With the temperature relentlessly around zero, the word “scorching” is clearly unrelated to today’s weather forecast.

Well, it is and it isn’t. This frosty time of year is ideal for a belt and braces cleansing of empty beehives. This can be accomplished by immersing the hive parts in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution, or for smaller scale beekeepers, by using a blow-torch to singe the interior crevices and wide surfaces of brood and super boxes. That’s where the scorching comes in. Here I am, spring-cleaning a hive which I have just started to manage.

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Relaxation Therapy

Here’s a soothing duet of bees and birdsong from a Suffolk garden. Well, more bees than birdsong, really. But if you like bees, you’ll find it deeply relaxing !


How Long Do Bees Live ?

Bee Foraging On An Easter Hyacinth
Bee Foraging on Hyacinth At Easter

“How long do bees live ?” It all depends. A typical beekeeperly answer. But everything really does depend on which month a bee is born in.

A summer bee will have a short life-span, sometimes just six sun-kissed weeks. A winter bee, on the other hand, can live for six whole months ! Why the big difference ?

When a Queen lays an winter bee egg in early September, for example, that bee will hatch in October and only graduate to exhausting forage activities in November. By then there is very little forage to be had: a smattering of ivy, perhaps, as the bees settle down for winter. So a winter bee will live longer as a result of having less wear and tear on her system from foraging. This sedentary life-style is reinforced by a sprinkling of  “fat bodies” (which are protein fat parcels stored in the bees’ head and abdomen to help them overwinter successfully) to bolster energy reserves.

A summer bee is relatively stream-lined: a bee hatched today will be set to work on a sequence of tasks, mundane hive chores including brood comb cleaning, egg & larval feeding, receiving food from other bees by trophallaxis and storing it in the honeycomb, making Royal Jelly to feed the eggs of Queen, worker and drone bee alike, fanning the honey to make its moisture content fall below the 20% level needed to prevent fermentation, wax manufacturing and – it’s a long list – on to foraging.

So today’s summer bee will probably expire, gloriously aloft on a clear blue sky with bulging saddle-bags of pollen, in May’s splendour.

As an insight into the sheer determination of a bee at work, take a look at this valiant forager, which I found taking a bit of a breather on the grass on Easter Sunday before climbing up a dead-nettle to scramble into the sky again, hiveward bound. Attagirl !

We’re all mortal. But if you could chose, which bee-lifestyle would you prefer ? A winter bee’s cosy, clannish existence, lasting from one calendar year into the next, or the summer bee’s relentless scramble into the sky, with a life expectancy as short and glorious as a WWII Spitfire pilot ?

Bee Craft : Forage Hangout

Foraging Beekeeper, Out & About

Thanks to James Dearsley at Bee Craft for hosting this on-line Google+ “Hang-out” on Forage and Natural Beekeeping tonight.

More on my Berlin trip later. It gave me exceptionally intriguing insights into another city’s beekeeping experience. Much more on Forage later, too. I’ve been out and about on that topic and have a real breakthrough. By beekeepers, for beekeepers. Yes, indeed!

But for now, here’s the Hang-Out….

The Poly Hive

This is a little experiment. Penny Robertson, Secretary of my local Leiston and District Beekeeping Association in Suffolk, told me in 2014 that she was not aware of any of the LDBKA’s  >100 members using, or ever having used, a poly hive. So I installed this one last summer and this is what I saw last weekend – with the thermometer showing a chilly 4C !

With the bees flying at these low temperatures (note that 10C is generally viewed as the lowest safe temperature for bees to fly) it is possible to offer both positive and negative interpretations about Castle hive’s unusual excursions. Here’s how:

An Optimist might rejoice that the bees are so well insulated in their poly-hive that they are able to fly in unusually low temperatures. A Pessimist might respond that this could equally be a function of their breeding line, rather than their lodgings, a classic case of nature, rather than nurture. Furthermore, he might add, there is no obvious advantage to be flying in dangerously low temperatures, so perhaps something about their the poly hive is forcing them to fly. Perhaps they need water to dilute their honey stores, or the fondant and pollen feed which I can see them eating on top of the frames. Ah-ha, replies the Optimist – that suggests that they are benefitting from an early build-up of brood, which will position them well for the Spring – unlike the draughty Snape and Iken cedar hives. Then again, perhaps the bees in the traditional wooden hives are regulating their hives so that some natural condensation is retained inside for diluting their stores to make them edible for brood-raising, so they do not have to fly, counters the Pessimist. Hmmm.

So will I be enthusiastically recommending the use of polystyrene hives to the good beekeepers of the Suffolk coast in 2015 ? Too early to tell.

But while the jury’s out, here are some other considerations about using the poly hive. The Pessimist would note that, as configured, it has bottom bee-space, so the semi-rigid transparent plastic sheet supplied as the roof to seal the hive, makes it fussy to close up the hive, jiggling the sheet around to avoid squashing bees between the plastic roof and the frames. Also, the walls of the hive are too wide to attach a frame holder, which are very useful to keep a couple of frames pressed up close to the outer wall of the hive at inspection time, rather than putting them on the ground, leaning against the hive. The Optimist would strike a more positive note, pointing out that the hive floor has a nice sloped landing board, that the polystyrene body makes the hive lightweight to handle, and that all the poly infrastructure can be intermixed with wooden brood and super boxes, if required. And finally, it is easy to strap down to a paving slab to keep it from blowing away in the wild coastal winds.

So it will be a while before I can assess the outcome the first year of my Suffolk poly hive. And when I’ve made my mind up, I’ll take the Optimist and the Pessimist down to the Jolly Sailor to buy them both a pint of Adnams bitter.

Christmas Day Varroa Treat(-ment)

The varroa mite is an ubiquitous parasite on British honeybees.

Just imagine having a spikey dinner-plate stuck to your back, vampiring your vital fluids – and you have an idea of what a varroa mite does to a bee.

So beekeepers treat their bees against varroa throughout the year, but this mid-winter application of a very dilute (3.2%) rhubarb acid (oxalic acid) in sugar syrup is the most important off all, since the hive should have little of no brood in it – which is where the varroa mites themselves breed – and so all the mites are on the bees (the technical term is “phoretic“) and they are vulnerable to the acid, which the bees transfer around their winter cluster.

In this video, the hive is opened for just one minute as the treatment is applied, so that the overwintering cluster of bees in the brood chamber, heated by the bees to a mid-20C temperature even on my chilly rooftop, does not get dangerously cold.

This will reduce the varroa load dramatically and set the Abbey Hive bees up for a healthy build-up into the spring. Merry Christmas !


Honeyfacturing is a 3-day job which takes twelve whole months to complete. That’s because the simple secret to great honey is rearing healthy bees – and that is an all-year-round project. So the countdown for a new honey year starts as soon as the final lid is twisted onto the previous year’s batch. In my book, that makes the gestation period for a jar of honey 25% longer than that for a human child.

And the culmination of that process, the first flow of honey, has one other thing in common with child-birth – all those in close attendance are ritually altered. Grown men coo and clown, brusque functionaries flash melting smiles and stalwarts of the Grumpy Club temporarily mislay their membership cards. And that’s just over a jar of freshly-poured honey !

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Primrose, Queen Of Thames Hive

Check out the Bermondsey Street Bees’ dedicated video channel BermondseyStreetBeesOnAir.

Here you will find some fascinating hive-by-hive views of busy bees in Bermondsey and Suffolk – as well as the cult-classic “short”: “The Day The Queen Came To Tea“.

And by the way, Bermondsey Street Bees on Facebook notched up their 1000th ” Like” this week and @BermondseyBees on Twitter now has over 75 followers.

It’s fair to say that the beekeeper does get out more than the bees at this time of year, so on FB and Twitter you’ll see more of the wide world than on “Apis“, which keep its focus trained on the bee-stuff. Mostly.

At least no-one could accuse the consistently award winning Bermondsey Street Bees of idling during the Winter months!