Beekeeping is a hands-on job: all of the senses are engaged when working with bees: touch, smell, hearing, vision and finally, most delightfully, taste. It is a truly immersive craft.
The saddest sight a beekeeper can see is a huddle of dead bees, heads thrust deep inside empty wax cells, with the queen dead in the middle. And the wretched thing is that they had starved just an inch away from a broad, golden arc of honey. This phenomenon is called “Isolation Starvation“.
It’s the summer solstice. Today is the longest day of the year with 16 hours, 38 minutes and 19 seconds of daylight in London. It’s also the day when Queen bees hit their peak daily laying rate of over 2,000 eggs a day. So it’s a good time of year to consider the dark side of beekeeping: the swarm.
A swarm of bees can be a nuisance and a distraction from everyday human activity, yet swarming is simply the way that honeybee colonies reproduce. Bees swarm in the Spring and Summer, when the colony is strong enough to divide, which is when people tend to be out and about more. Given the pressure on bees’ numbers in the U.K., this is a good thing. Yet the first time you see a swarm of bees, it’s bound to be an unnerving experience. Continue reading “Swarm”
At 5.31pm precisely the doorbell rang. It was the Seasonal Bee Inspector for South London, Brian McCallum, sent from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) on a routine visit to the Bermondsey Street Bees. In the 8 years in which I have been keeping bees, this was my first visit from an inspector. Or, as I like to look at it, the first time I have been offered a free beekeeping lesson from an expert, paid for by Her Majesty’s Government. Hey, Brian, great to see you! But what kept you so long? Suiting-up on the roof terrace, I noticed that Brian’s bee-suit’s breast pocket has a badge with the insignias of “Fera” and “National Bee Unit” sewn into it. Now, there used to be a government department called Fera, which was formed in 2009. But Fera is now a limited company, owned 75% by Capita plc and 25% by DEFRA (Department of Food and Agriculture). Of course, DEFRA was created to absorb the splendidly-titled Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in 2002. And the Bee Inspectorate was transferred from Fera to APHA late last year. Can anyone out there explain why government departments change their name-tags as freqently as those of the baristas at your local Costa Coffee? Dizzying, isn’t it? Anyway, smoker lit, we set straight to work. Brian was soon performing the slow ballet of beekeeping on our precarious fourth storey rooftop. Standing in a narrow gully between the pitched slate roof and the brick parapet on which the hives stand, we danced a pas-de-deux, as elegantly as possible in our veiled bee-suits, visiting Abbey Hive, Square Hive, Swarm Hive, Neckinger Hive, Leathermarket Hive, Shard Hive and Thames Hive.
Spring has been a long time coming, but finally, I’ve been able to crack open my hives and inspect the Bermondsey Street Bees, checking up on their health, development and well-being – and especially on each hive’s Queen.
Let’s take a closer look at these Green Queens. Green was the Queen marking colour for 2014, when these Majesties were born. This year’s dab of fast-drying marker pen on a new Queen’s thorax will be Blue. But more of that another time. Let’s focus on the Queens in each hive as the business end of 2015’s season gets underway:
Abbey Hive is my breeding hive. It has consistently produced excellent, well-tempered and productive Queens for my Apiary. Queen Jade is no exception: victorious, happy and glorious, indeed. Right now, Abbey Hive is the most populous of all my Bermondsey Street hives and it has a smattering of drones already, with a few more to come, but the look of the cells on the bottom of a couple of the frames and some empty “play cups“. Taking my cue from the bees I have just put a Snelgrove board in, with the intention of raising some more model Queens from this genetic dynasty.
Shard’s Queen Esmeralda was introduced to this queenless hive 10 days ago and she is going great guns. Amazingly, she seems to have physically grown in stature since I moved from a small mating hive into the more capacious Shard hive. Just goes to show…
It looks as if Myrtle, Queen of Thames hive, has been bustling around vigorously, too, given the faded patch of paint on her thorax. Not to worry. I’ll get her a makeover soon.
Finally, a glimpse of Grunhilde, Queen of Neckinger hive – she starred in my rooftop video (“Extreme Beekeeping“) earlier this week – so I don’t want to all this media exposure going to her head!
So there we are: an introduction to the Bermondsey Street Bees and their anointed Queens. And there’s more: there’ll be updates “In The Apiary” updates every month throughout the summer!
Well, the frazzle was worth it. All the hives are queenright, although a couple of my breeding nucs have failed to deliver a new Queen.
2014’s Queen marking colour is Green. So the three new green-themed Queens in the Bermondsey Street Apiary are Queen Jade of Square Hive, Queen Grunhilde of Thames Hive and Queen Esmeralda of Shard Hive.
With the precocious appearance of our Lime tree nectar flow now over, these new Queens’ offspring will be joining the flying force of foragers a little late in the season – but are coming into play as tactical substitutions for the starting forager line-up, which has have worked its socks off to bring that Lime harvest home.
My main concern is to ensure that the “early” 2014 forage does not run out and leave the bees with an empty larder, as discussed with John Chapple last month.
There’s nothing for me to do about the honey crop now. The bees are where they need to be, healthy and prolific, and it’s up to the weather from now to the end of July to dictate the Bermondsey Street Bees’ honey harvest.
My job is to look to the future. The end of the bee-year is September and I am now preparing the way for a successful overwintering of four full hives on the roof. My highest priority is to look out for supercedure cells in Abbey Hive (where the stately Queen Amber currently presides), as this veteran monarch completes her third year.
I value her calm, non-swarmy genes and look forward to their orderly replacement by the bees by supercedure – anticipating that her heir presumptive will share her excellent characteristics – I am anticipating that could happen around August, but it could be sooner, if the spermathecas of this grand dame runs dry before then. At that stage, their queenly pheromones will fade and the bees will soon know that the time has come to arrange for a replacement. And I plan to have a spare 2014 Queen in reserve in a breeding nuc, just in case.
So it’s time for health checks: varroa, in particular. And preparation for a winter break for the hard-working Bermondsey Bees.
The Caribbean, do you think, or Ibiza ?
Help! I’m running on empty, I’m just hanging on by my fingernails, it’s touch and go….
I’ve run out of beekeeping kit. I started this year with 3 hives on my roof. Today there are 8. Only a National nuc box and a single Kieler breeding nuc remain in reserve. That’s the beekeeping equivalent of the small change down the back of your sofa. It’s like a honey-boxed shanty town has crash-landed on my roof.
Of those 8 hives, 3 are full-size hives, 3 are small Kieler breeding nuclei, one is a 5-frame observation hive box and the last one is a bit of a Frankenstein creation: you won’t see many beehives which look like Square Hive.
The picture shows its unconventional arrangement, perched on its white-painted pallet set against an uncertain sky (for the technically-inclined, Square Hive is composed of a green plywood 5-frame 14” x 12” nuc box topped by National crownboard and a regular cedarwood super). Although it may not sound like it, everything really is under control. And since this is still only late May, there is plenty of honey-gathering potential yet for the bees, even after I have more than doubled my colonies. And three weeks from now, around the summer solstice, the rate of egg-laying by the Queens will decelerate and the bees’ swarming potential will diminish.
Mercifully, all of my colonies have now been split, artificially swarmed or snelgroved, so I shouldn’t need any more hives this year….and my intention is to end this year with four strong and healthy hives on the roof, all requeened in 2014.
Woody Allen once wisecracked: “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”. We’ll see.
Some say that our Queen is so much in the public eye that she is, in effect, a prisoner of her own subjects. Hold that thought.
The situation with a Queen Bee is remarkably similar. Constantly attended by her retinue as she makes her progress around the hive, she is gently persuaded to lay the appropriate worker bee or drone egg in the cells selected by her adoring populace.
It’s a pretty straightforward proposition: everyone has their role to play, everyone knows their place, like a 1970s BBC sitcom.
But what happens when things go wrong? Let’s look at one particular way in which the serenity of a beehive can be usurped: one of my Queens (Scarlett of Shard Hive) has produced some off-tempered bees. Think Syria. This makes them hard to work with and the final straw came when they started to “ping” my elder son when he was making a mobile call on our top terrace. Now, Queen Scarlett is the youngest and, by popular acclaim, the favourite Bermondsey Street Queen in our on-line poll. Not surprising, really, since she has obvious charms: an alluring crescent curve to her abdomen and the carefree splash of red on her thorax is, well, red.
But I have had to depose Queen Scarlett, banish her from Shard Hive and sent her into exile to a Kieler mating nuc bleakly called “K”.
Here, she can raise a small family and not be a nuisance. With Scarlett out of the way, I can get to work. I inserted a frame of newly-laid eggs from Abbey Hive, where mild-mannered Queen Primrose is 2014’s prime breeding stock, into a 5-frame nuc and placed it where Shard Hive used to be. This means that the flying bees from Shard Hive have now taken up residence in the new nucleus hive and will raise a new Queen from Primrose’s genes, not Scarlett’s.
In the meantime, the bustling population of Shard Hive (that Scarlett sure knew how to fill a frame of brood!) have recognized that they are now queenless and have selected 5 eggs as prospective new Queens, fed them with rich royal jelly and built the tell-tale, drooping Queen Cell to accommodate the larger larval body of a new Queen Bee.
They started that process on 23rd April (St. George’s Day), so by the time I intervened on the morning of 27th April, this is what they looked like from the outside. There cells are very different from the Queen Cups discussed here in April. These silos are loaded with white, thick Royal Jelly and a plump, pearly larva, gleaming like a torque necklace. Here’s a peek:
So I have carefully shaken the (slightly disconsolate, I have to admit) Shard Hive bees off each of the 11 frames to ensure that I found and removed all 5 Queen Cells charged with Scarlett’s gene-pool. Since bees can only make Queen Cells with eggs/larvae which are no more than 3 days old, no more Queen Cells will be constructed in Shard Hive.
In two days’ time, once the bees have adjusted to their queenless state, I will carefully introduce Queen Carmen to Shard Hive. Carmen is a new addition to my breeding stock and I look forward to her Buckfast-cross regalia: industrious, but gentle. Shut in a white plastic cage as big as your palm and then placed on the face of a brood comb, Queen Carmen should be acclaimed as the successor to Scarlett by the restive bees of Shard Hive. And, almost immediately, their testy temperament should subside, calmed by Queen Carmen’s serene pheromones.
And I will breathe a sigh of relief.
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!