Show me the honey!

By | July 28, 2013

Around this time of year, beekeepers are assessing their honey stocks. All going well, through spring and summer the bees will have collected enough honey to feed on over winter, and the beekeeper can harvest the surplus.

Wax capped honey forms the upper crescent shape, below is nectar still being ripened

Wax capped honey forms the upper crescent shape, below is nectar still being ripened

Bees need to convert nectar into honey, chemically converting the sugars with enzymes, and dehydrating to contain less than 20% water. When the honey is ready, the bees cap the honey with wax, and honey can store indefinitely in this state.

You can see the split between honey and nectar in this frame, with honey in the upper crescent shape, liquid nectar being ripened below. If the frame was full with capped honey, it would weigh around 1.5 kgs.

Unfortunately, the frame here is the fullest one I have. To be able to harvest honey from the hive, I’d be expecting 20 full frames – 10 for the bees for winter, and the surplus 10 for me.

Beautifully golden nectar being ripened

Beautifully golden nectar being ripened. Some of the colour is pollen in the nectar cells – so eating local honey can help with hayfever

Instead I’ve only got around 8 frames of still ripening nectar. I’ll need to supplement these stores with a sugar solution, to give the bees enough food for winter, and unfortunately there’ll be no honey for the beekeeper this year.

I did mention ..”all going well..”, so why the disappointing dearth?

In May, I had some difficulty replacing my queen bee. This caused a delay in population growth, right when the population should be increasing rapidly. No queen = no eggs = no new bees = no population growth = a reduced foraging workforce. Essentially, it meant I didn’t have enough bees to get out and collect enough nectar. You’d expect around 60,000 bees in the height of summer, and I probably only had half to three quarters of that.

Spring was also unusually long, and cold this year. During this time, bees wouldn’t have been foraging as they only fly when its warm and dry. The cold weather also meant the trees bloomed much later, and it seems in most cases, for a shorter period of time. Smaller numbers of bees, foraging on smaller numbers of flowers means, well you do the maths.

While I’m disappointed there’s not much to share for the years effort honey-wise, its been my first full season of beekeeping, and been extremely fulfilling. I’ve learnt a lot, and enjoyed every minute of it. Hopefully, the bees have helped pollinate the local environment. Yesterday, I sat my British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) Basic exam, a kind of drivers license for beekeeping. I’m yet to hear my results – pass or fall, I know I’ll continue beekeeping for many a year to come.


By | July 13, 2013

A line up of handsome leafy trees in West London

A line up of handsome leafy trees in West London

Keeping bees makes you more aware of the surrounding environment. The weather, the seasons, the trees and their cycles. I’ve been prompted to spend a few quid on some tree identification apps, so I can understand the surrounding flora a little better.

The seasons in 2013 have been pretty odd. The spring was much longer and colder than usual. This meant trees took longer to burst back into life and out of winter, both their leaves and flowers took longer to bud and emerge. The cold also meant the bees stayed in the hive for longer, they don’t like to fly in the cold and there wasn’t much blooming for them to forage. And with less bees flying and pollinating, this could mean less pollination between the trees… its all connected. Dude.

July however has been like the Jerusalem chorus. The weather has been hot! hotter than usual, reaching 30 degrees over the last 2 weekends, and the bees are getting out to forage on the hot, still days.

In West London, my main sources of pollen and nectar seems to be willow in early spring, horse chestnut in May, Sycamore trees in June, and the ubiquitous London lime trees in July.

I can tell which trees the bees are visiting, by the colour of the pollen brought back to the hive. Different flowers have different colour pollen – BTW the colour of the pollen doesn’t necessarily relate to the colour of the flower.
Oriental poppies have dark black pollen, willow – dull yellow, horse chestnut – chocolate brown.

It seems the horse chestnut had a short bloom due the unseasonally long, cold spring. Unfortunately, the trees didn’t shift their bloom and stay open for the usual length of time, the window just shortened. So I’m eagerly waiting on the lime trees to bloom. The lime trees are a little late – but I’m anticipating with their large numbers in the neighbourhood creates a rush of honey into the hive late July.

Here’s hoping this lovely weather stays around for a few weeks yet..!

Check out this pollen chart for more info on pollen

The slow development of Apple Stroudel

By | July 1, 2013

I'll be hoping for something like this in a few years time

I’ll be hoping for something like this in a few years time

During the cold, sharp Winter which never seemed to end, I took an apple grafting course with the London Orchard Project, at Hackney City Farm.

Grafting is a relatively simple idea, but amazing that it actually works. It seems to be something dreamt up in a child’s biology lab, but the simplicity is genius. I like to think it’s the force of nature to grow, despite what is thrown in its path.

The birth of my Ashmeads Kernel, on a cold snowy March day at Hackney City Farm

The birth of my Ashmeads Kernel, on a cold snowy March day at Hackney City Farm

Essentially, you take two different varieties of apple tree, slice them, and fuse them together with some tape. Job done. The inner vascular tissue of the trees fuse together, and a combination of traits occurs in the grafted tree. All very Frankenstein!

Generally, the root stock decides how vigorous the tree will be, and how high it will grow, by dictating the base of roots in the ground. Root stocks have functional names which sound like motorways, M27, M9, MM106, to indicate the orchard (or horticultural lab) they were developed at, and the batch. The upper graft or cultivar decides the kind of apple fruit, which has been developed over time by an orchardist choosing and developing desirable traits.

Most interesting to me is that a fruiting tree does not pass on a genetic copy to its fruit. Instead it passes on its own genes plus that from another pollinating apple tree (with the pollen often carried by a honey bee).
A tree that develops from a Granny Smith fruit or seed, won’t grow a Granny Smith child copy, instead growing an uncontrolled merge of two cultivars. This means that ‘pure’ varieties of apple tree have an origin, a parent tree that all other ‘copy’ child trees have been grafted from (which may or may not still be alive today). Grafting allows us to retain the ideal characteristics of specific apples (like crunch, and taste), and not converge back to a ‘wild’ stock.

Despite the coldest spring in 50 years, my grafted apple tree is flourishing

Despite the coldest spring in 50 years, my grafted apple tree is flourishing

I chose the Ashmead’s Kernel for the fruit or cultivar, and MM106 for root stock.

Ashmead’s Kernel has ‘showy’ flowers in Spring, and produces a dessert or eating (not cooking) apple with an intense flavour. The apple will have a base greenish-yellow colour, with a dull russet all over with brownish red stripes. It is thought to have been developed in Gloucester in the 18th century, so is quite an old variety.

The MM106 root stock will dictate the tree is semi-dwarfing, growing to 3-4 metres high, and 4 metres across. I should expect it to fruit in 3-4 years, or around 2016/17. Unfortunately, it’s seen as unsuitable for small gardens… so I guess we need to plan for a lot of space in our dream future home.

I’m stupidly proud if this little tree, and if it can survive grafting during the coldest spring in 50 years and at my clumsy hands, I feel pretty positive about its future.

At our wedding, the fantastic Bradshaw clan gifted us a young local apple tree,  a Lodgemore NonPariel originally raised in 1808 in Gloucestershire.
It included this little ditty;

“Apples be ripe, nuts be brown,
Petticoats up, trousers down”

Once our dream materialises, we should be able to create Apple Stroudel from our country pile with locally grown apples, pollinated from a local bee stock, with delicious natural honey comb ice cream.


Back on an even keel

By | June 8, 2013

The sun is shining, the ground is warm, the birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and number five is alive. My new queen is laying eggs (lots of them), and the bees are actively out collecting pollen and nectar to feed the hive and make honey. This beek is happy, with everything back as it should be.

Mid week my darling wife Sas and I took an evening walk around the allotment, and she took some delightful snaps.

Spring has finally arrived, and so far, has lasted a whole week!

Spring has finally arrived, and so far, has lasted a whole week!

Better late than never.


Do you name your queen bees?

By | June 1, 2013

There’s some simple maths for queen bees in beehives.
In general for a healthy colony you need more than 0, and less than 2.
They truly are a special and important part of a honey bee colony.

In Spring, the number of bees within a hive grows very fast. Sometimes, the colony also decides to grow a new queen.. i.e. 2 queens in a colony. This can make those tending towards Aspergers uncomfortable. The colony also wants to reach the equilibrium of 1 (if you’re wondering this is not an official term, I just made it up).

With 2 queens in a hive, the old queen takes half the bees away to find a new home (called a swarm), and the new queen inherits the current beehive. The jury is still out on issues of inheritance tax.

This is how everything should go anyway. This year, it’s been a little problematic for me. The old queen, lets call her number 1 for arguments sake, decided to grow a new queen (number 2), and number 1 swarmed out of the beehive taking half of the bees with her to make a new home. I didn’t want that to happen so I caught the swarm, and put number 1 back into a new beehive, a different hive from number 2′s inherited hive. She was still in a cocoon.

Unfortunately in the swarm collection process number 1 was lost or died, so I started to bank instead on number 2. There is a risk with a new virgin queen, as she needs good weather to fly out of the hive on mating flights, and mate with around half a dozen males (drones) from other hives. You don’t know who she is mating with, and you might get a poorly tempered colony.

So, I bought a new queen in from a breeder, number 3. And, killed cocoon number 2. Number 3 seemed good, and she started to lay eggs – hooray!

Not sure what happened next, but a week later number 3 was also lost, or rejected and killed by the colony. So the colony started to grow an emergency queen, number 4.
Emergency queens can be risky because of the weather / mating above, but the bees often have less time than usual to feed royal jelly to a chosen emergency larvae. This might result in a poor quality queen – number 4′s chances didn’t look good.

So, I went to another breeder, bought number 5, and killed number 4′s cocoon.

Number 5 so far looks promising and I’m hopeful I don’t have to wield the Henry VIII style axe again. But lord she might pay a lot of inheritance tax after that chain of events. As this has happened over 3 months, I trust this answers the whole naming issue.