‘Neonics: everything you need to know’ infographic

I’ve been in contact with an outdoor shelters company called Sun Leisure, who designed the infographic below and asked if I would share it. The graphic originally featured some US stats on honey bees – I gave feedback suggesting that stats on bumbles and other bee species should be included too.

To my surprise, they have been incredibly willing to listen to feedback and do further research, the outcome being that Chris at Sun Leisure updated the infographic stats. You can see an interactive version of the infographic at sun-leisure.com/blog/neonics-bees-infographic – I’m sure they would be interested to hear what you think. If you ask they might also reveal why an outdoor shelters company is creating bee themed infographics!

I also recommend reading Philip Strange’s recent blog post ‘Perfect poisons for pollinators‘, which highlights the results of Dave Goulson’s research into whether flowering plants sold in UK garden centres have been treated with chemicals which are actually toxic to bees. Unfortunately the results were not good, but at least as a result of the research B&Q have announced they will be going neonics-free (but not necessarily free of other bee-toxic chemicals) from February 2018.

What are neonics? infographic
Copyright Sun Leisure 2017

 

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Our bees surprise us again

It had been roughly a month since queen cells hatched in our three hives. Emma had seen big new queens in all our hives – so far, so good. Two of the queens were happily laying away – great. Yet there was still no sign of eggs or brood in Patience’s old hive. We asked a couple of more experienced beekeepers whether a virgin queen could appear as large as a mated queen. The answer may surprise you – yes they can! David Evans, writer of the brilliant The Apiarist blog, told me “I’ve seen some teeny tiny mated and very successful queens and some great big bloated virgins”.

So we knew that the large ginger queen Emma had seen may not have been mated. As we were going through the colony there was no signs of eggs or brood. On the other hand, there were no laying workers and the bees were in a good mood. But the colony was getting smaller and had few stores. We were talking about either trying a test frame from one of our other hives to see if the bees would try and raise another queen, or recombining with another colony to save time, when I saw what we were looking for. A queen! A beautiful fairly dark queen, not the same ginger queen Emma had originally seen. And then Emma saw something fantastic – she had an egg coming out of her bottom! As we watched, she began to lay.

Seeing this lovely sight reminded me that jumping to conclusions in beekeeping is a bad idea. Sometimes you get an idea in your mind about something and you ignore the evidence pointing the other way. I was thinking the colony was queenless because it seemed like the new queen should have been laying by now, but I should have taken a lesson from its old queen Patience. I was ignoring the other signs that the colony was queen-right – the lack of laying workers, the good temper of the bees.

We looked through the other two hives and found plenty of brood and stores. Below is a beautiful frame of capped honey. England is having a crazy heatwave so the bees are having a good time. We need some rain though as I’m not sure how much nectar the plants can produce in such dry, hot weather.

Frame of honey

Emma has come up with some lovely new names for our queens. The queen in the hive which was ruled by Hope is Everlasting, as we’ve had that line of queens since 2008. The nucleus hive which we split half Hope’s colony into when we found queen cells is now headed up by Angelica, as our bees are always angelic. And our other hive, which Patience was once the queen of, has Rose-Jasmine (RJ). Welcome to our three new queens!

Below are a couple of wasps nests in an empty hive. Wasps are not a beekeepers’ friend come autumn, but they create such beautiful intricate constructions.

Wasp nests

The bees in some of the apiary hives are producing a beautiful dark honey which you can see John Chapple holding below. He thought it might be hogweed. There are also plenty of horse chestnut trees round the apiary.

John with honey - possibly hogweed

John with a honey frame – possibly hogweed

And here’s a special rose I saw a honey bee enjoying in the spectacular gardens at Winston Churchill’s house, Chartwell in Kent. It’s called ‘Rosa Masquerade’ and the sign said that its buds ‘unfurl a delicate shade of yellow, mature through soft pink to deep raspberry’.

White and red clover are out now. A lot of the clover is wilting in the heat but where the flowers are coping you can always see bees visiting them.

And finally… I know that a lot of beekeepers are very attached to their sheds. Well, Waltons are running their prestigious 2017 Shed of the Year contest. You can check out the previous winners’ sheds and find out how to enter at https://www.waltons.co.uk/blog/enter-your-shed-into-the-2017-shed-of-the-year-competition. One of the 2016 winners has a whole ‘shed village’ at the bottom of their garden which includes a mini theatre, pub and railway station!

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The life swap adventure

I keep coming across bees in unexpected places.

Amongst the sadness of recent events here in the UK, a happy reference to bees came up in the BBC’s new show ‘The Life Swap Adventure‘ – available for UK viewers to watch for the next 20 days.

George, a farmer from Malawi, swopped lives for a week with John, a fire officer from Essex (South-East England). George was hoping to find a way to make his farm more financially sustainable, to provide a future for his family. Meanwhile John was hoping to escape his workaholic routine and find the good life.

Luckily, on his visit to England George discovers a potential solution to his financial hardships – beekeeping! He goes on a road trip with John’s wife Cheryl to visit a Derbyshire bee farm, Troway Hall (46 minutes in, if anyone wants to fast forward through in iPlayer).

Upon seeing the bee farm owner, I wondered if the programme’s producers had wanted George to meet the most colourful beekeeper in England. Glorious Gloria Havenhand has a blonde perm and style that reminded me of Eastenders pub landlady Peggy Mitchell. Full of charm and bounce, she shows George her 70 beehives, instructing him: “Bees don’t like loud noises. A beekeeper who is noisy will never make a good beekeeper. Keep your voice down!”. After seeing the bees, George says “This has been one of the precious moments in my life”.

The voiceover informs us that there are an estimated 10,000 hives in Malawi, mostly owned by small scale farmers. 120 tonnes of honey is currently imported annually to Malawi to meet demand – so there is room for growth.

At the end of the show we hear that George is continuing to farm, to raise money for his new beekeeping enterprise. We can all help farmers like George by donating to the beekeeping charity Bees for Development, which supports beekeepers in developing countries. I hope George succeeds and together with his son Sam can build a business which is less of a daily struggle.

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Book review – Bad Beekeeping by Ron Miksha (2004)

Ron is the author of the excellent Bad Beekeeping blog, which has recently been selected by Beesker as “the world’s very best website on bees and beekeeping”.

Bad Beekeeping by Ron Miksha – available on Amazon

Bad Beekeeping is no ordinary beekeeping book. Instead it’s a memoir of Ron’s time as a commercial beekeeper, spending his summers in Canada, winters in the US and endless time driving between the two. He has an impressive memory, supplemented by photos and diaries from the time, which really brings the reader along with his journey.

I knew there was a huge chasm between being a hobby and a commercial beekeeper, but Ron’s book really rammed that home. Commercial beekeeping as Ron did it sounds incredibly hard. In my household, we know how much money will come in each month. Unless the worst happens and we both lose our jobs, it’s a reliable, stable figure. So too are our expenses. But when Ron was a commercial beekeeper, he was living on a financial knife edge. An almost infinite amount of factors could affect his income and expenses – bee diseases, weather, honey prices, even government border control policy. You might well ponder why our society puts so little value on the work of the people who provide our food.

Ron Miksha making nucs

Ron Miksha making nucs (photo from https://badbeekeepingblog.com)

Not only that, but the summer working hours are endless. Hot, sweaty hard labour with the bees and dangerous amounts of time spent driving hives through the night from one state or even one country to another. If you think your job is tough, you should read this book. There are some amusing stories along the way too. I enjoyed the one about Ron spending an hour late on one Friday afternoon trying to find a renegade queen, only for his beekeeper brother David to drop by and tell him her majesty was sitting on Ron’s hat.

“That spring, I had driven eleven thousand miles in twenty-eight days…I followed a similar routine for ten years.” – Ron Miksha, Bad Beekeeping, p.147

Once you’ve read the book, you might wonder why Ron or indeed anyone does commercial beekeeping. But I think all of us beekeepers have an idea deep down. It’s something to do with the smell of the hives on a summer’s day, all sweet and heady from the nectar flowing in. Something to do with the humming of the bees and the feel of their feet on your hands. If you have the bee bug, you understand.

It takes a little while to get used to the gentle pace, meandering storyline and sheer amount of detail contained in Bad Beekeeping, but I found myself sucked in by its charms. Ron meets a lot of characters in Saskatchewan, his part of rural Canada, and you find yourself rooting for him as he desperately tries to make money from honey.

See also:

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Pollen, nosema and the case of three missing queens

This Saturday Tom ran a nosema IDing demo at the apiary. He had a microscope attached to his laptop so that he could show us what he was seeing on the screen and even take photos. After finding zero nosema in two samples, including one from a small colony that was being slow to build up, he finally hit the jackpot in a third sample and was able to show us the small rice-like cells of nosema.

Thomas dissecting bees

 

Above you can see Tom diligently removing the heads, as just the abdomens are needed for the sample. The abdomens are then ground up using a pestle and mortar and placed on a slide with a drop of water. The water makes the nosema cells appear to swim but that is just the movement of the water on the slide!

Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae are extremely common spore-producing fungus parasites that live inside a honey bee’s gut. Nosema spores enter via the mouth parts of a bee as she feeds or cleans and travel into her mid-gut, where they invade her digestive cells. The spores germinate and feed happily away on the content of these cells, rapidly multiplying by cell division until the gut contains 30-50 million nosema spores once the infection is fully developed. As you might expect, this significantly shortens the bee’s lifespan (sources disagree on how much, with various books/websites quoting 50%, 10-50% and up to 78% – the earlier the bee picks up the spores, the more dramatically its lifespan is likely to be shortened).

Nosema apis

Nosema apis under microscope x1000. Crown copyright 2017

Tom checking out a sample.

Thomas looking in the microscope

As well as spotting nosema Tom also found a bee hair – isn’t it beautiful? It reminded us of a tree.

Bee hair - photo by Thomas Bickerdike

Bee hair – photo by Thomas Bickerdike

And lots of pollen. I wanted to try and ID the pollens using a book I own – or at least I used to own – but now I can’t find it. It was ‘The pollen grain drawings of Dorothy Hodges’ (IBRA, 2009), which I used to draw the pollens in my 2015 post ‘An evening spent peering at sexual material‘. Perhaps I lent it to someone, or maybe I’ll discover it hiding somewhere. Anyway, if any palynologists out there can identify these, that would be great. Is the small round one forget-me-not?

EDIT: Biologist and fantastic blogger Standingoutinmyfield has commented “Unfortunately, most of those pollen grains are damaged, so will be impossible to identify. This can happen when the osmotic balance of the solution is too high or low…probably if you used pure water, the pollen grains swelled until they exploded. However, I can tell you forget me not pollen is the smallest pollen known to man, at just 2 microns. It’s not round, though, it’s shaped like little dumbbells.”

As for the three missing queens, well unfortunately Emma and I appear to have mislaid them. We did a split on Hope’s hive on Saturday 6th May as it contained queen cells, but it’s possible the colony had already swarmed as the cells were sealed and there was no sign of Hope herself.  Emma also donated some queen cells from Hope’s hive to our other hive, Patience, as there was no sign of Queen Patience and the colony was grumpy.

When we checked on Sunday 14th May, the queen cells were hatched but there was no sign of any eggs yet – probably too early. That was still the case when I visited on Saturday 20th May. So we wait, and hope, for eggs. The virgin queens must successfully mate in the sky and return safely to their hives. It is a perilous and weather-dependent business. We have had a lot of cold days and some rain lately but I have my fingers crossed that surely at least one colony will reward us with a laying queen soon!

I’ll end with some photos of bees and birthday cakes – it was my birthday recently. It happens to be May 20th; the Slovenians are my new favourite nation as they have named May 20th World Bee Day. What better present could a beekeeper ask for?!

Birthday chocolate cake

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Plant flowers, save the bees!

I’m as busy as a summer bee lately, but squeezed in some time to write a guest blog post for London based organic kids clothing company Little Green Radicals. They wanted to know about my experience with bees and how the environment is affecting them. Here it is…

Little Green Radicals - Cornish copper print

The Little Green Radicals Cornish copper print. “Wander through hedgerows full of Cornish Copper flowers”

“You may have heard that bees are not doing so well lately. But which bees? When you imagine a bee, you might think of a busy honey bee hard at work in a hive. Or perhaps of a fuzzy, furry bumble bee, gently buzzing its way through a wildflower meadow.

In reality though, the European honey bee Apis mellifera, which I and thousands of other British beekeepers keep, is not endangered.  Neither is the craft of beekeeping – members of the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) have soared from 8,463 members in 2003 to just under 25,000 members in 2016.  We are a lively community, passionate about our bees and the environment they live in….”

Read the rest of the post at littlegreenradicals.co.uk/save-the-bees

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Springwatch in Japan – with honey bees

If you didn’t catch Springwatch in Japan: Cherry Blossom Time recently, you can still watch it on catch-up for the next 25 days (available in the UK only sorry). Lots of exquisite pink cherry blossom and also some roof-top honey bees living in Tokyo. For those of you unable to watch it, I took some notes.

Notes from the programme

In Japan cherry blossom is known as ‘Sakura’. The flowers open at between 17-20°C, with the Sakura bloom starting this year in southern Japan on 14th January and predicted to finish in northern Japan on 9th May. The dates change slightly every year according to the weather. There is a 14 day cycle from the buds opening to becoming petals on the ground.

Springwatch in Japan

The Springwatch team and their clashing jackets.

A festival of clones

Trees nearby to another will reliably flower simultaneously because Japan’s most popular cherry tree, bred for its beautiful blooms, is actually a hybrid clone made by grafting. The male and female flowers are not sexually compatible and so can’t reproduce by themselves.  This sounds worryingly similar to the conditions under which the genetically identical potatoes of Ireland were hit by blight, but at least people are not dependent on the cherry tree for food.

The Japanese – and many other people too – are enchanted by the cherry tree’s pink blossom. Hanami time is poetically referred to in Japan as ‘The awakening of the creatures’.

“In Japan, cherry blossom symbolises clouds, and is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life. The country is known for its annual cherry blossom festival Hanami, which has its roots in the 5th Century.” – Anna-Louise Taylor and Ben Aviss, BBC Nature – What is Britain’s best blossom?

For a programme which is usually about nature, the show went surprisingly off-piste and looked at the human activities that accompany the cultural phenomenon of the Hanami festival. The lucky presenters got to eat all sorts of delicately presented and beautifully wrapped Sakura flavoured treats. We saw Kate Humble eating a white pizza in a cafe, which she drizzled with an unusual accompaniment – sakura honey.

In the built-up glitzy shopping district of Ginza, beekeeper Mr Tanaka keeps his five rooftop hives 11 stories up. He keeps European honey bees as they produce more honey, including the precious sakura honey. “Happy birthday!” he gently says to a newly emerged fuzzy young bee. When asked how he knows it’s sakura nectar the bees are bringing back, he tells Kate he can smell its floral scent in the hive.

There’s a predator about unfortunately – the Japanese giant hornet can kill up to 40 honey bees a minute. Asian bees have learned to protect themselves by balling the hornets, simultaneously cooking and suffocating them. It is rare for European bees to protect themselves this way, so Mr Tanaka has a wire mesh cage round the hive to keep the hornets out.

“The bee connects humans to nature and, not only that, but people to people” – Mr Tanaka of ‘Ginpachi’

See also…

Harvest mouse in cherry blossom

Harvest mouse in cherry blossom – Credit: Lesley Gooding
“Cherry blossom is a joyful sight in spring, which lifts the spirits,” says Lesley.

 

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