Follow our progress running the nursery, watching wild bees, keeping honey bees and creating our own bee-haven in south Oxfordshire

Two queens a-laying (in one hive)

We have found this a very tricky season for queens; beyond all the normal swarming issues, we have also had hives that have superceded their queens without any sign of swarming and twice had hives that suddenly are found to be queen is missing and there are no queen cells to replace her. Then, in mid August we suddenly found that one of the hives has two queens happily both laying! We had merged the last of the swarms into one of the main hives and still had the two brood boxes stacked on top of each other but had reached the stage where after the colonies had merged we have put the queen excluder back over the main brood box and were ready to remove the top one. This is when we discovered that we had a queen in each box - not that I could find either one but there were eggs both above and below the queen excluder.  I have read about such things but its still very strang to see.

There has been so much turnover of queens that 3 of our 5 hives are only just big enough to survive winter and have not produced any honey in the supers but they are on commercial brood frames and have plenty of honey in there. We will keep monitoring them are now hoping that all the hive settle down in time for winter or we will have to do some final merging.



Collecting bee swarms can be tricky

We have kept bees for three years but this is the first year that we have collected swarms. We did not advertise the fact or go out of our way to find them but there were so many swarms in our area (including a few of our own) that we just kept finding them or being told about them.  We have now collected 7 in total; a couple have been kept as new colonies, one offered back to a clear 'owner' and the rest merged in with our existing stock with mixed results. The trickiness comes in two elements: 1. Capturing them from wherever they have chosen to land and 2. Then deciding what to do with them.

The picture above shows me attempting to collect the last and most tricky challenge, in the fork of an ivy-bound tree, above a stream and balancing on a plank of wood. Not ideal!  And the queen was so wedged into the V of the tree trunk that it took 4 attempts over 12 hours to scoop her out and get her into a nuc. Each previous time the swarm regrouped back in the tree within a hour of being scooped out. Its a miracle that they survived. The queen went on to prove to be a good and calm layer and we have just attempted to use her to replace a very aggressive queen.  I hope she has survived that too. Next instalment coming soon.....

Honey harvest June 2012

Its been a terrible spring for the bees; we have now had two spells of really wet weather that have kept the bees shut inside the hives. The result is that they have been eating the honey to survive rather than producing it. We have been checking our honey levels for the last few weeks because we are in an area of oilseed rape which means we need to remove spring honey before its sets like concrete in the frames. Each time we checked, the frames were only partially capped so we kept waiting for them to make progress. This week we began to see signs that the rape honey was setting so we could wait no longer and took what we could. Sure enough, by the time we removed the bees from the frames and got it into the spinner, about a third of each frame was going cloudy.  In this picture you can see that it is creamy looking rather than clear, showing that it is already slightly crystalised. We didn't waste much time getting it into jars.

Net result: 25 jars from 6 hives - not great we also need to consider that several of our colonies are new or recovering from swarming and have not yet produced much honey.  Hopefully by September all the hives will be settled and we will have had enough warm weather to make them productive.

Update from the bees - early June 2012

It has been a very weird season: first March was hot and dry which encouraged the bees to expand in numbers. Then it was wet in April which meant that the bees were all shut inside the hives, having to eat thier way through thier honey stores and develop a strong desire to swarm as they were all crammed in together, (and swarm they did!).  May then allowed them to get back to normal and go about thier business of gathering nectar and making honey but the stores are  still much lower than they would normally be at this time.

We live in rural south Oxfordshire where oilseed rape is a major crop. This means that we normally do a spring harvest to take off the rape honey as soon as the yellow fades from the fields and to ensure we take it before it sets in the comb.  But its been wet again and for the last two weekends we have checked the honey levels and found that most of the frames are still only 80% full and only partially capped. This weekend we found signs that the rape honey is already beginning to set in some of the frames, even if they are only half full. Not good.  We will plan to take the honey this week whether it is capped or not.  Any suggestions welcome.

Oh, nearly forgot: this picture shows our new polystyrene hive which we got from Paynes Southdown Bee Farm. Its is about 60% of the cost of a wooden one so we thought we would give it a try.


Bee update: collecting swarms and feeding

This week, in between all the rain showers, we found two swarms.  We have provided the world with several swarms but never actually seen any before let alone had to deal with them so this was a big excitement. I am sure you have noticed that it has rained every day for the last 10 days but prior to that the weather was warm and fine. Our bees, and therefore presumably everyone else's too, had been booming in the fine March weather and beginning to make queen cells.  With both of the swarms we found, they must have been waiting to emerge and then took their chance during the brief periods of sun between the showers.  In each case they were hanging on the outside of one of our hives...which of course made them rather easy to find.

For the first swarm we had a spare nuc box so they went straight into a serviceable temporary home. The other had so spent a few hours in a cardboard box until we could borrow another nuc box.

Handling them was very strange. We swept them into the box gently with a bee brush and it felt like moving a viscous liquid, like custard, rather than bees. Also, they were strangely still but that might have been the cold.

Having already taken two artificial swarms to stop our hives swarming, we were not really expecting - or stocked - for another two. But they are with us now so that means 6 colonies to which need support in building up the wax. Now we have received the email from the BBKA advising that the weather has been so bad for so long that the bees might starve. Luckily we were feeding anyway but will be more vigilant now.

Bees moving into Rosybee site

Until today our bees have been in their original site near our house. But yesterday, when we checked them, we found queen cells  so we swung into action and today we attempted to take an artificial swarm.  We are completely useless at finding the queen so our method is to move the primed queen cell and a few other frames of brood into the new hive. The frames we took where loaded with bees, which is great for the new colony, but we have to hope that the old queen was not amongst them - it was very hard to check.  Then we wrapped packing tape round the new hive and drove it a mile down to Rosybee.  We read a trick for persuading the foraging bees not to fly home to their old hive. Apparently you put a tree branch in front of the hive to make the look around when they fly out and say to themselves "Eh up, that wasn't there before. Oh, I see, we're in a different field. I'd better remember that and come back here".  Or that is the theory at least.

We have given them sugar syrup to encourage them to draw up the wax on the new frames and now we have to wait and see if a queen emerges and mates. I dont like this stage, when the hive is queen-less but hopefully in about 2 weeks time we will know.

Update 2 days later: yesterday we took a second artificial swarm and repeated the process. It is already apparent that the first hive has retained a lot of 'flying' bees so it looks like the simple process of putting a branch across the front entrance has worked.  Great!! and bang goes the myth that you cannot move bee less than 3 miles.

Bees foraging for pollen - early March

At this time of year the main bee food supply comes from trees. The bulbs are still going but trees offer a much greater volume of pollen an nectar; a mature willow tree in March/April can provide as much food as  an entire acre of wildflowers in June. Pollen is the priority for the masses of new brood the queen is laying to quickly swell the colony size up from the c. 10 thousand that made if through the winter to 50 thousand or more which make up a healthy productive hive.

I have been studying our bees and the main forage sources they are collecting now are:

  • grey willow which provides this very bright yellow pollen (see picture)
  • wild cherry - which has a caramel coloured pollen (centre bee in picture)
  • grape hyacinth where they are collecting both pollen and nectar

It has been warm (minimum high of 12 degrees) so the bees have been out every day and are streaming in and out of the hive with at least 100 at the entrance at any one time. The bright yellow willow pollen is easily seen from a distance but the other more muted colours are hard to spot; we will see it in the cells on the next inspection.

As most of the trees finish flowering, by mid April, the herbaceous ground level plants start - like natures batten handover.

The new apiary at Rosybee

Over the last couple of weeks we (mainly my husband Paul) have been getting our new apiary ready. Our bees currently reside in a field near our house owned by a local farmer but now that we have our own site and will be filling with masses of bee-food (flowers) we want to migrate them. Its fantastic to be able to put the hives wherever we want and create the ideal conditions:

  • South-east facing so the hives get the morning sun and encourage the bees out when the flowers have maximum nectar
  • Sheltered by mature trees to the north and west to give shelter
  • On the edge of our new orchard corner to provide some light shade when the (heritage) apple trees grow
  • A nice level area for us to work in and manage
We have laid down some membrane, with paving stones to provide a solid footing for each hive and wood chips on top to keep the grass down. This should produce a practical and low maintenance area.

We will have up to 6 hives - we dont really want more than that as we dont have time with all the other aspects of the business to run - and will initially stock some new hives with artificial swarms. Then at some stage we will be brave and move the original colonies.

With the new hives we have chosen to go for commercial brood boxes as this should reduce future swarming tendencies. They are cedar too; lovely and clean and posh bought from Paynes Bee Farm

The bees are fine - first full hive inspection of the year

So nice to see them again; its like catching up with old friends! This picture shows them just finishing up their old sugar syrup (see the white crystals in some of the cells) and cleaning up the cells ready to receive this years honey. We have 3 hives and all of them are fine: several sides of brood and eggs spotted in each. Plenty of new small bees too so generally they seem to be thriving.  Two have almost used up all of their winter stores but the third and biggest colony still had quite a lot left.

Although its better to have too much than not enough food, this is now taking up valuable honey storage space.  However we are planning to create a couple of extra colonies from artificial swarms this year (if we can avoid the natural swarming that blighted last season) and therefore some extra food to recycle in new colonies will be very useful.


Checking the bees in February

Last Friday the temperature touched 10 degrees so I took the chance to check on the bees.  I hate beekeeping in Winter as I always worry that they are starving or being attched by something or dying of disease or, or anything....just because I cant see them and be reassured they are fine. I had noticed recently that one of the hives was lighter than the others and buzzing. In my mind I couldnt decide what that meant: was one hive cold and running out of food while the others were fine or did that mean that the noisy one was ok and the silent ones were dead!

Anyway, I went armed with fondant to top up thier food supplies but what I found was three happy hives with varying amounts of food but all with plenty. In the end I decided it was better not to give them extra food and to let them use up the hard old stores in the super so that they will have plenty of space to fill with fresh honey.

If they all make it through to spring we will have increase our hive numbers from 2 to 3.

Checking the bees mid-winter

Over the Christmas period it was so mild that the temperature rose above 10 degrees on several days so we decided we would take a peek and see how the ladies were doing.  So we made our plans and just waited till the wind dropped. The plan was to check food supplies and also administer the dreaded oxalix acid- as per BBKA news advice - before they start laying and the larvae might be damaged. We ended the season with three hives but one was a merge of two that were in trouble and we knew they hadnt put away as much sugar syrup as the other two. Sure enough the hive was lighter and as soon as we lifted off the roof we could see lots of them coming out of the crown board. Apparently this is the classic sign of hungry winter bees; they leave the wamrth of the bee-ball in the brood box and search the entire hive for food.  Actually they did still have some fondant but we have them another couple of blocks placed in the eke directly above the brood box.

The other two hives were behaving as you would wish; all quiet when you open the lid and hunkered down in the brood box.  Hopefully all  three colonies will make it through winter ok.


Checking the bees are ready for winter

This will be our second winter so we feel a little less anxious about saying goodbye to the bees for winter than I remember feeling last year.  We have gone through the checklist:

  • end August - removed any honey and gave them back the combs to clean up (placing them above the crown board)
  • early September - put 2 units of Apiguard into each hive using an eke above the brood box
  • end September feed with lots of sugar syrop

I remember last year finding it very difficult to know how much sugar syrop but this year BBKA news helpfully published carefull guidelines in their 'notes for beginners'. You need to aim for them to have about 40lbs/18kgs for honey each. This is equivalent to just over a completely full super or a half full brood box plus some extra in a super.

We are getting better at judging how full a super is by lifting it so we think that 2 of our 3 hives now have enough and the smaller one that we merged late in the season will need some extra fondant.

I also feel quite proud of myself for having found a half day to sort through the bee-shed and deal with the old combs and pack everything away for winter so the moths dont get at it.  I found some comb with solid honey in from last winter that we had kept with the idea of feeding it back to them as winter stores. It must not have been stored right as it had fermented; phewee!! really stinks. Lesson learnt - if you are going to store any honey it must be completely air-tight.

Today, we hope it will be nice enough for the final check. It still seems wierd to visit the hives every week through the season and then suddenly stop. Im not sure I will even get used to the slight feeling of loss.  But on the upside, we are so busy that a few extra hours will be very handy.

Dealing with wasp attacks

During late summer wasps can attack beehives in large numbers causing distress and sometime killing the hive.  We found that this year was particularly bad and found 3  whole nests within a half mile of hives. The problem is apparently caused by the drone wasps which, after mating earlier in the season, really dont have much to do for the rest of summer.  So they roam, like teanage boys do, around looking for trouble and food.  Thier numbers peak around August time before they begin to die off as winter approaches.

Unlike bees that mainly focus on nectar from plants (and honey if they can find it) they will be attracted by anything sweet. This is why you see them in large numbers on rotting windfall fruit. Unfortunately they can smell honey inside the hive so its very common for them to try and get in the front door or any other crack in the hive.

To protect your hive you need to:

  • put the hive doors in place to restrict the area that the bees need to defend
  • make sure that the supers are stacked neatly to ensure there no other ways in
  • avoid feeding with sugar syrup until the worst of the wasps has passed
  • set up traps - see picture - and check them several times per week when the wasps are bad

We find that the simplest trap is a wide neck bottle with a dilute solution of cheap stawberry jam and washing up water; smell of the jam attracts them in and small amount of detergent breaks the surface tension to speed up drowning and make it harder to climb out. This jar probably has 200 wasps in it which were collected in about 3 days this August.  We put one trap out behind each hive and hope that they will distract attention from the front of the hives. Judging by the numbers trapped, they are doing something.



Autumn honey harvest - Aug 11

Its been a tricky year for honey with many months of very dry weather and our novice handling which resulted in maybe 5 swarms from 3 hives.  So since the bumper spring harvest the bees have been either struggling to find food or messing around without mummy to organise them into honey production. With this in mind we didnt expect to get much honey from our 3 hives and we didnt. Thirty jars was all. But it tastes great; very strong flowery flavour. In think its our best yet (not that we can take any credit).

What is also interesting is how different in colour and flavour it is from last autumns honey.  See the comparison in the picture from the far left (this weeks) to far right (last Sept).

The bee inspector pays a visit

  What a delight it was to spend 40 minutes with such a source of experience!

Our hives are registered on Beebase so as any time a Defra Bee Inspector can come round and check that you are not spreading any nasty bee diseases.  So when I got an email from Philip I was a little apprehensive as it feels like you are being checked up on.

He turned up today and promptly started checking through each hive, frame by frame.  Immediately I found I was picking up tips while I watched him handle the frames and the bees. Things like covering retaining the crown board to cover each super as you lift them off the hive.  Apparently they dont like our CO2 as we breath out so the crown board protects them from this as well as keeping them contained and in the dark.

Anyway, we have a been given a clean bill of health but there were a few capped brood cells left in otherwise hatched frames which contained bees without fully formed wings. These were probably varroa damaged. We are therefore under strict instructions to get the honey off the hives asap and put in the apiguard.  Will do.


July update from the hives

So far July has been yet another round of trying to avoid the bees swarming, and failing. The first hive that showed signs of swarming produced 107 queen cells in a single week; we squashed every cell we could find and took an artificial swarm but the probably too late and the queen went.  They have a few remaining queen cells which have now hatched but still no sign of a new queen or laying. We have now added eggs to test if they have a queen or will build another.

The same goes for the new artificial swarm - still no laying so have donated a frame of eggs to focus thier minds.

The other two hives have needed bigger brood spaces; one we have been culling for the eggs in queenless hives and giving them back sheets of foundation to draw up; the other we have raised the queen excluder above the first super and have sacrificed some space was half full of their winter honey stores.

Checking two brood boxes is tedious so I think we will invest in the bigger size national brood boxes for next season.

We have also been feeding some limited amounts of sugar syrup to whatever hives needed to draw up new wax quickly (limited to when I remember to get out there).

As July draws to a close we dont seem to have very much honey laid down and the amount of flower available is rapidly beginning to look autumnal.  The season has been very disrupted by two rounds of swarming after the initial spring honey flow and now I think the priority is ensuring that we have robust colonies to prepare for winter.

If the queenless hives dont recover and have laying queens within the next week I think we will need to recombine. However, the other two hives are currently very full so i am really not sure.

This is only our second season as beekeepers but I suspect these dilemmas are standard part of the job; all advise welcome



107 queen cells in one hive!

Last week I wrote my June hive update stating that all was now calm following the swarming madness of April.  Well, that was clearly tempting fate and only a week later it has all changed again. The good news is that all three of our hives are now laying down honey again.

The bad news is that in one hive, where last week we squashed a few queen cells, this week we found one capped on (we must have missed one) and 107 new queen cells.  Most were just empty cups but quite a few had larvae in.

More worryingly, we couldn't find any eggs - but we did see some very small, 3-day larvae so we are just hoping the queen hasn't vamoosed.

Anyway, even though its now July, we decided to split the hive and force an artificial swarm. There were so many bees that we think the colony can stand it and still settle before winter.

We have both parts of the split colony sugar syrup to help them draw up more wax we will check them again at the weekend so we can see if we have one, two or any queens.


June update from the hives

  After a frantic May with endless worries about losing the queens in swarms, queen cells hatching, more swarms and endless waiting for signs of laying......June has be quite peaceful.

We ended up with one extra hive from artificial swarming, taking our meager total to three.  Two of the three hives had a long period without a queen so it has taken all month for the masses of new brood to hatch and get to the stage of maturity where they can fly and begin produce honey. All that time the baby bees have been eating the winter stores and cleaning up the empty frames we extracted honey from.

The brood production in each hive looks very healthy; in one hive we have 10 frames of brood and so far, no queen cells but they are storing pollen in with the honey so we may need to give them more space.

In the other two, the have space but are both producing queen cells each week. In one, I think they are behind schedule for drawing up wax to provide space to lay - althought they have 5 frames of foundations sitting there - so we are giving them sugar syrup to help with wax production.  The other is just a really large colony which might be trying to split.   It is probably a bit late in the season for an artificial swarm but we can probably be lead by their judgment; so far this year they have been smarter than us!


How the bees play when the queen is away

When our bees were without queens earlier this year (when we carelessly let them swarm) we noticed some interesting behaviors in the hives: 1, aggression: they were not happy at all. Even the most passive of colonies was dive bombing anyone who came within 100 feet of the hives. Almost everyone using the field got stung.  They were particularly aggressive in the evening

2, disorganised behavior in the hive; they undertook the basic jobs that keep the colony alive in the short term, such as raising the brood, but we commonly found them eating the recently laid-down honey stores rather than being out collecting more.

3, weird wax formations;  we also found that the way they raised up wax became uneven and they mixed drone brood cells in with honey stores.  This picture shows how we are now left with some very strong raised wax that they do not want to use for honey stores:

Honey from rapeseed (canola)

Honey from rapeseed has many advantages but, for beekeepers, it is tricky to process.   In this article I am trying to balance the various perspectives: For the consumer

Appearance: The honey is an opaque pale buff/cream colour which is lighter than the supermarket style set honey. (LEFT:light coloured jar next to our darker autumn honey)

Texture: it is a firm honey but not too hard to spread.  It is also a very fine creamy smooth texture as the sugar crystals are very small.

Taste:  it is a mild honey (this varies slightly according to the variety or rapeseed and also what else might be mixed into it) with a very slight but pleasant peppery aftertaste.


For the Beekeeper

Rapeseed is a mixed blessing as the bees can produce quite large quantities of honey in May and June (and this year - 2011 - even in April).  Its always good to have a plentiful source of nectar and pollen to promote healthy productive bee colonies and even better to get lots of honey.

But....and its a big 'but'....beekeepers have to keep a close eye on the honey being produced when it contains rapeseed as it crystalises so readily it will set in the frames making extraction almost impossible.   Most beekeepers empty any capped or half-capped frames at the end of May but if the temperature in the hive drops below 30 degrees the honey can begin to set within 24 hours.   The reasons why the temperature might drop are:

  • reduction in bee numbers keeping the frames warm - possibly because they have swarmed
  • a very cold night reducing the temperature at the top of the hive further from the brood box heat
  • the honey is fully capped so the bees leave it alone to cool as their work is done

You can tell if it is beginning to set by scraping the cappings off a small area of honey cells. If you see that the honey is some of the cells is opaque, its setting. Once it has begun to set there is no stopping it and the race is then on to remove the honey as quickly as possible.

Once extracted, it will set completely in the jars within a few weeks. If you want to keep it clear you need to pasteurise it by heating gently to about 50 degrees centigrade.

For the bees

Rapeseed is great for both nectar and pollen and therefore really boosts brood production.  They will fill any free areas with pollen - sometimes more than they need taking up space that would otherwise be used for laying.

The colony can be so boosted that risk of swarming is much greater so weekly checks for queen cells will be vital from the first sign of rape flowers in the fields.