It is rare for me to receive an invitation to a Palace. As a beekeeper, I usually visit my queens uninvited. But I was flattered when John Chapple suggested that I might like to stand in for him at a Parliamentary away day at Lambeth Palace. John is simply the best beekeeper I know. So to be invited to open his hives and inspect them with a group of absolute novices was a feather in my cap.
Bees can forage in a 3-mile radius of their hive. With that in mind, I mounted a Boris bike in Bermondsey Street and set off on a 3-mile midsummer evening bike ride, crossing the river to Marlborough House on the Mall for a Bee Garden Party (“by kind permission of Her Majesty the Queen”, the invitation stated. How very appropriate.)
The great and the good were gathered there to raise money for the Bees For Development charity. The wonderful Hannah from Hiver Beers was there. Gill Smith from Thornes. Bill Turnbull auctioned bee-themed prizes, including a jar of his own honey.
We donated an Apis Consultancy report to the silent auction – and the bidding was as hot as the summer sunshine for our Apiary site survey and advisory services.
My mentor and senior bee-buddy John Chapple, was there with his charming wife, Kathleen, resplendent in his bee shirt, kindly recommending our Consultancy services to a new private client.
And Nikki Vane chatted to the party’s hostess, Martha Kearney, about their shared sensitivity to bee venom.
And so the sun went down on a worthwhile evening for the Bees For Development charity. We hadn’t conspicuously changed the world, but it felt like things were heading in the right direction…
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.
“I’ve started reading the bee-books to the bees. It’s the only way they’ll ever learn”.
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 ?
Each year, the baton-change from fresh Spring flowerings to bountiful summer blooms is interrupted by “The Gap“.
This dearth of nectar-yielding plants and flowers normally occurs each June in the U.K, but this year, things are different, as I discussed with John Chapple recently.
With the horsechestnuts and the fruit blossoms now a distant memory, the Bermondsey Street Bees are usually patiently awaiting the flow of nectar from Lime trees in July, tided over by bushy plants like cotoneaster and pyracantha providing a ration of sweetness.
But right now the nectar from the lime trees and the snowberry flowers is in full flow. Even the brambles are out – and the summer equinox is still over a week away! The supers are filling up with sunshine-sweet honey and you can hear the hum of bees fanning hard in the hive to reduce the moisture content of their honey stores to below 20%, before capping it over with fresh white wax. Perfection!
But once the lime, snowberries and brambles are gone – by July – my bees will be relying on scraps from exotic plantings in private gardens, thoughfully staggered municipal plantings like those by Ian, the gardener at Potters Fields and some late wildflowers, until the autumnal ivy is available. So it’s quite possible that we could see a July-August forage gap in some less well-provisioned areas of London.
Beekeepers need to “Mind The Gap“, especially if it comes at an unexpected time of year. 2014 will prove to be a tricky year for beekeepers – just like 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 20…………….
Apis is one year old this week. And to celebrate that anniversary, I am delighted to announce the winner of our “Name The Mystery Seedling” competition.
Two entrants got the right answer : Basil. How they managed to look at a forest of green sprue and guess correctly, I cannot say. To decide the winner, I asked John Chapple, the high priest of London beekeeping, to toss a coin. He (rather swankily we all thought) pulled out a 1-pound coin from his pocket and covered it with the palm of his hand. Nikki Vane called “Heads”. It was revealed as “Tails”, and so the proud owner of a jar of 2013 Bermondsey Street Honey is “oval”.
Well done, oval. I hope that this victory was be seen as compensation for your honourable runner-up position in 2013’s bee-haiku competition !
The Bermondsey Street Bees have been hitting the high notes again, winning yet another major award.
At the 82nd National Honey Show, held in Weybridge last week, my hardworking rooftop divas landed second prize in the open, blind-tasted Best Honey Within the M25 category.
This is their third award-winning year in a row, following:
2012: Best Rooftop Honey and Best Packaging at the London Honey Show.
2011: Best Honey Within the M25 at the National Honey Show & Best Restaurant Honey at the London Honey Show.
Whisper it quietly: The Bermondsey Street Bees consistently deliver London’s finest honey!
(And speaking of delivering, special thanks to John Chapple and Nikki Vane for transporting our honey to the Show)
I had a cup of tea with John Chapple last weekend. Any yes, some biscuits were involved. Viennese whirls, to be precise.
On his second cup, John offered the simple observation that the high level of honeybee colony losses was largely due to 2 years of horrible weather, which has dramatically reduced the overall health and well-being of colonies, so that opportunistic infections have taken a heavy toll of the debilitated bees. In my view, John is the best bee-mentor in London, so I listened intently….
He likened this elevated mortality in bees to pneumonia (defined as an inflammatory condition of the lung caused by various bacterial, viral and fungal infections) in England the 19th century. Then pneumonia was the major cause of death, with the health of the general population at a lower baseline and the absence of medicines to counter the root causes.
So for those beekeepers who have lost (and continue to lose, by all accounts!) colonies this year, do not despair – your beekeeping basics are sound. Our bees are being brought low by diseases to which they would not normally succumb.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” was the rallying call in another, now distant, crisis. To combat the current manifest of maladies and affliction in our bee-hives, I would propose the antidote which worked for me last weekend, swapping bee-stories with John Chapple: “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
And today I heard a whisper that John has been invited to make a comeback to the London Beekeepers’ Association, headlining a couple of courses this summer, to add some much-needed expertise and experience to the line-up. JC’s second coming to the LBKA would certainly be an occasion to relish – definitely time to “Break Out the Tea and Biscuits – and Talk Bees !”
I hope that you enjoyed my spoof “flier” for a new restaurant opening in Bermondsey Street. We are fortunate to be well provided with great restaurants here (have you tried the fabulous Restaurant Story yet?)… but as a beekeeper, I am concerned about what can be done to ensure that there is sufficient food out there for London’s local bees to eat. Hence this focus on “Forage“.
The scale of the potential problem in London can be illustrated by this chilling statistic from the government’s BeeBase. Around my London apiary, Bermondsey Street Bees, there are 581 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius (although bees are widely held to fly a maximum of 5 kilometres for forage). In the lush Suffolk countryside, the apiary at School House Bees has just 29 registered Apiaries within a 10-kilometre radius. The density of registered apiaries in grey old London is 20 times greater than in rural Suffolk ! And if you assume (a) some 20% of apiaries are unregistered (b) there is an average of 4 beehives per apiary, then the Bermondsey Street Bees could be sharing their lunch with bees from as many as 2,750 competing bee-hives !
Since 2010, when the tide of beekeeping popularity was rising fast, enlightened beekeepers in London, such as former London Beekeepers Association Chairman, John Chapple, have warned of the danger of lack of sufficient forage for London’s bees. My strategy has been to approach the authorities responsible for urban plantings – mostly Borough Councils – and to work with key officers in those organisations to intervene directly and permanently on the provision of forage for pollinators.
Since July 2011, I have been advising Southwark Council on the promotion of sustainable forage and best-practice rooftop beekeeping. I am currently working with Southwark’s Environmental Officers towards the specification of a minimum 50% Pollinator-Friendly Planting in all of Southwark Council’s plant procurement protocols: “what’s one more Council quota between friends?” Even simple, cost-saving recommendations, such as setting longer summer grass-mowing schedules for the huge existing acreage of Southwark’s parks and verges (even lengthening cutting schedules by a single week provides vastly more full-flower daisy, dandelion and clover forage for bees) have proved to be a great leap forward in bee-friendly municipal thinking. Not rocket science!
While some see the current fad for sprinkling London with expensively-packaged, designer, “meadow” seeds by commercially-interested parties as toe-curling tokenism, it can only be a positive that the publicity machines of London Beekeeping Associations have finally trundled into action to raise the forage issue in the general consciousness. The “London wildflower-meadow” idyll which they are selling certainly makes a pretty picture – see the front page of the June BBKA newsletter – and so features, with only the merest hint of irony, as the background to my spoof “flier”.
“Slick Willie” Sutton said that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is“. Similarly, my forage-focussed energies are spent working with my local Council, since its direct influence on the outcome of long-term provision of forage for bees is far greater, for example, than any London Beekeeping Association. For that reason, in late 2011 I applied to Southwark Council for a “Cleaner, Greener, Safer” grant for Pollinator-Friendly Planting in a local park. A sizeable grant was awarded, which resulted, in October 2012, in the setting-out of new beds and the planting by local volunteers of 11 each of 32 bee-friendly varieties from the Royal Horticultural Society’s List in St. Mary Magdalen Churchyard, SE1 3UW.
The good news is that the first splashes of colour on the planting beds began to appear earlier this month……and the flowering of that patch of bee-forage is what I wanted to celebrate in my new restaurant “flier”……all we need now is a little sunshine and the Bermondsey Street Bees will need no further invitation to the grand opening of “Forage”!