Plot 91 – Day One

So back in distant time (ie. last Spring) I spoke to the local council about keeping bees on an allotment round the corner from my flat. After a period of emailing back and forth, they rejected my application. Which, you know, was a pain, but fair enough. They have quite a list of criteria for potential beekeepers!

One major thing that I was missing was my Basic qualification, and so after passing last year, I sent back a nice scan of my certificate, my original application, and my letter of recommendation from the apiary in Twickenham.

Reader, I have an allotment plot.

Welcome to Plot 91

So this was the plot when we first saw it in February. By the time I had signed the agreement and got the key (yesterday) it looked a lot more overgrown…

April – Before photo

Pictured here is Sheila the Shed – and I named her because as you can see, she needs a bit of love. As does the rest of the plot. It’s been lying dormant, really, for some time, as a damp corner plot that’s difficult to cultivate – which means that I’ve been very lucky in getting it, but also that there is a lot of work to be done making it workable!

After scoping the site on Saturday, we arrived early on Sunday morning armed with many bin bags to get rid of all the disintegrating plant pots and fossilized compost bags that were buried among the enormous nettle patches (which I really don’t think you can fully appreciate from the photo above – trust me, they are everywhere). I learned that nettles are very powerful early in the season, and that I should have brought more snacks with me as tidying up takes longer than I expected. We also discovered a massive patch of mint growing towards the darker, swampier end of the plot – this is very exciting! My bees may enjoy it, and I certainly enjoyed the smell of mint while we bashed through the plot looking for more rubbish to get rid of.

But we really focused our attentions on dear Sheila, who is due a face lift. Here she is now:

Sheila Shed all tidied up

She’s beautiful! Still missing a wall, mind, but we’re going to work on that. We also discovered a large patch of gravel behind Sheila, which was totally overrun with nettles, but now that it’s cleared it’s looking pretty nice too.

Possible frame-building area?

All in all it was a good 3 hours of work, and as you can see, Summer has arrived and I was very glad we started work at 9am because by the time we left at midday it was at least 23C. And I was already hungry.

So this marks the start of the first of a series, renovating this plot, and setting up my first solo beehives! I’m extremely excited, and happy to have this lovely space – bit nervous about how it will all go, but so far so good! I hope you’ll keep reading.


Qualifications and Committees

[insert statement about not updating this blog in forever]

In other news, I passed my Basic exam! The exam was in August last year, and after a lot of revision and last-minute swotting, the exam itself turned out to be quite the ordeal!

The exam environment really does do quite amazing things to you, and it’s been a long time since I’ve done any sort of exam, and I think my last practical exam was my driving test – at least 10 years ago. So I was already a bit nervous going in, but once I’d burned my thumb trying to light my smoker I knew I needed to really calm down.

The structure of the exam sets up the basic things that you would do as a beekeeper, during a regular inspection, and throws in a frame assembly question and some theory/knowledge questions as well.

First was the frame assembly. Which went quite well; bit dodgy in the final three nails which shouldn’t come out of the bottom of the frame, but with me inevitably do, but the smoker was another story. Basically, everything that could go wrong, did. I burned my thumb, I didn’t have enough fuel, I swamped the flame, the bloody thing went out once I declared it ready so I had to go back again – ugh, it makes me shudder just to think about it.

But after this point I decided just to take a really deep breath and carry on as normal. I call this the Driving Test Mentality. In my driving test (all those years ago) I was asked to demonstrate parallel parking, and all of us 17-year olds could never decide whether touching the kerb, however slightly, while parallel parking was an immediate fail – but we all knew we didn’t want to risk it. Of course, I was nervous and so I touched the kerb. Just a bit, but I definitely touched it. I told myself to pretend that the examiner hadn’t noticed, and carried on. I passed. My friend on the other hand, touched the kerb and decided that was the end of that; drove without care for the remainder of the test and failed. Hence, the Driving Test Mentality. I just pretended that the examiner for my Basic hadn’t noticed my swearing at the smoker and bumping the bees (argh, I never done this before or since!) and carried on regardless.

Still, I was pretty surprised to hear that I had passed with merit. Really, really chuffed. and very glad it is over  – well done to everyone in my group last year for making it through!

My BBKA Basic certificate.

This has since been useful in my further correspondence with the council about an allotment plot – more on this later.

Since the last time I updated, I’ve another bee-related announcement, and you have to promise not to laugh.

In my everyday life I am a librarian at a university, and over the course of being at Twickenham I’ve obviously mentioned this to people. When the association librarian of 23 years decided to retire at the end of last season, my name was suggested as the new association librarian. It won’t surprise you to hear that I am now the librarian at T&TVBKA.

I went home over Christmas and thought about it and got really, really into the idea. I talked to a friend at work – “you could create your own classification system!” – and I am such a library geek that I got very excited about this. Since agreeing, I’ve got worse, and have made a project plan, documentation, a guide to accessing online resources, and – really – a classification system.

My first committee meeting is this Wednesday, and honestly I feel like I’m just going to ask hundreds of stupid questions. But it’s all part of my journey with bees, and I’m going to update the blog with the details too. If anyone’s interested in the process of creating a classification system, just let me know. Even if you don’t, I’ll probably write about it here regardless.

Happy April!


Extracting honey

Dear Reader,

Do you know, when I started this blog, I remember thinking to myself: ‘well, beekeeping’s a good thing to blog about as I have to learn to keep hive notes anyway, and I’m at the apiary every Friday so I should be able to keep up a regular posting schedule’.

How wrong I was. I continue to be terrible at blogging! Still, today’s blog is a write up of the honey extraction that we did about two weeks ago – it’s still one of my favourite beekeeping activities and this year’s was a lot of fun.

How do you extract honey from the hive?

So the first stage is clearing the bees from the frames that you have been encouraging them to store honey in all Spring. Most beekeepers (I think – although this is beekeeping so there are exceptions!) set up the hive so that the bottom one or two boxes are full of nice deep frames which are used for brood (eggs, larvae, etc). At the top of this section a queen excluder is used: this is a mesh board that’s large enough for worker bees to squeeze through, but too tight for a busy queen. She stays below, laying eggs, and the workers can go into the top boxes, or supers, to store nectar and turn it into honey.

You can add supers throughout the year, although I’m sure there are some thoughts on how this should be done! Our hive this year was, for various, reasons, as tall as me by the time we got to extraction. I’m only 5’3″ so that’s no great height, but when you think that a box can contain a good few jars-worth of honey there are many practical reasons for removing supers sooner rather than later!

You can clear the supers by setting up a one-way system in the hive (for another post, I think), but I actually don’t think that we did this. Probably one of the reasons for this was that we only go once a week, and if you leave supers empty of bees for too many days they’re liable to get robbed by other colonies. Which is less than ideal. So we removed the supers and brushed off the bees – this probably won’t work in all hives, but ours was pretty quiet up there anyway so it was doable.

The extraction room

The apiary at TTVBKA has a lovely shiny extraction room – but I know some beekeepers who use a part of their kitchen or a utility room. The important thing is hygiene: honey is a foodstuff and so you need to make sure that everything is clean. This means surfaces, tools, sinks, humans – everything.

Once the supers were in the extraction room, we set up the room in stations: one for uncapping frames, one for the extractor, one for dealing with capped frames.

One box (in its entirety) in a black bin bag in the extracting room, waiting for extraction.

The first step is uncapping the frames. Once water has evaporated from nectar and can be called honey, the bees cap the top with a thin layer of wax. It can stay like this for ages, it’s the perfect store cupboard food. During extraction, you can use a few things to get the cappings off: a breadknife, an uncapping fork (regular garden fork sized but with lots of think tithes like a hairbrush that you can slide just under the capping to lift them off), and this scary heated knife thing that melts the wax and I’m always a bit scared I’m going to really injure myself with. This year I got really into using the uncapping fork.

Beautiful capped frame.
Beautiful uncapped frame! (Uncapping fork on the right).

Once the frames have been uncapped, they can go into the extractor, where they sit nicely in the slots here.

Three frames in the extractor.

9 frames fit in an extractor, and once it’s full you can turn the machine on – the extractor spins round and the honey flies out of the freshly-uncapped cells and into the extractor drum, where it settles at the bottom. This is then tapped off in sections and decanted into a settling tank. Here the honey passes through a coarse filter and a fine filter (to remove the remaining bits of bee!) and it settles in here before it’s put into jars.

There were 6 of us working on our hive, and we managed to get 3 supers extracted in one evening – which I think is no mean feat! Once we’d got everything into the settling tank it was time to clear up – no mean feat either. No matter how hard you try, everything gets stick during an extraction, so there’s a lot of cleaning up to do.

Delicious sticky cappings. What a mess.

Our honey will be available to buy at the Twickenham Honey Market on Bank Holiday Monday (28th August), 12-4pm.



End of June

So tonight we inspected our super quickly – they’ve started filling the new top one with nectar and made a lot of brace comb now that the other three are totally full!

Last week we didn’t make up a new box, and just borrowed an empty one instead. Our tutor explained that the reason she’d asked us to make up 12 frames was not only so that we’d get the practice, but so the bees had something to do. She was expecting crap weather this week and so having foundation to draw out would have kept them busy, whereas what we gave them of empty drawn comb would just make them bored. But in a bit of good luck the weather was pretty good this week, so it worked out ok!

We only inspected the top brood box today, but actually saw everything: eggs, larvae, capped brood and a Queen!

We also practiced picking up bees, which we will have to do in the exam. Ten bees! Tonight I got five, and none of them stung me so I think that’s a success. Apparently the key is to be confident and we might even get away with picking up less than ten on the day, but we’ll see.

This post brought to you by my waiting to be picked up from the station on account of my being a moron getting on the wrong train. It’s now a very long wait unless a lovely human comes to get me, which luckily, one is.

Written Friday 30th June

Stacking up supers

Hive Notes

Last Friday our little group was without a tutor, and so we had a list of instructions – although it’s really nice to have a tutor with us, by the end of the evening we were feeling quite pleased with ourselves for managing a good inspection of our allocated hive, and managing to do everything on the list! So it was beneficial to get to us to sort things out on our own in the end.

The first thing on our list was to make up a new super and 12 frames to go in it. We did slightly cheat on this one, as there was a super of frames going at the apiary already and so we pinched this one to put on the hive. This is good, but also a little annoying as I could actually do with as much practice making frames as possible before the Basic Assessment in August! But with only 5 of us in the group last week it was probably a good thing that we could spend more time with the hive.

Last week we left our hive with 3 supers, one (and a half maybe) of which were looking like they were turning into lovely capped honey frames. We left our hive this week with 3 super totally stuffed full of capped honey frames, and one brand new empty super for them to enjoy. The weather this week has been crazy for the UK – around 34 degrees C – and it’s the middle of June (the solstice was Wednesday), and the bees have been totally making the most of it. We checked only the middle frames of these supers, and it definitely took two of us to carry each one away so that we could get to the brood boxes beneath.

As an aside, I’m planning on being a solo beekeeper, with my partner as an assistant some of the time. I’m a pretty unfit, 5’3” woman – how the hell am I going to lift supers of honey?! I need some tips from seasons beekeepers. Or a stool.

We got into our brood boxes, and saw a lovely pattern of capped brood in the top brood box, although no eggs or larvae really. I think that this in line with the honey flow at this time of year, as they’ve so much time and light to collect all the nectar that the bees have probably slowed down the egg-laying in the hive – but I’m happy to be corrected on this. We did see the Queen in this box, though, so that was nice. Although I put the box back together at the end and a little voice in my head said ‘better not crush the Queen!’ and now I’m a little paranoid…

In the bottom brood box we have all sort going on. I think this is their older box that they overwintered with, so as well as brood it has a couple of frames that seem to just be pollen on both sides. They also have a mixture of stores and brood on each frame – although we did see some pretty nice new brood on one side of the box – those pollen-only frames seem to be in the middle – can they be moved mid-season. And yes, we saw eggs! One member of the group wasn’t sure, and another didn’t have her glasses with her, but I took an executive decision: those were eggs.

So in the end we put everything back together with the new super, and it was a really lovely evening. The bees were pretty chilled out, we didn’t use that much smoke, and we worked really nicely together as a team.

Basic Update

I also paid my fee to take the Basic Exam this year – the exam date is in August, so I really should get revising soon! Things that I need to swot up on:

  • how long everything is an egg, larvae etc for
  • stages of worker bee jobs
  • what’s in flower! I am terrible at this, although it should be the easiest thing in the world.

Wish me luck!


The dream is over?

So, one of my big beekeeping goals this year was to get my own bees. And you may remember that I have hinted on this blog that I have discovered a local allotment and contacted the council about keeping bees on a plot/corner there.

Well, after a few weeks of emailing, they’ve got back to me to say that they can’t allow me to keep bees – yet. Sigh. It’s a bit of a blow, to be honest, and I had been holding out hope even though I knew they could say no.

When I first contacted them I was sent a very well-written letter about how keen they were to have beekeepers on the allotments and stipulating their responsibilities and mine. Everything was very sensible, and a few things that had come up in questions at Twickenham were already addressed in the letter so I didn’t really have very many questions about it. I requested a letter of recommendation from the TTVBKA and the council considered whether they would recommend me and put the suggestion out to the plotholders so that any concerns could be addressed (allergies etc).

It really comes down the the catch-22 situation of: I don’t have experience of keeping my own bees, but I need someone to give me a little bit of public land so that I can build up experience of keeping my own bees. I’m not wholly surprised. My two years experience at TTVBKA is fine, I think, but it’s not the same as having my own bees. Also, they’d really like me to have the Basic. Which hopefully I will do by the end of this season, and so that should help!

So it’s a bit of a bugger, but the dream is by no means over yet. For one thing, there is the possibility that I could put a hive on another site. The only issue with that site is that it is 25 minutes drive away. Not huge, no, but I don’t want to leap in without thinking about everything that impacts. It will take a bigger chunk of time from my week, I’ll have to consider storing material there, and I will have to be very organised when it comes to extracting honey as it’ll be a drive to get the frames back and forth. But it’s certainly not impossible, so my next task is to give it some serious thought – watch this space, I guess!

Back with the bees

So my last post was over a month ago – and since then I have been back to the apiary on a couple of Fridays to continue with Basic learning, and heard back from the Council.

I have been away in Pembrokeshire for a week (we stayed on Skomer Island for a night, and saw puffins, owls, seals, and all sorts of great things), so I have missed another week at the apiary since my last post. But before that we had opened up the hive, spotted the Queen – and passed her onto one of the more experienced beekeepers to clip her wings. I’ve not seen this done before, and it was done very matter-of-factly – I’m not sure I would be that calm if I were doing that for fear of dropping her! I also learned in the roundup at the end of the evening that there is some disagreement among beekeepers as to whether it’s a good idea to clip Queens. Obviously, once she is clipped so can’t fly away, but if there is some argument that if she was previously laying well and doing a good job once she’s clipped her attendants might consider her damaged and on her way out, and decide to raise a new Queen to take over from her.

Typically, I missed a week after that, so I’ll find out this Friday how she did! It looked as though she had been laying beautifully up until now, although she is a couple of years old, so it would be interesting if it all went pear-shaped now!

Other than that, it was lovely to get back into the hive, as it’s been a while since I have seen any bees. We did a routine inspection, saw that there was a good amount of brood and space for brood in the double brood boxes, and decided that it may be worth adding another super to the two already on the top as the flow appeared to be really good and they were bringing back a lot of nectar. The final thing that we did was a drone sacrifice – a wonderfully gory varroa-control measure.

What is a drone sacrifice?

Frames in a brood box are ‘deep’, 305mm, and super frames are ‘shallow’, only 140mm. By putting a shallow frame into a brood box, you create an area of space in the hive. Bees hate extra space, and will fill up anything that’s too big with comb of some sort until it’s comfortable for them. On a frame such as this, they will make brood cells, and the largest cells are drone (male bee) cells – so they’re the ones that bees will use to fill up the space quickly. The Queen then lays in these larger cells, and drones are created. Varroa mites like to sit in drone cells, as they are sealed for longer than worker bee cells, and so the mites have plenty of time to multiply. Once the drone cells are sealed, the beekeeper can come in, slice off the drone cells from the bottom of the shallow frame in a big chunk and them use a large fork to lift the cappings off the cells and see the drones and mites within. It’s a really gory process, as the royal jelly, larvae and baby drones ooze and sometimes wriggle out. But this also removes mites from the hive entirely, thereby acting as a varroa control measure.

Back to Twickenham this Friday – so I’m looking forward to finding out how it’s going.

Starting the 2017 season with news

So my season started, and I have been late in updating the blog to reflect this (what a surprise).

I went back to the apiary in Twickenham at the beginning of March, to pay up my BBKA membership for the year, and say hi to the beekeepers. After starting a new job in April last year, my free time and work/life balance really got out of kilter, and I couldn’t find the time to go down to the apiary every Friday evening. It’s been a year in the ‘new’ job now, we’ve moved house, and I’ve been able to change my working hours a little, and so time and headspace for bees is opening up again. Sigh of relief.

After a year away it was comforting that some of the members remembered who I was, and the Secretary’s first words to me were ‘doing your Basic this year, then?’ – to which my answer is yes!

This year’s major beekeeping goal is passing the Basic Exam, and last weekend I went down to the apiary again to meet the rest of the group I’ll be studying with this year. Last Friday was a beautiful sunny day, the first summer-feeling day we’ve had this year, and I optimistically brought my suit with me. Of course, we didn’t actually get to open the hives as it does still get cooler and darker in the evenings by the time we get there, but lucky me – I carried the suit, boots, and hive tools all the way from Surrey to London to Twickenham and back to Surrey again all in one day. Oops.

In any case, it was great to meet the other 12 people who will be studying for the Basic this year, and the two tutors who will be taking us through the year. We talked about the format of the exam, the curriculum, and got to know each other a little. The season proper will begin next Friday and of course I will be missing it, so in two weeks’ time I’ll see which group I’m in, and what they’re going to plan for the year. I’m really looking forward to getting going, and feeling like this goal is back on track!

Finding a home for bees

Another goal for this year was to get my own bees, if I could manage it. And now that we’ve moved house I have had a minor breakthrough (hopefully soon to grow in size). While wandering around the new area, I stumbled upon some allotments which are only five minutes walk away. Which seemed perfect! My current arrangements involve around 30 minutes travelling each way and so they’re not always the most convenient (although they are definitely interesting and worthwhile).

I emailed the council to find out more about this, and this week received a reply. This in itself was enough to get me jumping about my hotel room (I have been away at a conference all week) and I’m hoping that I can get enough things to align that it might be a possibility this year after all.

So, if it’s not too much of an imposition, keep your fingers crossed, reader. And I’ll be praying to the beekeeping gods for a bit of good luck.

New Year, new bees?

So, it looks like I gave this blog its own off-season – oops!

After my last post in October last year, I didn’t have anything more to do with bees. J and I weren’t able to meet up after that, and the hives didn’t really need opening over the Winter anyway, so that was that for 2016!

And what have I been up to since? Mostly, I have been settling into my new job, and I’ve also been very busy with buying my first place, so there’s definitely been enough to be getting on with. And now I’m back to thinking about my beekeeping plans for the next year.

My main aim for 2017 is to pass the Basic Beekeeping Exam, and I’ve also been thinking about where I might keep my own bees. Late last year I contacted Surrey Beekeeping Association and received a really lovely response about their courses, which at the time were fullybooked for 2017. But even if they weren’t, my work commitments would make it difficult to get down to their apiary in time for meetings, so I have a feeling that’s a stretch to far at this point. Interestingly, we were walking around the area in our new place last weekend, and stumbled upon some allotments which we had never seen before! So my new plan is to contact the Council about keeping bees there. To be honest, I’m not holding my breath on that, as I’m not sure they’ll allow it, or how long it might take to sort out, but it’s definitely worth a go! And it’s so close to home!

But I’ve also renewed my TTVBKA membership for 2017, and shifted my working hours ever so slightly so now I can definitely make it there every Friday once the season starts and get back into the routine. First meeting of the year is next week, so I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of that again, and I’ll see if anyone remembers who I am.

So after a bit of a busy year with lots of adjusting a big life changes, I think I’m ready to go back to my beekeeping goals and see how far 2017 can take me – all to be detailed in this blog, of course. Welcome back!

October catchup

OK, so I’ve not actually seen a lot of bees in the past few weeks – in mid-September I was away at a conference for work and stayed in York for the weekend so I didn’t get to come home, and since then either J or I has been unavailable. I’m currently at home on the sofa, feeling ill and not at work. This Sunday, which is usually bee-day, is my birthday, and so I probably won’t be around then either – if I’m not still ill, that is!

But for lots of other beekeepers this is a busy time of year, with honey shows taking place at lots of different associations and on 29th October the National Honey Show is taking place. I just googled the lectures and they look really interesting!

For me, I’d like to attend, but I still don’t have any bees to take the knowledge back to! Hopefully in the next year or so things will settle a bit and I’ll be able to get on top of this as a plan and get some bees of my own. So who knows, maybe I’ll be attempting to gather enough honey to show in a year!