Inspiring women to learn new skills in a fun environment

Inspiring women to learn new skills in a fun environment

Down on the Platform PDF Print E-mail

Update May 2016


As you will have noticed, this spring has been long and cold, so bees have had a less than brilliant start.

We lost one of our strong colonies over winter – the swarm we collected two summers ago from W.I member Sue White’s garden. We think it may have been the cold spring combined with the long warm Autumn, during which time they were  foraging and wearing themselves out, when they should have been clustered and inactive inside the hive. Winter bees can survive for 6 months by being inactive. Summer bees only live for 6 weeks because they work so hard. The cold spring meant the queen did not come back into lay early enough to keep numbers above the critical mass needed to keep the colony warm. When we opened the hive  we found only a handful of bees left on the comb surrounding the queen and all were dead. The remaining two colonies from last year are now both very small, and one is poorly with bee dysentry and quite lethargic.  We’ve treated it with Hive Clean a sort of tonic and are hoping it will pick up. The other colony is doing better, but has just thrown up two queen cells. We think the colony is  too small to want to swarm, so the other reason for queen cells is that they want to replace the queen. To hedge our bets we’ve split this hive in two. One queen cell in each split will hopefully ensure queen replacement in one and a new queen in a smaller nucleus hive in the other. Now we have to wait and see what happens for a few weeks while this takes place.

There is currently a notifiable bee disease in the Camberley area – European Foul Brood. It affects the larvae which die. A mild case can be treated with antibiotics but often the bee inspector will require destruction of the colony and burning of all the contents of the hive. There isn’t anything the beekeeper can do to prevent their bees becoming infected, which can happen as easily as a healthy bee visiting the same flower  a sick bee has  visited. We therefore have to be particularly vigilant each time we do an inspection, checking for any signs of the disease.

Good news on the honey front from last year – those of you who purchased our clear honey, have been eating an award winning product. We won first prize for it in the Surrey County show and a big silver dish. We won several other prizes too - a 1st for my beehive mosaic, and a honey cake and a photo our son took of a honey bee, which helped to ensure  the cup for the beekeeping association with the most points was re-awarded to our association at Farnham.



Update August 2015

This season has been very different to  last, and uneventful except on two occasions  which I will come to later.

Of our  two  colonies,  only  one  tried to swarm.  There was almost no honey stored  in either hive, probably due to the cool spring, until the start of July, at which point we didn’t think there would be a crop at all. However, the bees made the most of the main nectar flow, and each week another honey box was filled. In the end we totalled  just under 60 lbs of honey, our best yield yet and half of this came from the swarm colony we collected from Sue White’s house last summer.

We carried out  an artificial swarm on B3 using a different method to last year and this time it worked – we didn’t lose our bees and hence, we have more honey. We  treated the hives several times for varroa and this worked well regarding the mites, but may have resulted in several queen supercedures. We kept finding single queen cells in one of the hives, which is not a sign of swarming but of the colony re-queening itself. The type of varroa treatment we used is thought to possibly have this effect. Anyway, we now have  four hives as a result of bees multiplying,  three of which are good and strong. The fourth hive will be combined with one of the others before winter. This is standard practice to make sure all colonies are strong enough to withstand the lower temperatures, and also to stop proliferation of hive numbers year on year. We haven’t had any problems with ants this year – just earwigs.

My husband has made and used to great effect, a solar extractor, which is used to reclaim  wax from used combs.  The wax is tipped into a cheap pair of clean tights, which act as a filter, and the wax melts in the heat of the sun, and drips into a container. See photos. This can then be used for making candles, beauty products or polish etc.

Eventful occasion  number one was collecting a swarm hanging  in a tree in Josephine Wells’ garden. It should have been easy with two long loppers,  two husbands  and myself holding a box for it to drop into. The swarm missed the box unfortunately and what followed was a good example of how not to do this stunt. After about 48 hours and several visits to Josephine’s garden, we did collect some bees  but  the queen wasn’t with them and so the whole thing was a waste of time. Josephine’s husband was a very good sport, gowning up in a bee suit and helping out.

Eventful occasion number two, was when our President Liz came round to collect some  of my mosaic work  and while here asked if she could see the bees. Off we trotted down to the platform where we could see the bees busily coming and going from the hive. This wasn’t adequately exciting for Liz  though, as a request was made to  investigate all the other hives down at the very bottom of the garden. Off we went again down  the steep hill through the woods, to the very bottom. All was going quietly well, until an enthusiastic guard bee decided we shouldn’t be there, and in its efforts to shoo us away, accidentally flew in to Liz’s  hair, and got stuck. There was a lot of head shaking, flapping and  running away, but also some very high pitched buzzing, - we couldn’t  dislodge the bee.  (Also some high pitched shrieking from me - Liz) The answer in such situations (and here’s a tip!)is to thump the bee before it stings you. The question was – should I hit Liz on the head? (visions of law suits ) answer – best not -  safer to let her do it herself! I think Liz was very brave because slapping a bee against your head is counter intuitive, but fortunately it worked.  We  got back to the house, there was no more buzzing and we managed to brush the stunned bee  out  onto the floor. Liz was saved and all was well bar a few jangling nerves; mine as well as hers. Needless to say Liz left rather quickly muttering comments about dangerous hobbies. (I won't be visiting again - Liz).



A year's worth of wax

Wax melting in the solar extractor


Update: April 2015

It’s happened - I’ve  been stung for the  first time. Four years of beekeeping without a sting is pretty lucky. Stings are usually the result of doing something daft and in my case I’m sure it was because I didn’t smoke the hive sufficiently before opening it up. Either that or my bees have ‘Gone African’. They certainly weren’t happy to see us and rather than sensibly closing the hive and walking away, we persevered with our inspection. It wasn’t a bad sting – there was no venom sack left on my glove and the pain went off within a minute or two. I was ready for it though, carrying my mobile in case  I might faint with the shock and be in need of  emergency services. Substantial expletives were  made  to which my husband  eventually said (yawning)“ OK I think we get the general idea, why don’t you go away and take an antihistamine”. So there we are –  a non event, and considering it happened the day before our April  W.I meeting, frustrating that there was no swelling or puncture site to reap sympathy with.

Anyway, the colonies have both survived the winter.  One hive is doing very well - Sue’s swarm from last year, and the other, B3, has shrunk down to something rather small, but hopefully OK. B3 has always been quite defensive, and  not easy to inspect. Due to this, we rather left it alone at the end of last season, which is probably why it isn’t  thriving, or it could just be slow to start. B3 produced  most of last year’s  honey crop  and indeed they are very good at hoarding food – they have even stored the fondant we fed them ‘just in case’ over the winter. I’ve never seen this before. Their reduced numbers now however, make the colony a joy to look after – so much easier to handle. We even spotted the queen and were able to mark her, which is a major hurdle when it comes to swarm control in a few weeks time.

Both hives have a significant varroa problem. This is not good news. Despite treating against the mite as recommended last Autumn, the numbers are much too high. This is occurring elsewhere too,  down at the training apiary, and generally beekeepers are all reporting the same thing.  So we have begun the season by treating with a new product which is allowed for use all year round. The bees don’t like it much, it is based on formic acid and is strong smelling – they all exit the hive and crawl up the front just after you put it in, but it does kill the varroa.

We’re looking forward to the beekeeping year, no escaping swarms and lots of honey.

Photo shows bees drinking


Update: October 2014

Sue’s swarm (see July 2014 blog)has settled down really well  and built itself up to a good size  for winter. We took  spring honey from B2 and found it to be quite different to last summer’s honey – much milder and in my view much nicer. We left B3 alone for much of August because it is so grumpy. It did produce some honey, even though it swarmed. We think the total honey yield this year is about 40lbs, which is more than last year but not very much  when you consider we began the year with three very strong colonies, and therefore should have been more like 120lbs. This is the effect swarming has on honey production, and one of the reasons it is so important to try to prevent your bees swarming. If anyone wants some honey, please email me:

As I write we are preparing  two colonies for winter – checking to see they have enough stores, putting mouse guards on the entrance, and chicken wire round the outside to prevent woodpecker damage.

We set up a tiny nuc a few weeks ago with a  queen the Tilford apiary had spare after combining two smaller hives for the winter. The idea was to keep the queen alive and use her to re-queen B3 next spring, to improve the hive’s character. However, the bees have developed dysentery, so the whole thing will have to be destroyed.

You may recall I saved up tuna cans to use as shoes on the  feet of the hive stands(see Sept 2013 blog) The reason was to prevent ants gaining access to the hives, by pouring oil into the cans. It worked. No ants in any of the hives this year.

We all passed the basic beekeeping assessment in July. My test felt like a farce at times with questions like “What sort of bees are these”? Answer (wrong) “Honey bees” (Ask a silly question??) Correct answer second try – female worker bees. Now I’m thinking about further study and exams to continue to improve my beekeeping skills.

The National Honey Show is on over half term, and  I shall be skep making all day on Halloween, and attending lectures on two other days. We have decided to exhibit our honey at the Tilford apiary show in November, in the novice class. Marks are awarded for clarity, taste and the perfection of the jar it’s in (is life too short?)

Photo shows tuna can anti-ant shoes in operation.

Update: July 2014

Thank you WI member Sue White for helping to save the day. Sue had a  swarm in her front garden, hanging off a tree  about twenty feet above the ground. We went round to see if it was recoverable and set up a bait hive to see if it  could be lured  down.  Twenty four hours later we went back with  full swarm collection kit. The bees were still  in the tree, not interested in the bait hive. Suited and booted we erected a small step ladder, and attached a bucket onto the end of a pole. We explained the plan to Sue and assured her that with a couple of knocks to the branch, the bees would drop off tidily in to the bucket from where they could be poured into the nuc box we had waiting on the lawn. There was a slight look of alarm and disbelief on Sue’s face at this point,  and it was agreed she should watch from the safety of indoors.

As it happened, this swarm had been to bee school and knew exactly what was expected of it. Most of the bees fell into the bucket with the first jolt, and then the rest in dribs and drabs with further shaking of the branch. We tipped the bees into the collection box, put a lid on and waited to see what happened next. If we had the queen, the stragglers would  come down and follow the swarm into the box through the front opening. If we hadn’t got the queen, the bees already in the box would exit back into the tree. Sue ventured out into the garden again with her camera, to catch more of the theatre of  swarm collection. By this time, she was well versed in all manner of bee talk,  names of the bait hive components, nuc and  bee behaviour.  Again we left, leaving the swarm in the box on the lawn, and  returned at dusk, by which time almost all of the remaining bees had found their way into the nuc box. It had been a textbook operation. All we had to do was close the entrance and take them home in the back of the car.

We  have hived the swarm on the edge of our wood, and it is doing extremely well. We have seen the queen and she is laying beautifully and the bees themselves are lovely and gentle and can be inspected without the need for smoke.   Sue has helped to save the day because although we started the season with three strong colonies, one had to be given away, being too feisty for us to manage, one swarmed itself to extinction, and the swarm I collected last month did not have a good queen, and went to laying workers. Laying workers occur when there is no queen pheremone to ‘switch off’ the worker ovaries. The signs are multiple eggs in each cell, some sticking to the sides because workers have a shorter abdomen than the queen, the unmistakable domed appearance of drone brood dotted around and no normal brood pattern. The whole comb resembles a mountain range instead of a nice flat plateau. It is very obvious something is wrong. Only one of our hives - B3 which also swarmed is now queen right again, so we are very pleased to have Sue’s swarm.

July is the start of the main nectar flow, the honey supers are on, so we’ll see what transpires. Our bees will forage mainly on the flowers of sweet chestnut and lime trees nearby, so if we get  honey, it will be darkish in colour (chestnut) and strong in flavour. Last year’s crop was certainly like that.

One note of caution – I recently heard that somebody had tried feeding honey to bees (like feeding the birds?). This is a very bad thing to do – one cannot be sure of the exact source of honey, and some honeys contain spores of very harmful bee diseases. Leaving honey where bees or other flying insects can access it can cause the spread of these diseases.

In the following photographs you can see:

1) swarm in Sue’s tree, 2)bees ‘fanning’ their pheromone on top of the mesh roof of the nuc, once the swarm is mostly in there, telling the others the nuc box is now home 3)Uneven comb where there are laying workers and no queen, in comparison to pic of normal brood in previous blog 4) bees scrambling into the nuc box through small entrance 5) the three of us about to begin action.

Update: May 2014

May has been mayhem in the back garden. Arrrrrrh! Hive B1 threw  out several casts in addition to a primary swarm. Casts are small swarms headed by a virgin queen that for some reason swarms instead of returning from her mating flight to lay eggs and carry on the colony.  Every day we wondered with dread which neighbour would phone to ask us if we wanted our bees back. They seem to be making the most of the mild winter and warm spring to multiply as much as possible. We undertook our very first swarm collection, having watched a cloud from B1 settle inconveniently into the top of next door’s Liandii hedge. We borrowed a homemade  vaccuum contraption next day to collect it but it had rained overnight and the bees were wet and not easy to suck from the branches. When we got them home a lot were dead and the whole thing was a bit of a failure. Despite  our many efforts in April, nothing has gone according to plan. To date we have two  hives (B2 and B3)in the process of re-queening, which takes about a month, and we don’t yet know if it will be successful. B1 was proving so troublesome, we gave the rest of the bees to the bee farmer who helped us out in April.

To add to the chaos, a large swarm appeared  in a pine tree on the edge of our wood. We knew they weren’t our bees, but put a bait hive on the lawn to see if they would come down. Apparently bees will swarm to areas where there are other bees.The swarm stayed for several days, and showed little interest in the bait hive. On the fourth day, it vanished  but  a few hours later I noticed a small cloud  buzzing around  at knee height on the rockery.  It  looked like  a small swarm and was conveniently near the ground, so I decided to collect it. It turned out to be a very big swarm, and probably the one from the tree. My first attempt had to be aborted because the nuc box I thought would do was far too small, and they just couldn’t all get in.  The swarm bees have turned out to be very gentle, but we can’t see any eggs, and so something may have happened to the queen. This should be easy to remedy by inserting a frame of eggs from another hive, from which the workers can raise a new queen, if they need to. (Bee farmer to the rescue).

So it’s watch and wait for the moment to see if the hives become queen right. We do have some spring honey, but unless the colonies re-queen and start producing brood, there will be no bees to forage in July when the main nectar flow starts, and so no main crop honey in August. Fingers crossed there is better news to report next month.

In the following photos you can see the bait hive below the swarm which can just be made out in the top 1/3 of the pic slightly to the left of centre; the next is the swarm in the pine tree close up; queen cells on the comb; then eggs (these are what we need but haven't got any in our hives at the moment) and the last picture is my first attempt at hiving the swarm into a nuc box – it was too small, some of  the swarm is still on the wall and half of it is already in the box



Update: April 2014

Life outside beekeeping ground to a halt just after writing my last blog. Swarming season started a month earlier than expected after the mild winter, so if it wasn’t raining, and mostly it wasn’t, it was a beekeeping day.

Our original colony had grown to an immense size, the bees were highly active and not always pleased to see us. We found the beginning of swarm preparations on some of the frames so had to act or lose our queen, foragers and the honey crop........... and possibly gain an unhappy neighbour. We needed to perform an artificial swarm (and believe me, it is a performance). For this, you need to find the queen, who is easy to see because she is marked, only ours wasn’t.  After  long searches, over successive days, we called in experienced help, which came in the form of a local bee farmer. (Yes, Camberley has a bee farmer with hives in  places such as Tekels Park, and Pennyhill park). The farmer went through the hive slowly and methodically, but couldn’t find our queen. (Felt a bit less useless at this point) We knew she was there because there were eggs. A lot of tea was drunk, scones with cream and jam eaten, and many queen finding strategies  discussed over the kitchen table. In the end  we decided to split the colony with a queen excluder and after four days, the box with eggs in, had to be the one with the queen.  After the four days we gave a box of bees without eggs to the farmer as a thank you. He would add our bees to one of his weaker colonies.

Subsequently and eventually the queen was spotted. We then had to mark her with a special pen without squishing her, but she would not stay still – it was kill or cure time. All ended happily, she now has a red dot on her thorax and stands out well. We did the artificial swarm and so far, so good, queen and colony are still in residence.

We are hoping to get some spring honey for the first time, which is very exciting. It should taste different to main crop honey, because the forage is different. We’ve been enjoying Martha Kearney’s  The wonder of Bees,(Mondays 8pm Chanel 4) but she really should get some proper training and start using disposable gloves in my view. I’ve also written directly to Lord de Mauley, Minister for bees in support of the W.I SOS for honey bees initiative, for which some members signed postcards.

The apiary at Tilford  are appreciative of my efforts as new High Priestess of the Bee Shed, - it is sometimes possible to hear exclamations of ‘wow it’s so clean and tidy in here’ if you listen carefully.

Message from  the bee farmer – if anyone wishes to do their bit for bees, the best thing to do is plant things they like to forage on and/or host a hive in your garden. Apparently ‘old’ women love having a hive in their garden. (As I have three, I must be very, very old!) My personal request is to avoid the use of chemical pesticides. If you have ladybirds and wasps, they will eat the greenfly. I jet them off roses with a hand sprayer or garden hose.

The following photos show a frame which contains food stores, in this case the darker cells have pollen in them and the lighter nectar. Then a normal healthy brood pattern. A queen excluder and finally myself.






Update: March 2014

The warm, dry weather we've had over the past weeks has resulted in the bees becoming very active.  All three colonies have survived the winter and seem to be thriving.  We've had three visits to the Farnham apiary to help prepare equipment for the season, and you will be impressed that due to a change in management, I have been promoted to the dizzy heights and trusted position of ... 'shed girl' (or as one beekeeper put it 'High Priestess of the Bee Shed'). No-one will tell me what the job entails and overnight I am expected to know what I am doing. Let the chaos begin.

We've been to the first two training sessions of the basic assessment course which, if exams are passed, elevates you from someone who keeps bees to a 'proper' beekeeper. Like passing your driving test.  To date we have been expanding our knowledge on bee diseases and swarm control.

I am amazed that this will be the fourth summer of being around bees and I still haven't been stung.  I've had a few near misses.  Like the time I went down to a hive to put some feed on, without my suit, lifted the lid thinking I would be ignored as usual, but quite a few bees came out to see what was happening. I stuck my hand in to retrieve the empty food container without thinking. In no time at all my left hand was covered in tickly bees.  One bee was climbing up the inside of my other sleeve, one was seen leaving its sting on the sleeve and too many others were buzzing around my head in danger of getting caught in my hair.  I took off across the lawn stripping off outer layers as I went. I took refuge in the garage to suit up but could still hear buzzing. There was also a bit of a tickle inside my jeans. I pulled my trousers down and a bee flew out.  I went into the house and another bee woke up from the sleeve of my fleece and started flying around agitated. As you can image I was shaking by this time.  I thought I had finally got rid of them all and then.. more buzzing coming from the inside of my trousers! Down came the jeans once more just in time to catch the last bee about to sting the back of my knee. Fortunately our garden is not overlooked much, but memo to self: wear decent underwear on beekeeping days.

Tasks for the next few weeks are to feed the bees a weak sugar syrup to encourage them to pull out the wax foundation we have put into clean brood boxes on top of the hives.  This is to get them to make new comb for the queen to lay in, so we can remove the old comb in the bottom brood chambers which may harbour germs etc.  When the weather warms up to at least 15 degrees regular hive inspections can start.

The photo this month was taken by Josephine Wells, who wanted to know if the bee was one of mine.  If it was good natured and hard working, hopefully it was.

Update: February 2014

Happy New Year Readers!  Thank you to everyone who has expressed appreciation of the honey.  I feel encouraged and pleased to know our product has been enjoyed, and everyone has lived to tell the tale!

Just before New Year we checked all the hives for varroa.  We found B1 (the original hive) and B2 (the new nucleus) had levels which could potentially be a problem, despite the treatment given in the autumn.  B3 (the hive acquired from the downsizing beekeeper) was OK, perhaps because it had the largest mite drop after the autumn treatment.  There is a further medication available, which we didn't use last year but need to now.  It can only be administered when there is no brood and therefore has to be used only in the middle of winter when the queen is not laying.  it is called Oxalic acid and works by damaging the soft mouth parts of the varroa, preventing them from feeding.

We practiced administration of this acid using spare treatment bottles and water.  Like any medicine, doses need to be accurate and we had to get precisely 5ml along each seam of bees.  We waited for a mild day to open the hive, gowned up ready for action, at which point the heavens opened.  Having been a Brownie and a Girl Guide I was of course "prepared" and ready to "lend a hand".  One of us stood with a giant umbrella over the hive while the other administered the medicine. Application wasn't anything like the practice runs as the acid was in sugar syrup and a lot more viscous as water.  It had to be given in the quickest time possible to avoid letting too much heat out of the hive or rain in, and everything seemed to be going in slow motion. Umbrella and medicine were changing sides at frequent intervals as fingers seized up unable to squeeze the container any harder.  There must have been equally as much hot air escaping our mouths during the operation as there was leaving the hive, but eventually we did get it done and returned soggy but relieved to the house for that all important cup of tea.

We're watching and waiting - the worst of the winter could still be to come.  To date the hives have escaped major storm damage, but they need to be checked after each gale.

There is no photographic evidence of this soggy operation, so here is a bee mosaic I made on another rainy day.

Update:  November 2013

Winter preparations down on the platform are now complete.  All hives have mouse guards across the entrance (see photo), chicken wire wound round to protect against woodpeckers and plenty of stores.  We have added an overhanging board to the top of each hive for rain protection, and weighted the roofs with bricks.  Damp is more of a threat to bees than cold, so as long as the rain isn't horizontal, the hives will keep drier like this.

Now that it is cold, the queen will have stopped laying and be on her winter holiday (thought I might come back as a cat, but a queen bee would also be good!) hunkering down in the centre of the cluster, fed and kept warm at a minimum of 25C by the workers.  Only if the temperature rises to 10C will the foragers come outside.

Late last month we had the chance to take on a hive from someone wishing to downsize their apiary.  We took it.  Transporting a whole, live hive in the back of the car over somewhat rough terrain was an adventure in itself. So we now have a third hive - B3.  The new bees look healthy but we're not sure how friendly they are compared to our own.  They certainly didn't like the camera flash going off, they might have mistaken it for lightening which upsets them.   Glad I was wearing my bee suit!

We have extracted the second honey super mentioned in a previous blog.  All three hives took down so much syrup in September (over 6 gallons each) we decided they didn't need the extra honey. So we have a few more pots available. The wax candles are multiplying, especially the moulded ones with cute new honey bear shape, acquired at the National Honey show.  If anyone wants candles for Christmas please ask.

So all will be relatively quiet in the hives now till Feb/March.  In the meantime we will be doing a course for our basic assessment next summer which will require some study, and catching up on other beekeeping jobs such as making up new frames (real woodwork using hammer and nails!) and cleaning of equipment.  Oh and planning my next bee related mosaic for the garden.  Thought you might like to see the ones I've done so far....

Update:  September 2013

Thank you to everyone who bought my honey at the last meeting.  I hope you have been enjoying it.  The honey qualifies as 'raw' honey because it is the natural product drained from the comb after the wax covering has been removed.  It has not been heat treated or finely filtered and contains some pollen and wax particles and propolis. These particles give the honey a slightly cloudy appearance. Propolis is extremely antiseptic.  It is a very sticky substance the bees gather from plant sap and tree resin which they use to keep the hive hygienic. It glues everything in the hive together, making inspections a sticky business.  I'm sure it must add to the healing properties of honey.

Properly produced honey should last a very long time.  The sugar content is so high and water content so low that no bacteria will grow.  It is hydroscopic however, so leaving it open to the air will cause it to spoil.

Pollen in honey is though to help hayfever sufferers if the honey is local and taken daily throughout spring and summer.  Next year, I hope we can extract honey as it is created and not wit till the end of the season.  This allows differentiation between flavours and colours according to seasonal forage.

September is the start of preparations for winter.  Having taken the honey, we give back a thick sugar syrup from a feeder inside the top of the hive.  Hive B1 has taken nearly two gallons over the last few weeks.  We also treat for Varroa, both these things are critical for the bees' survival over winter.

My family are having to eat more tinned fish than usual.  It's not about the tuna, it's about the tin.  The large squat wide tins will be perfect for solving the ant problem I mentioned last month.  If I put one tin under each hive leg and tip in some engine oil I'm told the ants won't be able to climb up and access the hive.

Finally, in case you have been wondering, I still haven't been stung. I find this extraordinary - maybe it's even a record!

The photos below show the honeycomb ready to go into the extractor, shown in it's new shiny glory, the raw honey coming out of the comb into the sieve and spotless bucket, leaving the clean raw honey to set for 48 hours before bottling.




Update:  July 2013

Thanks to everyone who performed sun dances as requested last month.  The wall to wall sunshine we had for most of July could not have been better weather for bees.

The result of our hive manipulation at the end of last month was mixed.  The main hive did rear a new queen, and she looked a good one and had started laying by the time we inspected after four weeks.  The nucleus we set up as an insurance didn't work out.  When we inspected this we couldn't see a queen, but did have a laying worker.  This happens when one of the normal worker bees tries to make up for the absence of a queen by laying eggs herself.  She lays several eggs in each cell instead of just one and, because she doesn't have a long abdomen like the queen, the eggs sit on the side of the cell instead of at the bottom.  All her eggs turn into male bees (drones) and the hive eventually dies out.  So this colony was destroyed and we bought in a proper nucleus with a marked, mated queen from our original supplier.  So we now have two colonies.


Despite the hitch we had in June, the main hive produced enough honey to extract. We did this earlier this week and we achieved 25 lbs from the first super (honey box). There is a second box which is filling up and so we will hopefully be able to extract this in a week or so.  So gratifying after all our efforts.

There has been much tasting and nodding of heads.  This is the liquid gold, the real thing.  the next job is washing jars, sterilising them, and creating our own labels. In the meantime I have been processing waste wax collected over the year.  I have cleaned it, and moulded my first beeswax candle which I am totally chuffed with!  Beeswax candles burn cleaner and brighter than normal candles, last longer and smell nicer than perfumed ones.  I am so loving this!

Latest varoa check has shown minimal infestation.  It seems the long, hard winter has reduced numbers of this destructive parasite. However, I have just found ants on the base board and a wax moth larvae, neither of which are good news.  Wax moth can destroy honeycomb rapidly and ants will farm the honey, so they both need attention.  There is always something to keep the beekeeper on her toes!

beehive beeswax candle!

Mad aliens? No, just the beekeeper family

Update:  Early June 2013

Things have been progressing well on the platform, one honey super almost full and a second placed on top in readiness.  We have been feeling smug and excited at the prospect of our very own honey crop.  We've carried on doing exactly what we've been taught at the apiary.  At this time of year, the main danger is swarming.  Apart from swarms causing a nuisance to neighbours, they are bad news for the beekeeper.  The queen leaves the hive with about half the foragers, leaving behind the younger house bees and fewer foragers.  This means less honey at the end of the season.  If you are not careful and you have 'swarmy' bees this doesn't just happen once, but several times so that you can lose all your bees.

Late June:

There has been drama on the platform.  The picture below is a recent photo of me taken in the front garden as  a result of my beekeeping efforts.  Not so smug now!  In short, the queen went awol without much warning (no manners).  We still had lots of bees left, so did she swarm or just die?  The colony has made a large number of new queen cells in order to replace her.  Much consultation took place as to what to do next, and, as usual, ask two beekeepers and you get three opinions.  We had 20 queen cells to deal with and allowing them all to hatch inside one hive is not good practice (queen wars break out and they can all end up dead.  They are not as civilised as WI members.)  We took two good queen cells and put them into another hive - B2 - with other bits and pieces to hopefully ensure their survival, left two others in the main hive and destroyed the rest.

Now we have to wait for several weeks without disturbing either hive to see what happens.  This is where you come in - sun dances - as many as possible please, for as long as possible, wherever and whenever you can.  When the queen emerges, she has 14 days to mate with as many drones as she can (about 20!) before she can return to the hive and start laying, and she needs good weather in order to do this.  Last year it was so wet many queens failed to mate, or mated insufficiently, so this year colonies are struggling to continue with failing queens.  Fingers crossed this doesn't happen to us!


Update: May 2013:

May, and back in full spring, down on the platform, after a very delayed start to the season.  Experts are saying that Spring is four to five weeks behind.  Our first hive inspection was three weeks ago, and the bees seemed to have made it through OK. (All those pairs of tiny booties I knitted last autumn have paid off!). There was a thick carpet of dead workers on the hive floor but the rest seemed healthy, we put this down to the extra long winter.

At first we couldn't find the queen or any larvae or eggs (surely she must be back from holiday by now?) which by mid April could have meant very bad news, but the following week we found her alive and well, and evidence that she had started to lay again.  We have checked for disease and varroa and all is well, so it's probably safe to say we have succeeded with our first colony and our first winter.  There are no formal statistics for winter lossses yet but general rumour is not good.  Many beekeepers have lost large numbers of their colonies.

We continue to visit the Farnham apiary each week to learn as we go, and make sure we are doing the right thing at the right time.  Our queen had laid so much last week, we feared she was going to run out of space, so we put on a honey super.  This gives room to store nectar so there is room for the queen to lay in the brood box (like a loft conversion? Ed) At the apiary they are still feeding some of the colonies and no supers were in evidence.  We were reassured we wouldn't need the super yet, so we've taken it off again and gone back to feeding syrup to our colony to encourage them to draw the wax on the new foundation frames we put in in the brood boxes. This will provide the space the queen needs to lay in for the moment.

Our colony seems good and strong and when the sun is out, the bees are extraordinary active.  Standing a few yards away, you can hear a gentle buzz of activity.  They seem to like their new landing and take-off board with a B1 sign, although the real challenge will come when we expand into hive B2 - will they be able to read?

Update: February 2013

Queen bees take a rest from laying over the winter (OK for some), so hive activity slows right down and the colony hunker down in a ball shape to keep warm. However, you still need to keep an eye on the hive to make sure the entrance hasn't been blocked by snow, or the roof blown off by strong winds.  The Varroa mite drop must be checked in case numbers have crept up after the autumn treatments.  Some beekeepers use a chemical called oxalic acid while there are no developing young in the hive, to kill off remaining mites.  Our mite drop count was so low that we decided we wouldn't use oxalic.  (All the vigorous shaking of icing sugar over the poor critters last summer must have paid off).  Oxalic is dangerous to us if inhaled and can predispose the bees to a gut disorder which gives them diarrhoea and a weakened immune system. Time will tell if we made the right decision.

We are currently busy preparing a second hive for when we need to do an artificial swarm in the spring. (We're getting good now!) We have been lucky enough to get some second hand equipment from a contact who was reducing the size of their apiary. We have been sterilising the inside of the hive boxes, roof etc with a blow torch (well, the men have - feel the need to keep delegation skills up to scratch) and painting the outside a pretty dark green colour with with wood preservative paint.  This improves the look of the hive but also helps it to blend into the background and doesn't harm the bees.

Checking the weight regularly over winter is critical, but especially the weight of ones hive.  This tells us if there are still enough food stores left for the bees, and if in doubt, one puts a lump of fondant under the hive roof where the bees can reach it, but the cluster is not disturbed.  Our hive is still very heavy (as is my own weight) however we have put in several lots of fondant to be on the safe side and some of it has in fact been consumed.  So there is at least one hungry bee still alive.  Homemade hat contraption mentioned in last update to protect the hive against woodpeckers is a complete nuisance - had to stand on a stepladder to get enough height to remove it and have no head for heights - must redesign for next winter or grow taller.

Have been down to the platform recently when the sun was shining and it wasn't wet and windy (when was that? Ed) . Several bees were out and about, which was reassuring to see.  I noticed a few were lying about on the platform under the hive entrance, not making it back inside.  They had probably gone out to relieve themselves, not found any nectar, become exhausted and cold.  One of them was a drone, which is odd because there shouldn't be any drones in the hive at this time of year, unless the queen is already laying and he is a new spring bee. Alternatively our bees might be a nice caring lot and you didn't kick all the drones out in the autumn.  I know you are still waiting for news of my first sting, so do keep reading as I expect you will be rewarded later in the year.

Our hive has no landing board like some do, so we're going to make this modification for the coming season as I'm sure it must help returning bees to get back into the warmth and safety of the colony.  Just wondering what markings to put on it. Landing strip or helipad?  Suggestions welcome.

Update November 1st 2012

Beehive on PlatformThe bees worked so hard during August that we did, amazingly, get some honey. However the amount wasn't enough to make using an extractor worthwhile.  Desperate to find out what our own honey tasted like we tried other ways of teasing it out.  Nothing worked, and we ended up with a total of three drops on a piece of foil. It was truly delicious though and so now I am even more excited about next year's crop.

September and October have been about preparations for winter.  Honey bees do not hibernate, they will come out when the weather permits.  At less than 10° they form a cluster in the hive to keep warm and rely on their food stores.

Inspections have stopped until the spring. The cells which once contained brood have been filled with pollen and honey and the heavy syrup given to replace the harvested honey.  The queen has stopped laying for the moment.  Treatment for varroa (parasite responsible for weakening and causing disease in bees) has been administered and mite drop counted.  Fortunately our infestation was very minor.

For the finishing touches, a mouse guard goes over the entrance, to prevent small rodents getting in and causing damage over the winter, and woodpecker protection in the form of chicken wire is wound round the whole hive.  (Husband has made an amazing hat-like contraption for ours which just lifts on and off).  When the ground becomes frozen woodpeckers will drill in to the side of the hive and eat the bees.  They will also teach their young to do this, so best to be avoided.

So far, so good.  We have done as we have been bidden at the apiary and all seeems well.  Successful overwintering of a colony is the big challenge however, so please all keep your fingers crossed.

Now to encourage husband with some winter mead experimentation......

Update 15th August 2012

Bee on a flowerAt last we have our bees.  It's been like waiting for an overdue baby. I have felt the need to check on them every time I pass the window to see if they are flying.  They go out in fine weather and stay in when it's wet. They have been going in the wrong direction! Ignoring my garden full of colourful, nectar producing flowers and runner beans in need of pollination, they have been flying very high, I suspect foraging for tree pollen

We collected the nucleus hive (nuc) about four weeks ago, unplugged the entrance and left it to settle for two days in exactly the place the main hive would be.  The bees emerged to explore their new environment.  Transfer to the main hive went OK....eventually.  It was our first time handling bees on our own.

One can move a hive less than three feet, or more than three miles.  Anything inbetween and the bees can't find the entrance.  As novices we messed up moving the main hive into place before transferring the frames from the nuc.  The gap was less than two feet but still caused complications.  A noisy cloud of disorientated bees formed, and I started to get that sinking feeling. We realised our mistake and pushed the main hive into the exact position the nuc had been, whereupon the bees quietly disappeared inside.  Nobody got stung

We inspect the hive once a week looking for the queen, eggs, larvae and brood (imago bees) food stores, disease and swarm cells.  A good queen can lay well over a thousand eggs a day which results in the colony expanding fast. The colony needs to increase to a mass that will survive winter.  To help this the bees are fed sugar syrup which stimulates the workers to draw out the comb.  Our colony has expanded from the five framed nucleus to fifteen frames and a second brood box. The aim is to fill both brood boxes before winter.  The bees have consumed over two litres of sugar syrup each week.  Any honey they make will be left for the colony to consume over winter in the hope that it will survive and get off to a strong start next spring.

Estimated number of bees currently in the colony?  30,000

Number of stings incurred?  Nil

Bee factoid:  Not all bees are honey bees. Bumble bees do not make honey to sustain themselves over winter. They nest under the ground and only the queen survives from one year to the next.


Bee collecting pollen

Update 16th May 2012

At the beginning, there was a conifer and rhododendron wood on a steep gradient which we did nothing with. Then there was David’s visit, a local, experienced beekeeper whom we plied with tea and homemade flapjack (or chipboard as he called it). He pointed to a place in the wood and said “this should be the site”. We then set about making a flat area for the beehive to sit upon, and so the Bee Platform was created.

We travelled to the Tilford Institute every Saturday morning for eight weeks over the winter to attend the teachings of a Master Beekeeper and his helpers, in order that we should be properly prepared to receive our nucleus of bees in the Spring. We also visited the Farnham Rural Life Centre Apiary and looked into a hive to see if the craft of beekeeping would be right for us and we saw that the bees were good humoured and fascinating.

As the theory course came to an end, a practical course began, or would have, had the weather permitted. Bees must maintain a  cosy 30 C in their hives, which they do by huddling together and therefore hives are not opened for inspection when the  temperature outside is less than 15 C.  So we had to wait, and wait and wait. My husband busied himself preparing the wooden hives and frames containing wax foundation and I spent time reading up as much as I could about the craft. Then Liz, Chieftain of a local peasant women’s group called Camberley Women’s Institute, of which I am a participant was so intrigued by this unusual hobby that she asked me to share my knowledge with other interested women at the next gathering, and this I did.

It was then suggested that the beekeeping narrative be continued, and so a blog will pop up from time to will be called Down on the Platform.


Current number of bees owned 0

Total number of stings incurred  0

Number of practical beekeeping course sessions still to attend before going it alone 4

Bee factoid : Honey bees die if they sting you, except for the queen, so they won’t sting you for the sake of it.





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