Is It 10C Yet ?
Is It 10C Yet ?

The purpose of this blog is to inform and to entertain: this post falls squarely into the first category. After several months confined to the hive, my Suffolk bees took advantage of a warmer day to take a short flight last weekend. Why ? Those of a delicate disposition should look away now… Continue reading “Voiding”



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.

Continue reading “Scorching”

Why Don’t Bees Store Water?

Bee Drinking - Courtesy Of The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) Crown Copyright
Bee Drinking – Courtesy Of The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) Crown Copyright

Along with Earth, Air and Fire, Water is one of the elements common to ancient Greek, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. And even when modern scientists scan for signs of extra-terrestrial existence, water is the first thing they look for. Water is vital to life. So why don’t bees store water?

Continue reading “Why Don’t Bees Store Water?”

Bubble Wrap

Bubble Wrap
Bubble Wrap

The competition for bubble-wrap becomes intense in our household at this time of year. And it’s not just Sarah’s extraordinarily gregarious Christmas present list which drives the local demand for that commodity.

I have a beekeeping confession to make. It is strange, but true. I wrap my Bermondsey rooftop hives with bubble-wrap in December and January each year. There, I’ve said it.

Continue reading “Bubble Wrap”

“Bee-Berlin” Conference

Terminal 5 - An Early Start
Daybreak Over Terminal 5

The day was dawning brightly over Heathrow. With my bee-goggles on, I was contemplating the planes at Terminal Hive – sorry, Terminal Five – taking off and landing and contrasting their hulking ploddishness with the grace and elegance of bees performing the same activities.

Sarah and I were on our way to Berlin for a long weekend. Better yet, I had been invited to attend a “Bee-Berlin” Conference at the Abgeordnetenhaus (Berlin State Parliament) on the Friday afternoon. The best of both worlds.

Abgeordnetenhaus von Berlin_edited-1
Bears Like Honey!

The Conference was organised by the Green Party’s Environmental representative, Dr Turgut Altug, and over 100 people attended this 4-hour meeting in the old Prussian State Parliament. All major parties were represented (even the Pirate Party, which in 2011 won 15 of the 141 total seats in the State Parliament with 8.9% of the vote. Berlin is the only German State Parliament with elected representatives from this rather alternative party). That’s Berlin for you!

Bees Have Hives, Politicians Have Parliaments

It is generally agreed that bees need staircases like woodpeckers need weasels. But the stairway in the Parliament provided an impressive ascent for beekeepers to the Conference venue. The room was packed, bright and comfortable and all the seats had been filled by the 2pm start. A diverse group of beekeepers: from the natural variety (Heinz Risse, keeper of hives on the roof of the Berlin State Parliament) to the more conventional (Dr Marc-Wilhelm Kohfink, beekeeper at the Botanical Gardens).

Bees Need Staircases Like Woodpeckers Need Weasels

Reassuringly, the Berlin Conference embraced many topics which were echoed by London beekeepers’ preoccupations. Education was top of the agenda: on-going education for beekeepers and education for the public about bees and beekeeping. There was also talk of targeted financial support for urban pollinators, a familiar theme. Of course, Berlin shares with most cities a virtual absence of the pesticides and herbicides which are imposed on their country cousins. However, we heard some alarming reports of overwintering losses in the city over 40% in 2015, against the historic average around 15%. I suspect that this year’s slow start to Spring will see a similar increase in UK overwintering losses.

Dr Turgut Altug expanded eloquently on his vision for “urban gardening”, “allotments” and an “edible city” in Berlin. And, in recognition of the importance of trees for Berlin’s forage (“Unter den Linden” translates as “under the lime-trees”) he championed the proposal for 10,000 new trees to be planted, partly in areas of the city lacking green spaces currently and partly replacing old, decrepit trees, which quickly become very high-maintenance and expensive to preserve (yes, London’s plane trees, I’m looking at you!).

The Conference About To Start
The Conference About To Start

Yet there were some striking differences in the challenges facing Berlin beekeepers, from my perspective as a born and bred Londoner. In particular, I found it startling that around 2,500 bee colonies are brought into Berlin each year by beekeepers from outside the city to take advantage of the nectar flow from the Lime trees. Given my focus on improving the forage situation for London’s high concentration of beehives, I would have expected more opposition to this incursion on Berlin’s native forage. After all, the itinerant beekeepers are taking a lot out of Berlin, without putting anything into Berlin. The reality, however, was that “das Wandern” as it is called, was not generally perceived as a threat to forage by Berlin’s >1,000 resident beekeepers, since they have plenty of forage to go around. Ominously, Berlin’s registered beekeepers have doubled over the last three years, so this relaxed perception of forage may yet be tested if numbers continue to rise. Obviously, though, this phenomenon brings sudden competition and an unquantifiable disease risk to Berlin’s indigenous bee population. But let’s face it, British beekeepers see nothing wrong with “taking the bees to the heather” to work the nectar flow from the rural heaths in late Summer. If the forage is there and incoming beekeepers are responsible with their bees, why not ?

The Panel

Another key difference (admittedly there could be a sampling bias in a Conference co-ordinated by the Green Party) was that Berlin beekeepers’ biggest concern was environmental pollution. That contrasts with London beekeepers, who see hive densities as their most pressing concern, with environmental pollution at the mid-point of the list. Awareness of the existence of 560 German species of bee (there are 298 bees species recorded in Berlin alone, more than the UK’s estimated 230+ total bee species count) was a feature of the conference. And remember, as I always say, only one of these species is the honeybee. One further small difference in Berlin is that there is an ecological edict against spreading salt in icy conditions – only sand is permitted. Finally, England’s National Pollinator strategy, due to be implemented by 2018, was admired as a constructive national policy to improve the welfare of England’s pollinators, including bees. Berlin’s beekeepers would like to see something like it in Germany.

Bee Berlin
Putting The Bee In Beerlin

Which brings me back to where we started: contemplations on an airport. Not Heathrow this time. Tempelhof. First, a bit of back-story: The London Borough of Barnet has twinning arrangements with nine foreign districts and cities, more than any other London borough. My father, the first Mayor of Barnet, energetically promoted student exchanges and was largely responsible for Barnet’s proliferation of international alliances. He also saw it as a great way to globe-trot in style in the 1960s and 70s, when UK citizens were limited to a strict £50 foreign currency allowance when travelling abroad. In particular, the twinning with Tempelhof was of great importance to his libertarian instincts, since Tempelhof airport had been the proud hub of the Berlin Airlift (colourfully called the “Berliner Luftbrücke”, the “Air-Bridge” by the local population) and provided the life-blood of West Berlin when the Soviets halted all land-traffic in 1948. Tempelhof was decommissioned as an airport in 2008 and has been a public park since 2010, covering nearly three times the area of Hyde Park. Half the Conference attendees wanted to take a spade to it and tame it into an organized bee-forage zone, while the other half wanted to leave it to its own devices and celebrate its wilderness. As always with beekeepers, opinion was divided.

Bee-Berlin Conference
“Spot The British Beekeeper” Competition

Certainly, travel broadens the mind. But it can widen the waistband, too. Here is an irresistible item which I saw in Lidl. It is called a “Bee-Sting Pastry” (“Bienenstich Plunder”, to give it its full, glorious title), sweetened with honey, filled with vanilla custard and topped with almonds.

Bienenstich Plunder = Bee-Sting Pastry
Bienenstich Plunder = Bee-Sting Pastry

The story goes that the baker who invented the confection was stung by a bee which had been attracted by the honey. So it’s not just the 100+ beekeepers at the Conference who care about Bees in Berlin -there’s always small queue of Berliners foraging by the Lidl bakery shelves demonstrating their enthusiasm for Bienenstich Plunder!

Erika Mayr's Book on Beekeeping In Berlin
Erika Mayr’s Book on Beekeeping In Berlin

“Vielen Dank”, Berlin, for a convivial and educational afternoon. I really enjoyed meeting fellow beekeepers and making new friends. More about that in another blog post. Special thanks to Erika Mayr, author of “Stadtbienen”, whose invitation brought me to the Conference, as well as Dr. Turgut Altug, who organized the forum. Also thanks to Olaf Schwerdtfeger, Deputy Chair of the Berlin Beekeepers’ Association, for his cheery enthusiam. All three were valuable and informative speakers on the Beekeeping panel.

I hope that I will be able to repay your hospitality at my Bermondsey Street rooftop before too long !

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….

Three Feet Or Three Miles

3 Miles Around My Apiary
Three Miles Around My Apiary

Three Feet Or Three Miles”: these five short words enshrine a golden rule of beekeeping. Maybe it is the hypnotic repetition of “three”, or the dramatic difference in scale between three feet (one yard) and three miles (5280 yards), or possibly the fateful choice hingeing on the tiny word “or“, which imbues this incantation with its mysterious, poetic charm.

But its meaning remains enigmatic until it is revealed as the shorthand version of an exhortation to the beekeeping faithful that: “Thou shalt not move a bee-hive more than three feet, nay, verily, nor less than three miles. No way. Or else.”

Why not ? The simple fact is that, if you move a hive by less than 3 feet, the flying bees will first return to the the exact spot of the old location, engage in a brief period of head-scratching but will soon figure out the new site nearby because of its proximity (as well as its familiar smell and appearance). The bee-brain allows for a certain amount of movement in its habitat – but not much. That’s the way the natural world behaves. All well and good.

Now, move a bee hive more than 3 feet, and less than 3 miles, and the bees will return to the precise and original location of the hive and become increasingly dis-orientated by the disappearance of their home. And they will quite possibly stay there until they perish of hunger and exposure, with their on-board sat nav insisting this is indeed their hive site, even if there is no hive to be seen or scented in the vicinity. In desperation, the homeless foragers may offer their nectar- and pollen-loads as the price of admission to an unfamiliar honeybee colony nearby. But in either case, the hive which has been moved will be deprived of its foraging bees and will soon be dangerously short of food. Not good. Between that 1 yard and the next 5280 yards exist 5279 yards of deadly danger for a beehive in transit.

And if you move a bee-colony 3 miles or more, the good news is that the bees will not recognise any of their former flight lines and will not attempt to follow them back to their hive (simply because 3 miles is the range for a foraging bee to travel to collect pollen or nectar and still offer a net positive energy income to the hive). So bees live in blissful ignorance of what lies beyond that 3-mile radius of their own hive and have no signposts to guide them back to the original site once moved more than 3 miles. They will settle in their new apiary location and happily get on with life.

So there you are. The commandment is: “Three feet or three miles”.

This being beekeeping, of course, there are exceptions to every rule: in deepest winter, hives can be moved between 3 feet and 3 miles. The clustered bees will not remember their previous map reference after a few days’ detention in the hive and will thoroughly orientate themselves at the new location when Spring  arrives, dipping and bobbing at the hive entrance, before embarking on a forage trip.

Or you can move a hive a little every day or so, so that the bees drift along as the hive edges towards to its new position. Like grandmother’s footsteps.

Also, a swarm of bees can be rehoused in the same apiary from which the swarm has issued, since the act of swarming wipes clean the bees’ sense of location. No surprise – it‘s where they’re going next which matters to a swarm, not where they’ve just come from.

So now you know. Go on, bamboozle your friends with: “Three feet or three miles”. And, a word to the wise, I’ve found that that the metric version : “A metre, or 5K” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Three Feet (Well, Pairs Of Feet)
Three Feet (Well, Three Pairs Of Feet)