The Devil’s In The Detail

Borage 2
Bee On Borage

The BBKA report on 2014’s honey yields (from over 2,000 respondents nationwide) puts the average yield/hive at 32lbs. All well and good. The BBKA also credited the excellent weather conditions in 2014 and improving husbandry skills of beekeepers for the 4lbs/hive increase from 2013’s 28lbs/hive. Fine.

But the fact that 2014’s yield falls well short of the historic average honey yield/hive of 40lbs begs a question: in a great year for weather and assisted by improved management skills, how come honey yields were still 20% below the historic average ?

There are two possible explanations. The first is that the BBKA’s assertions are incorrect. Well, there was certainly favourable weather for all of nature in the UK in 2014, so let’s take that as read. Improved husbandry skills ? BBKA’s survey also reported that only 58% of responding beekeepers attended any form of training with their local beekeeping association. Which means that a staggering 42% of beekeepers did not. And when you put that number next to the 2011 BBKA survey – in which 44% of respondents had been beekeepers for just 1-2 years – then there will be a sizeable subset of beekeepers with less than 5 years’ experience who are not seeking further training. Perhaps that is one reason why yields fell short of the historic average: in reality, husbandry skills may not be adequate to forestall crop-reducing events like swarming. And the survey also revealed that more than a third of respondents (35%) reported “early swarming” in their “Unusual Behaviour” observations. Sounds to me like inexperienced beekeepers lost a lot of honey to swarms which they did not expect, given the early build-up of colonies in 2014. So that’s a question mark against “improved husbandry”.

There is another variable, however, which the BBKA does not mention: forage. Bees need to eat. The dramatic increase in inexperienced beekeepers has been accompanied by a significant jump in the number of hives. More bees require incremental food supplies.

Amongst urban beekeepers, it is recognized that forage is a finite resource. For my part, I have personally arranged large-scale plantings of forage in local parks and have lobbied the Council to procure more pollinator-friendly plants for its green spaces and to reduce the frequency of mowing. But these are only gradually incremental to the expansion of available forage. The impact of added hives on demand for forage is immediate. In an ideal world, beekeepers introducing a new hive should either (a) make provision for forage in advance of the hive being introduced or (b) only introduce a new hive if another local hive is removed. I believe that adequate forage provision is the cornerstone of successful beekeeping, since healthy bees with good temperament and low disease loads can only thrive when they have sufficient food on offer.

And each hive requires a surprising amount of food: Bee authority, Dr Karin Alton, stated in 2013 that: “Our calculations indicate that each new hive placed in London would need the equivalent of one hectare of borage, a plant that attracts mainly honey bees, or over eight hectares of lavender”. It’s a rhetorical question, but how many spare hectares can any London beekeeper rustle up within a 3-mile radius of their hives ?

To focus on specifics: the government’s Beebase website indicates that there are 621 Apiary sites registered with within a 10-kilometre radius of my Bermondsey Street hives. As a guide, it is generally accepted that each apiary comprises 4 hives on average and that 25% of apiaries are not registered with Defra. Using those data, it is likely that there are already >3100 bee hives competing for food resources around my area. Assuming 50,000 bees per hive at the summer peak, that rounds out at 155 million hungry bees !

So the proliferation of beehives in London without an equivalent increase in forage availability has an inevitable mathematical effect: lowered honey yields, as bees compete for food. So given what was observed in 2014, an excellent year for forage, I am not looking forward to reading the BBKA’s survey after a poor weather year, when colony losses through starvation and disease will be far more of a problem for beekeepers than “early swarming”.

We should strive to raise awareness amongst beekeepers, local authorities, companies and the general public that forage is the key issue confronting London beekeepers today. And while we’re at it, from a practical perspective, here are my top 10 smaller-scale favorites for London garden planting:

  • Crocus                  Great Spring starter
  • Aster                     For vivid colour
  • Russian Sage       Preferred to culinary sage
  • Borage                  All summer long
  • Catnip                   A handy “filler” of space
  • Lavender              Classic sun-seeker
  • Alyssum                Low-profile, compact annual
  • Rosemary             Multi-purpose herb
  • Forget-Me-Not   Great in combination
  • Stonecrop            An undemanding sedum

Here’s my call to action to urban beekeepers – let’s get more forage in the ground !

2014’s “Best Honey Crop In 5 Years”

Banksy Bee
Banksy Bee

‘Better weather and better beekeeping have upped honey production’ says British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), but warns against complacency Britain’s beekeepers have reported an average yield of 32lbs of honey per colony in 2014, according to the findings of the British Beekeepers Association’s annual Honey Survey, released on 26 November 2014.

The survey revealed a substantial 28% increase on the 25lbs per colony reported in 2013 and is a far cry from the 8lbs per colony nadir of 2012. Conducted by BBKA amongst 2,000 beekeepers across the country, the annual Honey Survey explores the current year’s honey yield and the factors affecting honey bee colonies and honey production.

Commenting on the increased yield for this year, BBKA Director of Public Affairs, Tim Lovett, said: “While this increase is great news for beekeepers and honey bees, the historic average is 40lbs plus per hive so there is still some way to go if we are to return to our most productive.”

To help counter the devastating impact of pests and diseases on honey bee colonies in recent years, the BBKA has funded research exploring honey bee welfare; but great emphasis has also been given to equipping all beekeepers with the husbandry skills needed to maintain healthy and productive honey bee colonies, and the 2014 Honey Survey clearly reflects this effort. Of beekeepers who reported an increased honey yield, around two fifths, 41%, cited ‘better beekeeping’ as a contributory factor. Further, 58% of all beekeepers reported that they had attended some form of training event with their local beekeeping association over the past year.

Other factors cited in the survey as contributory factors to the improved honey yields included the hot weather, mentioned by 60% of beekeepers; the early Spring, 58%; and swarming, 19%. And when asked to comment on any ‘unusual behaviour’ from their bees this year, 35% cited ‘early swarming’ and 15% late swarming’ (July or later).

Swarm management is central to good beekeeping and the ongoing welfare of honey bees. It can also impact greatly on honey yields, as Tim Lovett explains: “Swarming is a natural phenomenon whereby honey bee colonies reproduce by dividing to create new colonies. Early swarming leaves a weakened parent colony; while late swarming can sometimes leave new colonies with insufficient time to stock up for winter. “A well‐trained beekeeper will be able to spot the early signs of swarming and act swiftly to reduce potential losses, and build up the colonies after swarming,” he said.

Of the beekeepers that took part in this year’s survey, a third, 33%, manage one or two hives, while 28 per cent managed three or four. Over a quarter, 27%, manage five to ten hives. The average beekeeper has been beekeeping for around nine years but this year the number of new beekeepers has appeared to fall off slightly–just 22% having been beekeepers for 1-­‐2 years, compared to 26% last year and 41 and 44% in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

“Beekeeping has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years and it is crucial that we do not lose the momentum. Honey bees are essential pollinators and vital contributors to food production,” said Tim Lovett. “The better weather has helped a great deal but it is also the improving husbandry skills of beekeepers, as they gain experience, that has made a big difference. These very precious creatures still need all the help we can give.”

Mild Weather Warning

Tower Bridge
Mild Weather Warning: Sunrise Behind Tower Bridge

The BBC weather forecast through the end of November envisages temperatures in London and the South East remaining around double-digit degrees centigrade. And I’m still running to work and back in just a white T-shirt and black lycra shorts. But funnily enough, this extended period of warm winter weather threatens two problems for bees: starvation and disease.

The fact that temperatures are remaining high enough for bees to fly and that there is some forage still available may tempt bee colonies to continue brooding and therefore continue flying to provide the fuel for their energy-hungry brood. This could cause a diminution of honey stores in the hives as the bees expend more energyon brood than they bring in (pollen and propolis are available, although nectar is rare at these temperatures) and lead to starvation later this winter. It is worth hefting hives now to monitor food stores – remember that a national hive typically requires 25kg of honey stores to be sure of reaching Spring in good health.

Disease is a threat, especially if brooding continues. New brood will permit the parasitic varroa mite population to build up, just as the number of adult bees in the hive is in seasonal decline. Thus the concentration, or “load”, of varroa may increase, leaving the colony vulnerable to higher level of infection by diseases. Although beekeepers should not enter hives at this time of year, using a varroa inspection board under an open mesh floor of the hive will give beekeepers an idea of the numbers of varroa present in each hive. That knowledge can be used to decide which, if any, varroa treatment will be appropriate. Personally, I always treat for varroa around the Winter Solstice – on 21st December this year – by trickling oxalic (rhubarb) acid when the brood cycle is at its low . The reason for this is that the empty wax brood cells make this the one time of year when the mites are forced to live on the bees, rather than sealed in the cells to feed on bee-larvae, and the “knock-down” of varroa mites from the sugar-syrup/oxalic acid dose is at its most efficient.

So I’ll be taking some luggage-scales and a varroa board to my town and country bees this weekend, as I check the hives’ temperature and moisture monitors. As the old beekeeping proverb goes: “Lycra on a November morning, starvation warning“.

Or something like that….



Propolis 2
Propolis : Grows On Trees, Used By Bees

I knew that this day would come – I’ve been dreading it, but I just can’t put it off any longer. I’ve got to grasp the nettle and write about propolis. Unlike most things bee-related, propolis is not a crowd-pleaser. It’s greenish-brown, it’s tacky, it’s gooey …and as if that wasn’t bad enough, as a beekeeping topic, it’s too important to omit, but too unlovely to celebrate – and is a thorough nuisance to the average beekeeper, to boot. Why now ? Well, when I was filling in the BBKA Honey Survey about beekeeping conditions in 2014, I came to the part that asks about “unusual observations from your hives” over the year. No getting around it. For me and many other beekeepers of my acquaintance, 2014 will go down as the bumper year for propolis. More’s the pity. Let’s take a step back: bees returning to their hives are carrying either nectar, pollen, water or propolis. The first three on the list are self-explanatory: but what exactly is propolis ? If you cast your mind back to springtime and touching the sticky brown outers of horse chestnut buds, then you have an idea of the adhesive properties of propolis. You also have a clue as to its muddy khaki hue and to its arboreal origins. What you cannot imagine, though, is the pervasive, gloopy, gunkiness of propolis. It does not possess a uniform, clean-cut, precision stickiness like sellotape. It’s more like melted chocolate at a five-year-old’s birthday party; the pancaked slap on a pantomime dame at the curtain-call; a mastic gun in the hands of a Sunday DIYer after a pub lunch. So how will you recognize propolis when you see it ? Like most non-specific brownish gunk, it is something which you would rather avoid, but sometimes it just happens. Propolis is drab and will stick to anything, staining clothes henna brown, gumming up the floor, getting deep under your finger-nails. The smell of propolis is resinous (unsurprisingly!) and slightly antiseptic. And it may help the inexperienced propolis-spotter to know that the sole constant which applies to all propolis is that it is soft when warm, and brittle when cold. The derivation of propolis is said to be Greek “pro” = in front of and “polis” = the town (so the literal meaning of propolis is “in front of the town”). Well, it’s nice to know that even Aristotle had his off-days. The simple reality is that propolis is mostly resin gathered from trees (don’t knock it, though, since come to think of it, so are frankincense and myrrh, which represented 2/3 of the gifts from the Three Wise Men to the infant Jesus), mixed with variable quantities of wax, essential oils and pollen. But since the admixture of these components varies from hive to hive, there is no definitive composition of propolis. For the same reason, modern medicine will not admit any demonstrable human health benefit from this non-standard, beige gunk. Indeed, expert bee-man John Chapple cautions that London propolis may not be as wholesome as the country variety, since bees are inclined to scoop up propolis-like materials, such as tar for roads or roofs, for use in their hives. So why do bees leave the hive and then come back with a trouserful of botanical toffee ? What do the bees use propolis for ? Here we are on firmer ground: propolis is demonstrably anti-fungal and anti-bacterial in the beehive. It is used by bees to disinfect their domain and to bolster the stability and security of the hive structure. So propolis keeps some things out – like wind and rain – and it keeps other things in – like a deceased honey-hungry mouse, mummified in propolis and hygienically sealed off from the bees inside the hive. Similarly, propolis is used by young house-keeper bees to polish the brood comb after young bees have emerged, slowly turning the cells conker-brown, as they prepare it for new eggs to be laid. And extending the disinfectant theme, some people even take propolis lozenges or tinctures against sore throats. Fair enough, it’s a free country. I should add that propolis has long been a constituent of the varnish used on stringed musical instruments. I did warn you at the beginning that this propolis lark was going to be pretty unrewarding. And I’d rather perform pirouettes on a pinhead than have to pen “Propolis Part Two”. So this prologue on propolis has almost run its course. We’re in sight of the finishing line and I can feel that I’m “hitting the wall“, so my apologies to any brownish gloop aficionados out there if I have left any ground uncovered. Finally, if you’ve got this far, well done ! Take a lap of honour and contemplate my Five Commandments about propolis. Firstly: avoid it at all costs. Secondly: if you can’t avoid it, wear medical-style nitrile gloves while working with it. Thirdly: to discourage your bees from propolising important surfaces in your hives, give the surface edges of brood and super boxes (and the frame-runners) a light rub with a cloth dipped in a tub of Vaseline – this will prevent the bees from gumming up the moving parts your hive. Mostly. Fourthly: Thou shalt not refer to propolis as “bee-glue“. Finally: if you were foolish enough to disobey the First and Second Commandments, the only recommended way to wash propolis stains off clothes or hive parts is to soak in a washing soda solution.

Better yet, your “Delete” tab will remove any trace of this propolis-prose from your screen at a single keystroke. Try it.


A mouseguard is a strip of galvanised metal, punctuated with 10mm circular holes which are ample for a bee (even with good saddlebags of pollen!) to enter the hive, but which exclude even the most sinuous mouse. Here’s one on the entrance of Thames Hive.

It is crucial to put these mouseguards onto the hive entrance before the first frost of the year, or risk an invasion of bewhiskered rodents. If a mouse, or a mouse-family, is driven by cold and famine to seek refuge and sustenance in a drowsy, clustered, wintry bee-hive, the results are disastrous. The mice will ravage the honeycomb, depriving the bees of their hard-won bounty.

Continue reading “Mouseguards”

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 !