Summer starvation warning

The National Bee Unit has just issued a starvation alert for parts of the UK. Here in Oxfordshire, we’ve had a great start to the year, the bees have boomed, hives were heavy with stores early in the year and swarms began about a month early. There are many flowers visible to the eye. So why do we need to worry?

The short answer is lack of rainfall. For some weeks we’ve had relentless sun and heat, which is lovely up to a point, but plants need water to make nectar. Without rain, that blossom is empty. Conversely, in some years we have excessive rain extending throughout peak forage periods, which can hinder nectar production in key plants.

And even if a hive has honey stored, bees can’t eat pure honey. They need to dilute it to make it digestible, so they need a water source not just for cooling but to use their stores. Do your bees have a handy water source? Is it topped up? Continue reading

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ONBG meeting, 13th May 2017 – swarms and exotic hives

3 to 4kg swarm on swarm attractor

Eighteen folk met at Gareth’s apiary in West Oxfordshire, where he experiments with hive variations and populates them with free mated bees descended from the extensive population of local ferals. Gareth is a trustee of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, has over 40 years’ experience in keeping bees, and offers training in natural beekeeping.

Three attendees had come over from the Wye Valley Natural Beekeeping group, in Wales – they were here to network and swap ideas. They felt we Oxfordshire beeks are very lucky to have Gareth nearby to mentor us. Continue reading

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Bees in trees

We were inspired by our visit to Pertwood farm and their support of a traditional honey bee lifestyle. (see here). After reading Jonathan Powell’s guide to tree bee keeping (get here) we thought that Oxfordshire could also host some of this practice. But it is difficult to get people to agree to this type of project; perhaps it takes more time?

20170430_095706Anyway the beech tree in our garden is not large enough; another 50 years and it will do fine… Fresh inspiration came from Matt Somerville (freedom).
Surely making something like that would fit up our tree? And so, after a lot of staring upwards at our tree and making hand gestures, a prototype was started.
This was made from some pallet wood initially – it’s a prototype. Some quotes for western red cedar turned the prototype into mark 1. £250 seemed a lot for something that might not work.

Continue reading

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The ‘other’ bees: Steven Falk workshop

wp_20170521_018.jpgA few months ago, the news was filled with stories about intelligent bumblebees. New research showed that they could learn to pull strings and play football. As a ‘bee’ person I was interested, but I had a strange feeling that I was not allowed to be interested – as if I had somehow declared myself on the ‘honeybee’ side of an imaginary divide, and that these ‘other’ bees were outside of my area.

On ‘my’ side of the fence is the Western honeybee – the familiar, hive-dwelling Apis mellifera. On the other is a vaguely-stripey buzzing mass of bumble-bees, mining-bees and other bees, which then merge gradually into wasps, hornets and hoverflies. For many beekeepers, the world seems starkly split into ‘honeybees’ and ‘not honeybees’. I had found myself firmly on one side of this arbitrary divide, and wanted to get a glimpse into the other world. Continue reading

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Cob beehive – an experimental top-bar hive adaption

the cob-lined hive. Note the comb from another hive being used as a template.

One of the key pieces of advice for any new beekeeper is to have at least two populated-hives. In the event that a hive becomes queenless, brood-comb from another can be moved to it (so the bees can raise an emergency queen). Or if any colony is low on stores, a frame of honey can be transferred. But to gain any benefit from multiple hives, the parts need to be interchangeable – having a warre hive and a top-bar hive is interesting, but you can’t easily move combs from one to the other.

Earlier this year, I got a second top-bar hive. Although it was the same type as the first one, the size and shape were different. It was wider and deeper, so although it would be easy to transfer combs from the old hive to the new one, it would not be possible to move them the other way. I knew that that if I ever needed to move comb, it would inevitably be in the more awkward direction. Continue reading

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Adapting to foundationless frames in a National hive

Will uses National hives in Oxford, and has successfully been adapting them to low-intervention beekeeping principles. He writes about his successes and learning experiences on his blog, Oxford Bees. It is a good guide to how to start blending natural beekeeping principles into conventional hive types –

  • he harvests excess honey, but
  • he does not treat for varroa
  • his frames are foundationless, a simple adaptation using lollipop sticks in the slots where foundation normally fits, giving a guide edge for the bees to build comb from.

The significance of foundationless comb

Foundationless comb from one of Will’s hives

Foundation is bought from manufacturers who make it from recycled beeswax – it is not fresh, clean wax which can only be guaranteed if your bees make it themselves. Pesticide residues and trace toxins used by some beekeepers such as miticides and, occasionally, antibiotics tend to be readily absorbed into the wax. These accumulate over repeated wax re-use, and are re-introduced to hives through foundation. There’s also a theoretical possibility that some pathogens could survive the melting and pressing process.

A more subtle problem occurred in France, Belgium and Holland last year when a foundation manufacturer bought wax from China which had been mixed with stearin, a cheap wax used in soap manufacture. This is poisonous to brood, leading to a “shot brood” pattern resembling foul brood, and led to massive problems for many beekeepers.

Foundation is pressed in a set cell size, but bees’ natural behaviour is to build a mix of cell sizes – typically 20% drone-sized cells. Whilst conventional beekeepers try to minimise these as they believe drones are unproductive, ironically culling drones just makes the bees more determined to restore their natural sex ratio and diverts resources from honey production (and of course fewer drones in the area isn’t good if you have queens you need mated).

Oxford Bees can be viewed at

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The Bee Meeting: North Tawton and South Leigh

In 1962 Sylvia Plath wrote The Bee Meeting, a poem in which she describes her experience of attending a meeting of beekeepers in North Tawton, a village in Devon. Last weekend, fifty-five years later, the Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group gathered to remove a colony from a soon-to-be-demolished cottage in South Leigh. I was struck by the parallels between the two meetings. I couldn’t remember Plath’s entire poem, but lines and images kept springing into my head as we worked: the masked beekeepers appearing as ‘knights in visors’; the shared experiences of ‘hunting the queen’ and of standing in a meadow, staying so still that the bees ‘will think I am cow parsley’.

Continue reading

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