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!”


Spores of nosema under the microscope

No matter that Shard Hive was put to bed last year with a feed of thymolated sugar syrup and was given a tonic dose of Vitagold in a Spring feed (which was virtually untouched) earlier this year, it has finally succumbed to nosema. The parapet around the hive is sprinkled with healthy-looking, but comatose “zombie” bees, the cupful of bees inside Shard has dwindled to a skeleton crew – and Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive, was wandering alone in poor condition inside a much depleted hive. Drat and double drat!

I guess that, this year, anything which started out wonky in the hives has proved to be really hard to set right. I made the mistake of hoping that, come the sunshine and some big nectar flows, a touch of nosema would be busily swept away – and that substituting a drone-laying 2012 Queen with a nubile, red-dotted youngster would restore Shard to its former glories. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So I have cut my losses, closed up the Shard breeding nuc (to prevent robbing of its food stores by other bees, who would then acquire the parasitic nosema fungus and take it back to their own hive) and I have “banked” Queen Ruby in a Butler Cage in Abbey Hive, ahead of starting a big manipulation on that hive this weekend.

I will be getting out my microscope to check my diagnosis of nosema (looking out for those Arborio-rice-like spores in the image above), but I’m pretty sure that the brown streaks on the landing board and the listless bees tell me all that I need to know. It’s the same diagnosis as the first inspection of the year in late April…

Well, the weather forecast is getting summery from here on, but it’s too late for Shard Hive. Call me obtuse, but I’m chalking this up as a “winter loss” even though June starts tomorrow !

In The Apiary : Mid-May : A Bad Day On The Hives

 In The Apiary : Mid-May : A Bad Day On The Hives

My third ever Tweet (@BermondseyBees) this evening ran :  “Unusual problem for London beekeepers right now: plenty of forage, not enough bees!” I don’t know why, but I was feeling, well, sardonic. And then, as the sun emerged for the first time today, I brightened and climbed into my bee-suit and onto the roof. Hello, girls!

I wish now that I had left it until tomorrow, but there you go….it was one of those days: a couple of beekeeping blunders and a bit of bad news on our local celebrity newcomer, Queen Ruby of Shard Hive. Nothing terminal, mind. Just a little vexation. And self-reproach. And frustration. I suppose that I’m lucky that I don’t play golf, or I’d feel like that all the time…..

Abbey Hive

But let’s start with the good stuff: some close-ups from Abbey Hive (where I clumsily dropped the Queen into the hive while clipping her wings – for swarm prevention: essential in the inner city)

A Play Cup
Abbey Hive – A Play Cup

A play cup (hanging down from the comb, in the centre at the bottom of the picture) is the foundation stone of Queen cell. If there is no egg, or larva with pearlesque royal jelly inside, then it’s a play cup. One it becomes inhabited, the bees are telling you that they intend to swarm within days – the cell will then be elongated – and becomes an uncapped Queen cell, no longer a play cup.

Abbey Hive - The Little White Lozenges Are Eggs !
Abbey Hive – The Little White Lozenges Are Eggs !

So here are 2/3-day old eggs in Abbey Hive, the white flecks near the middle of the cells in the top left of the picture. Great – that’s the number one priority for a beekeeper during an inspection!

Thames Hive

A bit of a schoolboy error here : getting the scissors onto the Queen’s wing and jamming the blades, then opening and shutting them again – Crunch! – strange noise, could that be a leg? (The Queen may attempt to brush the blades away from her wing-tips using a back leg). Gosh I hope not – but now she is clipped anyway. I shall just have to watch out for supercedure, if the bees think that she’s now damaged goods.

Thames Hive - The Kit
Thames Hive – The Kit

I’m disappointed at mis-handling two good Queens in a single evening inspection. So fed up, in fact that I’m just going to post a picture of various items of kit : from left to right: smoker, frame-holder and hive-tool being cleaned in washing soda. Not a bee in sight!

Shard Hive

I had hoped to build up this hive with food and hatching brood from other vigorous, healthy hives. I suspect that either the transition to a windier, cooler hive, of the lack of “nurse bees” after a long and broodless Winter had done for 75% of the hatching brood who failed to make it out of their brood cells into the big wide world. The food stores were still there though, but I decided to chuck away the frames, suspecting that these bees never quite shook off the Nosema noted in late Winter and that the spores of the fungus will still be on the comb. So I have transferred Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive, into this neat little nuc (nucleus) box with a “cup” of bees.

Shard Hive
Queen Ruby’s New Digs

It’s a bit of a come-down in the world for a recently-crowned Queen to be evicted from her penthouse prestige hive to a one-bedroom flat, but that has been the fate of Queen Ruby of Shard Hive. From a luxury cedar 14×12 hive (with added dummy-boards) with a splendid view of the Shard, to a polystyrene Keiler breeding nuc overlooking the pub.

Let’s see how our Ruby gets on in her new digs opposite “The Woolpack”…in the mid-June report from “In The Apiary




Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive
Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive

What’s in a name ? I didn’t get it when my wife suggested that I give the new Queen in Shard Hive a name: “She’s already got one,” I replied cheerily: “It’s JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ”.

She responded with a smile and a gentle, but devastating, shake of her head. Wrong answer! I’m notoriously bad at names and I had to concede that she was right. “JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ” was just not going to cut it, if her Majesty was ever going to get on first-name terms with the discerning audience of Apis.

But look at it from my point of view: the name JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ contains all the genealogical information required to make good breeding decisions for the Bermondsey Street Bees (it is a combination of these data points: Supplier/Breeder’s initials and my own serial number. Generation In Apiary. Bred in Local / Out Apiary. Month. Year. Origin of Breeding Line). A record of the genealogy and the performance of a Queen bee is vital for future breeding decisions and a thriving, healthy, productive and good-tempered hive of bees.

As an urban stockman, I select the breeding lines for my Queens,aiming to optimise docility, yield and disease resistance. It is crucial that I can be confident in the genetic make-up of my home-grown virgin Queens, since the 20 or so drones (male bees) whose sperm she will absorb on her single mating flight are beyond my beekeeping control. From that point of view, my role as a beekeeper is like a sous-chef who prepares a well-seasoned stock – and then hands it on to twenty chefs to each add their own ingredients and stir the genetic soup. I can only hope that the selective breeding lines in my newly-hatched Queens are strong enough to disprove the old adage that “too many chefs spoil the broth”.

The other problem with naming the new Queen was that, since the Romans coined the Latin word “regina”, all the good names for Queens seem to be taken. For example, Elizabeth has historically been a pretty good name for Queens around these parts, but we still have one of those enthroned – and she shows no signs at all of being superceded!

But then I looked at the pictures I’d taken of Shard’s new Queen (see above) and it hit me in a ruddy flash! Queen bees hatched in 2013 will be marked red (beekeepers can see them more easily in a crowded hive and also identify their age). So here goes, in deference to this year’s Queen marking colour: Farewell, JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ – All Hail, Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive!