bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Blogging off

I'm off for a fortnight to hotter and wetter climes, so there won't be any Propolis updates until about 2 September. Enjoy the rest of August, wherever you are.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Palace coup foiled by beekeeper

This is really old news that I've only just discovered, but it's worth a replay:

Last year, a rival queen and her subjects took over the VIP seats at Queen Elizabeth II's ceremonial review of trooops at Windsor Castle. Fortunately, a beeleeper came to rescue the British monarch's reputation. Meanwhile, her majesty observed events from a Castle window.

The social insects that become even more social away from home

There's a curious story going the rounds about a super-colony of ants in Melbourne, Australia. It's being described as a single colony 100 kilometres across.

Ranked amongst the top 100 of worst invading species, these ants arrived from Argentina in the 1930s. They usually exist in smaller groups but in Australia have merged to form one massive colony that is thought to threaten the area's biodiversity.
Elissa Suhr, from Monash University, Melbourne, said the introduced pest's natural aggression kept numbers under control in its native country.

But the lack of genetic diversity in the ants found in Australia has allowed them to build a super colony.

"In Argentina, their native homeland, ant colonies span tens of metres, are genetically diverse and highly aggressive towards one another," Dr Suhr said.

"So population numbers never explode and they are no threat to other plants and animals.

"When they arrived in Australia, in 1939, a change in their structure occurred, changing their behaviour so that they are not aggressive towards one another. This has resulted in the colonies becoming one super colony."
The ants have also been found in California.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Who smells whom?

“The fact that bees learn to recognize beekeepers by their smell is one of the many fascinating bits of trivia Fielding has accumulated from nature's busiest and highly organized creatures, the honey bee.”
Christine Hensleigh reporting a meeting with Arvon Fielding, a Montana beekeeper.
That's an idea that's often posed to me. But I don't think bees have a clue who I am or what I smell like. If they did it would be a remarkable learning feat in a life of six weeks, during which they might meet me four times at most.

I suspect that the learning is the other way around: beekeepers quickly learn what deodorants bees don't like, the rushed movements that irritate them, the hive vibrations that make them livid, and the smell of venom when they are very angry!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Who's a silly boy, then?

After all my support of wasps in recent posts, I'm in the doghouse in my household tonight because of them.

I did a silly thing. I brought the honey from my out apiaries and stacked the supers (the hive boxes) near the back door. Today I noticed that wasps appeared to have found cracks in the supers and were robbing the honey. So after dark tonight, I decided to move the supers into a shed. Innocent enough idea? Oh no!

I left the kitchen light on and the door open as I started moving the supers. As I removed the roof, a hoard of wasps that hadn't been able to find their way out during daylight hours flew up. And where did they fly? Straight to the kitchen light of course. And what is the kitchen now full of? Wasps of course. And now it has started raining so there is absolutely no reason for them to leave. Do the other occupants of the house appreciate what I've done? In a word — no, I think is their answer. Even the elderly cat has left in disgust to spend a wet night under a tree outside.

Zimbabwe bee programme

Bees have been drawn into the Zimbabwean land controversy. More than 3,000 people attended a "Farming Through Bees" event in Zimbabwe at the homestead of beefarmer Isaac Nhamo. And there was some straight-talking at the event by local Governor Commander Nelson Samkange:
He took a swipe at those people who still thought only white people were the source of prosperity and hope.

Cde Samkange urged the local youths to engage in activities such as beekeeping and desist from crime. “We don't want to hear parents complaining about missing goats and chickens. Please use this chance.”

...“We want to restore the breadbasket title to our country. Please if you take the programme as a circus we will kick you out and give the land to some more serious people.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Nature's little devils

Apart from having the oddest picture of a honeybee that looks like a flea, there's a great section in yesterday's Charlotte Observer to scare your kids with. It gives a “short course” in twelve insects that can harm you — the honeybee, paper wasp, black recluse spider, fire ant, bumble bee, yellow jacket wasp, chigger, black widow spider, Asian tiger mosquito, southern house mosquito, flea and tick. Go on, I dare you to go outside.

Night bees see clearly

I'd never even heard about nocturnal bees until I read this short summary about their navigational powers in the dark.

Eric Warrant of the University of Lund, Sweden, has studied the Central American halictid bee, Megalopta genalis on on Barro Colorado Island in Panama.

... the researchers used infrared night-imaging cameras to show that by performing special orientation flights, Megalopta visually learns landmarks around the nest entrance prior to foraging and uses these landmarks to locate the nest upon return. ... if landmarks were moved to a nearby site while the bee was away, upon her return she intently searched for her nest in the landmark-bearing, but wrong, location.

Despite this impressive behavioral sensitivity ... Megalopta's eyes are only about 30 times more sensitive to light than those of day-active honeybees, woefully inadequate to account for Megalopta's nocturnal homing abilities. ... specialized visual cells in the bee's brain had morphologies suited to summing light signals and intensifying the received image.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Bees spoil rebels' ritual

I know nothing about the politics of this story from Uganda, but it made me giggle:
The traditional ritual to welcome 40 former LRA commanders led by Brig. Kenneth Banya on Saturday, were almost turned sour by a swarm of bees.

The bees emerged from a tree near the residence of the Paramount Chief of Acholi at Kanyagoga in Gulu municipality and dispersed the crowd.

... Some of the cultural leaders who were preparing to perform the traditional rituals, fled for their lives, when the bees became wild and began chasing everybody.

The elders immediately changed the venue.

Saints in the silly season

It's August — commonly called the “silly season” for news in the UK media. And I can see why. There's hardly anything being reported in the bee world at the moment. So I thought I'd ferret around amongst the patron saints of bees and beekeeping and found three more:

Bernard of Clairvaux has his holy day coming up soon — 20 August. Like Ambrose, he also seems to have been a honey-tongued merchant with little real connection to bees.

St Valentine of Rome is another patron saint of bees and beekeeping. Apart from being the patron saint of greetings card manufacturers, he is also the patron saint of fainting — I suppose it's all that swooning on St Valentine's day. Again, I can't find much of a beekeeping connection. Well, except perhaps for the birds and the bees ...

But wait, here's another genuine one — Irish again — St Modomnoc:
... an Irish monk who studied with St David at his monastery in Pembrokeshire. When he was due to return to Ireland, some of the bees he had been keeping swarmed on the mast of his ship and, bringing them back with him, he thereby introduced the art of apiculture to his native land.
You can celebrate his feast day of this patron saint of bees (not beekeeping) on 13 February.

UPDATE 10 Feb 2005: here's another one: St Haralampi. He's the Orthodox patron saint of bee-keepers, and is believed to be the first to have discovered the healing powers of honey and bee products. His day is 10 February.


Bee PR

I think this report from Israel's Haaretz newspaper needs a little revision to help readers understand quickly what really happened:
A yeshiva student from Betar Illit was moderately hurt yesterday evening after being attacked by a swarm of bees during a hiking tour in the Western Galilee. A spokesman for Magen David Adom said that the 24-year-old yeshiva student had been hiking with friends in the area of the Kanyon River, south of Karmiel, when he came across a bee hive. The student kicked the hive and was then attacked by hundreds of bees, suffering stings to his face and head. His two friends were also stung. The student was treated on the scene and then evacuated to Nahariya Hospital in moderate condition.
How about?:

“A yeshiva student who kicked a hive whilst out hiking was then attacked by hundreds of the bees, suffering stings to his face and head...”

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Patron saint of bees exposed as spin doctor!

I've been most disconcerted to find that St Ambrose, the patron saint of beekeeping, was nothing more than a “Honey Tongued Doctor” famed for his speaking and preaching ability. This led to the use of a beehive and bees in his iconography and his association with bees. It seems he had no direct involvment in bees.

To add insult to injury, one of his famous sayings was “No one heals himself by wounding another”. He obviously knew nothing of bees.

I think he was lacking in other departments, too. According to the Doctors of the Catholic Church, he “firmly maintained that population increases in direct proportion to the esteem virginity is held”.

Can we have a new patron saint, please? Any offers?

Here's my offering: St Gobnat (great name that would surely have the approval of Father Jack of Craggy Island) of Ireland. At the moment she seems to be a mere “Patroness of Bees”, but I think she deserves better:
... an incident in the life of the sixth century Saint Gobnat of Ireland has her shaking the bees out of one of her hives to ward off a gang of cattle rustlers. In more colorful accounts the bees are miraculously changed into soldiers and the hive from which these myrmidons issued is transformed into a brass helmet.



I've just been alerted (via an incoming link) to a website that I'd not heard of: Apiservices. Based in France, it hides its aims and origins very well, but somewhere (that I can't find again) it said it had the support of the UN, the EC and various governments and aimed to promote beekeeping especially, I think, in developing countries.

Anyway, it has lots of interesting information (even though this blog is listed under “products”) and statistics on beekeeping in many countries. Did you know that in 2002 Spain and Greece each had 4,000 professional beekeepers while Germany, UK, and Ireland had only 290, 200 and 15 respectively? Luxembourg had only one.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Wasp questions

Wasps, again. A much maligned insect that I quite admire. It's that time of year when they make their presence known here. As I understand it they collect aphids and protein to feed their brood for the first part of the year -- and we never notice them. I believe that they get a sweet substance from the brood in return. Then, when the brood declines, they have seek their sweeties elsewhere -- and suddenly we notice them.

Today I brought some of the honey harvest back to the garden and the wasps noticed immediately -- the small bee colony in the garden hasn't realised yet.

But I'm puzzled by two things: how do wasps manage to squeeze through the tiniest cracks that honeybees fail to penetrate? And what do they do with all that sweetness they forage -- is it gathered for the collective good and do they share it with other wasps, or are their apppetites just insatiable? I've never come across a really good wasp book, so all comments welcomed.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Mootant wasp

Ivan Cerny from the Czech Republic has alerted me to this rather alarming wasp that has appeared in various parts of the EU recently.

It's actually part of a travelling cow herd exhibition.

Photo Copyright 2004 CowParade Holdings Corporation Posted by Hello

Swiss get twitchy about hive beetle

The Swiss are concerned that the small hive beetle may start decimating bee colonies in Europe following the import of 1000 bee colonies from the USA into Germany last year. The beetle, which is indigenous to South Africa, has spread to the USA and elsewhere and causing real damage by eating bee larvae and comb.

The Swiss have already undertaken a risk assessment of the dangers the beetle poses to their 200,000 bee colonies and concluded that the risk to individual beekeepers is medium to high.
“The parasite is capable of destroying large numbers of colonies... There are no reasonable grounds to believe the beetle can be eradicated,” said Anton Imdorf, an agro-engineer at the Swiss Bee Research Centre.
I don't think there is any evidence that the beetle has arrived in the EU yet, but it's thought that, like varroa, it's only a matter of time until it makes an appearance.


Thursday, August 05, 2004

Wasps protect fortress

The Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka was built in AD475 by a Sri Lankan king as an impregnable fortress on a huge black rock (great pic). Now it's a major tourist attraction visited by hundreds of thousands each year. But wasps have taken on the role of protectors. Today nearly 40 sightseers were taken to hospital after a wasp attack — the second such attack this year.

Recuperate from the big D with honey

Now that it's the travelling season in the Northern Hemisphere, research and advice is coming through about how to counter diarrhoea (in Britain the ‘o’ hasn't yet fallen out of the bottom of the condition). And, no surprise, honey is amongst the recommended intakes to help recovery:
dry bread or toast, high-sugar foods such as syrup or honey, acidic foods such as citrus, and freshly cooked foods.
Dr Charles Ericsson, head of Clinical Infectious Diseases at University of Texas Houston Medical School, explains:
"The intestinal tract has been injured. It needs to grow back and needs to be provided with calories. And that means go ahead and enjoy the local foods. It is more important to accept some risk of diarrhea rather than starve".
But the bit that I found alarming was a recommendation to take antibiotics to aid recovery. Antibiotics are about the only thing that give me the big D!

Are bees growing more defensive?

Recently, I've noticed a few US reports (here's the latest) about bee stinging incidents where Africanized bees have originally been suspected, but subsequently cleared after laboratory analysis. It may just be media interest in killer bees; it may be some form of hybridization of Africanized bees and the traditional European variety in some areas; or it might just be that honeybees are more aggressive than they used to be.

I'm not in an area where Africanized bees are ever likely to appear, but I do hear anecdotal reports from long-serving beekeepers that bees just aren't what they used to be. Could varroa cause irritability? Or too much hybridization? Or just a bad dose of Golden Ageism?


Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Feminist imperialism

There's a feminisation of Britain's wildlife according to a survey by the UK's Environment Agency. And it's affecting honeybees too:
Blame has fallen on the increasing prevalence of a group of chemicals known as endocrine disrupters. These are found in plastics, food packaging, shampoos and pesticides and accumulate in the environment. They can mimic the female hormone oestrogen when ingested.

... Bees were found to be affected by chemicals used commonly on crops in the UK countryside.

The findings coincide with renewed concern over fertility levels among men. Sperm counts have fallen by a third between 1989 and 2002, according to some studies, while one in six British couples now experiences difficulty in conceiving.
I know this is a very serious story, but I keep getting this image of a drone mincing around the hive wanting to be a queen ...

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Coffee bees

Coffee, one of the five most important crops of developing nations and employing over 25 million people worldwide, needs nearby rainforests which harbour pollinating bees, according to researchers from the World Wildlife Fund and two US universities.
Pollination by wild bees increased coffee yields by 20 percent when tropical forest existed within about half a mile of the forest, they found.

And coffee trees visited by wild bees from the jungle were 27 percent less likely to produce “peaberries” — small, mis-shapen seeds that result from inadequate pollination.

For their study the WWF's Taylor Ricketts and colleagues focused on Finca Santa Fe, a large coffee farm in the Valle General of Costa Rica. The farm has several areas of forest on its borders.

Quebec bee crisis

Quebec lost half its honeybees last year and another 30% this spring according to a report in the Montreal Gazette. The culprit? Varroa.


Yanke semen

David Yanke has started inseminating — and he is courting publicity. According to the New Zealand Herald, he is on a crusade against varroa.

With the agreement of the New Zealand Government, Yanke has imported 0.8 ml of semen (enough to impregnate 61 virgin queens) from Carnica bees from Germany and is about to change the face of Kiwi beekeeping — maybe. New Zealand's bees are currently supposed to be of an Italian strain. By bringing in new genes, Yanke hopes to introduce hybrid vigour. But there are concerns about introducing viruses and perhaps inducing more swarming. Only time will tell.


Monday, August 02, 2004

The little yellow book

Forget Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, an American beekeeper has produced a little yellow book extolling the virtues of working co-operatively. Howard Scott, a beekeeper in Massachusetts wrote Bee Lessons in 2000. Now in its third printing, it's claimed the book is sought after by many unusual sources including an amateur baseball team.

The book contains 42 lessons like:
“The queen is always surrounded by attendants. They circle her, keeping her clean, providing her with food, fanning her with cool air, keeping her dry, discarding her eliminations, and combing her . . . About the only thing the queen never has is privacy.”
The lesson here: being a leader has its downside.
“Tasks are age-related so that every worker bee does many jobs during a lifetime. She starts cleaning cells, then processes honey, then tends the queen, then guards the entrance, and finally forages for nectar and pollen . . . Moreover, she does each job with enthusiasm, working 24-hour days, taking short naps. There‚Äôs never any problem with slackers.”
The lesson here: job satisfaction can be found in variety.
Would Mao agree?

Hoverfly mayhem

There has been a hoverfly explosion in the east of England this weekend. A few people have panicked thinking they are bees or wasps — as stingless aphid eaters, they are extremely beneficial insects. But beach-goers and skivers think otherwise:
Terry Allen, leader of Tendring District Council, said he had to abandon work on a school in Frinton on Saturday because of the intensity of the swarms.

“We were working outside and we were covered in them. If you look down the road people are covered in them. They look like bee-keepers.”
Apparently hoverfly population explosions occur occasionally, but can disappear quickly in a heavy downpour.

I've even noticed a lot more here in Hampshire in the past ten days. They seem to have a particular penchant for golf balls — especially just as they are about to be putted. It seems to be the white colour that attracts them.

Here's a nice pic of the offending beastie.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

A disappointing season

Well, it's been one of the poorest honey seasons I can remember — for me in Hampshire, Southern England, anyway. I took a first good look at my bees since mid-June (I leave them well alone during the main nectar flow from about the end of June to mid-July) and was so disappointed at the yield that I wondered if they had swarmed or if they had disease. Neither appeared to be the case, and I can only put the poor harvest down to miserable weather during the critical period. Of course the weather is wonderful now. But it's too late, except for colonies near heather which will now be yielding.

In all, I would estimate that each colony yielded about 30 to 40 lbs (15 to 20 kgs) which is my worst-ever harvest in ten years of beekeeping.

To add insult to injury, one bee got underneath my veil, tangled up in my rather thick hair and became so distraught that it committed its version of hari-kari there and then by stinging me. It's the first time a bee has penetrated my thatch, and I didn't appreciate it.

Still, I must look on the bright side: at least I don't have so much extracting to do this year.

My honey is from your garden

All honey sold in the UK will soon have to state the name of the country of origin on the label — and I think the same rule is being applied across all EU (European Union) countries.

In the UK the labelling regulations will affect me, a hobbyist producer, if I want to sell though a local shop. (I can sell it privately without any restrictions.) I'm afraid I've still got a backlog of old labels and I'm not going to print new ones until I have to.

In Italy, new labelling regulations come into force from today and they are threatening 6000 Euro fines for anyone caught trying to sell foreign honey as Italian.

I believe that the new UK regulations will come into force on 1 October 2004. (See here for the detailed UK Government regulations.)

I can see a point of the regulation as a way of protecting local producers, but I do get rather annoyed that beekeepers have to put up with so much scrutiny when multi-nationals (a slightly more powerful lobby) get away with selling the most outrageous products. If you want to feel queasy, do read Fast Food Nation.

Update: I shouldn't grumble, the head of Italy's beekeepers probably has it about right:

“This is a highly significant decision,” explains Francesco Panella, President of the Italian National Union of Beekeepers, ... “It will help consumers to distinguish artisan from industrial honey, and will finally reward those who have been constantly striving to take the path of quality.”