Dreaded lurgy?

It’s been a worrying week. Colony collapse disorder is in the news again. Looks like it could have reached the UK.
Brian thought he found evidence in the photos he took of our spring clean, of what looked liked two of the most dreaded diseases known to bee; American foul brood and European foul brood. They are the BSE of the bee world and anyone found with contaminated bees has to have all their bees, hives and equipment burned. I thought Brian was overreacting until he showed me the photos and I reluctantly agreed they did look like the ones in the book. I was devastated. They say it has nothing to do with the beekeeper, but you can’t help thinking you must have done something very wrong. Moreover, you feel really bad that you couldn’t protect your bees from danger. Brian sent the photos to our regional bee inspector to confirm our worst fears. However, a three day bee conference delayed any response, so we were on tenterhooks fearing the worse. I rang the chair of my beekeepers’ association who told me that the first sign of either of these diseases was a strong smell. As neither of us smelled anything other than honey, we shouldn’t worry, he advised. But we did. It wasn’t until Friday when Brian was able to show an experienced bee keeper at his weekly bee keepers’ association meeting that we finally had confirmation that all was in fact well. There was no disease. We were so relieved. I think we’d got a bit carried away with all the scares about bee diseases.

Urban Bees, London, Spring Clean

A video of us spring cleaning the hive…individually inspecting each frame.

Finally warm enough to do the hive spring clean. This is where we open up the bees’ home after the winter and see how they’re doing. With colony collapse disorder in the news – a strange new disease which has seen bees across the US mysteriously flee their hives to die – we’re a little worried that they may have left home. But we had a peek a few weeks ago and they were still there, so it seems unlikely. There are, however, a long list of diseases that they could have picked up over the cold winter months. The most likely include: verroa, tiny brown mites that kill the bees; chilled brood – when the bee larvae has died of cold – and chalkbrood, a fungus that kills the larvae. Bees are pretty susceptible to disease these days, so we’re looking out for signs of any problems. We’ve got a book from the Defra, the government department with responsibility for bees – yes, there is one – containing graphic photos of common diseases to help us identify them.
We also urgently need to find our queen and mark her. It’s a good idea to know where she is as the working of the hive revolves around her. Even though she has a much longer body than her worker bees, at the height of the summer with 50,000 bees in the hive it’s really difficult to see her without a mark. Now with only some 10,000 bees we’ve got a better chance of spotting her. When we do, we have to trap her in a little cage and put a blob of Typex-like fluid on her back. The marker colour is white because she’s last year’s queen and they get white. This year’s get a yellow blob. Queens usually live for three years, then the workers create a new one by feeding royal jelly to a larvae.
After queen marking, we’ll give the hive an extension so the queen has more room to lay her eggs. Brian’s been told that adding a second brood box on top of the existing one is the best extension as the bees will move to the frames upstairs in a few weeks so we can take away the downstairs and clean it. We kit ourselves up in our bee suits, light the smoker in case the bees get agitated and open the hive. To our horror, the first frame is a bit mouldy due to some damp at the front of the hive. The next two are similarly blackened, but there are still stores of honey. To our relief, towards the centre of the hive we find the expected brood (babies) which is pearly white coloured larvae in all stages of development, surrounded by multi-coloured pollen. Finally, to our excitement on the eighth frame we catch sight of the queen. She is huge. Much bigger than we expect. Bit scary. She tried to run away. We quickly trap her, and blob her, nearly squashing her in the process, then let her go. The last three frames hold more honey.
The verdict is that the things look OK, yippee, apart from the damp. Brian takes photos of all the frames for a visual record.
We can’t believe how well behaved our bees are during the inspection. There’s hardly a buzz out of them. I wonder if there are any cannabis plants nearby. Brian didn’t wear gloves and didn’t get one sting.
We add the extension, and give them another storey half full of honey that we never harvested last year because it wasn’t ready to eat. Although they haven’t got through all their winter stores of honey we figure they could do with some more to give them energy for the coming months ahead.

March 07

Although I have been itching to get into the hive and do the spring clean we have been sensible and waited for the weather to get better.

I did have a look into the hive one warm Sunday a couple of weeks ago and everything looked well.

Here’s a photo.

Cheers Brian and Alison

Who needs fields?

We thought this photograph encapsulated the idea of an urban bee. It was still chilly (around 9C) but a few of the bees had been out and about doing their business. This bee was taking a rest on the side of the hive and I managed to get the camera in position just before it climbed down to the entrance.

Is the queen laying?

She often starts laying in January. Well there’s not much else for her to do, stuck in doors all day surrounded by doting workers who ensure she’s kept very warm.
There are two tell tale signs:
1. Bees taking pollen into the hive in January – Yes, we’ve seen that on numerous mild days.
2. A growing pile of dead bees appearing around the front of the hive. These are the winter workers dying off as their new replacements are born. Yes, seen that as well.
Some deceased urban bees.

But if the laying is followed by a cold snap that prevents the bees collecting pollen to feed to the babies – does that mean they will die? Comments welcome.

February Snow

The garden looks beautiful with a rare white covering but the bees won’t see it. No excursions for them in these sub zero temperatures. They’ll be huddled together keeping it a tropical 33c in the hive. The layer of snow on the roof may help to insulate their home. Hope their bladders last out until warmer weather arrives. They’ll probably need a feed soon to get them through the remainder of the winter. All that beating of wings in the hive to create caribbean conditions in a corner of my cold London garden takes it out of them. We have two blocks of candy – concentrated sugar solution – to feed them in an emergency.

End of year – update

It may be a busy time of year for us running around buying presents, getting food together for family and friends and over indulging but for the bees the cold weather means huddling together in a ball to keep warm and staying cosy in the hives. Only when the sun comes out and the temperature rises a bit do they venture out for a brief sortie and toilet trip – bees are fastidious about their toilet habits, no inside toilets for them. The gardens of the world are where they relieve themselves.
Yesterday was one such day. Their tiny entrance was chokablock with bees coming and going grateful for the sunshine and the chance to get out and stretch their wings. They are so cute to watch. Out they come, have a little look around, a sniff and possibly a chat with their sisters and then when they are ready push themselves off the hive, fly up and away to do their business in the gardens of urban London. It isn’t possible to tell how long they are away from the hive – we haven’t captured and marked the bees as yet – but since the temperature is around 10C degrees we suspect they are only flying a short distance maybe a garden or two away.
We did notice that today 30th Dec some of the bees were coming back with pollen. No idea from which flower but it was a light yellow colour. Does this mean the queen is laying?

We took the opportunity to weigh the hive. Well not exactly weigh the whole hive but we attached a spring scale to one side of the hive stand and lifted until the legs came off the floor. The scale read 15 kilos. In itself this measurement doesn’t tell me much but when we repeat the exercise we will be able to deduce how much food is being consumed by the colony and then be in a position to take action if we feel their food supplies are getting short.

Hefting the hive

On the ground below the entrance there are a couple of dozen dead bees in various stages of decomposition. This rather callous resting place just outside the front door is where the bees dump their deceased though I have seen on occasion the bees transporting their dead a little further away in our garden. The bees seem to be happy not to dispose of their dead in any other way than an unceremonious kick out the front door. Slightly strange perhaps since their lives are spent as a close knit tight sisterhood where each and everyone play an important role, always working as a team and in constant communication with each other, ready to kill and die for the hive, their queen and each other if danger was ever in their way. But when one of their own die, it’s a kick out the door and if by chance the corpse had some honey on it they would happily suck up that honey seemingly without noticing that the honey is on their dead sister. Maurice Maeterlinck, 1901 writes in his renowned The Life of the Bee; “In the midst of the marvels of their industry, their policy, their sacrifice, one thing exists that must always check and weaken our admiration; and this is the indifference with which they regard the misfortunes or death of their comrades”
This may be a little harsh since we can’t know what the bees are thinking and how they deal with death but they at least dispose of their dead outside the hive.

Soon it will be January and the queen is known to start her laying again even though the winter is still with us. Our urban bees have the advantage of the urban heat island effect keeping the cities warmer than the surrounding country and hence making the winters shorter. Hope she has enough room and stores in her home so her young can grow strong and healthy.

We love the honey, mummy…

Just wanted to share the feedback we’ve had about our honey which we gave away to friends, family and work colleagues. Comments have ranged from “This is the best honey I have ever tasted” to “This is the best honey I have ever tasted”. We’ve even had children and adults begging for more. Alas, there are only a couple of jars left to keep myself and Brian going during the winter months.

Several recipients have suggested that they contribute to a whip round to buy us an extra hive so there will be a lot more honey next year.

All I can say is well done bees, and it must be true what they say about there being more biodiversity in the cities these days than in the countryside.

Urban Bees – December update

We were surprised today when we saw a few bees coming back to the hive with pollen. It’s amazing that in December the weather is warm enough for the bees to go foraging and to find pollen. We figure that this means all is well in the hive.

What is pollen

Want a pollen colour guide?

here is one of the bees laden with pollen. She’ll be exhausted after that trip.
Here she is going into the hive where the pollen will be taken from her by one of her younger sisters.

Bedding down for winter

It’s now November and the clocks have gone back, the nights are getting chilly and the leaves are beginning to fall so not surprisingly the bees are tucking themselves in for the winter. There isn’t too much for us to do at this time apart from making sure the hive is as cozy as can bee. So recently we made sure that the hive was well and gave the bees a feed of some thick sugar water solution. This sweet drink, much like the nectar from the flora, gives them the chance to store up excess honey for the cold winter months ahead.
After reading a bit and speaking to fellow apiarists at the National Honey Show last month we decided to take away our Varroa screen for the winter which made it easier for us to close the entrance down to just a finger width opening. Easily enough room for the bees to come and go on those rare sunny days we get in winter but small enough to stop unwelcome visitors looking for a warm and sweet place to raid.
They were looking healthy and well and we hope that they will flourish in the spring and continue to produce the most wonderful urban honey.

They look so sweet as if they are waiting for the starting gun.

Alison behind the hive with the reduced opening. The opening is that little black hole towards the bottom left of the hive.

Here’s one of our bees laden with pollen. Being late in the year we reckon it may be ivy pollen.

Brian is pouring the sugar water into the Ashford feeder – a wooden box that fits onto the hive with an opening for the bees to get to the liquid.

A pic of the brood frames (from the bottom).

Hive talking

One of the great things about having bees is that you have something new to talk about with
your friends. Forget house prices and the football results, or bringing out your holiday snaps (although that’s all digital now). After a fine Sunday lunch, Brian shows our guests what happens on a super (honey) frame. Here’s one the bees made earlier, with most of the honey capped with wax and ready to be harvested.

I always knew Brian should have been a teacher…perhaps we should start tours.

Urban drone bee

This is a drone bee. Harmless since it does not have a stinger. It is the male bee whose purpose is to mate with a queen. Once it does this it dies.

Looking into the hive. This is were the juvenile bees are busy looking after the brood, the queen is laying her larvae and the comb is filled with pollen, honey and larvae.

The frame showing the white capped comb; full of honey, the brown capped comb; full with a growing larvae, open comb with days old larvae (little white specs) and open comb with evaporating honey.

Why bees?

People keep asking me ‘why do you want to keep bees?’ It’s difficult to explain.
I’ve always secretly fancied myself as Felicity Kendal in The Good Life? Well maybe a little bit but I don’t do all the other things like grow my own food, I get one of those organic boxes delivered.
I’ve always loved honey? Yes, that’s true, but I’m not keeping the bees primarily for their tasty secretions.
It’s partly about creating a little corner of the countryside in W9. After all, my cottage-style garden looks like a meadow in the spring and a beehive completes the pastiche.
It’s partly because I like bumblebees – because they’re furry and synonymous with a perfect English summer’s day – and knowing nothing about honeybees, I thought they were the same thing!
But the main reason for my new hobby is that I read an article a couple of years ago which said around 70% of the food that we eat depends on bee pollination and that bees are threatened by intensive farming and urban sprawl, so it seemed an easy way to save the planet.
What turned this nice thought into action, however, was my new boyfriend. For my birthday, Brian bought me a beekeeping book and paid for us both to go on a one-day introduction to beekeeping course at Roots and Shoots. At the end of the day, I was hooked. We saw their hives and the bees coming and going. It didn’t need to be difficult or technical – although some men seem to turn beekeeping into a biology lesson. There were people on hand to help. I joined the London Beekeepers Association and signed up for a swarm of bees. That was back in January…


Brian makes a candle by heating up the waxy bits from the frame and pouring the solution into a tea light holder.

Here are two he made earlier… pure bees wax candles. They burn really well, though I was disappointed that they didn’t smell of honey.

Stealing the honey

We couldn’t wait any longer to taste our home-grown honey, so we selected one frame from the full super.

Because there are still bees on the frame Brian made a box to put the frame in with a porter bee escape fitted at the top. This little plastic device allows the bees to escape from the box but they can’t get back in. When we were sure all be bees had buzzed off, we took out the frame and prepared to scrape off the wax and the honey.

Brian cutting off the capped white waxy bits.

Scraping off the honey from the frame into a sieve to avoid any waxy bits getting through.

Three pots of dark, luscious, runny Queen’s Park honey. And how does it taste? It’s a strong, rich taste, almost like molasses…delicious and extremely healthy.

Bees first TV appearance

June 7 – continue assembling the frames – why can’t I hit a nail straight?- and make a sugary solution that is the bees’ welcoming meal. You dissolve a bag of Tate and Lye [can't be Silver Spoon, because that's from beet and bees have to have sugar from the cane] a bit at a time in loads of water until it is clear; takes ages and lots of stirring. I try to finish this before the TV crew arrive. I had a call yesterday from Roots and Shoots asking if they could pass my details to BBC London News which wanted to film a new young(ish) urban apiarist. Keeping bees is, allegedly, the latest fad. Why not? So here they are, the slick TV presenter and the gentle cameraman, to film me and my bees. The Live Bees travelling box (perfect for TV) goes down well. They film me assembling the frames, wrongly – but you can’t see that I’ve done it the wrong way round on film – and I give some spiel about wanting to keep bees because it’s my contribution to saving the planet. Well that is partly true, but it sounds stupid. Then I get togged up, light the smoker (they love that as well) open the hive, put in the extra frames I’ve just made, and tell them about my neighbours reaction. ( I did tell them this morning and they were fine about it, actually they were half asleep so not sure they understood what I was talking about).

After a couple of hours the filmcrew leave and I open the hive again and put the feeder on top hoping that I’ve placed the piece of cardboard in the correct position to stop the bees drowning in the solution. I’m still amazed that the bees don’t cover me from head to foot, but they are far too busy.

Although I can now assemble frames, it turns out that I still can’t set my video recorder so I miss the bee report on BBC London News. I try to download it, but my computer skills aren’t up to much either. A friend comes to the rescue and I eventually see it. Brian downloads it in Cape Town but all he says he can see are the yellow Marigolds. The cameraman kindly agrees to send me a video.

Moving in

We leave the travelling box on top of the hive so the few remaining stragglers will get the idea about where they are supposed to live.

Bee man then gives me my first ever woodwork lesson. It’s called assembling the frames for the hive. For someone who can’t put together IKEA flatpacks, he’ll have to be a pretty amazing teacher. Luckily for my bees he is.

I call Brian in Cape Town to tell him the good news that we are the proud ‘parents’ of 10,000 plus bees – he’s just as excited as me. Bummer he’s not here, though it means I’ll have to learn more myself.

Fall into bed exhausted.

The pick up

June 6, early evening – they come in a wooden box marked Live Bees, written in red paint, with two pieces of blue string either side to carry. There is a lid on the box. I pick it up rather nervously conscious of the numbers inside. I’m told it’s a big swarm, more than 10,000. I place it in the boot of the car and drive off. As I drive round Hyde Park corner on my way back from Kennington, I hear a thud. Shit! I look in my mirror only to see to my horror that there are bees buzzing around in the back of the car! I manage to somehow pull over, and get out the car to take a closer look at what’s happened. The box has fallen on its side (why didn’t I wedge it in?) and lots of bees are clinging to the box or flying around. Shit, what now? I call Bee man (chair of the London Beekeepers’ Association). “Oh dear”, he says and then calmly tells me not to panic. That’s easy for him to say. “The bees aren’t interested in you, just drive home,” is his advice. I decide to open all the windows as it’s a warm evening and I know that hot bees equal angry bees. Just hope I don’t lose the queen.

Bee man is right. I get home unscathed. Most of the bees have managed to get back into the box, so I put on the Marigolds and carry the box through the flat into the garden and place it in front of the hive. They do sound very angry, if that’s what a loud, high pitched buzzing noise means. I have visions of them escaping in the communal hallway and attacking the neighbours, whom I haven’t yet told about my new pets. Bit of an oversight on my part, but I will tell the couple upstairs with the two year old, tomorrow morning!

Bee Man is most congenial, with a smiley face and the remnants of a thick grey beard. I put on my burka-style bee outfit, he dones just a hat and veil, not even gloves. He removes the lid of the box and gently removes one of the three frames inside and transfers it to the hive. I transfer the next two. The bees don’t seem at all bothered by us. I thought they’d be all over my bee suit but they’re not. This is not too scarey afterall. He gives the box a good shake above the hive so the bees that weren’t on the frames fall into their new home. We put the few frames that Brian had made before his departure (not the 11 he was supposed to have done) into the hive and put the lid on.

Where’s the boyfriend when you need him?

June 6, morning – weather has been glorious for the last few days. I receive an unexpected call on my mobile informing me that Roots and Shoots (the ecological centre where we went on our one-day bee keeping course) have a swarm of bees. Do I want them. If so, can I let them know whether or not I can pick them up, that evening. Help! of course I want them but I’d expected Brian to be here and to be honest I don’t know if I’m up to the job on my own. After much deliberation, I call and explain my predicament and ask if they know anyone who lives in my vicinity who’d be willing to lend a hand. They give me a number of a guy who went on the same course as myself. He is terrified by my suggestion. All he can offer is good luck. I then contact the London Beekeepers’ Association, which I’d joined a few months earlier for this very reason. After numerous emails and telephone messages the chair, who rather fortuitously lives in Acton, agrees to show me how to transfer the bees from their travelling container to my empty hive. Relieved, I call Roots and Shoots and arrange an early evening pick up.