We had a pretty slow start to the beekeeping season this year. The cold wet spring delayed a lot of the forage and the hives have been relatively slow to build up their numbers. Sadly we lost a colony over the winter too. A beautiful May has completely turned our fortunes around though.
I was lucky to be called to collect this large swarm that had settled in a tree in Kentish Town a few weeks ago.
They were easy to collect and have since settled into their new hive. Their queen has started to lay eggs and the workers are busy collecting pollen and nectar. They seem a calm and easy to handle colony and I’m so pleased to have them to replace the one that we lost.
Here is a shot of them in the nuc box (a mini hive) that I caught them in. You can see several bees on the central frame with their bottoms up in the air – they are releasing the Nasonov pheromone from their Nasonov gland at the end of their abdomen – this is telling the other flying bees that this is their new home and that they should come and join them.
The past month has suddenly brought a huge variety of forage for all bees – this foxglove in our garden has had numerous types of bees visiting.
The good weather has given us ideal conditions for raising some new queens – here is our latest to emerge. She’s the big one in the middle that the others are all facing. Each colony has just one queen and her main role is to lay all the eggs. She does very little else, and completely relies on attendant worker bees to guide, clean and feed her.
We are hoping to take off our first batch of honey in the next week or so. If you’d like to be notified when it is ready, please fill in the contact form on our shop page.
The seemingly endless cold, wet weather this spring has prevented us from opening up the hives to see how our colonies are getting on so far this year. I don’t like inspecting our bees if it is too cold as it risks chilling the brood. Our roof top hives are pretty exposed, so we prefer a calm day too
We were finally blessed with sunshine this week and we went to work, carefully checking each hive for health, brood and stores. It always astonishes me how differently two adjacent hives can fare so differently. One, packed with sealed brood, nectar and honey, the other with barely any stores and the brood just starting to build up. A few swapped frames between hives quickly resolved the stores situation.
I was also really pleased to finally get hold of an enormous plastic box that is large enough to submerge a whole 14×12 brood box in. Our roof top hives are all poly hives and have to be washed to clean and disinfect them rather than the scorching that we do to our wooden hives. In the past I’ve faffed around with too small containers, only being able to soak a small area at a time. This new beast-of-a-box makes life so much easier and even has a snap on lid which holds the box under the water (they are extremely buoyant!).
Some warm weather has finally arrived in North London! Our garden is suddenly bristling with spring flowers and the bees are making the most of it, working until dark.
I don’t mind having dandelions growing in our garden – we eat the leaves and the pollinators benefit from the nectar and pollen. There have been studies done that show that honey bees who collect dandelion pollen exclusively aren’t able to raise brood successfully because the pollen lacks some essential amino acids – I think that like us, bees need a wide and varied diet!
As a beekeeping family we receive lots of lovely bee themed cards and gifts from our kind friends and relatives. Last Christmas my children were given a game called Hive and we have all become a little addicted to it! It’s too good not to share here.
It’s a two player strategy game and each round only lasts for a few minutes, so it’s perfect for filling an odd bit of time between other things.
Each player has a number of tactile hexagonal tiles which have various creatures, such as grasshoppers or ladybirds on them. Like the different chess pieces, each insect can only move in a prescribed way. The idea of the game is to completely surround your opponent’s Queen Bee tile. The rules are simple but the tactics can be fiendish!
Our set is the pocket version, which comes with a handy bag. The playing area that you need isn’t any bigger than an A4 bit of paper, so it’d be perfect for taking on trips.
The last few weeks have been rather gloomy, yet I’ve seen the odd bee out when the temperature is warm enough for them to fly. There aren’t many flowers out at this time of the year – here are a few that I’ve spotted locally that give pollen or nectar for bees…
Mahonia – this one is just coming into flower down the road from our hives. The blooms will give nectar on days when it is warm enough for the bees to be out.
Gorse – this was spotted on Hampstead Heath this week. There is a saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season”. Luckily it seems to flower for most of the year! It’s a useful early pollen source for many types of bee.
Hellebore or Christmas Rose – This one is a bit battered, but will still be a great early source of nectar for many types of bee.
Hebe – The are dozens of different species of hebe and most of them tend to flower in the late spring and summer. However there are a few, such as ‘Autumn Glory’ that flower in the autumn and winter. They produce pollen and nectar and are foraged on by a variety of bees.
There are plenty of green shoots poking up everywhere in our garden from all the bulbs that we’ve planted – it won’t be long until spring now!
We’ve recently watched the first episode of the new series called Rotten on Netflix. The episode concentrates on honey and pollination in the US. It reveals the rather shocking measures that people will go to in order to cut honey with various syrups in order to maximize their profits. It explains how huge quantities of Chinese honey is dumped on to the american market, often via an intermediary country to disguise its origin. Much of this honey is mixed with rice or corn syrup to make it go further. Some contains antibiotics that can be dangerous to humans. The program shows the elaborate testing that some imported honey goes through and explains that the tests are of limited value – they can only detect what they are testing for, other contaminants will remain undetected. The producers are always one step ahead – honey can even be filtered with incredibly fine filters in order to remove any pollen grains which would give an indication of the origin.
The episode also touches on the migratory beekeepers in the US – in February each year most bee farmers seem to take their hives to pollinate the vast almond orchards of California. They get paid well for this service, but at huge cost to the health of the honeybees.
It was all rather depressing viewing, but fascinating to see how large commercial honey companies operate. It is so far removed from how we treat our bees and honey.
If you have ever wondered about large scale beekeeping, or why supermarkets are able to sell honey so cheaply (product of EU and non EU countries) then I urge you to watch this.
January is a quiet time for beekeepers – there are no hive inspections to be done and the honey has all been bottled. If you look at any month by month guide to beekeeping then they all suggest that the beekeeper should spend their time reading up on bees.
We’ve been making some plans for the coming season. We’ve also pulled out some of our favourite bee books. I’d like to share one that I love that has been in my world all my life.
This book was published in 1947 and was given to my mother when she was a child. It has a series of cartoons that follow the life cycles of various creatures, including honeybees, silkworms, flies, termites and spiders. It is surprisingly detailed and accurate.
It’s long out of print, but I’ve noticed that second hand copies are available from www.abebooks.co.uk
I’m often asked if I’d like our empty jars back – and my answer is always “YES PLEASE!”
We deliberately use labels that can be easily removed, so that once the jars have been thoroughly washed they can be reused for honey again.
We have to use new lids, so if they have been lost then we’d still like the jars.
If I need a gift for a honey lover – and I know a few… then naturally I often give them some of our own honey. I try and pay attention to which type they prefer- dark or light, runny or set, chunk or cut-comb… sometimes honey just isn’t quite enough, so here are a few ideas that I love:
1. Alessi Honey pot – £76
I really like this honey pot – it is beautifully designed and made out of glass and stainless steel. My main gripe with most honey pots it that the lids have holes in them. Honey tends to absorb water from the air, which can eventually lead to it fermenting. Additionally in our house we need to be careful to keep any honey in sealed containers otherwise we end up attracting our own bees into the kitchen, this is particularly a problem in the summer if the windows are open! Bees have excellent noses for tracking down honey.
2. Tala Stainless Steel Honey Spoon – £4.08
If your budget is a little smaller, then I highly recommend this spoon. It’s cleverly designed to perfectly balance on the rim of a pot of honey, so any drips fall back into the jar. We’ve had one of these for several years and it’s perfect for when you have a jar on the table and everyone is helping themselves to honey – no more teaspoons slipping into the jar and ending up with hideously sticky handles!
3. Supoon Mini Spoon – £6.23
I hate wasting honey. The bees work so hard to produce it that I think that its criminal to waste even a single drop. That’s where these brilliant little spatulas come in. They are super flexible and somehow mange to scrape every tiny bit of honey out of the jar. They are particularly fantastic for getting into the corners of our hexagonal jars. We’ve had one for about 4 years and it looks as good as new. Ours was sent to us by a friend in Australia, but I’m pleased to see that they are now available over here.
4. Bee Mix from Seed Balls – £6.99
If you love honey then you need to learn to love flowers too – without flowers there is no honey. These sweet tins contains a mixture of 1000 seeds specifically chosen because they’ll grow into plants that bees are attracted to. This would be an ideal gift for some one who loves honey and wants to do their bit for helping the bees along the way. It might be fun to combine this with one of these bee spotter’s charts from the RSPB (£3.99). Our children love referring to our copy when we are out in the garden.
While I was sorting out our jars of honey to take to the Fortismere Christmas Fair on Sunday I noticed that some our honey has started to set. Some people seem to have very strong preferences about whether they like set or runny honey and many people ask me about why honey goes through this process.
Nearly all honey will naturally set eventually. The time that it takes to set depends on which flowers the bees have been foraging on. Lime tree honey sets extremely slowly, whereas ivy and oil-seed-rape honey can set in the comb before the beekeeper has a chance to extract it.
Simply put, honey is a mixture of glucose and fructose. Nectar from different flowers contains different proportions of the two sugars. Setting of honey is caused by the crystallization of the glucose, so honey with a low proportion of glucose will set more slowly than one with a higher proportion.
There are a couple of other factors that will influence the crystallization speed. Low temperatures will speed up the setting process. Honey with plenty of pollen grains tends to set more quickly too. The reason is that the microscopic grains act as starters for the crystals to grow around. Commercial honey is often fine filtered at high temperatures in order to remove the pollen in order to slow down the setting rate and increase the shelf life of their honey – set honey apparently doesn’t sell so well! I’d suggest that the opposite is true as we often have people asking if we have any set honey…
The good news is that set honey is perfectly edible, and is another delicious way to enjoy honey! If you really must have runny honey, then you can stand the jar in a bowl of warm water, or warm it extremely gently in the oven. I’d never recommend using the microwave as you’ll end up with hot spots.
If you’d like to try some of our set honey, Lot #34 is available in our website shop
I’ll make a note in the descriptions of the other lots if they set too.