I subscribe to the Innocent Smoothie newsletter, and noticed that they had a blog competition recently to win an afternoon cream tea and look in a hive with a beekeeper, Tim. To enter the contest, members of the public were asked to leave a blog comment answering three questions, one of which was “What is the one thing you’d like to ask Tim the beekeeper?” A winner was then chosen based on the answers.
I was pleased to see how many members of the public were interested in meeting Tim (and having tea of course!) and found it fascinating to find out what people want to find out about bees. Now that I have learnt a little about bees it is easy to forget what it’s like to know even less about them!
I decided to try and answer a few of these queries here, as they are probably a good representation of what the general tea drinking public are curious about. So here goes.
Q: How do prolonged periods of rain affect bees?
A: Long periods of rain in the summer may prevent bees being able to forage and virgin queens being able to make mating flights. On the up-side, flowers rely on rain to be able to produce nectar.
Q: What are the best things we can do to support the bee population?
A: Plant bee-friendly flowers in your garden. Bees are colour-blind to red, so red flowers are unlikely to be appreciated (unless they appear ultra-violet, which bees do see, e.g. poppies). Blue and purple flowers tend to be popular – lavender, borage, heather. Herbs are also well-visited and have the bonus of being sweet smelling and good for your cooking, e.g. rosemary, marjoram, mints, chives, thyme. If you have a tiny garden or even just a windowsill, herbs are ideal for growing in pots.
The flowers chosen should be planted in clumps by type, not singly or in twos, and in a sunny spot of the garden as much as possible. Bees often overlook flowers growing in shade, even though they produce nectar and pollen. Something else to bear in mind is planting flowers which bloom during varying times of the year. Planting early flowers – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils – which help get the hive going in the spring or late flowers – buddleia, heathers, ivy, Michelmas daisies – which provide a final boost to honey stores is of great help.
If you are really lucky and have enough space to plant trees in your garden, lime trees are a major source of forage for bees here in London and make fabulous honey.
Bees also need a place to drink from and collect water to cool the hive on a hot day. A pond, bird bath or shallow source of water with pebbles in to prevent the bees drowning would help.
Finally, why not support your local beekeeper and buy honey straight from the producer? Amateur honeys can be superior to those in supermarkets which tend to be blended together using honey from multiple hives or even countries, obscuring the delicate individual taste of each original honey. In Ealing local beekeepers sell their honey at the apiary on the junction of Stockdove Way and Argyle Road, in Perivale between 2-5pm most Saturdays of the year (depending on how terrible the weather is and what’s on that day). Visiting directions here.
Q. What happens to all the bees in Winter?
Honey bees live longer during the winter; worker bees flying all over the place in the summer live around six weeks compared to several months in the winter. The queen and a reduced colony of around 10,000 workers will over-winter together, the workers huddling in a tight ball around the queen and vibrating their muscles to stay warm. They feed on their honey stores and leave the hive only for cleansing (pooing) flights. The beekeeper opens the hive only to administer anti-varroa treatments or feed candy.
Bumblebee colonies do not over-winter; only the queen hibernates and starts a new colony in the spring. Worker bumblebees die out in the autumn.
Q: Why do I now see many huge bees in the garden and few ‘normal’ size ones?
A: By ‘huge’ bees, this commenter probably means the big furry bumblebees, and by ‘normal’ they mean honeybees or even solitary bees. Many wild colonies of honeybees are believed to have died out in the UK due to the pressure of living with the recently introduced varroa mite. It is also possible that the larger, slower flying bumblebees with their black banded down are more noticeable than the nippy honeybees.
Q: Is every bee different in appearance and is it possible to determine certain characters when working with them like you do?
A:All honey-bees in a colony are at least half-sisters (unless a new queen has just superseded an old queen). However, a queen bee mates with multiple drones, so they may have several different fathers. Although worker bees tend to look very similar there can therefore be colour variations from ginger to light brown within a hive. Is it possible to determine certain characters? Among 50,000 pretty identical worker bees? No way! Colonies as a whole do have a ‘hive personality’ or mood though, and particular colonies soon get a reputation on the apiary if they are especially mardy.
Q: Could we pollinate flowers without bees/wasps?
A: Yes, and some poor farmers in China’s Sichuan province are having to do just that for their pear trees since over-use of pesticides caused the local bees there to die out. Surprisingly enough, a person climbing up on a ladder with a feather brush does not rival a bee for efficiency of pollination.
Edit: 20/08/10 – I see Tim has since answered all the blog questions, his replies can be found here: Meet the beekeeper.