Tucking up our bees for the winter

Here at the Charterhouse we’re the proud custodians of three hives which now live up on the Queen’s Walk and which are cared for by our beekeeping partner Dale Gibson of Bermondsey Street Bees. Our lucky bees have the run of the Charterhouse gardens, and we were very excited by our first harvest of exclusive Charterhouse honey – all of which sold out at our first Christmas Fair.

Here’s Volunteer Coordinator Holly Walker with the latest installment of the story of the Charterhouse bees: This week Dale came over to check the hives and make sure they were in good shape for the winter. My colleague Charlotte and I were lucky enough to join Dale and watch him as he inspected our three hives. It was a brilliant experience- in the short time we were with him I not only saw the inside of the hives for the first time (and modelled my first every Bee Keeper suit!) but also learned a huge amount more about our thousands of little tenants who call our rooftop home.

Dale’s visit had a dual purpose, he was bringing additional food to last the bees over winter, and also to remove some deterrents he had left in place to minimise the risk of Varroa parasitic mites. I had never heard of the Varroa parasites before, but they are apparently very nasty for bees, and can cause a serious disease. Dale had left in a deterrent which he removed today, but also explained how in the next few weeks he will be returning with a vapour made from rhubarb leaves with which to spray the hives as their next level of protection! Dale then took away the boxes the bees’ supplementary summer food had been stored in, and replaced it with their winter snacks. He explained that during the winter they prefer solid food (the block of candy and pollen he added today resembled marzipan in consistency) but over summer they had it in a liquid form instead.

This was the first time I have seen the hives up close, and it was interesting to see the way access to the entrances was inhibited in order to reduce the risk of wasps or mice getting in, both of which are hazards to bee colonies. His point was proven when we looked at the first hive and he showed us lots of evidence of a wasp attack, with lots of causalities clearly visible, but luckily it looked as though, overall, the bees were doing fine.  I think the most surprising thing I learned was that our hives are currently made up of just female bees, and will be throughout the rest of winter. Over winter, since no mating takes place, and the male bees don’t actually assist in creating food, they are driven out of the hive by all the females! Then when warmer weather comes the Queen is easily able to replace the lost male bees, as any unfertilised eggs she lays will be male. Apparently peak laying day will be 22nd June at the Summer Solstice.

I was totally blown away by the complexity of the hives, and all that happens within them, and will definitely think a little more fondly of the bees now.

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