The Queen is dead; long live the queen!

During a routine inspection of our hives at the apiary yesterday morning, the Queen was found on the hive floor. She was expired, bereft of life, shuffled off this mortal coil, resting in peace; in short, an ex-Queen.

Now these things happen occasionally; bees – even queens – aren’t immortal after all. It was particularly bad timing, however, in the run-up to Harrow-in-Leaf and the many preparations still to be made for that show. With no sign of any new queen cells it did, however, present an opportunity for a job that’s been on the cards for a while. We had a nuc-box (a half-size colony) of bees in the garden that were waiting for combining with a larger hive. It was queen-right and, though large for the nuc box it was in, too small to over-winter confidently. (Yes, it’s only August, but this is the time to prepare the colonies for winter!)

So on return from the orchard the frames from the nuc were moved into a full-size brood box, and come dusk were carefully taped up and driven to the orchard. There, the two brood boxes were placed on top of each other, with a couple of sheets of newspaper between. Doing this introduces the colonies to each other gently; they become accustomed to the sounds and smells of the other and are less likely to be aggressive once they finally eat through the paper and the colonies unite.  We normally move bees at dusk; late enough that virtually all the flying bees have returned to the hive (we don’t want them coming back to the hive location and finding their home has gone) but early enough that there’s still enough light for us to work safely.

Time will tell how successful the combination will be; and also why the queen died in the first place. She’s currently safely in the freezer for later post-mortem examination…

Mounting tension…

Harrow in Leaf

Harrow in Leaf

Just over a week to go before Harrow in Leaf and the tension is mounting…  every year we seem to enter more classes. Some of the entries can be prepared in advance, but there will always be lots that has to be left to the weekend itself.


Meanwhile every available space at home is filling up with jars, display frames, bottles, candles and much more besides. (I could tell you what but, before the show, then I’d have to kill you.)

First of the 2014 season

Well, it’s been collected, stored, capped, matured, taken out of the hive, uncapped, spun, strained and bottled. Labels just need to go on and then it’s ready for sale.

Honey for sale! Jarred up, just awaiting labels

Honey for sale! Jarred up, just awaiting labels

DIY beekeeping

Some of the “beginner’s” books on beekeeping I’ve seen do mention, almost in passing, that some ability at woodworking may be advantageous to the prospective beekeeper.


Having originally started with some old hives from a retiring beekeeper, it was a little while before we were introduced to the nitty-gritty of building frames and hives. However at the peak of this summer’s nectar flow, with colonies growing and needing more space, it’s all we can do to keep pace. Over the past few days we’ve assembled a brand new brood box and lid, built a new floor from scraps, put together a dozen new frames and rebuilt a dozen or so more.

The new kit is using Thorne’s products, and thankfully even their budget and “seconds” kits are precision-cut and usually fit together very tightly. Even so there’s a fair bit of work involved; every single frame requires eleven carefully-positioned nails and, for the brood boxes and supers, we discard the supplied nails and screw together for extra longevity.


Even once assembled, everything (except the frames) needs a coating of wood preserver.

Of bees and goldfish

Not normally associated with each other, but they nearly had a close encounter tonight.

We’d had two swarm calls today, from about a quarter of a mile apart in North Watford. Doreen checked on one at lunchtime and found a lot of flying bees but no big swarm. We went back tonight suspecting the two calls may actually be the same swarm. Very few bees left at the first site, which was in a tree by the road, so we went on to deal with the larger one first.

Dangling directly over the pond

This was in someone’s garden, hanging under a wooden pagoda directly over the middle of a small raised pond. The couple kindly provided a couple of stout planks to put across the pond, but that left very limited headroom below the beam from which the bees were hanging. One false move and Doreen could have ended up with the fishes, or alternatively knocked the whole swarm down with her head. However she managed to sweep them gently into a nuc box, we scooped up the few left over and waited a few minutes as they walked into the nuc where they could smell the queen’s pheromones. In the end it all went according to plan with a decent sized swarm collected.

Hanging from the beamWith one swarm in the nuc in the boot of the car, we then drove the short distance to the other swarm, where only a few dozen bees remained. Talking to some local residents it became clear that another beekeeper had collected the main swarm, including the queen, at the weekend; what we found now was just a cluster of scout bees that had been left behind. They were quickly gathered into a second nuc and, once home, the handful of queenless bees were introduced to the larger swarm.

The combined colony is being rehomed now to another HBKA member as we just don’t have room for any more!

Dumbledore in Watford

No, not Albus Dumbledore who “lives” a couple of miles up the road at the Warner Brothers’ Studio, but dumbledore the bumblebee.  (Dumbledore is an old English term for a bumblebee).

Most beekeepers are almost exclusively concerned with the one species of bee that makes honey in commercially-viable quantities, the aptly-named HoneyBee (Apis mellifera). However we’re all familiar with Bumblebees, of which there are about 250 species in the UK. Ranging from rather small insignificant bees, to real bruisers of things that can measure an inch long, we see them in their ones and twos and often they are out and about at the end of winter, long before the first honey bees emerge from their winter hives. Bumblebees live in colonies just like honeybees, with a queen, workers and drones. They do store nectar in the hive, but don’t process it into true honey.

The bumblebee, however, can be quite a character and it can be fun to spot and try and identify the different species. Beekeepers are often amateur entomologists too and can’t help but take a healthy interest in anything bee-related.  The “general public” too often find the humble bumble quite cute and endearing, but nonetheless when they get in the way and become inconvenient, look for ways to “deal” with the problem. Being on the “swarm list” we sometimes get calls from people concerned about bees in their garden / shed / loft / chimney and one of the first checks to make on the initial phone call is to verify whether the problem relates to bees or wasps (if the latter, we refer them to the council or a commercial pest controller). If bees, we need to establish if they’re honeybees or bumble bees. Most people can tell the difference but it’s fairly easy to take a description over the phone and be pretty sure.

When we get a call relating to bumble bees, the bees have usually been there for quite some time, and it’s always difficult to remove a well-established colony of any species. However occasionally we get a call that we can do something about, and this happened just a couple of weeks ago. Someone called in with a bumblebee problem; they were nesting in an old bird box, but their flight path was directly over a children’s trampoline and with the warmer weather, there was a risk of a child / bee interaction which could be nasty for both parties.  Since the bumblebee nest was already very well contained within the birdbox, we made an exception to our usual “no bumbles” rule and that evening, after dark, the box was carefully removed from the tree, wrapped in a sheet and brought home.

In retrospect we should have sited them a little further back on the roof; where they are now, they’re a navigational hazard when accessing the shed or garage. But they’re a nice novelty and very welcome here, even if they will never fill the honey bucket and pay their way.

Welcome, Dumbledore and friends.

Into the melting pot

Most people have heard of beeswax but may not be too sure what it is, how it’s made, or what it’s for.

Worker honey bees secrete wax from glands under their abdomen, and given the thousands of bees in an active colony and enough time, substantial quantities can be produced. The bees use it as a building material, crafting it into the familiar hexagonal “honeycomb” arrangements that so efficiently make up individual containers for pollen, honey or larvae.

To make life easier for the beekeepers, bees-wax most people “prime” their frames with a sheet of preformed wax that even has slight bumps to help the bees with their geometry. This “foundation” wax comes in standard size sheets and slots into the wooden frames, encouraging the bees to fill the corners of the frames and maximise storage space.

Combs of honey are “capped” with a layer of wax when they’re at the right consistency, and when the beekeeper extracts the wax the comb is usually damaged beyond re-use by the bees. However brood comb is cleaned out by the bees after a young worker emerges, can can be re-used. Eventually however the comb becomes worn, damaged and discoloured. To ensure good quality, healthy comb beekeepers periodically replace old comb, both brood and honey. The simplest way to do this is to use a “solar extractor”. This is a simple, eco-friendly device like a tiny greenhouse. Trapping the sun’s heat under glass the temperature can quickly rise and melt the wax of any old frames placed inside. It trickles down inside and collects in a tray at the bottom. Then the beekeeper can remove it and either use it directly themselves, or sell it back to the foundation manufacturer who will filter, clean and sterilise it before re-forming it into foundation.

The recent hot weather has provided ideal opportunity to melt down some old comb, clean up the wooden frames and refit new foundation. This is just another of the many “housekeeping” tasks that can take quite a time but helps to ensure that our bees stay healthy, and achieves that in an eco-friendly way without any waste.

Winter into March

The bees – like all of us – had a very wet winter; damp is more of a problem than cold for the bees, but four of our colonies survived through to March, ready for the spring challenge. Sadly one of the hives rather suddenly declined in activity and it was soon apparent that not only had the colony not survived, but it seemed all the bees had gone, too. Later we found damage on one side of the wooden hive marking the point a persistent woodpecker had attacked the hive. It had eventually managed to make a small hole right through, and whilst not large enough to get at the bees, the damage would have caused a stream of bees to leave the hive to try and defend it. Presumably the woodpecker was able to pick them off one by one as they emerged, to the point the hive was no longer viable. We’d protected the hives in the orchard with chicken wire (a few inches away from the hive) to deter woodpeckers, but hadn’t done this for the garden colonies. A lesson learned for next year.

The end of March brought warmer weather and an end to the soaking, and in the colonies the queens were laying well. With April underway two hives are doing well however one has a queen laying eggs in an erratic fashion. We keep notes from each hive inspection, so that we can monitor behaviour and spot trends both across all the hives and within each colony. Hopefully that way we can identify problems early and take action to resolve them. For now this “erratic” queen will just be watched extra closely!

Its great to be beekeeping again watching the pollen arrive on the bees back legs. Some workers arrive completely covered from head to foot in bright yellow pollen. The workers have also started to collect the nectar from the spring flowers and catkins available in the area.

Call me the Drone

Well, after a well-meaning start three years ago (is it really that long?) it seems we never really got into blogging about beekeeping. It can be a time-consuming hobby and we never found time to write up our thoughts about what we’d been up to.

Now we have a fresh resolve and a new approach. Instead of the beekeeper blogging, the beekeeper’s husband (me) will do it… Not that I have much time either!

So here we are, first post on the relaunched blog. I’ll be writing about things from a slightly different perspective, as an interested bystander. Hopefully I’ll get my facts right (I’ll run the posts past the beekeeper first!). As ever, if you have specific questions do ask, if I don’t know the answer I know a beekeeper who does!


The bees have an (ap)idea…

I was going to blog about having brought the apidea back from Mother’s house into the garden; but first thing this morning we found the bees weren’t too happy in there and had decided to take matters into their own hands wings.  So there’s more to write about now!

The apidea is a micro-hive typically used during queen-rearing. It’s just like a normal hive, with room for some removeable combs, space for some food, and adjustable entrance. We’d populated it a couple of weeks ago with a friend’s queen that had been injured and was thought to be on her last legs. Put in the apidea with some young worker bees from one of our garden hives, we thought we’d give her a chance and see if she would survive. Since some of the workers would simply leave the apidea and return to their “home” hive if left in the garden, the apidea was taken the few miles to mother’s house where the bees would not know where they were, and would have only the apidea to return to.

Last Monday, when the workers had had long enough to permanently forget their original home, it was time to bring the apidea back and see how they were getting on. Sealed up for the short journey home, they sounded lively and not a little cross, and we gave them a day or two to settle in the garden before disturbing them. On inspection there was no evidence of the queen at all; she must have perished and been ejected from the apidea by the workers. The next plan, then, was to find some queen cells from another hive and implant them to the apidea, letting the workers raise a brand new queen for themselves. But in the interim, with only a tiny amount of comb in the micro-sized hive, they needed some additional food. We put in some candy yesterday and were surprised and very pleased to find the queen had not perished, but was indeed fighting fit and laying eggs.

The apidea colony trying to swarm

The apidea colony trying to swarm

Which brings us to this morning’s sight – the contents of the apidea all over the front of the little hive, clearly trying to swarm; but with the queen’s wings clipped she wasn’t going anywhere and the workers weren’t going to leave without her. She’s clearly such a strong layer that she’s used up all the space in the comb with eggs and needs a larger home. So later today the tiny colony will be moved into a “nuc” box (still smaller than a normal hive, but with 5 full-sized brood frames). Her three apidea combs will be transplanted too and, with her hopefully now faithful workers, she should be able to build up a decent colony. We’ll let you know how she gets on.