Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

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Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

Let them eat cake

It felt like old times at the apiary today. An overcast, grey Saturday afternoon found a group of old and new beekeepers huddled at the apiary table and waiting for Elsa and Clare to pour tea. Emily had baked delicious chocolate-and-nut muffins and I had to be quick to take a photo before they disappeared.

So this week, back by popular demand of fellow blogger Rolling Harbour, we have cake…

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A new visitor asked: ‘So is this what you do every Saturday?’ Yes – before we had four hives. Emily and I reflected that a better summer for the bees meant less tea and cake for beekeepers.

This year’s long warm summer has seen our bees boom and we’ve been very lucky with our windows of sunshine at weekends. However, as if on cue, it started to rain today as we walked the group of beginner beekeepers to the hives. We were only able to show workers crawling over the crownboard before big wet drops of rain forced us to close up.

A usual day at Ealing apiary then – tea, cake, rain and bee talk…

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Next week: Apiguard and honey.

Autumn is coming

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Last post Emily and I were in the thick of it. We had to abandon combining two hives as angry bees got the better of us.

So the following Tuesday evening we met at the apiary and pulled on bee suits over smart work dresses and heeled shoes. Emily was wearing a beekeeping jacket that left her legs perilously bare – but it was the mosquitoes, not the bees, who feasted.

Rose’s colony was more bad tempered than ever and, although we couldn’t find the queen, we were almost certain the colony was queenless. The bees have been trying to supercede Rose since spring and our artificial swarms only delayed their efforts to overthrow the reigning monarchy.

We laid a sheet of newspaper over the brood box of Chamomile’s colony and moved over Rose’s colony, then left the apiary hoping for the best. Emily revisited the following week and removed the newspaper, which was mostly chewed away by the bees. All seemed well. In the time the bees had eaten through the newspaper they had gotten used to each others’ smell and were one happy colony. This was also an indication that Rose had gone as the two colonies were more likely to fight if two queens had been present.

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A Saturday went by as we shopped for wedding and bridesmaid dresses for Emily. Today was the second Saturday of the August and the apiary was lovely and peaceful as the association held its monthly scout hut meeting. However, we had both forgotten to bring a smoker and the noise of irritated bees soon filled the air.

Myrtle’s colony was well behaved and, as we’ve never smoked these bees, we were able to check both brood boxes and spot our shy queen. I’m rather proud of Myrtle. She is in her second year of being a queen and is still making nice, well-behaved bees.

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Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies were much feistier. They are the daughters of Rose, the queen of the colony we bought from Charles. We managed to check a few frames before they let us know that we should have brought a smoker. All seemed well inside the colonies though. We have three strong hives and apparently enough honey stores for winter. Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile are our autumn queens – an interesting blend of essential oils, I might try it!

At this time of year the bees start to prepare for winter. The queen lays less and the workers bring home propolis to insulate the hive. They are more protective of their honey and on guard for robber bees, wasps and other pests who might want to steal their precious stores. This can make them less tolerant of beekeepers too.

Emily spotted drones being pushed out of the entrance by workers and a few wasps were buzzing around the roofs and floors.

Autumn is coming.

Useful links

A useful strategy for dealing with autumn wasps entering hives via @DrBeekeeper on Twitter: The Battle of Wasps attacking Bees http://bit.ly/15k9a9r 

What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ‘emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

When it doesn’t rain

When it doesn’t rain this is what a Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping looks like.

Emily and I now have four colonies at Perivale apiary: Queen Myrtle’s hive has almost completed the Bailey comb change after a late start in spring; Rose’s colony has been successfully transferred from a nuc into a hive; the second nuc is building up nicely; and we saw a new virgin queen in our hive from Charles. We closed up and left her to fly free.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s short snapshot – much more next week.

Happy beekeeping!

This could get out of hand…

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Our bees are feeling swarmy.

Last Saturday afternoon Emily and I found three queen cells in the hive we bought from Charles recently. And in a surprising display of competent beekeeping, we demonstrated how to do an artificial swarm to an audience of three beginner beekeepers.

We found the queen and put her in a nuc (baby hive box) with four frames of brood and stores (honey and pollen), a frame of foundation (so the small colony can grow) and I had the (unenviable) task of shaking in two frames of flying bees. We then ‘took down’ (polite beekeeping term for ‘destroyed’) one queen cell in the original hive and left two queen cells inside.

As usual, beekeepers have different ideas about how many queen cells to leave inside a hive: too few might risk the colony becoming queenless if the new queen(s) fail, and too many might risk the colony trying to swarm again. But it seemed for now we had stopped the bees from swarming and had (potentially) a third hive.

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Emily and Drew returned to the apiary on Sunday to move the nuc to the location of the original hive so that the foraging bees would return to the nuc and boost its numbers.

So far so good.

Today we returned to see how our swarmy bees were getting on.

And discovered they are still feeling swarmy.

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Five new queen cells!

We decided not to destroy the new queen cells and ask if another beekeeper at our apiary needed queens.

We then inspected the nuc and found that the small colony will soon need to be moved into a grown-up hive. And we named the queen Rose, because she seems rather nice.

Luckily nothing as exciting was happening in Myrtle’s hive. Our well-behaved bees are doing the Bailey comb change exactly as the books say. We found and put Myrtle in the top brood box to encourage the colony to move upstairs into their new home.

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Later that day Emily returned to the apiary and sent a text to say the elder beekeepers had advised making another nuc from the extra queen cells. So we now have four colonies at Perivale apiary and one at Hanwell which is also bursting at the seams. This could all get out of hand.

Book review: The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar

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The sun broke through this year’s never-ending winter for Easter and blue skies brought hope that spring is really coming. The cold, bright sunshine reminded me of a poem from The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar and made me think of the months of honey ahead.

An extract from The Honey Month

Day 10 – French Rhododendron Honey

Colour: The colour of sugar dissolving in hot water; that white cloudiness, with a faint yellow tint I can only see when looking at it slantwise, to the left of me, not when I hold it up to the light.

Smell: Strange, it has almost no scent at all; it’s also crystallised, so it’s a bit difficult to scoop some out with the wand, but it smells cold with an elusive citrus squirt hovering about its edges.

Taste: There is a kind of sugar cube my grandfather used to give my sister and me every morning when we were small, not so much a cube as a cabochon, irregularly rounded, clear and cloudy by turns. It was called sikkar nabet, which is “plant sugar.” This tastes like it. The honey taste is so pale, so faint, it really is almost sugar water. I’m reminded of maple sap in buckets, right at the beginning of the boiling process that produces maple syrup, where it’s still water enough to be used for steeping tea.

harbour in Penryn
the moon is a sugar-stone
melting on my tongue

quai bas a minuit:
la pleine lune fond contre ma langue
comme une jeune Francaise.

When my good friend Lisa Tenzin-Dolma read about The Honey Month she ordered a copy for us both and mine arrived as a surprise parcel in the post. I read every page with pleasure. Amal’s sensual narrative spins poetry and prose around the colours, smells and tastes of honeys both exotic and familiar. Amal wrote the book in the month of February using a gift of assorted vials of honey from her friend Danielle Sucher to inspire a daily journey of discovery. Her writing is artistic, mischievous and bewitching as she explores the different textures and experiences of sweetness using her senses and imagination.

The book is illustrated by artist Oliver Hunter who brings to life Amal’s fairy-and-goblin woven world of bees and honey. And I couldn’t think of a better illustration to accompany my post on The Honey Month than the artwork created for my blog by Lisa’s daughter, Amber Tenzin-Dolma (read more).

I’ve taken an unintentional break from blogging since mid March due to new, and significant, changes for my job (more later) and to take my first bee exam (also more later), but normal blogging will start again from mid April, including the remaining posts of my module 6 revision notes.

Meantime, do enjoy Amal’s deliciously wicked book, The Honey Month is available at Papaveria Press.

BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.7 the foraging bee

Tiger-bee! Orange and stripy!

‘On a warm, sunny April day a honeybee is attracted to a patch of bluebells. She – for almost all bees are female – is on a mission, and knows that she is close to her goal. She delicately clambers over the petals, as comfortable upside down as she is right way up, her legs working in unison. She pokes her head inside a trumpet-shaped bloom, searching for the sweet, sugary nectar.

‘Grasping the petal’s side, her legs force her head deep inside the flower, until her long tongue can get to the liquid. Once the tiny drop is all gone, she will move onto the next flower, and the next until she is full.’
A World Without Bees
by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum

6.7 The behaviour of the foraging bee and its work methods in the field including orientation

Almost every honeybee seen foraging on a flower in spring and summer is a female worker bee in the second half of her 30–35 day life. Having spent the first half inside the hive as a ‘house bee’ carrying out various tasks, she now spends her days as a ‘forager’ collecting four essential things for the colony: nectar, pollen, propolis and water.

What do bees forage for?

  1. Nectar: a mix of sugar, water and various ingredients collected from flowers in the forager’s honey stomach (yes, bees have two stomachs and one is just for honey!) and brought back to the hive to store as honey. Nectar is a valuable source of carbohydrate energy for bees.
  2. Pollen: dusted from flowers into ‘baskets’ on her hind legs, the forager brings back pollen loads to the hive where it is packed and stored in cells. Pollen is a source of protein, and also vitamins and trace minerals, for bees, who use it to feed larvae (brood food) and for young bees so that their bodies grow strong.
  3. Propolis: or ‘bee glue’ is a resinous substance collected from sticky buds or tree bark, and seen as shiny blobs on the third legs of foragers flying home. Propolis is used for sticking down small holes and insulating the hive, usually in late autumn in preparation for winter. It is also used for varnishing and hardening comb, such as the ‘propolis dance floor’ at the entrance where dances are performed. It is not stored and only collected when needed.
  4. Water: is needed to dilute honey stores (to eat) or to mix with brood food, and it is also used to cool the hive in high temperatures. It is not stored and only collected when needed. Foragers tend to collect water from unusual (dirty) sources such as hanging laundry, bird baths, puddles and drains.

Who forages what and when?

What foragers collect, and when, depend on the needs of the colony, the time of year and the temperature: for example, nectar flows, and can be collected, at 150C and above; propolis hardens, and can’t be collected, at 50C and under; and pollen collection may decrease if the queen slows or stops laying because it may not be needed for brood food.

Ted Hooper suggests that nectar, pollen, propolis or water may be collected by most foraging bees during their lifetime and that they usually carry one thing at a time, although nectar and pollen may sometimes be carried together and ‘some bees exclusively forage for propolis’ (Guide to Bees and Honey). Emily Heath writes in her module 6 revision notes that ‘two studies of bee collection habits found that about 58% of bees collect nectar only, 25% pollen only and 17% both nectar and pollen.’

Understanding the behaviour of the foraging bee

There is no doubt still a lot to learn about the behaviour of the foraging honeybee, although to summarise what we think we know is another beautiful infographic designed by Keith Whitlock for my blog. Click on the image to enlarge.

behaviour of foraging bee infographic

To really put into perspective the hard work of a foraging bee, here’s another excerpt from A World Without Bees.

‘The work demanded of the foraging honeybee is truly astounding. She will visit 1,500 flowers to collect just one load of pollen, which will weigh 15mg (1/1,900oz), about half as much as the nectar that she also brings back to the hive. To put these figures into some kind of perspective, it takes two million trips by a colony to collect the 30kg (66Ib) needed to raise its young, and four million trips to collect enough nectar to turn into honey for winter stores. This equates to around 45,000 trips per day per colony. Since a foraging flight may take a bee on a 10km (six-mile) round trip, collectively a colony can fly up to 450,000km (280,000 miles) a day. Each bee will fly around 800km (500 miles) in her lifetime, at times carrying loads equivalent to half her body weight; no wonder she will die of exhaustion about three weeks after her first flight.’

The figures of flowers visited, trips made and weights of loads all vary slightly from source to source and within different contexts such as nectar collectors vs nectar and pollen collectors, although all agree the bee is a master forager!

Are bees faithful to flowers?

The idea of ‘flower constancy’, meaning that bees become attached to foraging one type of flower for life, is a popular one and there are many theories to explain it – in another post! It may be an economic choice as by the time a forager learns a particular dance and becomes attached to a particular crop, she only has around 15 days to work it. Learning how to work different flowers might be a waste of time and energy. Ted Hooper says: ‘If, however, its [the bee's] particular species of flower comes to an end in the first few days of the bee’s foraging, it will shift its allegiance to another plant, but should this happen towards the end of its life, it probably ceases to forage altogether.’

A honeybee easily wins the Bee Games for flowers visited per foraging flight.

In the field, the forager prefers dense patches of foliage so she can move from one flower to the next with ease – an important fact to remember when planting for bees or planting for efficient pollination. ‘For instance, in orchards where the trees are planted in tight rows, with much bigger spaces between the rows than between the trees within the row, bees tend to work up and down the rows with very few crossing from one row to another,’ says Hooper. Similarly, the forager reserves her valuable glycogen stores for flying by walking from flower to flower if she can to collect nectar and pollen. ‘In dense forage such as clover or crucifers grown for seed, or dense stands of heather, bees tend to walk rather than fly from one group of flowers to another.’

How do foragers find their way around?

For a creature who is only 12mm long and weighs around 100mg, the honeybee’s body is remarkably well equipped to finding her way around.

  • Two sets of eyes: a pair of compound eyes on the front of her head – each with 6,900 hexagonal lenses that interpret light (particularly sensitive to ultra violet light), colours and the position of the sun, and that have hairs to pick up wind speed and direction; and ocelli set out in a triangle on top of her head – light detectors that help to keep her the right way up.
  • Two antennae: these ‘tune’ into smells to find flowers and her way around the local area and back to the hive.

And considering that a bee brain is no larger than a grain of sugar, the honeybee stores and communicates complex information such as location of the hive and various crops. A World Without Bees describes the honeybee’s impressive homing instinct.

‘A honeybee knows which nest to go home to by mapping out its locale. The accuracy of its measurements is quite uncanny, and when a number of hives are located near to each other with the entrances separated by a distance of only a few tens of centimetres the honeybee will return to its own colony, rather than the one next door.’

Having returned home from a successful foraging flight, the bee may perform various dances used to communicate good sources of forage as described in my previous post.

As a beekeeper, I love watching foraging honeybees in spring and summer as it brings home the magical alchemy of flower-to-bee-to-hive-to-honey-on-my-toast. I saw this forager on a clump of pink flowers in Regent’s Park last summer and filmed her with an extension tube on my camera as an experiment in macro video – it’s a little blurry. Enjoy!

Related links

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing
BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.6 The social network including bee dances

Other links and further reading

Emily Heath has written two very interesting posts on bees and forage: 6th Honeybee behaviour revision post: bee foraging and “Bee foraging on garden plants: Sussex University research” – a talk by Professor Francis Ratnieks.

A recent article in Scientific American was brought to my attention by @andrewGouw on how bumblebees sense electric fields in flowers to guess where others have already fed on nectar. After following the link wait 15 seconds for the advert before the article appears.

BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.6 The social network

Olympic bees

A handful of foragers return home early one morning, their stomachs heavy with nectar. They have found a good source of food, but it will take more honeybees to collect it all.

Inside the hive a worker suddenly charges at a bee, pushing with her head and grabbing with her feet. She jumps on top of the bee and shakes her abdomen up and down. The bee responds to this strange behaviour by walking off to the hive entrance. There she will watch the waggle dances on the propolis dance floor and join the foraging efforts of her sisters.

The worker had demonstrated the dorsoventral abdominal vibrating dance or DVAV, a dance to recruit more bees to forage during a sudden or plentiful flow of nectar.

The DVAV might also be used on a queen bee to make her move towards the entrance when it is time to swarm.

6.6 The methods of communication used by the honeybee including food sharing (trophallaxis), dancing, scenting and vibration.

After a busy start to February, I’m back to the bee books for the honeybee behaviour exam in March. This week it’s all about the social network. Honeybees have evolved a complex social network that involves communicating through dance, food and scents.

1 Trophallaxis (food sharing)
Unlike beekeepers who chat over tea and cake, bees exchange food and communicate by regurgitating into each other’s mouths. This makes me very thankful to be a beekeeper and not a bee!

Food sharing, or trophallaxis, is when two worker bees share the crop content (a mix of nectar and other substances) in their honey stomachs, which results in an exchange of information about each other and about the colony. The clearest account I have read of trophallaxis is given by Celia F Davis in The Honey Bee Inside Out (pages 106–7), making a potentially confusing topic actually simple to understand:

Mod 6.5 trophallaxis

‘It starts with one worker begging for food or another offering it. A begging bee pushes its proboscis [tongue] towards the mouth of another bee. The other bee then opens its mandibles, pushes its proboscis forward and regurgitates a drop of nectar from its crop, which the begging bee takes. An offering bee will regurgitate a drop of nectar and offer it to another bee. The result of this is that the crops of adult workers throughout the colony will contain the same mix of nectar and other substances at the same concentrations.’
Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out

This method of food exchange is very rapid. Studies found that coloured or radioactive nectar fed to a few workers was spread to more than half the workers in the colony within 24 hours.

What’s the point of trophallaxis? Well, it gives each bee the ‘common colony stomach’, says Davis, so that they all have the same smell. This is how bees from the same colony can recognise each other; for example, guard bees can recognise returning foragers as members of their colony. It also ensures that ‘all the bees in the colony have a continuing appreciation of the quality of incoming nectar and pollen sources and their abundance in the colony’, which in turn can affect:

  • foraging behaviour
  • brood rearing and division of labour between house (inside) bees
  • queen’s rate of egg laying

Trophallaxis and other methods of communication
Trophallaxis can play a part in the exchange of scent (chemical) messages, when bees touch antennae during nectar sharing. Food sharing can also happen during the waggle dance when the dancer gives a taste of nectar to another bee to show how good it is.

2 Dancing
Honeybees are very good choreographers and they use different dances to communicate including the DVAV, round dance, sickle dance and, everyone’s favourite, the waggle dance.

The waggle, or wagtail, dance is a figure of eight movement with a little waggle in the middle. It is performed by foraging honeybees who find a good source of forage (trees or flowers) and then fly home to tell everyone else.

It goes something like this…

Mod 6.6 waggle

The bee walks in a straight line waggling her bottom and buzzing her wings. She then turns and loops back to where she started. She walks along the straight line again, waggling her bottom and buzzing her wings, then loops back in the other direction creating a figure of eight on the dance floor. The straight line indicates the direction of the food and the number of waggles indicates the distance.

In the bee world, the vertical face of the honeycomb (imagine sections of comb hanging down inside the hive) represents the sun, and the angle of the straight line to the vertical indicates the position of the trees or flowers to the sun. For example, if the straight line is run at a 60 degree angle, then the food source is 60 degrees to the sun.

As the sun is always moving across the sky, the dancer calculates the sun’s movement by adjusting the angle of her dance every four minutes by one degree to the west.

If my clumsy attempt to describe the waggle has left you confused, then Sir David Attenborough explains it excellently in the BBC’s Trials of Life. Finding the way: waggle dance.

Round dance
The round dance is performed as a simple loop. It doesn’t give directions like the waggle dance and simply says ‘Go get it!’ The round dance is used when a food source that has a particularly high sugar content is not far from the hive, for example: a field of oilseed rape, other hives or an M&M factory! There must have been a lot of excited French bees doing the round dance last year after discovering vast quantities of blue sugar syrup nearby.

Mod 6.5 round

Sickle dance
The sickle dance is a figure of eight without the waggle in the middle. It is somewhere between the round dance and the waggle dance and it is used when the distance to the forage is somewhere inbetween. It says, ‘around the corner and up the next street’.

Mod 6.5 sickle

There are other dances that have been observed inside the hive.

  • Jostling dance: a prelude to the waggle dance. Foragers returning from a successful trip will run and push other bees to let them know they are about to do the waggle dance.
  • Spasmodic dance: a variation on the jostling dance that includes food sharing, and presumably gives the same message.
  • Trembling dance: while the DVAV dance recruits more foragers, the trembling dance seems to recruit more receiver and storage bees to help foragers unload nectar and pollen. Davis says: ‘A bee runs about on 4 legs and twitches and trembles. If it meets a bee performing a wagtail dance, it head-butts it and briefly pipes.’

Apparently, the time it takes for a forager to unload her nectar influences the type of dance that is performed. If the forager takes 20 seconds or less to unload nectar, the DVAV dance is performed to recruit more workers to forage. However, if the forager takes 40 seconds or more to unload, then the trembling dance recruits more bees to help process nectar being brought into the hive.

The dance language of bees is varied and complex, and care should be taken in the interpretation, says Davis. For example, the trembling dance can also be a request for grooming. Other dances, like the DVAV dance and the buzzing run, have also been connected with swarming.

Mod 6.5 buzzing run

The buzzing run is where a bee runs in a straight line while buzzing its wings and collides with another bee – they touch antennae, buzz and run off to collide with more bees. The dance has a cascading effect across the hive with bees buzzing, running and colliding until they swarm. Davis says that the buzzing run is performed again by the swarm before flying off to its new home, and it is then sometimes called the break dance.

3 Scenting

I spied a worker waving her abdomen in the air, exposing her Nasonov gland and fanning her wings to spread the scent to guide foraging bees back to the colony. She may have been doing this because we kept Lavender's hive open longer than usual to complete the Bailey comb change.

A worker waving her abdomen in the air – exposing her Nasonov gland and fanning her wings to spread the scent to guide foraging bees back to the colony.

As an aromatherapist, I envy bees living in a world of aromas. The hive is like a perfume factory with a scent for every occasion, including: to communicate, to stimulate and suppress behaviour, to coordinate activities, to attract and to alert among many other things.

These important scents are pheromones – chemical substances that are secreted to affect a specific reaction. A helpful definition of pheromones was coined in the 1950s:

‘Pheromones are substances which are secreted to the outside by an individual and received by a second individual of the same species in which they release a specific reaction which may be behavioural, developmental or physiological.’

The chemicals are made in glandular cells and secreted by glands, specifically exocrine glands, that secrete substances outside the body. (Humans, for example, have an endocrine system – endocrine glands – that secrete chemical substances such as hormones inside the body. A very basic biology lesson!)

In the hive, pheromones are released by queens, workers, drones, brood and even comb. As many pheromones used by honeybees have been covered in other posts, for the purpose of this part of the syllabus here’s a quick summary:

Mod 6.5 infographic pheromones

There is so much to explore about the world of pheromones that I may revisit this in another post.

4 Vibrating

A queen cell from our swarmed hive placed in Myrrh's old hive had failed to produce a new queen for this dwindling colony of bees.

Finally, a form of communication largely used by queen bees, although sometimes used by workers, is piping and it can be associated with swarming. Virgin queen are known to pipe inside their cells and it is thought that they are warning their sister queens-in-waiting that they have a rival for the throne! After emerging from her cell, an unmated or mated queen also makes this noise by resting her thorax on the comb and vibrating her powerful flight muscles.

Related links

BBKA examination path and BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 5th Honeybee behaviour revision post: bee communication

Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading

Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513

Snowmageddon

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As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

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Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

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By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow