Springwatch in Japan – with honey bees

If you didn’t catch Springwatch in Japan: Cherry Blossom Time recently, you can still watch it on catch-up for the next 25 days (available in the UK only sorry). Lots of exquisite pink cherry blossom and also some roof-top honey bees living in Tokyo. For those of you unable to watch it, I took some notes.

Notes from the programme

In Japan cherry blossom is known as ‘Sakura’. The flowers open at between 17-20°C, with the Sakura bloom starting this year in southern Japan on 14th January and predicted to finish in northern Japan on 9th May. The dates change slightly every year according to the weather. There is a 14 day cycle from the buds opening to becoming petals on the ground.

Springwatch in Japan

The Springwatch team and their clashing jackets.

A festival of clones

Trees nearby to another will reliably flower simultaneously because Japan’s most popular cherry tree, bred for its beautiful blooms, is actually a hybrid clone made by grafting. The male and female flowers are not sexually compatible and so can’t reproduce by themselves.  This sounds worryingly similar to the conditions under which the genetically identical potatoes of Ireland were hit by blight, but at least people are not dependent on the cherry tree for food.

The Japanese – and many other people too – are enchanted by the cherry tree’s pink blossom. Hanami time is poetically referred to in Japan as ‘The awakening of the creatures’.

“In Japan, cherry blossom symbolises clouds, and is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life. The country is known for its annual cherry blossom festival Hanami, which has its roots in the 5th Century.” – Anna-Louise Taylor and Ben Aviss, BBC Nature – What is Britain’s best blossom?

For a programme which is usually about nature, the show went surprisingly off-piste and looked at the human activities that accompany the cultural phenomenon of the Hanami festival. The lucky presenters got to eat all sorts of delicately presented and beautifully wrapped Sakura flavoured treats. We saw Kate Humble eating a white pizza in a cafe, which she drizzled with an unusual accompaniment – sakura honey.

In the built-up glitzy shopping district of Ginza, beekeeper Mr Tanaka keeps his five rooftop hives 11 stories up. He keeps European honey bees as they produce more honey, including the precious sakura honey. “Happy birthday!” he gently says to a newly emerged fuzzy young bee. When asked how he knows it’s sakura nectar the bees are bringing back, he tells Kate he can smell its floral scent in the hive.

There’s a predator about unfortunately – the Japanese giant hornet can kill up to 40 honey bees a minute. Asian bees have learned to protect themselves by balling the hornets, simultaneously cooking and suffocating them. It is rare for European bees to protect themselves this way, so Mr Tanaka has a wire mesh cage round the hive to keep the hornets out.

“The bee connects humans to nature and, not only that, but people to people” – Mr Tanaka of ‘Ginpachi’

See also…

Harvest mouse in cherry blossom

Harvest mouse in cherry blossom – Credit: Lesley Gooding
“Cherry blossom is a joyful sight in spring, which lifts the spirits,” says Lesley.


Posted in Urban beekeeping | Tagged | 13 Comments

A shook-swarm demo

On the Saturday before Easter a small but enthusiastic group of us gathered under the shade of the apiary’s trees to watch John Chapple carry out a shook-swarm demo on one of the hives.

Unusually for John, he was actually wearing a veil. This was testimony to the reputation of the chosen bees as particularly curmudgeonly – “bad but prolific” was how John described them. In the end the bees were remarkably patient with us and I believe no-one got stung. Below are some photos showing John going about the process of shaking the bees off their old frames and into a fresh new hive of foundation.

John looking for the queen

A queen excluder is placed under the brood nest (but above the entrance) to stop the queen absconding. The colony is fed plenty of syrup to help them draw out the foundation and build fresh new comb. The old brood combs are burned, along with any varroa lurking inside the brood. Replacing old combs also helps reduce the chances of the bees getting nasty diseases like AFB and EFB. One of the requirements of keeping bees at the Ealing apiary is to do an annual comb change.

It’s best to find the queen during a shook-swarm so that you can be sure she’s been safely put in the new hive. John had just taken one frame out when Tom’s sharp eyes spotted a magnificent dark queen running up the surface of the next comb. Although she had been marked last summer, she was now unmarked. Either her mark had worn off or the bees had replaced the original queen.

Capturing the queen

Pat commented that at the Middlesex conference in February one of the speakers suggested that the best way to find the queen is to take out a frame of brood and then immediately look at the surface of the next frame along. This queen had proved that!

Above is a photo of her being captured in a cage before John marked her with a nice pink pen.

I got a few short videos of the shook-swarming process, here’s some links to them:

Someone on Twitter commented about the last video that: “he is shaking an empty frame of foundation with few bees on….pointless showing a shook procedure with no bees on frame. Waste of a video clip” .  I thought I’d share that here as fair warning before anyone wastes four seconds of their lives watching it! Good to know my videos have fans.

Official guidance on how to carry out a shook-swarm can be found on the Beebase advisory leaflets page.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Tidying up my beekeeping bumbles

In my post a couple of weeks ago, ‘What the bees have been up to‘, I mentioned leaving Hope’s nucleus hive with some fondant and pollen in the eke, with the expectation that they would build a little comb up top in the extra space. This is what the hive looked like when I left:

Pollen and fondant in nuc

This is what it looked like a week later:

Bee city

Fondant all eaten and a new loft conversion/small city up top! So they built a little more than I expected. When I got home two weeks ago it occurred to me that I could have put some insulation in to fill the extra gap and stop the bees building. These bright ideas always come once I get home. Which would be fine if the bees were at the bottom of the garden,  but with them being around an hour away by public transport it’s not so easy to carry out these little fixes.

I spent some time carefully transferring Hope and her colony into a full-sized hive. It was quite a delicate job to remove the soft brace comb without squashing or angering any bees.   Once removed, I put the comb up above the crown board; by this weekend all the bees had left it so I was able to share a bit of hive-warm honey with some other beekeepers. We sucked its fragrant floral sweetness out of the chewy comb, cleaning our sticky hands afterwards with wipes.

Emma has an update this weekend on her blog on how Hope and Patience’s bees are getting on – Springing to life. We were able to do our first inspection of 2017 inside Patience’s large hive.

I will leave you with a few pictures of Thomas Bickerdike’s hives at the local allotment where I used to keep some bees too. We have had some beautiful sunny days recently which really show off the spring blossom.

Allotment hives

Allotment hives and blossom

Tom has built this solitary bee palace on the allotment too, so it is really a bee haven. Surely some bees, wasps and other insects will be tempted by this magnificent home.

Tom's solitary bee palace

Seeing the spring blossom reminds me of baby Tommy’s first few weeks last April. As I pushed him around flat in his pram, his hands often thrown above his head in slumber, white and pink blossom petals swirled all around us. We have survived the past year together and once again I am pushing him around under blossom, only now he is bigger and sitting upright to face the world. Happy 1st birthday baby Tommy.

Tommy and balloon

Posted in Colony management | 30 Comments

What the bees have been up to – and an unexpected award

At last my years spent blogging have paid off. After the previous lovely gift of a mug from Waltons for being named one of their ‘10 Brilliant Beekeepers‘ (well, a brilliant beekeepers’ blog anyway, not just generally brilliant!), another surprise email came through from Mal at Waltons.

I have won an award! For ‘Best Beekeeping Blog’. And it even comes with a prize – an enormous bird feeder that I have to find a garden for. Maybe it can be fitted somewhere at the apiary. You can see a list of all the blog award winners on the Waltons website; there were various categories including best gardening, best ‘grow your own’, best flowers, best shed etc. Some of the blogs look really interesting. My Ealing beekeeper buddy Thomas Bickerdike won second prize for his fascinating and practical Beekeeping afloat blog – Ealing bloggers must be the best in the country!

Bird feeder

Waltons best beekeeping blog award

But enough talk of awards. How are our bees doing?

Well, last Saturday was sunny and the nuc bees were bursting out of their box. There was a proper pile-up at the entrance as we had forgotten to move the mouse-guard dial off. A lot of frustrated bee butts were trying to squeeze through at once. Another Ealing member, Sue, kindly helped me smoke the entrance so I could move the dial round and give them more space to zoom in.

Entrance pileup

Emma had ordered a eke for the poly nuc which I fitted on top to give room for extra fondant and pollen, as the nuc is feeling light and we were worried about a possible food shortage. Tomorrow I’ll come back with extra frames and move them into a full sized hive, as they are absolutely bursting and ready to expand. I’m expecting a lot of brace comb to have been built in the gap the eke has created above, but that’s ok as it means delicious warm honey to eat!

Pollen and fondant in nuc

This is the fondant and Neopoll pollen substitute.

Fondant and Neopoll

Ealing is looking beautiful at the moment as many of the trees lining our streets are in blossom. Below is a photo of a magnolia at Kew.
Magnolia at Kew

And here’s a few from my walks a few weeks ago when all the snowdrops and crocuses were still out. Time and flowers go so fast!

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments

Bees on ‘Back to the land with Kate Humble’

Bees are everywhere nowadays. In the past few weeks I’ve seen them buzz up on Mary Berry Everyday and now Kate Humble’s new show Back to the Land.

I wasn’t even watching Back to the Land for the bees, I just found the idea of the show interesting – it focuses on rural food businesses making money in slightly unusual ways. For the first show in Pembrokeshire Kate visits a Wagu beef farmer, seaweed collector, a rapidly growing specialist chocolate business – and honey producers Nick and Annette Tonkin. The couple have 90 hives producing an average of around 3.5 tonnes of honey per year, though some of their income comes from selling queens and making marmalade.

Kate Humble on Back to the Land

“Can beekeeping really be a viable business?” asks Kate. Over the course of the show we hear about the precariousness of beekeeping in Wales’s ‘Wild West’ coastal weather. The family typically take the bulk of the honey off at the end of July, but a good crop is reliant on good weather. During a bumper year the bees can produce 8 tonnes of honey, but during filming Nick predicts they’ll only have under a tonne from the 2016 season. Under a tonne only brings in £16,000 – in years like that, just to break even the family must rely on selling queens and marmalade.

In the winter months Annette and their daughters stir up over 4,000 jars of citrus marmalade to supplement the honey income. Additionally Nick breeds and sells 400 queens each season, making around £6,000 annually from selling queens to beekeepers. He sells the queens in two stages. Once larvae are successfully grafted and have been fed in the hive for ten days, they can fetch £10 each.  Left to grow into a fully fledged and mated queen, they can fetch £55. They’re sent all over the country by Royal Mail – “How very appropriate” comments Kate.

The grafting is incredibly delicate work. Nick mastered his beekeeping skills by watching his father tend to his hives. He looks to graft larvae at 24 hours old and 2mm long – “It’s almost when it’s too small to see, it’s the right size to graft”. Kate has a go but ends up squishing a young larvae.

Those of you in the UK can catch the show on iPlayer for the next 26 days: Back to the Land. I found all the businesses interesting. Some of the owners are making huge amounts of money and rapidly expanding, while others are barely getting by but are happy being able to live in the stunning Welsh countryside.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 11 Comments

Middlesex Federation Day: Dr Martin Bencsik – “Monitoring honeybee colony activity with accelerometer sensors”

On Saturday I went to the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers’ Associations annual ‘Federation Day‘. Each year the Middlesex associations (Ealing, Enfield, Harrow, North London, Pinner & Ruislip) take it in turn to host a day of beekeeping talks; this year it was Ealing’s turn, which was nice as last year it took me nearly three hours to reach Enfield!


Dr Martin Bencsik

Unfortunately I could only stay for the first speaker, Dr Martin Bencsik. Martin is a Reader in Physics at Nottingham Trent University – we were lucky as he had travelled down from Nottingham to speak for us. His research focuses on novel applications of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and more recently on bioacoustics, including honey bee colony condition monitoring. His use of accelerometers to measure vibrations in honey bee hives led him to become involved in The Hive artwork at Kew, supplying the measurement technology and software which animates the work.

Martin began by explaining that accelerometers are used to sense vibrations. People often confuse sounds and vibrations. For honey bees and most insects, sounds are actually probably irrelevant. Perhaps 70% of insects prefer vibrations to sounds for communicating (crickets are an exception). Like a mobile phone, small insects find it easier to produce efficient vibrations than sounds.

For his research he set up an apiary in France with an accelerometer in each hive. It takes a few seconds to implant each accelerometer in the comb, but it’s expensive – at £500 per accelerometer. He sent an accelerometer round the audience for us to look at, which he emphasised he definitely wanted back! The technology has revealed some fascinating insights, particularly around swarming. The accelerometer picks up the sound of the swarm preparing to leave as the bees become so excited their vibrations shake the comb. Martin played us an amazing recording of a primary swarm from 20 minutes beforehand up to the moment of departure (condensed into a shorter clip, not the full 20 minutes). The buzzing filled the room as if we were inside the hive – it was quite intense and everyone clapped after it finished.

Martin mentioned that he has recorded the old queen piping before she swarms. This has happened twice in thirty primary swarms he’s recorded, so is fairly rare but shows it’s not just virgin queens that pipe. The time of day of the primary swarm has always been between 11am-3pm, but usually nearer 11 than 3.

Some swarm definitions:

  • Primary swarm = the first swarm to leave the parent colony, usually with the old queen.
  • Secondary swarm = a smaller swarm after the primary swarm has left, containing one or more virgin queens. Also called an ‘afterswarm’ or ‘cast’ swarm.

As well as putting the accelerometers in the comb, Martin has tried putting them in the brood box walls. However, the wood has different resonances that affects measurement, whereas comb is very stable and soft, so measurements from accelerometers in comb are more reliable. External sounds like planes, wildlife, birds etc can also affect the accelerometers placed in the brood box walls and drown out the vibrations of the bees. It is commercially appealing to put accelerometers in brood boxes though, as they might sell well.

He went on to tell us a little about how Wolfgang Buttress produced The Hive installation – see my post ‘The Hive at Kew‘ for more about this. I was impressed to hear that every cell in its lattice is different and each layer has been cut slightly differently, to a budget of £8m. Kew are now hoping to keep the installation until 2020, as visitor numbers are up since they hired it.

The Hive roof

The Hive at Kew

In response to a question on his future research, Martin revealed that he hopes to secure further funding for his work on honey bee monitoring. He feels passionate about directing his work towards helping bees and the environment, as he has become tired of the selfish actions of humans and the effect we have on the natural world. Ingenious and clever though humans are, so often we destroy all that is beautiful.

I hope everyone enjoyed the Federation day. I know a lot of hard work went into it by people such as Clare, Elsa, Sue, Jonesy, Andy, Tom and many others. Below is the cake table, which was very popular!

Federation cake table


Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

10 brilliant beekeepers – and where to buy a shed if you’re a beekeeper

A shout-out to the lovely people at Waltons, a British shed and gardening supply company. Until recently I hadn’t heard of Waltons, but then they contacted me to ask if I was happy to be included in a list of ’10 brilliant beekeepers blogs’ on their website. As it was a list of ‘brilliant’ beekeepers rather than ‘bungling’, ‘clumsy’ or ‘absent minded’ (all of which might be more accurate in my case), of course I said yes.

Here’s the list: 10 brilliant beekeepers’ blogs.

But that wasn’t the end of Waltons’ kindness. They then offered to send me a mug – twice. At first I accidentally deleted their emails, thinking the offer sounded too good to be true and must be spam. But then I saw a photo by Tanya Weaver (Girl Meets Bee) on Instagram of the lovely mug and realised the offer was real! A hasty email later and this beauty of a mug arrived in the post.

Waltons shed mug

I have drunk tea from it already whilst feeding Tommy his breakfast this morning, and a very nice cuppa it was too.

Waltons shed mug

The ‘About Waltons‘ section of their website sheds (ha!) some light on their fondness for beekeepers:

In 1878, a man named E.C Walton began a small beekeeping venture, and from there, the first shoots of the company we know today began to grow. Over time Waltons has changed, making summer houses in the Victorian era; after WWII switching to making bungalows; to creating some of the UK’s best quality garden sheds.

That’s why we have the latest machinery, and only use ethically sourced wood and hardwearing materials. Whether it’s something as grand an insulated garden room, or as small as a garden planter to grow your own, you can be sure of the same attention to detail that Mr E.C Walton used to put into his beehives.”

So if you’re a beekeeper into sheds and garden equipment, think of Waltons!

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments