An unusually warm winter for the bees

Happy New Year everyone! December here in London was unusually warm, with a high of 16°C (60.8°F) recorded at Kew Gardens. This has caused the bees to go through their stores faster than usual and also encouraged them to go foraging when they should really be tucked up inside conserving their energy. Back on the 19th December I needed my bee suit as so many bees were flying and even returning with two colours of pollen!


Above is a hole one of our hives had made in their fondant. It’s lovely to put your hand on the plastic over the cluster and feel how warm it is. By the way they do also have plenty of honey stores, but they seem to like to go up to the top of the hive where it’s warm. Our colonies do this every winter.

Jonesy's fondant

Jonesy’s hive had eaten up all their fondant in under a month! You can also see that they’d even started building a bit of comb in the empty packet.

Winter drone

The warm autumn/winter has caused more drones to be around than usual – I spotted this live one on the roof of a hive. He was in good condition so must have been expelled recently.

Dead drones

Another hive had all these ex-drones stuck in the mouse guard. They looked recently dead.

Snowdrop tips, December

Snowdrops were peeking through the earth at the apiary a month earlier than usual and daffodils have been spotted in London. There are pros and cons to all this for the bees –


  • A warm winter allows the bees to raise more brood – useful if you want to get a spring honey crop
  • The bees can take more cleansing flights which helps with hive hygiene and makes disease outbreaks less likely


  • Risk of starvation increases if we don’t keep an eye on them
  • Less likely to be a brood break to help keep varroa numbers down
  • Warm weather encourages bees to fly even though not much forage is available
  • Brood raising and foraging will reduce the usual longer lifespan of winter bees

Any others I’ve missed? Or any you disagree with?

Northern England has been suffering floods, so I know I’m lucky to have only warm weather to worry about. One beekeeper posted on the BBKA Forum “having to do emergency beehive move tomorrow now I can get to the hives, due to flooding and a stream breach……too dangerous to try to get to them before and also had a cowshed 2ft under water to sort out with 30 cows in it, which had to take priority”.  Thirty cows to worry about on top of potentially water-logged bees, can you imagine? At 1.05 on this video you can see a brief clip about the effect the floods had on a York beekeeping business: UK floods.

Cat in a ball

If I could ask my cat Bob what weather he likes best, I think he’d go with warm and cosy please. Me too Bob, me too.

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The things people want to know about bees

I’ve been looking back at the web searches people used to find my blog during 2015.

The most popular was ‘honeyflow’, with ‘honey flow’ and ‘’ also in the top 10 (the last demonstrating that some people prefer to enter urls into search engines rather than their address bar). I wrote a post about the Flow hive back in February: Will the honey flow for you?. There were so many variations on Flow hive searches to find my blog that I should thank the inventors for sending all those visitors my way!

At number 6 was ‘braula coeca’, a now rare honey bee pest. I believe this is probably not because a lot of people are looking for information on it but because there’s not a lot of information out there. If you write about a niche subject, there’s more chance people will find your content. I wrote about this funny little jockey in 2013: Honey bee pests, diseases and poisoning revision post: Braula coeca: the ‘bee louse’

Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright

Braulacoeca (top) compared to Varroa (right), Tropilaelaps (centre bottom) and Melittiphis (left). Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright

People are also trying to find out about chilled brood, stone brood and husbandry methods like shook-swarms and the Bailey comb change. I would always recommend going to the National Bee Unit’s Beebase website for expert bee disease and husbandry information you can trust: – especially their free advisory leaflets, training manuals and fact sheets.

Some of my favourites were the more obscure searches:

pile of dead bluebottles in an old building

paw print plum blossom on snow

has any one experience of meeting warm sweet honey – yep, tastes best eaten straight from the hive

how a university research garden should look like

someone who passed the exam has not read the book (wonder how well they did)

a honey bee habit – many of us do have a bee addiction

show me some lovely elsa cakes please

Well ok – cakes made this week by a friend of Elsa’s, she kindly brought them down to the apiary for us – they were so delicious:

Christmas fairy cakes


Unknown search terms: 10,726. Google has been encrypting the vast majority of search terms since 2013 – officially to protect user privacy, though funnily enough subscribers to Google AdWords get to see the terms.  SearchEngineLand covered this in 2013 if you’re interested: Post-PRISM, Google Confirms Quietly Moving To Make All Searches Secure

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Royal Jelly – a story by Roald Dahl

If you’ve ever read Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, you’ll know they’re very different in tone to his more famous children’s books. My mum had both his Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch collections and I re-read them quite a few times as a child, including the story Royal Jelly.

This week I was in the Barbican Library near my work and stopped to check out the returned shelves. One of the books there happened to be Kiss Kiss, so I got it out specially to read Royal Jelly again. As a child my knowledge of bees was basic, so the story had a new fascination now that I’m a beekeeper.

The plot involves a married couple who have just had a long-awaited child. The mother, Mabel Taylor, is “half dead with exhaustion”, out of her mind with worry because the baby girl will hardly take any milk. This baby is eating so little that at six weeks old she weighs two pounds less than she did at birth. Then an idea comes to Mabel’s husband, Albert. He is a professional beekeeper and whilst reading his beekeeping magazine comes across an article on royal jelly. The article details the wonderful properties of royal jelly, including the tremendous weight gain of a honey bee larva fed on it. ‘Aha’ thinks Albert – and proceeds to add royal jelly to his little girl’s feed. The strategy works, with the baby greedily lapping up this new formula and crying for more – but this new enriched milk also has some unexpected side-effects.

Reading the story now, I was surprised by how detailed and accurate Dahl’s descriptions of bee biology and beekeeping generally were. He must have done a fair amount of research to write the story. For instance, take the articles listed in the contents page from his bee journal: Among the Bees in May; Honey Cookery; Experience in the Control of Nosema; The Latest on Royal Jelly; This Week in the Apiary; The Healing Power of Propolis. The story was first published in 1959 and yet these could be articles from a current journal.

His descriptions of royal jelly were accurate according to scientific knowledge at the time. For example, Albert Taylor explains to his wife that it “can transform a plain dull-looking little worker bee with practically no sex organs at all into a great big beautiful fertile queen”. Worker larvae receive pure royal jelly for only the first three days of their lives, after which they are fed a mixture of royal jelly, honey and pollen. In contrast a larva chosen to become a queen receives only an abundance of royal jelly throughout her larval life, so much so that she is literally floating in it.

For years it has indeed been accepted opinion that royal jelly is the miracle food which has the ability to turn an ordinary female larva, laid from an identical egg to her sisters, into a queen. However, some new research published in August 2015 suggests that what really matters is what larvae chosen to become queens aren’t fed – the pollen and honey their ordinary worker sisters get. In 2008, Australian scientist Dr. Ryszard Maleszka managed to create queens in his lab without feeding them any royal jelly (by silencing a set of genes). One theory is that receiving no pollen provides chemical protection for the queen’s ovaries, as she is sheltered from the potential toxic or metabolic effects of plant chemicals.

All this is a rather round-about way of recommending this story to you and also mentioning that in April 2016 I’m expecting a little drone – just in time for swarm season. Having read the story, I will not be feeding him any royal jelly!


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Tucking the bees in for winter

It has taken a while to come, but at last we have proper see-your-breath-in-the-air, see-the-sparkling-frost-in-the-mornings cold. The kind of cold that stops honey bees flying. I walked round the apiary yesterday and the hives could have been abandoned, so quiet were the entrances. Hiding inside – several thousand bees, hundreds of woodlice, a few gigantic spiders and at least one hibernating queen wasp.

Apiary in November sunshine

It is too cold for syrup now, so a slab of fondant has been placed over their crown-boards. Pepper’s girls also have one super, Melissa’s two. Peppermint’s bees were a new split from Pepper’s hive this year and didn’t manage to fill out a super, but they do have plenty of honey in their brood box.

Apiary in November

Mouse-guards are on, chicken wire to protect against woodpeckers has been placed around the hives and we are using special insulated roofs Tom made for us. Varroa boards left out so that the hives have ventilation from below through the open-mesh floors. I think of it as going into battle, assembling all the weapons we have against the elements and creatures that prey on bees. The bees will do most of the work of course, huddling protectively round their queen as outside the wind howls, the rain lashes and the frost bites.

Woodpecker chicken wire protection

These are a few last details but really preparing the bees for winter goes on all year long. You are always preparing the bees for winter – because the best weapon is having healthy bees to begin with. A combination of luck, the local environment and how well you looked after the bees during the year.

It’s things like how clean your equipment is, how recently you replaced your brood combs, how low you kept varroa levels, how much honey you left them, how many times you managed to inspect the colony without squashing the queen or tripping over and dropping boxes of bees everywhere. What was the weather like, were new queens able to mate well, could the foragers fly often, were there good sources of forage around for them to find? If all that went well, then the colony has a good chance of surviving whatever winter can throw at them. Just don’t forget to put your mouse-guard on.

What are your beekeeping weapons of choice against winter’s fury?

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A visit to the country… with bonus bees

Last weekend brought a perfect start to November. An appropriately misty October 31st was followed by a sunny Sunday, showing off the dew glistening on the enormous spider webs hanging from the scaffolding outside our house.

To take advantage of a rare Sunday with no jobs to do, Drew and I took a trip to the country in our camper van. Our destination was the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. As Drew has lifetime National Trust membership we both get in for free. Having traversed through a labyrinth of multi-laned roundabouts, which we always seemed to end up in the wrong lane for, we arrived at a beautiful manor house with an even more beautiful garden full of gently falling leaves.

Hughenden Manor

Here’s what the house looks like. It used to belong to our (so-far) only Jewish born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. I’m sure he would have approved of its use as a cartography centre during World War II, churning out painstakingly accurate hand-drawn maps which our pilots crossing Germany used to find their targets.

War time food, Hughenden Manor

A war-time display in the manor’s basement shows the type of food the artists who lived there ate. My father was a war-time baby and is very fond of condensed milk; sliced bananas with half a can of condensed milk poured over the top was a common snack while I was growing up.

Bee hives, Hughenden Manor

I had genuinely not come looking for bees, but I found them. I leaned over the fence and took in the scent of the hives. As it was a sunny day, with bees zipping frantically in and out, I could catch the sweet smell of nectar. Apiaries definitely have their own aromas which perhaps are more noticeable to a beekeeper familiar with them, as Drew couldn’t detect it.

Honey bee on mallow flower

I tracked the bees down inside the sheltered vegetable garden. I think this may be a mallow flower, or at least related to one. Please correct me if I’m wrong. The 1st November and the bees were still enjoying themselves on these and a wall full of mature ivy.

Honey bee on mallow flower

Not just honey bees either. I was astonished to see this bumble bee.

Bumble bee on mallow flower

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering it’s been a warm autumn and there have been reports of buff-tailed bumble bees breeding throughout the winter in Southern England. Is anyone else still seeing bumbles here?


This gentleman looks ready for winter.

Autumn leaves

The trees were ablaze in their autumn shades, glowing amber, russet, red, gold and green. We walked lazily along the paths, kicking up dry piles of leaves and observing fat squirrels hopping up trunks.

Autumn leaves 2

Drew and autumn leaves

Today London has turned soggy and we’re huddled inside watching rain steaming up the windows. My cat Bob is wisely staying warm and cosy under the duvet. I expect the bees are at home too, taking stock of their stores. Will their weighty vaults of honey combs be enough for the coming months of winter? Now is an anxious time for beekeepers. All we can do is watch and wait; and I have my own waiting of another kind to do too.

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London Honey Show 2015

Today I went to the fifth annual London Honey Show at the Lancaster London hotel. The Show includes the honey competition, talks and stalls to visit. This was the first year it’s been held at the weekend rather than a weekday evening. It seemed a bit less busy than usual, but that may have been because it was on for longer.

Below are the London honeys entered in the tasting competition. You can see the variety of colours from pale yellows to dark reds.

Honeys for tasting

Some cute art work done by children at a local school.

Children's art work

I especially liked the ecstatically grinning bees below, which have wings the size of butterflies.

Children's art work

Hotel hives

The hotel has hives on their roof; one of the two employees who helps looks after the bees showed us up to a room with a view of the hives. Though there are nine hives down there, only one is occupied at the moment, following problems with colonies dying out due to varroa.

Lancaster London hives

I missed the first talk but arrived in time to hear James Hamill, “Tales of beekeeping from around the world”.

James owns the Hive Honey Shop, a family-run business on Northcote Road, SW11. He has over 100 beehives and practises migratory beekeeping, moving the hives to secret locations in remote areas. He does rooftop beekeeping in London too and has kept bees for the royal family at St James’ Palace and Highgrove.

He meets with the beekeepers whose honey he sells to make sure their honeys are minimally processed, rather than heat treated and blended together from multiple hives.

His life made me very jealous, as in-between running the shop he likes to travel internationally to meet beekeepers in other parts of the world. He showed us photos from many places including Uganda, St Lucia, Turkey and Tuscany. He donates equipment to the beekeepers he visits and also purchases honey and old hives for his collection of historical beehives. His attic contains hundreds of honeys!

He has trekked to watch the honey hunters of Nepal, who construct their rope from natural materials gathered that day, then scale cliffs to take the giant combs of Apis Dorsata bees. They will slaughter a goat before setting off – if the goat had a healthy liver they go ahead, if not this is a sign from god not to go. The honey hunting expedition is a perilous one.

James watched the local children standing underneath the cliffs as the honey was collected. They held their mouths open in delight as the honey rained down, not caring despite getting stung all over by the wrathful bees. Not just the honey is taken but the larvae too, which is a great source of protein. It’s eaten boiled up with saffron.

A member of the audience asked how many colonies James lost last winter – he said none (apart from two nucs). He puts this success down to “absolute cleanliness”. He changes his equipment each season, using different summer equipment and winter equipment. Frames are changed each year. He uses wooden hives so that he can scorch them with a blowtorch and destroy potential diseases and pests (as Emma and I do too). For this reason he dislikes polystyrene or plastic hives, as they require chemicals to clean them. He uses thymol as a varroa treatment and has also used eucalyptus and peppermint oils.

Competition winner!

Jonesy won the best packaging award for his Kew honey. A win for Ealing!

Jonesey winning

Kew Honey

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‘The Bees Knees’ – notes from a talk by Dave Goulson

I went to see bumble bee expert Dave Goulson speak recently at a London zoo lates talk. Security guards escorted the audience through the darkening zoo to the B.U.G.S (Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival) House, giving us glimpses of graceful pink flamingoes on the way.

With half an hour before the event began, we were able to walk round B.U.G.S. It celebrates biodiversity rather than just containing insects, so I could see tunnelling naked mole rats, waving jellyfish and enormous piranhas. But it was at the honey bees that I had a chance encounter with Dave.

There was a flat two-sided observation hive protruding from the wall. I think it had about three or four vertically arranged combs which I could see both sides of. I was spending some time watching them because a) they’re bees and b) they looked a bit unhealthy. The combs were very dark and large patches of brood had not hatched out – you could see the heads of the larvae but they were clearly dead. Perhaps chilled brood or bald brood.

They don’t look too happy, do they?” Dave said, and we had a short conversation about how bees in observation hives never seem to do that well as the set-up is quite unnatural, but they are a great educational tool. Then he heard his name being called so went to see who needed him. I carried on round the exhibition until I reached the new free-range ‘In With The Spiders‘ installation, which it turned out Dave was being given a tour of.

In this new room of spiders there is no barrier between you and the spiders.  Huge tropical spiders hang high up above in trees, watchfully looking down at their human prey, which they could pounce on and devour at any moment. No… in reality the keeper said the spiders hardly ever move, unless she dangles a tasty fat mealworm beneath them. However the spiders have already been embroiled in controversy, as a woman has claimed she was bitten on the hip and needed hospital treatment after going through their enclosure.

Onto the talk… I know a number of people following this blog are bumblebee fans and have read Dave’s two books, A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow. Dave has been studying bumbles for about 20 years and is on a mission to educate the public about the diversity of bees out there. To many people, bees means honey bees, but in reality we have one species of honey bee in the UK, around 26 bumblebees and a whopping 220-ish species of solitary bees. We just don’t notice the solitary bees!

Dave Goulson books

The pretty front covers of Dave’s books

Worldwide, there are around 250 known species of bumbles. They are large, hairy and mostly found in cold regions. They’re also warm blooded – an exception to most insects, which are usually cold blooded. The highest density of species – 60 – is found in the eastern Himalayas, where bumbles are believed to have first originated. One species, Bombus polaris, even lives in the Arctic circle. Bees in general are of course descendants of wasps. Wasps first became bees (which are basically wasps turned plant-eating vegetarians) back in the time of the dinosaurs.

Map of bumble bee distribution

Map of bumble bee distribution

In the spring bumblebee queens set up new nests after hibernating over winter. Being able to flap their wings 200 times a second produces lots of heat, enabling queens to fly in February/March when temperatures are just above freezing. The queen will stock her nest with a ball of pollen from the first spring flowers, then lay eggs and incubate them like a bird, shivering her flight muscles to generate heat. She can only survive one reproductive year, so will never leave her nest again. The new queens she produces will mate only once, then go into hibernation from as early as June.

Being warm blooded means bumbles have high energy requirements – they need a LOT of flowers, in a world where humans are reducing flowers. Some scientists have estimated that if you were a man-sized bumble bee (what a fantastic creature that would be), you’d burn the energy provided by a Mars Bar in 30 seconds of flight – whereas that takes a human runner an hour. If bumbles can’t find enough nectar, they sometimes struggle to generate enough heat to take off – then they’re in trouble. Don’t do what Dave did as a child and gently cook them on a hob to warm them up!

Warm blooded bee

Warm blooded bee

Causes of decline

Dave says there is a simple answer – we’ve lost most of the flower-rich grasslands we used to have. We lost 97% of these during the twentieth century, as farmers switched to grass silage production for their animals rather than hay meadows. Silage is usually sown with one or two species of grass and lots of fertilisers. Fine for cows but rubbish for bees.

The soil in our natural old hay meadows is really low in nitrogen – so grass can’t grow – the meadows were full of beautiful flowers with their own source of nitrogen. Peas, vetches, clovers, legumes. These flowers put lots of protein in their pollen. Chucking fertiliser on a field ruins the balance, so that grass starts up and smothers the flowers.


Wild bees are now exposed to many new diseases and parasites. Diseases are spread by the movement of honey bees and commercially farmed bumblebees. Farmers used to employ people to pollinate tomatoes, using vibrating wands. But that changed when a Dutch man figured out how to breed them for commercial purposes. Every tomato you’ve ever eaten since about 1988 was most probably pollinated by a bumble bee.

Trouble was, no-one was checking that the nests provided to farmers for their growing tunnels were clean. It turns out that the majority of nests farmers buy in have one or more parasites. Escapees from the commercial nests then spread these parasites to the wild populations. In Chile European bumbles were deliberately released to help with pollination, but (in an echo of what happened when European humans first arrived in South America) their diseases are wiping out Chilean bumbles.


Despite the two year EU manditorium on using neonicotinoids, Dave said their use actually increased in 2014. DDT has a deserved reputation as a wildlife killing baddie pesticide. Well, here’s a comparison of the LD50 (dosage which kills 50% of a test population) in honey bees for the neonicotinoid insecticide Imidaclopid and DDT:

Imidaclopid 4 ng/bee
DDT 27,000 ng/bee

Yep, it actually takes a much lower dosage of Imidaclopid to kill bees. Imidaclopid is one of the most widely used insecticides in the world.

Human pollination China

Orchards being pollinated by hand in China, after pesticides destroyed native pollinators

How we can help

The great news is, we can all do plenty to help. At the top end, if you happen to own a meadow or farm, try to restore/recreate a flower-rich meadow.

But you don’t have to have land to help! You can also:

  • Raise awareness – tell people there are lots of species of bee, they’re in trouble and need our help.
  • Engage children. Most love bugs as young children but want to squash them by the time they’re teenagers. Stop them growing out of the loving bugs phase!
  • Citizen science. A project called the Buzz Club – just launched. Dave said this is hopefully a long-term citizen science project which aims to gather useful data on pollinators. The data will be collected by volunteers and analysed by University of Sussex scientists.
  • Bumblebee Conservation Trust bee walks – help the Trust (which Dave founded) by doing a regular walk once a month between March to October and recording how many bumble bees you see.
  • Wildlife friendly gardening, even if it’s just a window box. The University of Sussex website has a long list of bee-friendly plants.

Don’t plant!

Begonias, Petunias, Busy Lizzies, Pansies

Most of these don’t have nectar or pollen and have been treated with pesticides before being sold at garden centres.

Do plant

Cottage garden perennials, Wildflowers

If you have a little bit of sunny space and want to grow just one plant, make it… Vipers Bugloss

Vipers Bugloss

Vipers Bugloss at Kew Gardens

Bumble bee nest boxes

They don’t work! Even home-made ones. But solitary bee nests work really well. You can just get a block of wood and drill 8mm diameter holes in it. Dave did this by drilling holes in a fence post and was rewarded within 20 minutes of putting it up by a mason bee moving in.

What does work to attract bumbles is old undisturbed compost heaps – these are warm and have tunnels made by small mammals. Dave said there’s about a 50% chance of getting a nest in these each year.

So there’s plenty of ideas here – do something for bees tomorrow! Or even today!

Bumble bee flying from bramble


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