The Adventures of a Novice Beekeper

Still Beekeeping

Despite some really rubbish and lackadasical work on my part, the colony is still thriving. No idea how, really, but as Dr Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Following last year’s crisis of confidence, followed by the rediscovery of said confidence, the bees and I staggered on together. I totally failed to keep up with my weekly inspections, but fortunately the bees were happy with their queen and saw no need to swarm. I did remember to chuck a couple of supers on top and I eventually harvested some honey. I say eventually, because I decided that this year I really should use my own excluder instead of borrowing one (and then forgetting to give it back for about a year).

An excluder, incidentally, is a special board that you insert between the brood box and the supers and acts as a kind of osmotic device. After a few days, everyone’s back in the brood box and your supers are free of bees. If I remember this year, I’ll put up a picture of mine when the time comes to go through it all again. Anyway, the point is that, having decided to use my own excluder, I had to assemble it myself and that entailed sending off for things and doing stuff with wood. I am not good at this kind of thing. So this added a delay to the proceedings, and that meant in the end that (a) I was very late harvesting the bees and (b) I was also late commencing the autumn Varroa treatment.

I would love to tell you how late I was with all this, but my beekeeping log (a sketchy Excel spreadsheet) has question marks instead of dates for the key events in question, so I can’t. (Did I mention I was a really rubbish beekeeper?)

So I never got round to applying the Varroa treatment. I did check to see if I could do it in the spring, and it turned out that I could, except I completely forgot I was supposed to be doing this and it’s too late now. I did, however, feed the bees over winter (to avoid the tragic events of 2015/16), although I probably did this later than I should (late in December), not enough (just the once) and with the wrong thing (sugar solution rather than fondant). I did, however, put the mouseguard on this year, which is something, although it turns out now that no-one else I know seems to bother.

Today was the day of the first inspection, and the only conclusion I can draw is that the bees have basically decided that if you need to get something done, you might as well do it yourself. Basically, this is what I found:

  • Food stores OK
  • Plenty of brood, in a nice pattern
  • No evidence of Varroa
  • Queen plodding around and looking healthy
  • No queen cells

I feel I’m essentially a spectator here. Still, nice work, ladies. Nice work.

Two Years Later…



So this is what happened next.

The bees staggered on through 2015 without actually producing any spare honey. Or indeed, as it turned out, enough honey to keep them going through the winter.

But come spring 2016, I inspected the bees for the first time and found that they were no longer with us. As my beekeeping friend remarked, “They are all in good health, apart from the fact that they are dead.” (I should point out that he’s a retired anaesthetist, so he has an unusually technical approach to the concept of life and death.) In other words, the good news was that there was no outbreak of disease. The bad news was that the poor buggers had probably starved to death. The worse news was that if I’d supplemented their feed properly over the winter, they might have survived.

So I was now presented with a choice: do I get some more bees and try again or do I give up?

Tempting as it was to pack it all in, I have a mild aversion to that kind of thing, even when it is the most sensible course of action.

So I ordered another colony, which I duly picked up in mid-July. I decided to take the opportunity to move the hive a bit nearer the house, so I might feel more inclined to pay more attention to it. One of the occupants took the opportunity thus presented to sting the adorable Mrs Hiveminder, which wasn’t a promising start. Indeed, the whole hive seemed particularly aggressive, and I shied away from any attempt at a proper inspection. I wondered once again if perhaps I really should give this whole thing up, but on reflection I decided to see what happened once the winter was over.

This time, I did at least keep them properly fed over the cold months and when spring 2017 arrived they were still relatively thriving.

They still seemed aggressive, though, and I had to abort my first inspection because I felt unsafe.

I wondered if the problem was me, however. It had been so long since I’d last gone into a hive that I’d possibly forgotten what it felt like to have a whole load of bees buzzing around you. So I went along to one of the monthly “Around My Hive” meetings that the local group holds. These are excellent events, even if it’s only to look at the odd bunch of folk gathered there are realised that you have at last found your own people. There’s also cake. I like cake.

What I found at the meeting was that I wasn’t scared of bees after all. I inspected the frames as they were passed around to each of us and I didn’t freak out as I’d expected to. I felt fine.

Emboldened by the re-discovery of my indomitable courage, the next day I went back to my own hive for another try. It was a terrifying experience. Once again, I gave up without pulling out a single frame.

This was not good, and once again I wondered about giving up. But the thing was, I’d really enjoyed that AMH meeting. It was fun listening to everyone talking about all the problems they were having with their bees and it was nice to feel part of such a pleasant, eccentric community. The cake was good, too.

So I asked my retired anaesthetist friend to come and take a look, so that perhaps we could consider re-queening with a less aggressive monarch (hive policy comes from the top – change the queen and the behaviour of the entire colony will change overnight, apparently).

Of course, what happened is that when we took a look, the bees were perfectly docile. We went through the entire hive together without being remotely bothered. These weren’t angry, aggressive bees after all. They were simply bees who had picked up my fear and reflected it back at me. With a more experienced beekeeper on hand, I felt calm and so they did too.

The final proof came yesterday, when I went in again on my own and everything was still fine. The problem was me all along.

I’m going to give this beekeeping thing another go after all.

And We’re Back…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, winter happened and now we’re back in late spring. Apologies for not keeping you all up to date, but, well, stuff. You know how it is.

Anyway, the colony survived the winter, although I’m not 100% happy with its current state. This may be because I cocked up the feeding regimen over the dark months. Basically, you should feed a colony over winter to keep its feed stores up, generally with fondant (remember when I did this in 2013?)

However, this year, the adorable Mrs Hiveminder said to me  she’d got a load of old fondant icing lying around and did I want to use that instead of buying some special bee stuff?

Of course, being the cheapskate that I am, I said yes, and I duly packed the said icing into the feeder and served it up to my bees.

What I didn’t do was follow things up to find out if they actually bothered eating the stuff.

Turns out bees don’t like old fondant icing.

So when I checked them in April, I found that none of the icing had been touched. To be honest, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the colony swarmed last year and was pretty much queenless for a time, resulting in higher than normal feed stores, I doubt if they would have made it through the winter.

However, they seem to be OK now, although – as I say – not massively lively. I was actually worried when I looked in a week ago that the queen wasn’t laying properly. The brood pattern looked a bit ‘pepper pot’ – lots of empty cells. It looked a bit better today (see picture), so I’m hoping it was just a temporary aberration.

What’s also a bit embarrassing is that I haven’t yet spotted the queen this year. I really need to find her and mark her. Someone’s obviously laying, so she’s there somewhere. But I’m still not good enough at identifying different types of bee yet.

I’m actually quite a rubbish beekeeper really.

The only positive thing I can say is that I’ve definitely worked out how to keep the smoker going. There’s always a bright side, eh?


In case you were wondering (and I’m sure you were), I didn’t just leave that tub of honey festering on the floor of the pantry. Well, actually, I did, but only for a couple of weeks while I got distracted by other stuff. But, finally, last weekend I did indeed get round to bottling it. I bought some nice small (4oz) jars from this place and sterilised them by putting them in a cold oven and then leaving them in there, on newspaper-covered trays, for 20 minutes or so while I raised the temperature to 130o C.

Then I decanted the honey into each of them in turn – an impressively sticky business. I managed to fill 16 and a bit jars – in other words, a grand total of 4lb for this year’s harvest. I’m trying very hard not to compare this with my far more experienced friends in the village who managed to extract around a hundred times that amount. It was, after all, my first year, starting from a small, single colony – and a colony that swarmed halfway through the season, too.


But the most important thing is, of course, that it tastes absolutely gorgeous. There is nothing quite like eating honey produced by your own bees.


Harvest Time

Whoops. Forgot about the blog again.

Right. Where were we?

Last time, I was just about to put a rapid clearer board on my hive, between the main hive and the super, in order to clear the super of bees. This basically allows the bees to come down out of the super but not to go back up, and it was remarkably effective. When I went to pick up the super a couple of days later, I only had to shake half a dozen bees out.

Then I was faced with the problem of extraction. If I had a whole stack of supers, then the best thing to do would be to borrow the local beekeeper group’s centrifuge. However, as I only had a few measly frames in the middle of a single super, it wasn’t worth it, and the best way turned out to be to simply scrape everything off and put it through a double sieve to separate the honey from the wax. During the process, I learnt the first rule of honey harvesting: the bloody stuff goes EVERYWHERE. And, of course, it is very sticky.

Still, here’s what I managed to scrape off:


and here’s what it looked like while I was straining it:


And this is what I ended up with:


So enough for a few jars, anyway, which was all I was aiming at this year (he says). And here’s the wax:


Having done all that, I put the super, still dripping honey, back on top of the hive. This time, however, I put it ABOVE the crown board so they didn’t think it’s part of the hive. That way, the bees will clean it out and take the honey back down into the main brood box.

Once that’s done, I can think about preparing for winter – a little later than I should have done. Just like last year. I really need to be more organised in 2015.

And Is There Honey Still for Tea?

After all the drama of what I like to think of as the Wars of Succession, things have settled down a bit. There is new brood on the way and there is even a small amount of honey in the super. Not a lot of honey, mind – I suspect there will be enough to fill a couple of jars at most – but considering everything that’s happened, it’s a couple of jars more than I was anticipating. To put this into perspective, a full super can usually hold 30lb of honey.

Given that I only have two or three frames’ worth of the stuff to extract, it isn’t going to be worth investing in or borrowing some of the super-cool centrifuge equipment that I was eyeing up. In fact, my beekeeping friends (who are hardcore –  they have about 400lb worth of honey stacked up in their hall) suggested to me that I might be better off just cutting the cells open with a knife and letting it all drain out into a sieve. So thats’ what I’m going to do. There’s every chance I’ll still manage to get every single work surface in the kitchen covered in stickiness, but at least I won’t have to spend a day cleaning out the equipment as well.

One good thing has come out of this week, though. I have finally worked out how to keep my smoker alight. What I did was listen to what one of my other beekeeping friends was saying, and use hessian sacking as my fuel. As it happens, one of our neighbours was getting rid of a whole load of said sacks, and I now have a pretty much endless supply.

And it’s brilliant! Light it before you go near the hive and it’ll still be smoking away long after you’ve finished. In fact, the biggest problem is putting the damn thing out. This is really important, because ever since the new queen took over, my bees have been significantly more aggressive. Dunno if it’s the time of year or just the new regime, but they really do seem to be going for me. They tend to escort me off the premises when I’ve finished too.

The next thing I have to do is borrow a rapid clearer board which basically acts as a one-way valve to clear the super of bees before I take it away to be harvested. I’ll let you know how this goes in due course.

Who’s Queen?

The good news is that the hive is up and running. However, it didn’t quite turn out the way we were expecting. If you remember, in the last exciting episode it turned out that I had somehow mislaid my queen. It happens. So my friends and mentors generously provided me with my new Good Queen Gwendoline, who they placed in a cage wedged between a couple of the frames, thus:



See her there? Actually, you won’t, because this picture was taken when I checked a couple of days later, by which time the worker bees in the hive had managed to release her. However, it probably wasn’t a particularly happy moment when she emerged from captivity, because it now turns out that there was already a new queen on the throne after all. Chances are, last time we checked, she was out looked for lurve, as virgin queens are wont to do.

But you can’t have two queens in the same hive, so Gwendoline had to go. When we inspected a week later, there was no sign of her at all. Picture her now, emerging from her confinement and breathing the air of freedom for the first time, only to be pounced on by the mob and mauled to death. It’s a brutal world in there.

The new queen, however, is laying already and quite prolifically too. Society in the hive is slowly returning to normal. Gwendoline? No. Don’t remember her at all.

Who’s queen, eh?


The First Setback

And it was all going so well.

The last time but one I inspected the bees, there were a few queen cells there, which indicated that something was afoot. Exactly what was afoot wasn’t entirely clear. It’s hard enough to read someone’s mind at the best of times, and trying to read a hive mind is damn nearly impossible. For some reason, the bees had decided to create a new queen. This could be for one of three reasons:

  1. There were too many bees in the hive and they wanted to swarm (unlikely because there weren’t enough bees yet).
  2. They weren’t impressed with the existing queen and they wanted to supersede her (unlikely because she was less than a year old and she seemed to be breeding OK).
  3. They just fancied doing it for shits and giggles.

Either way, the correct procedure to adopt in this case is to create an artificial swarm. This is a moderately complicated procedure which involves moving the existing queen to a new hive and then letting the new queen emerge from one of the cells in the existing hive.

The flaw in this is that at the time I still didn’t have a second hive. So I took the alternative approach, which is to break down the queen cells, as described in my last post but two.

Then I bought a second hive and awaited the arrival of the next set of queen cells, which duly turned up by the time the next inspection came along. The problem was that according to the information I had, you needed to have at least one of the cells to be uncapped. We’ll come onto what that means some other time, but basically the idea is that you can actually see into the cell so that you can make sure you really have got a queen on the way. Unfortunately, all three of my new queen cells were capped, so I panicked and destroyed them again.

This was possibly a bad move, because when I inspected them again yesterday, queenie had moved on anyway, to judge from the complete absence of new brood. Worse, there didn’t seem to be any new queen in there either, although there was a new (empty) queen cell. So I was now in the position of having a hive full of queenless bees. Not a good position to be in at all.

So I contacted my friends who live in the village and who know everything there is to know about bees (and who, frankly, I should have consulted when I was considering doing the artificial swarm in the first place). They came over and their first remark when I took the lid off the hive was to the effect that there clearly wasn’t a queen there, to judge from the agitated behaviour of the colony. We went through the hive slowly looking for a new queen anyway, but no-one seemed to have any interest in claiming the throne. We also, incidentally, found a wax moth larva and a varroa mite, along with one or two bees with stunted wings that didn’t look too healthy. That would have to be treated in due course, but the lack of a queen was the more important issue.

At this point, one of my friends took a small plastic box out of his pocket and introduced me to a queen that he’d just happened to have brought along with him. (He called her Gwendoline, incidentally, but I think he calls all his queens that.) If we were lucky, we might just be able to get the colony to accept Queen Gwen in time before the workers started to lay eggs themselves. This was definitely something to avoid, because it cocks up the pheromone balance completely and makes it damn nigh impossible for a new queen to be accepted at all.

So Queen Gwen is now sitting perched in her plastic cage, with a load of fondant stuffed in one end. Once the worker bees have eaten their way through that to release her, with any luck she will have had time to spread her own pheromones through the hive and be accepted. Either that, or they will simply kill her as soon as she gets out. And if there is a new queen already in the hive, then they’ll have to slug it out to see who’s boss. I’ll take another look in a couple of days to see if she’s got out, but nothing more. For some reason, if you go for a full inspection just after you’ve introduced a new queen, they have a tendency to kill her for no good reason.

I’ll let you know what transpires.

“30,000 of those were bees”

This is nothing to do with my bees, but it is bee-related and it made me laugh. According to this (really rather serious) report on a Surrey-based news site, Edinburgh is the worst place in the country for animal thefts.

As you might expect, Surrey is a relatively crime-free area.

According to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act, there were 118 reports of stolen animals to Surrey Police.

However, things are far worse north of the border.

The figures for Surrey are much higher than some areas – such as the City of London with only one reported dog theft – and considerably lower than other forces in the UK, with 30,593 animal thefts in Edinburgh –

Sorry, what? Oh, hang on…

– although 30,000 of those were bees.

Ah. As you were.

More on my bees in the next post. I’ve just acquired a new hive, just in case they feel like getting ready to swarm. And that’s where the real fun starts.

Not My Swarm

Holidays are an awkward time for beekeepers. The thing is, it takes around nine days to produce a queen, so if you’re going away for a week or so, you need to time your final inspection before departure to perfection if you’re going to avoid the embarrassment of coming back to find that your precious colony has decided to swarm.

I didn’t.

I did manage to carry out a full inspection on Sunday June 1st and all seemed fine and dandy, although I didn’t actually spot the queen herself (but that happens). I also intended to give the colony a quick once-over on June 4th, the morning of our day of departure. Unfortunately, it was raining quite hard, which meant that all the bees were at home instead of out foraging. And you know what it’s like when everyone in the family is stuck in the house: you tend to get a bit tetchy.

And my bees were in a truly horrible mood. I didn’t have time to get the smoker going – not that it would have been much use, because as soon as I opened up the hive, they went into full attack mode. I didn’t get stung (thanks to my nice new gauntlets) but I did end up covered in angry bees. Discretion seemed to be the better part of valour, so I hastily put the lid back on and went off to finish packing.

So I went away with a potential time bomb ticking in my hive.

We got back on June 11th, and within an hour of our arrival, our neighbour across the road dropped in to say that he had a swarm of bees in one of his trees, and were they mine? My heart sank. Then my mind turned to practicalities. I have a rough idea of how to collect a swarm, but I’ve never tried it and in any case I don’t have the equipment to do so. But fortunately some mutual friends of ours who are far more experienced at this kind of thing agreed to come over the next day.

So on June 12th, they duly went off to collect the swarm, while I went to take a look in my hive, dreading what I might find. Or rather what I might not find.

Oddly enough, everything looked fine. I didn’t manage to spot the queen, but I’d missed her before, so I wasn’t too bothered about that. Moreover, the colony seemed to be around the same size as before. So I began to feel a bit more hopeful.

By this time, the swarm collection was done, and it was agreed that we should all take another look inside my hive. The first thing they noticed on seeing my bees was that they were a different colour altogether from the ones in the swarm. They also noticed some new eggs, which I hadn’t picked up on. And then finally one of them spotted my queen, still there and still laying.

So, much to my amazement, I still have my bees. And if you’re interested in taking on a swarm of unknown provenance, do get in touch. I may know some people who can help you out…

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