Spores of nosema under the microscope

No matter that Shard Hive was put to bed last year with a feed of thymolated sugar syrup and was given a tonic dose of Vitagold in a Spring feed (which was virtually untouched) earlier this year, it has finally succumbed to nosema. The parapet around the hive is sprinkled with healthy-looking, but comatose “zombie” bees, the cupful of bees inside Shard has dwindled to a skeleton crew – and Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive, was wandering alone in poor condition inside a much depleted hive. Drat and double drat!

I guess that, this year, anything which started out wonky in the hives has proved to be really hard to set right. I made the mistake of hoping that, come the sunshine and some big nectar flows, a touch of nosema would be busily swept away – and that substituting a drone-laying 2012 Queen with a nubile, red-dotted youngster would restore Shard to its former glories. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So I have cut my losses, closed up the Shard breeding nuc (to prevent robbing of its food stores by other bees, who would then acquire the parasitic nosema fungus and take it back to their own hive) and I have “banked” Queen Ruby in a Butler Cage in Abbey Hive, ahead of starting a big manipulation on that hive this weekend.

I will be getting out my microscope to check my diagnosis of nosema (looking out for those Arborio-rice-like spores in the image above), but I’m pretty sure that the brown streaks on the landing board and the listless bees tell me all that I need to know. It’s the same diagnosis as the first inspection of the year in late April…

Well, the weather forecast is getting summery from here on, but it’s too late for Shard Hive. Call me obtuse, but I’m chalking this up as a “winter loss” even though June starts tomorrow !

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



Dancing In The Dark


At the LDKA apiary last Saturday (no, that’s not us at the apiary in the picture – more about that later!), the highlight of “going through” the hives with our tutor Penny Robertson, was seeing two foragers performing vigorous “waggle-dances” on the brood comb. As we watched this energetic ballet, a distant memory popped into my mind…

In 1999, I went on a charity-bike ride to Cuba. One night, in the (aptly-named, in my opinion) city of Colón in Matanzas, I was walking back to the team hotel in the pitch dark, thanks to a power-cut. As I stepped slowly past the large, arched, peeling windows of a row of Spanish colonial houses, I heard a muffled footfall and caught sight of a movement in the shadows inside one of the buildings.

I halted, as much apprehensive as inquisitive, and glimpsed through the open window a sight which was quite breath-taking – a family of four, two adults and two teenagers – dancing with silken elegance in the silent shadows….as if the music of their heartbeats, the welling of an unremembered rhythm, had risen like a tide and flooded their senses – so they danced anyway, through the dark, pin-drop silence of the power-cut.

Which brings us back to the bees’ “waggle-dance”: likewise a muted cha-cha, performed at home in total obscurity and with the participation of close family. Let me describe it to you, before suggesting a link which shows the “waggle-dance” and has a David Attenborough voice-over:  the “waggle-dance” is a hushed communication, with one bee dancing, at antenna’s length, from the circle of bees around her, like a lasses-only version of the Scottish reel “Dashing White Sergeant”, but performed without the lights on ! But over to that nice Mr. Attenborough for some visuals of:

The Waggle Dance

So the purpose of the “waggle-dance” is for the dancer to communicate the direction and distance from the hive of food sources.  Just like our own dances, the “waggle-dance” is conducted on a specific patch of comb. The returning forager dances to convey information about the nectar or pollen source which they have just visited by waggling their abdomens and moving on the comb, for the benefit of a small group of available foragers, who touch her with their antennae to gather information from her movements.

Looking at a bee “waggling” on the comb, the human brain understandably attempts to assign meaning in the optical plane. Close, but no cigar! Remember, in the bee-world inside the hive, all is dark, so visual communication is null and void. The actual meaning in the “waggle-dance” display is pulsed through vibration, as the dancer grips the comb and the signals resonate to her rapt audience. With the comb hanging downwards, as it does in nature, in its “waggle-dance” the bee encodes, relative to gravity, the distance and direction of the food source. The other bees absorb this pulsating intelligence, but by the time they are ready to fly from the hive to the feeding-zone, the instructions have been miraculously de-ciphered into a flight manual based on the orientation of their hive to the sun, specifically at that time of day. Amazing and accurate.

You may be one of the few fortunate souls on god’s green earth who has not been button-holed recently by a beekeeper complaining about how depressingly poor the last couple of years have been for bees. But in any case, you are probably aware of the severe pressure on bee-populations, of the trials and tribulations of the craft of beekeeping. But please take away from this monograph that, however tough it has seemed, there are still rewarding moments to be extracted, jewels of appreciation to be mined with a hive-tool – including the simple waggle of a single bee !

ps: For those wishing to delve deeper into the mysteries of the “waggle-dance” (and why foraging bees switch off their colour vision when flying back returning to their hive) I can recommend Jürgen Tautz’s “The Buzz About Bees – Biology Of A  Superorganism”.

pps: And for those who wish to see a drone “waggle-dancing”, (clue: plenty of noise, lights, music and purely recreational) – there’s always “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen in 1984.

BLink: Extreme Beekeeping

Nepalese Beekeeer

Thanks to Sophia Hill, entrepreneuse and ingénue smuggler of Bermondsey Street Honey to Burt’s Bees HQ in North Carolina, for sending this arresting article on Nepalese honey-harvesting:


Men from the Gurung tribe from Western Nepal, braving immense danger, are dedicated to the tradition of the 8,000 year old “hunt”. Using indigenous tools and resources, such as a 200 foot rope ladder and balancing baskets and a long pole, they chisel their way to a giant honey comb of up to 2 million bees.”

Will Saturday afternoons at the LDBKA Apiary ever be the same again ?

Word Of Mouth

Trophallaxis - A Language For Bees
Trophallaxis – A Language For Bees

It is a sure sign that Spring has finally arrived once bees of all shapes and sizes start busily gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. And if you just allowed yourself to stop in the sunshine and zoom-in on a bee on a flower, you might see her amazing, extendible tongue syphoning the sugar-rich liquid from the plant into her honey-carrying stomach. But, for honeybees, that is the simple part of the job.

And if you then could peep behind the scenes when that bee returned to her hive with a full tank of nectar, bumping down onto the landing-board, you would witness something quite unusual. The foraging bee doesn’t just walk through the hive door, issue a sisterly greeting to all and sundry, dump her cargo into the nearest empty honeycomb and put her (six!) feet up, job done. Instead, something exceptional occurs, something which might disquiet even the keenest honey-eater. Something which, here in Michael Caine’s old Bermondsey stomping ground,“not a lot of people” know about: it’s the transmission of the nectar from the gatherer’s honey stomach, face to face, to a waiting house-bee’s stomach via – as you can see in the picture above – their unfurled tongues. Docked together, our bees begin the transformation of nectar into honey with a comestible kiss.

In English, this exchange of nectar has a name which itself is a bit of a mouthful: it is called trophallaxis. Pronounced Tro – fa – laxis. Try saying it…..those three syllables force your tongue forward, backward, forward again, your mouth-parts mimicking the action itself as you pronounce the word !

For our bees, this transfer of nectar is much more than simple food-processing. It is a download transmitting the most precious commodities a bee-colony can possess: energy and kinship. It is a sensual etiquette, exuding innocence in its nutritional necessity. Yet it also communicates fluent messages: about the quality of a food source, the outside temperature, a need for water in the hive or even the condition of the Queen bee.

And like language itself, in this exchange both the donor and the receiver play their part in turning basic materials into higher-value goods. The oral transfer of nectar starts the transformation into honey in the same way that, for primitive humans, the spoken word would have helped refine raw information into shared intelligence.

This blog is called “Apis” after the Latin word for bee. In linnean lingo, the honeybee’s full title is “apis mellifera” – which translates as the  “honey-carrying bee“. My intention is to carry to these pages my experience of bees, of beekeeping and of the bee-world. When we meet here, we become interlocutors. We share words – like trophallaxis (try it one more time for luck: Tro – fa – laxis): a communication, a connection, a communion.

BLink: Boum! Celebrate A Sunny Bank Holiday


From his 1938 film “La route enchantée“, Charles Trenet’s “Boum” catches the insouciant mood of the pre-WWII era (is it any wonder the Germans felt like “having a pop” at the French in 1939 – the aura of invincibility epitomised by Napoleon’s trademark bee-symbol was clearly a thing of the past)


And yes, it’s bee-related – if you listen closely enough, the word “abeille” does crop up towards the end of this song (about 1.29 in, to be precise). And of course, I love the flower-heads popping out in the last chorus. Sadly, M.Trenet’s repertoire did not stretch to bee-impressions.

Say what you like about the French, but when it comes to “light entertainment” (couture, cuisine, cinema, causerie, chanson) they are unbeatable !




Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive
Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive

What’s in a name ? I didn’t get it when my wife suggested that I give the new Queen in Shard Hive a name: “She’s already got one,” I replied cheerily: “It’s JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ”.

She responded with a smile and a gentle, but devastating, shake of her head. Wrong answer! I’m notoriously bad at names and I had to concede that she was right. “JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ” was just not going to cut it, if her Majesty was ever going to get on first-name terms with the discerning audience of Apis.

But look at it from my point of view: the name JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ contains all the genealogical information required to make good breeding decisions for the Bermondsey Street Bees (it is a combination of these data points: Supplier/Breeder’s initials and my own serial number. Generation In Apiary. Bred in Local / Out Apiary. Month. Year. Origin of Breeding Line). A record of the genealogy and the performance of a Queen bee is vital for future breeding decisions and a thriving, healthy, productive and good-tempered hive of bees.

As an urban stockman, I select the breeding lines for my Queens,aiming to optimise docility, yield and disease resistance. It is crucial that I can be confident in the genetic make-up of my home-grown virgin Queens, since the 20 or so drones (male bees) whose sperm she will absorb on her single mating flight are beyond my beekeeping control. From that point of view, my role as a beekeeper is like a sous-chef who prepares a well-seasoned stock – and then hands it on to twenty chefs to each add their own ingredients and stir the genetic soup. I can only hope that the selective breeding lines in my newly-hatched Queens are strong enough to disprove the old adage that “too many chefs spoil the broth”.

The other problem with naming the new Queen was that, since the Romans coined the Latin word “regina”, all the good names for Queens seem to be taken. For example, Elizabeth has historically been a pretty good name for Queens around these parts, but we still have one of those enthroned – and she shows no signs at all of being superceded!

But then I looked at the pictures I’d taken of Shard’s new Queen (see above) and it hit me in a ruddy flash! Queen bees hatched in 2013 will be marked red (beekeepers can see them more easily in a crowded hive and also identify their age). So here goes, in deference to this year’s Queen marking colour: Farewell, JC1.0.O.4.13.NZ – All Hail, Ruby, Queen of Shard Hive!