Copper Bee Apiary

A garden apiary in Whittlesford, Cambridge, UK - honey bees and their beekeeper Hilary van der Hoff.

The Roof Bees

I’m flummoxed. I don’t know what the bees are up to. I don’t know if even they know what they’re up to. I’ve decided to give The Roof Bees their own post - a summary of their unexplained escapades. You tell me if it makes any sense.

To begin at the beginning, it’s Saturday, 20th April, 2019. I shook swarm Queen Peony’s colony on to new frames in a clean brood box.

Ten days later, it’s Tuesday, 30th April. The Bee Inspector checks the colony and finds it to be healthy. There are eggs and brood, but there is also a sealed queen cell. He thinks supercedure is underway. If he’s right, a new queen will emerge about 7th May and start laying a couple of weeks later, while Queen Peony also remains in the hive.

Fast forward to Saturday, 1st June. The hive is full of brood. Capped brood, uncapped brood and eggs. So there must be a queen there, but I’m not sure if it’s the new queen, the old queen, or both.

On Saturday, 15th June, I find a queen in the hive. And a charged, unsealed queen cell. If supercedure had already occurred, I don’t think they’d be making new queen cells. So here, I think, we still have Queen Peony. I remove the queen cell.

Wednesday, 19th June. I see Queen Peony again, when I’m looking for a frame of eggs to transfer to another colony. I go through a few frames in the brood box before I find one that I want. I’m not really looking for queen cells, but I don’t notice any.

But I suppose queen cells must have been there, because on Sunday, 23rd June, a swarm erupts into the air…

…and settles around the top of a pear tree. Here’s a video. Do not adjust your set.

They stay the night in the pear tree, then are gone the following day.

The day after that, the Bee Inspector visits. And that’s when we find the roof bees, living in the roof space of what used to be Queen Peony’s hive. We shake them into a brood box which we put on top of the hive, under the roof, with its own entrance. As I wrote in that earlier post,

“My best guess is that the bees in the roof were Queen Peony’s swarm returning (or almost returning) to their original hive. Maybe they did come home but were refused entry so crept in upstairs. Maybe they lost their queen and didn’t know what to do. Whatever happened, sadly they didn’t stay. The next day, the roof space and new brood box were empty.”

Well, after they left, I took away the empty brood box. That was on Wednesday, 26th June.

So far, so interesting. But now it starts to get surreal.

Thursday, 4th July, 2019:

I’m delighted to have my roof bees back again. I hope they stay!

But when I return to the apiary towards dusk, things don’t look so well. There are bees running all over the front of the hive. Some are gathered around the entrance at the bottom, where fighting is taking place, presumably between the swarm bees from the top and the resident bees from the lower colony.

I’m worried. Have they somehow lost their queen, and are looking for her?

Then I notice a small cluster of bees hanging on the tip of an apple tree branch.

It’s within reach. I carefully snip the end off the branch and gently place the branch tip, with its clustered bees still attached, into the roof bees’ brood box. I’m sad to see the box is otherwise largely empty of bees. But when I place the branch inside, there’s a reassuring whirr of bee conversation from within. Listen:

But then I realise that the sound of buzzing isn’t coming only from the brood box. The grass underneath the apple tree is also buzzing. The grass is full of bees. So I find myself kneeling on the ground in the fading light, peering anxiously into the long grass, gathering bees into my hands and shuttling them to the hive. “Oh, hello neighbour, yes I’m fine thank you. Everything is perfectly normal here.”

By the next morning (Friday, 5th July), I’ve convinced myself that the Roof Bees must be starving. If they really are Queen Peony’s swarm, they’ve been living rough for 12 days and 12 nights. So I take a part drawn frame which I’d previously brought in to the house for repair, and fill the cells with an icing sugar syrup.


After. The bees do it neater.

Before going to work that day, I carefully lower the sugar-filled frame into the brood box, next to the cluster of bees still attached to their apple tree branch. I also close the Snelgrove door, thinking it’s better that they have just one entrance rather than two.

When I return from work, the bees are all over the hive front:

Why? Don’t know. What to do? Don’t know. But I feel I should Do Something. So I re-open the Snelgrove door. The bees go in.

Which brings us to today, Saturday, 6th July. Around lunchtime, bees swarm out of the hive and settle high up in a tree overhanging next door’s garden…

Catch us if you can!

I know you’re up there, bees.

…only to return to their hive about an hour later.

I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Am I anthropomorphising too much if I believe that they have been performing this elaborate hide-and-seek rigmarole just to mess with my mind? “Did you see her face when we re-appeared in the roof for the third time?! Tell you what, everyone hang on a low branch, and when she’s nearly reached us, all move to the next tree.”

Of course I don’t really think that. But I really would like to understand what’s going on. Do the Roof Bees have Queen Peony with them? And what’s going on in the original brood box - do they have a new queen and will she manage her all-important mating flights with all that hubbub going on upstairs?

People sometimes ask me, how much work is it to keep bees? And I suppose that depends what kind of beekeeper you are. Are you the type to idly wander in to your apiary with a cup of tea on a summer’s afternoon, and find yourself still there after sunset? I am. Others might be able to wander back out again when they’ve finished their tea. I spend huge amounts of time with the bees in the spring and summer, yet fall behind on many things (building frames, cleaning kit, reading the bee books…), and I wish I had even more time available for beekeeping. At times (perhaps, if I’m honest, most of the time), it feels less like “keeping bees” and more like “trying to keep up with bees”. I’m usually a step or two behind them. If I do successfully manage some timely intervention, like a vertical split, then I’m mightily pleased with myself. I don’t want to be the type of beekeeper who’s always opening the hives and “controlling” the bees to some scheduled routine…but it seems I’m not at risk of doing that, anyway.

Writings, images and sound recordings are by the beekeeper unless otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.

Logo artwork © 2015-2019 Susan Harnicar Jackson. All rights reserved.