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


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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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Swarm – Show And Tell

Swarm July 2014 (2)
Swarm On Sawn Branch, About To Be Hived

Terror is terror. Abrupt and intense. Suddenly shunted into your face, indifferent to your rapt fear.

Swarm Flying – School House

Like a swarm of bees, ancient and implacable: 20,000 spirographing projectiles ripping the air, weaponed with venom.

But the ancestral adrenalin reflex is awry. The reality is that a bee-swarm is about as menacing to human beings as a maypole dance.

It is simply the way bees reproduce; orthodox and customary. It’s a ceremonial procession, with the venerable Queen abdicating skywards with her followers, leaving a clutch of heirs to usurp her in the hive. It’s nothing more than a flash-mob choreography on a grand scale, an impromptu insect threnody.

Slowly, this soft shrapnel of bees implodes to cluster on a branch, whirring together to weave a taut bivouac. From this insect pelt, scout bees adventure out to locate a new home, where their cargo of honey will be turned to wax, hexing new comb out of thin air.

Swarm – School House – July 2014

This is the time for me, ladder and saw in hand, bee-suited, to grip and cut the branch. I remove the swarm, adhesive and uncomplaining, down the ladder, along the lane and back to my bee-yard. I raise the roof of their new residence, steady the bees and rap the branch on the hive. A split-second waterfall of bees sloshes into the brood box. Hived!

Those full honey-stomachs and house-moving vocation make them as terrible as a Tunnock’s Teacake, as pugnacious as Christmas Puddings. No, really !

Swarm On Sawn Bough, About The Be Hived.


Beside The Seaside

School House Honey
It’s Suffolking Good!

Hey, Bermondsey Street Bees – have you seen what your Suffolk cousins have been up to ?

“A bright coastal honey, gathered between the woods & the water”!

He’s Behind You!

That’s funny, Dale. Why do you stand behind your hive when you’re working it?” Penny Robertson asked.

Good question. It had never occurred to me to think about where I stand in relation to the hive I am inspecting. I paused and thought about it.

The first rule of beekeeping is, unsurprisingly, don’t stand in front of a beehive (take your time, if you can’t immediately figure out why this might be a bad idea). Penny continued: “Because it has to be easier to pick up both ends of the frames standing sideways on to the hive.” It certainly is, if you arrange your brood box the “cold way” (with the frames end-on to the hive entrance), as I do. Your arms simply reach out the same distance to pick up each frame-lug.

Continue reading “He’s Behind You!”


Borage 2

Borage: So you’re a blue, hairy botanical called borago officinalis? Nil desperandum – you add zing to Pimms and the bees love you!

Borage – Also Known As “Starflower”

Country Cousins

As a townie, I am starting to learn about country beekeeping. For example, fields of oilseed rape are not common in London. In Suffolk, careful management of strong bee colonies close to these flying carpets of canary-coloured flowers is required if you are not to lose an early swarm – or if you do not require a good deal of hard-to-extract, solid-setting rape honey.

Bees go mad for the sweet blossoms of oilseed rape and will fly on auto-pilot over other forage to get to it. But this crop is there for the benefit of the farmer, not the beekeeper, so these vast chrome-yellow canopies provide an abundant source of nectar and pollen for a relatively short time of the year – and which deplete rapidly once the seed-pods start to set in mid-May. Many rural beekeepers have reported that their bees become short-tempered for a short while after the nectar flow ends – and then the pumped-up bee population needs to find sustenance elsewhere. Luckily, our locality has many well-stocked gardens, hedgerows, woods, brambles, horse-chestnuts and neatly-tended allotments to keep the bees supplied with nectar and pollen throughout the late Spring and Summer.

In Suffolk, the School House Bees are stirring: this is Snape Hive.

Snape Hive 2014-03-24
Snape Hive – Looking Good, Ladies.

And the oil-seed rape is coming into flower in an adjacent field:

School House Rape
Field Of Rape About To Burst Into Full Flower

Q: What happens next ?

A: I have added a new brood box of undrawn foundation on top of the over-wintered brood box (pictured above), so that the bees can use the nectar flow from the rape to build wax brood comb in the upper box. This gives me the option of keeping the two brood boxes as a super-charged, double-brood colony. This arrangement should suck in nectar faster than a top-of-the-range Dyson going head-to-head with Usain Bolt over 100 metres. But I could also divide this turbo-charged colony into two viable units relatively early in the season. Remember that it takes 10 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax – and in my new country apiary, I would rather have a new box of brood frames drawn with fresh white comb than a couple of supers stuffed rigid with crystallised rape honey. A great way to convert a haul of unwanted oilseed honey into valuable new brood comb.

At least I think that is what happens next. Watch this space !


Primrose, Queen Of Thames Hive

Check out the Bermondsey Street Bees’ dedicated video channel BermondseyStreetBeesOnAir.

Here you will find some fascinating hive-by-hive views of busy bees in Bermondsey and Suffolk – as well as the cult-classic “short”: “The Day The Queen Came To Tea“.

And by the way, Bermondsey Street Bees on Facebook notched up their 1000th ” Like” this week and @BermondseyBees on Twitter now has over 75 followers.

It’s fair to say that the beekeeper does get out more than the bees at this time of year, so on FB and Twitter you’ll see more of the wide world than on “Apis“, which keep its focus trained on the bee-stuff. Mostly.

At least no-one could accuse the consistently award winning Bermondsey Street Bees of idling during the Winter months!