Thoughts on ‘More than Honey’

Last week I went to see a showing of More than Honey by the Ealing Transitions/Friends of the Earth groups at St Mary’s Church, Ealing. I hadn’t been in the church before and was surprised at how beautifully decorated it is, with rafters painted gold and intricate red and gold patterns on the arches. The church was packed, so hopefully plenty of money was raised for bee causes.

It’s a very well shot film with some ground breaking footage of a honeybee queen mating high in the air, and also unusual viewpoints such as inside a hive being trucked about, the combs swinging back and forth. The director went around the world to film it, including California, the Swiss alps and China.

St Mary's Church, St Mary's Road, Ealing

We see commercial beekeeper John Miller standing by his hives in an almond tree plantation, the buzzing in the delicate white flowers filling the air. He turns to the camera and says “That’s the sound of money… fresh printed money”. As the film goes on he loses lots of hives, in response to which he treats with Fumagilin, saying “I am backed into a corner, and I fight back with what I have – chemicals.”

Some of the practices John Miller uses do not seem healthy for the bees to me, and he admits himself that his grandfather would be shocked to see how things are now done. Mechanical equipment is used to shunt the hives about, scraping and crushing bewildered bees willy nilly. When I inspect a hive I try my best not to kill a single bee, but in these large-scale operations human interaction with the colonies is lost. The pursuit of income for commercial beekeepers comes at a cost for the bees. The trucking, the spraying of pesticides that goes on in commercial plantations, forcing the bees to exist on monocrops… no wonder colonies are dying off.

In contrast I enjoyed the footage with Fred Jaggi in peaceful Switzerland. He does not own a veil and keeps black bees native to his area high up in the mountains. He claims they swarm less and are gentler, as well as better suited to the cold conditions. There is entertaining footage of both male and female beekeepers there puffing on a cigar instead of a smoker!

But even amongst the idyllic scenes of wild flowers in the alps, disease lurks and sadly Fred’s bees are diagnosed with American foulbrood (AFB). The inspector fumigates the bees with sulphur to kill them and the bees and frames are then burnt in a pit. It sounds harsh but is better than leaving the colony to infect other bees.

In China we meet Zhao Su Zhang, who sells pollen to farmers in northern China, in areas where heavy pesticide usage means bees can no longer survive. Years ago Mao decreed that sparrows should be killed as they stole grain from the people. This was done, but resulted in a plague of insects as their natural predators had been greatly diminished. The insects were fought with insecticides and the bees died. Messing with an ecosystem never produces positive results.

Each year Zhao drives south for two days, buys flowers there and hires a room for her team to harvest the pollen from the flowers, carefully packaging it into paper envelopes. She then drives back north to sell the pollen to the farmers. Up on ladders, labourers must painstakingly dab each flower with a little pollen so that the trees will fruit. Even the slowest, most lackadaisical bee in the world would surely beat a human at this job.

The film left me feeling sad and angry. We abuse the natural world in so many ways – can we really be surprised when things go wrong and bees start dying off? It’s lucky for bees that their work is so valuable to us, otherwise governments would probably do little to protect them and those of us who care would be left lamenting a missing hum.

Edit: Rusty at Honey Bee Suite has written a post pointing out some errors in More than Honey: Take the Pollinator challenge.

Carder bee on pink flower

What’s wrong with our bees?

An idyllic scene of sunshine on the apple tree at the Hanwell apiary on Sunday.
Apples in front of bee hive

The bees came to say hello in the super.

Bees on super frames

Further down, they bubbled out from the brood frames. So many thousands of interactions happening. They are experiencing multiple sensory levels we’re missing out on – the smells, the tastes of nectar being passed from one bee to another, immersed in the hum of purposeful fanning.

Bees on brood frames

At first glance, the colony looked healthy, with plenty of bees, brood (five frames) and stores. But I spotted a poor bee with a varroa mite on her back, the first time I’ve seen that on one of my bees.

Plus, a few cells on different frames (about five cells that I spotted in total) had some dead larvae inside. Here’s what they looked like in the cells.

Brood disease

I plucked the dead bees out with tweezers to inspect. They looked like the larvae below, with a white slimy texture.

Dead larvae 2

I couldn’t spot any scales or melted-down appearance to the larvae, so don’t think it’s EFB.

Dead larvae

At first I thought it might be sacbrood. But looking at the photos on the Beebase Sacbrood page, these larvae don’t seem to have the characteristic ‘Chinese slipper’ or gondola  shape to me. But as I could only find a few dead larvae, perhaps it wasn’t a large enough sample size to tell.

Sacbrood is not a major disease and the only remedy is to re-queen, as some strains of bees are less susceptible to the disease. It’s too late in the season to do that now, but perhaps could be something to consider next year if the amount of dead larvae increases. It would be a shame though, as this tiger-coloured queen is a good layer and her daughters require virtually no smoking.

Any thoughts? Even though I’ve studied diseases, what I see in the hive never quite seems to match the books! For now I’m treating with Apiguard (an anti-varroa treatment) and planning to keep an eye on things.

Fate of a drone

Who’d want to be a drone at the end of summer?

Chucked out drone

This drone has been harassed out of the hive by his sisters, who bit and tugged at him, dragging him away from the sweet benefits of their labour. Collapsed on the hive landing board, he makes a sad sight.

Wasp eating drone

His brothers have already come to an end. Their dried out, desiccated bodies litter the floor. And he has attracted the attention of a wasp, who perhaps views his large abdomen as a moving honey pot of juicy reproductive organs.

Wasp eating drone 2

The wasp is smaller, but has the advantage of a sting. He tries to move away, but he has been weakened by his earlier struggles with his sisters, and his feeble motions are no match for the persistent wasp.

Wasps eating drone 3

A second wasp joins in. His future looks set for a grisly end. I’m afraid there is no happy ending.

Here are some pretty flowers to make up for it. Everyone is out blackberry picking in the local fields.


Spiky though the thistles are, their flowers turn into soft downy seeds that drift on the breeze. Summer blowing away.

Thistle seeds

Honey bee pests, diseases and poisoning exam feedback

In March this year I took the British Beekeeper Association’s Module 3 Honey bee Pests, Diseases and Poisoning exam. I was lucky enough to pass, but still asked for feedback as the examiners always give titbits of information I’ve never come across before.

Here it is in pdf format - Module 3 feedback - includes ideal answers on the lifecycle and damage caused by acarine and amoeba, seven integrated varroa management methods that could be used to combat varroosis and the characteristic signs of EFB and AFB.

Like last year, the examiner’s comments come from Margaret Thomas, an incredibly experienced beekeeper who has been keeping bees since 1973.

I feel a bit embarrassed about some of the answers I gave in the exam. I found remembering the latin names (and even all the common names!) of the multitude of bacterial infections, viruses, spore forming organisms, cyst forming organisms, pests and parasites that prey on honey bees very tricky. Looking back through my answers, I’m not sure I deserved to pass –  but I’m not going to ask for the pass to be taken away!

What’s flowering now: late July

For the last few weeks it feels like I have been living in a country that is not England. A dream world where I haven’t needed an umbrella for weeks at a time, where my 7am walk to the bus stop has felt warm enough not to wear a coat, and where sandals and shorts can be worn. Never have I known a summer so hot. I have genuinely enjoyed the heat, but I did want rain to come for the sake of the plants, and for the bees. Eventually the sky burst and the deluges came, bringing some relief to the parched grass.

Late July is a time of yellow, purple and pink, of ragwort, thistles and rose-bay willow herb. The hogweed has shrivelled up into dry seed pods and the bramble flowers are turning into blackberries already, so it’s lucky we have the thistle family.

Honeybee on thistle

Honeybee on burdock

The internet tells me there are around 20 different species of thistle native to the UK. I certainly can’t identify them, but I can look around and see that the purple spiky flowers in the park come in different shapes and sizes. Theresa at Everyday Nature Trails has done a great post on some different types of thistles: Pretty prickly thistles.

I think this type of thistle may be the burdock, the root of which has traditionally been used to make the British drink Dandelion and burdock.

Buff tailed bumble

These are tough, sturdy flowers, capable of supporting the weight of the largest bumble bee foragers.

Red tailed bumblebee

These flowers are daintier and I believe may be creeping thistle, being visited here by a Red-tailed bumblebee, Bombus Lapidarius. Helpful commenters have revealed that these  little purple flowers are actually knapweed, part of the same family of plants. Mark says that “Thistles like rich fertile soil whilst knapweed thrives on nutrient poor soil”.

Ragwort and thistles

Ragwort and knapweed

I found a humming field of these knapweeds and ragwort. The yellow and purples together, with red-tailed bumblebees darting everywhere between them, was a marvellous sight.

Ragwort has other common names – ragweed, staggerwort, stinking billy, stinking weed or yellow weed. It can be fatal to some grazing animals, such as horses.

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Red tailed bumblebee

Field of ragwort

Field of ragwort

With so many thistles and knapweeds to visit, the rosebay willow herb (fireweed) seemed to be under appreciated this year, but I still observed a few bumbles hanging on to its pretty pink flowers. Mark has left me a comment to say “Your willow herb is actually hairy willow herb and not rosebay willow herb – differences in growing habit and flowers but noticeable hairy leaves and stem”.

Rosebay willow herb itself is a well known bee plant which provides both pollen and nectar, producing very pale, almost water-white honey (info from ‘Twelve months of forage: Plant list for talk’ by Andy Willis,  included in Reading Bee Keepers Association’s March 2013 newsletter - scroll right to the end of the newsletter for the forage chart).

Bumble bee on rosebay willow herb

Bumble bee on hairy willow herb

Rosebay willow herb

Hairy willow herb

Proof that flowers for bees are not tricky to grow. They grow just fine on waste ground and fields, without needing any fertiliser or nurturing. They are just the local wildflowers that spring up in your area, anywhere they can find that’s not concreted or mowed over.

Entranced by the flurrying of bees on thistles, I stayed longer than intended on my walk. I had a lemon and poppyseed cake in the oven, and it was due to come out.

Whilst hurrying back, I had an unexpected encounter. A large bee was crawling slowly across the concrete footpath in the more formal part of the park. I recognised her at once as a Queen buff-tailed bumblebee, her tail a darker buff colour than a worker’s would be.

Concerned for her health, I put my hands down in front of her and she immediately climbed on, as gentle and trusting as could be. I carried her about 100m to a buddleia bush; she eagerly dismounted onto the purple scented flowers and began drinking nectar enthusiastically. Hopefully this helped her regain enough energy to fly. A lovely meeting – and my cake was fine when I got home too.

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on buddleia

Buff-tailed bumblebee queen on buddleia

A bad day’s beekeeping

Feeling quite demoralised after yesterday’s beekeeping session. Things started off well. I spotted one of our new queens, Emma pinned her down in a queen cage and marked her perfectly with a neat blob on her thorax. Yellow as we didn’t have any other colour. She seemed laid back and relaxed, so we have named her Chamomile (all our bees are named after essential oils as Emma is a trained aromatherapist).

Then onto Queen Rose’s hive. We had spotted queen cells there the week before, but had taken them down as we had no equipment to do an artificial swarm. This week there were three capped queen cells in the centre of a frame. They were short and stubby cells, obviously emergency cells drawn out in haste from older uncapped larvae. Looking through the hive, we could see a few uncapped larvae but no eggs. Emma is holding up a frame below –  the brood which has hatched has not been replaced by new baby bees. Rose was found and captured in a cage while we thought about what to do.

Emma inspecting

The hive already made queen cells in May, at which point we split them. So they are not an especially large hive, and it’s late in the season for swarming, making the balance of probabilities more likely that they are trying to supersede (but of course you can never be sure with bees).

Deciding what to do was hard – should we leave the queen cells and let the bees get on with it? Or combine with Chamomile’s hive, as she is a young, prolific queen?

Another beekeeper, Brian, was there and he had been saying earlier that he needed queen cells as one of his hives was queen-less. I was minded to give him the queen cells and Rose and combine Rose’s hive with Chamomile’s. Our nucleus colony, headed up by Queen Chilli, is in urgent need of more space, so I thought we could move Chilli’s colony into Queen Rose’s old brood box to allow them to grow. However, some other beekeepers present thought we’d be better off leaving the colony to supersede themselves.

So it was a tricky decision. Beekeepers rarely agree! In the end we went for combining, but a few things went very wrong. We placed newspaper (from 2008!) on top of Chamomile’s hive and made a few slits in it – all good. The idea being that the newspaper acts as a barrier to give the two colonies time to acclimatise to each other’s smells and accept each other without fighting. They chew through it within a few days.

Uniting with newspaper

Uniting with newspaper – a photo taken last year

Then we left the queen cage containing Rose on top of her hive, picked it up and placed it on top of Chamomile’s hive. But in the process of doing that, Rose’s queen cage came open and released her. Which was very bad, as two queens in a colony will fight. We were saving Rose to give to Brian, we really didn’t want her in there with the bees. The process of moving the bees had made the bees testy and we’d ended up with a lot of squashed bees. We decided to abort the mission, put Rose’s hive back where it was and try again on Monday. We still gave the queen cells to Brian.

It’s sad hearing the crunch of squished bees and seeing them unable to get back up, knowing that it’s my fault. I hate it. Hopefully on Monday we’ll have more of an idea what we’re doing and can avoid making all the mistakes. You can read Emma’s version of events and see photos of the stubby queen cells on her post yesterday, ‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

As a cheerier ending, here are some photos from my lunch break this week. The annual Cart Marking ceremony was going on in the Guildhall. Since the fourteenth century or earlier, only licensed and marked carts can be hired out in the City of London. The ceremony takes place in the Guildhall Yard, with the cart owners bringing their vintage trucks, vintage vans, waggons and carriages to be inspected by the Master of the Carmen’s Company and branded or marked.

Cod & Rock skate

Milkman's van

Fruit and veg stall

Lastly, check out my awesome Lego mini figures set, the IT geek and Beegirl were sent to me by the fab @LizzyAB and the Librarian by the awesome @andrewGouw (I am a librarian and my fiance Drew is an IT geek). It’s not possible to buy a particular figure from Lego, they operate a lucky dip system, so I really appreciate being sent them as otherwise I’d have to get them off eBay.

Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl

Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl

Book review: A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson (2013)

I bought this new book by Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, after hearing him speak at the ‘Future without bees‘ talk at the Southbank Centre. And it’s brilliant: entertaining, an insight into a life spent investigating nature and an education in all things bumblebee.

Amelia at A French Garden has already done a proper review of this fantastic book, so instead I thought I’d do a quick list of seven things I learnt from it:

1) Bumblebee workers in a particular species can vary in size dramatically (p.157-163).We only ever see the bigger foragers with large eyes and bigger brains out and about – there are smaller workers who spend most of their time hidden away in the nest rearing young. This is somewhat like ant castes and a different way of doing things to honey bees (worker honey bees are all the same size and graduate to more complex tasks as they get older).

Bumblebee melee

2) Bumblebees are better suited to colder climates (p.31-34).
Their furry coats help them keep heat in, and the contractions of their flight muscles – bumbles flap their wings 200 times per second – generates a lot of heat. This heat can be difficult to get rid of if the surrounding air temperature is high; if their body temperature exceeds 44°C they will die. For this reason, on very hot days in summer (like we’re having now in England) bumbles will tend to have a rest around midday and begin foraging again in the early evening as the air cools down. Dave once had a buff-tailed bumblebee colony that survived a night in the freezer at -30°C, the workers gathered over the brood, the queen in their centre.

Red tailed bumble bee
3) The European commercial trade in bumblebees for pollination probably requires around 500 metric tonnes of pollen each year to rear the bumblebees (p.180-181). This pollen is bought in from honey-beekeepers all over Europe and is almost inevitably contaminated with a range of bee diseases. After the bumblebees consume the pollen they are despatched all over the world, very possibly spreading diseases to honey bees, other bumble bees or native bee species.

Bee on clover

4) In the wild, some bumblebee species seem to get nearly all their pollen from legumes such as clovers, trefoils, vetches, peas and beans. Not all pollen is equal – legume pollen is especially rich in protein and essential amino acids which bees cannot manufacture themselves.

Lots of clover

What bumbles need more of – please don’t mow all the clover out of your lawn!

5) The UK bumblebee species struggling the most are particularly fond of clover, particularly red clover and other wild legumes such as tufted vetch and bird’s foot trefoil, that produce this protein-rich pollen (p.209-211). These plants also have deep flowers, requiring the long tongues that most of our rare bumblebee species possess – such as the great yellow, short-haired and ruderal bumbles. The rare species tend to be meadow specialists, favouring the legumes that grow in meadows and the deep meadow flowers. No wonder they are struggling – we hardly have any meadows left.

6) Dumbledore is an old English word for bumblebee, possibly originating in Somerset or Sussex (p.214). Cute.

Double bees

7) Badgers are particularly fond of eating bumblebee nests in dry summers when worms have burrowed too deep for them to find (p.96). The bumblebee nests can be located by smell. Dave says “You can create a similar odour by pouring black treacle and sherry over a pair of dirty running socks, sealing them into a Tupperware box and then leaving it in a warm place for a month.”

Finally, a lovely quote from Dave, p.208:

“I began studying bumblebees not because they are important pollinators but because they are fascinating, because they behave in interesting and mysterious ways, and because they are rather lovable. But as I became more familiar with what was known about them, it was made clear that they were in urgent need of help.”

I always say this, but it’s particularly relevant for this book of all books – if you choose to buy it or indeed any other items from Amazon, please consider going through the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Fundraising page. Each time you access via their link and make a purchase this brilliant charity receives a donation worth 8% of your total purchase, at no extra cost to you.