Of bee butts and wiggles

It’s fun to investigate what people were looking for in 2016. Although there were 7,136 “Unknown search terms” which Google is keeping private, amongst those from other search engines I noticed a theme:

‘Why do bees wiggle their bums’ (3 searches)
‘Why do bees shake their bum’ (2 searches)
‘What does bees shaking it’s back mean’ (1 search)
‘pepperpot in rectum’ (1 search)

I hope my blog was able to help with the ‘pepper pot in rectum’ problem. It must have been a large bee, or a very small pepper pot.

A bee bum.

A bee bum.

In one of my revision posts on Bee communication for BBKA Module 6, Honey bee behaviour, I covered the various meanings of honey bee vibrations and movements. When it comes to wiggling, the waggle dance is well known, but there are many different types of honey bee dances: round, transition, wagtail, buzzing runs and the DVAV (dorsoventral abdominal vibrating dance).

However, this search suggests that some of these observers were not seeing a communication dance but something else:

What does it mean when a honey bees butt moves in and out?’

Bees have no lungs but move oxygen into their bodies through breathing tubes (tracheae), which are connected to surrounding air through multiple holes in their body called spiracles. In his book ‘The Biology of the Honey Bee’ (1987), Mark L.Winston explains that “When the bee is inactive gas exchange can operate simply by diffusion, but during periods of increased activity bees pump their abdomens to increase gas exchange” (p.34). This pumping movement makes the abdomen move rhythmically as oxygen goes in – which could be the ‘in and out’ movement the searcher was thinking of.

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Endurance and hope

January is a stern month. The festivities of Christmas have passed and many of us are left feeling plumper and poorer. A time for austerity and cutting back, combined with chilling days that cut through to our fingers and whistle past our ears.

But the bees know that the days are getting longer. Becoming not darker but lighter. Whether bee or human, the winter solstice has passed and spring is coming, if we can just wait a little longer and keep nibbling away in the dark. It was warm for January yesterday, around 11°C (51.8°F), so the bees at the apiary were taking full advantage of this chance to clear their bowels.

Poly nuc

Inside the poly nuc, the bees are very active across all five frames. Lots of condensation, so it must be warm in there. I am not sure whether a warm January is a good thing as it will cause them to go through their stores more quickly. They have fondant so I’ll keep an eye out to make sure it doesn’t run out.

Poly nuc close up

In our full sized hive Emma has carried out John Chapple’s trick of putting two Ambrosia fondant bags on top of each other, with a hole punched between them so the bees can get in both. This much fondant should be enough to last the bees until the spring forage begins. Through this sugary double layer I was able to take a photo from above before the bees realised and started flying up.

Bees in fondant

And just poking out from the apiary ground I found these snowdrop shoots. Told you spring is coming.

Snowdrop shoots

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A festive feast and Apibioxal time at the apiary


There was a surprise treat for Ealing beekeepers this weekend – Pat had brought us some mulled wine, which he heated up and dished out to eager takers. He gleefully told us that unlike most recipes, his doesn’t involve burning off most of the alcohol (he followed Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to make perfect mulled wine‘ method).

Pat Turner with mulled wine

Pat with his mulled wine

We also had a bit of a feast to go with the wine – mince pies, baguette, cheese and cake. Well it is Christmas. The bees huddle up and eat and so do we.

Festive Christmas feast


With this warming fuel in our bellies we even managed to do a bit of beekeeping. In the association apiary hives are given a one-off anti-varroa treatment of oxalic acid around December/January time. Those of you outside the UK may not know that UK beekeepers can no longer legally use generic oxalic acid crystals and should use Api-Bioxal, a Veterinary Medicines Directorate approved product containing oxalic acid, instead. Of course you can still buy oxalic acid crystals, which are cheaper than Api-Bioxal, but you would technically be breaking the law if you used them for anything other than ‘hive cleansing’. Would anyone find out… probably not… but in an association apiary things need to be done by the book, so on Saturday we trickled Api-Bioxal on the bees.

Apibioxal drizzling

Apibioxal drizzling

I’m happy to say that both our hives were bursting with bees. They were not in a tight cluster and the day was warm enough that some colonies were flying. It’s a quick job to trickle 5ml of the Api-Bioxal syrup mix over each seam of bees. They were gentle on us and the most difficult part was closing up afterwards without squashing any. The National Bee Unit estimates it should have a 90-95% efficiency rate – you can never get all the mites but you can get a satisfying number.

Bee Music

Exciting news for bee music lovers – on Wednesday 21st at 10am BBC 6 Music have a bee-themed show, as BE will be performing their 2016 album ONE, which was created for the Hive installation at Kew Gardens using a live feed of bee colony sounds. If you can’t listen live you can catch up with it afterwards. 

Happy Christmas everyone!

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Getting our bees winter-ready

Last week Emma and I met up to check on our two hives. It was a warm day for November and we wanted to make sure our larger colony was set up well for winter, with not too much empty space which the bees might struggle to heat.

Here’s Emma glowing as she lights up the smoker. Particularly toasty feet – she had two pairs of socks on!

Emma with FLIR camera

We had been considering removing the super and overwintering the bees on a single brood box, but we found they were covering several frames in the super and appeared to be using the honey. So instead we made up some insulated frames to place either end of the super, which should help keep them cosy. They also have plenty of silver foil thermal insulation sheets in the top of the hive (the kind you buy in rolls to help insulate lofts and walls).

Insulated frames

Below is a FLIR thermal camera image of our polystyrene nuc. Inside the bees are doing great, they are covering all the frames and were bringing back two colours of pollen, dark and light yellow. I expect one is ivy but am unsure what the other might be.

Nuc hive with FLIR camera

I am skeptical about how exact that 11.4C reading is, as I would expect the colony to have brood, with frames containing brood kept nearer 34-35C by the bees.  I also took a photo of a empty hive and found the camera read a similar temperature of around 9C! Philip over at the Mud Songs beekeeping blog has a useful post on Beekeeping With a “Flir One for Android”, with links to tutorials in the comments. I wish I had more time to investigate the software, but everyday life with Tommy is pretty full-on.

Look how much extra comb the nucleus bees have been busy building along the top of the glass.  We have left them some fondant in the feeder hole.

Poly nucleus hive

Mouseguards are on now. The next thing to do will be oxalic acid treatment in December. Now that the law has changed, this should be done with Api-Bioxal. Annoying as it is a bit more expensive and doesn’t come ready-mixed.

Best of luck to everyone over-wintering your bees.

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Autumn changes

It’s easy to take certain things in life for granted – at work, at home, in our local environment. We get used to things being the way they are. And then suddenly they might change very quickly, leaving us reeling. Last year my neighbours cut down a beautiful fruit tree which used to blossom in their front garden. I’m sure they had their reasons. Perhaps it cut out their light. Still, I miss that tree.

In London we can never assume our green space is going to stay green. We are constantly on the back foot as time and again developers come after land we thought belonged to the local community.

And so it is with Northfields allotments, where Tom and I share a plot. It will come within the 10% of the allotments which Pathways, the housing charity that owns the allotments, plans to build on. They are aiming to create 18 new social homes for the elderly and four private homes for sale. For Halloween the plot holders got together to hold a pumpkin trail running through the allotments, to raise awareness of what will be lost if we don’t prevent the building work. Thousands of people turned up to see the pumpkins and enjoy hot soup, mulled wine and a BBQ, plus face painting, a tombola and cake/jam/honey stalls.

Here’s a few photos of the allotments so you can see their beauty too. The Chief Executive of Pathways has suggested we could have allotments on the roofs of the new homes, but we can hardly relocate our apple and cherry tree up there.

Apiary allotments

FLIR hives

The photo above was taken using a FLIR thermal camera for the iPhone. It’s a very light little camera. I want to take more photos using it as the season goes on, to see how the cluster moves over winter. Need to read the manual some more though as I think I’m not using it to its full capabilities. Phillip has done a useful post on ‘Beekeeping with a Flir One for Android‘ on his Mud Songs blog – a great blog about beekeeping in chilly Newfoundland by the way.

Shed allotments


Scarecrow allotments

Halloween cupcakes


These allotments are home to stag beetles, birds, bees, butterflies and many other vulnerable small creatures. They’re a wildlife haven in a busy urban area. It’s so sad to think of losing them. We do need more affordable homes and social housing but should we destroy all our green space to do so?

To read more about the proposed development, see:

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Cake testing time at the apiary

Autumn has come to the apiary. Crisp dry leaves litter the floor. Some flowers are still around – purple michaelmas daisies, ivy and the last of the himalayan balsam along canal banks. The bees come and go, but no longer in the same numbers or with the urgency they had earlier in the season.  They are winding down, preparing for the long retreat.

apiary in autumn

I took Tommy for his first visit to the apiary. He seemed to enjoy the attention of being the youngest beekeeper there, even if he couldn’t join in with the cake testing. He was asleep when I first got to the apiary but woke up just as I started topping up the feeders with syrup, so no time for further beekeeping! Luckily big Tom was able to transfer our smallest colony into a poly nuc for winter. I have never overwintered a nuc so fingers crossed.

Tommy at the apiary

We had a triple whammy of sweet treats this week – Clare’s chocolate and banana bread, Jones’s lemon honey cake and my chocolate biscuits. Plus tea of course.

Jonesy was testing his lemon honey cake for the National Honey Show at the end of October. The recipe it has to be made to is on the National Honey Show website (class 85). Most of us thought the cake was very nice, moist and light, though not everyone agreed and he did also get some feedback that it was too dry! Does anyone have any tips for winning the cake class? I quite fancy making the honey fruit cake recipe.

Here’s a little bee climbing up inside a lily.

Bee in lily

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A long delayed visit to the bees

I have been missing my bees. It is tricky visiting them as so far Tommy has refused to drink his milk from a bottle, meaning that I’m the only person who can feed him. It is easily a two hour round trip to the apiary by public transport and he usually feeds every 1-2 hours in the day. So you can see the difficulty. However on Saturday Drew drove us down and entertained him for a while, so that I could concentrate on a little beekeeping.

I was enchanted to find new comfy picnic tables and a much improved fence. Tea and cake at the apiary will taste even better now.

Apiary benches

Emma and I have sold off a lot of equipment, Tom built us a lovely new equipment stand and Emma has done some tidying, so our once towering equipment empire is now much more manageable.


After several days of a freakishly warm September, in contrast Saturday was overcast and chilly. So I didn’t inspect but did some tidying – removed the empty Apiguard trays and ekes, took out the varroa monitoring boards which were taped up for the Apiguard treatments and topped up the syrup feeders.

Pepper and Melissa hives

Melissa’s colony is smaller than we would like, so I added a couple of dummy boards to help them keep warm. We may need to put them in a nuc over winter.

Melissa's hive

It felt a bit painful visiting the bees, a reminder that I have been neglecting some parts of my life. But it was also nice to lose myself in the actions of caring for them. Lift the hive roof off, lay it down on the ground, gently lift off the feeder and prise off the crown board. Physical work is satisfying.

I spend a lot of time walking around to keep Tom entertained. In one of my local parks these pretty pink and white autumn crocuses cyclamen (thanks Lucy Garden for correcting me in the comments!)  are flowering. I noticed a little brown carder bee visiting them.

Autumn crocuses

Ivy flowers are out now too – an important late source of forage for many pollinators. There’s even a bee which specialises in visiting them, the Ivy bee, Colletes hederae. It forages almost exclusively on ivy’s delicate green and yellow flowers, flying only from September to mid-November. The Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) has a Colletes hederae mapping project, so keep an eye out for these bees if you live in southern England or Wales. They were first recorded as new to Britain in 2001 when Ian Cross discovered specimens at Langton Matravers in Dorset.

Hoverfly on ivy

Hoverfly on ivy

A short visit but I hope to go again soon.

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