Digging For Victory

Barnaby's Bee-Yard. Before.
Barnaby’s Bee-Yard. Before.

Yesterday, for the third weekend in the month of February, I was out and about with a spade in my hand. All in the cause of bees and beekeeping. Digging for beekeeping victory, I call it. And on the one other weekend in February, I was taking the Minutes at the Leiston Beekeeping Association AGM, with pen in my hand. And with not a bee in sight. My take-away on February 2015: real beekeeping starts long before you pull on a bee-suit.

Barnaby’s Bee-Yard. Now.

But this weekend was special. Yes, I’ve set up Apiaries. In urban and in rural settings. And I have moved bee-hives from on Apiary to another. But this was my first full-Apiary transplant!

Barnaby Shaw: Lending  A Hand.
Bee Urban’s Barnaby Shaw: Lending A Hand.

The formidable Barnaby Shaw, leading light of social enterprise Bee Urban in Kennington Park has been compelled to move his Bee Barn and bee-yard 200 yards to a new location in the Park. The existing Keeper’s Lodge and Bee Barn are on the site designated for a permanent ventilation shaft for the Northern Line Tube extension and so have to be vacated for the sake of infrastructure development in London. Barnaby and his community project have been based here since 2008, promoting bees and responsible beekeeping in the local area, so this is a real upheaval. What is more, Barnaby and his team have been prolific planters of permanent pollinator-friendly forage in the surrounding garden. A quick inventory: one Bee Barn, four bee-hives, 3 of Barnaby’s famous kiwi fruit vines and a quarter of an acre of sprouting, budding, early-flowering plants carpeting the garden surrounding the Lodge.

Digging For Victory

Our task was to excavate, pot up and wheelbarrow the best plants and shrubs. And start digging holes for planting at their new home. A genuine full-Apiary transplant. That’s an few hours’ weekend spade-work work for Sarah, Maff and I, but weeks of patient reconstruction for Barnaby and his team of volunteers.

Holes Dug For The Kiwis At The New Site

Worse yet, Lambeth Council have been intractable on the imposition of a hefty rent for the new premises behind the Café in Kennington Park. Barnaby and Bee Urban will need strong support from South East Londoners to continue their work enhancing the urban environment and promoting positive, ecologically sound practice around urban greening, building, farming and particularly bee-keeping.

The New Bee-Barn. Almost.
The New Kennington Park Bee-Barn. Almost.

Barnaby is a true all-in beekeeper. Bee Urban is a fantastic local resource for south-east London. Let’s all go out of our way to support them.

Forage Party

Leathermarket Gardens Sign
Inner City Forage

A small, but perfectly-formed, group of gardeners swooped on the wildflower and edible plantings at Leathermarket Gardens on Saturday morning, all tooled up for action, just as the icy grip of early February was lifting.

Having planted his permanent pollinator-friendly forage in the ground last year, it was imperative to clear choking weeds, grass and tap-rooted docks to let our apple-trees, herbs, wildflower strip and red and white currant bushes thrive.

So important, in fact, that we were paid a visit by the local Bermondsey bobbies-on-the-beat. “Hello, hello” and “Hello“.

Not that we were lacking the opportunity to lean on our spades from time to time. Coffee break and visits from the two-and-four-legged community of Leathermarket Gardens were welcome distractions from, as Sarah put it, having “a nice gossip, upside-down” with fork and trowel in hand. Indeed, soon we were having so much fun that it was almost like a treasure-hunt. We even found a glinting blue glass marble.

Lost Marble
Lost Marble

If anyone has lost their marbles in the vicinity of Bermondsey Street and one like to reclaim this one, please form an orderly queue.

Thanks, as ever, to the intrepid and invariably stylish Nikki,

Forage Fashion
Forage Fashion

to Maff , suitably leather-jacketed in Leathermarket Gardens,

Our Man From The Elephant

and to Sarah, uncomplaining bee-bride, spoilt for choice in her array of gardening boots

Sarah's Boots1
Sarah’s Gardening Boots

and Eddie Pug for his unwavering invigilation of our efforts

The Supervisor
The Supervisor

And we paid our respects to our old friend, the acacia tree, taken down for safety reasons by Southwark Council. in October 2014

Acacia Being Felled
Acacia Being Felled In October 2014

A memorial, with more than a hint of Bermondsey defiance, had been erected on the site. Amen.

RIP Acacia

We spruced up Leathermarket Garden’s forage a treat. And took three heaped wheel-barrows of delinquent vegetation to the skip.

Tools Of The Trade
Tools Of The Trade

Bees can’t eat kind words. Our fingernails may be dirty, but we’re off to a flying forage start to 2015.



Do Bees Hibernate ?

Think Of The Winter Bee Cluster As A Swarm….Just One With A Box Around It.
A Swarm Of Bees Is Just A Naked Cluster Of Bees

Between New Year and Easter, the question which I am most frequently asked is : “Do Bees Hibernate?

The short answer is that they form a cluster, a gently dynamic, oval mass in the middle of the brood box, dropping their metabolic rate by a couple of notches. But the full answer to the question is a little more complicated than that.

It all depends on what you mean by “hibernate”. Insects are cold-blooded and bees are no different. However, honeybees fall into the small minority of insects which can generate their own heat, like mammals, through muscular exertion (human beings do this by shivering, for example). So let’s see where we can check the box on bees having a regular “hibernation“: seasonal cycle, Yes, metabolism slows down, Yes, own thermoregulation, Yes.

But if by “hibernation” you mean a state of suspended animation, like a bear or a bat, or a comatose Rip Van Winkle interlude, snoozing unrelentingly thorough 3 months of oblivion, then “No”, bees don’t hibernate like that.

As winter takes hold, bees form their cluster. Composed of some 10,000+ winter bees (late-born in the previous Autumn and physiologically endowed with a body able to store fat), it expands and contracts, according to the exterior temperature.  Food consumption drops as long as the bees remain in this torpid state. But in warm spells, the cluster will relax, with some bees even leaving the hive to make “voiding flights” and dedicated mortuary bees removing dead bees from the hive.

But the cluster will huddle protectively tight to conserve heat as the temperature drops. The grim fact is that, if the thorax of a bee (where the wings are located, between the bees’ head and the abdomen) falls to a temperature a few degree below 10C, a bee will fall into a “chill coma” which renders it rigid, motionless and unable to vibrate its wing muscles to create the heat required for its cold-blooded body to stay alive.

Honeybees overwinter as a reduced colony, a living, slow-motion family unit with the Queen at the centre, unlike wasps or most other bees, where fertile queens shelter alone. This behaviour illustrates why scientists have described colonies of bees as “superorganisms” in which each individual bee is only a component part of the greater whole. The concept of a colony of bees as a single social civilisation is key to my beekeeping.

Let’s take a closer look at the cluster: the outer mantle of bees is like a string vest, insulating the soft body of this concentration of bees. These wrapper bees will eventually rotate their positions with warmer bees, bubbling up from the heated community of the cluster. In temperature terms, this outside layer will be at around 10-15C, with the main body of bees at 22-24C and new brood at the centre requiring a temperature of 33-35C. That means that the part of the hive where the bees cluster will be almost as warm as a centrally-heated home in winter, the main mass of bees overwinter at the same temperature as a balmy summer’s day, while the brood area as hot as a Caribbean holiday – even when the weather is freezing outside !

So my answer to the question “”Do Bees Hibernate?” is an unsatisfactory one. They sort of do, but they kind of don’t. But I was excited to stumble across one insight as I was thinking this article through.

The cluster is hard to see, buried deep inside a winter beehive and divided by brood frames, so my challenge was: how can I help people visualize a cluster? Then it came to me: take a look at the photo at the top of the page.

Here you can actually see the egg-shaped formation and mantle of outer bees typical of a cluster. But this is a swarm of bees, settled on a branch.

It really made my day when I realised that a swarm of bees is just a naked cluster !

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.

Eye Of The Storm

Eye of the Storm
Eye of the Storm

Each winter, there’s a patch of weather which furrows the beekeeper’s brow. The BBC’s weather forecast suggest that the high winds, sharp showers and zero degree temperatures forecast for the next 10 days look like being 2015’s pinch-point.

My beekeeping concerns are two-fold:

  • My London hives are sitting on a fourth-storey roof parapet, fully exposed to the elements. They are heavy with stores, insulated with 100mm Celotex in their roofs, their brood boxes are wrapped in bubble-wrap, to keep the wet out and to offer a degree of insulation, they are lashed to metal D-rings with industrial-strength straps and they also have their varroa-boards in, to prevent gusts of wind ripping up through the open mesh floor to chill the brood box. For my urban hives, temperature loss in the winter cluster of bees through wind action is my main concern.


  • On the Suffolk Coast, the hives have the same insulation and bubble-wrap epidermis. They sit on hive stands just 9 inches above the ground, strapped over heavy paving slabs in a sheltered spot in my garden. My main concern here is that the wind off the North Sea could be so savage that it will catch the hive walls like sails. My consternation for the rural hives is that they will “capsize”, or be blown over.

Now, let me take a step back into the world of probabilities. I haven’t suffered any hive upsets in any winter weather event in any previous year. But in this period of extended separation from the bees, the natural inclination of the beekeeper is to fret.

You can be sure that trepidation will be my constant companion until the end of this month.


A Mid-Winter’s Day Dream

On top of a wintry Cotswold hill, I took a moment to imagine a bee-loud summer evening, with the warm sun settling into the horizon as the smell of honey exhales from the hive…

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 !

Night Market

Setting Out The Stall: Green Baize, Honey, Bee-Mugs, Honey & Salt Hand-Scrub & Such

At last Saturday’s Night Market on Bermondsey Square, we were selling our award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. And we sold out.

Our stall was very much a family affair, with Sarah’s immaculate styling putting our product on elegant display and Xander, Maff and I selling the honey, candles, honey and salt hand-scrub, natural beeswax furniture polish, bone-china bee-mugs and organic T-shirts (OK, so we didn’t sell many T-shirts at a couple of degrees above zero!).

Worker Bees

A shiver ran down my spine as it occured to me that our stall was precisely on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey had stood, founded just after the Norman Conquest on the site of a 7th Century monastery. That sudden time-shift placed the Bermondsey Street Bees as the inheritors of a 1300-year history of beekeeping in that very place.

Night Market - December 2014

While I knew that bees and monks went back a long way, I pondered on that connection and came up with a few reasons why monks would have been keen beekeepers.

Wax was an important commodity for churches. With stoutly-build walls to withstand Viking raids and small windows to allow maximum advantage to defenders against aggression, the ability of a beeswax candle to light the interior, even on the brightest summer’s day, was invaluable. Unlike tallow (animal fats), beeswax burns clean, with a heavenly smell of wax and honey. So the monks would have valued their bees partly for the devotional aspect of their wax combs.

Bees are excellent pollinators. Even though the science of pollination was unknown in the 7th century, the happy propinquity of honeybees with a kitchen garden – and many arable crops – would not have escaped notice. Bees would have been important to sustain a large religious community. But in a modern, urban brickscape like Bermondsey Street, it is imperative for us to create adequate forage. To that end, I have put flowerbeds into St. Mary Magadalen Churchyard (Southwark grant) and fruiting, edible plantings into Leathermarket Gardens (with plants from Bankside Open Spaces Trust) and I maintain an allotment at Alscot Road, by Bermondsey Spa. We need to do more than just talk about forage provision to ensure a healthy, happy bee-population in London.

And finally, there’s the honey itself. Let’s not underestimate what honey would have represented in when the Bermondsey Abbey was set up in 1082 by Alywn Childe. It had been a luxury item in nature long before human beings existed – ask any bear! And consider: when you put some honey in your mouth, that sunburst of sweetness is precisely the same sensation as the first human being would have experienced. True, the same would go for oysters – except that honey is a substance made by other creatures, it is not the creatures themselves. Surely that is part of the wonder of honey as a foodstuff.


It is humbling to acknowledge that honey had already reached its peak of perfection millions of years before mankind started walking upright and that, subsequently, the ingenuity of the human race has failed to improve upon honey’s sublime simplicity.

Remember that, in the 7th century, there was no sugar, no treacle, no chocolate, no candy. Honey was the only way to store sweetness to enjoy on its own or to add to another foodstuff. Honey, this rare and remarkable substance, once sealed on the comb, can be stored almost indefinitely.

And then there honey as a medicine, salving wounds and soothing allergies, and then again as an agent of fermentation, used to produce intoxicating drinks, like mead. And do you know what ? Bermondsey Street Honey is a key ingredient of award-winning Hiver Beer since the first batch was bottled in 2012. Another resonance, ringing down the years from ancient Bermondsey Abbey to today.

But before I get completely carried away, let’s just say that I’m proud to be carrying on the ancient tradition of Bermondsey beekeeping – and selling our honey with Sarah, Xander and Maff on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey used to stand.

Maff Serving
Doing A Roaring Trade


Mild Weather Warning

Tower Bridge
Mild Weather Warning: Sunrise Behind Tower Bridge

The BBC weather forecast through the end of November envisages temperatures in London and the South East remaining around double-digit degrees centigrade. And I’m still running to work and back in just a white T-shirt and black lycra shorts. But funnily enough, this extended period of warm winter weather threatens two problems for bees: starvation and disease.

The fact that temperatures are remaining high enough for bees to fly and that there is some forage still available may tempt bee colonies to continue brooding and therefore continue flying to provide the fuel for their energy-hungry brood. This could cause a diminution of honey stores in the hives as the bees expend more energyon brood than they bring in (pollen and propolis are available, although nectar is rare at these temperatures) and lead to starvation later this winter. It is worth hefting hives now to monitor food stores – remember that a national hive typically requires 25kg of honey stores to be sure of reaching Spring in good health.

Disease is a threat, especially if brooding continues. New brood will permit the parasitic varroa mite population to build up, just as the number of adult bees in the hive is in seasonal decline. Thus the concentration, or “load”, of varroa may increase, leaving the colony vulnerable to higher level of infection by diseases. Although beekeepers should not enter hives at this time of year, using a varroa inspection board under an open mesh floor of the hive will give beekeepers an idea of the numbers of varroa present in each hive. That knowledge can be used to decide which, if any, varroa treatment will be appropriate. Personally, I always treat for varroa around the Winter Solstice – on 21st December this year – by trickling oxalic (rhubarb) acid when the brood cycle is at its low . The reason for this is that the empty wax brood cells make this the one time of year when the mites are forced to live on the bees, rather than sealed in the cells to feed on bee-larvae, and the “knock-down” of varroa mites from the sugar-syrup/oxalic acid dose is at its most efficient.

So I’ll be taking some luggage-scales and a varroa board to my town and country bees this weekend, as I check the hives’ temperature and moisture monitors. As the old beekeeping proverb goes: “Lycra on a November morning, starvation warning“.

Or something like that….


A mouseguard is a strip of galvanised metal, punctuated with 10mm circular holes which are ample for a bee (even with good saddlebags of pollen!) to enter the hive, but which exclude even the most sinuous mouse. Here’s one on the entrance of Thames Hive.

It is crucial to put these mouseguards onto the hive entrance before the first frost of the year, or risk an invasion of bewhiskered rodents. If a mouse, or a mouse-family, is driven by cold and famine to seek refuge and sustenance in a drowsy, clustered, wintry bee-hive, the results are disastrous. The mice will ravage the honeycomb, depriving the bees of their hard-won bounty.

Continue reading “Mouseguards”