Rummage Party

Well, Well. What Have We Here, Then ?

A “rummage party” is a naval term for a speculative search of a boat, in search of smuggled or contraband goods.

I love the expression. And I have adopted it as my name for the very first inspection of each of my bee-hives in 2015 – the first look at the Queen, the brood pattern, the level of stores, the strength and condition of the bees, their temperament, any signs of disease and anticipating when to start “working” the brood box.

But you never know quite what you’ll find under the crownboard after a long, hard winter…until the “rummage party” arrives in early Springtime ! And then it’s time to heed the home-spun wisdom of Yogi Berra:

“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”


Planting, Pugs And Politicians

Pug At Work
Eddie The Pug – Bermondsey Barrer Boy

I’m not superstitious. But whenever we convene to work on the edible planting/wildflower space in Leathermarket Gardens, it rains. Trundle a wheelbarrow onto the site and the heavens open. Uncanny.


It happened again yesterday, although it had the common Sunday decency to hold off until 2pm. Not so bad, considering that it kept the pigeons off the opened ground which we had prepared for sowing wildflower seeds – the soaking rain gave the worms a chance to retreat and the seeds a toe-hold in the soil, unmolested by beaks, so there’s every chance that the pollinator-friendly wildflowers will set, take root and provide attractive forage for the Bermondsey Street Bees.

Simon Hughes MP
Simon Hughes MP Joins The LMG Crew

The pigeons weren’t the only visitors, either, we received encouragement from local Philip Wood, Mark Roelofsen and Brice Gentilhomme and also Henrietta Oliver, as they passed through this popular park. And then Simon Hughes, Lib-Dem MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for the last 29 years, also lent a hand. Community projects are right up his street, he remarked – so once again thanks to all at BOST, to Andy Chatterton at Southwark Parks and to Paul Toal at Quadron for making our LMG project possible.

In the interests of demonstrating Apis’s political neutrality, though, I note that the “hues” of all of the major parties are represented in the picture: blue, yellow and red. And for good measure, I thought it only fair to juxtapose this political photo opportunity with the reason we were there: our pile of mulch.


Come to think of it bees are rather unusually organized, politically: they are absolute monarchists (Queen) who live their lives as unswerving democrats (“voting” decisions by majority) in a marxist collective (equally sharing means of production and the surplus of their labours). But on the subject of torrential rain, they adopt a straightforward position: they don’t much care for it. Understandably. Heads lowered into the downpour, we carried on shovelling the mulch.

Job Done
Job Done

Anyhow, by 3pm, we had finished: wildflower strip weeded, opened up, seeded and setttled. Beds with crisp-cut borders, stripped of grass and creepers and topped with a layer of chipped bark. Apple trees, currant bushes and herbs all mulched-up and looking good.

Drying Out

Time to go home and dry out in front of the fire.

This was a non-political broadcast on behalf of the Forage Party.

Changeling Varroa

Newly-Emerged Bee With Varroa Mites (The Brown Discs)
Newly-Emerged Bee With Varroa Mites (Brown Discs)

At the Leiston and District Beekeepers’ Association AGM, some exciting new research into varroa mites was disclosed. (The L&DBKA partly sponsors an Eastern Area Research Student (EARS) project and that student is associated with this research).

These new insights into the fiendish cunning of these deadly bee parasites showed that varroa mites employ chemical camouflage to move, undetected, from the bee, on which they feed, into the brood cells, where they reproduce. Since the odour of a bee is very distinct from the odour in the brood cell, this is quite a transition.

Essentially, a varroa mite can change its chemical profile in between 3 and 9 hours when switching between bee or brood cell hosts and thus remain undetected by the bees. Even a dead varroa mite is capable of mimicking its host’s odour.

Here is the Abstract from The Journal of Chemical Ecology: Social insect colonies provide a stable and safe environment for their members. Despite colonies being heavily guarded, parasites have evolved numerous strategies to invade and inhabit these hostile places. Two such strategies are (true) chemical mimicry via biosynthesis of host odor, and chemical camouflage, in which compounds are acquired from the host. The ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor feeds on hemolymph of its honey bee host, Apis mellifera. The mite’s odor closely resembles that of its host, which allows V. destructor to remain undetected as it lives on the adult host during its phoretic phase and while reproducing on the honeybee brood. During the mite life cycle, it switches between host adults and brood, which requires it to adjust its profile to mimic the very different odors of honey bee brood and adults. In a series of transfer experiments, using bee adults and pupae, we tested whether V. destructor changes its profile by synthesizing compounds or by using chemical camouflage. We show that V. destructor required direct access to host cuticle to mimic its odor, and that it was unable to synthesize host-specific compounds itself. The mite was able to mimic host odor, even when dead, indicating a passive physico-chemical mechanism of the parasite cuticle. The chemical profile of V. destructor was adjusted within 3 to 9 h after switching hosts, demonstrating that passive camouflage is a highly efficient, fast and flexible way for the mite to adapt to a new host profile when moving between different host life stages or colonies.

That’s just not cricket !

Top Ten Plants For Bees

"Putting The Bee In Bermondsey"
“Putting The Bee In Bermondsey”

Apis Top 10 Plants for Bees

Click on this link to a simple “Top Ten” Planting Guide which I prepared for the scintillating Borough Belles WI, when I gave a talk on “Putting The Bee In Bermondsey” on Wednesday 18th February 2015.

It is intended to be a practical, sustainable guide to planting for honeybee forage in London.

But even if you are don’t have this guide to hand when buying plants, here is one “Do” and one “Don’t” to remember:

  • Do buy plants with purple and blue flowers (bees can’t see red!).
  • Don’t buy fussy, overbred cultivars. Bees often can’t feed on them. Just stick to natural plants.
Bee On Borage
Bee On Borage

Forage Party

Leathermarket Gardens Sign
Inner City Forage

A small, but perfectly-formed, group of gardeners swooped on the wildflower and edible plantings at Leathermarket Gardens on Saturday morning, all tooled up for action, just as the icy grip of early February was lifting.

Having planted his permanent pollinator-friendly forage in the ground last year, it was imperative to clear choking weeds, grass and tap-rooted docks to let our apple-trees, herbs, wildflower strip and red and white currant bushes thrive.

So important, in fact, that we were paid a visit by the local Bermondsey bobbies-on-the-beat. “Hello, hello” and “Hello“.

Not that we were lacking the opportunity to lean on our spades from time to time. Coffee break and visits from the two-and-four-legged community of Leathermarket Gardens were welcome distractions from, as Sarah put it, having “a nice gossip, upside-down” with fork and trowel in hand. Indeed, soon we were having so much fun that it was almost like a treasure-hunt. We even found a glinting blue glass marble.

Lost Marble
Lost Marble

If anyone has lost their marbles in the vicinity of Bermondsey Street and one like to reclaim this one, please form an orderly queue.

Thanks, as ever, to the intrepid and invariably stylish Nikki,

Forage Fashion
Forage Fashion

to Maff , suitably leather-jacketed in Leathermarket Gardens,

Our Man From The Elephant

and to Sarah, uncomplaining bee-bride, spoilt for choice in her array of gardening boots

Sarah's Boots1
Sarah’s Gardening Boots

and Eddie Pug for his unwavering invigilation of our efforts

The Supervisor
The Supervisor

And we paid our respects to our old friend, the acacia tree, taken down for safety reasons by Southwark Council. in October 2014

Acacia Being Felled
Acacia Being Felled In October 2014

A memorial, with more than a hint of Bermondsey defiance, had been erected on the site. Amen.

RIP Acacia

We spruced up Leathermarket Garden’s forage a treat. And took three heaped wheel-barrows of delinquent vegetation to the skip.

Tools Of The Trade
Tools Of The Trade

Bees can’t eat kind words. Our fingernails may be dirty, but we’re off to a flying forage start to 2015.



Do Bees Hibernate ?

Think Of The Winter Bee Cluster As A Swarm….Just One With A Box Around It.
A Swarm Of Bees Is Just A Naked Cluster Of Bees

Between New Year and Easter, the question which I am most frequently asked is : “Do Bees Hibernate?

The short answer is that they form a cluster, a gently dynamic, oval mass in the middle of the brood box, dropping their metabolic rate by a couple of notches. But the full answer to the question is a little more complicated than that.

It all depends on what you mean by “hibernate”. Insects are cold-blooded and bees are no different. However, honeybees fall into the small minority of insects which can generate their own heat, like mammals, through muscular exertion (human beings do this by shivering, for example). So let’s see where we can check the box on bees having a regular “hibernation“: seasonal cycle, Yes, metabolism slows down, Yes, own thermoregulation, Yes.

But if by “hibernation” you mean a state of suspended animation, like a bear or a bat, or a comatose Rip Van Winkle interlude, snoozing unrelentingly thorough 3 months of oblivion, then “No”, bees don’t hibernate like that.

As winter takes hold, bees form their cluster. Composed of some 10,000+ winter bees (late-born in the previous Autumn and physiologically endowed with a body able to store fat), it expands and contracts, according to the exterior temperature.  Food consumption drops as long as the bees remain in this torpid state. But in warm spells, the cluster will relax, with some bees even leaving the hive to make “voiding flights” and dedicated mortuary bees removing dead bees from the hive.

But the cluster will huddle protectively tight to conserve heat as the temperature drops. The grim fact is that, if the thorax of a bee (where the wings are located, between the bees’ head and the abdomen) falls to a temperature a few degree below 10C, a bee will fall into a “chill coma” which renders it rigid, motionless and unable to vibrate its wing muscles to create the heat required for its cold-blooded body to stay alive.

Honeybees overwinter as a reduced colony, a living, slow-motion family unit with the Queen at the centre, unlike wasps or most other bees, where fertile queens shelter alone. This behaviour illustrates why scientists have described colonies of bees as “superorganisms” in which each individual bee is only a component part of the greater whole. The concept of a colony of bees as a single social civilisation is key to my beekeeping.

Let’s take a closer look at the cluster: the outer mantle of bees is like a string vest, insulating the soft body of this concentration of bees. These wrapper bees will eventually rotate their positions with warmer bees, bubbling up from the heated community of the cluster. In temperature terms, this outside layer will be at around 10-15C, with the main body of bees at 22-24C and new brood at the centre requiring a temperature of 33-35C. That means that the part of the hive where the bees cluster will be almost as warm as a centrally-heated home in winter, the main mass of bees overwinter at the same temperature as a balmy summer’s day, while the brood area as hot as a Caribbean holiday – even when the weather is freezing outside !

So my answer to the question “”Do Bees Hibernate?” is an unsatisfactory one. They sort of do, but they kind of don’t. But I was excited to stumble across one insight as I was thinking this article through.

The cluster is hard to see, buried deep inside a winter beehive and divided by brood frames, so my challenge was: how can I help people visualize a cluster? Then it came to me: take a look at the photo at the top of the page.

Here you can actually see the egg-shaped formation and mantle of outer bees typical of a cluster. But this is a swarm of bees, settled on a branch.

It really made my day when I realised that a swarm of bees is just a naked cluster !