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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A shook-swarm demo

On the Saturday before Easter a small but enthusiastic group of us gathered under the shade of the apiary’s trees to watch John Chapple carry out a shook-swarm demo on one of the hives.

Unusually for John, he was actually wearing a veil. This was testimony to the reputation of the chosen bees as particularly curmudgeonly – “bad but prolific” was how John described them. In the end the bees were remarkably patient with us and I believe no-one got stung. Below are some photos showing John going about the process of shaking the bees off their old frames and into a fresh new hive of foundation.

John looking for the queen

A queen excluder is placed under the brood nest (but above the entrance) to stop the queen absconding. The colony is fed plenty of syrup to help them draw out the foundation and build fresh new comb. The old brood combs are burned, along with any varroa lurking inside the brood. Replacing old combs also helps reduce the chances of the bees getting nasty diseases like AFB and EFB. One of the requirements of keeping bees at the Ealing apiary is to do an annual comb change.

It’s best to find the queen during a shook-swarm so that you can be sure she’s been safely put in the new hive. John had just taken one frame out when Tom’s sharp eyes spotted a magnificent dark queen running up the surface of the next comb. Although she had been marked last summer, she was now unmarked. Either her mark had worn off or the bees had replaced the original queen.

Capturing the queen

Pat commented that at the Middlesex conference in February one of the speakers suggested that the best way to find the queen is to take out a frame of brood and then immediately look at the surface of the next frame along. This queen had proved that!

Above is a photo of her being captured in a cage before John marked her with a nice pink pen.

I got a few short videos of the shook-swarming process, here’s some links to them:

Someone on Twitter commented about the last video that: “he is shaking an empty frame of foundation with few bees on….pointless showing a shook procedure with no bees on frame. Waste of a video clip” .  I thought I’d share that here as fair warning before anyone wastes four seconds of their lives watching it! Good to know my videos have fans.

Official guidance on how to carry out a shook-swarm can be found on the Beebase advisory leaflets page.

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Tidying up my beekeeping bumbles

In my post a couple of weeks ago, ‘What the bees have been up to‘, I mentioned leaving Hope’s nucleus hive with some fondant and pollen in the eke, with the expectation that they would build a little comb up top in the extra space. This is what the hive looked like when I left:

Pollen and fondant in nuc

This is what it looked like a week later:

Bee city

Fondant all eaten and a new loft conversion/small city up top! So they built a little more than I expected. When I got home two weeks ago it occurred to me that I could have put some insulation in to fill the extra gap and stop the bees building. These bright ideas always come once I get home. Which would be fine if the bees were at the bottom of the garden,  but with them being around an hour away by public transport it’s not so easy to carry out these little fixes.

I spent some time carefully transferring Hope and her colony into a full-sized hive. It was quite a delicate job to remove the soft brace comb without squashing or angering any bees.   Once removed, I put the comb up above the crown board; by this weekend all the bees had left it so I was able to share a bit of hive-warm honey with some other beekeepers. We sucked its fragrant floral sweetness out of the chewy comb, cleaning our sticky hands afterwards with wipes.

Emma has an update this weekend on her blog on how Hope and Patience’s bees are getting on – Springing to life. We were able to do our first inspection of 2017 inside Patience’s large hive.

I will leave you with a few pictures of Thomas Bickerdike’s hives at the local allotment where I used to keep some bees too. We have had some beautiful sunny days recently which really show off the spring blossom.

Allotment hives

Allotment hives and blossom

Tom has built this solitary bee palace on the allotment too, so it is really a bee haven. Surely some bees, wasps and other insects will be tempted by this magnificent home.

Tom's solitary bee palace

Seeing the spring blossom reminds me of baby Tommy’s first few weeks last April. As I pushed him around flat in his pram, his hands often thrown above his head in slumber, white and pink blossom petals swirled all around us. We have survived the past year together and once again I am pushing him around under blossom, only now he is bigger and sitting upright to face the world. Happy 1st birthday baby Tommy.

Tommy and balloon

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