Black bees in the mizzle at Godolphin

The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) organised a big conference on at the Eden Project in Cornwall last weekend – Sustainable Beekeeping: A future without imports. It was all about the benefits of keeping our native/near native honey bees, i.e. UK populations of dark European honey bees, the sub-species Apis mellifera mellifera.

I didn’t go to the conference, but I did get to see some dark bees during an apiary visit to the National Trust’s Godolphin House, which had been organised as part of the conference weekend.

Bob Black, one of the Godolphin beekeepers, hosted the visit. Over forty of us gathered round in a circle and it quickly became clear that this was a rather expert audience, with some professional beekeepers amongst us. A few had travelled from as far as Ireland and the Isle of Wight – like Cornwall, remote places where distinct bee populations can thrive. I also had the pleasure of meeting a blog reader – hi Alan and Lynn!

As the famed Cornish ‘mizzle‘ came down thick and wet, we squelched round to various parts of the Godolphin estate to see the hives. A few hardy bees were flitting in and out for soggy cleansing flights; they were indeed black in colour.

Sorry for the terrible photos – was too busy listening to Bob to take many. He filled us in on some of the details of keeping the bees at Godolphin – the first dark bee colonies came around seven years ago, supplied by Cornish beekeeper James Kilty. Bob has seen his dark queens mating amongst nearby trees and believes there are now enough dark drones locally for them to be able to maintain the sub-species by mating naturally.

Bob sells around twelve dark bee nucleus hives a year and doesn’t take pre-orders as he won’t know till around May how many he has to sell. He receives around 4-5 emails a week from people wanting to buy native dark bees, some from as far away as Canada!

For varroa control they use Apiguard and trickle oxalic acid. Honey production is not huge but they make enough to sell in the Godolphin shop. Indeed, the latest BBKA Honey Survey 2017 results found the Wales and South West regions were the least productive for honey, with a wet summer causing honey crops to drop to an average 18 lbs per hive.

It may look like dusk in the photo below of one of Godolphin’s buildings but was actually around 1.30pm. Bob told us feral bee colonies nest among some of the buildings but tend to last only a couple of years before dying out.

Godolphin

We walked on to the main apiary site which the public can view. The Godolphin poster below says the bees are particularly special for a number of reasons:

  • They like to keep clean: they groom, nibble and clean their hive
  • They are suited to the UK environment
  • They are good-tempered
  • They have a good health record
  • They store food for rainy days

I will have the chance to see for myself if this is true this summer as I have ordered a nuc now 🙂  There may be a commercial angle to promoting the benefits of dark bees, as it gives Cornish bee breeders a unique selling point. I would prefer to have local bees as I have found the climate here is slightly different to London, warmer but wetter.

The bees that live at Godolphin poster

Bob posted this quote from one of the attendees on the Cornish Black Bees Facebook page:

“A great afternoon at Godolphin today, hosted by Bob Black as part of the BIBBA weekend. Beekeepers from Ireland, Essex, blogland and Redruth joined together to hear about the realities of retaining a local bee population – against all odds. I really enjoyed talking to the representatives from Ireland ‘s Native Bee Association who are battling to save what we may have already lost – a true native bee. An interesting dilemma for them – they want ban imports of bees but, beekeepers want to export their bees because others want the native black bee – and you can’t have it both ways! Thanks Bob for hosting this event, and asking WCBKA to be part of it.”

Moving from creatures of the air to creatures of the water – I met our native garden frogs for the first time this week. When we moved in during November I assumed our pond would have frogs, but we never saw any – until they came and said hello outside our door in spectacular style! Four to six little heads can now regularly be seen bobbing up and down in the water. If I can keep both my bees and my frogs happy this year I will be very happy too!

Frogs mating

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Honey on the BBC’s Food: Truth or Scare show

Thanks to Mark Patterson from the London Beekeepers Association for posting about this – bee expert Professor Dave Goulson featured in a segment about pesticides in honey on the BBC show Food: Truth or Scare last Wednesday (available to UK viewers for another 22 days).

Food: Truth or Scare TV show screenshot

The honey segment starts at 21 minutes in. The presenters, Chris Bavin and Gloria Hunniford, look at headlines from last autumn about pesticides found in honey – “75% of honey we eat contains pesticides” reads one, quoting a study in which scientists tested 198 honeys from around the world. “I always regard honey as being pure, about being healthy, about being mending” says a shocked Gloria.

“Do we need to worry about the honey we eat?”, Chris chirpily asks Prof. Goulson. Together they look at an observation hive and we hear that honey bees travel up to five miles to forage, meaning they inevitably come into contact with pesticides. It’s also explained that many UK supermarket honeys contain honey blended from several different countries, often a mix of EU and non-EU honeys. Even organic honey producers cannot guarantee their honey is pesticide-free – certainly in the UK there is no organic farm big enough to provide over a five mile radius of pesticide-free forage.

However, Dave tells us that the good news is that the levels of pesticides found in honey are small – the concentrations are low and well beneath what are deemed to be safe levels for humans (in the short term!). There are concerns about the possible long-term effects of pesticides on us – no-one really knows for sure what the effects might be. However, Dave is going to carry on eating honey – phew! Not a surprising conclusion but a reminder of the environment our bees have to contend with.

Further reading

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Fame in Cornwall Today

Over the years my blog has led to many unexpected opportunities and serendipitous meetings. This has happened yet again since moving to Cornwall – the editor of Cornwall Today came across my blog and now I feature in this month’s issue.

Emily Scott Cornwall Today Moving Story February 2018

Cornwall Today – Full PDF article

I’m hopefully getting closer to having bees again – Drew and I have been discussing the best place to keep bees in our back garden, which is a little awkwardly shaped and also north facing. He has kindly offered to build me a hive stand. The going rate locally for a nucleus hive seems to be around £200, which is a little eye-watering as I’ve never had to buy bees from a supplier in the past. When I do get them I shall be looking to do a split as soon as they create queen cells – I have no intention of buying bees more than once.

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UK bees & beekeepers infographic

Here’s a quick go I had at producing an infographic using the free infographic creation website Piktochart. I was trying to present a few figures that give a quick overview of the UK’s bees and beekeepers – without including so many that it becomes overwhelming. I found most of the numbers via the House of Commons Library debate pack – The UK bee population.

The UK bee & beekeeper infographic by Emily Scott

If you can think of ways I can improve it from a design point of view, or better figures to include, please let me know! It’s impossible to be sure of the total number of bees or indeed beekeepers here. Membership of an Association and registration on Beebase is not compulsory and it’s also possible to be a member of an Association without keeping bees.

EDIT: Based on feedback I have added some figures for the Bee Farmers’ Association and Scottish Beekeepers Association members, to make it more representative of the UK. Membership figures were taken from the latest figures available on each Association website, apart from the SBA who sent me figures directly. The Bee Farmers’ Association has a nice interactive Location map of members – it’s fascinating to see how widely spread they are.

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How many honey bees are there?

How many honey bees are there?” – an answer for Quora

I rarely answer questions on the Q&A website Quora nowadays, on account of having no spare time, but I was asked to answer this one and it got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on this. Would anyone really have counted?

Well, it turns out they have… sort of.

At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, you can download the latest 2016 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 123 countries. The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in attractive graphs for you at FAOSTAT – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,564,654 beehives in 2016.

Production of Beehives world total 1961-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives world total 1961-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

But we want to know the total number of honey bees, not just honey bee hives. Of course the number of honey bees in a hive fluctuates during the year depending on the local weather, season, available forage and the health of the colony. The species or sub-species of honey bee will also affect how many bees are in a colony. I’ve seen vastly wide ranging estimates of how many bees are in a colony, but the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) ‘Life in the hive’ information sheet says ‘In high summer about 35,000, dropping to around 5,000 in the winter’, so let’s go with that. As a very rough and un-mathematical estimate we might say around 20,000 bees could be in each colony. So 90,564,654 x 20,000, which my calculator says = 1.8112931e+12

But this number is only for bee hives that have been counted and the data supplied to the United Nations. The spreadsheet says the data is ‘Aggregate, may include official, semi-official, estimated or calculated data’. One can imagine its accuracy may vary widely from country to country! Unless anyone was clambering up every tree or chimney counting colonies, there will be many more wild colonies that have not been included. And the number of live honey bee colonies will be fluctuating all the time.

Despite the gloomy media reports about declining honey bee numbers, I hope these estimates persuade you that honey bees are not facing the same predicament as the Javan rhino (58-68 left). Indeed the long-term trend over the past half-century seems to indicate that the number of hives globally is increasing.

This trend was picked up on by Katherine Harmon in her 2009 Scientific American article Growth Industry: Honeybee Numbers Expand Worldwide as U.S. Decline Continues. She mentions an increase of 45% in domesticated honeybee populations over the 50 years of FAOSTAT data studied by researchers Marcelo A. Aizen and Lawrence D. Harder for their 2009 Current Biology journal paper (The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination). Yet despite this growth, it’s still dwarfed by the >300% increase in agricultural crops that rely on animal pollination. Aizen and Harder say, ‘The main exceptions to this global increase involve long-term declines in the USA and some European countries, but these are outweighed by rapid growth elsewhere’.

Production of Beehives: top ten producers 1961-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives: top ten producers 1961-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

We can see that over the past five years India, China and Turkey now take the top spots for bee hive stocks.

Production of Beehives: top ten producers 2012-2016

© FAO, Production of Beehives: top ten producers 2012-2016, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 05/01/18

Of course, now that I’ve attempted to answer the question it will probably turn out the questioner was asking an entirely different question. Maybe they just wanted to know the number of honey bee species there are. The first rule of answering any enquiry is to pin down what the question really is, as it often turns out to be something entirely different from what you thought. And sometimes the person asking isn’t entirely sure what they want either.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

EDIT: MerryBee left a comment below saying “Interesting article, Emily. Have you any idea while there seems to be no data on FAOSTAT for beehives in the UK after 1987?”

I’ve had a look too and found the same thing – for some reason our government no longer seems to be supplying the data to FAOSTAT. Which will make my global estimate even more inaccurate! The UK government does attempt to collect hive numbers through the National Bee Unit – according to their Hive Count page “Last year’s count indicated a total UK population of honey bee hives of approximately 223,000”.

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To bee or not to bee

I’ve not been writing lately because life has been busy – we moved into our new home in Truro (Cornwall’s only city, which the tourist board describes as ‘Our Great Little City’, presumably to lower expectations). I’m very lucky to now have my own little quiet back garden. It even has a pond – a water source for bees!

And yet I find myself in two minds about whether to bring hives here.

To bee:

  • The intoxicating sight, smell and sound of 40,000+ bees on a summer’s day
  • Physical and mental health benefits of spending time with the bees
  • Tommy can learn beekeeping too when a little older
  • Honey!

Not to bee:

  • Extra work and extra worry – potentially swarms may bother neighbours
  • Tommy might want to poke his hands in the hives
  • Could spend time gardening and building solitary bee homes instead
  • Honey bees may impact wild pollinators. Twitter users @Kath_Baldock and Patrick A.Jansen recently tweeted about Lise Ropars’ presentation at the Ecology Across Borders (EAB) 2017 conference, reporting that wild pollinator visits in urban areas decreased when honey bee hive numbers increased. I really don’t want my beekeeping to be something I do at the cost of wild pollinators.

A poster summarising Lise Ropars’ & her colleagues research is available at ‘Impact of domesticated honeybee introductions on the wild pollinating fauna in a dense urban habitat: the case of Paris

Should I carry on? Or take a break and focus on making the garden wildlife-friendly? I feel so conflicted.

Starting a new life with the help of bees

It’s certainly heart-affirming to read this story – a Syrian refugee who has found his feet in the UK through starting up a beekeeping project for fellow refugees and jobseekers here: Syrian beekeeper tastes sweet success with British honey bees. “Bees mean to me peace, mean to me safety” says Dr Ryad Alsous.

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Black bees on Countryfile – or are they?

I watched the Rame Peninsula Countryfile programme featuring British ‘black bees’ yesterday. It’s available to watch for five more days (only if you are in the UK though).

The show was keen to play up the romantic side of the Peninsula as Cornwall’s ‘forgotten corner’, a “well-kept secret best reached by boat”. They told us more than once that Mount Edgcumbe, a countryside estate in the Peninsula, was the location of Britain’s first ever reserve for the black honey bee (ahem that honour actually goes to Colonsay and Oransay – but never let a fact get in the way of a claim on TV). Mount Edgcumbe is however England’s first native honey bee reserve.

Ellie Harrison on Countryfile 10/09/17, Rame Peninsula, Cornwall

Black bees in Cornwall
The section on the black honey bees was presented by Ellie Harrison, who explained that a tiny population of these native thoroughbreds had survived in Cornwall since the ice age. Thought to be extinct in the UK by some until recently, it has been shown genetically that they still exist as a distinct sub-species of Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. According to Ellie, they are “hairier, hardier and way calmer than their continental cousins”. She talks to one of the directors of the black bee project at Edgcumbe, Nick Bentham-Green, and asks him “What’s the problem with hybridising?”, to which he replies that it makes a more aggressive bee. I’m not entirely convinced by this, having kept some incredibly sweet hybrids who would let me stroke them bare-handed like kittens. Perhaps it depends on what sub-species they are hybrids of.

B4/Plymouth university research
Nick told us more about a four year project which is underway, with researchers from Plymouth university looking at anecdotal evidence from beekeepers in the B4 group about keeping black bees. According to the beekeepers, the dark bees fly early, fly in wet conditions and don’t starve out in summer. For the first time this anecdotal evidence will be linked to genetic analysis to check how distinct black bees are in the region. See Plymouth University’s page ‘How do we protect our native bee species?‘ for more on this.

B+ for inspecting
We saw some inspections of the Edgcumbe bees being carried out by bee mentor Kathy Lovegrove and head gardener Lee Stenning. Kathy told us that she was looking for a dark queen, with dark offspring, without any gingery brown stripes from thorax to abdomen. They were also checking temperament and making sure the bees looked healthy, had food stores, eggs and larvae. The beekeepers at the Edgcumbe reserve are working to reestablish the breed, building up numbers of our native sub-species to protect them from hybridisation.

Although the bees being inspected looked dark, ironically the show kept cutting away to distinctly gingery looking bees on flowers. Many people on the British Beekeeping Association Facebook group commented that the shots of these bees were ‘library’ shots used for another programme earlier in the year.

Jo Widdicombe’s rare bees
The programme then went on to feature various other countryside topics, before returning to the black bees later (49 minutes in). This time Ellie visited Jo Widdicombe, who she described as a local ‘rare-breed farmer with a difference’, whose colonies have been found to be one of the purest strains of the dark honey bee in Cornwall. When his colonies were DNA tested, they were identified as almost 100% native black honey bees. It was these ‘genetically pure’ bees that kick-started the colonies at Mount Edgcumbe. He got one of his first sites on the Edgcumbe estate and has had them there about thirty years.

When Jo started looking at Edgcumbe bees, he realised they were quite different looking to his usual bees and had a very gentle temperament. He came across on the show as a steady and gentle man who’s doing good work to look after the bees, as well as providing an apprenticeship for a new beekeeper, Shelley Glasspool. Jo has since written a post for the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) about his experience filming for Countryfile: BIBBA Countryfile report. It sounds like a lot of the details he gave about working with the native bees got cut out unfortunately – “they just came back to their original storyline which included irrelevant facts like how long I had been beekeeping and how much honey I hope to produce”. 

What a shame that most of Jo’s footage got cut out. I don’t usually watch Countryfile but it comes across as quite a fluffy show, the One show of the nature world. I am not a scientist but would like to understand more clearly how the DNA testing for black bees works and how distinct they are as a sub-species. I know manual wing morphometry analysis is also often used to identify them as the veins within the wings of the black bees are supposed to have slightly different measurements.

Further reading

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