Learning about bees

The season is in full swing. Hawthorn and Horse Chestnut are in full bloom and after a strange and changeable winter, spring is now exploding in all it’s intense glory. I have been somewhat slack in my blogging responsibility but better late than never, so here goes.

This last weekend I taught a weekend introduction to sustainable beekeeping. The temperature had dropped after a glorious week beforehand but we had a dry forecast all weekend.  The participants arrived from their various far flung locations (Astrid winning the prize for cycling from Australia!) sharing a common curiosity about the wonderful world of the honeybee. We spent the first day looking into the fascinating life of the honeybee super-organism. Our approach here is to attempt to understand the nature of honeybees as deeply as we can as this is always the foundation of our practice. Only after this has been established do we begin to look into how and why we make interventions into the lives of the bee.

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The whole group was incredibly engaged all weekend with questions firing all the way through. For me teaching people about bees is at once energizing and humbling. It is such a privilege to watch eyes open and jaws drop in wonder as more is revealed about the nature of honeybees. We plan to run another course in September so if you are interested you can book a place here – http://www.organiclea.org.uk/2016/03/learn-about-bees-3/

 

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Here is a link to a blog by someone who attended the course. She gives a lovely description of her experience. Well worth a look – https://foxcottagegarden.wordpress.com

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A swarm in the vineyard

Recently we had one of those special moments in beekeeping. A moment when you witness in wonder the life of the bees and share that with others. This moment was a swarm – a spectacular event in the life of the Honeybee and one that often people haven’t had the privilege to see first hand. Marco, the vintner at hawkwood, had spotted a large cloud of bees in the vineyard. I quickly gathered what equipment we needed and went to have a look. The Bees were just landing on an elder tree, and the air was still thick with bees. Quite a few interested people had come to have a look at what was happening and while we waited for the swarm to settle I spent some time explaining what happens when Honeybees swarm.

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The first thing you’ll see when a honeybee colony swarms is the a cloud of bees taking flight eventually they land and form whats called a cluster. Before this though the colony has been preparing for days, slimming down the queen for flight and engorging on honey so the the workers will have the food they need to get through the time without a nest and food stores.

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While the majority of the swarm is hanging in the cluster hundreds of scout bees are out scouring the surrounding landscape. They are looking for a suitable nesting site, a new home. These scouts are looking for an ideal nest with very specific parameters. They are assessing distance from the parent nest, height from the ground, volume, entrance hole size and evidence of previous occupation by bees. When a scout has found a nest site that she thinks has potential she comes back the cluster and dances on the surface informing other bees of the nest location (if you are wondering how that works here’s a video that should answer your questions – www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U). If you observe the surface of a cluster you will see that over time various locations are being danced for. Over time a consensus forms as to the best nesting site and the cluster will take to the sky again and move en masse to the new nest. If you would like to understand this amazing process more deeply then I would highly recommend Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley.

We didn’t allow that process to fully happen because we had a hive ready that we wanted the bees to nest in. So I carefully cut away the surrounding branches and then could access the branch that the bees were clustering on. I then cut this branch and moved the bees into their new home – the Topbar Hive in the Terrace apiary. The Terrace apiary is the second apiary to be created at Hawkwood. We have been working away to get it ready and these are the first bees to be sited there.

Moving the swarm wp  This is the first time we have used a Topbar hive at Hawkwood. Topbar are one of the staple hives used in sustainable beekeeping. They are an elegant design that is easy to build and simple to use. We have plans to build more this winter. If you would like to find out more about Topbar hives the check out Phil Chandlers website – www.biobees.com. There’s loads of info including plans for how to build them.

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The swarm settled into their new home with gusto, building comb faster than I’ve ever seen. They have now built 12 combs of wax and are looking like a steady, strong colony. The experience of catching this swarm was, for me, a confirmation of how rich the space is between humans and honeybees. I believe that bees offer us an opportunity to learn if we are willing to listen and that apiaries in a community setting are vital to expand the possibilities of this learning and connection.

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The Flow Hive: Solves a problem that doesn’t exist, exacerbates a problem that does

Disclaimer: Beekeepers of all persuasions engage with the subject of bees and beekeeping with passion and energy. The downside of this is that we display a tendency to talk at rather than with and our passion can often descend into ranting. I confess that I too personally suffer from this tendency and I can feel the distinct air of a rant coming on. While in general  I do my best to prevent my descent into rantdom and beekeeping zealotry I fear that this may not be one of those occasions. So if you find bee rants distasteful then leave now while you still can! However if you are still intrigued to hear my perspective on the Flow hive, given the disclaimer above, then read on.

Some of you may have come across the Flow Hive recently as there has been a media flurry surrounding it. I tend to be able to carry on my life oblivious to such things but I have received such regular emails about it over the last few months that I have decided it was time to write a blog post about it.

The makers of the flow hive are describing it as a “super-efficient, bee-friendly flow hive”. The idea of the hive being that through cleverly engineered plastic combs the beekeeper can turn a cam and release the honey from within each individual frame which then flows out of a tube into a container. This saves time for the beekeeper and purportedly minimizes the disturbance to the bees. I personally think this hive is problematic for a number of reasons.

The makers of the flow hive argue that it minimizes disturbance for the bees. While this is partially true it seems to me to be a disingenuous claim. The argument is that harvesting honey involves opening the hive and therefore the ensueing stress and disturbance too. I agree that opening hives is stressful to bees and that disturbing the nest architecture should be kept to an absolute minimum however the claim that the flow hive solves this issue is absolutely untrue. Using a framed hive system by it very nature implies regular disturbance and stress. The management of a framed hive involves regularly dismantling the brood nest for inspections and swarm suppression. This is a major stress to the bees, the flow hive management would still entail all these practices. The harvest of honey from a conventional hive, comparatively, isn’t the major stressor. A skilled beekeeper can remove boxes very quickly in place a clearer board that stops bees from being able to return to the box

There is an argument that the flow hive removes stress on the beekeeper. Harvesting by opening a cam is less work for the beekeeper and does mean far less lifting. Lifting heavy boxes is often an issue and back backs are a common complaint among beekeepers.

Genuinely sustainable beekeeping solves these issues by using hives and management systems that are bee-centred and radically reduce the routine stress that all too often is what beekeeping entails. Sustainable beekeeping also removes stress for the beekeeper – using a Topbar hive, for example entail no lifting boxes at all (which still would be necessary using a flow hive to get into the brood box).

Another argument being made is that the flow hive is more cost effective. This is for 2 reasons – firstly because you no longer need to buy equipment for harvesting (centrifuge etc) and secondly because if you get in early they will give it to you cheaper. This first point i feel is somewhat disingenuous too. The major piece of equipment being referred to is the centrifuge. If you are keeping bees sustainably a centrifuge is totally unnecessary, the only equipment you need is some muslin, a sieve and a food grade container. Even if you are using frames often centrifuges  are available for rental ffrom local associations. When you look at the actual cost of a flow hive (appx £430 – not including shipping) it is clear that these hives are more expensive than other equivalent hive and almost twice the price of a Warre or Topbar.

It strikes me that hives that are simple to construct and are made from sustainable, non-toxic materials are an ideal we should hold to. Sustainable hive designs all have an ethos of DIY, open source design. In this way beekeepers can build there own hives from the sustainable materials that are locally available to them rather than being dependent on high carbon, non localized production.

At the root of the flow hive is a confusion about the nature and function of comb. Comb does not not function solely as honey storage – like a glorified tupperware. Wax is a glandular secretion of the honeybees, which they then mold into the hexagonal comb we are familiar with. If we think of the whole colony as a superorganism then the comb is the skeleton. the womb, a key part of colony communication – both vibrationally and chemically, as well as a larder for the hard won honey. Replacing wax with plastic interferes with all of the functions above as well adding the stress of the bees having to deal with the off-gassing of the plastic. Natural comb allows the bees to decide on the cell sizes and therefore the male/female ratio within the hive, allows the combs to vibrate and transmits vibration incredible efficiently (this a key part of honeybee communication) and stores hormonal and chemical information. Wax is key to the basic life expression of the honeybee organism using plastic comb impedes this and is therefore stressful to honeybees.

Also the claim that extracting honey this way isn’t stressful to the bees is disingenuous too. The actual mechanism splits apart the comb structure, this potentially kills bees, but what is more stressful to the bees is that suddenly their stores are empty. Bees in the wild keep a dome of honey above the brood raising area. If this dome suddenly disappears the bees are left with an empty cooler cavity above the brood which is instinctually abhorrent to them so they work extra hard to fill this cavity again as quickly as possible. By repeated removing the honey stores throughout the season additional stress is placed on the already stressed bees.

I hope that looking in more technical detail has made it clear that many of the claims that are made by the makers of the flow hive are clearly untrue and that the flow hive, like many other hive designs, is primarily about maximizing honey yields and human convenience at the expense of honeybee health. So then why has the flow hive so captured our imagination.

Part of the success is undoubtedly due to the extremely clever marketing that touches powerful cultural archetypes that are routinely used by the advertising industry to manipulate our desires. The promotional video when watched closely has themes that are clearly constructed and are very familiar in other forms of commercial advertising.

Wholesomeness –  The video accentuates the wholesome father and son relationship at the root of the hives design as well as repeatedly showing wholesome looking sexually attractive men and women working with the hive. There are also numerous shots of children around the hive or taking honey directly out of the back of the hive – these are clearly staged. Any beekeeper will tell you that the bees would very quickly figure out that there was exposed honey and would be foraging on it in large numbers.

Good engineering – There are numerous references to the quality of the engineering. This is the mainstay of the high end car market. They are clearly trying establish a justification for their hive being more expensive than most other currently available hives. There is also a strong emphasis of simplicity and ease.

Cutting edge – “Join us and become part of this evolution in beekeeping”. Need I say more.

What the makers of the flow hive do incredibly well is to tap (no pun intended) into the growing ecological concern and the urgent sense of needing to feel that we are doing something to help the bees. It gives us a way to act, a way out of the powerlessness and fear we feel when facing the issues around bees. Sadly however it gives us way to act that doesn’t work towards solving those issues in fact it gives us a way to feel that we are doing good without having to question the assumptions at the root of our relationship to bees and to the biosphere – namely that organisms exist primarily so that we can extract from them what we need to survive. This neediness, this cultural obsession with honey is at the root of the flow hive and it serves only to reinforce the view the honeybees are a resource to be mined.

In my opinion the flow hive fails totally to solve the problems it correctly points out that exist in beekeeping practice.-expensive complicated equipment and stressful management practices. Sustainable beekeeping genuinely solves these problems. It shows that keeping bees can be focused on the health of honeybees – on minimizing stress for the bees and the beekeeper. It uses hives that are cheap, sustainable, simple to build and easy to use and it uses practices that genuinely respect and work with honeybees. It’s no longer the time for quick fixes and psudo-solutions – it’s time to change the way we keep bees at it’s root and continue to work towards creating a genuinely bee-friendly practice.

Bees at the Castle

This time of year you often get excited phone calls from friends who have spotted a swarm. Often people haven’t had the privilege of witnessing a swarm first hand and it’s easy to detect the wonder in their voices. I had one of those calls from my friend, Jen, who chanced upon a swarm just landing in her local park while out with her kids. This was what we had been waiting for – it was time to spring into action. After gathering a crack squad of swarm catchers, Eustace and Jess, a vehicle and all the equipment we needed, we arrived on the scene. After some time of searching we found the young colony clustering quite high up a tree. Then, on a borrowed ladder, Eustace (the tallest member of the team) shook the bees off the branch into a cardboard box. We placed a Warre box on top and the bees moved into that. We then waited for the sun to do down and the the scouts bees to return before we moved them to their new home – the castle climbing centre.

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The Castle right on the busy green lanes is not where you might expect to find a 1 acre kitchen garden boasting veg plots, a forest garden, medicinal herbs and a reciprocal roofed roundhouse but it is one of the many hidden garden gems throughout London. The Castle set up the garden to provide high quality, local, sustainable food for their cafe but it does more than that by providing a space that reconnects us to the land and our food. It seems fitting that such a spot should have bees too – and now they do.

Warre 3The bees have settled in to their new home and are building comb very quickly – nearly filling one Warre box already. The hive has already received much attention from the community that use the garden and I’m sure that they will continue to. For me seeing people light up when they see the hive and then being able to introduce them to the bees is a massive joy. It confirms in me the importance of community apiaries, spaces where people can meet and interact with bees, learning about these wonderful organisms.

The boys are back in town

Today marked the first sighting of drones in the apiary this year. For those of you not initiated into the beekeeing lingo – a drone is a male bee. They are much larger than workers and have distinctively large eyes that almost cover their whole head. When they first appear they stick out like a sore thumb in relation to the slender and familiar worker bees. I remember in my first season as a beekeeper being so shocked seeing them coming and going, that I spent some time considering if they were some other strange species altogether.The first drones are one of the marker points of the beekeeping year as it signifies that the colony is moving into the sexual phase of the yearly life-cycle. Fortunately sex is the specialist subject of the drones, their large muscular bodies and broad visual range giving them the optimal equipment for finding their mate. When discussing drones it is extremely difficult not to slip into anthropomorphism, so I will resist as best I can, trusting that you will find ways to do this yourselves anyway.

Drones spend most of their time either in the hive or hanging out In drone congregation zones or DCZs. These are high up areas in the landscape that all the drones from that region go to, err, well, to congregate. These spots stay the same year on year and probably have existed for generations. Very occasionally a virgin queen bee will fly past the DCZ and the boys spring into action, chasing their potential mate for all they are worth. When the strong, agile or lucky ones catch up with their queen they mate in flight. A tricky procedure at the best of times but for our drones complicated further by their inability to ejaculate with the necessary force to impregnate the queen. They get round this issue by doing a backflip at the climax of their lovemaking, the force of which impregnates the queen as well is snapping off the drones endophallus. The drone then falls to his death. It is unclear whether the final moments of the drones life are ecstasy or agony but either way in my book its a rather spectacularly acrobatic way to go. Then the next drone to catch the queen removes the previous drones member and the continues along the same vein. The young queen may mate with up to 20 drones over several mating flights and she stores the semen inside of her for the rest of her life.We now know how crucial the thoroughness of this mating process is for the health of the honeybee. The more drones the queen has mated with the more genetic diversity there is within the hive. The workers are all half sisters and due to the mix of differing genes along the male line they all have slightly different abilities to perform tasks and overcome challenges. Having this mix of tendencies in the workers leaves the overall hive more resilient because it increases the range of challenges that workers will be able to effectively overcome.

Unfortunately beekeeping practice has been affecting the amount of drones available in the environment and thus negatively affecting the thoroughness of queen mating. This in part is due to the bad reputation the drones have among beekeepers. Drones have often been characterized as lazy slobs who hang around eating all the honey and not doing anywhere near their fair share of the housework. They do no foraging and are therefore seen as a drain on the colony and on honey supplies. Beekeepers have distorted the ratio of drones within the hive in two ways. In order to understand the first way I’ll need to explain some honeybee biology. The queen bee, or my preferred name the mother bee, does all of the egg laying within the hive and she has the capacity to decide whether to lay a male or a female egg. She makes this decision based on the size of cell (the hexagonal section of comb) in which she is going to lay an egg. In a large cell she lays a male and in a small cell she lays a female. Wild bees are left to build the comb as they please and therefore are in control of the ratio of males and females within the hive. Beekeepers often don’t allow the bees to build their comb as they please but instead use foundation – a printed wax template, which predetermines the cell to a standardized size and the bees are no longer able to decide for themselves the male/female ratio within the hive.

Another common practice is culling drones. Drone culling is often used as a technique to control Varroa – a parasitic mite that effects the health of the whole colony. Varroa prefer to breed in the cells of the drone larvae because they are larger and slightly cooler. Beekeepers put in frames with drones sized foundation hoping that the varroa will all move into drone cells and then when the cells are capped the beekeeper removes the frame and destroys it as a way to bring the Varroa numbers down within the hive. Drone culling is often used as part of what is called IPM – integrated pest management. The idea being that various strategic and differing interventions are made throughout the year based on the life-cycle of the pest and host that in combination bring the pest levels down to a manageable level. This all sounds well and good but IPM evolved out of an increasing awareness within agriculture that large scale indiscriminate pesticide use was often ineffective and problematic. While I welcome the more discerning use of interventions I would like to share the perspective of organic agriculture. Organic farming often uses an IPM approach to pests but with limitations on the extent to which toxic and harmful chemicals can be used, however organics sees as the foundation the health of the whole system. So to use a farm as an example system – the first step before any IPM interventions are made is to ensure the whole farm is functioning as healthily as possible – that there are nest sites, food and water for pest predators, that there is biodiversity on the farm, the soil is healthy, that rotations are used to prevent pests building up in the first place, etc. Only when all this is in place, when the everything has been done to reduce stress and encourage health in the whole system, will IPM methods be used. It seems to me that the until beekeepers begin to adopt this attitude – one in which all necessary steps are taken to minimize stress within the colony and support the health of the whole – then beekeeping practice will continue to negatively effect honeybee health. Only when we collectively prioritize the long term health of the whole over short term extraction will we begin to face the ecological challenges ahead.

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Waxing lyrical

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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

Spring has sprung

Bringing home the pollen

Bringing home the pollen

 

It seemed an auspicious day today what with one thing and another. Eclipse, equinox, it really is a time of transition and change. Today also marked an important moment in the beekeeping year – the removal of the mouse and wood pecker guards. Over winter we protect our hives from the various creatures that would like to gorge on the protein and sugar inside. Mice are the more common culprit, often making foraging forays into hives over winter. Most of the year the mice wouldn’t stand a chance as the the bees are well equipped to dispatch of most mammalian foes (I say most, as bears can handle a thorough stinging without seeming to be too phased but fortunately we don’t have them to contend with round here). In the winter however, when the bees are clustering and torpid their usual defenses are down and a mouse could happily saunter into a hive with no opposition at all. That’s why we use mouse guards – a cunning contraption that allows just enough space for the bees to come and go but no more. We also have the mixed blessing of woodpeckers on our site. They are are joy to hear in the woods and the flash of brilliant green is always a delight but these beautiful creatures we share this land with can be a menace. Even a short burst of pecking on the side of a hive can be enough to shake the bees out of their winter cluster, potentially causing the colony to die if it is cold enough. The woodpeckers are after the bees rather than the honey. They would relish the chance for a bounty of winter protein. To prevent this we wrap our hives in chicken wire to prevent the birds from be able to get within pecking range. Today all this came off with a sigh of relief.

All 5 of our colonies were making good use of the first official day of spring. Bright balls of pollen flowed into the hives, glowing yellow on the bees hind legs. This tells me that they are all raising young and thus have laying queens. Now we can rest easier, safe in the knowledge that these 5 colonies at least have made it through the arduous winter and will see the cycle turn again another revolution. With the hives now free from the chicken wire I took the opportunity to take the first look of the year through the observation panels. The magic of being able to glimpse, however fleetingly, into the working of the hive never ceases. I smiled to watch a forager laden with pollen announcing her find to her sisters.

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We too were feeling spring in our step. Jess, Ashley and Susanna were out in the bright sun planting out a willow hedge. This development is part of our apiary refurbishment this winter. There is still lots to do and swarming season will be upon us in no time but let’s not dwell on that and stop and appreciate this turning as it happens. Here’s to the coming of the light and the hedges of the future.

 

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