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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Walking for bees

Thanks to a comment left on my blog, I found out about a fun walking project being carried out by activist and gardener Meg Beresford, called ‘Let’s Make a Beeline’.

Meg is walking for 8 days between Aug 30th until Sept 6th – from Edinburgh Botanical Gardens to her home in Wiston Lodge, Scotland – to raise money for a bee-themed weekend gathering there. Each day she is covering 10 kilometres (6.2 miles), as bee expert Dave Goulson has found that a bumblebee can travel up to 10 kilometres to make its way home. At the gathering she plans to “bring together internationally renowned authors, speakers and academics to engage in bee conversation”, with bee themed workshops and music.

You can follow Meg’s adventures via her blog at, which she is updating daily. Along her route she is visiting gardens and other bee friendly projects to connect with other like minded folk. I am enjoying reading about her travels and seeing the beautiful scenery of Scotland. She also has a donations page.

It cheers me up to know that other people are out there that care about nature, in a week when I’ve heard of depressing developments both locally and globally: in Ealing some of our treasured local allotments will be lost to a new housing project, while in South Carolina millions of bees have been killed by spraying, partly because inadequate prior warnings were given to beekeepers.



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Test yourself on honey bees, Mastermind style

For those of you who have never seen it, Mastermind is a British TV show in which four contestants are tested on both their general knowledge and a chosen specialist subject. Thanks to Di Drinkwater for her post ‘Bees on Mastermind‘, which alerted me to the recent appearance of beekeeper Gill Taylor on the show, with the specialist subject of ‘The honey bee and beekeeping’. Gill is based in Airedale, West Yorkshire, and manages her local association’s website: Viewers in the UK can catch the episode on iPlayer during the next couple of weeks.


Here’s the questions asked – answers further down…

1. The cells of the bees’  honey comb are constructed in which distinctive geometric shape?

2. What term derived from the latin for ‘little basket’ is used for the haired structure on the hind leg of a honey bee carrying pollen?

3. What astrological name is widely given to the shifting swarm-like formations of male bees in flight as they pursue the honey bee queen?

4. What item of beekeeping equipment is used to pursue the bees in a hive and typically incorporates a fire box and bellows?

5. What name is generally given to the crescent shaped dance performed by worker bees during foraging that represents an intermediate phase between the round dance and the waggle dance?

6. To what genus does the honey bee belong that includes a widely investigated species called Mellifera?

7. For what purpose does a beekeeper use a baldock or crown of thorns cage?

8. What is the common name of the British climbing plant Hedera helix, which provides the honey bee with a nectar source late in the year?

9. What is the name of the protein that consists of 26 amino acids and is the principal constituent of the honey bee’s venom?

10. What is the common name of the disease caused by the fungus Ascophaera apis, that results in a bee larva being transformed into a mummy of fungal spores?

11. Which deadly parasitic mite of honey bees now endemic in the UK includes the common Destructor species?

12. The honey bee Apis mellifera ligustica resident in the United Kingdom originates in which European country?

13. In the early 1850s which American clergyman and beekeeper identified the bee space in a hive, which enabled him to develop removable frame beekeeping?

14 The black honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera has been legally protected on the Hebridean island of Oronsay and which neighbouring island?

15. What sticky substance – also called bee glue or bee gum – is collected by bees from tree or plant resins and used for constructing and sealing their hives?

16. What name shared with the gland in the worker bees’ abdomen is given to the pheromone that includes nerol and geraniol, used for orientation, marking and guidance?


  1. Hexagonal
  2. Corbicula
  3. Comet
  4. Smoker
  5. Gill passed – the answer is Sickle dance
  6. Apis
  7. To capture the queen
  8. Ivy
  9. Gill passed – the answer is Melittin
  10. Gill answered Sacbrood – the answer is Chalkbrood
  11. Varroa
  12. Italy
  13. Langstroth
  14. Gill passed – the answer is Colonsay
  15. Propolis
  16. Nasonov

How many did you get right? When put on the spot it’s surprisingly hard to speedily recall answers – even to a subject you know well – so I think Gill did brilliantly to get her score of 12. She looked so calm and composed too! I can imagine her steadily at work amongst her bees, unruffled by any angry workers pinging off her veil.

Who won the show? Can mere mortals beat a beekeeper? You’ll have to watch it and find out.

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What’s been flowering: July

Writing is difficult at the moment. It’s rare that I get the chance to sit down and type without Tommy’s eyes popping open and requiring attention. But here are a few photos from my walks round the local parks and Kew Gardens.

Red clover 

An important plant for bees, particularly bumblebees. Clover florets (florets are the individual flowers that make up the flower head) drop once pollinated so that bees know not to bother visiting them. When red clover first flowers it has too deep a flower for a honey bee to reach the nectar, but if the clover is cut and then grows back, the flowers are shorter and can be accessed by honey bees.

Red clover

White clover 

The legume family, including clovers, vetches and trefoils, have special bacteria in their root nodules. These bacteria are able to turn nitrogen from the air into nitrates that enable the plants to manufacture protein for growth – in other words, they make their own fertilizer. This means they can afford to put more protein into their pollen, making it especially nutritious to bees.

White clover nectar is also very important for bees. According to an information board I saw recently at Kew Gardens, white clover contributes more nectar than any other plant species in the UK. Elizabeth Gowing describes clover honey in her ‘Little Book of Honey‘ as “sweet and light, with a citrus tang which changes to a sourish aftertaste that stops it being sickly to eat”.

White clover


When I think of July flowers, I think of yellows and purples. Bright yellow ragwort flowers grow alongside members of the thistle family in all the wilder parts of my local park. They’re tough and can grow on waste land, road sides, rough grassy areas etc. The plants are an important food source for orange & black striped Cinnabar moth caterpillars. Ragwort contains toxic alkaloid substances, which the caterpillars cleverly absorb and assimilate, to become unpalatable to predators.

Celia Davis in The Honey Bee Around & About (2007) describes ragwort as being “very attractive to bees… likely to produce quantities of extractable honey which smells horrible when it is fresh. If it is allowed to stand and granulate, the flavour improves and some beekeepers use it to blend with other, less flavoursome honeys.”

Clive de Bruyn is also positive about ragwort honey, commenting in his classic book Practical beekeeping (1997) “The honey is a deep yellow with a strong flavour thought by some to be obnoxious. I personally find that it adds a bit of interest.” Has anyone reading tried it?

Hoverfly on ragwort

Some more yellow flowers below – a sunflower, the one with pink petals I think is a species of echinacea and I’m not sure what the flower with a bumble bee in the middle is called – any ideas?

Presumably it is the sunflower nectar the bees are after, as a number of experts I’ve heard speak have said that sunflower pollen contains a particularly poor percentage of crude protein – only around 13% compared to 22-24% for an average pollen.

Thistles, teasels and knapweeds

I find the different members of the thistle and teasel family hard to tell apart. They come in various shades of purple and levels of prickliness! Below are photos of a bumblebee on what I think is common teasel and a honey bee on what I think is a species of thistle. Teasel seeds are an important winter food for some birds, such as goldfinches. Interestingly there is some evidence that teasels may be partially carnivorous and able to absorb nutrients from dead insects in rainwater which gathers in a cup-like receptacle formed by leaves on their stem – see ‘Carnivory in the Teasel Dipsacus fullonum — The Effect of Experimental Feeding on Growth and Seed Set‘.

The pics below were taken by Drew on a better quality camera, as you can tell. I’m not quite sure what purple flowers these are, so if you do know please leave a comment!

Some more purple flowers – verbena, cornflower and globe thistle.

Himalayan balsam

Recognise this? It grows in watery areas, so you can see it along the edge of canals and rivers. An invasive weed, but useful for beekeepers. It leaves a light grey pollen stripe on the middle of a honey bee’s back, the part she can’t quite reach to clean.

Himalayan balsam

Blackberry bramble

Over now in London, but the flowers continued during early July. We have blackberries available to pick already. It grows everywhere of course so is very useful for our bees. Did you know that there is a special word for the scientific study of brambles – batology?

Bumble bee on bramble

Homo sapiens

A young and sprightly example of the human genus. Not known to attract bees. Does gain attention from elderly ladies on the bus.

Thomas Scott yawning

Thomas Scott

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A Rose Lemonade restaurant for bees

As part of Pollinator Awareness Week (13th-19th July), Bees’ Needs week has running this week on Twitter – check out #BeesNeeds to see lots of fascinating tweets on how to help bees by charities, businesses and bee experts. You don’t need a Twitter account to read them.

You may well have already seen this story on Emma’s Miss Apis Mellifera blog, but if not check out this charming bee hotel created by Yorkshire family tea business Taylors of Harrogate. The rooms provide sweet sustenance for hungry bee visitors and are themed by the company’s tea flavours, such as sour cherry and spiced apple. You can get a free taster pack of their fruit & herbal teas at

Taylors of Harrogate bee hotel

© Licensed to 20.06.16 London, UK.A general view of a Taylor’s of Harrogate specially commissioned bee hotel on Hampstead Heath.FREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE.Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

Here’s a short video of bumblebees enjoying the hotel on You Tube: Taylors of Harrogate Bee Hotel.

Taylors say:

“Research by the University of Bristol has found that rural bees are in the decline as opposed to city bees, and as a solution, Taylors of Harrogate has created a luxury bee hotel to support the work of urban busy-bees! By creating the bee hotel Taylors of Harrogate is also thanking the bees for the flavour, as without bees there would be no flavour in our teas! The miniature hotel is an intricately designed, with luxury interior features such as plates filled with pollen to feast on in the Rose Lemonade restaurant, and a sugar water bath in the Sweet Rhubarb suite.”

The Taylors of Harrogate bee hotel is an intricately designed miniature hotel, with luxury interior features such as plates filled with pollen to feast on in the Rose Lemonade restaurant, and a sugar water bath in the Sweet Rhubarb suite.

The hotel itself is made from balsa wood and includes traditional hollow tubes in the bedrooms, which is a popular nesting choice for solitary bees. Other key features, such as sugar water baths and ultraviolet patterns, have been included based on scientific research that suggests that bees are attracted to these, and will therefore be enticed to enter the bee hotel to get some much needed rest and relaxation.

Kate Halloran from Taylors of Harrogate, adds: “Bees are so important in helping to provide great flavour, but less attention has been paid to show how urban areas can be made more pollinator-friendly. The aim of the bee hotel is to not only educate and entertain, but to also inspire action. From the Peppermint Leaf Gym for a complete wing work out, through to the luxury Sweet Rhubarb Suite with its decadent rhubarb sugar water bath and UV disco, their every need will be taken care of.

Kate Hallaran and bee hotel

© Licensed to 20.06.16 London, UK.Kate Hallaran from Taylor’s of Harrogate with a specially commissioned Bee HotelFREE PRESS, EDITORIAL AND PR USAGE.Photo credit: Simon Jacobs

“Many people may be unaware that some of our favourite fruits, including apple and cherries all depend on insect pollinators, including bees. We want to raise awareness of this issue and encourage everyone to get more deeply involved and help create a network of real bee hotels, starting in their own back gardens.”

City vs rural bees

Taylors of Harrogate commissioned a poll to measure public perceptions of bee populations in the UK and found that 75 per cent of surveyed Brits would expect to see more bees in rural areas – but according to experts, it is now more common to find a wider variety of bees thriving in UK cities.

Research led by the University of Bristol has found that when comparing the number of bee species living in urban and rural areas, there were on average 9.3 species (per km2) in urban areas, compared to only 7.3 species (per km2) in farmlands. [This is probably due to monocrops in rural areas, which leave little for bees to feed on once they have finished flowering. In contrast urban areas tend to have a greater variety of flowering plants.]

Dr Katherine Baldock from the University of Bristol comments: “Bees need two things; food and a suitable nesting site. Both of these can be found in UK cities, although our research shows that urban areas can host high numbers of bees, as well as many different species, there are still many ways we can improve our towns and cities for bees, other pollinators and wildlife in general. Bee-friendly flowers in gardens and public places provide crucial pollen and nectar sources and bee hotels provide important nesting sites.”

How urban (and rural!) gardeners can help

Helen Bostock, Senior Horticultural Advisor at the Royal Horticultural Society, has written some advice on planting for pollinators: RHS National Pollinator Awareness Week. Her suggestions include:

  • Keep an eye for plants and seed mixes bearing the RHS Perfect for Pollinator bee logo or advertised as good for pollinators.
  •  See what works well in your garden and neighbouring gardens – if you spot a plant that’s covered in bees, plant more of it! The RHS Perfect for Pollinators lists are a good starting point but don’t be afraid to try out new things.
  • Strive to have something in flower in your garden every month of the year. British wildflowers tend to peak in early summer so add some late flowering plants such as Japanese anemones, asters, chrysanthemums and single-flowered dahlias.
  •  Get involved with a local beekeeping society. Even if you’re not inclined to keep honey bees yourself, you can support beekeepers in your neighbourhood by stocking your garden with nectar and pollen rich flowers.
  • Put up ‘bee hotels’. These work a treat for providing nesting sites for some of our wild, solitary bees such as Red Mason Bee.
  • Don’t disturb bumblebee nests or the nests of ground nesting bees.

To find out more about opening your very own luxury bee hotel visit

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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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