Posts Tagged ‘honey bee’

Death of a colony – a beekeepers loss

The cold spell that has dominated the last couple of weeks has finally broken this weekend and I was keen to get down to my apiary to see how the bees were faring. The hives were last opened and checked at the end of December, about 3 1/2 weeks ago, when I applied the oxalic acid and fed large blocks of home-made bee candy to each.

My new apiary assistant to help with the bees

My new apiary assistant ready to help with the bees

We had five national hives and a poly nuc to check on this visit as the Warre hives are being left to their own devices over winter and we were only checking to see how the bees were doing with the candy feed and replenishing if needed. The first hive that we checked had a late swarm, collected in August and headed by a buckfast cross breed queen. At the end of last year they seemed to be doing quite well, the queen was a good layer, and although the colony was smaller than the others it seemed to be building at a steady rate and the bees were very chilled, beautiful to handle and I assumed they would be one of my success stories of 2013.

A dead colony clusters on the frames

A dead bee colony clusters on the frames

Dead bees clustering on the frame and covering the floor

Dead clustering on the frame and covering the floor

When we opened the hive I realised pretty quickly that there wasn’t the normal activity I would expect to see at this time of year, especially as the ambient temperature was around 9 degrees Celsius when bees would normally have broken from their winter cluster around the queen and resumed normal hive activities during the day. On closer inspection we found that the colony was completely dead with the bees clustering on the frames as they would have done in life.

It was a sad moment for me as this is the first colony I have lost to starvation in five years of keeping bees.

This hive had a reasonable level of stores when checked in December and a 400g block of bee candy was placed over the feed hole in the centre of the crown board but frustratingly this had not been touched despite the bee cluster being directly below it.

The starving bees had filled the cells in the frames head first, I assume looking for food, and many had died in this position.

Dead bees in the frames

Dead bees searching for food fill the frames

The other hives were checked and all appeared normal, three had finished their candy feeds but the fourth hive, with a similar size colony but different type of queen, had only just started to use it.

I have now doubled up the feed on each of the hives to take them up to the warmer weather when I can give a thin sugar syrup as a spring feed to help the colonies build strength again.

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Candy feed on crown board just being started

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

Doubled up blocks of candy on a hive

I am left wondering if I had used a small eke (spacer) to raise the crown board and put the candy direct on the frames would they have taken it, but then again they had full access to the candy and were right below it and hadn’t touched it so maybe not. Should I have moved them into a nuc for over-wintering or culled the new queen and consolidated them with a stronger colony? There is no point dwelling on the loss to much but their demise seems harsher than a colony losing a queen or having laying workers as you end up feeling responsible for their fate to some extent.

As a beekeeper it is lovely to have the opportunity to visit your bees during the long winter months, to see them flying again with the promise of another spring arriving and as the new plants are just beginning to appear through the receding snowline.

Bee in a poly nuc

Bee in a poly nuc

The bees in the poly nuc appear to be doing quite well. This a bit of an experiment this year as Paul only obtained the nuc in 2012 and populated it with a swarm he collected. The greater insulation should be keeping the bees warm and require less use of their precious stores but the downfall with this type of ‘housing’ is when it comes to feeding as the ‘crown board’ is a flexible sheet of clear plastic, with no feed hole, and no room under the roof for candy. Does anyone know if you can get a poly nuc eke to raise the roof, or if syrup feed is used in the built-in feeder (bottom of the picture) does it freeze or will the bees even take it during the winter months? Be good to hear of your experiences of using these new hives.

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

Dead frames, the comb will be removed for candles and the boxes sterilised with a blowtorch

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.


N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

The apiary - January 2013

The apiary – January 2013


Acid and candy – a winter days treat!

Seems like it has been a while since I have added anything to this blog, and I guess that’s because this is generally a quiet time of year for beekeepers in the UK on the whole.

The honey (what honey this year?) has been extracted from the comb many months ago, the bees have been fed a thick sugar syrup which they in turn have further reduced and stored to help sustain them over the long cold winter months and the first set of treatment has been applied to try and knock back the parasitic mite, Varroa Destructor, that inhabit virtually every hive in the UK.

Winter checks

Paul doing the winter checks

During late August and into early September, after the honey crop has been removed,  I used Apilife Var, an organic thymol based treatment with Eucalyptus Oil, Menthol and Camphor as additional active ingredients. This has to be applied whilst the ambient temperature is still warm, and there is brood in the hive so the bees keep the internal temperature around 36 degrees Celsius and therefore it is warm enough to release the vapours and allow their circulation. The mites reproduction cycle mainly takes place within the wax-capped brood cells with the bees own young so it is not possible to remove a large proportion of the sexually mature mites at this stage.

A second part of my ‘integrated pest management’ strategy is to apply Oxalic acid to the hives during the winter months. The Apilife Var would no longer be effective with cooler ambient temperatures and a drastically reduced hive temperature there would be no vapourisation of the oils. The hive temperature drops to around 20 degrees during the short period at the end of December and early January when the queen is not laying and there are no eggs  or brood present. The higher temperature normally maintained in the hive is required for brood rearing so by dropping the heat the bees are able to conserve energy and therefore use slightly less of their valuable stores, 50 million years of evolution has taught them how to survive and not starve! The queen will start to build the colony up again soon in order that she has a new healthy adult workforce ready to take advantage of the spring flowers and early pollen and nectar flows that they bring.

It really helps if you have a ‘bee buddy’ to speed up the acid application process and reduce the stress of cold exposure to the bees.

Oxalic acid

Oxalic acid

Trickling acid between the seams

Trickling acid between the seams

Many of the older beekeepers talk of great summers when their hives were taller than themselves, stacked full of supers of sweet golden honey, but sadly these days seem to have been lost with a change in agricultural techniques, removal of hedgerows, over-use of toxic chemical pesticides, mass-urbanisation, a shift in climate and weather patterns and a number of other factors leading to less areas of natural forage and increasing the struggle for colony survival.

I do not really like the thought of using the acid on my beautiful bees but feel it gives them some additional chances of pulling through to the spring. The weak acid is applied diluted in a sugar syrup solution and is carefully trickled into the hive along the seams, or gaps, between the frames.

In order not to overdose the bees it should be applied evenly across the hive at 5ml per seam (10 seams = 50ml), the acid should be harmless to the bees but burns the feet and mouth parts of the mites meaning they can no longer hold onto their hosts and feed on them so is very effective. The hives are only opened for a minute or so and the frames are not removed or disturbed.


One nice thing about applying the acid is that you have a chance to check the bees are still alive, having only occasionally seen any movement around the hives since late October. All my colonies are now clustered at the top of the hives under the crown board, they were surprising active on December 28th when we dosed them with acid but then it was quite warm outside, around 8 degrees centigrade, and a few of the more inquisitive ladies tried to get up my sleeves.

Bee candy

Bee candy placed over feed hole in crown board

Before closing up the hives again a block of home-made bee candy is placed over the central feed hole  in the crown board. Even if you have heaved your hives and feel there is plenty of stores available the bees may not travel sideways in search of food and can starve in a well supplied hive, they will however travel up so it is another insurance process, if they don’t need it they won’t touch it – don’t worry the bees will not get obese – but I would rather it was wasted than they starved. There is of course the argument that a sudden increase in food leads to the queen laying early, increasing colony size when there is no pollen to feed the young and increased activity uses up the food source far too quickly – you make your own mind up. From my experience over the last few years hives standing in the apiary shoulder to shoulder with similar size colonies and amount of stores have used the sugar at very different rates but ultimately all have survived.

Finally the hive entrances are checked to make sure that they are clear of dead bees. I use mesh floors so don’t suffer from flooding but if you have solid floors on it is worth checking that the hive is slightly tilted forward and there is no standing water inside which would make it too damp for the bees to be comfortable and may well lead to their decline. With these visual checks carried out its back on with the woodpecker guards until my next visit which will be in three to four weeks time to see how they are gettig on with the candy.

Woodpecker protection

Woodpecker protection is replaced

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.


N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

Applying oxalic acid

Applying oxalic acid

August arrives but still no joy for the bees….

What a wet year this has been …. July was again dominated by low pressure fronts bringing in cloud and wet conditions for the first three weeks then it was unseasonably hot but this only lasted for a few days before the unsettled weather returned. The bees have been unable to fly on many days and even though many plants have been late to flower this year the bees just seem to be playing catch up all the time.

By the beginning of August last year I had three full honey supers on two of my hives and two on the other, full of delicious golden honey ready to extract but then the bees took advantage of the exceptionally warm and dry spring, this year I have about 1 1/2 supers to extract and even that has not been fully capped yet and it is still ‘loose’ so is unlikely to be reduced enough yet to prevent it fermenting in the jar – I have decided to leave it on for a bit longer to see if the current warm weather and late flowering brings a late crop or if the bees decides to take the honey down for winter stores, then that is also fine.

Hive inspection

Hive inspection before removing this years honey

I started this beekeeping year with 3 strong colonies, I have lost queens, added new queens, lost swarms only to catch and rehouse them – at one point there were 5 hives on the go but now I am back down to four with one being queen-less and with so few bees (about 3 frames) that I am letting them go rather than merging them this late in the year and risk damage to a laying queen preparing for winter so I will enter winter once again with three very strong colonies and all with healthy fertile 2012 queens.

Fanning bee

Bee fanning at the hive entrance to help regulate the temperature for brood rearing and honey reduction

Having started this blog entry at the beginning of August I have waited until slightly better weather in mid-August before I decided to extract the honey. I attended the apiary on Saturday morning (the hottest day of the year so far) to shake the bees out of the honey supers as best as I could and place the clearer boards with bee escapes in over an eke (‘spacer’ box) above the hive. The idea of adding an empty eke or super under the clearer boards is that it allows a bit more space and prevents congestion as the bees leave the honey super through the bee escapes, which in turn do not allow them to return.

Uncapped honey

Uncapped ‘ripe honey’ being worked in the hive



The theory is that in 24 hours your honey supers are clear of bees and ready for you to carry off unnoticed… of course the reality each year is that the the supers still have bees in them that need brushing and shaking off . I do this frame by frame, placing the clear frames of honey in a super over an upturned roof with a towel over the top to keep the bees out. This year there was an added complication of lots and lots of wasps in the apiary, as soon as I lifted the honey super off wasps were carrying the dead bees from the crown board off to feed their young, guess that’s nature and it saves them going to waste but angry wasps flying around your head is very off putting even to a beekeeper!

Frame of capped honey

Frame of honey before extraction


The honey frames are removed to a wasp and bee free space and uncapped, literally cut open, to allow the honey to flow out and then placed into a centrifugal extractor when they are spun at high speed to allow the honey to fly out, hit the sides and drain to the base of the drum.



Once the frames are all emptied into the base of the extractor the honey is run through a coarse, then finer filter, to remove any larger pieces of pollen and wax, these won’t effect the quality of the honey, indeed they add much to it’s aromatics, texture and beneficial qualities that have been removed from highly processed supermarket honey to give it a longer shelf life as runny honey.

Uncapping fork

Using the uncapping fork
to ‘open’ the honey cells


As soon as the honey has been removed it is time to feed the bees with a heavy sugar syrup to make sure that the removal of the honey has not depleted their food stores so much that they would not survive the winter.

I always leave my bees in a ‘brood and a half’, over the winter months, effectively I leave an additional super on as this allows them to have a greater level stores in the hive to try and prevent them from starving and also gives the space for the queen to lay up a large brood early next year when they are fed a weaker syrup to give them a boost in the spring.

The bees also start their treatment to combat the Varroa Destructor, a parasitic mite that are present in virtually every UK hive these days.

Coarse honey sieve

Sieving the honey for coarse bits of pollen and wax

Once the honey has been filtered it is allowed to sit in a settling tank for at least 24 hours so that any air bubbles introduced into the honey during the rapid spinning at extraction escape, again this is purely for aesthetics – it wont affect the quality of the honey but people seem to think it looks much nicer without them. Finally the honey is run off into freshly sterilised jars and the labels are attached ready for sale, or in the case of a lower crop like this year, ready for eating and making more mead!

There are many European rules and regulations relating to the labelling of foods, including honey, and these can be found at the ‘Foods Standards Agency’ website by clicking here, but if you don’t have time to read all 23 pages there is a quick summary at the bees-online webpage here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog,  feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.


N.B. clicking on the images opens a higher resolution image in a new window.

Spa Valley Honey

Spa Valley Honey

Murder, swarming and too many queens ….

What a month May turned out to be with plenty of activity in the apiary and the bees have hardly had a chance to leave the hives! It seems to have pretty much rained since the last week in March and as we enter the second week in June the heavens have only teased us with occasional glimmer of sunlight through the clouds and in  southern England we have been given more flood warnings and are set to experience even more rain into this weekend and next week.

The National Bee Unit (NBU), part of FERA, have again issued a warning this week for beekeepers to check their hives and feed the bees thin syrup if in any doubt about the amount of stores in the hives. This is of particular importance if the hive is made up from a split or a swarm this year as there is a very real chance that the bees will starve if they cannot fly.

The Apiary early June 2012

The Apiary early June 2012

All this rain has also hampered the ability to get into the hives and properly assess what is going on, colony splits were made back in early May and new queens introduced to those colonies that required them but having ended April with 5 hives in the apiary we are now up to 11 hives following a serious of both artificial swarms and natural secondary swarms called  casts. Each ‘parent’ hive had at least two or three queen cells left in and as the new virgin queens hatched they will have fled with a small number of workers, if they stay in the hives there is a very real risk of one of their siblings killing them.  In nature these ‘casts’ would have little chance of surviving in the current weather conditions but my bee buddy Paul has been busy collecting all the swarms and re-homing them in his vertical top bar Warre hives (as below, click on the images to enlarge).

Paul's Warre hives

Paul’s Warre ‘vertical top bar’ hives

Cast swarm re-homed in a nucleus hive

Hatched queen cells line the comb, each virgin queen may have led to a swarm taking place.

Hatched queen cells line the comb
(in this case there were 5), each virgin queen
may have led to a secondary swarm taking place.

The inspections that have been carried out are to see if, and how many, queens have hatched from their cells, whether they have successfully mated and are  laying healthy worker brood. For those that have survived they seem to have been unable to get out on their mating flights so are in the hive but not egg laying yet and this will only widen the gap between the workers produced by the previous queens and those who will eventually be laid by the new queens, meaning far smaller colonies than in previous years and I am hoping that the bees produce enough honey to feed themselves over winter (this is preferable to sugar syrup) and I will be lucky if I manage to extract an excess of honey this year, but then that was not the reason for taking up bee keeping in the first place.

My inspections this week saw new virgin queens being marked in two of the hives (the queen is temporarily ‘trapped’ beneath a cage that she is too large to escape from and a coloured dot is put on her back to make it easier to spot her in the hive during subsequent inspections), a third hive has the queen donated to me by Bob Fitzpatrick and although I couldn’t find her the hive if full of eggs and brood so I know that she is mated and in there somewhere working very hard. The other two hives that I checked had no sign of the queen, no eggs or brood but it doesn’t mean that she is not in there so I will return in 10 days or so and re-assess how they are getting on.

The inspections are also to assess the overall health of the colonies, and other than a little ‘chalk brood’ ( fungal infection) in one of the hives they all seem pretty good so far this year.

The bees are still managing to get some foraging in and there is plenty of flowering plants and trees around the apiary and adjoining agricultural and woodland to feed them when they get the chance, including the borage plants planted all over the forest garden.

Honey bee on borage

Honey bees forage on the borage

The apiary at the end of June 2012 with hives everywhere!

As ever I hope you have enjoyed reading the blog, feel free to contact me with comments, suggestions or general feedback, click on the right column to subscribe and receive updates when I next have the time between chasing the bees to write again.

I can also be found at @danieljmarsh on twitter or British Beekeepers page on Facebook.


New queens take to their thrones …

Following on from my last blog entry where two of my three honey bee colonies had seemingly lost their queens between the hive inspections in March and those carried out in April I now needed to act reasonably fast if I was going to be able to save either of these colonies. Both of the hives had already been given frames of young eggs taken from my strongest hive, Ogwen, in an attempt to get them to draw out an emergency queen cell, that in turn would lead to a new queen, but this had failed so it was time to try and source new queens elsewhere.

I contacted a couple of local beekeeping suppliers and had replies back to say  they would possibly have mated queens by mid-May, I also e-mailed the Kent beekeepers association to see if anyone else locally could help me or offer any advice. Additionally the blog is ‘published’ to Facebook and a few people kindly commented to say that either they had experienced something similar this year or to offer some advice.

Normal queen cells formed in the hive

Normal queen cells formed in the hive on a frame

I was very fortunate that I received a reply from beekeeper in north Kent, Bob Fitzpatrick,  who is  having success with the dark art of artificial queen rearing and who also had fresh queens in his hives ready to go. Bob produces bees for a local beekeeping supplier at Bluebell Hill. Like the rest if us his bees have been struggling with the weather this year, and although he has managed to get them to produce the  queens, there have not really been many good days for these virgin queens to fly and mate.

A queen bee will attend only one mating flight, early in her life,  she flies to a ‘drone congregation area’ where hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of unrelated drones (male bees) are waiting. The drones then pursue the queen and several of them will mate with her whilst still in flight. The queen will store up to 100 million sperm in her oviducts and these will be used to fertilise her eggs for the rest of her life, when she starts to run out she will be replaced. The drones do not survive long after mating as they have served their sole purpose to fertilise a queen.

On  Monday morning I drove up to Bob’s house to meet with him and collect  two newly hatched queens to deliver back to my now, slightly grumpy, queen-less colonies. These queens were formed after eggs taken from worker comb were grafted into special ‘cups’, the bees then draw these out to form the larger cells that will hold a developing queen and the larvae are then fed a diet of royal jelly rather than the pollen rich diet received by the workers and drones. Once the cells have been drawn out and capped (sealed) they are placed within a small cage so that  the new queen hatches in a place where the breeder knows her age and is able to move her into a small hive (nucleus or ‘nuc’) with worker bees to start a new colony.

Queen rearing cages

Queen rearing cages

The queens were given a little fondant for their journey, to prevent the queens chilling the cages were wrapped loosely in newspaper and then they were taken directly to their new hives about an hour away.

You cannot simply open a queen-less hive and drop a new queen in as the existing workers would not accept her and she would be killed. The cages have a small opening in the base for her to escape from but this is partially filled with a soft fondant or candy. The bees have to chew through this fondant from both sides to release the new queen and by the time she is free her royal pheromone has taken control of the colony and she is now in charge!

Queen rearing cage with 'hatched' queen cell

Queen rearing cage with ‘hatched’ queen cell on top

The weather on Monday improved significantly into the afternoon, but unfortunately the queens would still have been playing Houdini and by the time they had escaped the weather had again declined and the wet windy weather conditions returned. There have a been very few moments of sunshine breaking through since but I do not know if any of these have been long enough for the queens to leave the hive or if these replacement queens will now be stale by the time the warmer weather arrives this  weekend.

Before I put the queens into the hives on Monday I checked again to make sure there was definitely no queens present that had just been missed. Snowdon, my first hive was undoubtedly still without but I have never been to sure about my second, Tryfan.  In March there were eggs, larvae and brood present so the queen was definitely in there and laying but by April there was nothing there but also no supercedure cells were formed. I have checked and  checked again for the queen in this hive but she was not  found and there was no longer any evidence of her. However on Monday the bees in Tryfan seemed to have cleared an area of pollen and stores  in the central frames ready for brood rearing and there were now a few eggs in the cells, and certainly not the random or multiple eggs from laying workers. I did not know if these were definitely a new addition and therefore the queen was still present but had stopped laying during the recent cold wet weather (whilst the forager bees have been unable to leave the hive to collect nectar and pollen) or if they were old and abandoned eggs that I had missed under the poor light conditions during the earlier inspections,  so I took the gamble and  introduced the new virgin queen anyway.

Marked Queen

Marked Queen

I checked the hives again briefly today (Thursday) and both new queens have escaped their cages, however those eggs I saw last week  are now developing larvae meaning they were freshly laid when I saw them  and there was a queen present all along, however the introduction of the new virgin queen may have led to her, or the reigning queen,  being killed or injured so we are back to a waiting game until the next inspection to see what the outcome is for this colony.

If there are eggs and a marked queen  present then my original queen has survived, if there are eggs with an unmarked queen then the new queen successfully mated but if there are no eggs and no queens then I am back to square one, only time will tell.

The other very  important influence of the poor weather this year has been the amount of spring feeding required.  After an unseasonably warm and sunny March the colonies had built up fast and filled the hives to the seams with young workers all ready for the spring nectar flow but when the cold wet weather set in the  now enlarged colonies trapped in the hives have rapidly used up the last of their winter stores. As such the hives have required regular feeding throughout April and into May with a light sugar syrup (1kg sugar to 1 litre water) in order to prevent the bees from starving, it is amazing that my strongest colony can empty a full contact feeder of syrup in about two days so just goes to show what they woudl be using to sustain the colony if they were flying.  Feeding this time of year should be done with some caution as it can also encourage the bees to swarm and there seems to be a lot of that starting locally now.

April into May but where are my bees going …..

March was dominated by a high pressure system that bought unseasonably warm and dry weather across much of  the UK, continuing drought conditions were forecast for the year ahead and a hosepipe ban has been put in place across much of the country, meanwhile the bees have enjoyed early flying, foraging and the colonies have been building up their strengh.

As it was still early in the year I only carried out one inspection during the month, on a warm day, where the health of the hives, the amount of stores and the strength of the colonies was assessed. I was very pleased that all three of my colonies had survived the winter again. Two were strong healthy colonies but the other hive, named Snowdon, rang a few alarm bells as things weren’t quite right due to the sporadic and weak laying patterns and although there was no sign of the queen there was some sealed brood so I closed up the hives and decided to review the situation at my next inspection.

Workers bringing in pollen

Workers bringing in pollen between April showers

Then  April arrived and so did the the rain,  the UK met office has issued yellow warnings for heavy rain and local flooding in one or more area of the country virtually every day and the heavy rains have continued to pour out of the heavens. This wet period has not only hampered my ability to get down to the hives to check on the bees progress but it has also kept the bees in the hives, unable to collect the fresh pollen and nectar required for brood rearing and the adult bees and  they are using up the last of their winter stores  rapidly.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) and National Bee Unit (NBU) have  put out a number of warnings to check supplies and feed the colonies either with fondant or thin syrup as there is a real risk of starvation. I have given 1kg of thin sugar syrup to each of the colonies this weekend again in the pouring rain as it didn’t involve actually opening the hives fully.

I am very lucky to have a ‘beekeeping buddy’ who allows me to  keep my bees together with his own bees on his forest garden. He is happy to have an occasional look at my bees  if I have been unable to get there for any reason. He rang a couple of weeks back to say he had looked in my hives and that Snowdon now had no eggs, brood or sign of a queen and the colony was very small. There was no sign of an emergency queen cell as you would expect if it was a supercedure  and it is really too early for a healthy colony to be swarming, certainly not without leaving a new queen behind.  In order to try and save the colony he added a frame of young eggs from Ogwen (my strongest colony) to see if the queen-less bees would use these to draw an emergency queen cell.

Buckfast Queen

Buckfast Queen (marked with white dot)

I carried out an inspection the following week and discovered that the bees had capped the brood without drawing a new queen cell and now to add to my problems there is a second hive, Tryfan,  also without a queen, any brood or eggs…. so where are my bees going!

Once again I added a frame of young eggs into Tryfan to see if this colony are more successful at drawing out a queen cell than the inhabitants of Snowdon had been  but we cannot keep taking eggs from my strongest queen without eventually causing her colony to weaken so this is a last shot at queen raising for both these colonies.

The first colony, Snowdon, is now quite reduced in numbers and will not survive without a queen so it is likely that I will unite this with Tryfan when the rain stops, hopefully this hive will have also created a new queen but if not then it looks like I will be back onto to order another buckfast queen – I have checked with Paynes Bee Farm and they don’t currently have any queens ‘in stock’ as it is too early in the season any but they hope to have queens from mid-May … lets just hope the bees sort themselves out in the interim period and I don’t get laying workers again…..

As ever  I would welcome any thoughts from other beekeepers as too what has happened to my queens this year or to hear from anyone who has experienced similar losses. I place supers and brood bodies over an upturned floor when removed from the hive and frames are inspected over the hive and returned to the supers with great care to avoid damaging the queens, or indeed any of the bees, so I do not think that I have dropped or damaged a queen (I have certainly never done this before!).

Incidentally following up from an entry last year where I re-queened a colony with my first ever ‘purchased’ buckfast queen,  the queen is a strong egg layer and I now have the most docile and calm bee colony that I have ever worked with (she is the queen in the picture above). The eggs that I am using to try and raise a new queen with are from this colony and although I don’t know what their honey producing potential is yet they are a real joy to work with so I would be very happy if I could raise a queen from this hive with similar traits.

Bee Venom Therapy in action – does it really cure the pain?

Following on from my previous post, titled Bee Venom Therapy (BVT) …. is it a sting too far?, I now want to write a little about the experiences that my wife and I had last year using bee venom to treat her rheumatoid arthritis (RA), if you have just stumbled across this post then I would strongly recommend that you read my previous article to gain some background and understanding of what BVT is and why we are doing this!

Having read Charles Mraz’s book we felt quite confident with the actual direct application of  venom at the target sites. We informally discussed the process that we were about to undertake with our GP so that he was aware, and although western medicine doesn’t really prescribe this sort of treatment I think he was both intrigued and entertained at the same time, however he was not dismissive having heard anecdotal stories of similar treatments in the past and has maintained an interest in the results since.

Before the main treatments began we borrowed an epipen (just in case of an emergency!), we then carried out a single ‘test sting’ on the hand to make sure that my wife didn’t have an allergy to bee venom, even though she had previously been stung we needed to make sure that an allergy hadn’t subsequently developed in the intervening years. This also gave a taster or reminder of the pain that would be experienced in the coming weeks and an opportunity for her to change her mind. This whole treatment had to be very patient led, so I did not push the sessions and let my wife decide where she felt she wanted the stings to be applied. Luckily as a chiropractor who also does dry needling she has a very good understanding of the bodies mechanisms and where the trigger points or target areas should be.

Bees in a jar

Bees waiting their 'turn to help'

The bees are collected into a jar during the normal hive checks and this also set the frequency that the BVT sessions took place, purely through convenience as my bees are located in an ‘out apiary’ (so not kept at home) and we didn’t want to disturb the colonies more than we already do (also bees don’t ‘store’ that well once bottled). The collection jar is just an empty  jar with air holes drilled in the lid and some foliage for supporting the bees as they struggle to grip on the glass sides. If they were being left overnight a little honey was also added although this is best avoided as even the bees get sticky.

When the bees are to be ‘used’ they are plucked from the jar using ‘reverse’ tweezers, sometimes called jewellery makers tweezers, that close shut when the finger pressure is released rather than open as in normal tweezers, this allowed me to clamp the bees ready for application of the sting.

Bee in 'reverse tweezers'

Bee held in 'reverse tweezers'

I can’t say that my wife really relished the thought of being stung numerous times, and although she had seen the minor effect it had on me during my previous seasons as a beekeeper she had also seen the slightly more entertaining and dramatic effect of the histamine production when I was stung on my top lip. With the ‘test sting’ being a resounding success we decided to push on with the BVT.

The bees were collected and stings applied on average every 10 days or so, we applied between 10 – 12 stings at each session. Normally this would involve 2 in each foot or on the ankles, 2 on each of the knees and two on each hand, anywhere on the knuckles but we varied this routine depending if one area was  particularly painful with the arthritis  prior to that session. The stings were left in place for anywhere between 2 and 10 minutes so that  full venom dose was received. When the stingers are removed it is important not to use an alcohol wipe on the sting site as this neutralises the effect of the venom. Unfortunately the bee dies after they have used their sting and they also release a pheromone so the dying bees were removed from the immediate area as the BVT sessions took place outdoors and we didn’t want attract any extra non-participants into the area.  A few bees flying around your head when you are not behind a veil can be very off-putting!

Stings applied to joints on both hands

Stings applied to the knuckle joints on both hands

By the end of the 2011 season my wife had been stung 129 times, so you must now be thinking that she is either a very brave or possibly a slightly mad women, but if you had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 35, if it was in your body and your joints, and you were told that the only answer that modern medicine had to offer was to spend the rest of your life taking a cocktail of anti-inflammatory and other drugs (with pretty unappealing side effects in their own right) then maybe you to would be willing to take the chance that an alternative cure could be found.

Well of course I know that that my wife is an intelligent, level-headed women and as I have previously stated we didn’t start this whole process without a lot of thought, research and planning, I guess it was just a case of weighing up the options available to us and the western medicine route felt a bit like giving up hope.

Sting swelling

Localised swelling shortly after applying the sting

The stings did exactly what it said on the (yellow and black) packet. They caused localised pain for a short period, followed by a slight redness and swelling at the sting site. Then as histamine is produced by the body the swelling spreads across a larger area of the body, often causing  large red swollen areas that last for several days.As the season progressed Emma definitely developed a tolerance to the venom, in the same way that beekeepers often do, and the effects of the venom became less visibly evident.  I think that the most discomfort was caused, not by the initial pain of the sting as one may have thought, but rather by the itching over the next few hours and sometimes days, particularly during the hotter days of the summer.

So was the BVT effective? 

When my wife was first diagnosed with the RA in 2010 she attended an appointment with an NHS rheumatologist. She had blood samples and x-rays taken to assess her current condition and the extent of any existing joint damage.

The early signs are that the RA is in remission but more importantly than that, having just had the autumn and winter period so dreaded by many RA sufferers as their symptoms worsen during this period my wife has not complained of, nor suffered from painfully swollen joints as she  had done during the previous year. So it looks like the BVT has gone some way into reducing both the swelling and pain, the thing we need to find out now is if it prevents damage to the joints or even reverses the process.

The subsequent visits to the rheumatologist has involved further x-rays and tests and although they feel that, against the odds, that Emma is definitely showing signs of remission they do not have much interest in the BVT or accept that it is a potential contributing factor. We will have to now wait until further tests are carried out in future months to see how the BVT is really working, but all the early signs are positive.

I should point out that during the period that the stings were applied my wife was also undergoing other treatments such as acupuncture and a cleansing diet (to me this was harsher than the stings!) so any remission may be attributable to a combination of these treatments. When we reached the end of the beekeeping season in 2011 my wife became concerned that with the bees being ‘away’ and no longer being stung that the symptoms would become worse again and she became quite worried about not being stung, a complete reverse of a few months earlier!

Over the last few weeks my wife has also started to take ‘honeygar’, a combination of honey, cider vinegar and a little water, as a medicine. This come highly recommended in Margaret Hills book ‘Curing arthritis the drug free way’ as well as having more modern day champions such as Ranulph Fiennes, who swears by it for his own arthritis control.

So what is the plan for the future?

As the new beekeeping season is about to begin in 2012, and the girls are out flying again, we will also be starting the next set of BVT sessions. This is my wife’s choice so it shows that she must feel that there was a strong enough benefit from last years BVT to subject herself to the pain and swelling again and hopefully we will continue to see the RA in remission. In the testimonials that I have read people are sometimes ‘cured’ after just a few treatments and others have a longer journey. I guess it is part dependant on the level of RA being treated in the  patient as well as other factors such as the level that their auto-immune system is functioning at.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this article, if you have any experience of BVT, either personally or anecdotal, or would like to make a comment I would love to hear from you. It is still early days for us but sharing this experience is important and maybe it can also be of help to others.