Sunday, 1 May 2016

Hum bug

Beekeepers must stop being happy-clappy groupies for the eco-lobby and start telling the truth about honey bees;


They never were, though if you'd be forgiven for thinking so if you rely on the popular press. Here are some typical alarmist headlines from British newspapers in the last 12 months:

"Humans are to blame for wiping out honeybees"
- Daily Mail (5/2/2016)

"Honey bees are being killed off in Europe by 57 pesticides" - The Independent (11/3/2016)

"Honey bee crisis deepens as die-offs surge" - The Daily Telegraph (14/5/2015)

It's not just the popular press – even scientific news sources can't resist alarmist headlines:

"U.S. beekeepers lost 40 percent of bees in 2014 -15" - wailed Science Daily earlier this year. They're not kidding; here are the percentage annual losses for U.S honey bee colonies over the last 5 years:


It looks horrendous. There were 2 ½ million colonies of bees in the USA in 2010 so based these losses you might calculate that there are now only 239,000 hives remaining*, but the actual number of hives is 2.66 million. Its gone up!

It's the same in Europe – the number of managed honey bee colonies has risen from 11 million in 2000 to over 12 million today. Hardly bee-mageddon!

So what's happening? Well the annual loses data above is based upon the 15 – 20% of beekeepers that bother responding to surveys so there's potential for bias – if you've had a particularly bad year you may be more likely to respond to a survey about colony losses.

But the real sleight of hand is the failure to mention that honey bees can easily double their numbers in one season by swarming, something many of us will notice in the coming weeks when the swarming season begins.

So even though U.S annual losses data isn't good, it's not disastrous. The situation across Canada and Europe is better with winter losses last year of around 17% - easily manageable.

Indeed what's perhaps more surprising, given the bees ability to double their numbers in one season, is why the number of hives isn't increasing more rapidly, but there's a simple explanation: Beekeepers merge their surplus colonies each year to keep things manageable … and profitable.

Yes – global economics is driving growth in the number of honey bees. Over the last 10 years high prices for manuka honey have led to a doubling in the number of bee hives in New Zealand (from 300,000 to 600, 000), and countries like China and Argentina have contributed to the relentless growth in global honey production, which is now at a record 1.6 million tons p.a.

So why all the scary headlines about honey bee decline? Well it's a combination of conspiracy and cock-up.

The conspiracy comes from those who gain from bee-mageddon. Tariffs on foreign honey are easier to obtain if national honey bees are thought to be 'at risk'. Suppliers of equipment, training and beekeeping publications make money from newbie hobbyists trying to 'save the bees'. Academics receive generous research funding, and politicians win plaudits.

Then there's the eco-lobby which too often is prepared play fast and loose with the truth in their perpetual war with the agro-chemical industry. According to Greenpeace;

“ Worldwide bee colony collapse is not as big a mystery as the chemical industry claims.”

Indeed! The reason it's not a 'big mystery' is because it isn't happening!

Cock-up is down to sloppy journalism. Most scribblers don't know a honey bee from hover-fly. When scientists rightly raise concerns about our 'native wild pollinators', this gets translated as 'bee' and to the average hack 'bee' means 'honey bee'. So they write about honey bees rather than the 2,000 other species that are actually at risk.

Its a shame. Well meaning folk are becoming beekeepers to 'save the bees' when a much better approach would be support activities that help our wild pollinators. For example:

  • Don't pave over your garden and support the RHS's 'Greening Grey Britain' initiative
  • Don't cut your grass when the dandelion and clover is in bloom
  • Wash your car rather than lobbying to have trees cut down 
  • Plant pollinator friendly flowers and trees
  • Encourage your local authority, school, employer and other land owners to grow pollinator friendly flowers rather than the usual garish sterile hybrids

Oh – and buy local honey! (Well I would say that!)

Then you really will hear the bugs hum, rather than humbug about honey bee decline.

*Here's the calculation:
2,500,000 x (1-0.37) x (1 – 0.28) x (1 -0.45) x (1 – 0.34) x (1 – 0.42) = 239,000

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Pixie Dust

My honey contains pixie dust, golden pixie dust.

The bees pick it up when they're visiting flowers for nectar and pollen. Not all flowers have pixie dust, it's found mostly on wild flowers although you will find it on some garden flowers.

Of course, the flowers themselves don't produce pixie dust, they just get coated in it when the fairies start throwing it around. You will know if you have a fairy-friendly garden, and if you do the bees will be inadvertently gathering pixie dust.

The pixie dust content of honey varies enormously. Some mono-floral honeys contain none, which is hardly surprising as you'll not find fairies in those monotonous fields of sunflowers or oilseed rape. Wild flower honey contains lots of pixie dust, but it's easily destroyed.

Pasteurisation ruins pixie dust when the honey is heated up to 70 degrees or more for a few minutes to kill of all the yeasts. Ultra-filtration which strips most of the pollen from honey also removes pixie dust. Most small scale UK honey producers do neither so there's a good chance your local honey contains pixie dust.

The problem is that pixie dust is difficult to quantify because analytical tests destroy the very thing they are trying to measure. As a result you seldom see pixie dust mentioned in the contents of honey.

Instead, purveyors of honey use words like 'full of natural goodness' to indicate its presence, or they'll refer to 'natural vitamins', 'living enzymes' or 'nutritional elements' – all code for pixie dust.

Pixie dust accounts for the medicinal properties of honey. It explains why honey is a powerful immune system booster, a digestive, a tonic, a treatment for cancer, sore throats, hang-overs, insomnia and of course, hay fever. Admittedly the scientific evidence is weak, but that's because most studies failed to use raw wild-flower honey. Anyway science is over-rated; you just have to believe as Peter Pan says:
All you need is faith and trust... and a little bit of pixie dust!
Sceptics will doubt my honey contains pixie dust.“If your honey contains pixie dust why don't your customers fly?

It's a ridiculous argument. Of course honey doesn't make you fly. To get airborne you have to sprinkle pixie dust, not eat it!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Aromatherapy for Bees

Do you know what drives bees bananas?


Well not the banana itself, but the smell of bananas. Just a whiff is enough to make bees go ballistic. Bananas should really carry a health warning:

Bananas can cause bee attacks – do not picnic on bananas unless wearing protective clothing

You'll never catch beekeepers eating bananas because they know that the chemical that gives bananas that distinctive smell is the same chemical that bees use as a sting alarm pheromone. It's called isoamyl acetate, or more commonly, banana oil.

Isoamyl acetate is widely used as a flavouring, from pear drops to banana-flavoured yoghurt, and it's even used in some varnishes and lacquers. It smells nice – just like bananas!

But the bees hate it because the smell of isoamyl acetate means there's trouble, which means they're going to sting someone and then they're going to die.

It all starts with the guard bees which spend their time patrolling the hive entrance keeping out intruders. Usually there are four or five guards though if the colony is being harassed, by wasps for example, the guard may increase to 20 bees. That normally suffices but every now and then the guards can't cope with an intruder, so they call for reinforcements.

They do this by extending their stinger and releasing isoamyl acetate from a gland at its base. To make sure the odour of banana rapidly diffuses through the hive the guards fan their wings at the same time. The response can be spectacular; dozens of soldier bees rush out of the hive looking for a fight.

That's usually the moment when you see a beekeeper frantically puffing away with their smoker in an attempt to try and mask the smell of bananas and calm the bees down – but it doesn't help. What they should try instead is aromatherapy.

For those unfamiliar with quack medicine aromatherapy 'offers some of the best remedies for easing stress by using natural oils to enhance psychological and physical well-being'.

Probably tosh, but it seems that when it comes to bees there is scientific evidence showing that certain flower oils really do make bees less aggressive. A recent study found linalool (found in lavender oil) and 2-phenylethanol (found in rose oil) significantly reduced aggression in honey bees enraged by the sting alarm pheromone, and the effect was not simply due to the pong of flowers masking the scent of bananas.

Instead, what seems to be happening is that the soldier bees get two scent messages; the one from the banana oil says 'Go out and die for your colony!' but the one from the lavender oil says ...

'Lunch anyone?'

And given the choice between certain death and the promise of a little snack, soldier bees choose the snack.

Most beekeepers wont be surprised by this; during a strong nectar flow the hives are fragrant with the smell of flowers and bees are very calm.

I'm going to try aromatherapy instead of using my smelly old smoker. Lavender flowers (fresh or dried) infused in hot water, then allowed to cool and filtered into a plant sprayer. A few sprays at the hive entrance and a few more when the roof is off should suffice.

But just in case it doesn't work, I'll put a dab or two of 2-phenylethonol behind my ears to ensure that what ever happens, I still come out of the experiment smelling of roses!

1. “Appetitive floral odours prevent aggression in honey bees” Nouvian et al. Nature Communications 6, 10247 (Dec. 2015)

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Cling-ons

Some bees are bad ... really bad. In fact some are downright evil!

This may surprise some readers who blithely assume one honey bee is much like another, but most bee-keepers will know better. Bees may not have individual personalities, but each hive certainly has it's own characteristics.

Good bees are calm. They're the sort you see in those photos of people sporting a bee-beard or handling bees in a T-shirt and shorts. It's the result of good breeding.

Most bees aren't like that. My Berkshire mongrels are relatively well behaved, but not mellow enough for me to forego a veil and gloves. Their bad behaviour manifests itself in several different ways:

There are the 'Meeters and Greeters' – those troublemakers who save you the bother of visiting the hives by flying up the garden path to meet you. It's best to be fully kitted-up before going out if you have these bad girls in your apiary.

Next the 'Followers' – they just follow you like a black cloud as you move from hive to hive and back again to the house. It's annoying, but they're not usually much trouble.

More spectacular are the 'Pingers' – these bees fly with such ferocity at you're face that you can hear them pinging off the veil. They make bee-keeping stressful but you don't suffer much harm ... provided your veil is intact!

Then there are the 'Burrowers' – they're sly and will be quietly investigating every fold, seam and hole in your clothing to find a way to get inside and sting you. Burrowers will crawl up your trousers, through the cuffs of your sleeves, in between the tiny gap in the zip of your veil. They're the one's you find on the inside your bee suit, next to your face. Fortunately by the time most burrowers have reached their destination they have often forgotten why they're attacking you and are more concerned about making their own escape.

But the worst of all the bad bees are the 'Cling-ons'. They just hang onto you and wait for a chance to get even ….

I have a hive of Cling-ons at the moment. They were a swarm of bees I reluctantly collected in Eton last June. Nobody else wanted them so I cobbled together some kit to give them a home. This proved to be a thankless task because within weeks it was clear that these Eton girls were not as well behaved as our Eton boys - they lack breeding.

This was confirmed when I spotted the queen – she was unmarked and had led a primary swarm, which suggests that she had either come from a feral colony, or more likely an apiary where the bee-keeper had been too scared to manage such aggressive bees properly. Instead they were allowed to swarm, and probably swarmed again and again. Worse still the area was contaminated with drones spreading bad tempered genes into neighbouring apiaries.

My Cling-ons are manageable at the moment even though they hang on to my bee suit in out-of-sight and difficult-to-reach places which makes getting changed afterwards hazardous. But come the summer when there are 50,000 bees in the hive the thought of a hundred or more Cling-ons all over my veil and suit is no laughing matter. So they'll have to go.

Trekkies can relax - I wont be needing the services of the Star Ship 'Enterprise' to deal with these Cling-ons. Come the spring I'll kill the queen and unite the remaining bees and brood with a better behaved colony.

Not that good manners are learnt – they'll continue to be bad bees until the day they die, but at least I'll get some useful work from them in the meantime.  

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Blossom must never fly from bee to bee to bee

'The King and I' need to have a conversation about the birds and the bees because he's got it so, so wrong. Here's his justification for polygyny:

A girl must be like a blossom with honey for just one man
A man must be like a honey bee and gather all he can!
To fly from blossom to blossom a honey bee must be free
But blossom must never fly from bee to bee to bee!

I can't imagine Blossom or any other woman agreeing with him, but the irony is that bees practice another form of polygamy – polyandry! Each queen gathers all the males she can and those lucky fellows that consummate the act promptly drop dead (read - It's raining men).

And it's just a small point but those bees that 'gather all they can' - they're female!

The King of Siam in the 1956 movie musical clearly knew nothing about bees, but now it appears he was wrong about the flowers too.

It's well known that flowers do their utmost to attract visitors by looking pretty, smelling nice and offering a sip from the honey pot. But they also do something else to help them 'fly' from bee to bee to bee – they use drugs!

Memory-enhancing substances in the nectar can improve the bees recall about where the flowers are located and a good dose of caffeine to boot, guarantees those bees will be dancing like demons when they get back to their hive. Bees dance to tell the rest of the colony about good food sources and the more vigorous the dancing the greater the eagerness for other bees to pay a visit to young Blossom.

So far from having honey for just one bee, the flowers in effect 'fly from bee to bee to bee'. Fair enough, but there's a downside to Blossom's promiscuity – infectious diseases! Every tongue probing the flower nectaries risks leaving or picking up a nasty infection, and not just from other honey bees. Bumble bees can also transmit diseases like nosema to honey bees visiting the same flower, and vice versa.

It's not normally a problem; bees have been visiting flowers for millions of years, but if disease carrying bumble bees or honey bees are bought into an area, local infection rates can spike. This is particularly so when flowers are scarce because the remaining few get many more visitors.

There's a simple remedy; plant more flower. That way each flower will have fewer visitors and harbour less disease, and even more nectar for those that do call.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The Ministry of Bees

I got a warning letter from the Ministry of Bees last month. Government inspectors had found that many hives of bees were close to starving, so the Ministry wrote to all beekeepers urging them to check that their bees had enough food.

I wasn't surprised - August is a terrible month for bees because there are so few flowers. Sure, bees living near the waterways may have purple loosestrife and Himalayan balsam to visit, but for most there are only slim pickings in suburban gardens.

Not that it should be a problem - strong colonies make 50 - 100 lb of honey during the summer which is more than enough to see them through to next year, so all would be fine, except for one thing. The beekeeper!

Greedy or incompetent bee-keepers strip the hives of all their summer honey. If the bees are 'lucky' they get fed sugar syrup and if they aren't .... they starve. The rapacious logic is simple; honey sells for £5/lb whereas sugar costs 25p/lb.

I wasn't concerned about the letter. I'd taken a good honey crop but still left my bees with plenty to see them through to the end of September - but not longer!

I'm relying on the ivy which is just coming into flower. Ivy produces lots of very sweet nectar which is almost 50% sugar. It's so concentrated that on warm sunny days you can see crystals of sugar glistening on the flowers. The bees, wasps and red admiral butterflies all love it!

But many beekeepers don't. The high glucose content of ivy honey causes it to crystalise in the honeycomb.  Beekeepers worry that their bees may not be able to access enough water in the winter months to dissolve the honey, resulting in starvation.

Come the spring any ivy honey left in the comb blocks up the brood nest and has to be removed, but the only way to remove the honey is to heat the comb, which destroys it. Worse still, ivy honey doesn't taste very nice.

So to stop their bees making ivy honey many beekeepers keep feeding their bees sugar solution - gallons of it.

Their bees seem to do well, but it doesn't feel right to me. Instead I let my bees make all the ivy honey they can. Even on the coldest days of winter condensation in the hive will provide sufficient moisture, and come the spring any frames of uneaten honey will be set aside to feed any colonies that need a honey top-up.

There is a risk - if the weather is really bad over the next month the bees may not collect enough ivy nectar, and it may then be too cold for an emergency sugar solution feed.

But you have to have faith in these things - such is the ministry of bees!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The cheats among the runners

Bees earn a lot of air miles during August, but it’s no holiday.

On average they will fly four kilometres to forage this month compared to just 400 meters in spring. It's necessary because of a shortage of flowers; most wild flowers have gone over so the bees are spending more time foraging around gardens and allotments.

Competition is intense and choice limited; just spend a few minutes watching insect activity on buddleia or oregano and you will see butterflies, bumblebees, hover flies and honey bees all competing for the nectar. When competition is this tough it’s hardly surprising that someone decides to cheat.... like this young lady.

She’s in our local allotment stealing nectar from runner bean flowers. Normally flowers provide nectar to bees in exchange for pollination services, but this little minx has decided to skip scrambling around inside the flower and is helping herself to the nectar by sipping it directly from a hole in the corolla tube.

It’s easy honey. But although it looks bad on the honey bee, someone else cheated first.

A bumble bee! Both the white-tailed and the buff-tailed bumble bees bite holes at the bottom of runner bean flowers so that they can get to the nectar without having to clamber inside.

When a honey bee lands on the flower the first thing she does is check whether a bumble bee has already punctured the flower. Although the bumble bee will have taken most of the nectar there’s always some left over, and it’s easy work.

In the mornings most flowers haven’t been visited by bumble bees so there’s no hole. Instead the honey bee climbs inside the flower to get a full dose of nectar in exchange for pollinating the flower. But by late afternoon most flowers have been holed, so climbing inside would be a waste of effort.

The honey bees are just being sensible - the bumble bees are the real cheats. 

So if your runner beans aren't setting you know who to blame. Although in the round bumble bees do a great job in the allotment pollinating all sorts of plants, ... like courgettes!
(Can you ever have too many?)