What’s flowering now: late March/early April – a bee update – and an oil beetle

By now I think I can tentatively say both my hives – Kensa and Nessa – have survived winter. Over the past couple of weeks my priority has changed from getting the bees through the cold months to being on the alert for swarming!

On Tuesday I popped down to try to check inside the hives and sort a few things out. But the Cornish weather just wasn’t playing ball. The sun would come out while I was getting my smoker going, only for a downpour of hailstones just as I was trying to inspect. The belligerent rain defeated me and I retreated inside with only my Kensa hive peeked at. At least I managed to quickly confirm that Kensa is laying and both colonies have begun to draw out the supers of foundation I put on at the weekend.

We did have some sunshine for Mothers Day luckily. Drew took Tommy and I to Glendurgan Gardens in Cornwall. As Drew ran energetically round the maze there with an ecstatic Tommy bouncing on his shoulders, I had a look at a spectacular bank of wildflowers and was rewarded by an unexpected sight. A large hole had been dug in the surface of the bank and the occupant was coming slowly out. At first I couldn’t work out if I was seeing its front or back – the creature looked almost like a tiny black mole with a wiggling blue nose. Then its face emerged and I realised I was looking at a rather pretty large black beetle with a blue sheen to its front legs.  I took a video and uploaded it to YouTube: Black Oil beetle at Glendurgan gardens, Cornwall

Back at home, I joined a Facebook group for British beetles (or for people into British beetles, I expect beetles have better things to do than go on Facebook). Some kind people on this group quickly identified it as a oil beetle, which they explained rely on solitary mining bees to complete their life cycles. The beetle I saw was a female Black oil beetle laying her eggs. After her larvae hatch they will climb up a suitable flower and jump on a solitary bee, riding back to its nest.

Once inside the bee’s nest, the larva disembarks and begins to feed on the bee’s eggs and her carefully gathered store of pollen and nectar. The larva develops in the bee burrow until it emerges as an adult oil beetle ready to mate and start the whole cycle again. Like solitary bees, these rather special sneaky beetles are becoming rarer in the UK due to loss of their habitat.

Having enough wildflowers is so important for our wildlife. The charity Buglife have an information sheet on oil beetles which says that the adult black oil beetles prefer Lesser celandine and soft grasses as food plants, but Dandelion and Buttercups may also be important.

Here are a few photos I’ve taken over the last couple of weeks of the flowers around Cornwall:

Spanish bluebells and forget-me-nots have now turned my garden blue. Our pale pink cherry tree has come out and our two mini apple trees have dark pink buds. Lots of dandelions, still a profusion of primroses – I don’t remember seeing so many primroses anywhere else I’ve lived before Cornwall. I love seeing all the different flowers coming out as the year goes on. This week I bought some sunflower and borage seeds – to plant when the rain stops!

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A day in the life of a beekeeper

The children’s clothes company JoJo Maman Bebe contacted me recently and asked me to write a post about ‘The day in the Life of a Beekeeper‘ – so here it is! A day in the life of a very small-scale and winging-it hobby beekeeper, that is.

I actually did some intense beekeeping prep earlier in the week, by banging together a whopping eleven frames and organising my beekeeping shed. As usual this took far longer than it should have done.  Most of the time taken seemed to involve gingerly rooting around in the spider infested shed trying to find the hammer, nails, foundation and frame parts.

Old foundation/new foundation

Above is a photo of old and new wax foundation. The old foundation has been sitting around unused too long and has gone all brown and brittle so is probably unusable now. The nice new yellow foundation on top was bought this year.

Finished frames

And here’s the finished frames. After a decade of frame making I must be improving slightly as this was the first time I didn’t bang a nail in wonky and have to pull it out.

Cornwall has been blasted by storms recently which have been battering the poor garden, so I was relieved when we got a break from the rain most of the day on Tuesday. The foxgloves and lambs-ear seem to be thriving in the wet. A queen buff-tailed bumblebee spent some time investigating a hole in a little stone wall in the garden but decided against it as a nest site. Probably too small to hold a nest! Her buzz was so loud that I heard it from several feet away.

My next beekeeping job is to paint my new nuc that I bought in the winter sales. I will then have two spare nuc boxes ready if my two existing colonies, Kensa and Nessa, want to try swarming.

I’m hoping to start selling over-wintered nucleuses after next winter (at a reasonable price), to try and make some money back from beekeeping. This seems to me a preferable way of making a small profit compared to the sticky job of extracting honey, jarring it up, labelling it and finding a buyer for it. To sell honey you need to buy or borrow rather a lot of equipment: an extractor, uncapping fork, jars, labels. To sell nucs you just need a nucleus and some healthy bees, so the focus is on the bees, which are my favourite part of beekeeping. That’s the plan anyway!

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What’s flowering now: late February

This week the UK has been enjoying warm air from Africa and the Canary Islands coming our way – I even felt toasty enough today to happily sit outside eating lunch and walk around without a coat on. A record winter temperature of 21.2°C was recorded in Kew Gardens (west London). So our flowers are out early too – but are there enough to feed all the bumblebees which have come out of hibernation?

Here’s a few of the flowers out in Cornwall now.

Yellow flowers –

Good old dandelions and daffodils

Purple flowers –

The little light purple star flower below grows everywhere in my garden. Anyone know what it’s called?

Pinky purple flowers –

At the weekend Drew and I have been doing a little work in the garden, with some great help with weeding/toddler distracting from Drew’s family. Drew and his niece Bella planted the purple scabious, which is meant to be a bee-friendly plant. I’m not sure what the pink blossom on the right is, a fruit tree?

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Eden project bee exhibition – and a bee update

Last weekend we sheltered from the lashing rain under the Eden project’s enormous biomes. I had been drawn there by the current exhibition on bees. A set of three hives are placed in a prominent position up on a hill as you approach Eden – with a sign asking people to keep their distance!

The bee exhibition was a mix of paintings and sculptures by Kurt Jackson, plus a immersive interactive artwork by Wolfgang Buttress and magnified closeup photos of honey bee body parts.

The art work is gorgeous, as you can see. I would have liked to take more photos of Kurt Jackson’s atmospheric beekeeper paintings, but most of his work was behind glass, which makes for bad photos.

Wolfgang Buttress is well known for his artwork ‘The Hive‘ at Kew Gardens. ‘Reverie’ is on a much smaller scale but I appreciated the scents of the bee friendly plants, accompanied by the sounds of the Eden colonies. A little seat was included in the middle so that you could sit and imagine yourself amongst the bees on a beautiful summer’s day (while outside torrential rain and gales battered Eden’s biomes).

There was some information on the native dark honey bee as Cornwall is meant to be a stronghold of this subspecies. In 2019 the Eden Project is going to become the third dark honey bee reserve in the county (or Duchy as some locals prefer to call it!).

Conserving the native dark honey bee info

Conserving the native dark honey bee

We spent an action packed day playing with Tommy – Eden has lots to do with small children. He was enchanted by the birds darting among the biomes. A few tantrums were also had, for instance he took against the many ants in the tropical biome and panicked when some got on him. He has also started disliking getting his shoes muddy. I try to encourage him to play outside and not worry about mud, so I hope he’ll grow out of it.

Eden had one final – but gigantic – bee for us as we left.

Giant honey bee at Eden


Bee update

Nature doesn’t slow down for long during a Cornish winter, so already we have multiple clusters of frogspawn jelly in our pond and vibrant yellow daffodils mixed in with snowdrops, primroses and crocuses.

Hives surrounded by flowers

I’ll probably remove my mouseguards and woodpecker protection in the last week of February/first week of March. The bees were still alive and inquisitively buzzing last time I checked on Saturday, busy high up in the brood boxes eating their fondant.

Swarm season always comes as a surprise to me. Although I’ve tried to be more prepared than usual by buying in the winter sales, no doubt all of a sudden frames will need to be made up and my new nucleus hives painted.

In the human world I’ve been helping my local association keep their website up-to-date and answering email enquiries. We’ve had a couple of enquiries recently from people looking to buy wax to make beeswax wraps and cosmetics. Beeswax wraps have really taken off and I can think of at least three different shops in Truro which are selling them now.

Also someone wanting honey from apiaries meeting ‘ethical’ specifications such as using no varroa treatments, no queen excluders, no feeding of sugar and completely unfiltered honey.

Sometimes people are looking to start businesses using local bee products but have quite strict limitations about what they require, and I do wonder if they’re likely to find chemical-free beekeepers (for example) who can supply honey or wax in large enough quantities. Anyway, it’s interesting hearing from members of the public and hopefully we can encourage new beekeepers or people wanting to help bees.

Pink primroses

Pink primroses

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How many honey bees are there? A 2019 update.

A year ago I wrote a post titled ‘How many honey bees are there?‘, after a question on Quora got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on worldwide honey bee numbers. 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 now download the latest 2017 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 125 countries (though not my own country, the UK!). The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in interactive attractive graphs for you in the Visualize data section – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,999,730 hives (up slightly from 90,564,654 hives in 2016).

© FAO, Production of Beehives world total 1961-2017, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 14/01/19

So the long-term global trend since 1961 is that the number of honey bee colonies has gone up. There have been long-term decreases in the US and some European countries, but these have been made up for by increases elsewhere in the world. More on this later.

That’s the number of hives, but how many bees are there?

So, 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. Bearing this in mind, I’ve read vastly wide ranging estimates of how many bees are in a colony; but the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) About bees web section says ‘Typical maximum population is 35,000-50,000’, so let’s go with that.

Allowing for weaker colonies and winter reductions in numbers, as a total guess/very rough and un-mathematical estimate we might say an average of around 20,000 bees could be in each colony.

So we could estimate a total number of honey bees of 90,564,654 x 20,000, which my calculator says = 1.8199946e+12 ! Let’s round that up to two trillion.

However, this number is only for bee hives that have been counted and the data supplied to the United Nations – so it’s likely to refer to colonies being managed by beekeepers. The spreadsheet says the data is ‘Aggregate, may include official, semi-official, estimated or calculated data’. Unless someone out there was clambering up every tree or chimney counting every colony in the land, 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 poor 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.

Honey bee numbers are increasing, but crop pollination demand is increasing faster

The problem is not that honey bee numbers are decreasing, but that demand for their crop pollination services has increased. 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 honey bee 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 in honey bee populations, that’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’.

How many honey bees are in the US?

FAOSTAT says there were 2,669,000 hives in the USA in 2017 (the latest year they have available as of June 2019).

Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 21.23.19

If we look at the long-term trend since 1961, the number of beehives in the US has fallen significantly. This bucks the trend in the world totals for beehives having increased since then.

Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 21.27.28

Why are honey bee numbers falling in the US? This is a complex question to answer, but there are some clues in the annual Bee Informed Partnership National Management Survey, which surveys nearly 4,700 US beekeepers. The top ten reasons given for winter colony losses are (in no particular order): don’t know (!), colony collapse disorder, queen failure, weak colony, nosema, varroa, pesticides, small hive beetle, starvation and poor wintering.

How many honey bees are in the UK?

If you’re looking for UK figures… it’s not clear why, but FAOSTAT has no data on numbers of beehives in the UK after 1987; for 1986, it gives the figure 191,000.

Which will make my global estimate even more inaccurate! The UK government does attempt to collect hive numbers through the National Bee Unit – their Hive Count page says:

“2017’s count indicated a total UK population of honey bee hives of approximately 247,000. Please note that several assumptions formed part of the calculations used to get derive this number. It is therefore classed as an ‘experimental statistic’.”

So: an estimate of 247,000 hives in the UK in 2017. That compares to a count of 223,000 in 2016.

In the UK too, it looks like managed honey bee numbers are going up.

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Tis the season to drizzle

The Mite Before Christmas – a beekeeper’s poem

Twas nine days before Christmas, when all through the bee house
Not a creature was stirring, (thanks to the mouse-guard) not even a mouse
The roofs were lifted up with great care,
In hopes that the beekeeper would not need to swear.

The bees were nestled all snug in their comb,
While visions of plum-tree sugar in their heads did roam.
And queen, workers and varroa snug in the centre gap,
Had just settled their minds for a long winter’s nap.

When at the hive top there arose such a clatter,
The bees sprang from their bed to see what was the matter.
Up to their beekeeper they flew like a flash,
Showed off their behinds and made to gnash.

She spoke not a word, but went straight to her work,
And drizzled every seam, to each varroa irk.
And you may have heard her exclaim, ‘ere she hastily retreated out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, unless you’re a mite!”

Just a bit of winter silliness… I think that’s the limit of my rhyming skills.

Bees through palm trees

Back on Sunday 16th, with the assistance of an accomplice (my father-in-law Tom), I completed an Api-Bioxal oxalic acid drizzle on my two hives as an anti-varroa treatment. Back when it was legal to do so I used to use pre-mixed oxalic acid from Thornes, so this was my first time using Api-Bioxal. I’ve made some notes here about it, in the hopes that I’ll remember for next year.

  • The Apiarist’s Oxalic acid preparation and Trick(le) and treat posts are very useful. David recommends using a weaker 3.2% acid to sugar solution rather than the 4.4% solution given on the Api-Bioxal box recipe.
  • Next year it would help to replace the battery in my digital scales!
  • The Api-Bioxal powder can be mixed with the sugar syrup in a tall plastic milk carton before carefully transferring to the trickle container through a funnel.
  • When you live somewhere very rainy it helps to have an assistant holding an umbrella over the hive.
  • Afterwards any remaining solution can be neutralised by adding an equal amount of milk before disposing of it (at least, I hope it can – another beekeeper gave me this tip).

I’m not feeling too confident this winter as this is my first time overwintering hives in Cornwall. The bees barely seemed to be clustering at all when I did the drizzle. They have fondant on, so I need to keep an eye on that over the next couple of months. The hives are strapped down against the wind and badgers; mouse-guards are on; chicken wire has been loosely fastened round to protect against green woodpeckers. I think mostly all I can do for now is get spare equipment ready, in the hope that I will need spare boxes come spring.

Happy New Year to you and your bees.

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Book review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

I haven’t written for a while because it’s been a difficult few weeks. My little boy, Tommy, was very ill, first diagnosed with pneumonia and then with pericardial effusion – excess fluid around the heart. He needed an emergency operation in Bristol, a few hours away from where we live. He was in hospital nine days in the end, and is still on antibiotics, but the very kind and efficient healthcare pros in our fantastic NHS fixed him and made him into a happy, healthy toddler again.

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde – available from Amazon and independent book shops

The history of bees by Maja Lunde

The history of bees by Maja Lunde

I’ve managed to do some reading since we got back from Bristol. This book is one I found in our local library. It features three intertwined stories, from the past, present and future – a future without bees.

In Sichuan, China, 2098, Tao labours all day to hand pollinate fruit trees: a job once done by bees. Her main joy in life comes from the one precious hour she gets each day with her three year old son, Wei-Wen. But their lives are about to be hit by tragedy.

In Hertfordshire, England, 1851, William is a failed scientist turned seed-shop owner who has taken permanently to his bed. However, unexpected inspiration and hope is to come.

In Ohio, USA, 2007, ageing pro-beekeeper George struggles to accept that his son is uninterested in carrying on with the family business. Where does the future of the business lie?

All the main characters suffer difficult, devastating events, which are slowly revealed to have a common theme. At times I found the book emotionally gruelling to read, particularly the parts featuring Tao and her toddler son Wei-Wen. Luckily Lunde gives the reader some relief by ending the tale positively, with hope for the human race – if we can only learn from past history. We have already been given a warning. The book is fictional, but inspired by real events – the fruit farmers in the orchards of Sichuan do indeed painstakingly pollinate their crop by hand.

Interviews with Beekeepers

Next year I’m looking forward to the publication of Steve Donohoe’s Interviews with Beekeepers, which will feature “interviews with legendary beekeepers from around the world”.  I recommend following Steve’s blog, The Walrus and the Honeybee – his most recent post, Bee Farmers: What do you fear? is particularly fascinating. I certainly fear Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus even more than before now!

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