Running On Empty

Square Hive 1
Square Hive – A Beehive Which Dr Frankenstein Would Have Admired

Help! I’m running on empty, I’m just hanging on by my fingernails, it’s touch and go….

I’ve run out of beekeeping kit. I started this year with 3 hives on my roof. Today there are 8. Only a National nuc box and a single Kieler breeding nuc remain in reserve. That’s the beekeeping equivalent of the small change down the back of your sofa. It’s like a honey-boxed shanty town has crash-landed on my roof.

Of those 8 hives, 3 are full-size hives, 3 are small Kieler breeding nuclei, one is a 5-frame observation hive box and the last one is a bit of a Frankenstein creation: you won’t see many beehives which look like Square Hive.

The picture shows its unconventional arrangement, perched on its white-painted pallet set against an uncertain sky (for the technically-inclined, Square Hive is composed of a green plywood 5-frame 14” x 12” nuc box topped by National crownboard and a regular cedarwood super). Although it may not sound like it, everything really is under control. And since this is still only late May, there is plenty of honey-gathering potential yet for the bees, even after I have more than doubled my colonies. And three weeks from now, around the summer solstice, the rate of egg-laying by the Queens will decelerate and the bees’ swarming potential will diminish.

Mercifully, all of my colonies have now been split, artificially swarmed or snelgroved, so I shouldn’t need any more hives this year….and my intention is to end this year with four strong and healthy hives on the roof, all requeened in 2014.

Woody Allen once wisecracked: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. We’ll see.

Boom And Bust

Early Wet Lime 1
Early Wet Lime

I was fortunate enough to spend an hour or so with John Chapple this weekend. Some people draw inspiration from the teachings of Zen masters, others are beholden to the Twitter feeds of potty-mouthed celebrities, but there’s nothing I find more rewarding than hob-nobbing with JC (the illustrious initials are a mere coincidence, I assure you) over a cup of tea. That’s because John is a super-nice guy and one of the UK’s most respected beekeepers. A rare combination.Our conversation kicked off on a simple beekeeping truth: that you never know quite what you’re going to find when you lift the lid on a bee-hive. John said that on-the-spot problem solving was the cornerstone of his enjoyment of beekeeping. Of course, he pointed out, you have to know enough about bees to understand what the problem actually is before you set to finding a solution.

I remarked that my first stab at solving a beekeeping conundrum was always a complex one – the real trick was always to find the simple solution which lies hidden beneath the complicated one.

The discussion took a more serious turn when we assessed the 2014 beekeeping season. No doubt that 2014 has been a great year so far. Bee colonies have built up quickly and, properly invigilated, have been healthy and productive. That’s because Spring came early and stayed put. Here in the last week of May, the whole of nature is about a month ahead of schedule. That’s good news – and potentially bad news, too.

In particular, John noticed last week that some varieties of lime tree are coming into bud, in preparation for flowering. That usually happens in London in July. For my bees, as for many bees in urban environments across northern Europe (Paris and Berlin, to name a couple), lime is a huge component of the summer honey harvest. So it is an important marker of how far the forage wheel has turned. John is concerned that a precocious flow of nectar will lead to a bumper early summer in 2014, with plentiful honey and abundant bees – and then we may, quite simply, run out of road. Like a cartoon character pedalling hell for leather having run off a cliff edge, the bees will have nowhere to go but down.

If his fears turn out to be correct, we beekeepers face a major management problem: when our colonies are strong and food sources fail, hunger could be only days away. And believe me, there is no sadder sight in the bee-world than a starved hive: each bee motionless, head-down in the wax cell in a effort to ingest the last lick of honey.

London beekeepers are fortunate: the diversity of our urban flora normally provides year-round resources for honeybees. Parks, railway lines, gardens, trees, clover, wildflowers all contribute to a truly cosmopolitan mix, in true London style. But that also means that beekeepers in London are poorly prepared for any failure of the forage system. Country beekeepers are more aware of the ebb and flow of forage in their vicinity, often a true boom and bust situation. But if London’s forage cannot bridge the gap between a bountiful Spring and a lush Autumn, I suspect that a lot of urban beekeepers will be stranded, their populous colonies ambushed by starvation.

As beekeepers, we will have a judgment to make next month. Do we take the full supers of delicious, health-boosting honey for ourselves, spin and filter the honey, ripen and jar it, label it and sell it? If we do, we will have to replace swiftly it with cheaper sugar syrup to ensure that the bees do not have an empty larder.

Alternatively, we could let the bees consume the honey which they have created from their own industry and dedication, remaining vigilant in case even this would not be sufficient to tide them over until the heather and ivy nectars emerge in late Summer and Autumn.

Right now, this is nothing but gentle theorising over tea and biscuits. But there is an amber light flashing. In little over a month’s time, we could be facing a stark choice.

The Bee Brand

Whoever masterminded the original honeybee PR campaign did a fantastic job.

Taking a 20 million-year-old venomous insect and transforming it into an instantly recognizable international brand, with a sky-high approval rating and access-all-areas star status, demonstrates marketing skills of the highest order.

Like lemons, horses or meerkats, the bee adds instant likeability to a product and its inclusion is a sure sign of premiumisation. You’ll pay more for something with bee signage all over in it, but you’ll feel good about it.

Continue reading “The Bee Brand”


Holly 1
Male Holly In Flower

This isn’t exactly the holly time of year. The christmassy archetype of tight red berries, chiming merrily against green-glossy spikes, belongs to another, brisker season. Holly is sinewy, intense and colour-coded for snow. As if it only existed in winter.Or so I thought. But last weekend, I changed my mind. We human beings are good at change. That’s the key to evolutionary success. My epiphany was that a holly bushes are either male or female – and that both genders offer flowers irresistible to bees.

As it turns out, the male holly pods are tight, tinged bundles which burst, double-antlered with pollen prongs. And female holly bears a bud, green and nectar-sweet, when unfurled on its white pedestal. And bees hum from flower to flower, weaving a scrupulous commerce, conjugating next winter’s clutch of holly berries.

Holly 2
Female Holly In Flower

And to think. I have lived all these years with holly crammed into the gap between the first Noel and the New Year litter of bare-branched Christmas trees abandoned on the pavement.

Why? I suppose I just saw holly as a Christmas fixture, from childhood onwards. The set-piece was unchanging: the tribal gathering, a ritual consumption, the short joy of gifting and, finally, the flame-frazzled holly sprig from the pudding: festive dross.

Holly -1
Bee On Female Holly, Drinking Nectar With Her Brown Proboscis.

From now on, my perception of holly will not freeze-frame as a December ceremonial, hung on the hook of recall until next Christmas. Holly is evergreen, a venue for flower and bee to exchange their gifts of creation in an unshedding interaction.

Holly. You just have to know how to celebrate it, that’s all. The bees do.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go!

On 1st May 2014, the third and final phase of my Leathermarket Gardens project took place under a wringing wet, grey sky. Ideal weather for my Planty (=part Planting/part Party)!

The previous evening, the plants had been transferred from Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST)’s HQ at Red Cross Garden by Nikki and me. Three-quarters-of-a-carful of plants and 16 hours later, Nikki, nicknamed “The Flower Ferry”, magically produced this precious cargo on site at the appointed hour.

Continue reading “Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work We Go!”

Fritillary: Flower, Butterfly Or Dicebox?

Snake’s Head Fritillary

It’s a frivolous Bank Holiday question – and you’ve probably guessed that all 3 are fritillaries: Flower, Butterfly and Dicebox.

  • The tongue-tickling name, fritillary, is derived from the Latin term for a dice-box (fritillus).
  • This references the chequered markings of the plants known as fritillaries.
  • And the Heath Fritillary is one of our rarest butterflies and was considered to be on the brink of extinction in the late 1970s.

My favourite fritillaries are at Totleigh Barton. Guess which sort ?

In The Apiary : Early May : Queen Cells

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.

Scarlett New Queen Of Shard Hive
Exiled Queen Scarlett of “K”

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.

Charged Queen Cell - Shard
A White Larva Inside The Intact Queen Cell

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:

Charged Queen Cell 4 - Shard
An Opened Queen Cell

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.