Waxing lyrical

Honeybee on blossom 5 wp

photo Martin Slavin

Today I was greeted by a familiar and heart-warming sound. It came from above my head to took a few moments for my brain to compute what it was. The sound of a tree in full blossom at the height of it’s nectar flow covered in foraging bees! The vibrations from the bees wings caused a humm loud enough to be reminiscent of machinery and those of us lucky enough to be standing near had to raise our voices, slightly but noticeably. The tree is a cherry, one that I have stood beneath in wonder many times before and with luck will do so again. cherry3 cherry 1

The buzz in the cherry tree is only partially created by the bees from our apiary, the majority of the din was coming from a spectacular array of wild bees. There are 24 different species of bumblebees in the UK as well as a staggering number of solitary bees (over 200). Sadly many of these beautiful and varied bees numbers have been declining since the 40’s. Primarily this is due to the radical changes we have made to the landscape and the way we interact with it. Following WW2 agriculture has become increasingly industrialized, turning the machinery and chemicals used for warfare to the aims of increased agricultural production. This has had and continues to have catastrophic ecological and cultural consequences. Bees are just one of the many species to suffer in the process with 2 bumblebees species becoming extinct since 1940. With the recent decline in Honeybee populations we are becoming much more aware of the significance of our wild pollinators and how key it is to have a diverse range of pollinating insects. This cherry tree is momentarily hosting that diversity before our very eyes and I for one feel that what i am witnessing is more than just increased efficiency in pollination.

This unmistakable change in gear in the seasons has seen our activities changing too. Swarming season will soon be upon us and our time for building is over just as the bees start to begin theirs. Kate and I spent the day waxing top bars and doing the final preparations on our boxes so that when they are needed over the next few months we won’t be caught on the back foot. Waxing top bars is all about enticing the bees to build their comb in places that are more convenient for us. I must admit that our previous enticements have, quite frankly, not always been enticing enough, so this year we are trialing a couple of new methods. Firstly I have a box of empty comb that we have cut into strips and melted onto pre-waxed top bars. The second method we have used involves creating our own starter strips by dipping flat blocks of wood into wax. I shall keep you posted if these make an observable difference. Starter strips Comb comb attached to the top bars Both Kate and I agreed that wax is a wonderful material to work with. The bees undoubtedly agree too. Wax is a material that the bees secrete from glands in their abdomen. They use it build their ingenious hexagonal comb. We call it honey comb but for the bees it is much more than just a larder for their honey stores. If you view the bees in their wholeness, i.e. as a superorganism then it is clearer to see that wax is also a skeletal-like structure upon which most activity within the hive occurs, a womb and nursery for the young, and plays a pivotal role in honey bee communication. It is important for communication in two ways. Firstly as a transmitter of vibration. Vibration is a key component of the waggle dance as well as various other forms of bee communication and it just so happens that the hexagonal structure of wild comb is a perfect conductor of vibrations. Secondly wax acts as the chemical memory of the hive. Much bee communication involves pheromones, chemical signals released by the bees, and wax has an amazing capacity to store these as chemical imprints. Sadly this ability plays against the bees as the pesticides humans use without and within the hive build up in the wax. Using frames and foundation interferes with all of these functions mentioned above so we prefer to let our bees build it how they want to (with a little enticement on our part as to where). As i have begun to write about wax it has become clear how much there is to talk about so perhaps I’ll devote a whole post to it sometime…

Prepared boxes

Prepared boxes

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One thought on “Waxing lyrical

  1. We were stopped in our tracks by a similar din in Hampshire recently! Good luck with the top bar trials. Will be fascinating to know the results.

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