Leathermarket Gardens : One Year On

Bee On Borage
Bee On Borage In Leathermarket Gardens

Last weekend, we witnessed a minor metrological miracle. For once, the rain held off when we went in to weed and tend our patch of fruiting trees, bushes, herbs and wildflowers in Leathermarket Gardens. Even the bees showed up to help us out.

Apple Blossom And Setting Fruit
Apple Blossom

Maintenance is important when you’ve planted for forage. Here we were, tidying up after the Leathermarket Gardens’ first anniversary, encouraging our fruit trees, currant bushes and herbs and preventing non-descript ground cover from overwhelming them.

So in went clumps of Forget-me-nots and scatterings of seeds from LMG stalwart, Nikki Vane:

Nikki On Parade
Nikki On Parade

And out went thistles and tufts of grass, as Antoinette weeded busily in the sunshine.

Antoinette At Work

 And Xander, too:

Xander : Hands-On

The bees were not slacking, either. Big pollen sacs were coming off the ceanothus. As is often the case with pollens, the colour of the flower does not match the colour of the pollen. The boisterous blue ceanothus yields a yolk-yellow pollen.

Bee On Ceanothus

It’s good to see the plants getting their feet down and fruiting copiously, now that the blossom has almost gone – a sure sign that the Bermondsey Street pollination brigade has been on the wing !

Currants, Currently

That’s what it’s all about, after all.

Honeycomb Box

Minton Solano Honeycomb Box 1
The Bee On Top Of A Minton Solano Honeycomb Box

Lucky me! My Easter present from Sarah was a gleaming art deco Minton Solano honeycomb box. It’s so vintage that it makes me feel young.

Minton Solano Honeycomb Box 2
So Vintage That It Makes Me Feel Young!

And our Bermondsey Street honeycomb fits perfectly inside.

Minton Solano Honeycomb Box 3
A Wonderful Easter Yellow !

Yellow is the colour of Easter. Daffodils, chicks, Easter Sunday sunshine…and honeycomb boxes, of course. As I said, lucky me !

Finding The Queen

Queen Bee - Zoom Out
Finding The Queen

At this year’s Bermondsey Street Festival my glass-sided observation hive, full of live bees from Thames hive, made its debut.

As the main attraction of my Bee-Education stall, it was ratchet-strapped obliquely onto the front corner of the trestle table so that it could resist be viewed on both sides. The bees on the single frame displayed went about their business, like a perpetual-motion screen-saver, invisibly assisted by four more frames of bees and a feeder-frame of sugar syrup in the wooden section under the glass viewing-gallery. I don’t mind telling you that it went like a dream, attracting and fascinating festival footfall all day long and drawing people into the bee-vortex with my challenge: “See if you can find the Queen”.

This year’s new-born Queens were marked Green. This is not a fashion statement. It is simply a convention for (a) helping you spot a Queen in a busy beehive and (b) identifying the age of the Queen. The 5 Queen marking colours are, in order, White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue. So 2015 Queens will marked Blue.

Now you will have noticed that the Queen in this picture is a yellow Queen, so a 2012 vintage. The reason I have used an older image is that it does a terrific job of contrasting a Queen bee’s anatomy with that of an ordinary worker bee.

Queen Bee - Middle Distance
Queen Close-Up

So let’s get a little closer in to see the physiological differences between a Q(ueen) B(ee) and a worker bee. Her physique is clearly unlike those of the worker bees surrounding her: she has a shinier, longer abdomen, banded with dark hoops. Her extended body (and reddish, stalky legs) distinguish her from the average citizen of Thames Hive. A coterie of supporters forms around the Queen. Observe the bee touching the Queen with her antenna. The bees also lick the Queen with their extendable tongues, savouring the pheromones which give the colony its distinctive odour and binds the bees together in a shared aromatic.

Zooming in a little more, we can observe some more anatomical details: her chassis almost v-shaped and voluptuous. Not surprising, since it contains her ovaries (she will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day at the peak of the summer and up to a million in her lifetime – and her spermatheca, which is used to store the sperm of her drone-swains which is used to fertilize the QB’s eggs)  And we can see her clipped wing. I make no apology for this minor deformation. Like colour-marking a Queen, clipping her wings is entirely practical, rather than aesthetic. This single-snip imperfection has one important consequence: the Queen will not be able to fly properly and therefore will not be able to lead a swarm away from the hive.

Queen Bee - Close-Up
Paparazzi Shot Of Queen

While swarming is the bees’ method of reproduction, we beekeepers have developed strategies to prevent losing half of our bees to a swarm. That should come as no surprise, since the word “beekeeper” contains two key concepts: (a) bees, and (b) keeping them. So keeping the Queen means keeping the bees and the honey, too.

So, whether it is on Bermondsey Street Festival Day for members of the public or for experienced beekeepers, there is always a certain thrill in “finding the Queen”.

….and for those curious about how beekeepers get their Queen Bees, enjoy this little home movie from Apis’s video archive…..

Queen Balling

Queen Amber As Her Usual, Serene Self

There are times in life when you can tell that you are witnessing something slightly incredible – yet you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s actually going on. Here’s an instance which occurred in my Suffolk apiary recently, with some amazing footage of what is called “Queen Balling”. Hint: keep your eye on the yellow dot in the lower right quadrant of the screen!

First, some background.

The classic diagnostic test for Queenlessness in a hive is to introduce a frame of brood containing eggs to the hive. If, after a few days, the bees have started to construct Queen Cells (QCs) using the eggs, it is a sign of Queenlessness. If the bees treat the eggs as ordinary brood, to be fed and subsequently sealed over with wax, until the bee emerges 21 days later, then the hive is Queenright.

In this case, after 3 days, there was no sign of QCs on the test frame, but the bees were calm, organized and diligent, with polished brood cells. That all suggested that they probably considered that they had a Queen.

So I decided to try a new technique: remove a fertile Queen from her colony and insert her into a sealed Queen cage and lay her on top of the bars of the hive being tested. The reaction of the worker bees would be highly indicative of their state of queenlessness: if they showed polite, but sustained interest, they would probably be Queenless. If they responded with hostility, then they would most likely be Queenright.

I did this with my veteran 2012 matron Queen, the yellow-marked Amber. The indication was that the bees in the hive being tested were very interested in Queen Amber and not at all hostile, so I withdrew her after a few minutes, tipped her out into her home hive and watched with sudden concern as her daughters mobbed her (which is called “balling”).

This is the technique which bees use to envelop, overheat and kill intruders such as the European hornet. On the basis that the bees knew what they were doing with their very familiar Queen, I grabbed my camera and recorded the event. You can see Amber awash in a tide of bees, with the faded yellow dot on her thorax.

Well, I can reassure you that no bees were harmed in the making of this video. Queen Amber escaped completely unscathed. My best guess is that the bees noted the scent of another hive/another Queen from the hive/queen cage and were anxious to bend their bodies around Amber to protect her and re-absorb her distinctive pheromones.

Any other suggestions out there ?

In The Apiary : Early April : Queen Cups

Welcome to the first Apiary report of 2014. Executive summary: the Bermondsey Street Bees are in great shape.

Abbey Hive - First Inspection 2014
Abbey Hive – First Inspection 2014

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:

Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive - First Inspection 2014
Queen Scarlett of Shard Hive – First Inspection 2014

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:

Thames Hive - First  Inspection 2014
Thames Hive – First Inspection 2014

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.

Play Cell - Abbey Hive
Queen Cup – Abbey Hive

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).

Play Cell- Empty - Abbey Hive
Empty Queen Cup – Broken Down By Hive Tool

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.

Country Cousins

As a townie, I am starting to learn about country beekeeping. For example, fields of oilseed rape are not common in London. In Suffolk, careful management of strong bee colonies close to these flying carpets of canary-coloured flowers is required if you are not to lose an early swarm – or if you do not require a good deal of hard-to-extract, solid-setting rape honey.

Bees go mad for the sweet blossoms of oilseed rape and will fly on auto-pilot over other forage to get to it. But this crop is there for the benefit of the farmer, not the beekeeper, so these vast chrome-yellow canopies provide an abundant source of nectar and pollen for a relatively short time of the year – and which deplete rapidly once the seed-pods start to set in mid-May. Many rural beekeepers have reported that their bees become short-tempered for a short while after the nectar flow ends – and then the pumped-up bee population needs to find sustenance elsewhere. Luckily, our locality has many well-stocked gardens, hedgerows, woods, brambles, horse-chestnuts and neatly-tended allotments to keep the bees supplied with nectar and pollen throughout the late Spring and Summer.

In Suffolk, the School House Bees are stirring: this is Snape Hive.

Snape Hive 2014-03-24
Snape Hive – Looking Good, Ladies.

And the oil-seed rape is coming into flower in an adjacent field:

School House Rape
Field Of Rape About To Burst Into Full Flower

Q: What happens next ?

A: I have added a new brood box of undrawn foundation on top of the over-wintered brood box (pictured above), so that the bees can use the nectar flow from the rape to build wax brood comb in the upper box. This gives me the option of keeping the two brood boxes as a super-charged, double-brood colony. This arrangement should suck in nectar faster than a top-of-the-range Dyson going head-to-head with Usain Bolt over 100 metres. But I could also divide this turbo-charged colony into two viable units relatively early in the season. Remember that it takes 10 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax – and in my new country apiary, I would rather have a new box of brood frames drawn with fresh white comb than a couple of supers stuffed rigid with crystallised rape honey. A great way to convert a haul of unwanted oilseed honey into valuable new brood comb.

At least I think that is what happens next. Watch this space !

Ladies Who Lunch

Ladies Who Lunch
Ladies Who Lunch

Overheard: a languid French accent, from a table of elegant ladies-who-lunch (or dames-qui-déjeunent!), after a disdainful glance at the pudding trolley: “Chérie, I would not get fat for zat”.

Presumably, our gallic gourmet could imagine foodstuffs so exquisite that she would be prepared to “get fat”, but just not for “zat. According to recent research, honeybee foragers make similar fussy calculations about the pros and cons of any food source.

Here is an abstract from the Journal Of Experimental Biology: Christoph Grüter, Heather Moore, Nicola Firmin, Heikki Helanterä and Francis L. W. Ratnieks: Flower Constancy In Honeybees Workers Depends On Ecologically Realistic Rewards

“As first described by Aristotle, honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers show a strong tendency to visit flowers of only one type during a foraging trip. It is known that workers rapidly learn a flower colour when rewarded with artificial nectar (sucrose solution). However, some previous studies report that the degree of constancy after training is unaffected by reward quantity and quality when bees are tested in an array of artificial flowers of two easily distinguished colours, such as blue and yellow. One possible reason for this surprising result is that large reward volumes were compared. This is likely to mask the abilities of foragers to make adaptive decisions under more realistic conditions.

To test this possibility, we offered untrained honey bee workers ecologically relevant rewards (0.5, 1 or 2 μl of 0.5 or 1 mol l–1 sucrose solution) on one or two consecutive yellow or blue artificial flowers and then recorded which flowers the bees subsequently landed on in an array of 40 empty flowers. The results showed that an increase in all three factors (volume, concentration and number of rewards) significantly increased constancy (proportion of visits to flowers of the trained colour) and persistence (number of flowers visited) during the foraging bout.

Constancy for the least rewarding situation was 75.9% compared with 98.6% for the most rewarding situation. These results clearly show that honey bee workers do become more constant to blue or yellow with increasing nectar rewards, provided that the rewards used are ecologically realistic. As the most rewarding conditions led to nearly 100% constancy, further reward increases during training would not have been able to further increase constancy. This explains why previous studies comparing large rewards found no effect of reward on constancy.”

Hmmm, that’s a bit convoluted for we beekeeping folk, so I thought up a short-cut. At the beginning of “Annie Hall”  Woody Allen tells a gag about two other ladies-who-lunch: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”  

This research shows that a honeybee just wouldn’t get that joke, since she is programmed to seek out only “Ecologically Realistic Rewards“!

Up Close And Personal

Thames Hive: Brood Frame
Up Close And Personal : Thames Hive

The first inspections of 2013 in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary took place in the balmy evening sunshine on Thursday 25th April 2013.

Abbey Hive

Queen Bee On Brood - Abbey Hive
Abbey Hive – Queen Bee

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.

     Thames Hive  

Queen Marking - Crown Of Thorns
Thames Hive – Queen Marked Yellow

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.            

  Shard Hive

Shard Hive - Drone Brood Fron DLQ
Shard Hive – Domed Cappings Of Drone Brood

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 !