Hi Honey, I’m Home !

High Summer, High Noon At Abbey Hive
High Summer At Abbey Hive

This weekend is the last chance to write a winning haiku for a visit to the Bermondsey Street Bees apiary. See this link to the Bee-haiku Competition for a simple haiku construction-kit and the 4 contending haikus. Why bother ? Well, here is an ever-so-slightly-over-written vignette which may whet your appetite….

My advice to bee-fanciers: there is no better time to visit a beehive than on a warm midsummer’s day around noon (taking account of all permissions and sensible precautions, of course). As you approach, a polka-dot pandemonium of yellow and black resolves itself into two bee-dances of distinctly different tempos being performed in front of the hive entrance.

First, the looping swing-dance of the novice flyers fills the vertical plane, hive-facing and elliptical, while glissades of hard-flying, veteran foragers trace determined zip-lines to and from the hive. Using the shifting sun as their compass, the bees are pin-point marionettes, orienteering to their hive in a veritable “Cirque du Soleil”.

OK, so I’m biased. But I think that we should be awe-struck by the bees’ ability to navigate harmoniously in the crowded airspace directly outside the hive. The fast-foraging aces and the trainee aviators aerobatically share the same approach path, despite their different velocities and flight-plans: a choreography of lithe congestion. To put this complexity into a human context, imagine, if you will, a double-booked dance-hall with a jitterbug flash-mob and a full corps de ballet in motion at the same time: “Strictly” meets “Robot Wars” !

But the bees intersect as effortlessly as airbursts in a firework display. It is a wonderful and mesmerising sight. As a two-left-feet dancer myself, I take some consolation from the fact that each bee is equipped with four wings, five eyes and six legs!

And while we’re playing a numbers game, remember: each haiku has 3 lines: of 5 syllables; 7 syllables; 5 syllables in that order. It’s not difficult – here’s one:

Come in, bee haiku,
You are now cleared for landing:
“Hi Honey, I’m home!”


Tea And Biscuits

“Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees”

I had a cup of tea with John Chapple last weekend. Any yes, some biscuits were involved. Viennese whirls, to be precise.

On his second cup, John offered the simple observation that the high level of honeybee colony losses was largely due to 2 years of horrible weather, which has dramatically reduced the overall health and well-being of colonies, so that opportunistic infections have taken a heavy toll of the debilitated bees. In my view, John is the best bee-mentor in London, so I listened intently….

He likened this elevated mortality in bees to pneumonia (defined as an inflammatory condition of the lung caused by various bacterial, viral and fungal infections) in England the 19th century. Then pneumonia was the major cause of death, with the health of the general population at a lower baseline and the absence of medicines to counter the root causes.

So for those beekeepers who have lost (and continue to lose, by all accounts!) colonies this year, do not despair – your beekeeping basics are sound. Our bees are being brought low by diseases to which they would not normally succumb.

Keep Calm and Carry On” was the rallying call in another, now distant, crisis.  To combat the current manifest of maladies and affliction in our bee-hives, I would propose the antidote which worked for me last weekend, swapping bee-stories with John Chapple: “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”

And today I heard a whisper that John has been invited to make a comeback to the London Beekeepers’ Association, headlining a couple of courses this summer, to add some much-needed expertise and experience to the line-up. JC’s second coming to the LBKA would certainly be an occasion to relish – definitely time to “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”

In The Apiary : Mid-June : A Recipe For Bees

Sunday Best
Beekeeper’s Whites

Well, there’s been a bit of a rush on in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary in mid-June. About time, too, since the longest day of the year is almost upon us ! As regular readers will be aware, the cold, wet Winter, rotten Spring and dubious early Summer seasons have not been propitious for bees.

But a few days of fine weather, dotted with sporadic downpours, have set the scene for a late rally. The Snelgrove manipulation on Abbey Hive has yielded three more potentially viable colonies: the old Abbey Queen (the grande dame of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary, resplendent in last season’s high-vis yellow livery) and Abbey’s older, foraging bees believe that they have swarmed to a new location, and are building up their brood nest afresh, while the young nurse bees and the brood from Abbey Hive, separated from their old matriarch, got busy making new virgin queens.

Here’s the recipe to make perfect Queen bees: take 6 new queen cells (“made earlier” in the Abbey Snelgrove top box); leave two in situ and place two each in two Kieler breeding mini-hives, together with some starter wax strips to get the brood comb started; add 250g of bakers’ fondant; finally pour in a “cupful” of young bees. Leave to prove for 2 1/2 weeks. Et voila, you have made two virgin queen bees in each mini-hive (the first of which to vacate her cell will despatch her unhatched sister, her rival for the throne). Then pray for a few days of a temperature over 20C and a distracted local bird population, which will allow your virgin queen to gather her strength and fly off for her (one and only!) mating flight, hooking up with as many as twenty drone partners, then returning to the hive as a delicious and fertile new Queen.

Kieler Breeding Nuc
First, Prepare A Kieler Breeding Nuc….Let’s Call It “X”

So from this shocking story of sororicide and binge mating, you may well be forgiven in assuming that the white “X” on top of the green roof is a British Film Censor certificate for what goes on in and around a Kieler nucleus hive. But no, this is just a distinctive geometric sign to “mark the spot”of the hive for the Queen when she returns from her mating flight (by a strange co-incidence, my other Kieler mating nuc is called “O” – but that, as they say, is another Story….). These two mini-hives are intended to provide a starting-point to build up bees to overwinter as viable colonies, which will become honey-producing entities in 2014 (btw my fashionista spies tell me that Green will be all the rage as the keynote colour for next year’s Queen bee collections).

Voila - A Perfect Hatched Queen Cell
Et Voilà ! – A Perfectly Hatched Queen Cell

But, like all recipes, things can go horribly wrong (just ask Nigella !). In my case, kitted out in my best beekeeping whites, I confidently adopted the Snelgrove manoeuvre as my new signature dish. So I decided to repeat the process on Thames Hive, 10 days after Abbey Hive. Given that the colony had built up from a 5-frame nucleus to a 12-frame hive, it was a little behind Abbey Hive in its development, but I have to say that Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive had earned her star billing and was laying spectacularly even, cornflake-crisp worker brood. So I gathered the ingredients and followed the recipe, as before. Primrose and her foragers were induced to “swarm” into the new lower brood box, while the younger bees, food stores and the brood inhabited the old top box.

Four days later, the top box suffered a virulent attack of nosema, which displayed its classic symptoms of brown splatter and seriously listless bees, so I broke the hives into two separate units and isolated the nosema-ridden box and treated with Vitafeed Gold, a health preparation often used against nosema.

The Tell-Tale Splatter Of Nosema

This emergency separation may well have saved Primrose and her older squadron of bees from being afflicted with this dread parasitic fungus (which had already done for Shard Hive in another corner of my Apiary at the end of May) and I sprayed any tell-tale spots outside the hive with a dilute fungicide after the bees had returned to their hives for the night.

I am at a loss to discover why, after 5 years, nosema has been so destructive for my bees in 2013. Last year’s Autumn feed, with a dash of thymol emulsion, kept them well through the grim Winter, but in the late Spring and early Summer, even after the Vitafeed Gold treatment, two colonies out of 5 have been smitten with this disease!

Here are my top three theories about this epidemic:

      • The withdrawal of Fumidil-B by the European Union’s EPA last year deprived the beekeeper of a first-line antibiotic defence against nosema. I used to treat prophylactically against nosema with Fumidil-B. Controversial. Still, it is a poor workman who blames his tools (or the lack of a particularly useful one in the tool-box).
      • It is said that stress can be a potential trigger for nosema in honeybees – but with the recently-improved weather and sufficient stores, there was little reason for the upper half of Thames Hive to be in any way traumatised.
      • And it can come down to a single, nosema-infected bee, perhaps unknowingly squished during a manipulation, which may have released nosema spores inside the hive which otherwise would have been deposited outside, causing such a sudden and unexpected flare-up…

Time to hang up the beekeeper’s whites for today, after slaving over some hot hives – and I don’t mind telling you: “Beekeeping doesn’t get tougher than this!”

BLink: Of Mammals And Memes

Identity Parade” got me thinking. OK, so I’ve got used to the idea that the honeybee is just one of a total of 250 species of bees in the U.K.

But what about human beings – how do we stack up from the bees’ perspective? Well, if you look at the different species of mammal native to the U.K, we are simply a single species amongst 93 others (http://www.mammal.org.uk/node/31).

That’s a lot fewer mammal species than I would have guessed. However, the bees probably would add another mammalian species to that list: “homo apisens”. This distinctive humanoid goes around on its hind legs, wearing bee-suits and emitting smoke around bee-hives.

searching for the queen small
“Homo Apisens” In His Natural Habitat

Of course, some mammals, like the honey-hungry brown bear or wolverine, have become extinct in the wild in the U.K. And I’m sure that our honeybees must be grateful that they are not preyed upon by the fearsome Honey Badger, an African/Asian mammal, celebrated in this 2011 mashup “meme”:

Fun for a wet weekend (parental advisory – beware strong language !):

Honey Badger Don’t Care  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg


Identity Parade

There are some 250 species of bee in the British Isles.  But only one of these is the honeybee. That’s right – one honeybee, 249 other bee species. A arresting thought – so let’s take a step back to consider the evidence. We all have a nodding acquaintance with the 17 different “bumblebee” species which, taken together with the honeybee, are the only bee species in the U.K. which inhabit social colonies (ie hives). So when we are think “bee” our  image of “the usual suspects” captures less than 20 out of 250 species – while the remaining 92% of bees in the line-up are all solitary species of bee.

So let’s take a walk down Taxonomy Lane to take a look at the line-up of different sorts of bee which we could recognise here in the U.K.:    

Honeybee - With Pollen
Honeybee – With Pollen

Honeybees:   These are the blog-worthy creatures which inspire beekeepers to get dressed up in white smocks and veils and spend a lot of money on providing them with acceptable accommodation (literally at Her Majesty’s pleasure) and a certain standard of care. These indefatigable pollinators live in hives and  pollinate many crops. As you might suspect, they produce honey (and beeswax!) and are also the only type of bee which reproduces by swarming.

Sarah's bumblebee
Sarah’s bumblebee

Bumblebees: Bigger, louder and hairier than the honeybee, the bumblebee looks a bit of a bruiser, but really is just a gentle giant. We know them well for those characteristics, but we also recognise them as the first bees of the year, since they can tolerate colder foraging temperatures – and the hibernated Queen needs to get her hive going as soon as possible, since otherwise, she would be on her own and will be unable to cope with producing eggs,  foraging and caring for the brood in the nest. A bumblebee nest might be found in the ground or in a bird nesting box (as was the case for one of my allotment neighbours, Bill, who called me out to “deal with the bees”, but who ended up living in close harmony with his colony in the end).

Having no clue about those 232 solitary bee-species, I will defer to the late Dave Cushman for his descriptions of the broad groupings of these solitary bees:

Mining Bee
Mining Bee

Mining Bee: These vary considerably as there are well over 200 types in the UK alone, they like sandy soils and excavate a tunnel in which they lay a single egg on a mound of pollen. The holes are usually 3 mm, 5 mm or 8 mm in diameter. Little can be done to deter them other than altering the texture of the soil by incorporating large amounts of peat, coir or other compost (but not sand)”.

Masonry Bees
Masonry Bee

Masonry Bee: “Masonry bees have no connection with the “da Vinci Code”, but can be described as a type of ground bee that normally lives in the sandy banks of streams. If this type of bee finds soft and decaying mortar in a brick wall it is unable to distinguish between that and it’s natural habitat. This has given rise to many horrific stories, but if they have ever been the cause of a building falling down I would be surprised. It is much more likely to be due to lack of maintenance by the owner”.

Leaf-Cutter Bee 1
Leaf-Cutter Bee

Leaf Cutter Bee: “The ones that I have seen are hairy and look similar to other types of solitary bee. They cut semicircular pieces from the leaves of some plants, (notably roses), They then line a tunnel shaped cavity with these pieces of leaf. They collect pollen, lay their egg on the pollen, seal up the tube to form a chamber (using more pieces of leaf) and then repeat the whole process several times. There are some species that use mud to form chambers instead of cut leaves”.

Cuckoo Bee
Cuckoo Bee – No Pollen Sacs Needed !

Cuckoo Bee:  “These lay their eggs in the nest burrows of the solitary bees… The cuckoo bee larva then eats the pollen intended for the original occupant”.

So this little identity parade shows you the broad categories of bee which you might be able to pick out – as long as you keep your eyes peeled and your antennae switched on. I would be interested to hear your tip-offs on any sightings of one of the “other 92%” of bee species in the bad-lands of Bermondsey. All information treated in the strictest confidence, of course…..by the Flying Squad.


Mr.Snelgrove Makes Exceedingly Good Boards

Mr. Snelgrove's Board
Mr. Snelgrove’s Exceedingly Fine Board

In the vocabulary of beekeepers, there’s a lot of room for name-dropping. For example, I have just deployed a “Snelgrove board” for the first time, on Abbey Hive.

But I could equally well be droning on about a “Bailey comb change”, a “Butler cage”, a “Porter bee-escape” a “WBC (William Broughton Carr) Hive”, a “Buckfast bee”,  the “Horsley method” or a “Smith grobulator” (OK, so I made the last one up, but you get my drift).

These italicised monickers, highlighting phrases strewn around the beekeepers’ lexicon, describe bits of kit, management techniques, or even strains of bee. Proper names are the basis for much technical bee-terminology. Very proper names, in fact. These sound as quintessentially English as the summery crack of leather on willow on the village green. I bet if you visited any churchyard in the deep countryside, humming with bees, you could read off half of those names from the worn headstones !

So what does Mr. Snelgrove’s eponymous board actually do ? For starters, it involves a vertical artificial swarm. This is very useful for beekeepers like me, who have limited space in their apiaries. An artificial swarm prevents the glorious chaos of an uncontrolled swarm and allows the beekeeper to raise new Queens from his own stock, if required.

Usually, you would perform an artificial swarm by splitting the existing Queen, together with a small quantity of nurse bees and all of the flying, foraging bees into a new hive (which mimics what a swarm would do) and leaving behind the brood nest and most workers to raise a new Queen in the original brood box. That would leave you with two hives a few feet apart. By inserting the Snelgrove board above the new hive containing the old queen and the flyers, you can position the old hive on top of the new hive. That’s where the vertical bit comes in. Much more convenient for rooftop urban beekeeping – and pretty consistent with the local architecture !

So there it is, the Snelgrove board is a dual purpose device for swarm prevention and making increase. By sequencing the  opening and closing of the entrances on the board (determined by the precision-timed development cycle of bee-brood) means that a new Queen can be raised, with minimal surrender of the honey-crop, using Mr. Snelgrove’s exceedingly good board.


A Wax Opera

Vivat Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive !
Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive (or
CK.1.2.L.10.12.BS, as I call her)

“A Wax Opera” has all the hallmarks of the best soap-operas: a colourful and much-sought-after leading lady, improbable plot-lines, painful incidents, treacherous rapscallions, tortured relationships, gung-ho alpha males, sensationalist twist and turns – and always leaves you wondering quite what will happen next. “A Wax Opera” is what happens when high drama hits my beehives.

Regrettably, in many glossy epics, the prima donna meets with misadventure and is written out of the script. Deprived of her familiar image on the screen, the audience suffers temporary bereavement, but, after a short period of mourning, warms to the replacement heroine. Taking that message to heart, we bid a fond “adieu” to Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive and prime the PR pumps for Primrose, Queen of Thames Hive – as the Bermondsey Street Bees’ new diva.

I shall not dwell on Ruby’s sad demise from the Apis channel – suffice it to say that she was a victim of nosema and that she was ushered to her obituary by this very beekeeper. While there is no room for sentimentality in rear-view-mirror beekeeping, let me confess to a sad failure of judgment, exacerbated by an abysmal British Spring. I shall not forget the lessons learned.

Think of it like the new Doctor Who: there’s plentiful fuss in the media about how different and exciting the new star will be for the show, but the smart money knows to anticipate little, or no real change to the narrative. The Doctor is always, essentially, The Doctor. Similarly, the business of a honeybee colony is to breed bees and to do that you have to have a Queen. Whether Primrose or Ruby, the show must go on ! The cast of characters in the daily drama at Thames Hive will ebb and flow, with Primrose at the centre of the story-line – but remember that this can be as changeable as a Wimbledon-week weather forecast.  For example, this week’s revelation is that Primrose is clipped, but not crocked (as I had feared she might be in Happenstance), as you can see from her latest publicity shot above !

My job as a beekeeper is to offer the bees direction. Like head-strong starlets, they will often interpret the script rather differently from the director, but that just makes the job more interesting. In the end, we are working towards the same goals: a thriving beehive and a plentiful supply of honey. And unlike the guy sitting in the soap-opera’s director’s chair, a beekeeper only ever gets a single “take” for each scene – each time you intervene with your bees, the results are an indelible “print” ! So when the roof goes back onto a hive after each new episode, I can almost hear my inner director calling it :

Well done, CK.1.2.L.10.12.BS, errr, I mean, Primrose, thanks, everyone. Nice work today…it’s a wrap!”

Where To Eat Out In London

“Forage” – A “flier” For The Grand Opening…..

I hope that you enjoyed my spoof “flier” for a new restaurant opening in Bermondsey Street. We are fortunate to be well provided with great restaurants here (have you tried the fabulous Restaurant Story yet?)… but as a beekeeper, I am concerned about what can be done to ensure that there is sufficient food out there for London’s local bees to eat. Hence this focus on “Forage“.

The scale of the potential problem in London can be illustrated by this chilling statistic from the government’s BeeBase. Around my London apiary, Bermondsey Street Bees, there are 581 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius (although bees are widely held to fly a maximum of 5 kilometres for forage). In the lush Suffolk countryside, the apiary at School House Bees has just 29 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius.  The density of registered apiaries in grey old London is 20 times greater than in rural Suffolk ! And if you assume (a) some 20% of apiaries are unregistered (b) there is an average of 4 beehives per apiary, then the Bermondsey Street Bees could be sharing their lunch with bees from as many as 2,750 competing bee-hives !                      

Since 2010, when the tide of beekeeping popularity was rising fast, enlightened beekeepers in London, such as former London Beekeepers Association Chairman, John Chapple, have warned of the danger of lack of sufficient forage for London’s bees. My strategy has been to approach the authorities responsible for urban plantings – mostly Borough Councils – and to work with key officers in those organisations to intervene directly and permanently on the provision of forage for pollinators.

Since July 2011, I have been advising Southwark Council on the promotion of sustainable forage and best-practice rooftop beekeeping. I am currently working with Southwark’s Environmental Officers towards the specification of a minimum 50% Pollinator-Friendly Planting in all of Southwark Council’s plant procurement protocols: “what’s one more Council quota between friends?” Even simple, cost-saving recommendations, such as setting longer summer grass-mowing schedules for the huge existing acreage of Southwark’s parks and verges (even lengthening cutting schedules by a single week provides vastly more full-flower daisy, dandelion and clover forage for bees) have proved to be a great leap forward in bee-friendly municipal thinking. Not rocket science!

While some see the current fad for sprinkling London with expensively-packaged, designer, “meadow” seeds by commercially-interested parties as toe-curling tokenism, it can only be a positive that the publicity machines of London Beekeeping Associations have finally trundled into action to raise the forage issue in the general consciousness.  The “London wildflower-meadow” idyll which they are selling certainly makes a pretty picture – see the front page of the June BBKA newsletter – and so features, with only the merest hint of irony, as the background to my spoof “flier”.

“Slick Willie” Sutton said that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is“. Similarly, my forage-focussed energies are spent working with my local Council, since its direct influence on the outcome of long-term provision of forage for bees is far greater, for example, than any London Beekeeping Association. For that reason, in late 2011 I applied to Southwark Council for a  “Cleaner, Greener, Safer” grant for Pollinator-Friendly Planting in a local park. A sizeable grant was awarded, which resulted, in October 2012, in the setting-out of new beds and the planting by local volunteers of 11 each of 32 bee-friendly varieties from the Royal Horticultural Society’s List in St. Mary Magdalen Churchyard, SE1 3UW.

The good news is that the first splashes of colour on the planting beds began to appear earlier this month……and the  flowering of that patch of bee-forage is what I wanted to celebrate in my new restaurant “flier”……all we need now is a little sunshine and the Bermondsey Street Bees will need no further invitation to the grand opening of “Forage”!