Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016

A little bumble bee John found in the morning that hitched a ride.

March is going to be a busy month with Mothering Sunday, my fiancé John’s birthday, a Marriage Preparation Course, Easter and, of course, the start of the beekeeping season. The last throes of winter may be felt in February, but I feel spring will jump out suddenly.

The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Associations’ Beekeepers Day often feels like the start of the beekeeping season when beekeepers from in and around Middlesex gather to talk about bees and beekeeping. This year’s annual gathering was hosted by Barnet and District Beekeepers Association, on Saturday 20 February at Arkley Village Hall, in Arkley, Greater London.

There were three lectures by expert speakers, a wax exchange, and a general congregation of the Middlesex beekeeping associations for the Annual General Meeting. It was a bit of a trek from where I live in Ickenham to Arkley, I gave up at Edgware and got a cab. “I think we’ve arrived,” said the driver on seeing a beekeeper in full suit standing outside the village hall. It smelt of beeswax inside. I grabbed a seat and got out my notebook and pen ready for the first talk to begin.

This is a long post so I’ve made it easier to navigate with jump links.

Beekeepers Day 2016 lectures

1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.

2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper

3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.

1. ‘Insecticides and bees’ by Professor Linda M Field, Rothamsted Research.

The first lecture was given by Professor Linda M Field who works at Rothamsted Research on understanding insecticide mode of action and resistance at the biochemical/molecular level towards developing better pest control strategies. You can read about Professor Field’s research on the Rothamsted website. Her talk was about why we need and use pest-and-disease control, in particular focusing on a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics), which were subject to a restricted-use ban, preventing seed treatment on crops that flower, by the EU in 2013, and taking an overview of the current position on neonics in the UK given that the ban is due for review.

foraging bee

Professor Field opened her lecture looking at how to feed the world’s growing population, last estimated at around seven billion, with a large percentage of current agricultural crops dependent on pest-and-disease control like pesticides. This wasn’t intended to lead us down the path of different approaches to agriculture, but instead to frame a picture of why we have used pesticides in the past and continue to do so, and to explore whether pesticides and insect pollinators can ever go together.

Pesticides are made to kill insects that cause damage or disease to crops. Some examples of insects that are seen as pests in the UK are certain types of aphids and beetles. “Aphids are sap suckers. And although you need a lot of aphids to kill a plant, they can breed asexually,” said Professor Field. The peach-potato aphid spreads viruses to oilseed rape (OSR) and sugar beet. The grain aphid and the bird cherry oat aphid spreads viruses to cereals. As a reader of Don’t Forget the Roundabouts blog, I rather like aphids but I can understand how they could make themselves unpopular by sucking the sap out of crops.

Other pests to OSR crops include the pollen beetle and cabbage stem flea beetle, both of which have quite nice-sounding names.

Quick guide to the history of pesticide use

Professor Field gave a quick history of pesticides from 1940s DDT to today’s neonics. DDT, which everyone agreed was just bad news all round, was replaced by organophosphates and carbonates in the 1950s-70s but these were also quite toxic to both mammals and insects. In the mid-1970s new synthetic pyrethroids were seen as a breakthrough because they offered pest-and-disease control against insects with relatively low toxicity to mammals. Apparently the reason for the effectiveness of this group of chemicals was clearer for scientists to see in hindsight.

Pyrethroids bind with a particular protein in the nervous system which both insects and mammals have, but which is slightly different in insects and affects them differently. Pyrethroids were widely used till the 1990s when resistance developed and their use declined. This was when a new group of chemicals came on the market called neonicotinoids (neonics), which brings us up-to-date with where we are now.


Professor Field gave a nod to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which she said did a good job of raising awareness about the risks posed by certain chemical substances to the environment, and which is as relevant today as it was then. About 50 years later, as Andy Pedley later reminded me, Poison Spring by E.G. Vallianatos picks up where Carson left off.

I read Silent Spring. As a beekeeper and aromatherapist, and having been taught a natural approach to life by my grandmother, Rachel Carson’s words deeply resonate with me. However, my fiancé’s family are famers and my dad is a butcher, and I have a pragmatic view of the food industry.

Most of us worry about insecticides till their dog has fleas, the cat has ticks, or their children have lice, then they rush to buy insecticides from the pharmacy, commented the speaker. I could see that this was partly true, although my mum successfully treated our cats for fleas using garlic capsules in their food and my first resort to hair or skin afflictions might be lavender or tea tree oils.

Is the answer to always replace one pesticide with another? I’m not convinced that it is, nevertheless the search continues to find a pesticide that can target specific chemical pathways in insects seen as pests rather than those insects seen as beneficial, such as bees.

Pros and cons of neonics

We were shown some of the advantages and disadvantages of neonics:

  • Selective. Neonics bind with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in insects which, since the pesticide’s introduction and subsequent widespread use, selectively binds to that receptor in insects but doesn’t bind as well to the same receptor in mammals.
    Systemic. Neonics are systemic when used as a seed dressing, they travel up through the plant into the leaves and flowers. This was seen as a breakthrough because it meant avoiding spraying crops, which could be more costly and more damaging to local wildlife. However, neonics applied systemically have been found in trace amounts in nectar and pollen which might affect bees, including honeybees, solitaries, bumbles and so on. (I also wonder whether systemically applied pesticides are an advantage over spraying crops at certain times, such as when bees aren’t foraging.)
  • Low resistance. Unlike other pesticides like pyrethroids, pests are so far taking a long time to develop a resistance to neonics.

So what are the problems with neonics?:

  • Sub-lethal effects. Neonics end up in nectar and pollen at a very low dose which might still be harmful to bees. The pesticide may not kill bees directly but it may have a sub-lethal effect through low levels in nectar and pollen, which could have subtle effects on bee behaviour. It is these subtle effects that are not fully understood. I think it is also worrying because pollen is used by nurse bees to make brood food for larvae.

Where are we now with neonics?

On 24 May 2013 the EU implemented Regulation (EU) No 485/2013 to prohibit use of neonics, or more specifically clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, as seed treatment on crops that flower. Has the regulation made any difference to bees? Unfortunately the EU has not provided research funds to monitor the effects of the ban. Its most recent report Ecosystem services, agriculture and neonicotinoids (April 2015) by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) provides some conclusions, but I find it disappointing that more effort hasn’t been made to monitor the effect of the ban, and in closer collaboration with farmers, bee farmers, local wildlife groups, beekeepers and so on.

The EU report’s conclusions in summary (page 29):

  1. Ecosystem services provide significant economic benefits to agriculture. Maintaining strong functional ecosystem services is a critical part of a sustainable agricultural system.
  2. Biodiversity has significant positive impacts on the provision of ecosystem services but is also an objective in its own right under global and European international agreements.
  3. Insects providing ecosystem services have shown major declines in recent decades (pollinating wild bees, natural pest control providers, etc.).
  4. Protecting honey bees is not sufficient to protect pollination services and other ecosystem services. Honey bees have been the main focus in assessing the risks from neonicotinoid use, and much debate has focused on whether honey bee colonies are being affected. Yet the honey bee colony structure provides an exceptionally resilient buffer against losses of its foragers and workers. In contrast, bumble bees have just a few hundred workers at most, while solitary bees and other insects have no such buffering capacity.
  5. There is an increasing body of evidence that the widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids has severe negative effects on non-target organisms that provide ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest control.
  6. There is clear scientific evidence for sublethal effects of very low levels of neonicotinoids over extended periods on non-target beneficial organisms. This should be addressed in EU approval procedures.
  7. Current practice of prophylactic usage of neonicotinoids is inconsistent with the basic principles of integrated pest management as expressed in the EU’s Sustainable Pesticides Directive.
  8. Widespread use of neonicotinoids (as well as other pesticides) constrains the potential for restoring biodiversity in farmland under the EU’s Agrienvironment Regulation.

Professor Fields felt that while there is an ‘increasing body of evidence’ about the negative effects on non-target organisms (5), she had also read research papers to the contrary. She also felt ‘prophylactic’ in this context was misleading as it implied that neonics were used on crops at times when they were not needed.


Beyond neonics

Unfortunately some pests come back when neonics are not used, such as the outbreak of cabbage stem flea beetle on OSR in autumn 2014. Pyrethroids were sprayed to protect crops, which are more damaging and largely failed due to pests’ previous resistance to the pesticide. In autumn 2015 the UK government did allow 5% of farmers to use neonics on OSR for those who saw a high level of resistance to pyrethroids in cabbage stem flea beetles. However, without adequate pest control farmers might choose not to grow OSR, which is an important source of forage for bees in certain areas, and turn to other crops like beans and pulses.


Perhaps we needed to start looking at the wider debate such as ‘land sharing’ and ‘land sparing’. In ‘land sharing’, farmland is shared with wild habitat to protect biodiversity and preserve agriculture. While this tends to protect a larger number of species, it is often the common species and not the rarer ones that are in greater need of protection. In ‘land sparing’, farmland is kept for agricultural use but other land is spared for wild habitats, and while this helps fewer species it tends to be the rarer species that are protected. For me, ‘land sparing’ by preserving more areas of wild habitat seems a better approach, but could we do it with growing, and ever-hungrier it seems, human populations?

We were shown the the COLOSS 2014–15 winter losses data for honeybee colonies in the UK and Europe, and a drop in overall honeybee colony losses, but also illustrated that honeybee losses are multifactorial, due to varroa, queen problems, and other influences.

We were still no closer to finding out whether pesticides and insect pollinators could ever work together. My feeling is that they probably can’t given that pesticides are designed to kill or harm insects. There are so many different types of bees from honeybees, bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutters, miners, and each species has a slightly different biology that reacts slightly differently to pesticides like neonics. It’s a big ask for the next designer chemical to target specific chemical pathways in just target insects without subtly effecting the various chemical pathways of non-target beneficial organisms.

Professor Field looked at approaches to pest management other than pesticides:

  1. Biological control including the ‘lure and kill’ method which uses pheromones to trap pests in a small area and kill them with fungi.
  2. GM crops that could be used to repel pests, although I’m not convinced this would work or be greatly preferable to pesticides. It also opens up an entirely different debate.
  3. Crop rotation as a first resort before using pesticides.

A question from the audience probably drew a line under the discussion, for now. A retired microbiologist recalled the lessons that her generation of scientists had learnt with DDT, and thalidomide, which gave her misgivings about today’s new designer pesticides like neonics. Professor Field acknowledged this but asked: “How do we feed the world?”

The first lecture had given us all food for thought, something that would be the subject of the second lecture on honeybee nutrition.

A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.

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2. ‘How nutrition affects colony health’ by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper

From food for humans to food for bees, the second lecture of the day was by Pam Hunter, Master Beekeeper. Her talk focused on the importance of high-quality nutrition for honeybee health and why the honeybee colony needs a varied diet.

Bees are forest insects with an instinctive fear of fire. Smoking the entrance makes the colony think there is an impending risk of fire and triggers the 'fight or flight' response. They eat up honey in preparation to leave the hive but this also makes them less inclined to sting.

Like all animals, bees need nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins and micronutrients) for energy to build and repair tissue, maintain essential organs, produce enzymes, and replace cells. The foods that provide these nutrients for bees are:

  • Nectar: not just sugar and water, nectar provides carbohydrates, trace vitamins, and aromatic compounds.
  • Pollen: is a precious source of protein with fat and minerals, vitamins, lipids, micronutrients, pigments and so on.

A good supply of nutrition to the honeybee colony is essential for all individuals inside the hive, including a healthy and productive queen. A brood frame that has capped worker brood with well-defined borders and stores of honey is one sign of a well-fed colony.

The metatarsus that rocks the cradle

A recurring theme in Pam’s talk was the influence that nurse bees have upon the colony. “Butterflies are horrendous and drop an egg on a leaf and fly off,” said Pam, “Whereas bees look after their larvae at every stage in their development.” In Pam’s view of the honeybee democracy, it is the nurse bees who control the colony with the queen, although well-fed and pampered, just an egg-laying slave.

Nurse bees’ hypopharyngeal gland develops at around six days after they hatch and this allows them to convert pollen into brood food. Protein-packed pollen is itself an essential nutrient in the development of the nurse bee’s hypopharyngeal gland. Younger larvae are fed brood food, made by the nurses’ hypopharyngeal gland, and older larvae are fed pollen.

purple crocus bee

Thus, pollen is an important nutrient in early spring which helps the hive to build up at the start of the season. A varied mix of pollen grains provide a wide variety of nutrition and this is preferable for the honeybee colony, as can sometimes be seen from the differently coloured pollen grains fallen out of the hive floor onto the varroa monitoring board below.

Pam showed us a figure of a hypopharyngeal gland in a young bee fed a protein-rich diet, which looked like a bunch of plump grapes, and a hypopharyngeal gland in an older forager bee fed largely carbohydrate-providing nectar, which looked like a bunch of dried grapes. It illustrated the difference that nutrition can make.


Made up of saccharides, or sugars, carbohydrates can be simple or complex molecules built from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and used by bees, like in all animals, for energy and storage.

  • Polysaccharides are complex sugars such as glycogen and chitin, the latter of which is the tough outer wall of bees and other insects.
  • Oligosaccharides are made from 2–10 sugars.
  • Disaccharides are made from two sugars.
  • Monosaccharides are made from one sugar.

The hydrolysis of sucrose for energy involves the enzyme sucrase which converts it to glucose and fructose. Most nectars contain glucose and fructose hydrolised from sucrose, but a few nectars have high levels of sucrose such as borage. Borage has so much sucrose, said Pam, that it required a change in honey regulations to accommodate it.


Storing nectar as honey is vital for the survival of the honeybee colony in winter, and it is why the honeybee colony can survive winter. In comparison to the Asian honeybee (Apis ceranae), the European honeybee (A. mellifera) appears to be a better honey producer. Pam observed the Asian honeybee doesn’t need to produce as much honey because it lives in smaller colonies and endures shorter winters. However, when humans first exported the European honeybee to Asia, and back again, they subsequently introduced the ‘harder-working’ honeybee to varroa.

The European honeybee needs on average 40kg of honey to overwinter, and around 200kg per year for the colony. There were lots of experienced beekeepers in the room who had heard this before, but I think it can never be said enough. With changing weather causing mild winters, later springs and wetter summers in some years, it’s seems more important than ever to assess whether the hives are building up enough honey stores for the season before taking the harvest.

Pros and cons of nectar

Nectar may be a superfood for bees but it’s not a perfect food.

Nectar starts as a weak watery solution with a mix of fructose and glucose, and some sucrose. Foraging bees collect nectar to return to the hive where it’s transferred from cell to cell between bees, mixed with their hypopharyngeal glands, and fanned with their wings until its water content evaporates to 20% and the honey is ready to cap. Pam took a moment to marvel at this: “Science needs machines to measure water content in nectar yet somehow the bees just know.”

Nectar may be valuable forage but the problem is its availability. It’s secreted by plants into nectaries and there are many factors that can affect its production, such as temperature, humidity, moisture, wind factor, sunshine (for example, dandelions only produce nectar following two hours in direct sunshine), time of day, and the age and vigour of the plant.

Pros and cons of pollen

Pollen is a less fragile source of forage and it provides all-important amino acids in protein that are necessary for animal growth. As most of us are familiar from school biology classes, proteins are large complex molecules which must be broken down into simpler components (amino acids) to be absorbed into tissue and then rebuilt into complex molecules again for the body’s needs. It is the same in bees, proteins are absorbed by the epithelial lining of a bee’s gut, which helps younger bees develop strong, healthily functioning bodies. Essential amino acids, such as those you might see on a cereal packet (eg arginine, lysine, and leucine) cannot be manufactured within the body (by humans or bees) and need to be provided by nutrition; arginine is not needed by humans but it is needed by bees.


Not all pollens are made equal. Around 20–30% of protein content in crude pollen is a good source for bees, but this can vary from plant to plant. For example, the protein content of Cupressus arizonica pollen is 2–3%, but this is to be expected from a wind-pollinated plant.

Unlike nectar which can be stored for long periods of time, pollen’s nutritional value decreases rapidly. “Get rid of pollen-clogged frames,” said Pam. After a year, the protein value of pollen decreases by 75%. Thus a fresh supply of pollen is needed all year round. Plants like late Michaelmass daisies and sedum in autumn provide protein for hives going into winter, and hazel catkins early in the year provide protein for colonies building up in spring. “Hazel is wind-pollinated but bees can be opportunistic and will take the pollen nonetheless.”

A wide range of vitamins are found in pollen, especially water-soluble ones, such as B complex vitamins like biotin, riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid and so on.

Vitamin C is present in large quantities in most pollen and also fat soluble vitamins like A and K. Then there are around 3-8% of trace minerals and pigments, plus carotenoids and polyphenols. And, of course, throw in flavonoids which are always good (pollen is like chocolate and wine for bees!).

“While you can get all these goodies from pollen, it’s not a panacea for humans.” A lot of pollen is needed to have any sort of healthful effect on humans, and it must be fresh, by which time the honeybee colony has been depleted of an essential nutrient. I particularly agree with this. Whereas honey can be produced in surplus, other products of the hive such as pollen, propolis and royal jelly generally are not, and I prefer not to harvest these because the bees need them more.

Fat bees

Fat is needed for muscle contraction, conducting nerve impulses, and for cell membranes. It’s also needed for larval growth and development as larvae fed an inadequate supply of fat can have an increase in deficiencies, explained Pam. Although, she added, some lipids could inhibit brood production but this was not much understood.

Fat is important for those house bees going into winter and living off fat reserves for up to six months. There is a significant difference in the fatty bodies stored by winter bees compared to summer workers and, like pollen, fat is an important nutrient to the colony during the spring build-up and autumn preparations for winter.

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

Goldilocks and the bees

Larvae in eusocial insects are more dependent on stable nutrition and regular temperature. Their fragility is similar to the adult bees who, despite being opportunists, depend on their environment and nutrition being ‘just right’.

Nurse bees decide what’s taken from foragers – nectar, pollen, water and so on – and in doing so, they tell foragers what they want and need for the good of the colony. Pam feels they judge it well to decide what nutrition is needed by the hive to:

  • produce a strong queen who has been fed well at larval stage.
  • build up the hive’s reserves for times of dearth or winter.
  • continually feed adults who have fewer fat reserves and lower glycogen than larvae.

Pam explained fewer pollen supplies can reduce the amount of larvae produced or even lead to larvae being canabalised. Poor quality pollen could reduce immunity, thus a mixture of pollen is best. A study by Degrandi and Hoffman et al (2010) suggested that levels of viruses can be reduced within the colony if it is fed sufficient levels of pollen.

A deficiency of pollen can cause the hypopharyngeal gland in nurse bees to be less well developed, which would impact the brood food they produce, and could cause colonies to become aggressive; although I’ve noticed a lack of forage in general (nectar and pollen) and a lack of brood can cause colonies to become more irritable. Little wonder if the colony is hungry or does not have enough to do (is bored) with fewer brood to rear. Uncapped brood also produces a pheromone to stimulate pollen collection and the hypopharyngeal gland to develop. It is a reminder how wonderfully interconnected the world of the honeybee is.

Variety is the spice of life

Pam concluded that bees need a variety of good-quality food to stay healthy. She quoted a study that the longevity of bees can be affected by the quality of the pollen that they eat. (Schmidt et al Journal Econ Entomol 88 1591 (1995)). For example, bees feeding on rapeseed pollen lived 51 days longer, whereas bees feeding on sunflower pollen lived for 31 days. There were vast areas of sunflowers near French farms at the time of banning neonics, said Pam, could the less nutritious sunflower pollen have been another factor affecting bee longevity? “But bees love sunflower pollen even if it is not as good for them as rapeseed.”

I enjoyed Pam’s although I was familiar with most of it. It makes good sense that high-quality nutrition and a varied diet is as important to the health of the honeybee colony as it is to all animals. Along with pesticides, forage is another important factor affecting all bees and insect pollinators and with spring fast approaching, beekeepers will be mindful of what’s flowering in their local area.

Pam also recommended the resource: Somerville, Doug (2005) Fat Bees Skinny Bees, A manual on honey bee nutrition for beekeepers. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Australia.

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3. ‘Making toiletries using honey and beeswax’ by Dr Sara Robb.

The third talk of the day was as topical as spring forage. For beekeepers who have lots of beeswax – and that’s a lot of us – Dr Sara Robb’s lecture was brimming with ideas of how to clear up last year’s honey-and-wax buckets before the start of the season.


Dr Robb studied neuroscience in Pennsylvania, US, before finding her way to Scotland then England, where she started to make soap. The scientist was a meticulous soap-maker, but she grew impatient till one day she threw away the thermometer, “Soap had been made for centuries without thermometers”, and came up with same-day soap. When a Polish neighbour brought back a gift of honey from Poland, Dr Robb decided to make honey soap for her baby Jasmine. One bar and she was sold. The soap was beautifully fragranced and moisturising and worked wonders as a baby bath.

Dr Robb’s talk covered a beekeepers’ favourite – what to make with honey and beeswax: “I’m not a beekeeper but I am a beekeeper groupie.”

The products of the hive, such as honey and beeswax, can be added to many cosmetics, which in the EU is anything that is applied to the body from toothpaste to shampoo. Bee products can be used to make lip balm, body butters, cerate, cream, soap, and more.

Dr Robb gave a summary of why we use honey, beeswax and propolis for their cosmetic properties:

  • Beeswax (Cera alba) – emollient, emulsifying, film foraging, perfuming.
  • Honey (Mel) – emollient, humectant, moisturising; add small amounts to soap transforms it and different types of honey lends different fragrances and characteristics to cosmetics; Dr Robb feels honey is more moisturising than beeswax.
  • Propolis (Propolis cera) – antiseborrhoeic, moisturising, smoothing; good for acne, problem skin, improves roughness and irregularities.

Cosmetics can be made easily using equipment that most people have in their kitchen including scales, a microwave or stove, handmixer, bowls, spoons and containers. There are three main methods of making cosmetics:

  • Mixtures: lip balms, body butter, waxeline, cerate.
  • Emulsions: moisture cream, body lotion.
  • Chemical synthesis: soap (ingredients + chemical reaction = product).

Dr Robb explained the chemical synthesis of soap is by saponification: hydroxide + triglycerides = soap + glycerine.

Soap can be made using various ingredients from oils (olive, sunflower, rape, almond, coconut), butters (cocoa, shea), fats (lard, tallow, vegetable), waxes (beeswax, plant). While people tend not to use fat for making soap at home anymore, commercial soaps may contain tallow. Dr Robb noted that beeswax doesn’t saponify well and has a higher melt temperature, which can make it difficult to use for homemade soap.


Soap-maker’s top tips

As soap-making is Dr Robb’s specialty, she gave us some top tips on what we need to know before getting started.

  • The precise amount of sodium hydroxide needed for soap to saponify must be calculated against the given oils used in the recipe. It’s really important to get this right because a soap with a high pH can be dangerous to use as it could burn skin.
  • Olive, coconut and sunflower oils are good for lathering, although olive oil lathers the least. Dr Robb avoids using almond oil in case people have nut allergies.
  • Lovely colours and subtle fragrances can be added to soap from adding just a small amount of honey.


Beeswax beauty

Waxeline: While candle-making is the most likely way to use up all the leftover beeswax at the end of summer, Dr Robb likes using wax for simple recipes such as alternatives to shop-bought cosmetics. One of her favourites is waxeline (her twist on Vaseline) made from 40g beeswax and 160g rapeseed oil.

Cerate: She makes cerate mixture, originally made with animal fat, using: 40g beeswax, 80g olive oil, and 80g honey. It is all thrown together and mixed, melted and stirred till emulsified. A cerate mixture is like a healing salve that coats a small area of skin. The recipe is similar to balms that I make to deeply moisturise dry, cracked heels or soften rough skin on elbows.

Emulsions: Emulsions are also easy to make from beeswax, cocoa butter, rapeseed oil and water. Again, Dr Robb likes the easy method of throwing all the ingredients together, heating, mixing, and melting to make a beautiful emulsion. Once the base is made then honey, fragrances and preservatives can be added to make various emulsion products.


During the Q&A we got more top tips about the ingredients that make emulsions and creams easy to use and longer lasting:

  • Distilled water can be substituted for a good-quality mineral water, but adding water still shortens the shelf life and any product that contains water needs a preservative.
  • Vitamin E can be used as antioxidant but not as a preservative because it won’t inhibit fungal or bacterial growth.
  • Honey should be added in tiny amounts to emulsions and creams, particularly those worn during the day otherwise you may feel quite sticky!

Selling cosmetics in the EU
After formulating the perfect recipe, Dr Robb explained a little of what is involved in selling a cosmetic in the EU.

  • You need to prepare a Product Information Pack (PIP) and send the recipe, with a sample if it contains water, for a safety assessment, and a challenge test for aqueous products, to go through the Cosmetics Products Notification Portal (CPNP). You can find out more about the regulations for selling cosmetics here. The challenge test for recipes with water is squirting a cocktail of bacteria and fungus into a sample and monitoring their growth.
  • For beekeepers using their own beeswax in recipes, the beeswax needs to be analysed before use.
  • Products need to labelled correctly, including address, batch no/use-by date, weight, and ingredients listed in the correct nomenclature.


As Dr Robb closed her talk, I felt motivated to get to work on the last buckets of honey-and-wax gubbins from last year’s harvest. But it was pouring with rain outside Arkley Village Hall and there was still a wax exchange, an AGM, and a two-hour journey home to go. My enthusiasm would have to wait.

You can read more about Dr Sara Robb’s wonderful products and recipes on her website.

The Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2016 had been a great success, three brilliant lectures, and an opportunity for the associations to get together to talk about their beekeeping experiences. Thanks very much to Barnet and District Beekeepers Association for organising a great day.

A huge thanks also to Andy Pedley for his feedback on my lecture notes.

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It has been a while since I’ve been to a Beekeepers Day due to work the past two years and then moving house. Here is my write up to a lecture in 2012.

Federation of Middlesex Beekeepers Day 2012: Disappearing bees or countdown to catastrophe

Eight is the magic number, sort of


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


“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.


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!


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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

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.

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:

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

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

(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