bees, honey and other sticky subjects

Sunday, July 31, 2005

A bee feast

A field of borage much loved by bees that has just been cut for green manure. Lots of bumblebees were still working the cut flowers. This field photographed today in Berkshire, England is probably “set-aside” (see update) -- encouraging farmers to grow non-productive crops for the benefit of the environment and to avoid certain crop surpluses. Posted by Picasa

The bees on the streets of NYC

A nice story about beekeeping on 48th Street in New York City, thanks to Val. Shame that the photo of a frame happens to be a frame of foundation with four rather lonely looking bees. The beekeepers are also rather over-protected. Maybe life is tough for bees on the streets of NYC.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Synthetic honey

Scientists at Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu claim to have produced synthetic honey in the laboratory by mimicking the process that takes place inside honeybees. They see “great scope for developing this honey making as an industrial venture”. [groan]

The mystery honey revealed?

I think I may have found the answer to my mystery about this year's honey that was so white and with a high sugar content, but no real flavour. I had a suggestion from the USA that it might be privet, but privet honey in this country is a nasty bitter honey.

I looked up the bible of Plants and Beekeeping and this is what FN Howes had to say:
The honey from willow-herb is very pale in colour and sometimes water white and of good density without any distinctive flavour. Some consider it flavourless though very sweet. It is valuable for blending with dark and strong-flavoured honeys. Granulation takes place with a fine grain and is not long delayed as a rule. Wax or comb ... is very pale in colour.
So, willow herb or Epilobium angustifolium it appears to be (I'll attempt some pollen analysis later.) See update.

Willow herb is an early coloniser of waste land but is soon pushed out by succeeding plants, although it is often maintains a niche on roadsides. Perhaps there has been some major woodland clearance in this area that I don't know about.

Road-side willow herb Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Aussies want more bureaucracy!

As the Australian wholesale honey prices drop by 66%, Aussie beekeepers are calling for tighter labelling laws to ensure that Australian honey can be easily identified on supermarket shelves. Cheap imports have come in to make up for poor Australian harvests during its prolonged drought.

Monday, July 25, 2005

From a grub to a queen

There was a fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme (To Win the Peace) on at the weekend (heard while extracting honey) presented by John Cole about why Winston Churchill, the most popular man in the country, lost the 1945 British Election. In short, Churchill was being influenced by right-wing Tories, but British society had undergone a social revolution during the war and while grateful to Churchill wanted none of the 1930's Tories.

There were several choice pieces -- one (repeated here), Churchill's assessment of Clement Attlee, the first Labour Prime Minister:

Harold Macmillan reminisced that when Churchill was once told that Clement Attlee had performed well as PM, he replied that “if any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee”.

Defending against the Africanized honeybee

A Floridian journalist reports on the State agriculture department's attempt to put the Africanized honeybee in context:
[the Department] said in the release: Florida beekeepers are consistently among the nation's leaders in honey production with 17 million pounds produced each year. Honey is only part of the story. For every dollar of honey produced in Florida, approximately $150 is generated in honey-bee-pollination services that allow fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts and other foods to [grow].

So learn to live with them. But, the state wants you to know, there are defensive measures you can take if attacked: Run!

... Yeah, right. Ducking into a building or car is OK. But running a quarter-mile in a zigzag pattern, while wildly waving arms and screaming in panic, conflicts with another coping mechanism -- learning to live with growing older.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Ice-white honey

 Posted by Picasa

I brought in the honey harvest yesterday. It was a good crop in terms of quantity, but of disappointing quality.

From four hives at the start of the season, I've harvested about 400 lbs (almost 200 kgs). There was lots of very light honey and some very, very light honey. I don't think it was oil seed rape, but I can't think what else it might have been. See update.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Bumble's buddleia

 Posted by Picasa
Bumble bee enjoying the butterfly's delight: buddleia blossom. This blossom is on a large bush in my garden which has a bouquet just like a strong honey.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Arizona -- where varroa are toast in summer and beekeepers keep a low profile

Pollination of Arizona's cotton, seed, fruit and nut crops is now suffering from a lack of honey bees. Losses of 50% of colonies from varroa are reported as typical. But two interesting things have emerged in an article in the Tuscon Citizen.

Beekeepers aren't finding many varroa mites in the hot weather: “They are very crispy here because they don't have wax on them to keep them from drying up,” Diana Sammataro, a researcher, said. “If they fall off the brood, they are toast.”

But the pollination problems are being exacerbated because beekeepers are often criticized for having beehives anywhere near populated areas.

“There are very few hobbyists anymore,” [Jim Hawk, owner of Southwest Bee Supply] said. The number of colonies in Tucson has dropped from an estimated 3,000 hives 20 years ago to fewer than a dozen today.

“There are very few hobbyists anymore,” he said. The number of colonies in Tucson has dropped from an estimated 3,000 hives 20 years ago to fewer than a dozen today.

“It's not fun anymore to keep bees, especially with these mites,” Sammataro added. “Everyone wants to be inside doing computer stuff.”
Oh yeah?!

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

President Yuschenko keeps beekeeping

I'm glad to see that President Viktor Yuschenko of Ukraine is not losing interest in his lifelong interest beekeeping. He is on an official visit to Japan and will:
... visit Tamagawa University researching and genetic laboratories. Especially President's attention will be focused on the Institute of Beekeeping of Tamagawa.
The expansion of the EU to include countries where beekeeping is valued could be of real benefit to global beekeeping.

Oh Danny Boy!

The summer's gone ... There's one thing I don't like about beekeeping. In this part of the world they start preparing for winter about now. What a depressing thought!

The signs that the main flow is over are to be seen around my solar wax extractor. Bees are sniffing out that little bit of honey that leaks out. Despite so many flowers in bloom, they are now into scavenging mode. For weeks now they've ignored scraps of honey and wax around the garden -- now they are a great focus of excitement.

UPDATE 22 July: It's not just bees who think summer has already gone. Puffins do too. And they do a bit of “beaking” as a fond farewell.

As an aside, I've never managed to see a puffin. I went recently to the Dorset on the south coast of England -- but the best I could report was seeing a man who thought he'd seen some puffins near Dancing Ledge.

Hot, hot, hot!

A quick diversion from bees, but have a look at this fire map of Africa over the past ten days.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Stinking Willie Week

Root Out Ragwort Week is actually next week, but here in Hampshire, ragwort has been in full flower for quite some time and I wonder if uprooting it now will have any effect on its seed-setting.

Ragwort -- known as Stinking Willie in Scotland -- has long been regarded as a pernicious weed. With its bright yellow flowers commonly seen along roadsides, railways and in fields, ragwort is poisonous to horses and livestock -- Ingestion of the weed causes liver damage which is cumulative.

Bees like it, but beekeepers don't. Its honey is reputed to have a nasty strong bitter taste.

It is estimated that some 500 horses died as a result of ragwort poisoning each year. Common ragwort is classed as an injurious weed under the 1959 Weeds Act and it is an offence to allow it to spread. Each plant can produce 150,000 seeds, which carry in the air, and can remain dormant for up to two decades. Events during this week are co-ordinated by the British Horse Society.

I notice that there was once some sort of ragwort apologist site (cache), but it has been weeded out.

ragwort Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Honey and Dust -- a quest for honey

A new book Honey & Dust -- Travels in search of sweetness by Piers Moore Ede is about a quest for the world's best honeys.
[After an accident] A stint on an organic farm belonging to a Swiss émigré in northern Italy helped to rebuild Moore Ede's physical strength, but the author also acquired a deep passion for honey from the bee-keeping owner. Moore Ede is more of a bee-keeper manqué than the genuine article, a man more in love with the delicious product and with the symbolism, lore and history of apiculture, than the act of tending bees itself.

... Moore Ede sees honey as the quintessence of this cyclic exchange between man and the natural environment, and also as a food, medicine, energising aphrodisiac and even as a portal to the unconscious, given that some wild forms have almost hallucinogenic properties. By implication honey also stands as the symbolic holy grail for his own restored health.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Is the Minister for Bees a Queen?

I've just heard from New England that there is some amusement that the UK has a Minister for Bees (see earlier story). They wonder if she is in fact a queen and if so how that affects our Parliamentary democracy. But having read Harry Potter stories, they realise that anything goes in Britain, so we'll get by.

They were also confused by the talk of bee funding cuts. Yes, it is a bit Alice in Wonderland -- but here's what I think the Minister for Bees is saying (I paraphrase of course!):

We are always looking to save on expenditure and are making general cuts in the Agriculture Department. We implied that we'd make cuts in bee funding, but now realise that we could meet some stiff opposition. It's such a piddling amount of money that I think we should prepare an escape route and stop all the fuss and bother of trying to save a measly amount.

But just in case, we'll leave the door open in case we can force through cuts by claiming that we're actually making the system more efficient.

Small business backs beekeepers

It's catching! The Forum of Private Businesses (FPB) representing 25,000 UK firms is lending its support to UK beekeepers trying to ensure that the bee inspectorate does not suffer cuts. Yesterday the UK Minister for Bees denied cuts were inevitable.

FPB, campaigners against red tape, see no problem with tighter bee regulation:
Nick Goulding, chief executive of the FPB, said that although small businesses had welcomed recent Government commitments to reduce regulation and red tape, "we have always argued that good regulation can have positive effects ... If the Government is serious about wanting to trim regulation and red tape we would be happy to provide ministers with a hit list that will help small businesses and at the same time maintain a large population of busy honey bees working for all of us".

The year of the swarm

Two swarms in my village in two days (and neither of them mine!) I've had more swarm calls this year than at any time since varroa hit in the mid 1990s. I'm not sure if that's good or bad news. Are there more feral colonies about? I hope not. They'll be harbouring varroa -- and maybe foulbrood. To have two swarms so late in the season is also a bit of a puzzle.

Tonight I picked up the largest swarm I've ever taken. It was so big I thought it might have been an absconding colony, albeit not quite full-size. An elderly woman who claims to like wildlife had sprayed it last night -- to little effect. I gave her a good telling off!

I gave the rescued swarm to a new beekeeper who intends to let them start building comb in my temporary beer-box hive (Grolsch, if you must know) and then after a few days transfer them to her new hive. That way any disease they may be carrying in honey in their stomachs will be used up in wax-building and can then be disposed of. That's the theory anyway.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Miracle cure

I was stopped by a villager this morning who told me that my honey had “immediately cured” his hayfever that he'd suffered from for years. We couldn't quite figure out which pollens cause his hayfever. He says tree and grass pollen. Unfortunately, he's diabetic, so he doesn't buy much ...

Minister for Bees responds to Badger

In a follow-up to yesterday's piece by Michael Badger on the Today Programme, the UK Government Minister for Bees came on the radio this morning to deny that cuts in the bee inspection service have been made.

Lord Bach said that no cuts on bees have been made and that none will be made until 2008. He said that new methods to control EFB (European Foulbrood) were being tested and that if successful could give beekeepers more responsibility for controlling EFB. But, he said, if the trials were not successful no cuts would be made.

Now, how will success be defined?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Bees wasting time communicating

There's an odd report on research from Bristol University biologists that says that in certain circumstances bees, ants and other insects should forget their communication methods to tell their peers where the food is and should get out and look for it themselves.

I'm looking for the original research.

Not quite buggered off

Insectblog appears to have gone into hibernation, but has left an excellent listing of creepy crawly sites.

British Beekeeper wins top radio slot

Congratulations to Michael Badger of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) who became a reporter for a day and got a great slot on British radio's top political agenda-setting Today Programme.

He won a competition to become a reporter at the Great Yorkshire (Agricultural) Show and did an excellent piece on beekeeping and government cuts in the bee inspection service. You can listen to his report here. Nice one!

See Update.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Relocation expert relocated

Just back from a short break, I discover that a “Wildlife Relocation Expert” just couldn't hack it with bees. Eric McCool was stung 100 times and relocated to hospital after failing to remove bees from a church wall in Pennsylvania that was oozing with honey.

A beekeeper has been called. So much for the generic expert.

But another report says he finished the job and said that the bee is the “most dangerous animal in the nation” killing more humans than any other. I suspect that man is the most dangerous animal.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Did bees sense Chernobyl?

Here's an interesting anecdote. Who knows if it's true:

A new book about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster says that although the authorities kept quiet in the days after the disaster, bees knew.

“The radio wasn't saying anything, and the papers weren't either, but the bees knew. They didn't come out for two days, not a single one,” claimed someone interviewed by Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl.

Now it's Arizona

Beekeepers in Arizona say that colonies have been decimated by varroa:
Up to half of the honeybee colonies in Arizona have been killed, said Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, research leader at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson.

Ken Orletsky, a beekeeper in Arizona since 1971 and former president of the Arizona Beekeepers Association, said the problem may be even more severe.

“We had 90,000 colonies in the 1970s,” Orletsky said. “I don't know if we could come up with 5,000 or maybe 10,000 now.”

... Arizona beekeepers are getting calls to take their bees to places like Colorado and Nebraska. The fear is that someday, there won't be enough bees.
In Arizona, bees are used to pollinate seed crops like onions, broccoli and lettuce, and some cotton for seed as well as citrus fruits like tangelos, grapefruit, lemons and limes.


Small-scale sustainability in Africa

Beekeeping is becoming part of sustainable living for a Limpopo (NE South Africa) farming community that has led the way in sustainable small community development for over fifty years.
“Most of our farmers are women and through this new project, they will be able to make more money to pay school fees and buy school uniforms for their children,” said community leader Cliff Shipalana.

The beekeeping project became a reality through the support of the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief Programme.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Buzz pollination

Scientific American reports on why bees buzz: the buzz is created by wing beats and also by buzz pollination techniques:
... some bees, most commonly bumblebees (genus Bombus), are capable of vibrating their wing muscles and thorax (the middle segment of their body) while visiting flowers. These vibrations shake the pollen off the flower's anthers and onto the bee's body. Some of that pollen then gets deposited on the next flower the bee visits, resulting in pollination. The bee grooms the remainder of the pollen onto special pollen-carrying structures (on the hind legs of most bees) and takes it back to the nest to feed to the larvae.
Honeybees are incapable of buzz-pollination.

Some plants such as tomatoes, green peppers and blueberries are adapted to buzz pollination by having tubular anthers with the pollen inside the tube. Vibration causes the pollen to fall out of the anther tube.

The definition of a British summer: Three hot days and a thunderstorm

As I look out my window this summer evening that would pass for a cold autumn day, I fear that the honey harvest will disappoint for the second successive year.

For once, I've managed my colonies reasonably well and they are probably in the best condition I've yet managed to take advantage of the main nectar flow that happens in this part of the world between the end of June and mid-July.

The flow period was preceded by some really hot (nearly 30C - that's hot for here!) weather, but, as soon as the nectar flow was about to start, thunder clouds rolled in. Yesterday, huge hailstones lay around like snow.

Still, “mustn't grumble” (as the stoic English say), tomorrow is another day and better weather is forecast.

Monday, July 04, 2005

No varroa found on Labrador

There's one more place besides Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand's South Island where varroa has not yet been identified -- it's Newfoundland and Labrador. (What bees would want to live there anyway?, the insensitive observer might ask). They don't even have the tracheal mite.

And they want to keep it that way -- they now have a local regulation barring the import of bees into the Newfoundland and Labrador province.


Sunday, July 03, 2005

Make Poverty History G8 Campaign

A village church in Hampshire, England encircled by a human chain in support of the Make Poverty History G8 campaign at noon today. The Campaign has really caught the imagination of British people at least.  Posted by Picasa

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A microcosm of the African trade conundrum

On this the day of the Live 8 concerts (you might like to sign the Live 8 petition) across the globe, here's a story from Africa that surprised me:
It is an undisputable fact that the anti-tobacco lobby in the western world is determined as ever to completely phase out, off the face of the earth, Malawi's main foreign exchange earner - tobacco.

This is going to have far reaching consequences for the country that, up to now is yet to identify an acceptable alternative to the crop.

But should Malawians smile when they consider there is a chance to make Honey, the hidden Treasure?HOPKINS MUNDANGO NYIRENDA investigated the prospect and writes:

The government in its diversification drive have suggested many and varied products to replace tobacco like tourism, paprika, cotton, cassava and other crops. But none of the above comes anywhere near to honey ...

Beekeepers and a group of researchers in Nkondezi Village in Nkhata-Bay north have a point to prove to Malawians; that honey can replace tobacco if harnessed properly. They contend that the nectar can fetch much higher prices on the local and international markets than tobacco.
The article goes on to show that kg for kg honey fetches a higher price that tobacco. However EU regulations require high quality honey -- and that requires education. It's an interesting proposition.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Honey health website

A new webiste on the health benefits of honey has been launched. the site is run by Sharon Stajda, although her background is not clear.

The site isn't that engaging at first:
HONEY, a most assimilable carbohydrate compound, is a singularly acceptable, practical and most effective aliment to generate heat, create and replace energy, and furthermore, to form certain tissues ...
but I've had a quick perusal and there appears to be a lot of interesting information.

Papua New Guinea beekeeping

Beekeeping is growing in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea where locals are asking for technical assistance from the government. The local association of 200 people had nine beehives, recently increased to 20. This is not hobbyist beekeeping, it's an economic enterprise.

The National (where this story appeared) has a curious website for a newspaper -- it took me six clicks to find out in what country it's based.