In the Apiary : Mid-May : An Inspector Calls…

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.

Inspector Inspecting
The Inspector Inspecting

Set against a blue sky, the hive-tools flashed as each galvanised steel roof was removed, the cedarwood super boxes lifted, the queen excluders set aside and the brood frames removed for careful inspection. This was precision, no-nonsense beekeeping! This rigorous check is part of the National Bee Unit’s front line of defence against exotic pests, such as the Asian Hornet or the Small Hive Beetle, which are anticipated to make landfall in the U.K. at some stage. Inspections like these will demonstrate that APHA conducted a through risk-based system of local inspections to try to forestall any outbreak in the U.K. (although the odds of stumbling across either of these quaintly-named “exotic pests” on a random, routine inspection are similar to those of winning the National Lottery).

Getting Down To Business
Getting Down To Business

And in the meantime, the Inspector took a deep dive into the brood box of each hive to check for signs of the dreaded bacteria which cause American Foulbrood (AFB) and the slightly less pernicious European Foulbrood (EFB). If AFB is discovered (in 2014, there were no cases in London – but there was one each in nearby Godalming, Epping and Chelmsford), the remedy is to pile up the hives and bees and burn them. A bit medieval, but its contains the problem. For EFB, the London area suffered 6 cases in 2014, split evenly North and South of the river. EFB can largely be managed back to health by the shook swarm technique, or the application of the antibiotic oxytetracycline (OTC, as the formulation Terramycin®). Here is what the National Bee Unit has to say about how to recognise AFB and EFB .

The Badge
The Badge: Fera & National Bee Unit Insignia

And how did my free beekeeping tuition go ? Well, I received two very welcome pieces of advice:

  • My rooftop set-up means that I have to stand behind my hives to inspect them. For that reason, Brian suggested that I should consider rearranging the frames in the brood boxes from the “cold way”, which is how I have them now, to the “warm way”.  In plain English, that means that the frames should lie across the hive when I’m inspecting, rather than along the hive. This would mean less twisting when I manipulate frames and boxes – and the bees don’t mind which way they are arranged, “cold” or “warm”.


  • The second was a technical correction of my hive tool action on Hoffman frames. Brian’s advice was to avoid using the tool where the Hoffman spacers meet, since this repeated action can damage their precise proportions, which are crucial to maintain the correct “bee space“.

Well, you’ll be glad to hear that the Bermondsey Street Apiary passed with flying colours and I’d like to think that we’ve made a new beekeeping friend. Thanks for coming by, Brian !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *