A thought on honey

Acacia honey, lavender honey, heather honey, borage honey, clover honey, chestnut honey, sunflower honey……..

The specification of a single plant from which the nectar for producing honey is supplied seems to suggest purity, lack of contamination and unique identity, therefore warranting an ‘expensive’ tag.

But there is something very odd about this marketing spin.  I have kept bees for three years, have many bee friendly flowers in the garden, but yet, I can honestly say, that when our bees forage, I have no idea where they go, or where their pollen comes from.  They mainly ignore the plants in our garden, with the exception of elderflowers.  I’ve seen nothing like the image at my father’s home in Spain where an entire colony seemed to occupy a single carob tree as a foraging destination.

Bees travel an approximate radius of three miles from the hive.  There is evidence to suggest this could increase to 7 miles depending on the circumstances and environment.  They will gather pollen and nectar from any viable source within that range.  As I live in a semi-urban environment, the variety of plants they could potentially visit is diverse.  There would be no potential for us to label our honey as ‘elderflower organic honey’.  However, if we placed our hives in the middle of the uninhabitable areas of the Yorkshire Moors, we might then be able to claim ‘heather honey’, but as one study showed, just as the alfalfa was closer to home, didn’t mean the bees wouldn’t fly even further to obtain safflower pollen instead.  Additionally, I think the colony might object to its more exposed, unsheltered and very windy home.

I’m not trying to make the point that there is a labelling claim being made that is wrong (perhaps I’ll look into the EU regulations on this later), but I want to make the point that the concept of a single flowering plant being the source of the honey in your jar is seriously flawed from an ecological perspective.

Monoculture and ecology

At the heart of industrial food production is the practice of monoculture – the growing of a single crop on an extremely large scale.  Growing a single plant in a given area will quickly deplete the soil of essential nutrients, therefore to sustain the practice chemical fertilisers are needed (which are heavily dependent on quickly depleting oil supplies).  Pesticides and herbicides are also needed as single crop fields attract specific weed varieties and insect pests.  Additionally, the earth is bare between the neat rows of ploughed soil, exposing it to damaging UV rays, literally burning what little organic matter is left and encouraging the release of carbon into the air, contributing to global warming.  Finally, the process leads to desertification as the lack of organic matter means the soil can no longer hold water, leading to run off and leaching of the toxic chemicals into non-localised environments.

Monocrop honey

Before being lured by the label of ‘orange blossom’ honey or similar, consider how ‘pure’ this honey is likely to be.  The beehives were likely to have been placed in a single crop environment which relies heavily on fertilisers and pesticides.  Bees are as likely to be affected by pesticides as any other insect or pollinator that visits the site.   The honey might taste good, but consider the environmental damage that was incurred to produce it.   The label of ‘organic’ honey is only as good as the number of organically produced plants within the foraging range of the hive.  There is nothing beekeepers can do to control the flight path of their bees.  An organic farm which extends two miles either side of the hive may be promising, but remember that the bees might ignore the crop here in favour of one four miles away and that crop might not be so healthy.

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The Battle of the Bees Begins

The battle begins against the varroa mite.

In my last beekeeping post, I talked about the worrying number of varroa using the drop count method, although the same was not witnessed on our drone brood.  We’ve not inspected since, believing that risk of swarming was still relatively low, and needlessly interfering with their activity is stressful to them.  How would you like it every nine days or so, someone came into your house, went through all your closets and drawers, and let in an almighty draft on the babies of your household? But there is a reason for doing so which I’ll explain below.

However, we have kept a very close eye on bee activity, the health of the external bees, and the smell and sound of the hive – all indicators of how the colony is faring.  As part of this schedule of observation, I’ve been watching the varroa count using the drop count method.

Bee activity has been good, plenty of pollen being brought in, and on sunny days, it looks like many thousands of bees are out, all clamouring over each other with their bright yellow, orange or creamy white sacs upon their legs.  But the number of varroa mite has continued to increase rapidly.  It’s time to treat the colony.

We decided on apiguard.  The active ingredient in apiguard is thymol.  Its a slow release gel, and its vapours fill the hive, much like using olbas oil for your cold.  Mite don’t like it, it is safe for the bees, but the down side is that the queen may stop laying temporarily, and honey will be tainted for human consumption.

We removed the bulk of existing stores (the colony seemed to have residual stores after the winter), placed the apiguard over the brood boxes without disturbing them and closed the hive without appearing to upset them too much.  They remained good natured and non-aggressive.  Now it’s sit back and wait before the count in a couple of weeks’ time.

Rationale for inspecting a honey bee hive

One reason is to check on the health of the hive.  Signs of eggs, larvae and capped brood is an indication of a healthy laying queen.  Drone brood can be sacrificed, since the sole role of a drone (male) bee is to mate with a queen, and therefore checked for varroa mite infestation.

A second reason is to check their stores to ensure they do not starve.  This is usually a minimal intervention inspection as the stores are kept at the top of the hive, and it is not necessary to disturb the queen and her brood.

A third reason is to check for signs that the colony might swarm.

Bee swarms

Bee swarms occur when a new queen is bred within the colony.   This happens when the colony becomes so large that many of the bees lose access to queen pheromones.  They then act as if she is not there.  They begin to feed one or more larvae royal jelly, and hence begin the development of a new queen.  The old queen leaves with about 60% of the original colony, leaving the new virgin queen with the remainder.  It is a dramatic sound and sight.  But as alarming as it might sound, the bees are generally non-aggressive.  They are focused on finding a new home rather than attacking.    If you do dare to go close enough to a swarm (often in a tree branch, where they take a temporary rest to save the energy of the queen), you will notice that those on the outside of the ‘clump’ stick their tail ends in the air, and their wings flap furiously.  They are emitting a pheromone that ensures that all the workers stay together, protecting their queen.  Scouts are sent out to seek out a suitable home, and when they return, they ‘report’ on their findings.  It is like a democratic process of persuasion.  Each scout tries to persuade the other workers that a particular site is the best focus for a new home.   The swarm finally concurs and it will take off to the new ‘hive’.  The process is a natural means of reproduction for bees, and in truth should be allowed to do it naturally.  But for many humans, bee stings are life threatening (as we discovered ourselves in the last inspection).  And most of us don’t really want to share residence with a colony of bees.  Beekeepers, therefore act to prevent upsetting the neighbours.

Checking for signs of a potential swarm

One reason for inspecting a hive is to check for signs of any capped queen cells.  This is a sign that a new queen is about to emerge.  Queen cells form vertically rather than horizontally and look like a peanut shell.  They do stand out from the crowd of worker brood and drone cells.  This may be an indication that a succession is about to take place, the colony is replacing an old queen whose egg laying productivity is declining, or that the old queen is about to swarm with more than half of the colony.  A beekeeper can guess at the likely scenario depending on the age of the queen.  If a potential swarm is suspected, then the imminent queen can be sacrificed.  A preferable alternative is to artificially split the hive, and you have two, instead of one colony.  You could also leave things to chance, place a good hive close by, and hope that the swarm will choose it as their new best home.  We did gain a colony from a neighbouring beekeeper this way.   When I tell my students this story, they look aghast, as if I’d stolen bees from my neighbour.  I must often look aghast at how little they seem to understand.  (Beekeeping does put me in the category of weird teacher, although I do admit, it is not the only reason).

I would like to improve my skills this season by splitting the hive, but I think it will take a bit of courage and serious planning.  I will report if I take the plunge, and even then, it will be with the cooperative help of my partner, which I might not get, as he now may have a serious allergy to bees (in my last post I did advise – avoid being stung in the nostril!).

Hive Inspection

Varroa Count

A varroa mite is a small reddish-brown creature which looks like a tiny crab.  It is about 2 mm in length, therefore visible to the naked eye, though I do like to use a magnifying glass to see them better.  They attach to the backs of bees and feed off their blood.  During the summer they attach to brood, particularly drone brood in order to reproduce.  The number of varroa then increases exponentially.  The danger of this increase is that it is likely to lead to colony collapse disorder.

Varroa
Varroa Mite (magnified)                                                                                                                Safar Fiertze (2015)

I conducted a varroa count earlier in the year using the “drop count method”.  It is a means for assessing the health of the hive when it is too cold to conduct an inspection.  Beneath our hive is a mesh, which allows the mites, which drop from the bees, to pass through and not return.  It is a means for keeping the count a little lower.  By placing a varroa board beneath this mesh, it is possible to catch these and count them.    My first varroa count was very low even for the time of year, but the warmer and earlier spring appears to have started the reproductive process and this week’s count is worringly high.  Left unmanaged, this may lead to colony collapse.

Hive Inspection

As the weather was good and the bees were engaged in large scale foraging activity, we decided on our first full inspection of the year.   The bees were well-tempered throughout the inspection, and only seemed to object to our presence as we were closing up the hive.  There was plenty of honey; much of the top box remained untouched over the winter.  This is something I had read about before the winter – it is possible to leave them with too much honey.  As a queen excluder within the hive prevents her from accessing the top boxes, her pheromones are not attracting bees around her.  This means that feeding from the top layers is less likely to occur, hence our top layer of honey was intact.  To provide them with more space, we may remove it, but we don’t like to make rash decisions in the middle of an inspection and have found it often more productive to wait before interfering.

There was evidence of larvae and capped brood, both worker and drone.  Due to the varroa, we removed as much of the drone brood as we could.  It is one measure for keeping the number of mites down by preventing further reproduction.  However, in the brood we looked at, there was no sign of even a single mite.   Curiouser and curiouser.  I spotted the queen; not an easy task due to the sheer number of bees in the brood boxes.  Finally, we checked for queen cells, but only found a couple of empty cups.

An interesting and generally worry-free inspection, although we will need to keep a very tight eye on the varroa count.

Lesson learned today:  Avoid a sting in the nostril, even if you don’t normally have an allergic reaction or oversensitivity to bee stings.  I’m grateful that I wasn’t the one to experience this.

The HeBeeSheBees

Let’s talk sex – the sex of honey bees.

Honeybees are social insects that live in colonies of up to 80,000 members.  It is a species upon which humans are entirely dependent.  They enable plant reproduction through pollination.  We’ve taken this fact for granted, until the decrease in the number of bee colonies and increasing cases of colony collapse were observed.

The majority of the population of a hive are female, with a smaller proportion of male bees.  Bees have specialised, occupational roles and there is a clear sexual division of labour.

Queen Bees

By definition, queen bees are female.  They are, in essence, breeding machines, laying upto 2000 eggs a day.  When the machine fails (after about 2-3 years), the colony will replace her.  Queen bees mate soon after emerging from their cell.  The queen is the only female in the colony capable of laying fertilised eggs.  She is larger than other females, and has a distinctive elongated shape.  She is often difficult to find within a colony, especially if unmarked.  This may cause concern in novice beekeepers who will unduly worry about the future of the hive.  However, there are other indications of her presence that might ease such fears.  Queens are often surrounded by dutiful attendants.  They form a cluster around her, the queen in the middle.  The most obvious way to know there is still a healthy queen in the hive is to observe the egg laying pattern.  Some hexagonal cells within the hive may have an egg, shaped like a small white rice grain.  There will also be larvae in many cells and also fully capped pupae cells.  Larvae are white and look like grubs.  Eggs, larvae and capped brood cells form a central cluster which can extend vertically as well as horizontally, although, the centre can be off-centre.  It is often surrounded by pollen and honey filled cells.

Queen bees begin life as do other female brood.  Whilst all female brood receive royal jelly from young worker bees for the first two days of their life, queens are fed with royal jelly for their entire life.  Royal jelly is a substance created from pollen and the biochemistry of female, worker bees.  The queen appears to affect the behaviour and ‘personality’ of the hive.  I swear we had a  right ol’ bitch of a queen in our first year as beekeepers!  I do believe though, that one reason why you may receive different answers from different beekeepers to the same question, is that each colony has its own personality and it is through observing and learning that you know what is right for yours.

Drones

Drones are male bees.  Like the female, they have one sole function.  That is, of course, sex!  Drones, when mature, hang out with other drones for the day in a social area; I equate it to the local pub.  When queen pheromones are present, they all take to the air, and follow that smell.  Mating takes place in flight and the drones take turns.  The queen mates with several males and holds enough sperm to become the breeding machine that she is.  Drones die shortly after mating.  Those who remain with the hive may be excommunicated during autumn/winter when stores become less easy to replenish.  Males are fat compared to females, and very easy to spot in the hive.

They are also easy to spot as brood.  The hexagonal cells that bees create come in three sizes.  Queen size, which looks like a peanut still in its shell and protrudes from the comb very similarly.  Neat tidy, flat-capped cells which contain female brood or honey and then clusters of drone brood, which are larger hexagonal cells, more bulbous when capped and often hang from the bottom of a frame.

It may seem counter-intuitive to cull any aspect of a bee population, but if your hive has large numbers of drone brood you could be in trouble for one of two reasons:

1) The varroa mite (a honey bee pest as it carries a number of viruses) is attracted to drone larvae as it can raise more mites in a  drone cell than a worker cell.  The reason is that drone brood take 15 days to reach maturation, compared to 12 days of worker bee brood.  Culling drone cells can minimise the number of varroa mite, and hence risk of disease spreading through the hive.

2) The queen is dead, hasn’t been superseded by a new queen and the colony has no potential substitute.  Worker bees will start laying unfertilised eggs, that is drone brood.  I’ve experienced this – it is gutting – the colony depends more on the reproduction of its female members than it does on drones.  As female workers have a life expectancy of about 6 weeks (depending on the time of year), the colony has no means to sustain itself.

Worker bees

If you see a honey bee collecting pollen, it is a female, worker bee.  All females in the hive, with the exception of the queen, spend their life working.  Their roles change as they mature, but include attending the queen, protecting the queen, nursing the brood, sentry duty, scouting, foraging, pollen collection, honey and royal jelly production, housekeeping and decision-making.

I will talk more about the relationship between worker bee maturation and working roles in a future post.

Signs of Spring

The blue and great tits in the garden appear to have developed a symbiotic relationship with our bees.  In “Housekeeping”, I talked about how mortary bees clean the hive of corpses, and how the blue and great tits seem to like them.  The birds have become bolder over the weeks and now perch on the bees’ landing platform, and I’ve even seen a couple of them attempting to poke their head into the entrance.

Today they caught my attention as they didn’t hang around for so long awaiting their tidbits.  The reason was that the bees were out on mass today, seeming to have found the first signs of spring pollen.  This is remarkable in itself, as our first ever colony would never go out in less than temperatures of 14 celsius.  Today it is 9 –  a hardier breed!  I took the opportunity to take a closer look and also catch some photos of the lively activity at the entrance to the hive.  bee-on-varroa-board-sm

I’ve put a varroa board under the hive to check its health.  As I was dusting it off, one of the bees became curious and joined me.  I took this picture with board in one hand and camera with a heavy macro lens in the other.  Not the best means for gaining a sharp pic, but I was pleased with the detail on the legs in this shot.

Bees-communing-sm
Two bees communing.

The picture of the clamour to get in and out of the hive, below, is a little blurred, but I wanted to show that they are bringing in pollen already.  (Pollen sac circled in red).  This particular sac was the largest I saw, others seemed to have small amounts of orange-coloured pollen.

Hive-entrance-sm

Housekeeping

It was a little warmer yesterday, I think about 8°C.  Hence signs of bee activity.

One thing to be said of bees, is that they are very good housekeepers.  They periodically engage in a clear out, and we often witness the removal of dead corpses from the hive.  It may sound morbid, but it’s a heart-warming sight to see at this time of the year, as it suggests that the colony is surviving the winter enough to dispose of the aged, or perhaps diseased.  What was more uplifting, is that the ‘spring’ clean did not produce as many bodies as the last signs of life from the hive.  I’m feeling hopeful they’ll make it through.