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.
I’m going to call last weekend’s events “mishaps”. Not misadventures and not disasters. Not yet.
Here’s a heavily edited version of what transpired at my Suffolk apiary. That’s because when I wrote down what actually happened on Saturday afternoon, the catalogue of woe was bigger and wider than Argos’s Christmas edition. So I binned it and started again.
Executive summary: 3 out of 4 hives turned out to be Queenless. Ness Hive was as conspicuously Queenless as a radical, regicidal republic. Castle Hive reverberated with an unmistakeable “queenless roar” as soon as I flipped the lid off. And Snape Hive, the pride of the apiary this year, had its brood frames ravaged by a drone-laying-Queen (DLQ) depositing drone eggs haphazardly in the brood box and, incredibly, sleighting through a metal queen excluder, ovipositing in the super. I ask you !
The first thing a beekeeper wants to see when a beehive is opened is clear evidence of Queen activity. If a perusal of “the Court circular” draws a blank for Her Majesty’s recent engagements, anxiety levels begin to rise. But there is one time of year when an AWOL monarch really sets the nerves jangling. And this is it. Autumn. The reason is that there is n0 breeding window left to replace her. Quite simply, no Queen means no new bees in a hive, assuring a long, dwindling death as the workers die of old age, unreplaced. A DLQ means a quicker annihilation, as drones gobble up precious resources both before and after emerging from their wax cells on a one-way ticket to oblivion.
I needed a plan. What I got instead was a confection of intuition and bee-knowledge, bow-tied with a ribbon of guesswork. I would dismantle Snape Hive and merge it with Ness Hive, feed and medicate the merged bees, then add a spare Queen next week. Readers of a sensitive disposition should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs, which contain explicit references to bee-husbandry. Some may find this offensive. And too technical by half.
Here goes: I restored 4 frames of foundation to the recently dummied-down Ness Hive and moved it to Snape Hive’s stand, adding lemongrass to the entrance to mask the distinct odours of Ness and Snape Hives as they united. (The flying bees from Ness Hive would return to an empty space, but would drift to neighbouring queenright Iken Hive). I moved Snape Hive 20 metres away and smoked it heavily, so that the bees would be crammed with honey to pay the price of admission to a foreign hive. Then I disassembled Snape Hive, shaking the bees frame by frame into the air and brushing off any stragglers onto the lawn. Finally a sharp bang on the brood box, for good measure, to dislodge any recalcitrant bees.
The evicted workers flew off to the newly-positioned Ness Hive – now renamed Snape Hive and crowned with Snape’s trademark roof, a sinuous white ‘S’. Initially, there was plenty of congestion on the threshold of the hive, since I have drawing-pinned a Queen excluder across the the entrance, to keep out any DLQ or drones. Half-an-hour later, I checked that there was no DLQ craving admission, then took off the QE and replaced the entrance block. I fed the uniting hive with 2 ½ gallons of thymolated syrup (to combat nosema), which will I hope the bees will use, unseasonably, to draw out the brood comb on the four new frames, ready to accept a new laying Queen.
Well, that’s the trailer. No doubt it is one of those trailers which is better than the actual movie. This could be a devastating setback to my Suffolk apiary as autumn sets in. Thank goodness I have spare queens in London (the adage about smooth succession being assured by “an heir and a spare” works just as well for bee dynasties as for human ones).
All is not yet lost, but I’m up against it in my first full year as a rural Suffolk beekeeper – and no mistake.
I have previously commented on Barnet, my birthplace (Barnet FC is nicknamed “The Bees”), in a post entitled: “The Beekeeper’s Fear Of The Apiary” , but here is a gem of a time-capsule called: “A Year In The Apiary“, filmed by the Barnet Beekeepers’ Association in 1936.
It can be viewed in four enchanting, wobbly, b&w episodes on YouTube:
Having viewed the beekeeping attire of the 1930s, I am seriously considering putting on a tie before my next bee-inspection. Something natty to make an impression on the ladies, I rather think.
Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.
Just look at how elegantly jammed Abbey Hive was at the very first inspection. To see bees on all the frames – and, on closer inspection, to find 6 frames of brood in all stages (BIAS) – was tremedously encouraging, especially since this is the colony which I have selected to provide my new Queen Bees for 2014 ! We will come back to Abbey, Queens and Queen Cups later in this post.
But first, let’s see how Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive is getting on in the second year of her reign:
Scarlett is a 2013 Queen (hence the slightly faded red marking on her thorax) and has presided over a strong hive, which had already filled half of a honey super (placed under the brood box over winter, to buffer the brood box against chill winter winds). At this inspection, I moved the super above the brood box, checking that Scarlett had not taken her egg-laying extravagence below stairs (she had not – it would be unusual for a Queen to move down – generally, all bees prefer to move up) and adding a Queen Excluder (QE) between the super and the brood, while plonking another super of empty, but fully-drawn comb, on top of that. I will move the super of empty comb under the half-full super, once that has filled up. So all is well with Shard Hive and Queen Scarlett.
On to Thames Hive, which is doing just fine, but is noticeably less ebullient than Abbey and Shard Hives. That is not to say that it isn’t looking promising – especially for this time of year – and indeed this frame of brood from Thames Hive is a delight to observe:
Take a look at the strong ochre semi-circle of worker brood, garnished with a blob of yellower drone brood standing proud just off-centre towards the top right corner. Note also the arcs of honey in the top corners of the frame, and a patchwork no-man’s land of different coloured pollens between the honey arc and the brood semi-circle and in the bottom corners. The nurse bees like to have food for a growing bee population close to hand. So I’m expecting Thames Hive to catch up with the other two colonies in short order.
But let’s loop back to Abbey Hive for a little beekeeping “show and tell“. It was in Abbey Hive that I found a “Queen Cup”, which is the building-block of a Queen Cell. The discovery of one of these is the curtain up for the beekeeper’s most important role, after the health of the bees: swarm prevention. Usually, you would expect to see Queen Cups from mid-April onwards, along with a decent patch or two of domed drone brood amongst the smooth-lidded worker brood. Both Queen Cups and drone brood were present at the very beginning of April !
Anyway, the thing about Queen Cups (also called Play Cups) is that the sight of them is indicational, not informational. There is no harm in finding a Queen Cup in the comb at the bottom of a frame, as long as it is empty. If, on the other hand, you see the glint of a white egg, you need to mark the frame and be vigilant. If indeed the hyphen-like egg is floating in a drop of milky royal jelly, or has even entered the curved larval phase of its development, then the bees will soon draw out the wax to form a true Queen Cell. Then a full swarm prevention protocol is required. Sharpish.
So here is the picture of the Queen Cup in Abbey Hive as I first saw it. I tilted the frame and looked inside to see that there was no egg, nor a pool of royal jelly. So no action was required. But to demonstrate this graphically, I used the hive tool to break down the wax cell wall to show the empty base of the cup. (Fear not – the bees will repair this damage in short order).
So from now until July, I’m on high alert for tell-tale Queen Cups/Play Cups. 2014 is shaping up to be a great beekeeping year.
But let’s not get carried away. A strong start to the year only increases the chances of being taken by surprise with an early swarm. The simple rules are: give the bees plenty of room to expand; add a super as soon as the brood box is more than three-quarters full.; ensure that the Queen has space to lay and is not “honey-blocked” by and excess of honey stores occupying the brood nest; maintain a rigorous 7-day inspection cycle to spot incipient Queen Cells.
Lose your bees to a swarm and you are, by definition, not a bee-keeper. I reserve the title “bee-squirter” for myself or any others who allow half of a beehive to abscond into the wide blue yonder. And it is not just one’s beekeeping pride which would be dented by losing a swarm – you can be sure that the honey crop will take a huge hit from having half the workforce take a hike.
Half-empty or half-full, Queen Cups are fundamentally important to successful beekeeping.
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
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!
Unlike the majority of free-born Englishmen (and women), when a beekeeper encounters BIAS, contentment reigns. BIAS is the acronym for “Brood In All Stages” inside the engine-room of the hive. Those stages are: egg, larva, pupa, emergence of new bee. In this particular case, that means that Thames hive has a healthy, laying Queen as the bee-year draws to a close.
As Autumn advances, Queen Primrose of Thames hive is now laying only Worker bee eggs, and in limited quantities. The normal cycle of development is unaffected: eggs will hatch 3 days after laying for Worker brood (and for Queens and Drones alike, at expansive times of the year). These “Winter Bees” will have a wholly different physiognomy from their sisters and half-sisters. Notably, winter bees have a higher fat body quotient. That’s not an insult, it’s a biological fat-body-fact.
Fat bodies are tissues which contain lipids, glycogen, triglycerides and some protein, storing and releasing energy according to the conditions. Winter bees are better adapted more to shivering-in-a-cluster-in-the-hive than to derring-do-on-the-high-seas-of-forage. Which is another way of saying that they don’t flap their wings off in a search for ever-diminishing returns outside the hive in late Autumn, but settle down to over-winter in the warm, pulsating rugby-ball of a winter bee-cluster. These bees will be next Spring’s foragers, working like a team of six-legged centaurs, voraciously gathering in snowdrop, willow and crocus pollen to feed the swelling brood chamber in the early months of 2014.
So let’s take a closer look at Thames hive’s winter bees, starting with the recently-laid eggs:
Spotting eggs is an important part of the Beekeeping’s Got Talent! You have to get the frame at the correct angle for the right light to pick out these little white dashes. It’s about 7 out of 10 in degree of difficulty on a cloudy September day, while virgin Queen spotting is definitely a 10. (Thanks to Penny Robertson for her 10/10 last weekend!).
After the standard 3-day egg phase, the development cycles of Worker, Drone and Queen bees start to diverge significantly. As mentioned earlier, at this time of year, winter Worker bees are the only sort produced in a healthy hive.
Once the egg has hatched, the nurse bees energetically feed the curled, bright-white larvae with bee-bread (a concoction of pollen steeped in honey) to supplement their small starting dosage of royal jelly. As the egg-phase ends, the larval stage begins, like a starting gun going off. The timing of the progression to “sealed cell” status and pupation runs like clockwork: for a Worker its 6, Drone 6-7 and Queen 5 days. What could be simpler ? Finally, the larva is sealed in her hexagonal cell with a cornflake-light wax capping, permeable to the air, to commence pupation. Here’s some sealed brood which Thames hive made earlier…
Once sealed with wax, the bees leave each cell occupant alone to spin its cocoons in the pupation phase – until emergence, another 12 days for Workers (and theoretically 14-15 days for Drones, but only 8 days for Queens). Then the Workers nibble their own way out of the wax bee-hole cover on top of each cell and emerge to be greeted by the nurse bees and are immediately assimilated into the sisterly tide.
And there the BIAS ends: Bees In Amazing Sequence!
Every year, the thrifty worker bees gang up on their free-loading half-brothers, the drones, and evict them from the hives. The female home-maker bees are jealously guarding their winter stores against the voracious and high-maintenance males, whose utility expires with the end of the queen-mating season. This normally happens in late Summer / early Autumn, as forage becomes scarce. The females chivvy the drones out of the hive with nippy bites, even de-commissioning the wings of persistent asylum seekers. Dainty and deadly. No mercy is shown. Starvation or predation await the astonished drones…
The strange thing in the Bermondsey Street Bees apiary this week has been that this process has already begun! What a year 2013 has been – rotten weather early on, setting nature back 3 weeks from its normal cycle – until July ushered in a 3-week heatwave which put everything onto fast-forward. And now this !
But before you feel too sorry for the drones, it is worth bearing in mind that a living drone is, by definition, an unsuccessful drone. The fact that the drones’ lower abdomens are ripped out by the Queen during their airborne mating (with a “pop” like a champagne cork, apparently!) means that drones die the instant after they have passed on their genes to the Queen.
So guys, one way or the other, when you gotta go, you gotta go…
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!
The first inspections of 2013 in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary took place in the balmy evening sunshine on Thursday 25th April 2013.
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.
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.
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 !
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!)