bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Moaning workers

In Britain May is the traditional swarming month. And my bees usually swarm as soon as the first queen cell is sealed. So in a routine inspection this morning I was surprised to find several sealed queen cells -- and the queen still present. She was very small though. I was lucky to see her, but couldn't catch her to clip her wings.

This particular colony was the least advanced of all four of my colonies, but it was also the one that suffered most from the winter vandals, so perhaps she'd been injured or stressed.

I didn't have spare hive boxes to do a split there and then, so I returned later in the day hoping to see them in the act of swarming -- no such luck (I've only once caught my bees in the act).

I knew splitting them (separating the queen cells in one split from the queen in the other) would be difficult because it would be hard to find the queen again as she was so small. But the workers helped me -- they told me where the queen was. As I moved frames from one box to another, the bees who were separated from the queen started to moan -- well, more of a restless, dull roar actually. And by this process I was soon able to tell which frame she was on -- and eventually did see her to prove the point. Thank you girls!

I've noticed this restless dull roar before, but not within a minute or two of separation from their queen -- usually about 20 or 30 minutes. I'll pay more attention to this as an indicator in future.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Jerry Seinfield plays Barry the bee

Jerry Seinfield's bee movie being made by the Dreamworks studio is getting nearer. It's scheduled for release in November 2007. It's an animation about Barry the bee who doesn't know what to do with his life until he discovers that humans eat honey. So he decides to sue humanity. There's to be a star-studded cast of voices.


Biggest single-queen honey haul

How much honey do you harvest from each colony? I'm not precisely sure because my bees always have to be managed for swarming, so with the splitting of hives, a figure for a single colony is hard to calculate. I usually average between 60 and 90 lbs (25 and 40 kgs) per colony. Without oil seed rape, my figure would probably be 45 to 60 lbs (20 to 25 kgs).

But a reader has alerted me to the world record holder Ormand Eibi who harvested an astonishing 404 lbs (184 kgs) from a single-queen colony in one season (you can get higher figures by 'cheating' with multiple queen colonies). I reckon that could be as many as 16 or more Langstroth supers!

Apparently Mr Aebi lives in Santa Cruz, California where his bees can forage eucalyptus from January to June, and then an even bigger flow of blackberry & clover in June and July. I bet it's fine tasting honey too. Enough to keep his neighbours happy!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


Sad to hear that two fellow bloggers on either side of the Atlantic are concerned with neighbours. Rufus felt he had to move his bees from North London to an undisclosed village; the other doesn't want urban neighbours to know that bees may be nearby, so I'm being very discreet about that location.

I once kept bees in my uncle's large (by British standards) suburban garden in southern England. One neighbour had been stung by his bees years before, so decided to become a beekeeper (good for her!). She often looked like she'd been in a boxing match with puffy eyes after she'd been stung (I never did figure out why she was stung so much.)

I eventually had to move my bees from his garden (I still miss the fantastic honey they brought in) because his son-in-law was stung, had a bad reaction and was severely warned off by his doctor. Conscientious as I'd like to think I am, even then I thought the doctor over-reacted. And I'm glad to say the victim thinks so too now -- he has since been stung since with no alarming results.

I'm lucky that my neighbours are very good even though one got stung on the tip of his nose once. I laughed heartily -- but not before he laughed first!

I only keep nucs (small mating colonies) in the garden now mainly because my black cat has threatened to leave home if I ever bring a full colony in again. I well remember sitting in the garden once -- she jumped on my lap and after about a minute a bee landed on the very tip of her black nose, Whether she was actually stung I'll never know because I have never seen a tiny cat scale a seven foot wall so fast. She didn't return 'til nightfall. The rest of the household (and visitors) have escaped sting-free (so far).

Oh, BTW, Rufus, I do hope bee stings in the hindquarters aren't responsible for that condition known as megarectum?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

New bee blogger

There's a new bee blogger on the block who kindly emailed me. Phang is a new beekeeper, in a city somewhere in the USA (I haven't figured out where yet, but they've been having rather nasty weather recently). She is concerned about a factoid she has heard somewhere:
They say that every time the beekeeper opens the hive, about 150 bees die, and for a somewhat nonsensical city dweller this is the kind of number that rocks every decision about managing the colonies.
I've not actually heard that one before. I suspect that for some beekeepers the figure is very much higher (no pointing fingers!), but if you are careful, you should be able to keep the fatalities many fewer than that.

Instead of rather outdated honey shows, maybe really competitive beekeepers would like to start a competition to see you can handle their bees most gently -- the winner being the one with the fewest squashed bees.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The biggest non-story of the year?

Someone somewhere is short of news and has no knowledge of bees or one hell of a good sense of humour. I think I should quote the story -- from an un-named BBC journalist -- in full:
A beekeeper is appealing for help to trace about 30,000 honey bees which have disappeared from a hive he operates in south Worcestershire.

They were last seen at Nursery Close, Pershore, on Thursday evening.

Police said the bees could cost £100 to replace and the owner cannot explain why they suddenly left their home.

People are being asked to report if they see any swarm and are being warned the bees are likely to set up home in old chimneys, barns and trees.

A West Mercia Police spokesman said: "The bees could have travelled in any direction.

"The owner cannot explain why they suddenly left their home, where there is a second hive, which remains stable."

Anyone with information is asked to contact police.
Non-beekeepers amongst you might like to know that the bees almost certainly “swarmed” -- as natural an occurrence as night following day. I reckon Britain will have tens of thousands of swarming episodes over the next few weeks as bees prepare to start new colonies.

Amazingly the story was also reported by two UK national newspapers and others around the world. I'd love to know who managed to start this story. Next week's story: “The Pope IS a Catholic”.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Nine million bees on the move

One of the strangest bee migrations is happening just now. Six hundred starter colonies containing nine million bees and their queens arrived by plane in Alaska from California. They will be distributed to a couple hundred people in the Southcentral Beekeepers Association in Anchorage, Alaska and a few professional beefarmers. It's too difficult to overwinter bees in Alaska -- hence the airlift.

The new Pope's attitude to women

This story may be of some relief -- or indeed of some concern -- to female readers. Just how did this little incident shape the views of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, towards women?
... he (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) accepted Hofbauer's invitation to visit a beekeeping association ... Joseph, he said, was riveted watching the bees swarm over their hive. “The cardinal pointed to the queen and said, ‘You see the power of females in society,’” he said.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Firework vandalism

I mentioned the vandalism in one of my apiaries during the winter, but at least they didn't put a firework in the hives! In Caldecote, Cambridgeshire UK:
Two hives were bombarded with bricks and a firework was set off inside another during the attack. Cambridgeshire Police are investigating the incident and plan to use the firework as evidence.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Dutch colonies settle in Northern Ireland

Imported Dutch bumblebees (orange of course) are coming to the rescue of Northern Irish strawberries (in greenhouses of course). The spring has been so chilly that local honeybee populations haven't built up sufficiently for effective pollination.

Save the Green Planet

Live on a mountain by yourself with nothing but bees for company, and it's entirely possible that you, too, could believe that beings from Andromeda will destroy Earth by the next lunar eclipse.
So begins a review of Save the Green Planet, a new film about a crazed beekeeper who thinks he can save the world by kidnapping what he believes is an extraterrestrial masquerading as a corporate executive. The good news is that:
... unlike just about every other American action movie, this film knows how to embrace momentum without sacrificing challenges to the mind or the soul

Honey helps calcium uptake

Research funded by the US Honey Board and led by a researcher at Purdue University, Indiana, USA has shown that honey helps calcium absorption -- in rats.

Since 200 million people have osteoporosis which according to the World Health Organisation now rates second to cardiovascular disease as a global healthcare concern, the prospects look rather interesting for the honey industry.

No quarter given in Taiwan honey fraud

Taiwan beekeepers are calling for stricter controls over honey labelling according to a report in the China Post
The calls were made after consumers were shocked by the news report that up to four-quarters of honey products sold in Taiwan are either fake or below standards.
Four quarters indeed! I think they meant three. But enough of this pedantry.

The fake honey is said to blended sugars, water and chemical fragrants. Some of it had 20-640 pollens per gramme when real honey, they say, should have 2000+. Some fake honey even claimed ISO quality certification -- proving what I always thought of ISO quality: never mind the contents, admire the process.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Testing for resistant varroa

As resistance of honeybees to fluvalinate and coumaphos grows in the USA, USDA has launched a deliberately low-tech resistance test. Two samples of bees are placed in jars, exposed to strips of fluvalinate and coumaphos for six hours. Dead mites and remaining live mites are counted: mite kills below 50% indicate resistance, below 25% indicates “full resistance”.

British beekeepers have had access to a similar test for pyrethroid resistant mites for at least one season now. (Full instructions here.)


Monday, April 18, 2005

More Stoneleigh

Brenda Ball of Rothamsted spoke at Stoneleigh of some intriguing findings in varroa-hit colonies in New Zealand.

In untreated colonies that succumbed to varroa, they found surprisingly few signs of viruses. And none that seemed to be the cause of the colony death. However they did find some KBV (Kashmir Bee Virus) and it did seem to be “associated” with colony deaths. And the KBV is similar to the Canadian strain. It's a bit of a puzzle.


Saturday, April 16, 2005

Stoneleigh 2005

Lots of goodies at today's BBKA Spring Convention at Stoneleigh (the one-day exhibition with lecture programme). Well over 2000 beekeepers poured into the Agricultural Showground to snap up bargains, hear the latest news and gossip!

A good lecture programme as usual, but what a pity Brenda Ball's talk on fungi to combat varroa was held in the smaller of the lecture theatres -- lots of us were turned away at the 100+ venue filled up 15 minutes before the lecture started. So I'm afraid I didn't hear the latest.

Some excellent new books for sale. Like Pollen: the Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, a sumptuous coffee-table style book but with incredible electron microscope colour images of pollen grains. It's not cheap, but the reproductions are beautiful.

There's also a new Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland -- all 23 of them. Compact, clear and desirable!

The Irish were there in force -- with a musical trio to boot -- promoting the forthcoming Apimondia in Dublin. Nice brochure, but rumour has it you'd be better off making your own accommodation arrangements as the agency linked to Apimondia doesn't seem to have negotiated the best possible deal for delegates.

We can expect to see more of biological treatment for wax moth -- and less parabichlorobenzene in honey, I hope. Vita (Europe) Ltd has acquired Swarm SAS and with it B401 (Certan) which it will now market globally. Previously B401 was not easy to find.

A new start-up caught my eye -- a company based at Rothamsted developing a bee-sniffer system. Inscentinel Ltd claims it can train bees in 20 minutes to recognise and react to specific indicator scents. The technology is very compact and they are investigating health, anti-smuggling and food quality applications. Sensing TB infections is relatively simple, cancers are proving more difficult. Watch this space!


Friday, April 15, 2005

New British Bee Cenre

According to a new book Bollocks to Alton Towers (a reference to Britain's biggest fairground) there's a new beekeeping display centre in Cornwall, England not far from the famed Eden Project. The Porteath Bee Centre
... features glass-protected displays of bees at work alongside honey-making equipment and a history of bee-keeping. Demonstrations for schools and other educational groups include handling bees without protection.

There is a small tearoom and a shop which sells produce from the centre's 200 hives, including mustard, fudge and mead as well as the honey itself ... Porteath Bee Centre, St Minver, Wadebridge, Cornwall, 01208 862192.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Here's a good piece of trivia to spark a debate:

Question: What is the most numerous domesticated animal in the United States?
Answer: The honeybee.
Hands up those who think honeybees are domesticated?

UPDATE 15/04/05 Some definitions of domesticated from the web and my verdicts on bee domestication:

  • animals tamed and taught to live with humans -- NOPE!
  • animals whose breeding and living conditions are under human control for the purposes of using them for food -- close
  • domesticated animals whose collective behavior, life cycle, or physiology has been altered as a result of their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generation -- somewhat
  • an animal that has been tamed or reclaimed from a wild state -- NOPE!

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Irrational rationality

It's election time in the UK and the following blog excerpt has the ring of a politician speaking:

A friend of a blogger explained why she reacted wildly when a bee comes near:
‘It’s a simple cost/benefit analysis,’ she explains afterwards. ‘I could just watch the bee and risk getting stung, or flail my arms around wildly, make a total fool of myself, and avoid all possibility of stinging. I always choose the latter.’

Which is fair enough, I suppose. Nice to know that deep down, despite the apparent craziness of this lady, she is actually beeing being rational about things.
Ahem. No! She is being totally irrational. I can think of no better way of getting stung than flailing my arms about as soon as I see a bee. Being the mean sort of person that I am, I'd quite like to take that friend to one of my apiaries to watch the fun.

Allergies to bee products

Health Canada is raising a small alert about allergies to bee products, not just stings.
It has been reported that atopic and asthmatic individuals may be at an increased risk of allergic reactions, possibly anaphylaxis, after ingestion of products containing royal jelly. Individuals with seasonal allergic rhinitis (eg pollen allergies ) may also be at an increased risk for similar serious allergic reactions to bee pollen.
But don't fret. Health Canada admits that in nearly seven years it received 14 reports of suspected adverse reactions involving bee products, only ten of which were considered serious.

Wasp alarm clock

Today a queen wasp visited me in my office. I politely showed it the window. It reminded me what happened three years ago: each morning at about this time of year I was awoken by a noisy wasp flying about the room at about 6am as the sun was rising. It happened morning after morning, so we eventually realised something was up. Then one day when I took my jeans out of the wardrobe, something fell to the ground. It was an embryo wasp nest. Then it dawned on me.

The wasp was obviously coming home through the window each evening before the curtains were drawn. Then when it was time for it to go to work next morning, it would try to leave by the window, but couldn't find a way through the drawn curtains.

Lucky that the nest was found at an early stage!

Hiving off

A couple of days ago I mentioned the new bee books that have suddenly hit North American bookstores. Well, here's another interesting review, this time from Christian Science Monitor (kindly passed on by Martin).
In Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, Tammy Horn ... introduces some big political ideas that are very much worth knowing about; for instance, the concept of the American colonies having been “hived off” from England. The comfortable classes there had felt free to think of the poor and unemployed as “drones” who had no useful function in society and could be left to die, metaphorically or otherwise. Many of these “disposable” individuals went on to new and productive lives in the New World, where they came to regard certain officials of the British Colonial government as the real “drones” instead.

Horn's book is also full of the kind of rich detail that a narrow focus, paradoxically, makes room for.

One of my favorite bits is the Revolutionary War story of Charity Crabtree, a Quaker girl charged with warning George Washington of the advance by General Cornwallis's troops.

As she is about to set off on horseback, she knocks over her hives; the bees start attacking the Redcoats. She is able to break free and deliver her message; Washington credits her with saving the country.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The best bee day in the world?

For anyone in the UK: don't forget it's the BBKA Spring Beekeeping Convention at Stoneleigh this Saturday (16 April). It's widely regarded as one of the best beekeeping days in the world -- exhibitions, demonstrations and lectures -- and of course bargains in equipment sales.

New York Bees Department

Thanks to Val of FlyingFur in New Jersey for a link to a good beekeeping article in the New York Times. The picture of bees inflight returning to their hive having foraged for skunk cabbage is alone a good reason to look at the link.

If, like me, you'd never heard of it, here's the lowdown on skunk cabbage from one of its researchers.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

TaqMan Virus Survey results

Last year I sent some bees off to the National Bee Unit to take part in their TaqMan Virus Survey. And this morning the results arrived (with an apology for the delay).

Of a total of 458 samples from across the UK, just three colonies in two apiaries showed up positive for the presence of Kashmir Bee Virus (KBV). The affected colonies are near Manchester and Hull. My bees are KBV-free.

According to their summary report (small pdf file), the findings suggest that KBV is not necessarily an exotic bee virus spread through imports or bee migrations. KBV may have been here for some time:
... TaqMan products from the three positive samples were cloned and sequenced, and the results confirmed the amplification of KBV sequence. All three colonies were in normal condition with respect to size for the time of year.
The implications for bee management are that varroa levels should be controlled to prevent viruses that are usually present from becoming a problem:
Many honey bee viruses occur in colonies as unapparent infections, they are present but in general do little harm. However, some associated with uncontrolled varroa infestations can intensify the effects of varroosis by acting as secondary associated pathogens and cause significant damage. Since viruses cannot be controlled directly, it is essential to control varroa effectively and in good time, before mite levels reach economic injury levels.

The KBV finding does not change the approach to varroa control. It is important to treat the vector, and keep mite levels down to below damage thresholds. Further work is planned in 2005 to evaluate and validate the use of TaqMan PCR for specific recognition of bee viruses using different strains of KBV. This will be done through a joint CSL/Rothamsted research project and through the continuing applied experimental programme.


Friday, April 08, 2005

Swarm catching is easy after this

Go catch some bees -- a new game. You have to catch bees in a bubble. And if you are as bad at this as me, you'll be mortified when you see other people's scores. Thanks to Rufus for pointing this one out. Gee, thanks Rufus!


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

New bee books from North America

Bonanza! reports on four new books relating to honeybees:
Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, the Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World (Free Press) is beekeeper Holley Bishop's chronicle of 10,000 years of honey and its various and significant roles in medicine, religion, science, mythology and the arts. She visits a professional beekeeper in Florida and records his daily activities as he "robs" the bees of their honey.

In Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee
(Harmony), Hattie Ellis travels the world, from New Zealand to Utah (the Beehive State), visiting people who have been inspired by bees and honey. She also explores how bees, honey, beeswax and the hive's honeycomb structure have influenced history, religion and the arts; how bees communicate through lively, elaborate dance.

Four centuries of beekeeping, from colonial times to today, are reviewed in Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (The University Press of Kentucky). Author Tammy Horn, herself a beekeeper, offers a cultural, social and technological history of beekeeping, from the time the practice was introduced into the New World by the British as a form of livelihood and sustenance to the present, when bees are used by the U.S. military as "bomb-sniffers."

The various ways in which bees and honey have enriched people's lives since prehistory are discussed in Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind (Bantam) by Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier. The authors focus on bees' link to humans; the role bees and the hive have played in art, literature, medicine, religion and cooking; and the importance to humans of conserving bees' environments. Also included are honey-based recipes.

Follow that butterfly

Butterflies can identify nectar sources from 200 meters -- and that's why the flutter about so apparently aimlessly. Rothamsted researchers have tagged them and tracked them -- similar to the way they have tracked bumblebees.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Greek honey scare

Tests have revealed that over half of the main Greek honey brands contain excessive amounts of parabichlorobenzene, a chemical used to combat wax moths (which if left unchecked can turn a honeycomb to dust). Parabichlorobenzene is often known in Britain as PDB crystals.

Another report contains the usual information that the chemical is only dangerous if consumed in huge amounts (40 kgs of honey in a day) and that the EU limits are very low. Parabichlorobenzene has been associated with cancer. It seems that the findings are linked to a February alert from Cyprus.

I hear reports that a biological control for wax moth is soon to be marketed widely in Europe -- more information soon. UPDATE: a biological control B104 is being marketed globally.

Honey travel destination

Last weekend's UK Sunday Times travel supplement reported in some depth on a trip to see the honey hunters of Nepal.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Bumblebee re-introduction

According to Scotland's Sunday Herald, entymologists at Southampton University (UK) have been awarded £180,000 over three years to encourage the spread of the great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) to mainland UK. The bee has been extinct in mainland Britain and is now only found in the Outer Hebrides (islands off NW Scotland).

Dr Dave Goulson of Southampton will study why the Hebrides are so suitable for bumblebees and where similar habitat can be found and encouraged on the mainland.

I have to confess I'm struggling to see the relevance of this research in the overall scale of things from the reports available -- anyone have more information?

Here's a good BBC feature on bumblebees.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Happy bees

On the best day of the year so far, I was able to inspect my bees for the first time. Despite the vandalism during the winter, the four colonies were in good health. In fact the colony that had suffered most with broken frames had done a remarkable clean-up job.

 Posted by Hello
As I was inspecting the first colony I noticed an odd smell -- part benign, but part nasty. Since smells are a key indicator of disease, I was a little concerned. Then I discovered the source: just below my nose on the veil, was the most enormous bee poo I've ever seen. I can assure you that what must have been a very large bee is now very much smaller.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Small brain is no bar to intelligence

Honeybee brains might be tiny, but they house pretty effective memories. Researchers at the Australian National University have found that they use abstract rules to solve novel problems. Flying in tunnels bees had to remember patterns to be able to choose the right route to receive a reward:
The researchers varied the length of the tunnel to test the insects’ memory and found they could remember a pattern up to five seconds after first seeing it, showing that working memory in the honeybee was more robust than previously believed.

“Impressively, trained honeybees could even learn the order of patterns in a sequence, and choose to ‘pay attention to’, for example, only the first of two patterns in a sequence, while ‘ignoring’ the second (or vice versa) and use it to choose a correct path in the maze,” Dr Zhang said.

“They could apply that ‘knowledge of the order’ in a sequence of new patterns to make a correct choice in the maze. These results suggest a potential for greater learning abilities in honeybees than had been expected.“
The researchers say that this hints at a primitive intelligence in a small brain.

The scientific paper can be found from here.

Manuka hope for Pope

Manuka marketing plumbs new depths:

New Zealand's 42 Below's “chief vodka bloke” has just sent the Pope some manuka vodka to make him feel better ...

The 20 foot beeswax candle that won't go out

There's been a recall of 2000 twenty-foot beeswax rope candles in the US because they don't extinguish (or distinguish) themselves as they should. So the candle doesn't put itself out? ... hmmm.