À la carte dining for pollinators

In addition to the list of things in our newly sown wildflower meadow mentioned in a previous post, I thought I would add a note of things we have chosen to plant specifically with pollinators in mind, mostly honey bees of course, but also things friendly to solitary bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

We tried to find things that flower over the widest possible period, but we are still working on finding a few more things for early spring (March, or February even) and autumn (October/November). I will update here as we find those.

For now we have:

Ceanothus Concha ‘Californian Lilac’
Clematis Montana Grandiflora
Clematis Montana Wilsonii
Clematis Viticella ‘Venosa Violacea’
Viburnum Bodnantense Dawn
Knautia Macedonica ‘Melton Pastels’
Nepeta Six Hills Giant Catmint
Nepeta Walkers Low Catmint
Lupin Gallery Blue
Lupin Gallery White
Foxglove Apricot Beauty
Foxglove x Mertonensis
Hollyhock Double Maroon
Hollyhock Double White
Hollyhock Halo Apricot
Lavender ‘Hidcote’
Scabious Butterfly Blue Beauty
Lithodora Diffusa Heavenly Blue
Red Clover
Bird’s Foot Trefoil
Meadow Clary
Bladder Campion
Fox and Cubs
Ribwort Plantain
Foxley Thyme
Creeping White Thyme
Lemon Balm
Marjoram Compact
Marjoram Gold-Tipped


The ones that got away

I mentioned a post or two back that I was starting again, I had kept bees before.

Strictly speaking this is true, but my first bees absconded from their new hive within days of their arrival. Trust me, this is depressing, maybe as much as losing a colony over-winter or to disease, and it took me months to be able to think about keeping bees again.

Read a full post about this experience here: Absconders

I have been working towards keeping bees for about twelve years, most of that time in reading everything I could find. During that period I had become enamoured with the idea of having a Horizontal Top Bar Hive, about which more in the links mentioned below. After attending a course I discovered this was as practical a way to start as any other and not as ‘far out’ as traditionalists might have one believe.

Unluckily this is also one of the toughest hives to introduce new bees to, mainly because they do not arrive on frames (literally a narrow wooden frame with a layer of beeswax cells supported within it) or with brood (the term for eggs, larvae and young developing bees), so the preservation and rearing of the young is not an imperative for them at the point they are introduced to the hive, and so absconding is a very viable option for the colony. I explain more about why they may have absconded in that post linked above.

During the lead-up to my first attempt I also posted a few things about my thinking and my plans, see:
Something About Bees
Beehive Hearth & Home
Bee House
Hive Tour
DIY Top Bar Hive Feeder

I have decided to compromise on a number of ideals and opt for the more common approach of hiving my new colony in a National Hive (this is one of the unromantic boxy looking hives used by most commercial beekeepers and by those starting under the tutelage of experienced beekeepers, for the main reason that most people use them and therefore you can easily borrow extra bits from fellow beekeepers and they all fit and interchange).

This time the bees will come as an over-wintered nuc (, pronounced ‘nuke’ or to give it it’s full name a nucleus, which is like a small starter box of bees on a few frames containing brood and with a laying queen – the overwintered bit just means she’s not a new queen, she’ll be starting her second season, so has a bit of experience!) Because of these factors I hope they will be a settled starter colony able to adapt quickly to a new home.

I certainly haven’t ruled out the horizontal top-bar hive, but my plans now are more around populating it from a swarm or by artificially swarming my existing colony when the time comes (don’t worry about what that means yet, I’ll explain later).

I hope to post about that adventure given the opportunity at some future point…

Location, location, location

Since last year we have embarked upon a major overhaul of our garden, specifically with a view to making it a more bee-friendly space.

The old rickety fence, which blew over if downwind of an energetic sneeze, is gone. Replaced with a more wind resistant slatted design of Western Red Cedar posts and bars. The close spacing of the bars offers privacy and surprisingly, considering how much ‘nothing’ is between them, more wind resistance than a solid fence. It’ll be something to do with the science of airflow and wind currents. Anyway this is good news for bees who do not like strong winds. And good news for me because I don’t have to keep fixing blown-down panels.

The apiary itself has an enclosure of woven willow screens, this helps as an additional windbreak for the hive and creates one of those garden rooms that fancy designers are always going on about, in which we can sit with a cup of tea and watch activity at the hive entrance.

Along the back of the Apiary against the new fence we are planting almost exclusively plants that bees love, with a focus on trying to offer a wide range of flowering across the season. Additionally we have tubs at the bases of the willow panels and some hanging baskets too for scented herbs which will find favour with the bees and with us while we sit and relax.

One area has been completely cleared of turf and re-sown with natural meadow seeds, including a general bee-friendly mix and specifically Seedballs consisting Birdsfoot Trefoil, Wild Marjoram, Viper’s-Bugloss, Red Clover and Foxglove. We’ve not forgotten the butterflies either with additional seedballs containing Red Campion, Musk Mallow, Cornflower, Oxeye Daisy, Cowslip, Meadow Cranesbill and Yellow Toadflax.

We still plan a raised vegetable bed, hopefully we can construct that this year. And next year… well there is the whole shady side of the garden to re-evaluate and rejuvenate with some new bee-friendly shade-loving species.

2nd Time Lucky

April 2014 and bees are coming for the second time.

There ia another post which explains what happened the first time, but this is a new start.

I am a beginner beekeeper. I barely consider myself a beekeeper yet. I have had bees briefly, very briefly. I have read lots of books and been on courses and spoken to beekeepers, and I am a member of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA).

And given all the stuff I know already, it is the lessons I will learn from the bees themselves that most excite me.

I am a student of beekeeping, a pupil at the hive, an apprentice of bees.

Adventure Kartel Mumbz


Numerically it is definitely the 3A toys in the ascendency in my collection. In the “Adventure Kartel” line there was a 2013 release of steam-powered mummies (or Mumbz as creator Ashley Wood dubbed them). Released in a four-pack or in blind-box singles I only ordered one because the pictures 3A released prior to the sale were, basically, awful.

Well these turned out to be a whole lot better once they reached us than the promo pictures had suggested. They did a really good job of the paint with nice subtleties between the different colourways and an amazing job wrapping the bandages. And wow! Suddenly one was not enough…
threeA Mumbz
So now the grail is a glow-in-the-dark variant, which definitely seems to be the ultra rare version!




ab·scond — verb

to depart in a sudden and secret manner

( intr ) to run away secretly, esp from an open institution
[C16: from Latin abscondere to hide, put away, from abs-]


A post about bees is long overdue. Unfortunately I had a big setback with my beekeeping plans that left me depressed about the whole subject and certainly not in the mood to write about it.

A few months later and it’s still depressing if not so immediate. After years and years of reading and ten months of planning and working towards getting my first colony this year, it all went wrong so quickly.

Part of what made the thing that happened so bad relates to the weather.

First there was last year’s disastrously wet summer which left many honey bee colonies weak and underprepared for the winter, and then the UK’s longest winter for many a year which saw snow still on the ground in April and temperatures significantly lower than the seasonal averages way into May.

All this terrible weather meant that honey bees were in big trouble by March and April when in any other year they may have been feeding well, with young bees appearing and colonies growing in strength.

Instead, spring 2013 saw colonies dead from hunger and bees on metaphorical zimmer frames struggling to forage for food from plants also coming out of winter 6-8 weeks later than normal.

One consequence was that many of those supplying bee colonies to beginners and to those expanding their apiaries, found they were short on numbers and some people where going to miss out this year.

Initially I was lucky, the people supplying my bees still had enough colonies to be able to sell me one. It was later in the season than ideal, but at least I had a colony.

bees tipped from their travelling box onto a cloth by the hive entrance

bees tipped from their travelling box onto a cloth by the hive entrance

The bad luck came in what followed. I housed my bees in my new hive and that whole operation went pretty much as all the books had said it would. I had food supplies in the hive ready for them and two water sources in the immediate vicinity as well as others within the garden as a whole. Bees explored, activity was visble at the hive entrance for the first four days, and I left them alone and the hive shut as all the advice seemed to indicate one should.

However on the afternoon of the fourth day, despite it being mild and sunny I couldn’t see any activity around the entrance. I hadn’t been observing them continuously, but I had approached within about 6-8 metres every few hours when excitement and curiosity would no longer allow me to stay away.

I stood watching for a few minutes and curiosity turned to concern and then worry. It probably took less than five minutes for the lack of activity to spur me to break the rule and look closer. I’m fortunate to have an observation window in my hive, so at least I wouldn’t be committing the cardinal sin of opening the hive.

I quickly discovered this was an uneccessary precaution – as soon as I looked in the window I could see the hive was empty.

My bees had buzzed off.

Now everyone who knows nothing about beekeeping has heard of swarms – but this was not swarming in the accepted sense, which usually happens when there are too many bees for the hive and the colony splits itself in two, one half of the bees leave with the old queen to find a new home – that’s a swarm.

But that’s not what happened to me, all my bees went at once – This is Absconding.

Basically the bees find a home they prefer somewhere else, probably not many miles away, and they move house en-masse and establish their colony in their preferred location.

The first thing everyone asks me is why they went and what could I have done to prevent it. The real answer is it is very hard to say exactly why any one colony of bees absconds. A number of factors can contribute and it’s very hard to work out specifically what caused a particular colony to go, so it’s equally hard to say what one could have done to stop it happening.

It seems that this phenomenon is more common using a hive of this type where frames of food and brood (the young bees in egg and larval form) are not moved into the hive when the bees are housed.

some bees on the ramp, others reluctant to leave the travelling box (bottom right)

some bees on the ramp, others reluctant to leave the travelling box (bottom right)

Mine is a horizontal top bar hive, and encourages the bees to start from scratch, make new wax comb, free of any issues which may be introduced to the hive by transferring frames of old wax from another hive. But by the nature of imposing this on the bees they have left behind all the brood they had been rearing in the nucleus hive (where they were raised) so there is nothing tying them to the new space, no young to care for, they are free to find a better pad with cooler wallpaper to start again!

What we also know is that in any newly built hive there are no familiar smells, it hadn’t housed bees before, it didn’t smell of bees, it had no reassuring traces of pheromones from colonies past.

It may also be that some scout bees found a plentiful food source and near it a space suitable for the colony which was preferable just because the food was nearby.

It could have been something entirely different.

But here’s the crunch  because of the shortages of colonies I mentioned above – that was it, my chances to establish a colony in 2013 were blown, there were never going to be surplus colonies of bees so I could try again. Also because the year started so late, there was a much reduced possibility that colonies would get strong, big and split themselves into swarms, which in another year may have been a way for me to get more bees.

Basically a load of factors, most outside my control, screwed all my plans.

The question I get asked most now is will you try again? Of course I will – I’ve wanted to do this for years. I just have to accept that I’m starting in 2014 instead.

I may however take the precaution of having a mixed hive environment, start with a more conventional National Hive into which bees can be introduced with their brood and stores and hope that if they thrive I can later artificially swarm them (split the colony) and try to introduce the swarm into the Horizontal Top Bar Hive.

Only time will tell.

Some other beekeepers posts about absconding bees:

Why did my bees leave?

The Walden Effect – Homesteading year 7


Coughs and Sneezes

A short note about a big subject, the honeybee, pests and disease.

It seems that we’ve all started to understand that in simple terms what we think of as germs have evolved over time to become resistant to the medicines we developed to combat them. We also have the idea however unscientific that exposure to low levels of infection helps us to develop a natural immunity and resist a more serious strain. And “survival of the fittest” is a widely accepted concept in nature. The weak strains are weeded out by the stronger animals succeeding in breeding and the weaker animals failing to breed, falling victim to predators more easily, etc.

There seems to be a reluctance to allow this principle to apply to bees. Perhaps in part that is because we acknowledge (or if we are in denial, refuse to acknowledge) that many of the pests and diseases facing bees have been spread and intensified by our interference, by our import of non-native strains, by our methods of farming them for their honey crop, and our mass movement of them by the millions in order to pollinate our fruit crops.

However there are those who believe that we must encourage the bees to develop their own natural resistance to these pests and diseases wherever we can.

BUT in order to do this we must reduce our interference. This means resisting the desire to treat something common like Varroa Mite at its first appearance, some argue that maybe we should encourage the bees to tackle this parasite themselves. Maybe we should optimise the conditions that allow the bees to be as strong as possible and therefore as naturally resistant as possible. Maybe if the colony cannot develop the strength to resist the parasite we should allow it to die out. Survival of the fittest. The argument goes, if we support these weak bees artificially then the bees which breed from this colony will be arguably weaker and the new colony they create as a consequence is a weaker colony even more prone to failure and subject to parasites and diseases.

Of course if losing a colony’s honey crop is more important to you then you will medicate against these problems and harvest the honey and make the money you need to stay in business. And it’s hard not to argue against this logic, unless you are not reliant on the money, then the principal is easy to put ahead of the practical.

Powell House

Young people are mentalists, the lot of ’em, mad as a bag of frogs!

That’s what keeps grumpy old geezers like me feeling young though, laughing at, err I mean with the youngsters…

Amongst the mentalists, there is always a King & Queen – the biggest mentalists of their generation.

I haven’t had the honour of meeting the King yet, but without doubt Her Majesty the Queen of The Nutters is our dear friend Lizzie.

To mark her achievement of this elevated status of lunacy, and because she will make a “Squeeeee” of delight at this (which will be so high pitched I won’t be able to hear it), our first Bee Hive and our first Queen Bee are named in her honour.

Thanks to the genius and generosity of Sign-O-Matic
a brilliant website (www.signomatic.co.uk) offering free signs to bloggers, we are able to commemorate her ascension by making a sign for attachment to the front of the hive.

DIY Top Bar Hive Feeder

Access holes for bees to get in to the feeding bays, food will be positioned above the meshBees couldn’t have had a worse start to 2013.

After the wet British summer last year food stocks in the hive were always likely to be lower than normal. Add the terrible extended UK winter conditions which stamped all over the start of spring, and you end up with bees starving for want of new food sources right in to April, six weeks after they may have been flying in any other year.

Room for two 700ml jars one above each feeding baySo one of the challenges facing me and my new bees due to arrive in May, will be whether they have enough time and forage to get their stocks up this summer. That means finding a method by which I can introduce sugar syrup into the hive to supplement any shortfall. For now I’m not going to get into the debate about whether bees will go ‘down’ or ‘across’ to food, rather than ‘up’. In a Top Bar Hive (TBH), going sideways to a feeder is the most workable option, and given that in a TBH the bees build their honey stores to the side of the brood, providing additional food on that same side seems most likely to succeed.

Building the U-shaped bays from spare timber.Strangely, given the now extensive use of horizontal top bar hives, a commercially available feeder design is not easy to find (I haven’t found a single one despite scouring any number of web resources) although a few hive builders do offer one, making it leak proof seemed to be an issue. My solution is to build my own, and thanks to the good folks writing The Honey Beat blog, I  found a design I could manage to construct myself even with my seriously limited DIY skills.

Feeder access bays constructed.My one indulgence in this design was to source a spare follower board – normally used to seal bees into a section of a TBH – rather than making one myself. Thanks to Catherine at Bees’n’Blossoms for supplying one that is unsurprisingly a perfect fit for the hive they supplied earlier. I also needed to buy some mesh, the sort normally used in hives for varroa floors, but apart from these two purchases, all the other materials are salvaged, or were found lying around in the shed!

Mesh cut to sizeOne of the first steps was to find an appropriate container for the sugar syrup. I have seen promising designs which use Tupperware style containers, but most designs use inverted jars with pierced lids, and as I already had one 700ml jar with the advantage of a squat & relatively stable design this formed the basis of what I built.

Mesh stapled into positionFrom the version I’d seen pictured I knew I needed to start by finding a platform to become the base and adding short lengths of timber to create a three-sided bay, a U-shape, the open end of which would face onto the follower board, with holes drilled to allow access into the bay.

Checking the position of the jarIn the design on The Honey Beat they added mesh corners to fit snug around the jar lid and prevent gaps from which the bees could escape. However someone in their blog comments had approached things differently by making a complete covering of mesh on which the jar stood, and allowing the bees to feed through the mesh layer. This meant the jar could be removed for re-filling without bees escaping through the circular hole. This seemed both more practical, and easier to achieve so I decided to try that approach first.

Attaching the follower board to a top bar which will hold it upright in the hive.As soon as I started checking space in the hive, I quickly realised that even better I had room for two jars, side by side. This meant double the food supply, double the access for the bees to feed, less opening of the hive for frequent refilling.

Marking the position of the platform ready for drilling holes through the follower boardOnce the access bays were built, I stapled the mesh over the top, and knowing the combined weight of two full jars would put a strain on any fixings, I also cut a crude reinforcing block to fit below the platform and provide some extra support.

Holes to allow the bees access to the feeding baysThe next step was to test fit the platform against the follower board, marking its position, and from this simply mark where to drill the holes through the board to allow the bees into the feeding bays. I used a 5/8ths wood drill bit to make the holes, as this was close to the size of the entrance holes in the TBH, and also fit within the ‘height’ of the access bays.

Platform attached to the 'rear' of the follower boardOnce the holes were drilled, I marked up several places to drill pilot holes for the screws which would attach the platform to the follower board. In the end I put in seven screws, probably far more than absolutely necessary, but I didn’t want the whole structure ripping off the board when fully loaded. I did also fix a thin strip of wood immediately above the point at which the mesh butted up to the follower board, this is purely precautionary, just to make sure there was no gap to encourage bees upwards.

Platform attached, checking the position of the jar, and planning a method to hold it in placeI have one further thing to consider. Although the hive is level, and the platform on the follower board is also level, just for peace of mind, I’d like to find a way to temporarily secure the jars in position above the access bays. I don’t think I need anything substantial, it’s more a case of stopping me knocking a jar off while manipulating things inside the hive, or while topping one of the jars up. A simple retaining mechanism will also make sure I line up the jars in the optimum position when replacing them full.

View of the access holes and feeding bay area down through the meshMy plan, yet to be implemented, is to staple a nylon cable tie to the follower board around the mid-point of the jar, thereby enabling a loop to be created, loose enough to lift the jars in and out, but providing just enough stability to stop a jar sliding out of position, or off of the platform.

I’ll try to post one more picture once this, or a better solution, is constructed.

Hive tour

temporary positionA quick photo tour of the first hive. This is a Horizontal Top Bar Hive, sometimes called a Kenyan Top Bar Hive but mostly just a Top Bar Hive.

First pic is the hive in the garden, but not in it’s final position, which you have to decide before the bees move in. Once the bees are in residence, they learn exactly where the hive is in relation to it’s immediate surroundings. This means you cannot move it more than about three feet while any bees are out on forage flights as they can’t find the hive when they get back, and as a result will most likely die. Before the bees arrive this hive will be repositioned in the back bit of the garden much further away from houses so as not to alarm the neighbours.

end entrance with alighting boardThese three holes in the end are the entrance. This hive has entrances at both ends, although a single colony only uses one entrance, this feature allows you to house two colonies in the same hive in certain circumstances. The entrance also has an alighting platform, some argue the absence of these helps to deter hive robbers, particularly mice, but it can help you more easily observe activity at the hive entrance, which for a beginner is both exciting and instructional.

The entrance on the other end is currently sealed using the highly technical device of three corks from wine bottles. A moveable bee-tight board is fitted between the two colonies to keep them separate.

sliding floorThis TBH has a mesh floor and cover boards. The Mesh allows ventilation, the boards, fitted like drawers allow you to close the mesh over in the coldest bit of winter (or as late as mid March as we seem to be finding this year) to help the bees keep warm. Also the drawers can be fitted with a temporary sticky surface which will catch varroa mites, a common parasite, dislodged from the bees during grooming. Detached mites fall through the mesh floor, stick to whatever you use and allow you to count the numbers and estimate the population of mites in the hive and decide whether an appropriate course of treatment is necessary.

top bars showing reinforcing rodsThe top bars. These are what the bees build their comb on, in this case they have been fitted with reinforcing rods to help strengthen the comb and prevent it breaking away with the weight of honey, a rare but not unknown problem. Another benefit of the increased comb strength is to resist clumsy handling by the beginner beekeeper… Unlike the frames and foundation of a National hive (or any of the similar designs) Comb on a top bar does not have a rigid square frame, or a foundation of man-made beeswax re-inforced by wire. It is natural comb built entirely by the bees from the wax they make themselves, but it is only attached along the bar, so handling of the comb has to be along the axis of strength, if you tip it sideways, especially if there is any weight of honey in it, the comb will snap or break off the bar, pretty major disaster.

Inspection window uncoveredBest of all the whole of one side of the hive has an inspection window with a removable wooden cover. The cover is in place most of the time as it keeps the hive warm and the light out, which the bees prefer. The window allows some viewing of what the bees are up to without opening up the hive. This is particularly important because every time the roof is removed and the top bars lifted, heat and scent (pheremones) escape the hive, an atmosphere the bees can spend many days trying to recreate. This stresses them and uses up energy, all of which make them weaker and more prone to disease… So us eager beginners who can’t resiste checking on our bees more regularly than is advisable get a way of doing it which has minimum impact on the colony.

More in due course for those with perseverance and stamina 🙂