We are officially Bee Farmers. Here in deepest Bermondseyshire.
At this time of year, our attention switches from bees to people. Briefly.
So we were delighted to welcome Carolina Spurlino onto our Bermondsey Street rooftop.
As a Londoner, born, bred and beehived, the Evening Standard has always been a bit of a fixture in my life. “Eeny Stannit” was the chorus from one news-stand, duetting with “Noos, Noos” as vendors of the now-defunct Evening News counter-called. Redolent. Continue reading “Evening Standard : Made In London”
In life, as in beekeeping, when you collaborate with talented people, good things happen.
When Hung (pronounced “Hoong”) Quach approached me to propose an article about the Bermondsey Street Bees‘ rooftop apiary, in the “Locality” section of her Jet and Indigo blog, I was delighted to accept. I had been especially impressed with the crispness and clarity of her photographs (and her food images in particular) and Hung’s bee photography certainly did not disappoint! Continue reading “In The Apiary : Mid June : Jet and Indigo”
At 5.31pm precisely the doorbell rang. It was the Seasonal Bee Inspector for South London, Brian McCallum, sent from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) on a routine visit to the Bermondsey Street Bees. In the 8 years in which I have been keeping bees, this was my first visit from an inspector. Or, as I like to look at it, the first time I have been offered a free beekeeping lesson from an expert, paid for by Her Majesty’s Government. Hey, Brian, great to see you! But what kept you so long? Suiting-up on the roof terrace, I noticed that Brian’s bee-suit’s breast pocket has a badge with the insignias of “Fera” and “National Bee Unit” sewn into it. Now, there used to be a government department called Fera, which was formed in 2009. But Fera is now a limited company, owned 75% by Capita plc and 25% by DEFRA (Department of Food and Agriculture). Of course, DEFRA was created to absorb the splendidly-titled Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2002. And the Bee Inspectorate was transferred from Fera to APHA late last year. Can anyone out there explain why government departments change their name-tags as freqently as those of the baristas at your local Costa Coffee? Dizzying, isn’t it? Anyway, smoker lit, we set straight to work. Brian was soon performing the slow ballet of beekeeping on our precarious fourth storey rooftop. Standing in a narrow gully between the pitched slate roof and the brick parapet on which the hives stand, we danced a pas-de-deux, as elegantly as possible in our veiled bee-suits, visiting Abbey Hive, Square Hive, Swarm Hive, Neckinger Hive, Leathermarket Hive, Shard Hive and Thames Hive.
Spring has been a long time coming, but finally, I’ve been able to crack open my hives and inspect the Bermondsey Street Bees, checking up on their health, development and well-being – and especially on each hive’s Queen.
Let’s take a closer look at these Green Queens. Green was the Queen marking colour for 2014, when these Majesties were born. This year’s dab of fast-drying marker pen on a new Queen’s thorax will be Blue. But more of that another time. Let’s focus on the Queens in each hive as the business end of 2015’s season gets underway:
Abbey Hive is my breeding hive. It has consistently produced excellent, well-tempered and productive Queens for my Apiary. Queen Jade is no exception: victorious, happy and glorious, indeed. Right now, Abbey Hive is the most populous of all my Bermondsey Street hives and it has a smattering of drones already, with a few more to come, but the look of the cells on the bottom of a couple of the frames and some empty “play cups“. Taking my cue from the bees I have just put a Snelgrove board in, with the intention of raising some more model Queens from this genetic dynasty.
Shard’s Queen Esmeralda was introduced to this queenless hive 10 days ago and she is going great guns. Amazingly, she seems to have physically grown in stature since I moved from a small mating hive into the more capacious Shard hive. Just goes to show…
It looks as if Myrtle, Queen of Thames hive, has been bustling around vigorously, too, given the faded patch of paint on her thorax. Not to worry. I’ll get her a makeover soon.
Finally, a glimpse of Grunhilde, Queen of Neckinger hive – she starred in my rooftop video (“Extreme Beekeeping“) earlier this week – so I don’t want to all this media exposure going to her head!
So there we are: an introduction to the Bermondsey Street Bees and their anointed Queens. And there’s more: there’ll be updates “In The Apiary” updates every month throughout the summer!
Here’s a Queen Bee larva from Shard Hive, afloat on a tide of royal jelly.
Out of focus, not intentionally so, but oddly apt.
Funnily enough, I can get along OK with imperfection.
Some say that our Queen is so much in the public eye that she is, in effect, a prisoner of her own subjects. Hold that thought.
The situation with a Queen Bee is remarkably similar. Constantly attended by her retinue as she makes her progress around the hive, she is gently persuaded to lay the appropriate worker bee or drone egg in the cells selected by her adoring populace.
It’s a pretty straightforward proposition: everyone has their role to play, everyone knows their place, like a 1970s BBC sitcom.
But what happens when things go wrong? Let’s look at one particular way in which the serenity of a beehive can be usurped: one of my Queens (Scarlett of Shard Hive) has produced some off-tempered bees. Think Syria. This makes them hard to work with and the final straw came when they started to “ping” my elder son when he was making a mobile call on our top terrace. Now, Queen Scarlett is the youngest and, by popular acclaim, the favourite Bermondsey Street Queen in our on-line poll. Not surprising, really, since she has obvious charms: an alluring crescent curve to her abdomen and the carefree splash of red on her thorax is, well, red.
But I have had to depose Queen Scarlett, banish her from Shard Hive and sent her into exile to a Kieler mating nuc bleakly called “K”.
Here, she can raise a small family and not be a nuisance. With Scarlett out of the way, I can get to work. I inserted a frame of newly-laid eggs from Abbey Hive, where mild-mannered Queen Primrose is 2014’s prime breeding stock, into a 5-frame nuc and placed it where Shard Hive used to be. This means that the flying bees from Shard Hive have now taken up residence in the new nucleus hive and will raise a new Queen from Primrose’s genes, not Scarlett’s.
In the meantime, the bustling population of Shard Hive (that Scarlett sure knew how to fill a frame of brood!) have recognized that they are now queenless and have selected 5 eggs as prospective new Queens, fed them with rich royal jelly and built the tell-tale, drooping Queen Cell to accommodate the larger larval body of a new Queen Bee.
They started that process on 23rd April (St. George’s Day), so by the time I intervened on the morning of 27th April, this is what they looked like from the outside. There cells are very different from the Queen Cups discussed here in April. These silos are loaded with white, thick Royal Jelly and a plump, pearly larva, gleaming like a torque necklace. Here’s a peek:
So I have carefully shaken the (slightly disconsolate, I have to admit) Shard Hive bees off each of the 11 frames to ensure that I found and removed all 5 Queen Cells charged with Scarlett’s gene-pool. Since bees can only make Queen Cells with eggs/larvae which are no more than 3 days old, no more Queen Cells will be constructed in Shard Hive.
In two days’ time, once the bees have adjusted to their queenless state, I will carefully introduce Queen Carmen to Shard Hive. Carmen is a new addition to my breeding stock and I look forward to her Buckfast-cross regalia: industrious, but gentle. Shut in a white plastic cage as big as your palm and then placed on the face of a brood comb, Queen Carmen should be acclaimed as the successor to Scarlett by the restive bees of Shard Hive. And, almost immediately, their testy temperament should subside, calmed by Queen Carmen’s serene pheromones.
And I will breathe a sigh of relief.
Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.
Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.
But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:
Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.
On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:
Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.
But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !
Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell. Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.
So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).
So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.
But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.
Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a hike.
Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.