Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Oxalic acid

I applied oxalic acid to both hives today.

Oxalic acid helps in the fight against varroa, and after my high mite-counts I am keen to do everything I can. It's a short-lived treatment that only kills mites that are living on the bees and does not kill mites that are in the brood. That's why it's done at this time of year when the colony is broodless. If brood were present, around 85% of the varroa would be in with the brood. Oxalic acid is thought to have a kill efficiency of over 90% on those darn mites. It's cheap to buy, and comes as a liquid in a small bottle with one of those 5ml measuring devices attached. (Hhhhmmm - I've just been watching a video online where some guy was not drizzling a solution over the bees to give the oxalic acid treatment, but instead vapourising crystals into the hive - clearly there's more than one way to skin a cat.)

On removing the crown boards, the stuporous bees were initially too sluggish to even acknowledge my presence. However, when I drizzled 5ml of oxalic acid along between each pair of frames a few took notice and started checking me out. Although it was about 8degrees celcius I was anxious not to encourage too many out in case they did not make it back, so I worked as quickly as I could and each hive was done in a minute.

So that really is goodbye from me to the bees for the winter. I'm not sure what happens now - I suppose I'll check them out again on some warm day in March. Best that I read a book I think - I've got the Ted Hooper one to enjoy over Christmas when I'm in New Zealand for a monster 4 week holiday. I leave later today....I can't wait!

Monday, 16 November 2009

All quiet

I took advantage of a slight break in the weather (14 degrees C, and sunny) to go on site and check the hives. What greated me should be no surprise I suppose, but I was sad not to be able to see more. No bees were out flying at all. I did see a few wasps snuffling around, but even they seemed to have largely lost interest. Since the holes in my crown-boards are covered with mesh, I took the liberty of removing the hive roofs and peering though the mesh. In both hives, numerous bees were slowly milling around in a very torporous state. I quickly shut them up and left, being left with the realisation that it's a long time till March.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

BBKA forum

Well, I posted my question on hive naming to the BBKA (British Beekeeping Association) forums and got 16 replies in a flash. It's my first time posting on the forums, and I may spend some time on them in future since they are quite active and interesting, in parts.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Bee Maths

I just found a pretty decent webpage of "bee maths". It's concise and relevant, and I like it enough as a reference page that I'll post it on my blog links.

Wow! Actually I then went from this bee maths link to look at the website it's a part of, Bush Farm Bees. It's a really interesting read. Some of the ideas there seem somewhat non-establishment, but the way the vibe in beekeeping seems to be going is more towards this type of thing, and the site's well written and the points made seem well researched by sound experience.

More hive naming

Well, I'm still not decided on what to name my hives, but it's got to be done since "hive1" and "hive2" just won't do. Thanks for the comments. Lynn uses names of people in her family, particularly grandparents and grandchildren at present. That idea has some appeal to me, but I'm not sure I'll be using this: I've got 4 small children of my own, and I'm bad enough calling them by the wrong names when they're michief-making, let alone duplicting the names on my hives. Mark says that using a naming convention such as US presidents would not be quite interesting enough, and I tend to agree. I'd like to get my names somehow relevant to my beekeeping if possible (hence why I like the Queens idea). Somewhat relevant ideas I thought of so far are: naming them after crops which bees polinate (eg Apple, Pear, and so on); names of other nature reserves in my area of London since that's where my hives are right now (Adelaide, Westbere, Waterlow, Mortimer, and so on); or perhaps streets in the area; or perhaps...errrr I don't know, but my thinking cap is still on. Having said all that, there are some non-beekeeping-relevant naming conventions which appeal, even off the top of my head: greek and roman gods, rock or pop bands, trees, and so on.

Another feature of a naming convention which I like is to alphabetise (ok, alphabetize for American readers) names in the same way they do for hurricanes which travel from the Carribean Gulf to the Southern US: in other words each successive one is given a name which starts with a successive letter of the alphabet. I think they futher constrain their hurricane naming convention by alternating boys and girls (do they then do girls then boys the subsequent year? I don't know). Anyway, applying this to, say, the bee forage crop idea I might end up with: Apple, Blueberry, Cherry, and so on.

Hhhmmm, I think I may try posting this on the BBKA forums too now and see what comes back. Will update this blog with any fresh thoughts, and suggestions are still most welcome!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Naming the hives

An extremely important winter beekeeping task I've set myself is to come up for better tags from my hives than "hive1" and "hive2". I'd like something interesting and original, but also something with at least a tiny bit of relevance and rationale. For example, the beekeeper I met recently at RHS Wisley calls each of his hives after a different English queen (Victoria, Elizabeth, Boudicea, and so on).

I'm interested in any suggestions I can lay my hands on. Thinking caps on, please!

Friday, 30 October 2009

National Honey Show

I went to the annual National Honey Show today for the first time. It was a good event and I'd recommend it to others. There were lots of stalls selling the whole range of beekeeping kit, books, odd looking hives (are they serious!?) and bee products. An entire room was devoted to showing honey, cakes, candles, wax, frames, and so on, which had been entered into a wide range of competitions. There were also lectures going on, but sadly I was unable to squeeze into the "moving into bee farming" workshop as I had hoped. I do entertain a lingering curiosity as to whether I might be able to turn my hobby into a somewhat more commercial endeavour. Anyway, I left the show with a fine array of books, leaflets and ideas.

Speaking of which, can anyone recommend some good intermediate level beekeeping books? As a beginner I've read several, though I still find "Bees at the bottom of the garden" by far the best for giving a balance between practical detail, concise brevity and easy reading. I've now purchased Ted Hooper's "Guide to Bees and Honey", and I'll also be picking up some course reading when I'll be studying for the BBKA's "Basic Assessment" early next year .

I also picked up some other booklets: a field guide to bumblebees (since I'm fed up with people asking me questions on them and feeling dumb), a guide to garden plants valuable to bees (published by IBRA), and a handy fold-out, wipe-clean "Guide to bees of Britain" with lots of pretty pictures of the bees most commonly found on these shores.

Oh! And I nearly forgot my most exciting purchase. Twelve quid bought me a small, polystyrene "apidea" mini-hive which I hope to use for fun with a queen cell next year to generate a new colony. The one I bought is not one of the really tiny ones you might have seen in the shops, and indeed it's a little larger than the brown polystyrene one which seems popular. I'm greatly looking forward to using it, though I've no idea how at present. Roll on April and May!

Monday, 19 October 2009

Mouse guards on

(posted a couple of weeks after)

I popped back to the apiary to put a mouse guard on to each hive. The ones I am using are flat strips of metal with many holes in which are big enough for bees to pass through but too small for mice. It was a sunny day with an autumn nip in the air, beautiful with colours on the trees.

Hive1 looked perky as ever with some bees coming and going. I removed the entrance reducer and pinned on the mouse guard. The idea is to give enough airflow during the wet winter months, though with the open mesh floor and no varroa floor in place I'm not convinced I actually needed to remove the entrance reducer. The worry, of course, is that without the reducer in place the wasps will have an easier time getting past the small number of autumn guard bees.

Hive2 did not look great, however. Very few bees were coming and going, and after I pinned the mouse guard on I saw a solitary wasp entering the hive! I did not want to disturb the bees by opening up the hive and doing more harm than good, but I was so concerend I nevertheless removed the roof and peered through the holes in the crown board (over which I have pinned some mesh to aid good ventilation). From what little I could see through these holes the bees did look numerous, so I closed up again and I'm crossing my fingers for the winter. I know the stores in there are good. I'll perhaps be able to get another data point on how they are doing when I treat both hives with oxalic acid in early December.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Down for the winter

I popped back today to remove the feeders and take off the associated empty supers. Sure enough the feeders were empty. Since the sun was out, I took the liberty of going through a quick inspection of hive1 to see how the stores and brood were going. I went too fast to get any kind of count on the stores, but the state of the colony looked excellent. Striking, though, was the large quantity of brood, mainly capped. Was this as the result of the feeding? Well, no it can't have been. Worker brood is capped on the 8th or 9th day after laying, and I gave the food 7 days ago, so the majority of the brood was laid before I gave the feed. I also saw some uncapped brood of various sizes, though I went too fast to see either queen or eggs. Overall - the girls look great!

I did not bother with an inspection on hive 2, but instead just peered inside. I got the impression of lots of healthy bees, and though them better not disturbed.

So that's it! The hives are down to brood-and-a-half size and feeding is over. I need to pop back and put the mouse guards on at some point. But consulting my "Bees at the Bottom of the Garden" book I see that I should schedule in an average of 1 hour beekeeping per month until the middle of March! I'll miss seeing inside and watching what's going on, but these bees know far better than I do what's best for them over the winter, and I trust their stores are good enough till spring comes. I'll swing by every now and then to give the hives the odd heft.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Autumn feeding

Since hive1 has 40lb stored honey, and hive2 30lb, a feed may not be strictly necessary, but I wanted to make sure the bees had good stores for the winter.

Using the gallon contact feeders, I mixed 4kg of sugar with water in each. I planned not only to give the bees the feed but also to reverse the brood and super boxes to put the latter below for the winter. The procedure went without incident. I'm very happy to have given them this feed, and although it's a little late in the season to do it I think the bees will have time to convert the syrup into capped honey in time for winter since we're having pretty warm weather at the moment. I'll go back in a week to see how they've got on. Oh, it's worth mentioning that I did not bother going through any frames. I'll do this next time to re-estimate the honey stores.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Presentation to LWT

I gave a presentation on honey bees to the Camden Nature Reserves Forum last night, which is part of London Wildlife Trust. I had drafted in John, the Chairman of North London Beekeepers, to give me a hand. He was awesome - they loved him: very articulate and credible. As part of the presentation I mentioned the Nature Reserve site my bees are on and talked a little about my beekeeping experiences there. The whole presentation seemed to go down very well and we got some good feedback.

Whether this will be enough to allow me to stay on the site remains to be seen. Officially I have to get off "as soon as possible" (see my plaintive posts below) even though it seems that most people want the bees to stay. For the time being I'm fudging / ignoring the issue, in the hope that ostrich-like behaviour will make it go away. It's not my normal style since I usually prefer to deal with things honestly and head on, but frankly I think I've been mistreated and if someone calls me to definitively say "get off" then I can and will move the bees off the my mother-in-law's house, although the 1 hour round trip is not ideal. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Immersion observation hive

Check out this for an observation hive.

.... a man standing unprotected in a cage full of bees whilst inspecting frames and talking about bees to visitors. Cool!

Perhaps I'll leave replicating this feat till I'm a little more experienced, though!

Background pikkie

Oh - a quick post on the background picture in the blog since I had to work out how to get it on the blog and I though it might be of general interest.

I took the picture in the back garden a month ago when some of the local feral colonies were foraging on some sunflowers my kids had planted.

To edit the blog background I loaded the picture onto some webspace I have elsewhere, and then followed the instructions I found in http://blogforumpost.blogspot.com/2007/10/insert-background-image-for-blogger.html

Like most of these things, it is pretty easy . . . when you know how!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Inspection with Lois

I took my sister along for the inspection today. It was her first time with bees and she was thrilled. It was another successful inspection: the main objective being to check honey stores. I'm very happy with how the bees are doing, like this . . .

General comment: sunny, 22 degrees, bees out flying well. There's a real warm-snap / "indian summer" at the moment - beautiful, and it's definitely been good for the bees. But...hhmm...this site really is too shady even on a sunny day! The ivy is well in bloom and there is lots on site (picture is a week or so old - flowers are actually more out now). Having said that I only saw a few bees on ivy.

Removed varroa floors to give better ventilation. Hive1 floor had fair accumulation of dead mites again. Eeeek. But the Apiguard treatment is over now, so that's that.

Stores 5.5 super frames, 5 brood frames ~= 41.5 lb. A bit more than last time - great!
Saw few capped brood, more uncapped brood, quite a bit more pollen than I had seen before. Saw a tiny number of eggs, did not look too hard. Did not see queen. Bees calm.

Stores 0.5 super frames, 5.5 brood frames ~= 29 lb. A lot more than last time - phew - looking much better now.
Saw fair bit of capped brood, some uncapped (some very young). Did not see any eggs, but did not look too closely. Capped brood still in middle of frames, but seemed less than before. Did not see queen.
Did I notice the smell of wee from the hive? - supposedly the ivy honey has this smell and I like to think that was it.

I'm very happy with stores in both hives. I saw lots more pollen stored in the frames than I have on previous inspections - they are stocking up for winter. I also saw lots of returning foragers with bright orange pollen on their legs. I don't want to feed them yet since I want them to work hard on foraging ivy. I aim to feed them in the next week, and at the same time swap the positions of brood and super in each hive to put the latter on the bottom. This way, as they reduce their population and their usage of the hive in winter they will retreat into the upper brood box and leave the super nice and clear. In theory. A quick quote re Autumn feeding from "Bees at the Bottom of the Garden" by Alan Campion: "In Britain the suggested time [to feed] is the last half of September, with the proviso that feeding should be finished by the first week in October. There is good reason for this: if bees are fed sugar syrup later in the year they will have insufficient time to evaporate the excess water, and the syrup will be stored uncapped and could ferment, causing digestive troubles to the bees in the depth of winter." There you have it!

Monday, 21 September 2009


I went to the club apiary on Saturday. I took my two eldest children and they had the opportunity to look through a hive. Pat, the club chairman, very kindly stepped up to open his hive for them. They really enjoyed getting up close and personal with frames of bees, and it was a pleasure for me to see it. I took them to the club apiary to do this, rather than showing them mine, since they have extra bee suits there, and also because of the large number of experienced keepers.

I also popped the question about my large number of dead varroa on my boards under the hive. The most experienced beeks were actually a little shocked about the number of mites I had, but confirmed that I should not extend the length of Apiguard treatment, but just proceed in the knowledge that I've knocked down the mite infestations substantially, and I should crack on with an oxalic acid treatment in December. It's a relief to hear them say this, but worrying nonetheless that they think the infestation is unusually high. I'm sure I've not made any heinous errors in my beekeeping - have I?

Friday, 18 September 2009

The site

I thought it was time for a few pictures of the Nature Reserve on which I keep the bees (for now). It's small, but lovely, and is a real urban site, nestling in between two large residential houses on the border of Maida Vale and St John's Wood in London.

Central to the site is a tremendous Copper Beech. Beech is a tree which is known for greatly shading out plants below it, so the nature reserve is rather dominated by the tree and its effects. I think the muscly, smooth bark is wonderful.
Another lovely feature of the nature reserve is an ancient mulberry tree. These trees have a tendency to fall prostrate and in fact often self root as this one has done. Examining this tree it's not at all clear which bits of the tree reach into the ground for nutrients. It looks very much like a dead log at one end, but the rich canopy and beautiful and bountiful fruit (a little past it in these September pictures) show the vigour of the old plant. Mulberry trees can often look ancient even when they are not: a popular method of propagating is to chop a branch off and plant it and the resulting trees can look ancient even after a few years. However, the old irons seen in the picture (notice that the tree has now grown around the irons) indicate that this tree was tended a long time ago. It's unclear to me what the history of the site is, but the presence of this mulberry tree seems to say that once the grounds were part of a house.


I took advantage of the slightly improved weather to inspect the hives. Temperature ~23degrees and sunny. Lots of bees out flying and crowding the reduced entrance spaces. The main aim was to check the stores, since I'm aiming to feed the bees after the Apiguard treatment is over (next week). Also, I wanted to check the varroa floors to see how the Apiguard is working.

Hive 1 is the big one on the right in the picture. Stores: 12 super faces, ie18lb, 7.5 brood faces, ie18lb, total 36lb (bit less than last time). So still lots of stores, particularly in the super. However, VERY few larvae or eggs! I did see a smattering of capped and uncapped larvae on that centre most same frame, but no eggs until I pulled out that frame again on a second pass in desperation, and not many of those either. I did not see the queen but those few eggs put my mind to rest slightly. Also, hive1 was (and in fact always is) very calm during the inspection. It's a worry that laying has virtually stopped. Having said that it may well just be a feature of the season. Or . . . (see below).

Hive2 is the shorter one on the left in the picture. Stores: 1.5 super faces, ie 2lb 7 brood faces, ie 17lb, total 19lb (bit more than last time). Lots of capped brood, but no eggs or uncapped larvae, though I could have missed any eggs since they are hard to see since the positioning of the hive2 gives dingy conditions from behind. This is not ideal, and I may have to address it with a small move. Also, I am ever so slightly suspicious of all that capped brood. Am I imagining it or has that capped brood be there all the time since the colony was first given to me!? Worth bearing in mind in future inspections.

There's a crack in hive 2 between brood and super in one corner which I need to seal up. I stuffed it with twigs for now and see what the join looks like when I switch over the brood and super (to put the latter below) in a few weeks time.

The Apiguard in both hives is now down to one quarter left in sachets. There was a strong smell of thyme in both hives when I opened up.

And now, the varroa count....
Well, when I pulled out the varroa floor of hive2 things did not seem too bad. There was a fair smattering of varroa, and I estimated about 350 on the board. Given 9 days since the last inspection, that's a daily drop rate of nearly 40. This is not typical drop, of course: it's drop in the presence of Apiguard which is supposed to result in lots of varroa falling through the hive. However, when I took a look at hive1 there was a somewhat starker result. Huge numbers of varroa. I marked out a small square and counted hundreds. Scaling this count to the size of the whole board indicated that I was probably looking at a couple of thousand little dead, red mites! Was it really only 9 days since the last inspection? Had I turned the varroa board over at that stage to get a clean count as I had thought I had? Does this indicate something good, in that there are lots of DEAD varroa? It's definitely one for reference to a more experienced keeper. I suspect I'll need to initiate some other treatment now or soon. I was planning to whack on some oxalic acid in December anyway, but perhaps this result dictates that I'll need to do something before then. Having said that, the colony seemed really healthy (apart from the very low brood count): there were loads of bees and the stores looked good. Curious. I feel somehow confident that hive1 will come through fine, but am well aware that this could just be mindless beginner's optimism. Off to the Apiray to ask the experts tomorrow . . .

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Queen pikkie

Here's the picture I got of the queen in hive2 the other day. She's this year's queen, though the beek who kindly gave her (and colony)to me had marked her in white so show up better - a decision which I can fully appreciate since the '09green I personally find very tricky to spot on the hive1 queen.And some other pictures I took, whilst I'm at it....

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


No time to write properly now, will update later.
hive 1: 11,9 faces, ie 5.5,4.5 frames, ie ~39 pounds
hive 2: 2,4 faces, ie 1,2, ie ~13 pounds

Saw queen in hive2 for first time in a while. Think I got some photos. Will download later.

Also, varroa floors - lots of varroa - particularly hive1.

Still wasp activity around ground near hive1.

Eggs in both hives. No uncapped brood in hive1. Weird, but could have missed them. Brood of all types in hive2.

Conditions - overcast, temp 20degrees.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Pestival was good

Well, we had a good time at Pestival. The kids got to see a few of the small observation hives (single frames, including the one inside the bee cab) and they particularly enjoyed the walk-through termite mound and digging for maggots. Cool. Oh, and Saskia liked stroking the enormous stag beetle larvae as it wriggled in the soil. All good - shame I forgot to take the camera!

Saturday, 5 September 2009


I'm off to "Pestival" this afternoon. It's an arts event on the South Bank (London) all about insects. Sounds a bit eco-warriorish for my taste, perhaps, but it should be fun for me and the kids and there will some interesting people to meet there. If you're in the area - give it a whirl.

Details on http://pestival.org/

Friday, 4 September 2009

Words cannot describe . . .

Words cannot describe quite what I think of this.
It's one of those "laugh or cry" combo emotions, with a fair bit of "cringe" thrown in there too.
Credits to Cliff W, whose blog I stole these links from.

More funny yet tragic videos on http://www.helpthehoneybees.com/

And then rather more to my taste (and in fact not much about beekeeping at all) . . .

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Inspection and Apiguard round 2

It was not a good day for an inspection: overcast and blowy, but it was overdue. Again I took Nat, my wife, along for fun. We're enjoying doing this together, and she's picking up a lot of my sparse knowledge already. The objectives were: a hive inspection (mainly evidence of laying, and honey stores), heft the hives to assess their mobility if/when I do move sites, and to apply the second/final dose of Apiguard.

I still have a brood box and one super (no queen excluder) on both hives, and in fact plan to run them like this through the winter, though with the brood box on top so the queen focuses her laying there (apparently). Hive2, the later-started colony, first. I was pleased to see more honey laid down this time. Maybe there were 2 brood frames and 4 super frames worth. Using the rule-of -thumb of 5pounds each for the former and 3pounds for the latter, that's over 20pounds. Not great, but this colony was a late starter. I did not see the queen nor much evidence of laying: a little uncapped brood (and lots of capped), but I was unable to screw my eyes up enough in the gloom to make out any eggs. Hive1 again made me happy: lots of capped and some uncapped brood (did not identify some eggs, but think this was just the light) and I did see the queen. Nat was very happy to see her too. Also, the honey stores looked good: about 4 brood frames and 6 super frames which is nearly 40pounds. That should be enough to get them through the winter, though a lot can happen before then.

In each hive the first dose of Apiguard was mostly (not completely) gone. I opened and inserted the second/final dose: I quite like the thymey smell. I checked the varroa floors and there was a fair covering of red mites. I'll be honest and say I have not counted, but I'd say a "fair few", meaning "many tens" (and less in hive2). I intend to treat with Oxalic acid in November/December.

My site issues still rumble on, and it's beyond me to post them here. Suffice to say that there may be some more news soon, and I think there is some small chance the eviction order might be lifted. Again I have been told that the bees are having an adverse effect on the level of the pond. I find this ridiculous even though the pond is not large. However, I do agree that the level is dropping, and since the pond is essential to the numerous frogs, newts and toads on the site, to name but a few, I can see why this is a concern. I've pointed out that blaming the wrong culprit is likely to delay a solution to the real cause (probably a slow-punctured lining). I'll see how this argument pans out over the next fortnight.

It's high time for me to take some more pictures. In the meantime if you want to see some cool honey-bee related photos, take a look at the excellent "Diary of a Novice Beekeeper" blog (see my Blog List).

Sunday, 23 August 2009


Another inspection, and again I'm quite pleased with how the bees seem to be doing. In both hives the Apiguard was going down well, with less than half remaining. It seems then that I'll pop in the second treatment 2 weeks after the first. There seems to have been some debate about the correct timing of this. I've heard it said that the two treatments should be 3 weeks apart to cover 2 full brood cycles. However, with both the instructions on the box and my experienced colleagues at Ealing saying 2 weeks I'm more inclined to follow this, especially since the bees are consuming it so fast that by leaving it longer there would be a period in the middle with no Apiguard in the hive at all. I checked the varroa floors, and indeed there were lots of dead, red mites so it seems the Apiguard is having an effect.

So the colonies looked well. Eggs and larvae were present in both, though in hive2 the stores again looked low. I actually took 2 half-filled super-frames of stores from hive1 and put these in hive2 since I am a little concerned, and hive1 seems to have an excess since I did not take off much when I harvested the honey. In general such mixing of kit between hives is not to be recommended for disease prevention reasons, but since the hives are so closely sited anyway I've decided to allow it in this case. I again saw the queen in hive1, with the dodgily applied green splodge I'd given her previously.

I'm procrastinating on moving the hives out to Gerrards Cross, but I'll have to get cracking in the next week since I want them settled by Autumn. In preparation, I covered the holes in the crown-boards with plastic mesh which I pinned down. That way I can transport them with the roofs off the hives and the bees can't get out: I'll be putting big straps around the hives top-to-bottom, and if the roofs were still on those straps would not be quite secure due to the way the roofs overhang.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


Bees bees bees. It's been a busy time for my beekeeping recently. Following the honey extraction I replaced the wet supers back in the hive for the bees to clean up. I returned today to find the girls had done an excellent job. Today's task was to apply Apiguard, the anti-varroa treatment. It comes in flatish packets which have a peel-off lid and are then put into the hive above the brood. It was pretty simple to put these in - I put a super on top of hive2 to give the Apiguard some space and removed some frames from the upper super in hive 1 so I could put the Apiguard sachet in. Also, I replaced the varroa boards, put in a partial entrance blocks and actually taped around the varroa boards to make things a little more air-tight. This is advisable since the idea is to make the atmosphere inside heavy with Apiguard. It's a thyme-based application, and my understanding is that it stays in the hive longer if the hive is better sealed. I am due to apply another similar sachet to each hive in 2-3 weeks so as to cover a couple of brood cycles and blitz those little mites.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Extraction !

Honey extraction day. Very exciting.

It came as a bit unexpectedly. Talking to a guy who keeps bees very local to me, he said his association (actually not local at all, but in Barnet) was coordinating Apiguard treatment for tomorrow, so that all hives would be done at the same time to greatly increase the effectiveness against varroa across the area. The exact precision of coordination is probably a little unnecessary, but I'm keen to join the crowd on this one - anything to help battle varroa and keep the numbers at bay. So, since honey should really be taken off before Apiguard treatment, I dragged Nat down to the hives to help me juggle the supers and frames.

The hive inspections were interesting in themselves. We started in hive2 (brood box only, no supers). The bees looked healthy, and there were lots of capped and uncapped brood, some eggs, but I could not see the queen. What slightly bothered me though was the lack of decent honey stores. It seemed strange there was so much brood and so little honey. I was left wondering whether in the recent fiddly moves of the hive around with site some of the foragers had indeed gone AWOL.

Hive 1 (brood-and-a-half plus one honey super) seemed healthy and vigorous too. Again the queen eluded me, but the full range of eggs and larvae were present, and there were some decent honey stores too. Rather than taking away the whole honey super, which in any case was far from full, I decided to selectively remove super frames to get myself some honey to play with but leave a decent amount for the bees (quite a bit which anyhow was uncapped). Nat and I juggled 5 honey-heavy frames into plastic bags after shaking and brushing the bees off, sealing the bags quickly as we went.

Quickly home to extract the honey. I've got a pretty basic 2-frame tangential extractor. It's quite manual and a bit fiddly, and by the end there was honey on the kitchen work surfaces, the floor, me, everywhere. From the 5 frames I managed to get a motley collection of 13 jars, probably amounting to 11-12 pounds of honey (sorry - beekeeping still appears to be somewhat stuck in the imperial measurements age).

I'm delighted to have the honey now. For a season's work I don't have many jars, and of course most of it will be given away. The jars are few because the colonies are new this year, and I totally missed out on the decent honey flow of spring when the weather was pretty good this year. However, just to have something small to show makes me feel very satisfied, and has encouraged me further in this fascinating hobby.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Sunflowers and bees

I grew some sunflowers in the back garden with the kids, and the honey bees love 'em. The bees shown here are probably from the local feral colonies, or perhaps even from Graham's hives in one of the other communal gardens just over the road.
Lovely pictures, eh?

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Mother in Law to the rescue?

It looks like there's a chance I can move the bees to Gerrards Cross where my mother in law lives, surrounded by England's loveliest garden. There's a perfect spot for hives on a flat roof there: sheltered, full sun, very private, I can obviously drive right up to the house, and I can store kit there too. Perfect . . .apart from it being good 30min drive away, traffic permitting, and it'd not longer "London" honey. I'd much rather have something just around the corner. However, unless something else falls in to my lap then I'll have to take this opportunity.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Voice of experience

Margaret kindly came on site today to take a look over things. She confirmed that what I thought was varroa is varroa, but was unsure what the other, tiny mites are. We did a very quick inspection of each hive (couple of frames of each) and in hive1 we uncapped some drone brood. An important part of the varroa mite life cycle is inside capped brood cells, and they do prefer drone brood. The rule of thumb is that an infestation of 2-3 mites per larva is thought of as a bad infestation. In my hive, of the 5 drone brood we uncapped we found 6 mites, so yes I do have a varroa problem, but it's one of a level fairly typical of hives these days. I'm going to buy some Apiguard and apply it to reduce infestation levels. I can only apply this, though, after I take off any honey I want to, so I've got to get cracking on this.

Another observation we had is that hive1's brood-and-a-half is a little superfluous since hive has enough space in the main brood body. Therefore the next inspection is going to be a matter of finding the queen, making sure she's in the main brood body, putting the queen excluder above this box and replacing the 2 supers above it. I'll then need to wait the few weeks to make sure all the brood in those supers emerges, and then I can take off some honey. Then I can apply the Apiguard. This will leave me too late in the year really, so I'd better get cracking, and shave some time somewhere. Also, I'll need to be careful to leave the bees with enough stores. I know I'll need to feed them this winter, but I am keen to leave them a generous supply of their own honey too.

It's fair to say that Margaret was pretty impressed with how healthy and vigorous the bees seemed. This is an enormous relief to hear. It's the first time a more experienced beekeeper has looked inside my hives, and it's comforting to hear that I've not done anything stupid. Yet.

The site issues are still of great concern to me. Given that I have to move the hives off to another site, I'd prefer to do this sooner rather than later. This will be tricky.

Saturday, 8 August 2009


I found out that those thousands of mites I saw the other day are not varroa. I had thought them too small, not sufficiently rosy in colour and and not enough like crabs. I was right. I don't know what they are, but they're not varroa. I know this since I found some varroa mites on the varroa floors of both my hives today! Clearly varroa: red and crablike. Argh! I took a sample of both mites into a sealed container and took them home for temporary storage in my freezer to kill them before having them microscoped by someone who knows their bugs. And I totally removed the varroa floor in both hives too.

I also made yet another move of hive2 today. The bees seemed to handle the small move fine. I now have only another 50cm or so to the final desired location, close to a wall at the side of the site.

No news on potential other sites yet. I spoke with some people in the Capital Growth / Food For London group who made some encouraging noises, though this will take a while to come off if at all. I've got many feelers out with other people and organisations too. The trick, though, is to be able to find a local site. If instead I am presented with a site too far away in London then I may well just serve it up to another beekeeper or beekeeping association who is more local since this really makes the most sense. There are many deserving beekeepers out there who'd love a good site. I do feel strangely confident that I'll get a good site, though I know it might well be tricky. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


Terrible news. I spoke with the site manager this evening who told me to get both hives off site as soon as possible. Is it relevant that he referred to the drop in pond level being due to the bees (though I've been surprised to never seeing them drinking there)? No. Fundamentally, it's been decided that having bees on that site is not feasible since it will interfere with use by people. It's a great shame since I have seen bees work so well on other sites such as many allotments, but each site has its own priorities and I respect that. It's just unfortunate that this decision has been made after I initially had permission, and then moved bees on site. So much for my crafted discussion document of last week. I wish I had been in last week's Nature Reserves Forum meeting.

So that's that. I'll really need to get cracking looking for another site, and if it's to be at all geographically convenient for me to look after I'll have to somehow deal with the battle of moving them less than 3 miles. Perhaps I can stealth in at night when they're all asleep, or something, and then keep then sheeted up on the new site for a good while. I'll ask around to see what advice I might get. Nightmare.

MITES! Creeping, creeping.

I took out the varroa floor of hive1 today and was horrified to see it covered in thousands of very tiny mites which were crawling around. This is terrible news. I don't know if they are varroa. It seems like a fair bet, but the mites seemed smaller and less red that my limited varroa experience told me they might be. I've put calls out to a few colleagues to get a second opinion, and am purchasing some medicine immediately. I'll also remove the varroa floor from both hives straight away so there will only be an open mesh floor through which the mites will fall.

Also, I moved hive2 a little more today. The move was barely 1 meter, but still the returning foragers took a time relocating. Again it was interesting that they seemed to start their extended search at the location where the hive had been yesterday morning, i.e. where it had been before I started any of these mini-moves. However, I think the bees eventually got the point and I decided to leave them to it and to return in a day or so for another mini-move to get that hive nearer to the edge of the site and hence in a less obtrusive location.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Emergency delivery

Quite a bee day today: I got a call this evening from Malcolm, a top bloke and one of the Ealing lot who was the recipient of the swarm I caught in my street (with Nicky) back in May. His colony had swarmed, and he had no box to put them in. I jumped in the car and up to his place to give him the floor, brood box, 10 frames, crown board and roof I just happened to have in the boot. Always nice to do someone a favour, especially someone who has so readily taken me under his wing for bee-advice. The shame is that he'll be unable to keep the bees in his garden since he thinks only 1 site works there. The other great shame, of course, is that there's no chance of me putting the colony next to mine - I'd love to but it's not even worth asking permission right now. Hopefully Malcolm will find a good home for them, and somehow manage to juggle my kit back to me.

Edit: Malcolm decided to keep the colony in his back garden after all. Great news - hope he keeps the neighbours happy with enough honey now he's got 2 hives there!

Hive inspection

Another hive inspection day today. It went well. It's been dreadful weather recently. Lots of rain over the past week and very little sun. Today was warm (over 25c) and the bees were out flying when I arrived on site despite the intermittent sun.

First, hive one (brood-and-a-half plus one honey super). The comb in the honey super was a little more built out, but again the outer few frames were still little better than over-embossed foundation. In the central frames, though, there were 5 frame faces of capped honey. In the brood boxes, there was the usual encouraging mix of honey, pollen (a little light on this?), eggs (in both boxes), large and small uncapped larvae, and capped larvae. I did not see the queen, but the presence of the eggs was enough to satisfy me that all was functioning properly. One thing I did do was to swap 2 of the frames from the brood super into the honey super. They came from the outside of the brood super, and were honey which was largely capped. I moved it into the outside of the honey super. I'm keen to get one super's worth of honey (~30 jars) out of the bees this year - it would be a real milestone and high-point of the season. It shouldn't be beyond these bees - they do seem so healthy and despite the terrible weather we've had recently if the next few weeks are fine they'll certainly have no excuse not to fill at least one super.

Hive two (single brood box, no supers) is also in good shape. There was a good combination of honey (some), pollen, eggs, uncapped larvae and capped larvae (lots!). I was left wondering whether there was enough honey for the impending births to eat. The apparent slight shortage might well be down to the fact that it's a relatively new colony combined with the recent duff weather. There were still 2 frames at the back of the box which so not have drawn out comb. Hopefully the weather will be good enough for the foragers to get busy drawing out this comb and filling it up with nectar in the coming week. When I do my next inspection (~10 days) I'll have a super waiting by in case they look like they'll need room to expand. Oh, and I saw the queen too. She's got a white spot, and I've got to admit it's a lot easier to spot than the green dot on the queen in hive 1, especially with my marginal red/green colour vision deficiency. I'll have to get some more experienced keeper to persuade me that the regime of colour coding per year is really worth it, else I'm tempted to go down the route of always marking my queens in white as some other keepers do.

What follows, I think, is interesting, and I'll blog it for the record (for me as much as anything else). Now, I also tried to move hive 2 closer to the edge of the site to try to address the concerns of the site manager that the hives would interfere with use of the site. I've prepared a board for the hive to sit on quite close to a wall, and this morning the hive was about 3 meters away from this board. Moving the hive isn't too much of a challenge since it's only stand+floor+brood box+crown-board+roof, and I can just about grapple this from the top and stagger short distances with it. I tried moving it about half the distance to the desired site. No luck. Returning foragers congregated at the old site in ever increasing numbers, looking for their lost home with no success. Watching the hive entrance, I saw foragers leaving but none returning. I waited 10 minutes or so, but there was no change to the situation. Perhaps I could have waited longer, but I decided to move the hive back, to around 1 meter (perhaps a little more) away from the original site. As I stood back I saw the landing board covered with returning foragers. Amazing - I mean I only moved the hive 40-50 centimeters back! After 5 minutes or so the air around the hive have pretty much normalised and cleared of the excess of foragers. Now, here's the interesting part. I returned in the afternoon (a few hours later) and tried moving the hive another meter away. No luck, and again the returning foragers could not find the hive. However, instead of returning to the location they had left from, they instead started buzzing around the location where the hive had originally been early that morning. I moved the hive back a little and again the foragers suddenly crowded the landing board. It does seem, then, that bees do take a while to re-normalise their sense of location of home, and have a memory of "previous home". Sure, I've hardly been very scientific here, but it's not my intention to experiment. Back to the point: I'll pop back in the next couple of days to make other small hive moves with the intention of getting hive 2 into a more discrete position within the site. I do so hope this will satisfy the powers that be. Let's see.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Why have bees in London

I wrote a piece to argue the case for having bees on the small nature reserve where I have them right now. It's a shame I was not able to go to the meeting (Camden Nature Reserves Forum) where this was due to be discussed since I was away on holiday with the family. I spend some time writing the pitch, so thought it worth sharing some of it here for the record. I'll find out how the meeting went in the next couple of days.

Honey Bees in London?


• Honey bees are of critical importance to the environment and to human food production
• Honey bees are in trouble, with many threats leading to reducing numbers
• In London, honey bees can do relatively well compared to their country compatriots, but the availability of good urban sites is quite limited, especially in central areas.
• Should any London urban nature reserves be used to accommodate bees? What type of reserves might be appropriate, and what might the challenges be of trying this?
• A suggestion is made that interested parties meet at GP to discuss some pertinent points and, if willing, to enjoy assisting in a hive inspection.

Honey bees are important

Honey bees are of enormous benefit to local flora, and hence fauna too. They visit flowers to gather nectar and pollen which are taken back to the hive. The nectar is processed to make honey and then stored in wax capped cells. The pollen, being protein rich, is also stored as a foodstuff primarily for the young larvae. As the bees forage from flower to flower they spread pollen from one plant to another and hence pollinate the plants. Honey bees can forage over three miles from their hive.

With honey bee numbers diminishing alarmingly across this country (and others), it's important to help conserve the species which is responsible for 80% of all insect pollination worldwide. Most flowering plants in London are pollinated by honey bees, and hence they are a very important part of the lifecycle of a huge range of flora from wild flowers to large trees. Honey bees also pollinate many food producing plants which are common in London, examples of which are apple, cherry, hazel, pear, plum, blackberry, cucumber, onion, squash, sunflower, blueberry, cranberry, coriander, carrot, strawberry, fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, brussel sprout, turnip, chestnut and quince to name but a few. It is estimated that one third of our diet is directly dependent on the relationship between flowers and their pollination by bees, with double this number dependent via indirect effects (such as animal feeds). In these plants if bees were not available then pollination would not take place and seeds would not be set.

Of course the bees also produce honey. Beekeepers can carefully remove some of this honey, though this must be balanced with the need of the bees. This important foodstuff is used as winter stores since although many bees work themselves to death in the summer, many thousand will survive through the winter so the colony can be up and running again early the following year. Even in the bleakest winter a healthy colony will contain about 10,000 bees. One of the benefits of this is that the bees are available in the early spring in some numbers when flowers such as snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils are flowering. These flowers are essential for the bees as the colony expands in early spring. A this time there are no other insects available to pollinate the flowers, and it’s only honey bees living in a warm, dry and nourished colony that can take advantage of the odd sunny day to nip out and forage. A few weeks later the weather is warmer and bumble bees and other insect pollinators are building up. Even then the honey bee colony is much stronger with a huge foraging force available - in the height of summer a colony has over 50,000 bees.

Problems for the honey bee

The current plight of the honey bee is well publicised. The problem is virtually global, with one third of colonies being wiped out in single years in areas of some countries. Interestingly, it seems that in general the situation in London is somewhat better, though some local beekeepers have lost a large number of colonies over winter. However, no reliable data exists. Whilst opinion is divided on exactly what the principal cause is to this global problem, there is a growing consensus that it’s likely to be a combination of stress factors. Top of the list if the varroa mite, a tiny blood-sucking parasite which is a problem since it spreads disease. One such disease is Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Other diseases exist, older well established ones being American Foulbrood and European Foulbrood. Both of these are notifiable diseases (bee inspector must be called in) and the treatment for the former is to destroy the colony. One newer disease is a fungus called nosema which is thought by some to be the main driver for colony collapse. However, whilst this list of diseases is a long one, there are other drivers to the bee deaths. Pesticides and herbicides are blamed by many due to direct and indirect effects on the bees. Many of these have been banned over time for directly causing bee deaths but, where effects are more subtle, proving that adverse effects exist is much more challenging as is the banning of chemicals. Another, more subtle effect of the herbicides is their effect on reducing the amount of forage available to the bees. It’s interesting to note that honey yields from city hives are generally quite a lot higher than from hives in the countryside. Initially this sounds quite counter-intuitive, but the plight of the country honey bee is clear to see when considering the combined effects of increasing herbicide effectiveness, farming being undertaken with huge mono-cultures, and the reduction of hedgerows. Interestingly, one hundred years ago there were around one million kept bee hives in the UK. Today there is less than a third of this number. Feral bee colonies do exist, but are now relatively rare since wild colonies tend to fall victim to the various bee diseases within a few years.

Honey bee sites in London?

It is estimated that there are 2000 beekeepers in London, but only a portion of these are active due to the challenges of accessing appropriate sites. Hives are somewhat common on allotments, though these few in more central areas. Bees are kept on roofs (the Royal Festival Hall, for example), in large private gardens (Buckingham Palace, for example), on the balconies of tower blocks, and even on boats (a barge owner on the Regents Canal keeps a hive there).

Positioning a hive does not require a huge amount of space. On warm days there will be many bees constantly leaving and entering the hive, but the bees generally fly about in the area 1-2 meters in front of the hive before buzzing higher. In confined spaces it’s possible to site the hive facing a wall or other barrier, and the bees deal with this easily by simply buzzing straight up to 3-5 meters, their typical foraging altitude, after they leave the hive.

What does beekeeping itself entail? Approaches vary between beekeepers regarding feeding bees in lean times and in administering disease prevention substances. However, one common activity, in spring and summer the hives are opened for inspection on a weekly basis to check that the bees are healthy and that the queen is laying. Extra vigilance is needed in spring and early summer to minimise the likelihood of some of the bees swarming to another site. They can do this as a way of propagating their colonies, with the old queen leaving with half of the workers. Swarm management techniques are important both to maintain a vigorous number of bees in the original colony and to avoid angering local residents. Whilst bees are currently popular in the minds of the public, irrational fears and ignorance are still widespread. Most people have a relatively mild reaction to stings. A tiny portion of people can, however, have a powerful reaction called anaphylactic shock which requires immediate medical attention. Bees are, however, not aggressive unless directly provoked.

Ideally hives should be sited in discrete places out of the way of the general public and potential nuisance. It helps to have them sited away from overlooking buildings – many people who live next door to well positioned hives don’t even know it. It’s very useful to have good vehicular access to the hives since this makes the carriage of heavy hive boxes much less onerous to the beekeeper. This access can be especially challenging in London with parking so restricted as it is. Also, it’s good to keep 2 hives as a stable minimum in a location. The colonies do not interact (save for a little drift of bees between them if too close, which is not desirable) but there are benefits from the beekeeping perspective. If a colony becomes week it is possible to repopulate it from another hive, whilst taking care to do so with techniques to stop the bees fighting. If one of the queens dies or becomes unproductive, it’s possible to re-queen from the other colony. This can either be done by inserting queen cells (protected initially) from the stronger colony, or by inserting eggs from the stronger colony which the workers will then be able to develop on into a queen rather than a worker by a special feeding regime. More basically, it allows for comparisons between the hives to help give clues to how each colony is doing given a particular site and set of weather conditions. It is not necessary to have more than one hive per site, but it makes beekeeping easier and helps the beekeeper in taking measures against some of the problems bees can run up against. Other desirable aspects of a hive site is that it is somewhat sheltered, relatively dry (best with few overhanging branches which can drip), and with access to direct sunshine on the hive itself (early morning sun on the front of the hive is ideal). A perfect combination of factors is unlikely on many sites in London where space is at a premium.

Bee hives on a nature reserve – reasons and issues

“London Wildlife Trust . . . manages over fifty London-wide reserves and campaign to save important wildlife habitats, engaging London’s diverse communities through access to our nature reserves, volunteering programmes and education work.” LWT is not the only group to manage reserves in London, but its tagline is fairly typical for many of the groups, the aims typically being to both promote and conserve wildlife, and also to promote public understanding of and involvement in that wildlife.

So, what of locating bee hives on nature reserve land? It seems clear that using some such land for the purpose of hosting bee hives ticks many boxes on the wildlife conservation and promotion agendas. However, even conservation workers who appreciate the benefits that honey bees provide might feel understandably wary when standing next to a thriving hive. This might restrict full and normal access to a nature reserve for conservation workers if hives are poorly positioned.

What of the other purpose of many nature conservation sites: to engage the public? Compared to conservation workers, concerns regarding the general public are perhaps greater since these people are often invited onto site, and may well be more nervous and ignorant of honey bees. The importance of this concern depends on the positioning of hives and the amount and type of public access on the site. On the flip side, there are possibilities to get the local community more involved in a nature reserve because of the bees. Beekeeping is a fascinating and rewarding hobby in which there is widespread public interest. I was recently involved in a project run by Ealing Beekeepers in Perivale Wood nature reserve. Groups of children attended over the course of a week to hear more about bees and undertake some interactive experiences such as candle making. We secured funding for enough bee-suits to clothe groups of children and I presented bees and beekeeping whilst showing them a rare feral colony. The children gained a lot from this experience and it’s a project that we hope to reproduce in future.

So, there are good arguments for keeping honey bees on various types of sites across London, and some challenges too. Honey bees are beneficial both to the environment and London residents. It’s not a simple decision to put bees on any given site, even a site which is a nature reserve. After considering these benefits and challenges, there are open questions as to whether London based nature conservation groups are able and willing to help in siting hives in London.

Bees at GP

GP is an LWT managed nature reserve in Maida Vale. It is a small site which is overhung by several large trees. The site's history is unclear, but there's a story that there used to be an old coach-house there. It has been a nature reserve for many years now, and several years ago bees were briefly kept on the site. The centre of the site is taken up by a huge copper beach and there is a pond with frogs, toads and newts. An ancient mulberry tree lies horizontal but still fruits in the summer, and near this there is a fox den.

GP is very close to my house, hence low food miles on the honey. I mostly cycle there but am forced to drive when carrying heavy hive boxes, though luckily my parking permit covers me right outside the door. Having asked and been given permission to keep two hives there, I moved one on site at the beginning of June and another in mid July. Both colonies appear to be doing well. Shortly after installing the second hive, concerns were raised about the impact bees would have both on the maintenance of the site and the use of the site by visitors. The latter is currently limited, but there are potential plans to increase use. Possible responses are to better position the hives on site, or to remove one or both of the hives. Moving hives off site is a challenge, since there’s a general beekeeping rule of “less than 3 meters or more than 3 miles” since if a hive is moved any distance between this then the bees will return to the old site rather than the new one and probably die. Hives moved more than 3 miles are generally OK since the old site is not in the foraging area and hence the bees return to the new site. Hives moved less than 3 meters will usually be found again. “In-between” moves are not impossible, but certainly risky for a colony. In fact I saw this myself when trying to relocate the second hive further into an unused part of the site (next to a wall, next to the first hive). I moved it over completely (only 3-4 meters) and witnessed a growing mass of bees (returning foragers) buzzing in the space above where the hive had been before. When I moved the hive back to half way between old and new positions the swarm in the air slowly started to disappear and I saw bees entering the hive. The alternative, of course, is to find an alternative site more than 3 miles from GP. I don’t find it appropriate to regularly drive this far to look after the bees, so such a move would mean me having to find an alternative beekeeper to take on the bees.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Site issues

Here's a snap of how I set up the two hives on site initially. The large green area in the bottom left of the picture is a rather lovely pond which is packed full of frogs, and I've seen toads and newts on the reserve too.

The hive at the back of the picture is "hive1," the first hive. It's pretty much in one corner of the reserve. The hive on the right is where I initially put "hive2" (it's got a couple of redundant supers on it - in fact only the brood box is accessible to the bees). When I moved this hive yesterday I sited it further away from the path and nearer to hive1. Subsequent moves (if I make them within the reserve at all) will shift it further to the left of this photo and right next to the wall at the back, with the entrance facing this wall. Then it'll be far from the main path and the entrance positioning should make access right around the pond no problem, in my opinion.

Oh, and here's a picture of those toads I saw.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Queens !

Double hive inspection today. Again the weather was not too kind, and the inspection was accompanied by intermittent sun and cloud.

In hive1 the honey super comb was again slight more drawn out that I'd seen it previously, and in fact the centre couple of frames had uncapped honey, though only in the middle of each. The comb on the outer frames is still only somewhat drawn out. Things down below in the brood super and brood box looked healthy. Again I saw brood of all sorts, and many eggs too. Most exciting of all I saw the queen in the brood super. She's a big one - much longer and larger than the ones I'd seen previously in other hives. As I turned away to get the queen cage to try to mark her I lost sight of her on the frame. I looked and looked, only to look down and see her disappearing into the main brood box below. I resigned myself to returning to the inspection, but when going through the brood box I caught up with her again, this time caging her and giving her a blog of green paint on the back of the head. It's not the neatest, since I found that other bees kept mobbing her and getting in the way, but mark her I did.

Hive2 (the new hive) still has just a single brood box with 11 frames. Three of the frames were still really just foundation, with no worked out comb. Most of the frames were well worked out though. Again I saw he full range of eggs, uncapped and capped larvae, pollen and honey. And my luck was certainly in today: I saw the queen too. She's about the same size as the one in hive1, with a bright white spot on the head. I think I remember Fabiola saying she is an '09 queen so strictly she should have a green dot, but to be honest I'm pretty glad it's white since I find the white much easier to see. So, hive2 looks in good shape, though the colony is small. I'd be very surprised to get any honey out of it this year. My main hope is it just stays healthy through autumn, winter and spring.

Quite what the fate of this second hive will be I am not sure. I took the opportunity to move it a meter or so, further away from the path and so to make it less intrusive for people visiting the site. I have a final location in mind (next to a wall) which is another 1 or perhaps 2 short moves away. After I moved it I noticed the returning foragers buzzing around the old location, but they seemed to be finding their way back to the landing board eventually. I had initially tried a slightly larger move but noticed that no bees were going back into the hive so settled for a less ambitious attempt. Fingers crossed that I might be able to persuade the site manager to keep the 2 hives on site. I'd had absolutely no luck trying to find alternative sites, and am concerned that even if I do I'll be unable to move the hives a short distance since the bees will keep returning to the old site and die.

Anyhow - a VERY exciting day to have seem both queens for the first time and also to have marked the one in hive1. Not so good on the honey front, but that's no issue for me since they look pretty healthy.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


This evening was the annual Ealing beekeeper barbecue. The venue was the fabulous Perivale Wood. I took Nat along, and we went for an explore in the woods, only to be totally soaked as the heavens opened and even the thick tree foliage was not sufficient to shield us. A lovely evening all round, and I was again reminded what a nice bunch the Ealing beekeepers are.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

get orfff my land

Terrible news. This evening I rang the man who manages the nature reserve where I keep the bees to tell him about the second hive being there. The reaction was not good, but suffice to say there are reservations regarding the degree to which the bees restrict the use of the site. I've been asked to move the second hive off this site, despite having been given permission both on the phone and also in a meeting of the Camden nature reserves forum. I don't know how I am going to do this. Even is I do find another site near to where I live, if it's within a 3 mile radius of the old site then foraging bees will go back to the old site, not find the hive, and die. I am bitterly disappointed, but will see what I can do.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Bombing in the dark - new girls on site

This evening I drove up with Fabiola and Donald, her husband, to an allotment in Ealing where she keeps most of her hives. The allotment's beautiful: some of the people there keep vines and make wine; there are many beautiful vegetables and greenhouses; and we initially stopped off to see her friend Ian (another of the Ealing BeeKeeping mob I had not met before) who was sharing drinks with friends in a beautiful open-sided shed complete with chandelier. The colony itself had been kindly beefed up with several extra frames from Ian. We taped up the hive entrance, bound the floor, brood box and roof together with a few lines of cord and then carried the whole contraption rather gingerly into the car. I drove carefully back to Maida Vale with my suit still on and veil to the ready, with all the windows down.....just in case.

By the time I returned on site, struggling under the weight of a heavy hive, it was getting late. There's not much light at 9.30pm even at this time of year, and as I got beneath the trees I realised it was going to be a challenge to get things set up gently and precisely. Indeed I was right. As I juggled my knife to slice off tape and cord and moved the stack onto the waiting stand, angry bees issued forth and started bombing my smock and veil. I shoved in an extra new frame with foundation to make it 11 and shuffled the boxes around as best I could in the dark. I also set aside all the spare kit (brood box, a coupe of supers, roof, etc) on the far side of the site. Even here, though, some bees had followed me and they were clearly unhappy. These poor girls were never to make it home. On a new site and with me unable to either calm them nor explain where their new home was, attacking me was all they had left. I dallied until they at last lost interest and took their chances of finding home in the gloom.

So, after a slightly unpleasant experience the new colony is safely installed. I've decided not to leave it the full 14 days till the first inspection. After all the colony is operating on (mostly) built out comb, and I'm not too sure what's going on in there after all. Perhaps a quick peek in 7 days will do.


Another inspection. The weather was not great: temperature in the low 20s and occasional direct sunshine as the clouds jostled and chased each other across the sky. The big difference with this inspection is that I took Nat, my wife. This was mainly for her experience: she'd been impressed how keen I've become on beekeeping and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Also, she was there as photographer, smoker operator and note taker. It's very useful having spare smock, veil and gloves. Although Nat was a total novice at handling bees and had not done any courses nor read any books, I knew that she'd be useful and calm throughout. Neither of us were to be disappointed with the inspection. As a reminder, the colony is operating on a brood-and-a-half and has one honey super on.

First the honey super. The comb was little more drawn out that when I saw it during the last inspection 8 days ago: the centre frames perhaps had half-drawn out comb; the outer frames little. Not much to see there so I just pulled out one frame for Nat to see the comb and the bees working it, and we moved on to.....

...the brood super. This was full of honey (mainly capped), pollen and brood (mainly capped). All except the very outer frames had brood on. As a general note, the bees seemed a little calmer than last time, though neither inspection took place in great weather.

In the main brood box the bees were also going about their business in normal fashion. Honey, pollen and brood was present throughout. The brood was of all sorts: capped, large uncapped, smaller uncapped and lots of eggs. Great! Although I again failed to see the queen but the presence of all those eggs is good enough for me at this stage. Except that, of course, if I were able to see her I could then mark her and then make her easier to see her in future. The eggs were mainly towards the rear of the brood box with older larvae towards the front.

Nat had been snapping away on the camera throughout, but at this stage stopped to help me swap in a new stand as I lifted the brood box and floor. I'd had an old stand there before (someone else's which had been on site for years and belonged to an old WBC hive so not really quite right). My new stand looks much better since it matches the hive cosmetically and also has a landing board from which the bees can walk straight up into the hive.

The picture below is a great one to show a variety of cells in the comb. On the left is uncapped brood. Notice the white "C" shapes - they are bee larvae, and relatively well developed ones too. In the centre of the picture is capped brood. The cells look yellowish when they are capped and are every so slightly raised. Inside is capped larvae of worker bees. (Capped drone brood cells stand much higher above the comb (and are also generally located on the lower parts of the frame and in fact often on free standing comb on the bottom of the frames).) On the right hand side of the photo is capped honey, recognisable since it is very pale in colour and very flat against the comb. This picture is somewhat typical, though the frame should actually be rotated 90 degrees anti-clockwise to show the brood at the bottom and honey at the top. The other slightly atypical thing to note is that there is usually some cells of pollen stored in the area between honey and brood. There seem to be empty cells in this location in this photo, so perhaps the bees have left them vacant and are in fact finding it hard to find pollen.

Overall, it seems that the bees have not expanded to rapidly outgrow the hive space as I feared they might. At this stage the brood-and-a-half seems perfectly good for them, at the moment at least. They are still using the brood super to lay, but the ratio of brood to honey there is lower than in the main brood box itself even on the centre frames and certainly on the outer frames. It's just a shame that they are not putting honey into the honey super. To be honest this doesn't really concern me, though if they did it would be a nice sign they were thriving.

The remaining work on site was to sort out the positioning for the new colony before it arrives this evening. I've chosen a place which arguably is not the best, but it's quite close to the first colony which will reduce the impact on the site as a whole. It's quite shady, though, but on balance I think it OK.

And what did Nat think? Very excited and interested by the experience, and she's offered her help for future inspections when possible. It'll be good to have a helper when more experienced hands are not available. (Speaking of which I must get some in, but more on that later.)

Costs and revenues

I'm intending on doing a hive inspection this afternoon, as well as installing the new colony this evening - very exciting - watch this space. Also, I'm planning on taking loads of photos for the record and also to make this blog more interesting. However, for now here's something completely different......

It's certainly not my intention to keep bees commercially, and as I've stated already my interest is primarily in the husbandry and nature conservation angles. However, since I've shelled out a fair amount of cash so far, I thought I should keep some tabs on how this is stacking up, and whether I might even be able to recoup my outlay.

I'm sitting on a fair amount of kit: 3 broodboxes, 7 supers, full sets of frames in all these (plus an extra set of super frames), 2 hive stands, a couple of dummy boards, 2 bee suits (tops, veils and gloves actually), 2 smokers, hive tools, some feeders, some basic honey extraction kit and some queen marking kit. I've gone for "budget" kit on nearly everything, and the total cost is still just under 800 quid. Not cheap but there's quite a bit of kit and much of it should last well.

Now, I'm OK having just shelled out this cash as a sunk cost to invest in a new and fascinating hobby. However, looking at how I can recoup these costs by selling a few jars, I thought I'd make some assumptions about over how many years to amortise costs of larger items of kit. For example, say the hives last 10 year (should be much longer, I hope), the frames 3, and so on. I'll also I assume I can sell a jar of honey for 5 quid which is perhaps unlikely since I'd probably have to go through a reseller to have any volume whatsoever. Making these assumptions, and looking at how much it costs to jar up the honey (about 50p per jar with the labels and lids included) I will need to sell around 23 jars to cover this year's costs. Of course, since the costs are amortised I'll then have to go on making similar further sales in future years to cover those future amortised costs. Alternatively, if I assume I take all costs up front, I'll need to sell 167 jars to cover my costs. Hhmmmmm......looking at the comparison of the numbers popping out from these methods implies I've put an average life of 7.25 years on my kit - perhaps not conservative but probably not totally unrealistic if I look after it. Although I'm sure I've missed out some future costs (such as disease prevention measures, food, extra kit and so on), all in all breaking even does not seem too ambitious to me, and I'll like to try to sell enough jars over the years to cover my costs just for the fun of it. However, it's clear to see that keeping bees commercially would require a very large scale operation.

Friday, 10 July 2009

New colony arriving soon

I dropped off my new hive with Fabiola today. She's very kindly been bringing on a colony for me which is currently sitting in a nuc on her allotment. This weekend she's going to swap frames with bees from the nuc with the empty ones in the hive and leave the hive to sit for a day or two. Then, on Monday evening I'll be popping over to pick it up and move it on site. It's very exciting for me, though perhaps slightly ambitious to be trying to run two colonies at this stage. I'll have two quite different colonies. The original one seems to be large and strong. The second will be initially quite small (a few frames) and I'll need to be conscious that the priority is to let the colony build up so they're in good shape for the winter. Whilst I was at her house, Fabiola showed me the 72 jars of honey she's just pulled out of 2 supers. Wow! I hadn't realised that each super could yield that much honey. I found it interesting to note that she told me it's her style to leave the bees with one brood box only during the winter and feed them well. This is similar to the advice I've heard from others, though I've also heard advice to leave the 2 brood boxes on plus a super and don't bother to feed them (much). It's all a bit confusing really, but I'm starting to get the impression that beekeeping is an art for which I will need to develop my own style. Having said that, at this stage I'd rather err on the side of being conservative and somewhat generous to the bees, and anyhow I'm not in it primarily for the honey.