Eight is the magic number, sort of

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When you first start learning to be a beekeeper, you may be taught that 8 mm is the magic number of the ‘bee space’. Perhaps this is easier to learn when starting to build your own hives. In truth, it’s closer to 6–9 mm.

What is bee space? Imagine an alley between the neighbouring combs within a bee hive, or indeed a natural bee nest. The ‘bee space’ leaves a gap so that bees can work on the opposite sides of the combs and have enough space to move past each other back to back.

This gap or ‘bee space’ is widely considered to be around 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) and is a key principle in the design of most modern bee hives allowing the bees free passage between the frames and the hive wall and above or below the frames.

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Bee space is the gap between the frames in the hive, and around the walls and above and below the frames. This gap gives the bees enough space to work on opposite sides of the comb and pass each other back to back.

I’ve read that the variation in spacing might be due to the varying sizes of the different species of honeybee, although 6–9 mm seems a pretty uniform measurement to me.

Why is it important to remember bee space? Because any gap that is too small (less than 6 mm) the bees will fill with propolis, a sticky resinous substance, and any gap that is too big (more than 9 mm) the bees will fill with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb). This, of course, makes it harder to move the frames and boxes of the hive during an inspection.

Beekeeper David A Cushman describes bee space as “A gap in a natural nest bees don’t fill up”. He provides an interesting list of the different types of bee space. He also suggests sometimes the bees will fill small gaps with pollen, perhaps to allow some light to filter around the hive.

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Bees filling a small space (less than 6 mm) above the top bars with stick propolis.

But whether it’s 6, 7, 8 or 9 mm, leaving a gap that the bees feel inclined to fill isn’t sensible. So, of course, that’s what Emily and I did. To be fair, this was during the four-week course of Apiguard treatments for varroa, where an eke (sort of an extension wooden frame) creates a space beneath the hive boxes where the Apiguard tray rests on the top bars.

In Melissa’s hive our bees had dutifully built brace comb to fill the gap bigger than 9 mm. And it wasn’t easy to scrape it off the bottom of the super without the help of a hive partner. The bees showed their appreciation of our efforts by munching the oozing honey.

Some beekeepers might consider leaving space for the bees to build brace comb a waste of valuable energy and resources when they could be getting on with other work: filling up super frames with honey or getting ready for winter. There might be some truth in this, but I always enjoy seeing my bees build brace comb. The beautiful curved shapes of freely expressed honeycomb gives an insight into the secret life of wild honeybees.

How do honeybees in the wild know about bee space? Well, I haven’t read much on this, but it seems they weren’t taught it by the beekeepers. Bee space, like the building of vertical combs, is all about gravity:

“Guided by their sense of gravity, though, bees can maintain a comb construction that is vertical, and oriented downward from the roof to the floor. The distance between the comb results from the space a bee occupies when standing on the comb. When moving over the surface of neighbouring combs, bees must be able to pass one another, back to back, without difficulty … and this minimal distance is strictly maintained.” (The Buzz about Bees, Jurgen Tautz, Springer, London, 2008.) Tautz says that gravity receptor organs are found on the bees’ leg joints and between their head, thorax and abdomen, which allows them to build combs vertically down in the dark. Amazing creatures.

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Last week we left Melissa’s amazing bees munching on the brace comb honey under the roof, which we hoped they would take down into the nest. Probably an unwise idea as our bees were likely to build more brace comb, but it seemed unfair to take away their secret stash of honey. This week, we would find out what the bees did.

The rainy morning had persisted into the afternoon and though the rain was drying up, the air was too damp and cold for inspections. I arrived to find a small crowd of people at the apiary sheltering under the awnings of the apiary hut. The air was filled with bees, unusual as they don’t often fly over the green netting that separates off the hive area. Perhaps they had also come for tea. In any case, they were happy to fly calmly about listening to the conversation.

Emily came with nuts to feed the magpies and robins. Jonesey was showing off his new iPhone 6 and a new beginner, Emma, was getting to know everyone. The crowd soon dispersed and it was time to see what our bees had done.

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In Melissa’s hive I’m pleased to say the workers had done exactly what they were supposed to do! They had taken down most of brace comb honey into the hive. Emily and I cleared up the empty wax and left the remnants around the crownboard holes for the bees to finish up. I saw a little wasp on the crownboard drinking a dreg of honey. Wasps are desperate at this time of year, starving and dying off. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her but couldn’t leave her inside the hive either. I picked up the piece of comb with the wasp and placed it on the roof of an empty hive.

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We had fed Pepper’s and Chili’s hives with pollen and syrup though they didn’t seem to need feeding, it has been a very kind autumn for bees. Chamomile’s hive was left to check.

We opened the roof and lifted the crownboard – and the wasps flew in! They must have smelt the scored honey frames feeding the bees above the crownboard. Quickly putting back the roof on the hive, there were at least a couple of wasps inside and many more buzzing around the outside, and trying to disturb the other hives.

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I lit the smoker to deter as many wasps as I could, while Emily used newspaper to make the hive entrances narrower. As the wasps cleared we lifted the roof from Chamomile’s hive again and the two trapped wasps flew out. There’s no space for wasps in our bee hives!

That done, we took a walk around the apiary. The rain had stopped, the sun had come out and wasps were still stalking most of the hives. It was time to leave.

Post notes If you’re interested, here’s some more information about bee space.

Top beeway or bottom beeway?
In a natural colony of wild honeybees, bees only leave a distance between the vertical-hanging combs and around the walls of the nest. There is no need for horizontal spaces above and below the honeycomb. But in a bee hive, the beekeeper needs horizontal spaces to move the boxes during an inspection. Here, the concept of bee space is again used by leaving a gap between hive boxes around 6–9 mm. (Collins Beekeeper’s Bible, Ed: HarperCollins Publishers, London 2010.)

“The bee space can either be at the top of the box, over the frames (as in the Langstroth, Dadant and Smith hives), where the bottoms of the frames are in line with the bottom of the box (known as ‘top bee space’) or at the bottom (as in the National, WBC and Commercial hives), below the frames, so that the tops of the frames are level with the top of the box (‘bottom bee space’).” (Collins) Obviously, you can’t mix boxes with top- and bottom-bee space in the same hive or the concept of bee space won’t work.

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Which is better? In Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper refers to this method of spacing as ‘top beeway’ and ‘bottom beeway’. He prefers the ‘top beeway’ design, which he says is most common in America, rather than the ‘bottom beeway’ design used in Britain (my fourth edition of the book was published in 1997, so I can’t say if this is still the trend on both sides of the pond, particularly as many beekeepers like to experiment).

“Top beeway is much more efficient in use and less of a strain on the beekeeper as supers can be lifted back and placed ‘cross-cornered’ on the hive and then slid around into place. With bottom beeway this cannot be done as the edge of the super box would run across level with the top of the frames and would decapitate any bee looking up between the frames and squash many of those walking about on top of the frames.” (Guide to Bees & Honey, Ted Hooper, 4th ed, Marston House, 1997.)

A short(ish) history of the movable-frame hive
American-born Reverend Lorenzo L Langstroth (1810–25) is credited with the invention of the movable-frame hive. It was Langstroth who recognised the concept of ‘bee space’ in a ‘Eureka’ moment, which became a vital component in modern hive design and which now allows beekeepers all over the world to freely move and lift frames and boxes without breaking up the honeycomb. (Collins)

There had been similar bar hives previously, such as the leaf hive invented by Swiss natural historian Francois Huber (1750–1831), and the multi-layered skep hive invented by Englishman Thomas Wildman (1734–81), an experimenter, showman and beekeeper. It is thought that a movable-frame hive was also first designed by Englishman Major William Augustus Munn, author of A Description of the bar-and-frame hive (1844). (Collins)

The theories that lay behind these models may have helped to pave the way to Langstroth’s discovery.

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When a space that is too big (more than 9 mm) is left in the hive, the bees will fill it with brace comb (bridges of honeycomb) as shown here above the top bars.

Langstroth was frustrated when his coverboards became stuck down with the sticky resinous substance propolis and like any good beekeeper he sought a practical solution. He cut a recess into the hive box that allowed him to drop the hive bars down to 9 mm below the coverboard, which seemed to solve the problem. Then he thought about similarly adjusting the spacing in the interior parts of the hive to make it easier to work with the bees:

“The critical aspect of his design was the space between the edges of the frames and the walls and floor of the box – an opening wide enough for a bee to pass through and hence termed the ‘bee space’.” (Collins) Langstroth initially used a space of 12.5 mm (1/2 in), before he further discovered that bees leave a 6–9 mm (1/4–3/8 in) space between their combs and the walls in their nests.

A Polish beekeeper Reverend Dr Jan Dzierzon (1811–1906) had put thought towards a system of movable frames by spacing the comb 38 mm (1 1/2 in) apart. But it seemed that 6–9 mm was found to be the most practical movable-frame system and Langstroth’s design is used by 75% of all modern hives sold throughout the world today. (Collins)

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.

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.

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.

Winter studies: The social network of honeybees

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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.

This week in my winter study post 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:

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‘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…

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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.

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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

Visit my blog index for more winter study posts.

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

Winter studies: Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing

Mod 6.5 leadA worker honeybee is patrolling the hive. She walks around the colony watching her sisters clean cells, nurse brood, build comb and fan nectar. She sees drones being pushed aside by returning foragers impatient to unload heavy baskets of pollen. She turns as the queen walks past looking for suitable cells to lay eggs.

Such is the constant activity of the hive that it almost causes her to miss a haphazardly laid egg. Almost. She pauses. The egg lies lopsided along the wall of the cell, not neatly deposited at the bottom. The queen, a precise egg-layer, is never so careless, so the worker climbs in the cell to investigate. Every egg laid by the queen has a signature scent (pheromone) but this egg does not have her mother’s tag – it has been laid by one of her sisters, a rebellious laying worker.

The queen does not need to fear insurrection because her daughters are very efficient at policing themselves. Without hesitation, our worker eats her sister’s egg and if she happens to catch her sister laying more eggs, she will not treat her kindly.

My fourth winter study post discusses the social organisation of the honeybee colony as a well-structured and highly hierarchical community. My post is summarised and illustrated by beautiful infographics created for my blog by designer Keith Whitlock.

The social organisation of the honeybee colony including worker policing.

The honeybee is a eusocial insect, which describes an advanced level of social organisation. The most familiar examples of eusocial insects are bees, ants and wasps, which all belong to the insect order Hymenoptera.

Eusociality is demonstrated by:

  • colony of overlapping generations from eggs and larvae to young and fully mature adults
  • caste system that divides labour between reproductive individuals (queen) and sterile individuals (workers)
  • responsibility for rearing young shared by large numbers of sterile individuals on behalf of the reproductives

The organisation of a honeybee colony revealing a eusocial society is given below:

Mod 6.5 infographic eusociality

Now that’s understood, here’s how the bees get organised inside the hive.

The queen
(diploid, fertile reproductive individual)
The queen is the most important bee in the colony. She lays eggs, providing a constant supply of new bees, and produces queen substance to control the workers and keep the colony working together as a cohesive whole.

Egg layer
The queen fulfils the role of egg-layer thanks to the royal jelly that she is continually fed in copious amounts as a young larva, thus ensuring she has fully developed ovaries and is able to mate. It is only the queen who can lay both fertilised eggs (which become female workers or potential new queens) and unfertilised eggs (which become male drones).

The queen mates not long after hatching and lays around 1,500 eggs per day; she may live between 3–5 years. She is not only a prolific egg-layer, she is also precise. With her long abdomen, she carefully deposits one egg, placed neatly in the centre, at the bottom of a cell (fertilised with a single sperm or left unfertilised) and marked by a pheromone so that the workers can recognise eggs laid by the queen.

Queen substance
The queen secretes a substance from her mandibular glands called queen substance – a heady mix of chemicals of which the main component is the pheromone 9-oxodec-2-enoic acid (9-ODA). The queen substance is constantly spread throughout the hive as workers lick the queen and then pass the chemicals to other bees. Queen substance, combined with a pheromone given off by her own brood, inhibits the development of the workers’ ovaries – effectively it acts as a natural contraceptive! It is quite effective as normally only 0.01% of workers can produce full-sized eggs and only 0.1% of drones in a hive are the sons of laying workers.

Queen substance modifies worker behaviour in other ways:

  • inhibits building of new queen cells
  • stimulates foraging activities for nectar and pollen
  • encourages workers to build honeycomb

The pheromone 9-ODA is also released by the queen as a scent to attract male drones during her mating flight.

As the queen gets older her queen substance becomes weaker, and her egg-laying decreases, so that she has less control over her workers. They will eventually build queen cells to replace her.

Mod 6.5 infographic queen

Workers and worker policing
(diploid, infertile non-reproductive individual)
If you see a honeybee foraging on a flower in spring and summer she is likely to be a female worker. Almost every bee inside the hive is a worker and female.

Workers are the worker caste and carry out all the tasks for the colony. They live for around 40 days in spring and summer and between 5–6 months over autumn and winter.

Development of infertile females
After hatching, all young larvae are fed royal jelly for three days and then put on a diet of brood food, unless specially selected to become queens. Larvae who are continually fed royal jelly become queens with fully developed ovaries and are able to mate. Worker larvae are not fed royal jelly after day three of their development, have under-developed ovaries and are not able to mate. Their ovaries are unlikely to develop as adult bees due to the pheromones given off by the queen substance and the brood.

Worker policing
However, some workers may produce full-size eggs in their ovaries and become laying workers. Their progeny are destined to become drone because they cannot mate and have no sperm to fertilise their eggs.

Laying workers are quite careless. They may lay more than one egg per cell and because their abdomens are shorter than the queen’s the eggs are often laid haphazardly against the cell wall. They do not differentiate between worker-sized and drone-sized cells, laying drone eggs in worker-sized cells that hatch as drones with stunted growth.

Most importantly, worker-laid eggs are not marked by the queen’s pheromone, which helps other workers to police their illegal egg-laying activities. Worker-laid eggs are usually removed from cells and eaten by other workers (a practice known as oophagy).

Mod 6.5 infographic worker police

Drones
(haploid, fertile reproductive individual)
Drones are the male bees of the colony and it is thought that their only role is to mate with virgin queens. A drone hatches from an unfertilised egg and inherits one set of chromosomes from his mother, the queen; for this reason, a queen cannot mate with drones from her own colony due to the risks of inbreeding.

Drones that mate with a virgin queen on her mating flight will die in the act, and drones that don’t mate but live to the end of the summer will eventually outlive their usefulness to the colony and be evicted by their sisters.

Drones do no work inside the hive, although beekeepers have observed in spring and summer that colonies with fewer drones can be bad tempered. Perhaps drones fulfil another purpose not yet discovered.

Mod 6.5 infographic drones

I’m looking forward to exploring the next item on the syllabus – dancing bees!

Related links

Visit my blog index for more winter study posts.

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 4th Honeybee behaviour revision post: social organisation of the colony

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

On the trail of honey and dust in Rome

When Rosemary, a lovely beekeeper at our apiary, gave me a book about the true story of a man who discovers the wonders of bees and honey on a farm in Italy, I packed it in my flight bag for a trip to Rome. I should have sub-titled this post: ‘A beekeeper in Rome’, because it is the story of my Roman holiday and the book that accompanied my travels.

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede begins as Piers, a young British environmentalist writer, is seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in San Francisco and loses sense of his life’s purpose. He goes to recuperate on a farm owned by a beekeeper in Italy and rediscovers his passion for life with the help of Gunther and his bees.

Hillside views seen from the Colleseum. The opening chapters of Honey and Dust set in rural Italy were exciting in-flight reading on my way to Rome.

One sunny afternoon, Piers and Gunther take a walk, through a copse of trees, to a thicket of rosemary bushes, to where Gunther keeps his beehives. The gentle Italian bees are busy foraging nectar from the heavy-scented rosemary, ‘Rosmarino. Strong honey’. Gunther cuts a wedge of honeycomb from one of the hives to share with Piers:

‘That was my first taste of honey straight from a hive. We stood there in the clearing, with the afternoon sun warm upon our faces, honey running down our fingers, and let the sweetness wash over our tongues. The honey, indeed, had a strong taste of rosemary, and to see the spiny green bushes right beside us, and then to taste the result here and now, was by no means any great scientific discovery, but it felt strangely wonderful – like an insight into the order of things.’

It is a magical moment for the reader too, and I knew then that I would love this book. By the time our plane landed in Rome, I had joined Piers in the Middle East as he began his quest to find and taste the world’s most wondrous honeys.

A beekeeper in Rome

Rome is an amazing city. The ancient world sits comfortably with the modern world. It has style and glamour alongside history and tradition. The coffee is amazing too.

Rome – The Eternal City.

The story of the ages is told on every street. Here is the Colleseum.

The Papal Swiss Guard at Vatican City is the only Swiss Guard that still exists.

Ah, Roma! Romance in Rome as we come across an Italian TV crew filming a love story.

I like tea not coffee. Italian coffee is delicious!

Sitting with my friends in a cafe overlooking the Colleseum, I reflected how my journey was similar to Piers: exploring a vibrant and beautiful world which in parts has vanished.

A disappearing world

Honey flowed like rivers in ancient times. The Romans were Master Beekeepers with a particular fondness for thyme honey. Virgil and Pliny expounded the health-giving virtues of this golden nectar, and wrote detailed descriptions of beekeeping and the qualities of bees. However, Virgil thought queen bees were kings and warned of finding king cells in hives. The art of beekeeping declined in Ancient Rome with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Piers’ first stop on his tour of the world of apiculture is Beirut, but sadly he encounters varroa early in his journey. Wadih Yazbek, the son of a famous Lebanese beekeeper, explains that the honey-gathering traditions of the mountains was a practice of happier times:

‘It is not just us, the people, who have suffered in this last century. The land itself has taken many savage blows. And the wild bees, in consequence, have grown quiet. Of course, we beekeepers make sure that the bees survive – but in the wild, in caves and trees, they no longer make their homes as they used to. The varroa mite has hit us badly here.’

Piers’ realisation that the honeybees of the wild and domesticated hives are disappearing as colony after colony is ravaged by varroa makes his quest to find honey even sweeter. I finished reading the chapters in the Middle East as our first day in Rome came to an end, sitting in the beautiful gardens of Villa Borghese and enjoying very good Italian ice cream.

Villa Borghese is the second largest public park in Rome with beautiful landscaped gardens and an enchanting lake.

The Temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, stands in the centre of the lake.

There are hidden fountains…

… and secret terrapin pools.

Vatican – the city of angels and demons

The next day we visited the Vatican – a city in a city – and I heard rumour that the pope keeps his own hives. While I didn’t see a bee, the Vatican experience can only be described as pure sensory overload. You need a guide, and a day, to see the Vatican.

Once inside, I used an entire 8GB memory card on my SLR and it was worth every shot. The highlight was Michaelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel, which is – indescribable. However, filming is forbidden inside the Sistine Chapel to protect the incandescent artwork, and because the Vatican owns the copyright. I wonder what Michaelangelo would have thought of that?

Inside the Vatican – a hall of gold and light.

Art so beautiful and breathtaking.

Gods and goddesses…

Angels…

… and demons.

Afterwards, we sat quietly inside a family-run restaurant and digested all that we had seen and heard. As a storm threatened to break the sunshine, we were invited to stay past closing time to share a complementary bowl of cherries and limoncello.

I took a peek inside my book to see what Piers was doing in Nepal. What struck me as I read Honey and Dust was the easy connections that Piers made with everyone he met. Whether visiting noisy war-torn capitals or the rooftop of the world, people warm to the young writer and invite him into their homes to share a unique insight into their hidden lives.

Out of the storm – we are welcomed into a family restaurant.

Limoncello and cherries! A risky combination.

That evening we climbed the turrets of Castel Sant’Angelo, went for tapas and enjoyed drinks in a restaurant opposite the Pantheon. I went to bed exhausted, and not sure if I was excited to wake for Rome or Piers’ trek with Nepalese honey hunters through dense forests.

The Pantheon by moonlight.

Italian wine best enjoyed on a warm evening in Rome.

Falling in love with Rome 

On Sunday morning we stumbled across mass at the Pantheon on our way to the Fountain de Trevi. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings of Ancient Rome. The rotunda uses an intricate honeycombed structure of hidden chambers to strengthen its walls.

I stood at the entrance of the Pantheon watching as thousands of rose petals were poured through the oculi of the dome and tumbled down the shafts of sunlight.

The Pantheon was built to honour all the gods of Ancient Rome.

Rose petals falling from the oculi during mass.

The breathtaking Fountain de Trevi.

After tossing a coin in the waters of the Fountain de Trevi to make a wish, we separated to take our own mini adventures before meeting for lunch at the Campo de’ Fiori, or the Square of Flowers.

Picturesque streets.

Pastoral scenes.

Wall flowers.

City views.

People-watching.

I arrived before my friends and sat in the shade enjoying Sicilian lemonade with a spot of people-watching and reading.

Intrepid travellers

Piers was doing some people-watching of his own, sitting with laughing Nepalese children as intrepid honey hunters scaled a mountainside. The passage was the most absorbing in the book. It was incredible to imagine that this is how beekeepers in faraway parts of the world collect honey. Piers’ own life and brush with death is brought into perspective:

‘At times I could barely watch. The margin for error was simply too small. Every man here had his life in the balance, and yet the seeming levity with which they worked made it seem as if they didn’t care. It brought my own small encounter with mortality into the sharpest focus. Did these men fear death so little because of its constant proximity in their lives? And why do we, in the developed world, fear death so much? It also highlighted, as clearly as anything could, just how far man will go for the sensation of sweetness on his tongue. Quite simply, they were prepared to risk their lives for it.’

Once collected, wild Nepalese honey presents a further risk from the deadly rhododendron flowers that the bees forage in spring. Piers waits for the honey hunters to taste-test their hard-won nectar before sipping the ‘wondrous toxic honey’ with traces of poisonous pollen. He soon feels the effects:

‘It resembled drunkenness at first, but then became visual, like a magic mushroom trip I remembered from university. Painted dots were dripping across my irises like technicolor rain. My body felt light and tingly, filled with warm rushes and heat-bursts. It was wild and strangely wonderful.’

The relentless afternoon heat in Rome made my friends and me feel a little dazed, so we took Sunday afternoon at a slower pace and wandered past the Spanish Steps. As a Londoner I appreciated a city that was bustling but also relaxed. Italians seem to take life at their own pace and there is always time for coffee and cake.

Egyptian obelisk at Campo de’ Fiori (the British didn’t take this one).

Roman soldiers.

The Spanish Steps.

My Bulgarian friend Dani, mistaken for the mysterious ‘Russian lady’, charms the local police for a photo. If you arrest us, can we stay?

Return to the dust world

I finished reading Honey and Dust before our flight back to London, following Piers’ spiritual journey through Sri Lanka and India. In-flight entertainment was offered by re-reading the passages that describe the secret life inside the hive:

‘It all starts with nectar,* a sweet, sticky substance produced by flowers, and loved, above all, by bees. Probing inside the flower, the bee sucks up this sugary substance and stores it in a ‘honey sac’ – essentially a second stomach. Flitting from flower to flower until the honey sac is full, the bee then returns to the hive…  One jar of honey is also the result of about 80,000 trips between flower and hive, the result of about 55,000 miles of flight, and the nectar from around 2 million flowers.’

Back home in London, I missed Rome but I was left with wonderful memories and Honey and Dust would forever be indelibly entwined with my trip.

The Vatican in light and shadow.

As a beekeeper, I found Nepal to be the real beating heart of the book, which brought to life the ancient practices of our craft carefully preserved by forest tribes who are themselves fading from the roar of encroaching civilisation.

Honey and Dust is an enchanting read that I highly recommend to beekeepers and to anyone who is interested bees and honey, but with a word of warning that once tasted you will become addicted to the sweet world of the bee.

A final word on Rome – you will love it.

Related links

Honey and Dust: Travels in search of sweetness
Piers Moore Ede
Published by Bloomsbury, London: 2006
ISBN 0-7475-7967-9