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.

Queen cells x3

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.

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

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 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 post for BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour covers syllabus item 6.5, which discusses the social organisation of the honeybee colony as a well-structured and highly hierarchical community. This time my revision notes are summarised and illustrated by beautiful infographics created for my blog by designer Keith Whitlock.

6.5 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 (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). 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 (see revision post 6.1 the role of the worker bee). 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 (see revision post 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen). 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

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

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

A very important message from the bee inspectors for June

The National Bee Unit (NBU) issued a starvation risk this week and urged UK beekeepers to check their colonies for food supplies:

‘With the continued spell of poor weather in many areas of the UK, reports are coming in from Regional and Seasonal Bee Inspectors of starving bee colonies, where the beekeeper is not aware that the bees are severely short of food, or the colony(s) have already starved to death.’

While in May it seemed unusual that we were still feeding our bees, the NBU’s latest news alert – a starvation risk in June – reinforced what an unsettled year this has been for many UK beekeepers and their bees.

There is forage for pollinators like this hoverfly I spotted in my workplace’s medicinal garden, but the rain has made it difficult to collect nectar and pollen.

Bee colonies at particular risk of starving include those with the supers (honey crop) removed, hives which have been split or artificially swarmed, nucleus colonies, colonies collected from swarms, and even larger hives which haven’t swarmed but which haven’t gathered sufficient food due to rain. So basically most hives are at risk because of the poor weather in the UK!

‘Please, sir? Can we have some more?’ Nucleus hives which are smaller and more vulnerable may be at risk of starvation.

Emily and me have fed our bees all season as a combination of rain and drone laying queens has prevented our hives from growing to full strength. Yet I was concerned by the NBU’s alert and emailed Andy Pedley to send the news to Ealing beekeepers. On Saturday morning I mixed enough sugar syrup for our two hives and the other colonies at the apiary.

Hefting a heavy bag of beekeeping supplies on tube and foot, I arrived at the apiary in time to tag along with Andy’s beginner beekeepers session. Emily, Albert and me have all taken the introduction to beekeeping course, but we watched and listened to Andy’s practical tutorial with interest. In beekeeping it never hurts to be reminded of the basics and there is always something new to learn when observing an experienced beekeeper inspect a hive.

Spotted – a group of beginner beekeepers at the apiary.

Andy picks out a frame from a nuc to show the group. There are black bees and light gold bees which may indicate that the queen has mated and is laying different coloured bees, or that two colonies were combined to make a nuc.

Andy and the beginners had fed the colonies they visited, so Emily and me opted for ginger beer and cake before inspecting our bees. Emily had brought a bottle of ginger beer and there was plenty of cake to choose – almond and fruit to chocolate and pecan. It was like Jubilee all over again!

Beekeepers well fed, we visited our recently combined hive and the new nucleus colony with Albert and Pete, a beekeeper-in-training.

A gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park was found sitting next to our spare hive last week!

Last Saturday we had received a gift-wrapped box of bees from Osterley Park, which the apiary has given us to keep as a training hive for beginners. The Osterley bees had filled their five-frame nuc, so we moved them across to a hive and I spotted the new queen, another bright orange beauty, who we named Ginger. We had closed up the small colony with dummy boards and insulation in the roof to keep them warm, and, of course, left a full feeder of syrup above the crownboard.

This Saturday was our first real inspection of the Osterley bees, but they were not doing as well as hoped. The extra frame of foundation was barely drawn out with comb and there was not much sign of worker brood.

Our new Osterley bees are gentle and calm – Emily and me have always been lucky to have good natured bees.

Albert noticed that the queen was moving too fast and erratically across the frame, and Emily observed drone cells in the centre of the comb – two signs that all might not be well with the queen. Without knowing the full history of these bees, it was too early to decide what could be happening so we closed the hive with insulation and freshly made sugar syrup in the roof.

Fortunately, our combined hive is doing well and Neroli has settled into her queenly duties. On the Jubilee weekend we had combined our two hives because one hive had failed to re-queen and was too weak to continue. But last week revealed that the colonies had not combined successfully and the bees in the top box were bad tempered. It was one of those moments in beekeeping when three beekeepers stand in front of a box of bees scratching their heads and wondering what to do next. Believe me, it happens quite often!

Grumpy bees – last week the drones in the top box of our combined hive were not too happy!

Albert had been there that Saturday and the three of us managed to work out the problem. The queen excluder above the bottom box had also excluded the drones (who are larger than workers) in the top box from moving down. The poor frustrated drones had been trapped in the top box for a week and were letting us know that they were not happy by buzzing loudly.

It was easily remedied by removing the queen excluder and remaining newspaper allowing the two colonies to meet up. We had separated the two brood boxes with a super to encourage the bees to move honey from the top box into the bottom box.

The bees have started taking the honey from the comb in the top box to move into the bottom box. Notice the large holes in the wax comb at the bottom of the frame – our bees also tend to rob wax from frames to use in other parts of the hive.

Happily, this week the bees had followed the books and were getting along just fine. The frames of honey in the top box directly above the brood nest had been emptied, good girls! Albert suggested giving our bees a helping hand by using a hive tool to score across the remaining combs of honey, and then place these above the brood nest again. The workers seemed to appreciate our efforts and immediately got to work. Hopefully, next week the top brood box can be removed completely and both colonies will be in one box.

Emily uses a hive tool to score across the comb and make it easier for the bees to rob out the honey.

We carried out a quick inspection of the bottom box because there was no need to disturb the recently mated queen and her bees. There were signs of healthy worker brood nicely patterned across the comb, growing stores of pollen and nectar, and even a propolised ‘dance’ floor at the entrance of the hive. Neroli appears to be an excellent queen like her mother Lavender.

It was another good Saturday’s beekeeping. Here is a short clip of our activities.

Related links

National Bee Unit guidelines on feeding bees: the NBU has provided advice for beekeepers who are concerned or unsure about food supplies in their hives:

  • Heft a hive by lifting the hive from below the floor to check its weight. If the hive is light, it should be fed.
  • Feed with sugar and water mixed at 2:1 ratio or using a ready mixed syrup from a beekeeping supplier.
  • Use fondant in an emergency if nothing else is available, although liquid feed is more appropriate for this time in the season.
  • Large starving colonies will take 1 gallon (5 litres) of syrup and smaller colonies can take ½ gallon (2.5 litres), but the hives should be checked after feeding within a few days.

Further guidance on feeding bees is provided in the National Bee Unit Best Practice Guideline No. 7.

Celebrity beekeepers told to buzz off

This interesting article in the London Evening Standard explores an area that has worried the city’s expert beekeepers for some time. Are there too many hives in London and not enough forage for bees? Read about it here.

The case of foul brood and the diabolical baby

Emily and me did less tea drinking and more proper beekeeping last weekend, captured beautifully on camera by Emily's 'entourage' Drew Scott!

Things can happen fast in bee-land. Barely a month has passed since the Bailey comb change, but there has been a drone-laying queen, a suspected case of foul brood and the unexpected appearance of a virgin queen. That’s just one hive. I sat on this post for a while thinking back on the lessons learned in the past few weeks.

Rain had prevented our hive inspections for two weekends following the Bailey comb change, but when the sun came out after Easter bank holiday Emily went to check on our bees. What she found inside Queen Rosemary’s hive would worry most beekeepers, so she raised the alarm by emailing the secretary of our association, Andy Pedley.

‘I am worried our hive has some kind of brood disease,’ wrote Emily. ‘There is virtually no healthy worker brood, lots of drone brood, and some dried up larvae, some that look a bit scaly, and some that look a bit bloated.’

Emily thought our bees were grumpy and a bit aggressive, which can be a sign of a failing queen or being queenless. She spotted cells filled with pollen with a film of honey on the top, which can also indicate being queenless.

Andy is a very experienced beekeeper, a sentinel apiarist for the Middlesex area, and apprentice to the queen’s beekeeper, John Chapple. So he really is the bees knees! Andy offered to meet at the apiary on Saturday to test our hive for bacterial disease.

What followed was a week of worry as I wondered how our bees could have declined so quickly. At the last inspection every cell in every brood frame had been scrutinised while we tried to find the queen and eggs, and there was no sign of disease. But now we had a suspected brood disease like European foul brood (EFB), which is not good but can be treated, or American foul brood (AFB), which is untreatable – destroy the hive, burn the remains and salt the earth!

I downloaded these educational images of EFB and AFB from the National Bee Unit.

Healthy bee larvae are curled in half-moon shapes inside cells and are pearly white with yellow tummies from the pollen that they eat. © Crown copyright 2010

Unhealthy brood with EFB look misshapen, dark and slimy. © Crown copyright 2010

The classic 'snot test' for AFB, a matchstick is dipped into a cell – if a stringy mess of slime is pulled out there may be bacterial disease. © Crown copyright 2010

On Saturday we arrived at the apiary to find Andy was already there. When I told how beekeepers from New York had kindly tried to help identify the brood disease on Emily’s blog, Andy shook his head in amazement and marvelled at the inter-web, then he said cheerfully, ‘Right, let’s go have a look’.

Andy used tweezers to pull out and examine a few larvae, then disposed of them in the smoker for hygiene. The first few were healthy white grubs with yellow tummies from the pollen they had eaten. So far so good. He then found a couple of larvae that were discoloured and slimy, and used the EFB and AFB kits to test for disease. The kits are similar to pregnancy tests: a sample is dropped onto an indicator, then you wait three minutes and…

One larvae is popped into a vial of spirit and shaken. It is important to use only one larvae for the test or this can affect the results, Andy explained, because EFB is always present in bee colonies at low levels.

Andy used a pipette to drop a sample on the indicator. Then we waited three minutes. Breathe.

One line under 'C' for 'control' is a negative result, two lines under 'C' and 'T' for 'test' is positive. Both our tests for EFB and AFB only had one line under 'C', phew! You can't see it clearly on this photo so I have drawn a pink line.

All clear! Both tests for bacterial disease were negative, phew! But it was not over…

This was not a case of EFB or AFB but a lack of TLC. The larvae had become cold and hungry because Rosemary was a drone-layer, explained Andy, so there were not enough workers inside the hive to nurse the baby bees. Unless the queen was replaced the whole colony would die out.

This is the moment I had been dreading as a beekeeper – disposing the queen for the good of the hive. In the past, our bees have been very good at superceding their own queens, and Emily and me have preferred to let them do this. However, they may have been unable to supercede Rosemary without enough viable fertile larvae. I felt I should step up to the plate and get the job done, but Andy kindly and quickly did the deed. It seemed fitting because he has a history with our flighty queen.

Andy mashed the honeycomb around the young larvae to encourage the bees to find it and build a queen cell.

Blissfully unaware of the untimely death of her sister, we took a frame from Queen Lavender’s hive that had young worker larvae and placed this inside Rosemary’s hive hoping that our bees would now raise a new queen. Andy mashed the honeycomb around the larvae to encourage the bees to find them and build queen cells.

A frame of young larvae placed in Rosemary's hive so her daughters can raise a new queen to ensure the colony survives. They will have to work fast as there are not many workers left, I caught one on camera immediately flying over the frame to where we had put the new larvae.

Lavender’s hive was thriving with healthy-looking bees, lots of workers and brood. I found Lavender happily climbing on a frame so we caged her to complete the Bailey comb change. With Lavender now in the top brood box and queen excluder beneath, all the bees can move up into their new home.

Emily releases Queen Lavender from her cage and into the top brood box. (She is the largest bee in the colony, I have put a pink circle around her.)

Emily’s boyfriend, Drew, took these lovely shots of us doing some proper beekeeping.

Looking for the queen. © Drew Scott

Still looking. It's difficult to spot one bee among hundreds of fast-moving insects on a frame! © Drew Scott

It was a busy day at the apiary, Andy and Pat were also shook swarming a couple of hives.

Andy shook swarming the hive belonging to David. This is a prolific colony of very fierce bees. Ghetto bees.

Drew took a shot of me shooting Pat! I gave David's bees oxalic acid treatment in December which they didn't enjoy, so I kept my distance in case they remembered. © Drew Scott

The business of beekeeping done for the day, there was still the afternoon meeting at the scout hut for the second Saturday of the month. Elsa had brought a chocolate celebration cake and I got the tea on.

On Monday the bee inspector visited the apiary and there was a surprise email from Andy titled ‘Rosemary’s baby’:

‘When Caroline checked the hive, we found an emerged queen cell in the bottom corner of one frame. Caroline then spotted a queen – very dark coloured. The frame that we put in had not got queen cells pulled out and indeed the section that was prepared for queen cells was being repaired!’

I thought we were one step ahead of our bees. Silly beekeeper. The workers were already preparing a new queen. © Drew Scott

So it seems our bees were one step ahead of us as usual, and were already raising a new queen to replace Rosemary. While we are hoping that Rosemary’s baby is not diabolical, it has inspired a name for our new queen thanks to Deborah Delong of Romancing the Bee who gave me this verse about myrrh:

‘Its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom.’

Queen Myrrh has emerged in a storm of rain and wind this week – not good for a virgin queen who must fly out and mate. Fingers crossed that our diabolical queen will have fair weather soon!

Disappearing bees – countdown to catastrophe or one to watch?

The familiar sight of the European honeybee (Apis Mellifera) pollinating flowers in spring and summer. Image © Shutterstock

‘You would have to be living on Mars for the past few years not to be aware of the bee problem,’ said Dr Stuart Roberts of Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research, speaking at the Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Association’s annual Beekeepers Day on Saturday 25 February.

Like many new beekeepers, I had heard about the ‘bee problem’ and started beekeeping to find out why this was happening and what I could do to help. So I was excited to find out that Dr Roberts would be giving a talk on ‘The decline of insect pollinators’ at our Beekeepers Day. His presentation looked at whether bees are disappearing, what are the drivers of their decline, why does it matter, and what can be done about it.

But first, what do we already think that we know about the bees disappearing?

Bee decline – a widely held belief?

‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’

This quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, may have catapulted the plight of the bee into the public imagination. However, there is no real evidence that Einstein said this – the earliest written record is from a group of French beekeepers in 1992 – and also the statement is not entirely true. While life on Earth would be considerably less pleasant without bees, it is unlikely that we would vanish with them.

Yet almost every week there seems to be another headline about bee disaster and imminent catastrophe – from varroa mites and chemical pesticides to giant Asian hornets and zombie parasites, the poor old bee isn’t having much luck. The media has helped to raise public awareness about the bee, but also may have promoted a few bee myths.

Dr Roberts’ talk sorted fact from fiction with evidence-based research from Reading University, and left me feeling encouraged that we can all do something to help both the honeybee and other bee species.

Are the bees disappearing? A lightning overview

Bumble bee feeding on burdock flowers. I love bumbles! Image © Shutterstock

To discover if the decline of bees is real or imagined, we need to ask the question: ‘Does it affect all bees everywhere?’ said Dr Roberts. While in the UK we have only one species of honeybee (Apis mellifera), which the media often refers to as ‘the bee’, we also have around 25 bumble bee species and around 240 other bee species such as solitary bees. Worldwide there are about 9 species of honeybees, 240 species of bumble bees and 19,300 other bee species of incredible variety. So counting numbers of bees to determine whether all bees are in decline is a huge task.

Diversity of bee species is not the only challenge to scientists. Data also presents a problem because it is inconsistently gathered across different countries, and often widely scattered in obscure journals. The migration of colonies across vast areas for the pollination industry, such as in the US, makes it more difficult to gather reliable information about bee colonies.

Therefore, Dr Roberts and his colleagues at Reading University’s Centre of Agri-Environmental Research have spent the past four years collecting data on the numbers of honeybees, and other bee species, in the UK and the Netherlands. Their findings revealed that there has been a 23% decline in bee colonies and a 36% decline in beekeepers in central Europe since 1985. The diversity of bee species is also now in decline, although, as Dr Roberts commented, it is worth noting that some species of bees are simply rare! Unsurprisingly, this research suggested parallels in the decline of insect pollinators and the plants that they pollinate in both the UK and the Netherlands.

So: ‘Are bees declining?’ Yes
But also: ‘Does it effect all bees?’ Yes.
And: ‘Does it occur everywhere?’ Yes.

This led to the next question.

What are the drivers of decline?

For each theory on why the bees are disappearing, there is an outlandish suggestion, said Dr Roberts. Some of these are merely fanciful from car exhausts and electro-magnetic fields, ‘For which there is not enough evidence’, to mobile phones, ‘Responsible for every evil on the planet’. Then there are theories that are just bonkers from Osama Bin Laden, ‘At least now testable’, to the Rapture, ‘Difficult to test’.

Unfortunately, the most likely driver of decline is an unlikely driver of news headlines around the world. The cause of the decline of pollinating insects is multifactorial, Dr Roberts explained: ‘Science would be easier, but a lot less interesting if everything could be hung upon a single cause’.

A variety of stressors are affecting bees:

  • Monoculture
  • Exposure to agricultural chemicals
  • Long-distance migration

So basically:

  • Boring diet
  • Exposure to pollution
  • Too much travel

All things that make humans feel stressed and unwell too!

Combine the bee’s stressed and weakened immune system with varroa, the small hive beetle and a pathogenic cocktail of other bacteria, viruses and parasites – and you can see why there might be a problem.

However, there is one headline on which most experts do agree.

Habitat loss is a major cause of bee decline

Perhaps the bees are all hiding in flowers. Image © Shutterstock

There is already a concern among some London beekeepers that there may not be enough plants to support the increasing numbers of urban hives. While you might imagine that this could be a potential problem for city bees, who face the same problems as people living in densely populated areas, unfortunately their country cousins aren’t doing much better. Reading University is continuing to look at the synergy between insect pollinator decline and the decline of their natural habitat, but other studies show that this is very likely to be a significant driver of decline.

Climate change is currently not too much of a threat, said Dr Roberts, although it has the potential to be a clear driver for the future.

Who cares if bees disappear?

Beekeepers and farmers do. Häagen-Dazs is also quite worried about the bees disappearing, apparently, because many ingredients of their flavoured ice cream are dependent on insect pollination. Wider society should also be worried: the value of insect pollinators to UK agriculture is £402m per annum; of which honeybees contribute £38m per annum. Everyone who enjoys eating apples should care, because they are solely pollinated by bees.

What’s the alternative to insect pollination? There isn’t an alternative. Dr Roberts sent a group of students from Reading University armed with paint brushes on a mission to find out how long it would take for people to pollinate plants. The results were painstaking and confirmed that the value of protecting insect pollination is high.

Human pollination vs insect pollinators. The bee is a much more effective pollinator than us! Image © Shutterstock

This is similar to a story that I have heard before. Last year, John Chapple of Ealing and District Beekeepers Association and beekeeper to the queen’s hives at Buckingham Palace, told us about his visit to Oman, as part of a group of beekeepers, to help reintroduce the honeybee to the country. One of Oman’s major exports is dependent on bee pollination – dates! The Omani government is now investing in a state-funded national beekeeping programme, after finding out to their cost that human labour to pollinate date palms is not a viable option.

What can we do to help the bees?

‘Is it a catastrophe? Not yet, but it could be,’ said Dr Roberts. Fortunately, we may have become aware of the bee problem in time to stop the honeybee, and other bees, disappearing from the world, and with them perhaps strawberries, watermelons, tangerines…

Dr Roberts said that governments could help bees by adopting agri-environmental policies, promoting conservation action and continuing to raise public awareness about the bee problem. He stressed the need for monitoring programmes, investment in sound science that is evidence-based, and consistent data that is made readily available.

While government strategies may have the greatest impact on the decline of insect pollinators, applying individual measures will maximise the effect. This means that we can all help the bees, as Dr Roberts suggests:

  • Bees need gardeners – plant bee-friendly plants in your garden and make sure that there are enough flowers for bees to forage from early spring to autumn.
  • Solitary bees need keeping too – put up a ‘bee hotel’ to make a home for other bee species in your garden.

Other ways to help bees include telling your family and friends how they can help too, taking part in a sponsor-a-hive scheme, and fundraising for bee charities by organising a cake sale or a book swop!

So it seems the disappearing bee is one to watch rather than a countdown to catastrophe. Dr Roberts gave me a clearer picture of why bees are starting to decline and also what we can do to prevent it.

Miss Apis Mellifera isn't gone yet and hopefully we can stop her from flying away altogether. Image © Shutterstock

Parallel declines in insect pollinators and insect-pollinated plants

Dr Roberts very kindly sent me the paper on which his talk was based, ‘Parallel Declines in Pollinators and Insect-Pollinated Plants in Britain and the Netherlands‘ by JC Biesmeijer, SPM Roberts, M Reemer et al. The abstract below describes the probable link between the decline of insect pollinators and the loss of habitat and insect-pollinated plants:

‘Despite widespread concern about declines in pollination services, little is known about the patterns of change in most pollinator assemblages. By studying bee and hoverfly assemblages in Britain and the Netherlands, we found evidence of declines (pre- versus post-1980) in local bee diversity in both countries; however, divergent trends were observed in hoverflies. Depending on the assemblage and location, pollinator declines were most frequent in habitat and flower specialists, in univoltine species, and/or in nonmigrants. In conjunction with this evidence, outcrossing plant species that are reliant on the declining pollinators have themselves declined relative to other plant species. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest a causal connection between local extinctions of functionally linked plant and pollinator species.’
Science 21 July 2006: Vol 313 no 5785 pp 351-354 DOI: 10.1126/science.1127863

With thanks

I would like to say a special thanks to Dr Roberts for speaking at our Beekeepers Day and for sending a copy of his paper. You can find out more about Dr Stuart Roberts work on his web page at Reading University’s Centre for Agri-Environmental Research.

A few useful links

You can read more about Dr Roberts’ talk ‘The decline of insect pollinators’ on Emily’s blog and I highly recommend her post on John Chapple’s talk about the disappearing Omani bee.

Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) is the national society dedicated to studying and recording bees, wasps and ants (aculeate Hymenoptera) in Britain and Ireland, of which Dr Roberts is the chair.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is the UK’s leading organisation representing beekeepers with useful information on planting bee-friendly plants, bee hotels for your garden, and an adopt-a-bee scheme.

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCCT) aims to prevent further declines, and to raise awareness of the problems bumble bees face.

A taste of honey at the Chelsea Physic Garden

The delicious Tangerine Dream Café at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

When the Chelsea Physic Garden held an afternoon of honey tasting, Emily and me went to represent the honey-eating skills of Ealing’s beekeepers.

The afternoon began with a talk about honey from Peter James, or Peter the Beekeeper, who traced the trail of honey from the earliest rock paintings to the modern-day industry largely in Europe, South America and Africa. Honey has been valued for food and medicine throughout history, and more recent research suggests that manuka honey is useful against the superbug, MRSA.

Peter explored the alchemy of honey production from the insect’s manipulation of a flower to the transformation of nectar into honey inside the hive. As it turns out, there is as much to say about honey as there is about bees. When honey crystallises each sugar crystal is as unique as a snowflake. ‘A fantastic array of shapes,’ commented Peter. ‘It’s a different world in every jar.’

Last summer I spotted this honeybee foraging with a hoverfly on echinacea in the RCP medicinal garden. She was moving very slowly and seemed to be at the end of her lifespan.

We paused to stop at a slide of a honeybee foraging on a flower. ‘Look closer and you’ll see that her wings are frayed and falling apart,’ said Peter. Honeybees have limited flying miles and spend them carrying nectar and pollen back to the hive. ‘She will work, work, work until she drops down dead,’ said Peter dramatically.

Bees also use their wings to fan the nectar inside cells to evaporate its water content. When the water level is low enough the newly made honey is capped off by the bees and ready for beekeepers to harvest. The water viscosity of honey must be 20% or less because honey is hydroscopic, meaning that it attracts water. If you leave the lid off a jar of honey it will draw water from the air, and honey with high water viscosity could ferment. ‘That’s how mead was discovered, someone left the lid off the jar,’ mused Peter. Did bees introduce us to alcohol too? It’s a nice thought. Peter passed around a refractor with a drop of honey so that we could all look at the viscosity.

Then it was time to taste the honey.

'Mutiny on the Bounty' honey from the Pitcairn Islands tasted dark and interesting.

The first honey pot was a delicate acacia the colour of white gold and elegantly floral. Peter asked us to describe our taste experience and it was interesting how much this varied from ‘like flowers’ to ‘woody’, and even ‘Inoffensive, it didn’t taste of honey’.

Next we tried a honey harvested from the lavender fields of France. It smelt and tasted like lavender, but it was also buttery and mellow with citrusy notes.

Two honeys from the Chelsea Physic Garden crop showed what a difference a season makes: the spring honey was full of mint and the summer honey was bursting with ripe fruit. Chelsea’s bees have a rich diet thanks to the botanical garden’s trees and flowers.

My favourite was ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ honey from the Pitcairn Islands, which was dark in colour and complex in flavour. Its taste created a vivid image of tropical rainforests followed by layers of sweet sensations from woody, minty, caramel and toffee.

Last but not least, Peter let us sample a tiny jar of South American honey foraged from Yucatan trees. It was almost black and treacly with a strong exotic flavour a bit like rum. Someone said ‘aggressive’.

Home-made honey cake drizzled in honey with crème fraîche.

The day was getting on and usually by three o’clock on a Saturday Ealing beekeepers are full of tea and cake. Emily and me were starting to feel a bit fidgety, but luckily Peter must have known we were coming because he had arranged a great spread of tea and honey cake with crème fraîche.

It was an afternoon well spent and though the first event of its kind, Peter said the Chelsea Physic Garden was planning to hold more honey tastings. All that honey and cake had warmed-up our appetites, so Emily and me rushed off to the garden’s Tangerine Dream Café to enjoy a spinach and cheese tart with lentil, olive and pomegranate salad.

The Chelsea Physic Garden is a great place to visit and even in winter there are interesting things to see, like these four trees in a row…

A tree full of grapefruit. It smelt lovely.

A tree made of cork. It felt spongy and warm.

And late afternoon sunshine melting snow from branches.

Last year I wrote a blog on: ‘How to extract honey‘, and you can read more about our honey exploits in ‘Hunny time‘ and ‘Bringing home the honey‘ on Emily’s blog.