The Bee Garden Party


Bees can forage in a 3-mile radius of their hive. With that in mind, I mounted a Boris bike in Bermondsey Street and set off on a 3-mile midsummer evening bike ride, crossing the river to Marlborough House on the Mall for a Bee Garden Party (“by kind permission of Her Majesty the Queen”, the invitation stated. How very appropriate.)

Waggledance Walk

The great and the good were gathered there to raise money for the Bees For Development charity. The wonderful Hannah from Hiver Beers was there. Gill Smith from Thornes. Bill Turnbull auctioned bee-themed prizes, including a jar of his own honey.

We donated an Apis Consultancy report to the silent auction – and the bidding was as hot as the summer sunshine for our Apiary site survey and advisory services.

Apis Beekeeping Consultancy
Apis Beekeeping Consultancy

My mentor and senior bee-buddy John Chapple, was there with his charming wife, Kathleen, resplendent in his bee shirt, kindly recommending our Consultancy services to a new private client.

John Chapple
John Chapple

And Nikki Vane chatted to the party’s hostess, Martha Kearney, about their shared sensitivity to bee venom.

Martha Kearney & Nikki Vane
Martha Kearney & Nikki Vane

And so the sun went down on a worthwhile evening for the Bees For Development charity. We hadn’t conspicuously changed the world, but it felt like things were heading in the right direction…

In The Apiary : Mid June : Jet and Indigo

DJG - Photo by Hung Quach - Jet and Indigo
Debriefing – Photo by Hung Quach – Jet and Indigo

In life, as in beekeeping, when you collaborate with talented people, good things happen.

When Hung (pronounced “Hoong”) Quach approached me to propose an article about the Bermondsey Street Bees‘ rooftop apiary, in the “Locality” section of her Jet and Indigo blog, I was delighted to accept. I had been especially impressed with the crispness and clarity of her photographs (and her food images in particular) and Hung’s bee photography certainly did not disappoint! Continue reading “In The Apiary : Mid June : Jet and Indigo”

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.

Continue reading “In the Apiary : Mid-May : An Inspector Calls…”

In The Apiary – April 2015 – First Inspections

Bees With Altitude !
First Inspections

Spring has been a long time coming, but finally, I’ve been able to crack open my hives and inspect the Bermondsey Street Bees, checking up on their health, development and well-being – and especially on each hive’s Queen.

Let’s take a closer look at these Green Queens. Green was the Queen marking colour for 2014, when these Majesties were born. This year’s dab of fast-drying marker pen on a new Queen’s thorax will be Blue. But more of that another time. Let’s focus on the Queens in each hive as the business end of 2015’s season gets underway:

Queen Of Abbey Hive
Jade, Queen Of Abbey Hive

Abbey Hive is my breeding hive. It has consistently produced excellent, well-tempered and productive Queens for my Apiary. Queen Jade is no exception: victorious, happy and glorious, indeed. Right now, Abbey Hive is the most populous of all my Bermondsey Street hives and it has a smattering of drones already, with a few more to come, but the look of the cells on the bottom of a couple of the frames and some empty “play cups“. Taking my cue from the bees I have just put a Snelgrove board in, with the intention of raising some more model Queens from this genetic dynasty.

Queen Of Shard Hive
Esmeralda, Queen Of Shard Hive

Shard’s Queen Esmeralda was introduced to this queenless hive 10 days ago and she is going great guns. Amazingly, she seems to have physically grown in stature since I moved from a small mating hive into the more capacious Shard hive. Just goes to show…

Queen Of Thames Hive
Myrtle, Queen Of Thames Hive

It looks as if Myrtle, Queen of Thames hive, has been bustling around vigorously, too, given the faded patch of paint on her thorax. Not to worry. I’ll get her a makeover soon.

Grunhilde, Queen Of  Hive
Grunhilde, Queen Of Neckinger Hive

Finally, a glimpse of Grunhilde, Queen of Neckinger hive – she starred in my rooftop video (“Extreme Beekeeping“) earlier this week – so I don’t want to all this media exposure going to her head!

So there we are: an introduction to the Bermondsey Street Bees and their anointed Queens. And there’s more: there’ll be updates “In The Apiary”  updates every month throughout the summer!

Finding The Queen

Queen Bee - Zoom Out
Finding The Queen

At this year’s Bermondsey Street Festival my glass-sided observation hive, full of live bees from Thames hive, made its debut.

As the main attraction of my Bee-Education stall, it was ratchet-strapped obliquely onto the front corner of the trestle table so that it could resist be viewed on both sides. The bees on the single frame displayed went about their business, like a perpetual-motion screen-saver, invisibly assisted by four more frames of bees and a feeder-frame of sugar syrup in the wooden section under the glass viewing-gallery. I don’t mind telling you that it went like a dream, attracting and fascinating festival footfall all day long and drawing people into the bee-vortex with my challenge: “See if you can find the Queen”.

This year’s new-born Queens were marked Green. This is not a fashion statement. It is simply a convention for (a) helping you spot a Queen in a busy beehive and (b) identifying the age of the Queen. The 5 Queen marking colours are, in order, White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue. So 2015 Queens will marked Blue.

Now you will have noticed that the Queen in this picture is a yellow Queen, so a 2012 vintage. The reason I have used an older image is that it does a terrific job of contrasting a Queen bee’s anatomy with that of an ordinary worker bee.

Queen Bee - Middle Distance
Queen Close-Up

So let’s get a little closer in to see the physiological differences between a Q(ueen) B(ee) and a worker bee. Her physique is clearly unlike those of the worker bees surrounding her: she has a shinier, longer abdomen, banded with dark hoops. Her extended body (and reddish, stalky legs) distinguish her from the average citizen of Thames Hive. A coterie of supporters forms around the Queen. Observe the bee touching the Queen with her antenna. The bees also lick the Queen with their extendable tongues, savouring the pheromones which give the colony its distinctive odour and binds the bees together in a shared aromatic.

Zooming in a little more, we can observe some more anatomical details: her chassis almost v-shaped and voluptuous. Not surprising, since it contains her ovaries (she will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day at the peak of the summer and up to a million in her lifetime – and her spermatheca, which is used to store the sperm of her drone-swains which is used to fertilize the QB’s eggs)  And we can see her clipped wing. I make no apology for this minor deformation. Like colour-marking a Queen, clipping her wings is entirely practical, rather than aesthetic. This single-snip imperfection has one important consequence: the Queen will not be able to fly properly and therefore will not be able to lead a swarm away from the hive.

Queen Bee - Close-Up
Paparazzi Shot Of Queen

While swarming is the bees’ method of reproduction, we beekeepers have developed strategies to prevent losing half of our bees to a swarm. That should come as no surprise, since the word “beekeeper” contains two key concepts: (a) bees, and (b) keeping them. So keeping the Queen means keeping the bees and the honey, too.

So, whether it is on Bermondsey Street Festival Day for members of the public or for experienced beekeepers, there is always a certain thrill in “finding the Queen”.

….and for those curious about how beekeepers get their Queen Bees, enjoy this little home movie from Apis’s video archive…..

Tanner Street Park

Tanner Street 9 Nov 2014 1
Empty Plant Pots In Tanner Street Park

A big “Thank You” from the Bermondsey Street Bees to Southwark Council, their exemplary Parks Department and Manager Andy Chatterton for a major improvement to Tanner Street Park.

An unsightly patch of scrubland on the corner of Tanner Street and Bermondsey Street was cleared at the beginning of November. Early on Remembrance Sunday, this patch of raw ground was dotted with about 200 plants, the majority of which are pollinator-friendly. This is precisely the outcome which I was seeking 3 years ago, when I began to petition Southwark’s councillors and officers to introduce pollinator-friendly protocols for all of their municipal plantings.

Tanner Street Plantings 9 Nov 2014 1
Tanner Street Plantings And Trellis

And not to forget the erection of a new, free-standing trellis to replace the one which came down in last winter’s high wind. The growth of climbing plants on its frame will provide a sustainable benefit to foraging bees for many years to come.

Good job, Southwark Council and take a bow, Andy Chatterton !

In The Apiary : Early August : Work And Play

As an epic beekeeping season winds down, it’s about time to consider what bees do when they’re not being busy.

People often ask what bees do at night. Well, they don’t exactly sleep. More like relaxing their muscle tone and folding legs away, giving in to gravity. Unsurprisingly, sleep happens more regularly as bees age – not only are their outbound foraging and honey-shifting assignments more arduous than the house-keeping chores of younger bees, but they are also dependent on daylight to go about these tasks. So evening ushers in a higher degree of somnolence to the hive. Mostly.

A picture is worth, they say, a thousand words, so let me illustrate the difference between Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive diligently at work on the comb during the daylight hours:

Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive
Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive At Work

And how she really smashes it up on her nights off:

Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive At Play

Back to a more sensible Apiary update in September, once this year’s honey-harvest has been gathered in.

In The Apiary : Mid-July : Cirque Du SE1

He's Behind You !_edited-1
Roll Up, Roll Up ! Ladies and Gentlemen !

When I click my fingers, the lights go up and I’m standing amongst the hives, in white bee-jacket and veil, brandishing a hive tool in one blue-gloved hand and a frame of bees in the other. Just like a ringmaster under a beekeeping big top.

Roll up, roll up ! It’s as if each hive on my Bermondsey Street rooftop is a circus act. Laugh out loud… at the knock-about clowning of Neckinger Hive’s attempts to raise a new Queen! Prepare to be astonished… by the knotty contortions of Square Hive’s vivid red propolis. Tremble… at the plate-spinning tension of combining White’s and Thames Hives. Be amazed… by the ferocity of Shard Hive’s uncertain temperament. Marvel… at the elephantine majesty of Queen Amber of Abbey Hive as she processes across the brood frames. And all the while, SE1’s flying circus twirls up high, trapeze-less, for your delight and delectation. Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of all ages – the weekly Bermondsey Street Apiary inspection is about to begin ! 

That’s what passes for entertainment in these parts. Trouble is, keeping track of my troupe can be like a giddying merry-go-round. So my inspection technique is to focus on each hive, one at a time, complete the rigamrole, then move on to the next, rather than trying to juggle all of them in one field of vision.

Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive
Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive

The summer season has now pitched its tent in the Bermondsey Street Apiary, with the thermometer nudging 30C. The extended run of decent weather has taken its toll, in time and toil, but the show must go on ! My hive inspections involve heavy lifting of supers replete with honey, before sorting through populous brood frames, looking for disease or swarming intentions: a queen cup here, a drone with deformed wing virus there, honey-block reducing the available brood area everywhere. On the other hand, marking each of this year’s new Bermondsey Street Queens (Jade, Esmeralda, Grunhilde) with a dab of vibrant green paint has been a rare unalloyed pleasure.

Thames Hive - First  Inspection 2014
A Full Frame Of Brood

And I’m still hammering together cedar supers and frames of wax foundation to put onto the busy hives – in the second half of July, for heaven’s sake! Mopping my brow, it’s a relief to know that the Queens will soon reduce their laying rates, as the days ahead gradually shorten. Just another few weeks like this, then we’re into the honey harvest – the finale of the bee-season. So all that is left for me to do is to crack the whip and keep the patter up until the applause from the last extravaganza subsides, then it’s time to doff my hat and take a bow.

Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of all ages, it really is The Greatest Show On Earth !