The Buzz: The Smoking Habit

smoker ceder tree roof small
Conventional Smoker

This is a picture of a conventional Smoker, used by beekeepers to generate cool smoke to puff into beehives prior to opening up the hives for inspection. The smoke placates the bees, whose deep instinctive reaction to smoke is to gorge on the hive’s honey stores, in case “where there’s smoke” there really may be fire.  With a communal belly-full of honey, a colony of bees has a chance to relocate and rebuild the wax comb for a new brood nest – but they’re as heavy and as passive as a Christmas pudding.  So that’s basically why we use a little smoke when we pay a visit to our bees.

2013-04-27 19.51.06
Unconventional Smoker

This is a picture of Shard hive (the cedar box under the chimney on the roof-top of the blue/grey warehouse) with a very unconventional kind of Smoker in the foreground. On Saturday evening, this black taxi cab had been jacked up opposite the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary and has had its exhaust system removed and substituted with a shisha (hookah) pipe system for passers-by to puff on. Yes, really ! See more on:

Luckily, Shard hive’s bees were all tucked up for the evening, so no bees were involved in this avante-garde performance art. Who knows: a couple of puffs on the mint shisha, and they could have been sluicing down the raki until the small hours on a girls’ night out on Bermondsey Street – and in no fit state to receive their new Queen on Sunday morning.

Hung-over or not, by mid-week we’ll know how her kiwi majesty got on with her new sarf London ladies-in-waiting….


Up Close And Personal

Thames Hive: Brood Frame
Up Close And Personal : Thames Hive

The first inspections of 2013 in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary took place in the balmy evening sunshine on Thursday 25th April 2013.

Abbey Hive

Queen Bee On Brood - Abbey Hive
Abbey Hive – Queen Bee

Result! 4 frames of dense worker brood. This hive is firing on all cylinders, all things considered after this never-ending Winter. If anything, there is a danger of “honey-block” here – where the 5 frames of honey stores limit the room available for the Queen (centre frame in picture above, with Yellow dot on her thorax) to lay eggs. Will swap some frames of honey  for empty frames of drawn wax comb for the Q to lay in – and also spare a frame of emerging brood to help the new Q-in-waiting to build up Shard hive when she moves in this weekend.

     Thames Hive  

Queen Marking - Crown Of Thorns
Thames Hive – Queen Marked Yellow

Much better than I could have hoped for. The bees were calm and relaxed in the 18c sunshine. I found and marked the small, black Queen from last year (Yellow was the “in” colour for Qs in 2012 – see above – this year’s Queen hatches will all be marked with a Red dot on their thorax). The picture shows the Q in a “Crown Of Thorns”, which is a gentle restraining device, having been marked with the distinctive Yellow dot. Glad to say that there’s no need to re-Queen now, but  the bees might decide to supercede her if she turns out to be poorly mated. I will add 1 frame of honey stores from Abbey Hive to give her subjects a little boost.            

  Shard Hive

Shard Hive - Drone Brood Fron DLQ
Shard Hive – Domed Cappings Of Drone Brood

Again, no surprises here, but a big disappointment nonetheless: a really good-looking, leggy Queen was eventually tracked down – a drone laying Queen (DLQ) – as evidenced by the two cricket-ball-sized clumps of domed drone brood on the frames (see the slightly long-focus picture of the domed Drone cappings above). The worker bees would not have permitted her to lay more idle, layabout male bees. Without intervention, this colony is doomed., despite plentiful and colourful Pollen stores. The DLQ was removed (sorry, Elaine, I know that you were rooting for Shard hive !) and she will be succeeded by a NZ Queen from London’s pre-eminent beekeeper, John Chapple, this weekend.

So my predictions about the state of each hive were pretty much spot on – a neat trick. How’s it done? Well, I took note of what was going into the hive (pollen / nectar / water) and the energy/listlessness of the flying bees at the hive entrance. And then I looked at the hive debris under the open mesh hive floor, for signs of wax, pollen (and even varroa mite) activity. That told me a lot about the closed-up hives….certainly enough to guess all three hives right before they were opened for the first inspections – and after all, first impressions are lasting impressions !


Hayfever Sufferer? Local Pollen Giveaway !

Pollen Bees Yellow

Now that Spring is finally here, the Bermondsey Street Bees can begin the business of building up their hives by gathering nectar and pollen – but this time of year also has one major drawback – the pollen which the bees need to fuel their brood production can torment many people with hayfever and severe allergic reactions.

Bermondsey Street Bees may be able to help ! Last year I harvested some delicately-hued local Pollen from White’s Hive. I have 2 phials of this Pollen remaining, so it’s time for the Bermondsey Street Bees first ever Giveaway to Apis subscribers !

The first 2 respondents to this message using the “Post a comment” button on this post will secure their own free phial of Bermondsey Street Bees Pollen (2012 vintage !). Only two conditions: I would very much appreciate your own assessment of its efficacy for your hayfever symptoms – and that you collect the Pollen from Bermondsey Street. This is the final vestige of last year’s Bermondsey Street Bees Pollen. When it’s gone, it’s gone!

Whereas the scientific community is equivocal on the benefits of local pollen to alleviate the symptoms of hayfever and related allergies, there are many who believe that consuming local pollen provides considerable protection against these immune reactions of the human body.

If ever there was an offer not to be sneezed at – this is it!


In the Apiary : Late April : The Big Day

In the Apiary : Late April : The Big Day

searching for the queen small

There are some weeks when whole months happen. This week is shaping up to be one of those weeks in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ apiary. Next up: all 3 hives will be opened for their first inspections of the year.

Right now, they’re sitting there like wrapped-up birthday presents: you can see the shape and size, you can even heft the weight, or let your imagination scud back over past packages – but you can’t look inside until The Big Day dawns. And that is only when the conditions are right – 14C and above and, at most, a light breeze.

Ok, let’s play a little bee-game: here are my predictions for what I think will be revealed when each hive is “unwrapped”:

Abbey Hive: this is the big one. Looks populous and healthy, with a young 2012 Queen and docile productive bees. I’m expecting at least 3 full frames of worker Brood in All Stages (BIAS) and that I will be adding supers for the bees to store surplus honey within a week or so.

Shard Hive: a problem hive. More exposed to the elements and its late-mated 2012 Queen may be a drone-layer (ie no worker bee brood) and possibly weakened by a late Spring bout of nosema. I’m expecting just a frame and half of brood here – and keeping my fingers crossed for it to be worker brood.

Thames Hive: the real troublemaker. Another late-mated Queen, but one which has produced a feisty, pinging bunch of bovver-bees, which have gulped down more sugar-syrup feed pro rata that the other hives. I anticipate 2 full frames of BIAS here – but I am already hatching plans to depose her Majesty….bad-tempered bees need requeening to repent!

So what will it be: tears before bedtime, or over-excited whoops of joy? All will be revealed – and pictures, too – in the next episode of this Bermondsey Street “honey opera”……

The Buzz : Pizza Hive

Litrico's Menu

While the art of creative pizza construction has sure come a long way since the tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil-topped, thin-crust prototype, I was a little taken aback by the ingredients of the “Valdostano” at Litrico’s in Fiumicello di Maratea in Basilicata. Go for the house pizza instead !

In The Apiary : Mid-April 2013 : Spring Feeding

In The Apiary: Mid-April 2013 : Spring Feeding


In the first week of April, I took off the hives the pollen substitute paste (fondant with pollen supplement) which had been put on to nourish the bees since late February, despite the fact that on all of the hives, the pollen supplement had been partially eaten. This dusty-yellow slab of sticky pollen substitute had been placed over the feedhole in the crownboard, just above the comb, to provide the raw materials for bee-production: pollen is essential to raise new brood, yet the prolonged winter weather had postponed pollen production by plants and seriously curtailed the bees’ ability to forage for what little there was (bees need 8-10 degrees to leave the hive).

After removing the pollen substitute, I switched to a few litres of syrup feed (1.5 water:1 sugar – NOT the Golden Syrup in my picture – although note the bees around the Lion on the tin! That is my little joke) for two main reasons: firstly, after almost three weeks of a chilling east wind, London was not just cold, but also arid. At this time of year, the main priority for the bees would be to ensure sufficient water to dilute honey stores and to raise brood – and with the temperature stuck around zero, water collection was a big problem for the bees.

My introduction of a liquid syrup feed would solve this problem (as long as I waited until the temperature was above freezing!) and also simulate a nectar flow, which would encourage the Q to start laying freely. Secondly, there was clearly pollen about locally from early April onwards, bursting out on the willow, mahonia and hazel, despite the low temperatures (I don’t think my bees sniffed a single London crocus this year, given the non-flying temperatures while their purple petals were out). But even with a small recent improvement, the rotten weather has been too poor to permit a nectar flow, as well as keeping the foragers mostly hive-bound. I kept the quantities of syrup feed low – 3 litres for a large hive, 2 litres for a smaller hive – so that the storage of this resource inside the wax cells of the hive would not reduce significantly the brood area available for the Queen to lay, but would nevertheless provide sufficient stimulation for wax production by the younger bees.

So that’s this Spring’s feeding regime over….all lot of nips and tucks, but things look to be getting a whole lot better with the weather now, both for nectar and pollen. My hope is that my interventions will have jump-started my Qs’ laying tendencies by a couple of weeks or so…..the only other interventions this month have been to remove the metal mouse-guards from the hive entrances and gently lifting the intact hives, to replace their overwintered open-mesh floors with fresh ones.

I have to wonder, though, whether the temptation to micro-manage my colonies in this frustrating and tedious Spring must have got the better of me ! I am not an habitual Spring feeder, but this Winter was just too long and too harsh to risk not feeding, in my view. Enough nurture for now. Anyhow, given the prospects for a slow build-up, it looks like the penultimate week of April for my first full inspections (six weeks later than 2012’s first inspections!). The bees will be left alone to sort themselves out until then. Relaxed.

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.

Bees And Cocaine : “The Buzz From Oz”

Bee On Balsam

In Australia, Dr. Andrew Barron has been working to understand the neural pathways involved in human addiction and recruited the honeybee to study how human/bee brains react to addictive drugs, by depositing a dose of cocaine (certainly “experimental”, but definitely not “recreational” !)  on the bees’ thorax – that’s the bit between the head and the body to which the bee’s wings are attached. 

Bees on cocaine “danced more frequently and more vigorously for the same quality food,” Dr. Barron said. “They were about twice as likely to dance” as undrugged bees, and they circled “about 25% faster.” In other words, they became hyper-charged blaggers…..

The study suggested that honeybees are affected by cocaine in ways similar to humans (ie cocaine made the bees much more enthusiastic communicators) and therefore may be useful as experimental models of drug addiction. The researchers concluded that that cocaine activates neuropharmacological reward mechanisms in insects which are analogous to mammals, but that “Despite its reinforcing properties, cocaine remains an effective plant defense because the concentrations occurring in coca leaves are such that herbivorous insects very rapidly ingest a toxic dose“.

And if you spot white powder on the backs of your Bermondsey Street Bees, stay cool – from June onwards it’s probably pollen from the Himalayan Balsam plant (see photo above)!

With special thanks to Dr. Andrew Barron, Alison Carter, Editor of Optima, and to The Master and Fellows of Fitzwilliam College in the University of Cambridge for their kind permissions. 

London Honey Show – 7th October 2013

Save the Date!

 London Honey Show 2013_edited-1

The London Honey Show will be back again this year! Make sure to keep the

7th October 2013

free so that you can join in celebrating all things honey at Lancaster   London!
There will be more information regarding the competitions closer to the date – but in the meantime, keep a watchful eye on the website!

The Buzz: Queen Bee’s Retinue

Thatcher 1

Here’s a collector’s item: a rare 1984 picture of a Drone interloping amongst the Queen Bee’s “court” of female attendants (take a bow, Sarah and Penny!)