘accelerometers’, vibration sensors which have been placed in a hive at Kew to measure the activity of the colony. The accelerometers pick up the bees’ vibrations and send them in real-time to the Hive installation. The changing vibrational signals then influence both the soundtrack and the lighting effects, so that the 1,000 LED lights which line the interior of the Hive become a visual representation of the bee colony’s activity.

I visited this week and took a few photos. Buggies are not allowed in the Hive, so bear in mind that the photos were taken one handed whilst holding a wriggling baby. He was very awake and fairly grumpy so my visit was not as long as I would have liked!

The Hive meadow

Visitors walk up to the Hive through a one-acre wildflower meadow specially planted with 34 native species which appeal to bees. Ironically I saw bees everywhere elsewhere in the gardens but not in the meadow. Awkward customers.

The Hive below

First you walk beneath the structure and can look up into it. For this reason Jonesy gave me the useful tip not to wear a skirt! A member of staff was enthusiastically giving short talks about bees and how the installation works. There are also bone conductor booths. These were very popular – you place a wooden stick in your mouth and can then feel four different examples of vibrations made by honey bees (including queen piping and the waggle dance) travelling through the booths to your skull. As I was holding Tommy, unfortunately I couldn’t try these out.

White clover nectar information

You then walk up a path through the meadow into the installation. There are signs like the one above to read on the way. I found it interesting that white clover is so important for UK bees.

The Hive roof

Once inside the main structure above, there is a lovely gentle throbbing humming noise surrounding you. Meanwhile the LED lights perched on the walls glow on and off in ever-changing patterns. I liked to imagine that they represented individual bees touching or sharing nectar with each other. The ebbs and flows of the music are quite soothing and even Tommy seemed to enjoy it and calm down a little. Of course it gets quite crowded up there, but perhaps that helps recreate the intense atmosphere of a busy bee colony!

The Hive floor

The Hive floor

The Hive lights

LED lights

Hives at Kew

I discovered the bees themselves later, in a much quieter part of the gardens. Smaller bumblebee boxes have been set up (seen to the right of the photo) as well as the honey bee hives. I wonder if the bumbles have been successfully persuaded to stay in them, as they are fussy about using man-made homes!

There are many interesting facts to read about bees scattered amongst the gardens. Wolfgang Buttress and Kew have really put a lot of effort into raising people’s awareness of our lovely pollinators.

Scientists are discovering new information about honey bee communication all the time and it is clear that their use of vibrations to communicate goes well beyond the waggle dance. Wolfgang Buttress was inspired by the work of Dr Martin Bencsik, whose research team at Nottingham Trent University has pioneered using accelerometers within hives to detect and translate the vibrations made by the bees. For instance, the team has detected a a specific range and amplitude of vibrations used by bees when planning a swarm, up to two weeks before swarming occurs.

By the way, according to Nottingham Trent uni’s website Dr Bencsik currently works within an EU-funded consortium which includes research institutions, beekeeping associations and businesses. I hope his work will continue to be funded once we leave the EU.

More about The Hive:

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Leaving the EU: what does it mean for British bees and beekeepers?

It was a shock to find out yesterday that Britain had voted to leave the EU. Until the first poll results started coming in I had hoped that, as with the Scottish referendum, the remainers would win out in the end. But then I live in London and we tend to vote differently to the rest of England.

While most of my friends were left as gloomy, worried and angry as I was by the result, reactions were more mixed on the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) Facebook group. Beekeepers involved in bee research or working for the National Bee Unit (NBU) are concerned. The NBU currently receives half a million in funding annually from the EU for the UK apiculture program – see the funding tables for EU member states in 2014-16. This funding helps pay for our excellent bee inspectors, who carry out apiary inspections, provide technical assistance to beekeepers and work to prevent bee pests and diseases spreading.

FERA NBU Beesuit

A NBU inspector’s bee suit. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright

Those who voted to leave are of course optimistic about how the result will affect beekeepers. They argue that there will now be more money to go round and that now the government has the freedom to ban imports of bees, which could help with disease control and promote local gene pools. My answer to that would be that I can’t see a Conservative government – or any government – ploughing funds into supporting beekeepers or prioritising banning bee imports. We’ll be lucky if they don’t spend the extra cash on privatising national forests, eliminating the green belt and building some beautiful duck houses.

A NBU training session for London beekeepers

A NBU training session for London beekeepers

Some have lovely ideas that BBKA members should club together and fund the NBU shortfall in funding. I’m sure some of us wouldn’t mind chipping in, but bear in mind that even putting up subscription fees by a pound annually causes much debate at the BBKA Annual Delegates Meetings. Us beekeepers are known for being stingy buggers money savvy. If the bee inspectors could be persuaded to take payment in honey and home brewed mead that might do it.

Here are a couple of posts written before the referendum on how the EU supports environmental policies:

  • The environmental argument for the UK remaining in the European Union – by Jeff Ollerton, Professor of Biodiversity in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Northampton. One of those “experts” the leave campaign scoffed at. He makes the point that environmental issues cross borders,  so working together in coordination with other countries is beneficial for wildlife.

None of us knows for sure what is coming next, but whatever happens I hope British beekeepers will fight together to protect services for beekeepers and flowers for bees.

Caroline Washington, a former NBU bee inspector

Caroline Washington, a former NBU bee inspector

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What’s flowering now: early June

The flowers have moved on since my last post in May. Some are still with us – white dead-nettle, gorse, dandelions, green alkanet; while others, like horse chestnut and daffodils, have faded. London bees now have a new mix of wild and garden flowers to choose from. Here’s what I’ve been finding them on in local parks.

Two pink comfrey bushes in Elthorne park rough were humming with buff-tailed bumblebees. There are also white varieties of comfrey. It is listed in Prof. Dave Goulson’s list of ‘The best garden flowers for bees‘ – he says it has a “Very long flowering period, from May to August, and one of the very best plants for bees. Visited by long and short-tongued species, the latter often robbing from holes bitten in the tops of the flowers.”

You can see some lovely photos of a male early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) stealing from comfrey on a post by TrogTrogBlog: Nectar robbers. Honey bees also benefit from the holes bitten by short-tongued bumblebees.

In the fields of Elthorne rough, masses of graceful cow parsley and hogweed grow tall. A few honey bees and bumbles can be found on their delicate little white flowers, along with shiny metallic green beetles. I recommend the post ‘Hogweed days‘ on the Everyday Nature Trails blog to find out more about the pollinators that visit hogweed.

Honey bee on cow parsley

Honey bee – I think on hogweed

I was particularly pleased to find an Ashy-Mining bee, with its pretty grey and black stripes. Judging by the BWARS description, this is a female, which have “two broad ashy- grey hairbands across the thorax.” 

Ashy mining bee on cow parsley

Ashy mining bee on cow parsley

Along the edges of the paths are blackberry brambles, which are popular with both bumbles and honey bees. In his Guide to Bees & Honey, (2010, p.221) Ted Hooper says blackberry is “Well worked by bees even at fairly low temperatures, supplying both nectar and pollen in quantity. Honey of good flavour, medium amber, tending to granulate with a care-grained texture. Pollen load pale brownish grey.

In the fancier, more formal Lammas park, I found carder, bumble and honey bees on these purple irises and a orange balled flower. Not knowing what the orange balls were, I looked online to find that the plant is called… the orange ball tree (Buddleja globosa). It originally comes from south America.

And in the kitchen gardens of Walpole park are chives, which were being visited by this Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidaries). The pollen co-ordinates well with its bottom!

Red tailed bumblebee on chive

Red tailed bumblebee on chive

Coming soon: white clover, thistles, knapweed, rosebay willow herb, himalayan balsam and ragwort.

And below is an advert for the powers of royal jelly – look how chubby those cheeks are now 🙂


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What’s flowering now: early May

Ealing is particularly beautiful in April and May. Many of the roads and parks near me are lined with white and pink blossom trees. On a sunny day you can stand under them and hear the hum of bees high above, and spot dark shapes flitting between the flowers. As the petals fall they become colourful confetti for the pavement, swirling gently in the wind.


EDIT: Thanks to Honeymedic for his comment about the tree above – “It may be another cultivar but your first tree looks very like Eucryphia Nymansensis which does not generally flower until August but then the bees in my garden go mad on it. In its native Chile, Euchryphia Cordifolia is the source of the wonderful healing honey ULMO.”

Ealing also has many horse chestnut trees, which are now covered with white candles of flowers. These are popular with honey bees.

horse chestnuts

Though from a distance horse chestnut flowers appear white, they have a touch of yellow within when their flowers are un-pollinated and excreting nectar. After a horse chestnut flower has been pollinated, the yellow blotch turns a red/pink magenta to let pollinators know. Additionally after pollination the flower has a change in scent that bees pick up, so that they avoid wasting their time visiting that flower. Have a look next time you’re under a horse chestnut.

hairy footed bee on gorse

Me and Tom have been going for walks together and doing some bee spotting. Well, I walk and Tom gets pushed. We have four parks in walking distance and pretty gardens to walk past too. There are still a few front gardens which haven’t been turned into car parks. Can you see the bee above on gorse? Sorry for the bad photo but I have been using my phone as it’s light and I have so much baby stuff to carry.

hairy footed bee on gorse

I believe this gorse visitor is the beautifully named Hairy-Footed Flower Bee. It likes nesting in old walls and its favourite flower is lungwort (pulmonaria).

Bumble on pink flower

This might be an Early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum)? If anyone knows what the pink flower is, please let me know.

EDIT: Thanks to Lucy Garden, Julie, Amelia, Mark and WesternWilson for commenting that the pink flower may be a geranium. Amelia added “There are a lot of different perennial geraniums and I find them very useful in the garden as some are very tough and can smother anything in rough sites yet the bumble bees love them.”

Bumble on pink flower

I have been disappointed as I’ve not been seeing as many bumbles as I’d expect at this time of year. Was the mostly mild winter bad for them? I’ve been walking past sunny banks of green alkanet (evergreen bugloss) and not seeing a single bee.

Green alkanet (evergreen bugloss)

Green alkanet (evergreen bugloss)

honey bee on green alkanet

I did see a few honey bees on the green alkanet but not many. Perhaps they are distracted by the magnificent horse chestnuts.

Carder bee white nettle

This is a common carder bee on white dead-nettle. Nettles are such great plants for wildlife and I find them pretty too.

white dead-nettle

Tulip and forget-me-nots

People go crazy for big showy flowers like tulips, but arguably the delicate forget-me-nots behind are just as beautiful. A bee would prefer the forget-me-nots.


Daffodils are still around, but they’re not a great flower for honey bees. If you look at p.26 of the BBKA News April 2011 edition you will see a couple of letters about daffodils. Daffs contain toxic chemicals (known as alkaloids) that include lycorine. The wild daffodil is pollinated principally by bumblebees — Bombus terrestris, B. muscorum, B. hortorum, B. lapidarius — and Anthophora plumipes (hairy footed flower bee). However honey bees are rarely seen on daffodils, and Adrian Davis from Canterbury BKA suggests that this is because they store food for longer than bumbles. Possibly by not collecting daffodil pollen (or nectar) they avoid the build up of lycorine in the hive.


Anyone know what this unusual purple flower is?

EDIT: Thanks to Lucy Garden and Julie for commenting that the purple flower is an aquilegia aka columbine.

Tom one month old

Finally, not a flower but Tom a week ago.

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A new drone

A new little drone has arrived in my life, just in time for swarm season. As he is very cute I won’t be kicking him out in the autumn 🙂

Thomas Scott

We’ve named him Thomas Dylan Robin. He’s now seventeen days old.

Tom one week old

There were some complications in my last week of pregnancy when I was diagnosed with obstetric cholestasis, a liver problem which affects around 1 in 140 pregnant women. It causes extreme itchiness, particularly in the feet, so much so that sleeping is very difficult. Even when I did eventually get to sleep, I was scratching myself in my sleep. The hospital recommended I was induced at 39 weeks, as some studies suggest obstetric cholestasis causes a small increased risk of stillbirth.

I ended up staying in hospital three days while they waited for a bed to become available. One of Ealing’s maternity wards has closed down recently, causing extra pressure on the hospital I was at. I was waiting around in a ward full of women in a similar situation. Every now and again one of them would actually go into labour and I would hear their screams, which didn’t make for a relaxing wait! Eventually a bed became available at midnight on Friday and Tom emerged after a drama-full thirteen hour labour. I envy the queen bee’s simple egg-laying task!

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Spring cleaning at the apiary

In the past few weeks Ealing beekeepers have been busy improving the association apiary and preparing the bees for spring. Tom has been running easy-going monthly volunteering sessions fuelled by plenty of tea; jobs done so far have included pruning, cleaning, removing rubbish, organising the storeroom, putting in new fencing and planting wildflowers.

Below you can see the muscles getting stuck in to turn over the soil, ready for wildflower planting.


After the heavy work had been done, Elsa and I put down a mix of seeds and sawdust Tom had brought along. Then Kathy raked the top soil over to stop the seeds blowing away. Since the photo was taken Tom has put a lovely log border round the plot so that people don’t keep walking over the soil. It will be exciting when the flowers start coming up!

Raking seeds

Last weekend John Chapple and Alan Gibbs demonstrated a shook-swarm on a couple of colonies at the apiary, which a large group of beginner beekeepers came down to watch. Changing brood combs annually by doing a shook-swarm or Bailey comb exchange is a mandatory requirement for colonies kept at the association apiary. It’s a spring-clean for the bees, helping to combat diseases like AFB, EFB and nosema by removing the old brood comb and giving the bees fresh foundation to build from. Doing a shook-swarm also helps with varroa control.

Jonesy’s colony was small, so he shook-swarmed it into a poly nucleus hive to help the bees keep warm. You can see the nuc and new foundation frames on his right.

Jonesy shook-swarming

Once the queen and the rest of the colony have been safely transferred onto the new frames of foundation, the old brood frames and any brood can be burnt, killing off any varroa lurking in the brood in the process. Unless a nectar flow is on, colonies should always be fed with strong 2:1 sugar syrup so that they can draw out new comb. Below you can see Pat’s burner consuming the old brood frames, with Tom’s nice log border in the foreground.

Pat's burner

Pat’s burner

Emma and I inspected last weekend and found that Peppermint and Melissa’s colonies were weaker than usual at this time of year. They had very little brood and we weren’t confident that they would cope well with a shook-swarm, so we have decided to postpone comb changing till after Easter, when we will probably use the gentler (but more time-consuming and non varroa ass-kicking) Bailey comb exchange method. For anyone interested, information on both methods is available from the National Bee Unit’s Beebase fact sheets – see the ones on ‘Shook swarming’, ‘Care of colonies after shook swarms’ and ‘Replacing old brood comb’.

You may have seen Emma’s post last week, ‘The decay of spring‘, where she talked about the sad loss of one of our colonies recently. Pepper’s dead bees were found clinging to frames containing a small amount of very crystallised, hard honey – when a cold snap hit us in February it seems the colony just didn’t have enough energy to keep themselves warm.

In hindsight perhaps we should have given them less space overwinter – this time we left two supers of honey on, whereas usually we’ve left only a single brood box or brood box and one super. The larger the hive space, the more energy it takes the bees to keep warm. It also meant the cluster was further away from the soft fondant block over the crown board, which might have been easier for them to eat in cold weather than the crystallised honey.  This is the first time I’ve lost a colony since I started beekeeping in autumn 2008. I have been very lucky not to have lost any bees before – lucky and also I’ve benefited from great advice given by more experienced Ealing beekeepers. It is sad but you learn from it and hopefully avoid making the same mistake next time.

To end on a cheerier note, here are some pics of local bees visiting cherry laurel and crocuses. Cherry laurel pollen is the same creamy colour as its flowers, while crocus pollen is orange.

Tomorrow I will be 38 weeks pregnant, so the baby could arrive very soon! Amazingly both my bee suits still fit 🙂 Afterwards I plan to continue beekeeping, but Emma has kindly said she will do most of the inspecting this year. I hope to join her for inspections once or twice a month and will continue updating this blog. It will remain a blog about beekeeping rather than babykeeping, but occasional baby pictures may be included!

Posted in Colony management, Disease prevention | 36 Comments

Are rhododendrons toxic to bees?

Rhododendron ponticum

By Rasbak – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Short answer: it depends upon the rhododendrons and also on the bees.

There was an interesting article recently in February’s BBKA News, ‘Bitter Sweet Nectar: Why Some Flowers Poison Bees’ by Stephanie Pain. It was all about sources of toxic nectar, including the common rhododendron, Rhododendron ponticum. This flower is known as a source of ‘mad honey’, used by European armies through the ages as a weapon of war. The honey would be left in the path of invading legions; the soldiers would eat the sweet treat and end up vomiting and dizzy from grayanotoxin, a toxin contained in rhododendron honey. The effects rarely prove fatal to humans but probably would have halted or slowed down armies for a while.

Rhododendron ponticum

Rhododendron ponticum By First Light at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

R.ponticum was introduced to Ireland in the 18th century and has invaded large areas of the countryside, where it is regarded as a pest. Yet research led by Jane Stout, Professor in Botany and Dr Erin Jo Tiedeken, Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, has found that its flowers are visited almost exclusively by bumblebees, with occasional visits from solitary bees, flies, ants and wasps. They found that the nectar’s grayanotoxins cause palpitations, paralysis and death within hours for honey bees. In contrast the nectar has no apparent effect on worker buff-tailed bumble bees. Professor Stout suspects that the subspecies of honey bee that makes mad honey in the rhododendron’s native range has probably evolved to resist the toxins in a similar way to the bumblebees.

I tweeted about Professor Stout’s research and had some interesting responses. One Welsh beekeeper, @Greengrumbler,  disagreed with the research findings, arguing that they often see honey bees on R.ponticum in Wales:

However, Liverpool beekeeper Andrew Hubbard, @dunbarrover, thought he might have experienced it:

Meanwhile Emma shared a useful link from the Poison Garden website which suggested that most of us will be unable to tell what is R.ponticum and what is a hybrid – and therefore potentially less toxic – plant.

“Rhododendron is thought to appear in around 1,000 species and those species produce innumerable hybrids. This means there are very few people expert enough to identify exactly what Rhododendron a particular plant is.

In terms of appearance and flowering, that doesn’t matter too much but it has been found that the concentration of the main toxin is species/hybrid dependent so plants that appear to the layman to be identical may produce different degrees of poisoning.” – John Robertson,

Either way, it sounds like rhododendron is unlikely to cause British beekeepers many problems. If we do have R.ponticum near us, our bees will probably avoid it. If we only have hybrid rhododendron species nearby, the hybrids may well be less toxic. It may only be a problem for beekeepers surrounded by R.ponticum, which could smother out other plants and reduce the amount of forage available for honey bees.

See more:

  • Grayanotoxin Poisoning: ‘Mad Honey Disease’ and Beyond
    A scientific paper on mad honey. Contains a fascinating description from the Greek warrior-writer Xenophon in 401 BC on the effects of the honey on an army –  “those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men”.
  • A rare case of “honey intoxication” in Seattle
    Rusty at Honey Bee Suite reports on the rare case of a man who may have been poisoned by honey purchased at a local farmer’s market. Rusty’s observations have led her to believe “that rhododendron is not a preferred forage for honey bees and they probably collect it only in rare circumstances when other more favorable blooms are not available.”
  • “Mad Honey” sex is a bad idea
    That got your attention!
  • Hallucinogen Honey Hunters documentary
    A tribe in Nepal hunt wild rhododendron honey with natural psychoactive properties. One falls unconscious after overdosing on the honey.
  • The strange history of ‘Mad Honey’
    Emma Bryce writes about Turkey’s hallucinogenic rhododendron honey (deli bal), produced on remote mountainsides smothered with vast fields of cream and magenta rhododendron flowers.
Posted in Foraging, Honey | Tagged | 22 Comments