In The Apiary : Late September : Mishaps

Snape Hive - Anatomy Of A Bee-Hive
Snape Hive – Anatomy Of A Bee-Hive

I’m going to call last weekend’s events “mishaps”. Not misadventures and not disasters. Not yet.

Here’s a heavily edited version of what transpired at my Suffolk apiary. That’s because when I wrote down what actually happened on Saturday afternoon, the catalogue of woe was bigger and wider than Argos’s Christmas edition. So I binned it and started again.

Executive summary: 3 out of 4 hives turned out to be Queenless. Ness Hive was as conspicuously Queenless as a radical, regicidal republic. Castle Hive reverberated with an unmistakeable “queenless roar” as soon as I flipped the lid off. And Snape Hive, the pride of the apiary this year, had its brood frames ravaged by a drone-laying-Queen (DLQ) depositing drone eggs haphazardly in the brood box and, incredibly, sleighting through a metal queen excluder, ovipositing in the super. I ask you !

Ghastly Brood Pattern
Spotty Brood Pattern – And All Drone, Too!

The first thing a beekeeper wants to see when a beehive is opened is clear evidence of Queen activity. If a perusal of “the Court circular” draws a blank for Her Majesty’s recent engagements, anxiety levels begin to rise. But there is one time of year when an AWOL monarch really sets the nerves jangling. And this is it. Autumn. The reason is that there is n0 breeding window left to replace her. Quite simply, no Queen means no new bees in a hive, assuring a long, dwindling death as the workers die of old age, unreplaced. A DLQ means a quicker annihilation, as drones gobble up precious resources both before and after emerging from their wax cells on a one-way ticket to oblivion.

I needed a plan. What I got instead was a confection of intuition and bee-knowledge, bow-tied with a ribbon of guesswork. I would dismantle Snape Hive and merge it with Ness Hive, feed and medicate the merged bees, then add a spare Queen next week. Readers of a sensitive disposition should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs, which contain explicit references to bee-husbandry. Some may find this offensive. And too technical by half.

Here goes: I restored 4 frames of foundation to the recently dummied-down Ness Hive and moved it to Snape Hive’s stand, adding lemongrass to the entrance to mask the distinct odours of Ness and Snape Hives as they united. (The flying bees from Ness Hive would return to an empty space, but would drift to neighbouring queenright Iken Hive). I moved Snape Hive 20 metres away and smoked it heavily, so that the bees would be crammed with honey to pay the price of admission to a foreign hive. Then I disassembled Snape Hive, shaking the bees frame by frame into the air and brushing off any stragglers onto the lawn. Finally a sharp bang on the brood box, for good measure, to dislodge any recalcitrant bees.

Smoked And Shaken Bees
Smoked And Shaken Bees

The evicted workers flew off to the newly-positioned Ness Hive – now renamed Snape Hive and crowned with Snape’s trademark roof, a sinuous white ‘S’. Initially, there was plenty of congestion on the threshold of the hive, since I have drawing-pinned a Queen excluder across the  the entrance, to keep out any DLQ or drones. Half-an-hour later, I checked that there was no DLQ craving admission, then took off the QE and replaced the entrance block. I fed the uniting hive with 2 ½ gallons of thymolated syrup (to combat nosema), which will I hope the bees will use, unseasonably, to draw out the brood comb on the four new frames, ready to accept a new laying Queen.

Well, that’s the trailer. No doubt it is one of those trailers which is better than the actual movie. This could be a devastating setback to my Suffolk apiary as autumn sets in. Thank goodness I have spare queens in London (the adage about smooth succession being assured by “an heir and a spare” works just as well for bee dynasties as for human ones).

All is not yet lost, but I’m up against it in my first full year as a rural Suffolk beekeeper – and no mistake.

Fair Exchange

A Beekeeper

At last week’s Bermondsey Street Festival, I was asked to describe my relationship with my bees. It’s a fair question.

Consider: we belong to different species, our lifespans are mis-matched and our unit sizes are dramatically divergent. The matter is complicated by the fact that I am one and they are many. The complexity intensifies further when you consider that each individual hive has its own quirks and character traits.

In summary, I”m entangled with hundreds of thousands of individual insects, segregated into independent colonies which perform as autonomous super-organisms – and all this at one location on a London rooftop and at another a hundred miles away in a rural Suffolk garden. Only a on-line dating agency running on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum afflicted by a serious malware dysfunction would try to fix up a relationship between those two parties.

Yet my answer to the relationship question is surprisingly simple: “The bees are my clients”.

I think of it in day-job terms. As a stockbroker, I provide advice and consultancy services to a diverse list of professional asset-gatherers (what could better resemble a “professional asset-gatherer” in nature than a honeybee?). Our interests are aligned: if my clientele prospers from my inputs, their assets under management will grow and my reward will increase proportionately. It is an outcomes-based exchange. So if my interventions allow the bees to thrive and be productive, they will reward me with money honey.

For example, I have made two major local planting initiatives: the installation of pollinator-friendly flowerbeds in St Mary Magdalen Churchyard in 2012 and the planting of a fruiting wildlife corner of Leathermarket Gardens in 2014. If I put forage in the ground for the bees, they will have abundant natural food – and increase their chances of good health and high honey yields, to our mutual benefit.

In 3 decades working in the City, client relationships have been the key to my career. In a knowledge-based business, tasked with creating long-term value, I have a duty of care. Allied to that ethic, the practical reality is that a high knowledge base means a low frequency of interventions – another notable correlation with beekeeping.

A Stockbroker

As they say, fair exchange is no robbery.

Bermondsey Street Festival

Bermondsey Street Festival Stall 20141
Maff & Xander : Bermondsey Bees’ “Barrer Boys”

This year, I stepped down as the MC for the Bermondsey Street Dog Show to make way for someone “younger, and more beautiful“. As you can imagine, that left the field pretty wide open.

Anyhow, I said “Ciao” to the dog-collar fashionistas at Holly and Lil and wished them all the best. Instead, I set up our first ever Bermondsey Street Honey stall at the Bermondsey Street Festival. Only to be ambushed by youth and beauty in the shape of my wife, Sarah, and my sons, Xander and Maff.

My ambition for the 2014 Festival was to set up a a bee-educational stall, generously donated by the organisers at the BSAP. The observation hive full of live bees from Neckinger nuc caused a stir, but there were plenty of questions about beekeeping paraphernalia like my smoker, a dis-assembled beehive, propolis, a pollen-tasting, my “little box of tricks” for Queen management. In uniform, white bee-suited, I was charmingly assisted by the doyenne of SE1 beekeeping, Nikki Vane, as we dispensed beekeeping chatter .

So with Sarah and the boys running the Bermondsey Street Honey stall next door, Nikki and I really brought the bees to the Street. Think of it like this: we were the museum, they were the gift shop.

Speaking of which, here’s a quick line-up of our Honey and related products:

Classic Bermondsey Street Honey
BSH Half-Comb Section
Bermondsey Street Half Comb Section
Suffolk Coastal Honey1
Suffolk Coastal Honey
Honey & Salt Handscrub
Salt and Honey Handscrub
photo (4)
Bermondsey Street Honey Biscuits
BSH Beeswax
Bermondsey Street Beeswax Furniture Polish
BSH White & Yellow Candles
Natural Honey-Coloured and White Candles
BSH China Mug
Bone China Bee Mugs
BSH Chunk Honey
Bermondsey Street Chunk Honey
BSH T-shirt
“I’m a Berrmondsey Street Honey” T-shirts

And we were proud to host Sarah’s celebrated mineral-rich Salts (available at the Bermondsey Street Deli):

Sarah's 5 Salts
And her new Greetings Cards:

BS Greetings Card
Bermondsey Street Greetings Cards

Bottom line: we had a blast getting out onto the Street with our Bermondsey buddies. Thank you BSAP (especially Angela, Lucy and much-missed Lara), for organising this sensational annual event. Hat-tip to the delectable Louisa McCarthy for permission to use her photo of our “barrer boys” (so we won’t be consulting our lawyers about her allegation about Bermondsey Bees’ use of child labour on our stall, after all). Kudos to Wilkes McDermid, who got up close and personal with the bees from Neckinger hive, which were on display in our glass observation hive. Wilkes shot time-lapse images, then speeded them up, to eye-catching effect.

And let’s not forget the star of the show. I intercepted Queen Grunhilde as she went for her afternoon constitutional, looking winsome in Green, this year’s Queen-marking colour.

My one regret ? I can’t help thinking that Neckinger Hive must have been a little disappointed with the day’s outing. After all, being shepherded into a new observation hive must have got their hopes up. You can imagine the excited chatter: “I do like a nice day-trip to Brighton” or “Perhaps we’re going to meet the Queen” or “Don’t you just love a mystery tour?”. Think how let down they must have felt when their excursion ended with them parked on our bee-education stall, next to the Bermondsey Street post-box and slap bang opposite their apiary !

Never really in doubt, but taking the bees to the Street really was a bundle of fun. Although, as I carried the bees up four flights of stairs to their rooftop as dusk fell, I couldn’t help but reflect on the answer I gave to Hannah Rhodes of Hiver Beers when she asked me: “What’s your single favourite thing about bees ?”

My answer was: “They live outside. Generally“.



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.


As friends return, breathless with tales of exotic derring-do, from summer adventures, my gills may have taken on just the slightest tinge of green. Hmmm, I grouched, all I have to show for this summer is a fortnight on the a Suffolk Coast. With my head stuck in a beehive, mostly.

Seeking solace, I stumbled into the word “inventure”. And why not ? A prefix is the pivot of meaning. “Inventure” has all the makings of adventure, but without the outbound element. It’s a vivid, heart-quickening invitation to delve deep into the unknown. “Inventure”. Yes, indeed.

Continue reading “Inventure”

Fruit Crime

Witness Appeal: Have You Seen This Currant Bush?

I wish to report a fruit crime. A shrub-napping. This incident took place in Leathermarket Gardens and the victims were three currant bushes. Can you help ?

It was my unpleasant duty to report to our intrepid Bermondsey volunteer crew the painful statistic that 25% of the dozen currant bushes which we had planted in Leathermarket Gardens had been removed. Only our hard-won planting holes, cupped in obstinate rubble, remained as evidence of their former position. The currant bushes had vanished, half-inched by, presumably, light-green fingered person or persons unknown.

Depressingly, I confided to the team, I wasn’t even sure that I could pick these three out in an identification parade, even if the long arm of the law were to nab a suspect red-handed. A good deal of sighing and tut-tutting ensued. But I have to confess to dissembling when I broke the news to our horny-handed, rainsoaked heroes from the planting day. Behind my perturbed expression, I was unmoved.

It’s not that I’ve gone soft on the causes of soft-fruit crime. Nor is it that I hold progressive views on the redistribution of wealth, or fruiting shrubs. Not even that I harbour a nostalgic affection for the the outlaw heritage of Southwark. No. My ambivalence was the knowledge, as a beekeeper, that although the boys in blue would never apprehend the villains responsible for this horticultural heist, the shrubs’ disappearance mattered little to me or my bees.

And why not ? Well, let’s assume that this was a little local larceny. I know that wherever those three moody currant bushes have been re-planted in SE1, they will be within the 3-mile range of my bees – and their nectar and pollen will certainly be detected by the bees, when the blossoms come out next springtime.

So for my fellow community gardeners, the stolen shrubberies have been lost forever – but for the Bermondsey Street Bees, the bushes have been, in the worst case, just temporarily mislaid.


Bermondsey Street
Inner City “Terrior”.

The French have a word for it: “Terroir“. That means the precise and peculiar characteristics of a patch of ground and its particular affinity with the bounty being produced there, most often in relation to vineyards and wine.


In Bermondsey, we have “terroir“, too. And it is special. The Thames is just half a mile away and this part of London used to be an alluvial, tidal plain, base-rich and extremely fertile. Pre-embankment, our water table was so high that the necessarily shallow graves in Southwark churchyards yielded easy pickings for bodysnatchers, supplying anatomists (notoriously, Sir Astley Cooper, surgeon at Guy’s) with cadavers in the 1800s. (Hence the “watch-house” in St Mary Magdalen Churchyard). But I digress – without apology, since, but it is precisely these details which are key to any understanding of the “terroir” which allows the Bermondsey Street Bees to produce consistently award-winning honey.


The laws of economics dictate that the furthest a bee can fly in search of nutrition (and still create an increment to the hive’s resources) is a 3-mile radius of home, which means that the qualities of the honey are conditioned by the available forage in that area. And here it is good: for example, there is abundant Lime, great hedges of Holly and plenty of Ivy.


That is not by accident. Yes, we are lucky to have a wonderful environment for urban bees. But it is crucial to ensure the future sufficiency of food for bees. I have organised pollinator-friendly plantings in St Mary Magdalen Churchyard in 2012 and in Leathermarket Gardens in 2014. These ensure a local boost to available resources for all-comers.


And while the wine-maker’s “terroir” instills the backbone of his output, his own artisanal expertise fleshes out the character of the finished product, The same applies to the beekeeper and his honey. Nature and nurture. Healthy bees, observance of the age-old rules of bee-husbandry and a smidgen of luck.

That should do it.

Queen Balling

Queen Amber As Her Usual, Serene Self

There are times in life when you can tell that you are witnessing something slightly incredible – yet you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s actually going on. Here’s an instance which occurred in my Suffolk apiary recently, with some amazing footage of what is called “Queen Balling”. Hint: keep your eye on the yellow dot in the lower right quadrant of the screen!

First, some background.

The classic diagnostic test for Queenlessness in a hive is to introduce a frame of brood containing eggs to the hive. If, after a few days, the bees have started to construct Queen Cells (QCs) using the eggs, it is a sign of Queenlessness. If the bees treat the eggs as ordinary brood, to be fed and subsequently sealed over with wax, until the bee emerges 21 days later, then the hive is Queenright.

In this case, after 3 days, there was no sign of QCs on the test frame, but the bees were calm, organized and diligent, with polished brood cells. That all suggested that they probably considered that they had a Queen.

So I decided to try a new technique: remove a fertile Queen from her colony and insert her into a sealed Queen cage and lay her on top of the bars of the hive being tested. The reaction of the worker bees would be highly indicative of their state of queenlessness: if they showed polite, but sustained interest, they would probably be Queenless. If they responded with hostility, then they would most likely be Queenright.

I did this with my veteran 2012 matron Queen, the yellow-marked Amber. The indication was that the bees in the hive being tested were very interested in Queen Amber and not at all hostile, so I withdrew her after a few minutes, tipped her out into her home hive and watched with sudden concern as her daughters mobbed her (which is called “balling”).

This is the technique which bees use to envelop, overheat and kill intruders such as the European hornet. On the basis that the bees knew what they were doing with their very familiar Queen, I grabbed my camera and recorded the event. You can see Amber awash in a tide of bees, with the faded yellow dot on her thorax.

Well, I can reassure you that no bees were harmed in the making of this video. Queen Amber escaped completely unscathed. My best guess is that the bees noted the scent of another hive/another Queen from the hive/queen cage and were anxious to bend their bodies around Amber to protect her and re-absorb her distinctive pheromones.

Any other suggestions out there ?

Apis Subscriber Offer – Bermondsey Street Honey


***  Please use Order Form at foot of page OR e-mail orders to ***

**** Payment by electronic bank transfer (details at foot of page) or by cash/card payment. Collection from our Bermondsey Street Festival Store ****

As I mentioned in a recent post, 2014 was “abundant and forgiving” for beekeepers. Spring came early, and summer was fine until mid-August, but by then the bees had done their work and a plentiful honey harvest was assured. We now have an apiary on the Suffolk Coast, in Orford, and will be selling this delightful rural honey alongside our consistently award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey on our stall at the heart of the Bermondsey Street Festival on 20th September 2014.

School House Honey

And we also have Bermondsey Street honeycomb for those who love honey in its most natural state – on the comb.


As always, subscribers to “Apis” are given an opportunity to purchase honey ahead of its going on general release. Here are our 2014 prices, unchanged on last year:


  • Bermondsey Street Honey                           £12.50


  • Bermondsey Street Honeycomb                £15.00


  • Suffolk Coastal Honey                                   £10.00


So why not come and visit us on our stall at the Bermondsey Street Festival on 20th September?

We will have a honeybee educational stall next to our honey stand, with a glass observation hive, so that you can meet the Bermondsey Street Bees in person (s). We will also have on sale  some jars of Bermondsey Street Chunk Honey, fine china mugs, “I’m a Bermondsey Street Honey” T-shirts, as well as natural beeswax furniture polish, honey & salt hand-scrub, honey coloured and white beeswax candles, not forgetting Sarah’s home-made Suffolk plum jam and her celebrated range of herb salts.

Quite the Bermondseyshire Farmers…. and no mistake!

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Telling The Bees

Taking The Keys To The Bees

Telling the bees” is a folkloric tradition which embraces the intimacy between a beekeeper and his bees. The beekeeper gently raps on the hive with his house-keys to get the bees’ attention and then tells them about hatches, matches and dispatches in his family.

Now, Serge Pantalon – philosopher and self-proclaimed “movement” – has turned this concept on its head with the first work of Twitterature which interprets what the bees want to communicate to the human race. After all, Pantalon points out, they’ve had the best part of 20 million years to consider the matter.

While researching his nano-novel “Verity”, Pantalon employed method acting techniques to “become the bee”. Curating his own performances, Serge was able to unleash his inner bee, repeatedly banging his head against the window-panes of Starbucks on sunlit afternoons, waggle-dancing around carriages on the Circle Line and nose-pollinating Hyde Park’s wildflower meadows, while limiting himself to a cast-list of no more than 140 characters.

Serge has run up large overdue fees at the lending library of life,” explained Avril Fule, Animatrice Générale of the Institut Pantalon, breathlessly reading from a pink Post-It note at the launch party, congregated in a cardboard eco-yurt on the pavement between Hatchards and Fortnum’s. “And what with all the rumpus over complaints from Starbucks customers, commuters and sunbathers, Serge and a small group of followers have flown the nest, a sort of sergian swarm. Pluckily, Serge has consented to join us today by video-link from his top-secret island retreat.“

“Now, before I orate”, Avril trilled: “Serge asked me to mention that he doesn’t care whether you are sitting comfortably, or not. And please leave your telephones on, so our agent, Eyesore, Ewecumin can buzz you to crowd-fund the film rights. Bitcoin only, please.

Avril took a shallow breath, donned her purple nitrile gloves and picked up the Rizla paper on which “Veritywas inscribed. Squinting through her bee-veil, she intoned:

Where there are human beings, there exists the possibility of turmoil.

Then she ignited the paper and lit a patchouli-scented smoker. “The End”, she exhaled and ice-bucket-challenged herself. Symbolically.

Texting her wild applause, Jess Maidytup, Creative Arts correspondent of the Catering Times ad-libbed: “It’s a literary Tardis: it has just 11 words, but contains 68 characters and the bee-world’s testimony on mankind. This is the spoiler for every story ever told,  from the Bible to The Sun: people just screw stuff up. For me, it’s Serge’s signature dish, a purée de Pantalon which liberates us from the tedium of having to read books from cover to cover.”

Avril purred: “And remember, people, “Verity” is only available in three form-factors: Spotify Premium, fridge-magnet or luminous rubber wristband. Reckless!”

« Et voilà » shrugged the great man. And the screen went dark.

Serge Pantalon
Stop Press: Pantalon Snapped At His Beach Hideaway