Bees and Borage


One of our Honeybees feeding on Borage we planted in the apiary


Honeybees in the Borage flowers


The Red Queen

Probably the one thing everyone looking at bees wants to see is the Queen.

Famously she can be difficult to spot, often she will be keen to stay out of the light and of course although she looks very different from the other bees, she is concealed amongst many thousands of them so finding her can be a challenge.

Queens are commonly marked, a spot of colour is applied to her back. This dot of colour not only makes her easier to find, but the colour of this dot is very significant, it tells you which year the Queen was raised.

Queens produced in years ending in a 1 or a 6 are marked with a White dot, years ending 2 or 7 with Yellow, 3 or 8 Red, 4 or 9 Green and 5 or 0 Blue. The life expectancy of a Queen is maybe five years.

My Queen was reared in 2013, so she bears a red dot.

But unlike Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen mine does not rule – in fact the Queen bee is not in charge at all. It is we humans who label her Queen, assigning her the role of ruler of the hive, but in fact she is better thought of as Mother of the hive.

Despite not being in charge however, the Queen can have an impact on all of the other bees. Given that they are her offspring, they can inherit her qualities, so if she is aggressive all of the bees in the colony will tend to be aggressive, harder for the beekeeper to deal with and more likely to sting anyone approaching or lingering in the vicinity of the hive.

Conversely if the Queen is placid, the colony will tend to be easy to handle and not overly bothered by humans meddling in the running of their home. It is not uncommon in the case of an aggressive Queen for the Beekeeper to commit regicide and replace her with a new, hopefully better behaved Queen. Thankfully my bees all seem to be very calm and mostly unfazed by my inexperienced handling.

A matter of opinion

I have mentioned previously that one of the first things I was told on my beekeeping course was that in any discussion between two beekeepers there will be at least three suggestions about how best to do something.

And there is no denying the essential truth in that observation – there are many sources of information available for the beginner (intermediate and experienced) beekeeper. No longer is this advice just limited to books and association newsletters, but now multiplied by the power of the interweb into a global knowledge-base.

The problem is that many of these sources differ on the advice they give about any one process or technique. It is fair enough to imagine that some ideas and approaches would and should differ for beekeepers in Africa say, to those in the colder climes of northern Europe. Or for many other examples of genuine difference necessitated by things like forage, threats and pests. The real issue is deciding between all the different approaches when the advice relates directly to the circumstances under which you keep bees – the opinions will still be abundant and they will vary, from small differences in the details right around the spectrum, to directly contradictory techniques – Do this, versus, never do that!

So for the beginner, the big question is more often, not How do I do this? As it is, Which of the various ways of doing this suggested to me do I use?

And there is no authority to turn to*, no one to make a final ruling. All you can do is read all the contradictory advice, assimilate all the slight variations in method and try to tread a middle way, and discover for yourself whether that approach to that particular operation works for your bees in their situation.


*okay, so this is not necessarily true, if you have joined your local BBKA branch they will almost certainly have assigned you a mentor who can answer most of your questions from their own personal experience. The problem is that the way each beekeeper does things is often based on what works best for them, rather than any absolute correct way to do it, and so we loop back round to the point I made initially.


Years before I went on a course or joined the BBKA, I bought a book about beekeeping. Over the next twelve years I bought, or was generously gifted, a few more.

Here is my library as it currently stands:

Hooper, Ted (1978) Guide to Bees and Honey, Blandford Press, UK, ISBN 1904846246
Amazon link

Scott, William (1977) Backyard Beekeeping, Prism Press, UK, ISBN 0904727432
Abe Books search

Maeterlinck, Maurice (1901, this edition 2006) The Life of The Bee, Dover Publications Inc., UK, ISBN 0486451437
Amazon Kindle link

Chandler, P.J. (2009) The Barefoot, UK, ISBN 1409271145
Amazon link

Heaf, David (2011) The Bee-friendly Beekeeper: A Sustainable Approach, Northern Bee Books, ISBN 1904846602
Abe Books search

Storch, H. (1985) At the hive entrance: Observation handbook, European Apiculture Editions, UK

Warré, Abbé Émile (1948, this translation 2010) Beekeeping For All, Northern Bee Books, UK, ISBN 1904846521
Amazon link

Melzer, Werner (2000) Beekeeping: A Complete Owner’s Manual, Barron’s Educational Series Inc., USA, ISBN 0812040899
Amazon link

Cramp, David (2011) The Beekeeper’s Field Guide: A Pocket Guide to the Health and Care of Bees, Spring Hill, UK, ISBN 1905862512
Amazon link

Davies, Andrew (2007) Beekeeping: Inspiration and Practical Advice for Would-be Smallholders, Collins & Brown, UK, ISBN 1843404184
Amazon link

Heller, Jenny, Editor (2010) Collins Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, honey, recipes and other home uses, Collins, UK, ISBN 0007279892
Amazon link

Blackiston, Howland (2002) Beekeeping For Dummies, John Wiley & Sons, UK, ISBN 0764554190
Amazon link

Waring, Adrian & Claire (2011) Bee Manual: The Complete Step-by-step Guide to Keeping Bees, J H Haynes & Co Ltd, UK, ISBN 0857330578
Amazon link

Head, Vivian (2011) Keeping Bees: Looking After an Apiary, Arcturus Publishing, UK, ISBN 1907231064
Amazon Kindle link

Squire, David (2011) Bee-Kind Garden: Apian Wisdom for Your Garden, Green, UK, ISBN 085784024X
Amazon link

Little, Maureen (2011) The Bee Garden: How to Create or Adapt a Garden To Attract and Nurture Bees, Spring Hill, UK, ISBN 1905862598
Amazon link

Dearsley, James (2012) From A to Bee, Summersdale, UK, ISBN 1849532729
Amazon link

Turnbull, Bill (2010) The Bad Beekeepers Club, Sphere, UK, ISBN 1615190325
Amazon link

Preston, Claire (2006) Bee, Reaktion Books, UK, ISBN 186189256X
Amazon Kindle link

Duffy, Carol Ann (2012) Bees, UK, ISBN 0330442449
Amazon Kindle link

Other bee related reading, including fiction:

Wilson, Bee (2004) The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, John Murray, UK, ISBN 0719564093
Amazon link

Paull, Laline (2014) The Bees, Fourth Estate, UK, ISBN 0007557728
Amazon link

King, Laurie R. (2000) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, UK, ISBN 0006514340
Amazon link

Monk Kidd, Sue (2003) The Secret Life of Bees, Headline Review, UK, ISBN 0747266832
Amazon link

Cinnamon vs black ants

So my new bees seem to be getting on very well and as recommended I have been feeding them sugar syrup to help this relatively small colony draw out comb on the new frames and reduce their labour foraging while their numbers increase.

However, checking on the level of the syrup today I found a large number of black ants had also located this free food source and were doing their best to access it. Clearing away the ones I could see I then resorted to my usual first-call for a quick bit of research, the internet – and quickly found several references to a nice bio friendly solution, cinnamon, which apparently ants do not care for at all, whereas bees are apparently indifferent to it.

A quick raid of the kitchen cupboard and a few cinnamon sticks located, broken up and placed around the feeder lid, under the roof where I found the ants congregating. I also used the last bit of cinnamon around the legs of the stand to help discourage the little blighters from climbing up in the first place.

Will check again tomorrow and see if this is working. There are other options, like standing the legs in moats of water (or even oil) but would like to avoid that if I can. May also spend some time trying to work out where the ants nest is and tackle the problem at it’s source with the old fashioned kettle of boiling water option.

Bees by post

We live a relatively green life. Some things like not having central heating but burning wood as a main heat source are low impact outside the home, but we also do not drive, we never have.

Unfortunately the lack of personal transport can place limits on some things. Beekeeping is a hobby in which the acquiring of new bees relies heavily on the ability to transport them. Even going to collect a swarm can be difficult without a means to travel to their location and a method to convey a box full of bees back to the apiary. Transporting hive parts full of honey ready to harvest, to a place where it can be extracted, could also prevent a difficulty if an apiary is some distance from ones home as many often are.

Luckily for me, having a car is not always essential. It is perfectly possible to buy bees through the internet and have them delivered by post.

This is pretty straightforward when it comes to getting hold of a new Queen for example, they come in small packages and if sent using a fast service, with ventilation and clearly marked they should make the journey safely enough. However having a nucleus of bees delivered is a whole other thing. Four, five or six frames of comb with brood, maybe up to five-thousand bees in a box – that is not something in which there is any margin for error.

My new colony travelled the relatively short distance from Hampshire to Gloucestershire via Royal Mail Special Delivery. My regular and very friendly postman said he’d delivered bees before, but he still looked pretty relieved to hand them over to me.

Anyway it only took a few minutes to place the box where the hive will go, and open the flap to let them stretch their wings and orientate themselves a little, before I move them into their new house later today.

Again with the weather?!

No doubting that the reason we live in a green and pleasant land is because of our weather patterns, our moderate temperatures and our rainfall.

But it is messing with my plans. Bees are not crazy about rain, they don’t fly to collect pollen and nectar if there is heavy rain. And they’re not keen on strong winds either. Oh, and they don’t do so well in the cold, so you really don’t want to take the roof off their house when the temperature is low. They spend a lot of time and energy keeping the temperature in the hive at an optimal level, so lifting the lid and letting all that carefully controlled atmosphere out is certainly not something to do on a cool or cold day.

After a lovely dry and warm couple of weeks in late April the weather has suddenly turned unpredictable, showery, cool and blowy. Not a great time to get a nucleus hive of bees and move them to a new location.

So the colony are not yet in residence. We await a few warm dry days. C’mon May, get your act together.

Blackthorn & Gorse

A sudden and unexpected opportunity has arisen to add two useful bee friendly plants to our new garden planting scheme.

We have a garden that is cut in two by a right-of-way, giving access to the gardens of neighbours to our right. This sounds less than desirable, but in effect this gives us two gardens. Yay!

We have a very private, smaller garden backing directly on to the house, and the other side of the narrow access path, a slightly wider and significantly longer garden, with room for a summerhouse, shed(s) and an apiary.

To the right of the gate into this ‘second’ garden, there is a ‘dead space’, an area about 2m x 1m which for as long as we’ve lived here has been full of a mature, unwieldy and more recently largely dead broom, some mahonia, a climbing rose, some ivy and something closely resembling privet which had sort of invaded from next door.

Luckily for us our new neighbours are getting to grips with the overgrown garden they inherited when they moved in, and cutting back all the stuff that went crazy while the house was empty. As a result this space has been partially cleared and we dug out most of the rest of the unplanned things too.

So, why blackthorn and gorse? Well they are great for the bees. Blackthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) flowers really early in the year, and gorse (Ulex europaeus) also flowers early and more importantly has a long flowering season, in fact it can flower almost all year round. They are great plants for hedging too, so we can enclose this bit of land at the corner of the garden, a minimal bit of fence can be put in to preserve the boundary and the bees have some spectacular forage.

On the subject of good planting, I can recommend a great book. My wife, who is in charge of the gardening side of this venture, has been very impressed reading ‘The Bee Garden’ by Maureen Little.