Watching for Asian hornets

My notes from our final talk – by Phil and Karen Green – at our Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September.

Phil is the Asian hornet co-ordinator for the WCBA (this means he co-ordinates efforts to keep the hornets out, not to encourage them in). Phil and Karen had some photos of nests from their visits to Jersey, where the hornets have taken hold – 61 nests were found there this year.

Look out for ‘yellow socks’ – the hornets are nicknamed ‘the yellow-legged hornets’.

Asian hornet

Asian hornet

Usually the nests are high up in a tree, but they have also been found low down in hedges. Between 300-500 new queens can be generated in one year by just one nest.

Asian hornet nest - Jersey

Asian hornet nest – Jersey

The hornets are very docile unless you disturb their nest. If you do disturb a nest, their sting is 6mm long. However, their stings are meant to be no greater risk to humans than bees, wasps, European hornets etc. The ladder by the hedge in the photo below marks where a nest was discovered, alongside a bowling green.

Asian hornet nest location in hedge - Jersey

Asian hornet nest’s location in hedge – Jersey

Bait stations

In the UK we can all keep an eye out for hornets by putting out a bait station and watching it. This can simply be stones or pebbles in a dish containing jam, beer, or a product called ‘Trap it’. If it’s attracting wasps, you’ve probably got it right. Don’t put a bait station near your hives.

If you are lucky (?!) enough to catch an Asian hornet, either swat it or capture it. Then the hornet can be sent to the National Bee Unit for ID’ing – but freeze first! The NBU don’t need a lot of the hornet to ID it – so don’t worry if it’s a bit flat.

What we can do

Phil and Karen had a request for the audience – that we all reach out to two groups or organisations in our local community and give them some info on the hornets. You could direct them to wcbka.org.uk/asian-hornet-action-team or print out one of the posters available from the National Bee Unit’s Beebase Asian hornet page. Below is a photo of a poster WBCA have produced.

Asian hornet poster

Asian hornet poster

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Swarming from the bees’ perspective

My notes from our second talk by Scottish bee farmer Tony Harris at Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September. I’ve read books on swarm behaviour and studied it for the BBKA’s module exams, but still Tony taught me quite a few new things!

There is “perhaps no more spectacular event in the bees’ lifetime” said Tony – I have to agree with him. This summer I was sitting on a lawn when the nearby swarm I had been planning to collect in a minute suddenly took off. Bees filled the air, before rapidly zooming over my head, disappearing over hedges into the distance. I was sad to lose them, but it was a beautiful sight.

“What’s the earliest swarm you’ve had?” Tony asked the audience. The winner was: 23rd March (this is Cornwall, remember!). According to research by swarm expert Tom Seeley, most wild colonies swarm once in spring, but 40% of those swarms will swarm again before the end of the summer. Seeley’s studies indicate that the average survival rate of wild swarms may be low, with around 80% of swarms moving into natural cavities failing to survive their first winter.

Swarming countdown

Below is a photo I took of one of Tony’s slides, showing the timings leading up to a swarm, which I thought was quite helpful. Bee maths! He showed us some videos of behaviour such as the Dorsoventral abdominal vibration (DVAV) shaking dance, which can be done up to 300 times an hour on the old queen as the first queen cell is sealed. The workers grab hold of the queen and rapidly vibrate her. As a result, her egg laying behaviour is inhibited – she’s being harassed too much to have time to lay! The DVAV dances stop a few hours before the swarm departs. The workers will also do dances on sealed queen cells – communicating with the virgin queen inside.

Swarming countdown chart

Swarming countdown chart

Composition of a swarm

  • 70% of workers less than ten days old leave with the swarm.
  • Drones make up less than 1% of the swarm population

Choosing a new home

Once the swarm leaves, they will temporarily settle in a spot (such as an inconveniently high tree – or, for some lucky beekeepers, a low bush!). The swarm sends out a small number of scout bees, who will explore an area of up to 30 square miles in their search for an ideal home. Below is one of Tony’s slides summarising what a perfect bee home looks like, based on research by Winston and Seeley & Morse. Although bees are supposed to prefer high-up locations, Tony noted that he’s had more success with bait hives placed on the ground!

Swarm site selection criteria

Swarm site selection criteria

Meanwhile the swarm hangs clustered together. They can maintain their temperature at 35C in their core and 17C for the outside bees, regardless of the ambient temperature that day. The scout bees return to the cluster and carry out waggle dances for the best location they’ve discovered. If it happens to rain, the waggle dances will be paused!

Gradually, a consensus will be reached once all the scout bees are dancing for the same location.  When that happens, the cluster will soon take off and head for their new home. If you need to buy yourself some time while you get equipment ready to collect a swarm, Tony suggested gently spraying the hanging swarm with cold water (please don’t train a hose on them!). The reason behind this is that all the bees need to warm their flight muscles up to 35C to be ready to fly.

Virgin queens

Back in the old parent colony, the first virgin to emerge from her cell will often seek out any ‘quacking’ virgins still in their cells. The quacking noise is produced by the virgins vibrating their flight muscles, pressing their thorax against the comb as they do so. The emerged virgin’s sting is long enough to reach her rival queens and kill them before they hatch.

If two virgins emerge at the same time, they may fight, using their mandibles to grasp each other. Another possibility is that a virgin will leave with a secondary ‘cast’ swarm, taking a smaller number of bees off with her.

Aren’t swarms wonderful? As long as they’re not in your chimney, of course. Below are a few photos from my 2019 summer swarms.

The third swarm

Swarm on wall closeup

Swarm on wall

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Neonicotinoid pesticides and bees

The second speaker at our annual Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference in September was Dr Ben Woodcock, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), on ‘Neonicotinoid pesticides and bees’. 

Ben is an Ecological Entomologist in the Community Ecology Group at CEH. He has a confident, loud, and extremely fast speaking style which forces you to sit up and pay attention! I had to really concentrate in the warm lecture theatre to take it all in, as though he explained his research in simple terms it’s still quite a technical subject.

He began his talk with a bit of background on how bees are doing in the UK, and why neonics may have contributed to the decline of some species. At the moment honey bees can only deliver about 34% of pollination demand in the UK, so farmers do need wild solitary and bumble bees for pollination too. There are a few species which have done really well under modern agriculture – for example, the Ashy mining bee. But there are plenty of others doing really badly.

The issue with neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) is that they stay inside the pollen and nectar of treated plants over a long period of time (but at a low concentration). Typically test studies into the toxicity of neonics are just short-term studies carried out over about ten days, whereas in real life neonics affect honey bee colonies over periods of months.

Ben mainly discussed two studies he’s worked on which investigated the effect of neonics on bees. The first was:

Impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England (Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12459.)

Ben and his fellow researchers divided 62 species of wild bees into two groups:

  • 34 known to forage on oilseed rape (OSR)
  • 28 not known to forage on OSR.

The study found that wild bee species which forage on OSR were 3x more negatively affected by neonics than non-foragers. Ben stressed that neonics are just one factor affecting bees. However, the research indicates that they add detrimental extra pressure on wild bee species.

Bumble on blackberry bramble

 

The second study Ben mentioned was one he worked on, a big pan-European study across three countries, the UK, Hungary and Germany:

Country-specific effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees and wild bees (Science 30 Jun 2017: Vol. 356, Issue 6345, pp. 1393-1395)

He acknowledged that the funding for this was controversial, as the pesticide giants Bayer and Syngenta contributed £3m towards it. To ensure that the research remained impartial, the results were peer-reviewed and all emails associated with the research were recorded.

In the study 36 farms across the three countries were each allocated to a treatment: no neonics (control), Modesto (Clothianidin) or Cruiser (Thiamethoxam) – Modesto and Cruiser are big neonic products. There was an average of 60 hectares of sown OSR surrounding the farms. Six honey bee hives, twelve buff-tailed bumble colonies and a number of red-mason bee nests were put at each site. The study looked at the resulting overwintering success, colony strength and forager mortality of the bees.

With the honey bee hives, the honey bees exposed to Clothianidin in Hungary and the UK suffered higher mortality over the following winter. The neonics appeared to have less of an effect on the German honey bees. Ben said this may be because the bees relied more on OSR in the UK and Hungary, plus the OSR happened to flower later at the German sites, so the German bees had a more varied diet. At the beginning of the study the German honey bee bee hives were also less diseased, with lower varroa levels. Whereas the UK hives sourced for the study happened to be quite small and diseased – hives in a poor environment with a lower variety of forage crops are more vulnerable to disease to begin with.

For the wild mason and bumble bees, the higher the concentration of neonics found in their nests, the more their reproductive potential (measured in new queen or egg cell numbers) declined.

Ben then went on to talk about neonic residues in honey, which he studied in Woodcock et al (2018)  ‘Neonicotinoid residues in UK honey despite European Union moratorium‘. Neonic residues were identified in the honey samples, even for honey harvested after the moratorium in 2014. However, the concentrations were typically low and the likelihood of honey containing neonicotinoid residues was higher before the moratorium than after it. There’s a National Honey Monitoring Scheme run by CEH which UK beekeepers can get involved with – donate honey and they do analysis on it to identify the mix of pollens collected by the bees. The samples are also being archived for research in the future. If you’re into Twitter you can follow the scheme at @CEH Honey.

Following the neonics ban, farmers haven’t all switched to organic methods and stopped treating their oil seed rape. Instead, they’re using pyrethroid insecticides more – but some of the main species of aphids and beetles that feed on OSR have developed pyrethroid resistance. As a result, Ben suggested that OSR may stop being an economically viable crop in some parts of the UK. Unfortunately there is no obvious big alternative crop which is bee friendly. Soya is likely to expand in the UK, but it doesn’t require insect pollination. In the future, will oil seed rape honey no longer clog up the supers of beekeepers here?

Honey bee on borage. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright.

 

 

 

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Maximising your honey crop – tips from Tony Harris

At the weekend I heard Tony Harris, a Scottish bee farmer, give two talks at the annual Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference. Here are my notes from his talk, which had plenty of jokes along with plenty of great tips.

Obviously Scotland is a looong way up from Cornwall, so Tony reckons his hives in the Moray Firth are about two months behind ours. After going up to 150 hives last summer and nearly killing himself running around after them all, this summer he’s reduced his operations down to 70 hives. He needs honey for money, so here’s his advice on how to get it.

  1. You need a plan – write it down
  2. You need the right bees – young queen, strong colony. More than 1 queen per hive helps!
  3. Rigorous management – regular inspections
  4. Swarm prevention and control (more on that later)
  5. Apiary location – know your forage! And think about the numbers of hives, not just in your apiary but locally.

Some general tips

  • Keep strong colonies – build up large colonies before the main summer flow
  • Check stores in winter
  • Replace 1/3 of your brood combs per year – consider the ‘shook swarm’ method to do all your brood combs in one go in spring
  • Cull poor queens
  • Carry out integrated pest management for varroa all season, monitor!
  • After you’ve dealt with swarming and have seen the new queen is laying, relax inspections. Let them get on with it.
  • Build up a store of drawn comb for supers. You can keep using super comb for years and years.
  • Tony doesn’t mark his queens the year they emerge, as he’s had them balled by the bees if he marks too early. Instead he waits for the following spring – easier then too, as there’s less bees in the colony come spring.

Tips for finding queen

  • Use minimal smoke
  • Do not be distracted, have a one-track mind on finding her
  • Go straight to the middle brood frames and examine the ‘dark side’ of frames first as you lift them out.
  • Last resort – use the wine method! (This would be when you phone up your best beekeeping buddy and offer them a bottle in return for them finding her majesty).

Getting foundation drawn

  • Tony does a lot of ‘chimneying’. This involves putting an empty large poly brood box full of foundation over a colony in a poly nucleus, and feeding. He will quickly have a box full of drawn out foundation.
Brood frame containing honey

Mmmm honey

Tony’s main honey crops

  • Oilseed rape (OSR) – harvest May/June
  • Main summer – harvest August
  • Ling heather – harvest September

He takes colonies to OSR in mid-April, puts three supers on at once, then goes on holiday for a week. Then comes the hard part – “If you’ve got a nice job you enjoy don’t even think about being a bee farmer”. After returning from holiday he extracts the oil seed rape honey fast, as otherwise it sets like rock extremely quickly. He will extract 10 supers a day, in 16 hour shifts. Starting in the early morning, working through to 10pm at night, having a shower, then starting again the next morning. Hot, heavy, sweaty work.

Part of the skill of being a bee farmer is keeping strong colonies, which means avoiding having swarms. Tony uses a much more proactive form of swarm control than me, which I was intrigued by. He’s found that making up nucleuses is the easiest method for him. He removes 1,2,3 or 4 frames from a colony in spring to delay its swarm preparations. He then puts foundation in the middle of the boxes the frames are taken from – as he noted, contrary to what beekeeping books will tell you!

The removed frames are used to make up 5-frame nucs: 2 frames of honey/pollen, at both ends, 2 frames of eggs/larvae, 1 frame foundation, plus bees shaken in. So instead of waiting for queen cells like I do, he effectively forces the bees into an early swarm, making their new queens in the nuc instead. I’m interested in trying this out, as what with work, a young family and having my bees at an out-apiary, it can be challenging keeping up with all the swarms down here!

My next blog post will be notes from Dr Ben Woodcock’s talk on “Neonicotinoid pesticides and bees”.

Frame of honey

A frame of honey, back in London a few years ago.

Posted in Colony management, Events, Honey, Swarms | 19 Comments

August bee update

My beekeeping activity is winding down now for the year. The threat of swarms has passed and my focus is now on getting them ready for winter. My Nessa hive seemed to lose Queen Nessa sometime in July, so I combined them with Queen Kensa’s hive using the traditional newspaper trick. Thankfully the resulting multi-storey hive didn’t break Drew’s home-made hive stand.

Meanwhile, my poly nuc colony (which I have named Demelza to continue my Cornish names theme), have been moved into a full-size poly hive. My reason for choosing a poly hive was a combination of economics and practicality: 1.) they’re a lot cheaper 2.) no hammering is required to put them together. They just need a coat of paint – I don’t know how I missed that corner! The downside is that you can’t sterilise them with a good blowtorching.

Demelza poly hive

Demelza poly hive

I’ve taken a small amount of honey from Kensa (3 frames), the rest is being left for the bees. As I don’t want to buy an extractor, and borrowing one through my local association feels like extra work, I’m going for a crush-and-strain method. I’m using muslin as a filter, supported by a colander steamer, so we’ll see how well that works.

The first step of my winter prep is treating against varroa mites, I like to do this in late August/early September. My usual autumn treatment is Apiguard, which is nice and easy. This year I’ve been trying out Api Life Var, as our local bee inspector recommends alternating thymol treatments each year. So far I’m not getting on that well with it, the wafers are so crumbly and have to be changed each week. I’ve also just read that Api Life Var shouldn’t be used with poly hives as it can melt them… oops.

Below is a little gallery of some of the flowers out in the late Cornish summer. Sedums, michaelmas daisies, sweetpeas and herbs like mint and oregano are in bloom. Just this week I’ve heard the modest pale-green flowers of ivy surrounded by buzzing. Blackberry is long over; it’s now time to pick the berries and apples in the garden. It’s officially apple crumble season – a very satisfying time of year. What’s flowering where you are?

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US and UK honey bee colony survival rates

I saw some new data come out recently on US and UK overwintering rates so thought I would take a look at it. It’s probably impossible to compare the two countries though, because the climate, diseases and scale of commercial beekeeping are so different. In the UK most beekeepers are hobbyists and colony collapse disorder isn’t even officially recognised as a problem. But beekeepers in both regions do share a common no.1 enemy – varroa.

Based on the data, it sounds like honey bees aren’t doing too badly – probably the bees we really need to worry about are the ones that we’re not counting, the bumbles and tiny solitary bees that go unnoticed by most people.

US survival rates

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) began collecting data on honey bee health and pollination costs in 2016, “to build an even more robust scientific body of knowledge on honey bees“.  Sadly the data collection had barely begun before the USDA announced this year that it’s being suspended.

Still, you can see the reports for 2016-2019 at Honey Bee Colonies releases. Perhaps one day the value of science and data will be appreciated again and the surveys will continue to be collected once more. The 2019 survey data, published 1st August 2019, tells us that:

  • Honey bee colonies for operations with five or more colonies in the United States on January 1, 2019 totaled 2.67 million colonies, up 1% from January 1, 2018.
  • Honey bee colonies lost for operations with five or more colonies from January through March 2019, was 408 thousand colonies, or 15%.
  • During the quarter of October through December 2018, colonies lost totaled 445 thousand colonies, or 16%, the highest number lost of any quarter in 2018.
  • Honey bee colonies lost with Colony Collapse Disorder symptoms on operations with five or more colonies was 59.9 thousand colonies from January through March 2019. This is a 26% decrease from the same quarter of 2018.

  • For an interesting perspective on the USDA cancelling the honey bee tracking survey, and easy tips on what you personally can do to help bees, see ‘USDA discontinues honey bee tracking‘ by the husband & wife blogging team Married with bees.

Survival rates for England, Scotland, Wales, Channel Isles, Isle of Man and Northern Ireland

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) have released data for the winter of 2018-19 in their monthly magazine and a June 2019 press release, ‘Record low level of winter losses of honeybees‘. The data comes from a voluntary online survey completed by 5581 members.

The BBKA says:

“The overall winter survival rate was 91.5% or 8.5% losses. In England the rate was 91% survival with 9% losses, in Scotland 79% survival with 21% losses, Wales 94.3% survival with 5.7% losses and in the Channel Isles, Isle of Man and Northern Ireland survival rates were all above 98% so losses of less than 2% in those places.”

We’re doing well! As we’re quite a small country, most beekeepers are pretty near another beekeeper, which means there is usually someone not too far away to provide advice. And we have our fantastic National Bee Unit inspectors too, who will come out to see hives if a notifiable disease like American or European foul brood is suspected, as well as running Bee Health Day workshops to train beekeepers on spotting diseases. I wonder how much this good training and support network contributes to the high overwinter survival rate.

Below are some of the English stats, from their BBKA News magazine.

BBKA Annual overwinter survival rates in England
BBKA Annual overwinter survival rates in England by region

Lego characters: Librarian, IT geek and Beegirl. Just because.

Posted in beekeeping, Uncategorized | Tagged | 19 Comments

Bees, bees everywhere

It was a hot summer’s evening. I stuck my head out of our attic window and looked down the hill over Truro as the sun came down. The cathedral spire in the distance, pastel pink, blue and cream rhododendrons in the garden opposite. Seagulls swooshed through the sky and the blackbirds sang goodnight.

I turned my head to the right and a familiar silhouette caught my eye. It landed on the chimney, dark against the sky. First one, then another, then another. Not just one honey bee out alone. A colony. An entrance.

My eyes travelled down the chimney pot and my mind travelled back to Drew telling me our wood fired burner had stopped working – he thought there seemed to be some kind of blockage in the chimney. He had tried to look up there, but couldn’t see anything.

The bees continued to land, buffeted about by the rooftop wind as they returned home. The colony look strong. Did they know this was a beekeeper’s house?

Since discovering the bees I have been trying to think about what I can do to persuade them to leave the chimney. Even if I could safely get up on the roof, I suspect they will be inside a cavity only bees can reach. There was a post by a beekeeper on the British and Irish Beekeepers group who had done a chimney removal – as well as being a beekeeper, he also happened to have “qualifications in working at height, PASMA, CSCS, Asbestos trained…a MEWPS licence…Gas Acop Certified”. I don’t even know what most of those qualifications are, but I know I don’t have them!

Having read more, I do know that we should definitely not start a fire underneath. That can be dangerous and cause a flash fire, as all the honey and wax will melt and run down.

I think the best solution is leaving the bees up there, as I expect without varroa treatment the colony will not keep on going indefinitely. Then we can have a look at removing the comb, so that new swarms are not attracted to it. If anyone has any other suggestions, please do let me know!

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