Marginal Gains

Running Shoes 2014-01-09
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step

I run 38 marathons a year. Not all at once, nor even one at a time. Just to the office and back, 4 miles/day, every working day. With a few weekend runs thrown in for fun, it works out at around 1,000 miles a year. OK, so what’s my lycra-suited commute on the tarmac treadmill got to do with beekeeping ?

Well, consider the miniscule quantity of nectar (around 40mg) which each honeybee forager brings back to the hive (which is then evaporated down by the bees to provide just 17mg of honey). It is estimated that a single forager will provide just half a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, having flown over 500 miles. But it all adds up, with a productive urban hive yielding 30-5olbs of surplus every honey harvest.

So in beekeeping, as well as in personal fitness, the name of the game is: “marginal gains”. It’s not easy (the danger is that you pick the easy stuff and dodge the hard stuff – believe me, I know!) and you have to think clearly and critically about your habits and be prepared to change.

The concept of “marginal gains” is simple. Step forward, Dave Brailsford, the Team UK Olympic Cycling performance director who was responsible for a remakable medals haul at the London Olympics, to explain: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” By definition, though, “marginal gains” of 1% do not deliver dramatic outcomes immediately. Perseverance over the longer term is key to the amelioration of performance. Or honey yields.

Although the theory of “marginal gains” is attributed to Wilhelm Steinitz, a 19th-century chess world champion, I like to think that the precursor was Lao-tzu (c 604-c 531 bc), the founder of Taoism, who observed that: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step“. Incrementalism is at the core of “marginal gains” philosophy.

So, as ever, the beekeeper has much to learn from the bees. They practice the gradual accumulation of advantages, which are not decisive individually, but collectively make a great difference. For example, here is my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) box-of-tricks for suppression of the parasitic varroa mite. I’ve selected a series of therapies and apply them at the appropriate season to obtain the optimal outcome (yet each and every action is subject to the prevailing conditions in each individual hive).


                                                IPM Action                                                                                Season

  •                              Open mesh floor in hive                                                                 All Year Round
  •                              Varroa drop monitoring                                                                 All Year Round
  •                            Brood comb replacement                                                                       Spring
  •                               Drone brood removal                                                                      Late Spring
  •                                       Icing Sugar                                                                                 Late Spring
  •                                          MAQS                                                                                          Summer
  •                    Apistan (if varroa infestation high)                                  Before Supers On / After Supers Off
  •                                 Oxalic Acid Trickle                                                                           Christmas


The use of icing sugar from Spring into Summer surprises some people (and some beekeepers, too!). The icing sugar is lightly puffed onto the bees to encourage intensive grooming – which helps them shed a few more varroa mites. It’s not a core strategy, but in terms of my IPM plan, it’s incremental…and that is what “marginal gains” are all about.

I can’t help thinking that Dave Brailsford would approve. And possibly Lao-tzu. Is that the time?…must run!

Amanda’s Bobbins

Amanda's Bobbins
Amanda’s Bobbins

No wonder the Bermondsey Street Bees are always lèche-vitrining Amanda Thompson Couture (formerly Pussy Willow), diagonally opposite their own rooftop ateliers!

All was revealed last night, when I espied Amanda’s bobbins in the cutting room – they look remarkably like a magnificent, technicolour br0od-nest (while channelling the current Paul Klee exhibition at the Tate Modern!)

Amanda also had some chic “cape-lets” on display, the straw-coloured ones of which looked strikingly similar to old-fasioned bee skeps!

Fortunately, I didn’t see anything in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ size in her off-the-peg range. And a bulk order of 75,000 yellow-and-black-striped haute couture summer dresses is beyond a beekeeper’s humble means.

Carry on enjoying the window-shopping, les demoiselles de Bermondsey!

Swords Into Ploughshares

Frames Of Foundation_edited-1
Newly-Made 14″X12″ Frames Of Wax Foundation

It’s time to pack away the tools of war – the scorching blow-torch, the sharp-biting, disinfectant soda and the rusty hive-tool, which has scraped the last of the wax from the queen excluders. In the Apiary, no more clang of metal on metal, nor the fiery rasp of flame, nor the insidious dissolution of the soda-bath. The undertaker’s work is done.

As the days start to lengthen into Spring and the sodden earth ahoys with green shoots, we beekeepers start turning swords into ploughshares, building new frames of sweet-smelling wax foundation for the spring surge of bee-population. The nursery nurse is preparing to make her rounds on Ward B.

I love this time of year – lifting the lid of possibility and peeking inside – figuratively, I mean (and certainly not disturbing the beehives themselves). An aroma of mulled wax seeps from the warming hives, as the bees become ardent propagators of their embryonic sisters. The brood area will soon open up like a flower. Its impetus needs no help from me.

This is when all things are beautiful and bright. For all creatures, small and great.

Postcode Lottery

Pollen Bee1
Fresh, Local Food !

One very good reason why beekeepers are fractious, back-biting egotists collaborative, chummy souls is that the maximum distance which a bee can fly in search of forage is 3 miles away from the hive. Why’s that ? Well, any further and the bee would expend more energy on a six-mile round-trip than it could possibly gather. So any bee-related activity outside that 3-mile radius around your apiary might as well be happening on the moon.

Compartmentalisation comes with the territory in beekeeping. Each Queen is an egg-box, each hive is a crateful of bees, each apiary is a single precinct. Paradoxically, that demarcation means that there is no advantage to be gained in withholding knowledge, begrudging another’s success or heaping malicious thoughts on your fellow bee-wranglers. If that beekeeper is outside your parochial, 3-mile balliwick, then whatever they get up to is about as impactful for your bees as the comings and goings of the French President’s moped at the Elysée Palace. So help and advice can be lavishly gifted to your peers. And if, on the other hand, that beekeeper is within your own perimeter, you have every reason to want to encourage their success with a healthy stock of bees and a thriving ecology. Your self-interest is served by helping your closest neighbours.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course, disease, bad bee genes, invasive predators, pesticides and self-aggrandising bee-ureaucrats all threaten the well-being of the wider bee nation. But I’m not Einstein – I’m a stockman, so my primary role as a beekeeper is to maintain high-health bees on my own patch. Nail that, and so much else just falls into place.

For that reason, beekeepers are hyper-sensitive about what actually does go on within their 3-mile inclusion zone. Particularly on the subject of forage. So if you would like to scratch the itch of curiosity about the limits of your bees’ 3-mile foraging potential, then look no further than this link (which will take you anywhere in the world).  I bet that you’ll be surprised !

Flora And Fauna


Snowdrops.  These slender, precocious shoots are primed to burst. For the bees, along with crocuses and winter aconites, snowdrops are like pollen canapés ahead of the bee-banquet which Spring will soon serve up.

When the snowdrop flowers, it chastely bows its face to the ground. Each snowdrop has three white leaflets, surrounding a green-streaked bell. And, inside, the clapper bears a sprinkle of surprisingly orange pollen. Soon burly bumblebees will start to visit, then warmer days will bring honeybees: this will be their first forage of the year.

New bee-life has started to fill the brood-box in the hive, whetting the appetite for new sustenance. And pollen is protein, fresh and fragrant, signposted by the snowdrops’ markings, more blatant in the scope of a bee’s vision than in ours.

Early and insubstantial, the eggs and larvae of honeybees are pearl-white, just like the snowdrops which nourish them. Right now, these budding bees are planted in their wax cells, but in three weeks’ time, they will emerge, fully-formed, furry and fantastically equipped for flight.

Flora and fauna: sometimes indistinguishable, sometimes incongruous. Always compatible.

Wanted: 7 Billion Honeybees

Tree in rape seed field small
Oilseed Rape

Nothing like a sensationalist, big-number headline to grab attention. The scientists say that the deficit across Europe now amounts to 13.4 million colonies or around seven billion honeybeescertainly fits the bill. But, as ever, a little contemplative, close reading can be rewarding.

This University of Reading study has a “chicken and egg” aspect to it, since it suggests that more bees are required to pollinate biofuel feedstock crops, like oilseed rape, which have been planted aggressively to capture large financial subsidies related to biofuels.

So the increase of some 30% in biofuel feed crops between 2005 and 2010 dwarfed the 7% increase in honeybee colonies over the same period. But is this an artificial oilseed rape boom, or a honeybee shortage ?

Personally, I would have imagined that the enlightened self-interest of the farmers who cultivate oilseed rape would have included a pollination policy in order to maximize yields. See what you think….click here for the article.

And let me declare, off-topic, that I will be displeased, yea mightily, if my Suffolk School House bees cram their supers full of seaside-rock-hard crystalline oilseed rape honey this Spring. Rape biofuel, no problem. Rape honey, no thanks!




Sunshine : Hours Per Year : Europe v. U.S.A

It’s tempting, isn’t it, as a keeper of bees, to take a brief look at this comparison between hours of sunshine per year in the UK and California. Executive summary: there are more than twice as many sunlit hours every year on Ventura Highway than on Bermondsey Street. Hard not to star humming: “I wish they all could be California girls”. Imagine – beekeeping in Ray-Bans on roller-skates amongst the almond groves. Stylish!

And why not ? My Bermondsey Street Bees always seen happiest with a dose of SE1 sunshine on their hard-body backs. We could just scarper to Santa Monica, switch the sun on when we got up in the morning and switch it off again every evening. Perhaps it was my recent Bermondsey Bee On The Beach snapshot which set the beach-volley-ball rolling….

Hang on, though. Born, bred and beekeepered in London, my bees and I share a common heritage. We Londoners can take any amount of scudding grey cloud, umbrella-eviscerating wind and, of course, the old slang-rhyming “Duke of Spain”. Add in the distinct variations in the seasons of our urban estuary – bleak winters, grudging-green springs, mercurial summers and untrustworthy autumns – and we have a pretty challenging beekeeping environment all year round.

Second thoughts, I’ll take a rain-check on those turn-left-on-the-airplane tickets to LAX. Let’s keep it edgy on our windy London rooftop. It’ll take more than wringing wet skies and the odd clap of thunder to shift the Bermondey Street Bees off their manor, sunshine!

Zun, Zea & Zand !

Loving The January Sunshine!
Loving The January Zunshine!

A Bermondsey Street Bee loving today’s scintillating Caribbean-style zunshine in SE1.