Sara Ward on Living the Good Life April 2024

Image: Bee products from Hen Corner

Come on you Bees!

Guest blog by Sara Ward

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s with great pleasure that I officially announce that this year’s Bee Keeping Season is officially open!

With it always being a little warmer in London, Spring seems to start a little earlier (if you follow us on Instagram, you may have seen that our first spears of asparagus peeped through almost a month early in mid March) and the bees have been out foraging for a plethora of local nectar for many weeks already.

As we dare to open each hive for the first time after their winter clustering, when they hunker down to nurture their queen whilst feasting on the stored honey from last summer, we ‘read the hive’ looking for signs of good health and new life.

As well as checking that they have enough food, we are looking for eggs, larvae and cocoons of new bees, and if we are lucky, we may also see the queen. In most cases, it will be last year’s queen marked with the colour that indicates her first year laying eggs, but sometimes we are surprised and discover that the worker bees have gently reared a new queen to replace their mum and the old queen and new princess live side by side until the younger proves her fertility and mum is quietly ‘retired’.

Images: Glass hive; Sara inspecting her bees

To help us recognise our queen bees, and display their age, we mark all new queens with a colour that reflects the year allowing us to easily know how old she is, how many years she has been laying eggs for and whether she may need to be replaced in the coming months.

Queen bees can live up to five years and, as she lays around 2,000 eggs a day in the warmer months, can eventually lose momentum along with her fertility.

The nationally recognised colour coding for marking queens is based on the mnemonic: Will You Raise Good Bees? With years ending in 1 and 6 marked by white, 2022 and 2027 will be yellow, last year was red, this year green and, you guessed it, next year will be blue.

I do own a couple of specialist pens that can administer a small drop of colour onto the back of a young queen, but often find that the small brushes of a nail varnish bottle can deliver the perfect size blob. Last year, whilst not having any red nail varnish to hand (I rarely wear it on my fingers with all that baking), I found a pot of pink that my daughter had claimed from her grandmother who sadly passed away last year, so in memory of my lovely mother in law, Pat, all our queens were marked pink in 2023…

When I opened with the announcement that the bee keeping season was open, I wasn’t completely clear, as there are bee keeping tasks right throughout the year, but what is really happening in the warmer months is a massive increase in productivity.

For the worker bees, that’s collecting nectar and making honey and for the queen bees it’s producing generation after generation of new bees, and if we remember that summer hatched bees live only six weeks, thousands upon thousands are therefore  being reared in each and every hive.

Images: Collecting a swarm; Inspecting her bees

If the colony is particularly prolific in its reproduction, they may decide to create not just individual bees, but to rear a new queen allowing the old queen to leave with half the bees to start a whole new colony elsewhere.

In this process, a swarm of bees might seem quite scary to an onlooker (particularly if they appear to be flying around you), but be assured that whilst swarming, they are so focussed on the task of reconvening outside the hive, in a cluster with their queen, that they are not particularly interested in anything else.

They have no brood or food to defend whilst swarming and are simply waiting for the ‘all clear’ to move into the predetermined home – which may inconveniently be a chimney stack, cavity wall, or unused compost bin.

If you ever see a swarm of bees, once they’ve settled, take a photo and send it to your local swarm collector who should be able to arrange a prompt collection. We particularly like collecting them early in the season as they have a good chance of building up to a strong colony during the summer months.

A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay

A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon

A swarm in July is not worth a fly..

If you’d like to know more about the secret life of honey bees, why not come on a course? You can also come and say hello when I bring some in a glass hive to the Chiswick Flower Market on Sunday 5th May along with copies of my book and honey for sale.

Let’s hope that our bees thrive this season and continue to make their Great Taste Award Winning Premier League honey!

Coming up at Hen Corner:

April:

Tuesday 23  Introduction To Gluten Free Baking

Wednesday 24 Making New Cheeses

Tuesday 30 Full Day Making Sourdough

May:

Thursday 2 Full Day Bee Keeping

Saturday 11 Full Day Bee Keeping

Wednesday 15 Introduction To Scandinavian Baking

Tuesday 28 Bees For Children (Family Course)

Wednesday 29 Introduction to Making Cheese

Thursday 30 Bees For Children (Family Course)

All courses, virtual & face to face, can be found at HenCorner.com

Sara Ward is the owner of Hen Corner and author of Living the Good Life in the City: A journey to self-sufficiency

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