Running On Empty

Square Hive 1
Square Hive – A Beehive Which Dr Frankenstein Would Have Admired

Help! I’m running on empty, I’m just hanging on by my fingernails, it’s touch and go….

I’ve run out of beekeeping kit. I started this year with 3 hives on my roof. Today there are 8. Only a National nuc box and a single Kieler breeding nuc remain in reserve. That’s the beekeeping equivalent of the small change down the back of your sofa. It’s like a honey-boxed shanty town has crash-landed on my roof.

Of those 8 hives, 3 are full-size hives, 3 are small Kieler breeding nuclei, one is a 5-frame observation hive box and the last one is a bit of a Frankenstein creation: you won’t see many beehives which look like Square Hive.

The picture shows its unconventional arrangement, perched on its white-painted pallet set against an uncertain sky (for the technically-inclined, Square Hive is composed of a green plywood 5-frame 14” x 12” nuc box topped by National crownboard and a regular cedarwood super). Although it may not sound like it, everything really is under control. And since this is still only late May, there is plenty of honey-gathering potential yet for the bees, even after I have more than doubled my colonies. And three weeks from now, around the summer solstice, the rate of egg-laying by the Queens will decelerate and the bees’ swarming potential will diminish.

Mercifully, all of my colonies have now been split, artificially swarmed or snelgroved, so I shouldn’t need any more hives this year….and my intention is to end this year with four strong and healthy hives on the roof, all requeened in 2014.

Woody Allen once wisecracked: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. We’ll see.

In The Apiary : Early April : Queen Cups

Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.

Abbey Hive - First Inspection 2014
Abbey Hive – First Inspection 2014

Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.

But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:

Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive - First Inspection 2014
Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive – First Inspection 2014

Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.

On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:

Thames Hive - First  Inspection 2014
Thames Hive – First Inspection 2014

Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.

But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !

Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell.  Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.

Play Cell - Abbey Hive
Queen Cup – Abbey Hive

So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).

Play Cell- Empty - Abbey Hive
Empty Queen Cup – Broken Down By Hive Tool

So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.

But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.

Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a  hike.

Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.

Identity Parade

There are some 250 species of bee in the British Isles.  But only one of these is the honeybee. That’s right – one honeybee, 249 other bee species. A arresting thought – so let’s take a step back to consider the evidence. We all have a nodding acquaintance with the 17 different “bumblebee” species which, taken together with the honeybee, are the only bee species in the U.K. which inhabit social colonies (ie hives). So when we are think “bee” our  image of “the usual suspects” captures less than 20 out of 250 species – while the remaining 92% of bees in the line-up are all solitary species of bee.

So let’s take a walk down Taxonomy Lane to take a look at the line-up of different sorts of bee which we could recognise here in the U.K.:    

Honeybee - With Pollen
Honeybee – With Pollen

Honeybees:   These are the blog-worthy creatures which inspire beekeepers to get dressed up in white smocks and veils and spend a lot of money on providing them with acceptable accommodation (literally at Her Majesty’s pleasure) and a certain standard of care. These indefatigable pollinators live in hives and  pollinate many crops. As you might suspect, they produce honey (and beeswax!) and are also the only type of bee which reproduces by swarming.

Sarah's bumblebee
Sarah’s bumblebee

Bumblebees: Bigger, louder and hairier than the honeybee, the bumblebee looks a bit of a bruiser, but really is just a gentle giant. We know them well for those characteristics, but we also recognise them as the first bees of the year, since they can tolerate colder foraging temperatures – and the hibernated Queen needs to get her hive going as soon as possible, since otherwise, she would be on her own and will be unable to cope with producing eggs,  foraging and caring for the brood in the nest. A bumblebee nest might be found in the ground or in a bird nesting box (as was the case for one of my allotment neighbours, Bill, who called me out to “deal with the bees”, but who ended up living in close harmony with his colony in the end).

Having no clue about those 232 solitary bee-species, I will defer to the late Dave Cushman for his descriptions of the broad groupings of these solitary bees:

Mining Bee
Mining Bee

Mining Bee: These vary considerably as there are well over 200 types in the UK alone, they like sandy soils and excavate a tunnel in which they lay a single egg on a mound of pollen. The holes are usually 3 mm, 5 mm or 8 mm in diameter. Little can be done to deter them other than altering the texture of the soil by incorporating large amounts of peat, coir or other compost (but not sand)”.

Masonry Bees
Masonry Bee

Masonry Bee: “Masonry bees have no connection with the “da Vinci Code”, but can be described as a type of ground bee that normally lives in the sandy banks of streams. If this type of bee finds soft and decaying mortar in a brick wall it is unable to distinguish between that and it’s natural habitat. This has given rise to many horrific stories, but if they have ever been the cause of a building falling down I would be surprised. It is much more likely to be due to lack of maintenance by the owner”.

Leaf-Cutter Bee 1
Leaf-Cutter Bee

Leaf Cutter Bee: “The ones that I have seen are hairy and look similar to other types of solitary bee. They cut semicircular pieces from the leaves of some plants, (notably roses), They then line a tunnel shaped cavity with these pieces of leaf. They collect pollen, lay their egg on the pollen, seal up the tube to form a chamber (using more pieces of leaf) and then repeat the whole process several times. There are some species that use mud to form chambers instead of cut leaves”.

Cuckoo Bee
Cuckoo Bee – No Pollen Sacs Needed !

Cuckoo Bee:  “These lay their eggs in the nest burrows of the solitary bees… The cuckoo bee larva then eats the pollen intended for the original occupant”.

So this little identity parade shows you the broad categories of bee which you might be able to pick out – as long as you keep your eyes peeled and your antennae switched on. I would be interested to hear your tip-offs on any sightings of one of the “other 92%” of bee species in the bad-lands of Bermondsey. All information treated in the strictest confidence, of course… the Flying Squad.


Bee-haiku Competition

Musing on what it might be like to be a bee in a swarm, I composed a bee-haiku:

Dale’s bee-haiku

So I thought that Apis bloggers might want to try their hand at their own bee-haikus – the winner will gain glory, great honour AND a guided tour of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary !

Just be sure to use the simple 3-line haiku format:

Line 1 : 5 syllables

Line 2: 7 syllables

Line 3: 5 syllables

All welcome – please reply to this post with your bee-haikus!  The winner will be selected on 30th June 2013.

The Unflappables

The Swarm

It’s that time of year again – the Swarm season. This year, for once, I’m actually glad to hear about swarms, since it suggests that the bees are repopulating after the depredations of the last 24 months. Of course, I’d prefer beekeepers to exercise their craft and employ simple techniques designed to convince the bees into believing and behaving as if they had indeed swarmed. But any sign that our hard-pressed bees are making increase is good news in my book…..

And of course, it’s time once again to de-bunk the celluloid-fuelled myth of savage swarms and repeat that swarming bees are not inherently dangerous. They aren’t. Here’s why:

Let’s not lose sight of the simple fact that swarming is the way in which bee colonies reproduce. It is the bees’ natural method of making two colonies from one. Swarms are awesome to behold (I use the word in its truest sense – the sight and sound of 20,000 insects filling the air certainly awakens a prickling sensation of awe in me!) and, for those who are less partial to the life-cycle of the honeybee than I, may quite reasonably provoke the urge to run screaming down the road.

The first thing to understand is that swarming bees are about as belligerent as a zen master after a hot-dog-eating competition. Let’s take a step back and look at this logically: we know that bees have an imperative instinct to protect their hive, but are benign creatures when foraging outside the hive. A swarm, by definition, has left its hive and is looking for a new home. So that natural defensiveness is neutralized, even as the swarm regroups, temporarily, in a cluster close to their old hive, before “making a bee-line” for a new home.

Add to that outward-bound optimism the fact that these bees will have tanked up on honey as the swarming impulse reached its climax in their former hive – hence the “hot dog” bit of the analogy – and their honey-stomachs are replete with the liquid gold which will buy them warmth, wax for new comb and food for new brood. That means that their ability, as well as their will, to deliver a sting is deeply diminished by this cumbersome money belt.

There is one more comment I wish to offer about swarming.  The clue to it is contained in the second half of the word “beekeeper”. If your bees have swarmed, then you haven’t “kept” them – you might as well call yourself a “beesquirter”, it’s as brutal as that !

Behind every swarm stands a red-faced beekeeper, who either “missed” a Queen cell on the comb, or carried out an “artificial swarm” ineptly. No matter that we beekeepers have willingly taken the part of attempting to curb the reproductive urge of a wild animal, no matter that each such swarm contains some 20,000 procreation-fixated bees and no matter that, heaven knows, members of our own species, often experience considerable difficulty in exercising control over their own fertility rites.

Here is a YouTube clip, with the first few moments of my elder son and I taking a swarm in White’s Ground’s, just off Bermondsey Street:

So here’s to the real heroes of this clip: those unflappable Bermondsey bystanders watching this urban swarm collection without bee-suits.  Impressed !

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



BLink: Got The Builders In

Bee BuilderEver wondered how bees build their nests? 

Take a look at this high-speed time-lapse video (hat-tip to pioneer Eadweard Muybridge) to see this 3-month construction of a summer brood nest – all in under 2 minutes !

This is a “top bar” hive in which the bees build their own brood and honey comb hanging down from the bars. In London’s dense, urban environment, Bermondsey Street Bees require a little more “management” to ensure their good health, my neighbours’ peace of mind and a decent honey crop in September!

And if you’re wondering why the hive suddenly looks a lot emptier halfway through the video…. welcome to another characteristic of natural beekeeping – and arch-enemy of urban beekeepers – the Swarm, recently departed, with the old Queen taking with her half of the work-force.

BLink: Queen’s Cell-Out Concert

Queen Cell

Another quick link to a “vibration” topic, this time on pre-swarming noise. See this New Scientist article entitled: Bee Sensor Picks Up Queen Bee’s Farewell Vibes.

We know that the old Queen will swarm out with half of the hive (the bees’ natural form of reproduction) once the new Queen cell(s) are sealed, about 8 days after the egg(s) are laid and half-way to hatching at 16 days. We keep a beady eye out for the tell-tale queen cells drooping on the comb in May and June.

This article, however, focuses solely on the changes in a hive’s vibrations about 10 days prior to swarming, suggesting that these auditory changes could alert a pitch-perfect beekeeper of imminent swarming, just before a new Queen larva is ready to be sealed in her cell at 8 days (which is the prompt for her mother to swarm out of the hive). So there’s some scientific evidence that, for beekeepers, hearing can be as helpful as vision. Eyes and ears. Don’t leave home without them !