10 days ago, honeybees returned to Gelli Uchaf full time. They’ve been visiting regularly, but a surprise phone call on Monday heralded our neighbour Andy, dropping off a hive he’d collected from higher up the mountain, just after teatime. When Andy emerged from his car in full white suited paraphernalia, it was clear a few bees had escaped in transit. A mini cloud milled around the yard. The young swallows became excited overhead, as they do in their pre dusk evening displays …
Using an old wood trolley we heaved the lower part of the hive up through the field to the location of the ill fated hive of winter 2013, which survived barely 2 months before succumbing to the freeze drying Easterlies. No problems with this, but the upper ‘super’ was leaking bees as Andy carried it up later, I stood a respectful distance behind, sensibly clad (or so I thought!) in my black waterproof trousers and raincoat which I’d used earlier in the days for some vigorous ditch clearing.
As the hive was joined up again, more bees inevitably filled the air, and even this novice bee observer could detect an angry tone to the inevitable buzzing. I started to withdraw, and then had a bee fly full tilt into my face. A little unnerved, I speeded up, and then, about 60 yards from the hive, felt one land on my cheek, and stay there, gyrating. Having always felt that insects will leave you alone, I stood waiting for it to fly off, and it was only after a few seconds I felt the first hint of the sting. Brushing it off, I moved inside after picking up a ribbed plantain leaf to rub onto the stung area – this is a remarkably effective and always to hand analgesic if crushed and rubbed onto horsefly or wasp stings, working within a couple of minutes.
36 hours later as I woke to the unpleasant experience of swollen eyelids and tingly lips, and a spreading facial swelling, I thought some better basic bee behavioral and sting anatomy knowledge, was needed.
For beekeepers, there are several clues from the above tale which hint at my almost inevitable fate.
Bees hate disturbance, and so the jolting from the trip in the car would have annoyed them. Once stung, a worker honeybee will die, but in the process the complex mix of chemicals in the sting acts as a pheromone to trigger other worker bees to attack – either by charging (flying into my face), or actually stinging a perceived threat. Andy’s bee suit had a number of stings embedded in it, so would have been a potent source of such fight inducing chemicals. Bees are naturally more likely to attack dark objects (hence my poor clothing choice), since predator species – badgers/bears tend to be dark, and bees also dislike the smell of sweat.
But what about the actual stinger mechanism? Rather than being as simple as a tubular hypodermic needle, it consists of 3 separate structures – left and right sided barbed stylets, joined to an unbarbed dorsal stylet . These 3 components lock together in a similar manner to a mini grip resealable plastic bag. This enables the 4 attached skeletal plates and their associated muscles to be able to move the left and right barbed sections independently in reciprocating fashion, to drive the sting deep into the tissue. Before this happens the bee prepares to sting by flexing its’ abdominal muscles and positioning its’ legs to drive the point of the dorsal stylet in through the skin at close to a 90 degree angle.
The really clever bit is the effective action of the barbed stylets. Very recent work by Chinese scientists (and the brilliant electron micrograph image above is from their open source paper “Barbs Facilitate the Helical Penetration of Honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) Stingers by Jianing Wu, Shaoze Yan, Jieliang Zhao, Yuying Ye”) have shown that the barbs are slightly offset in a helical fashion, so that as they are forced deeper into the tissue, they cause the sting to rotate in a clockwise fashion. All this means that the sting becomes very firmly embedded, and since it’s then ripped out of the abdomen with attendant damage to other structures, the bee will not survive. But it also means that the sting is less easy to dislodge. Attached to the sting is a venom sac, and a couple of umbrella valves on the 2 side stylets ensure bee venom is rhythmically pulsed down the central sting canal into the tissue of the victim. Some venom will escape at the surface and act as the pheromonal cue to other bees to move into attack mode.
This venom injection can continue for minutes, even if the sting and venom sac have separated from the bee. The interlocking structure of the 3 sting stylets allows the venom to diffuse out at varying depths of the tissue, to provide more impact than if a single hypodermic needle type structure was employed. An impressive design, which can be appreciated more clearly with the images available if you click here, and in the Chinese paper here.
From a practical view point, this means that if you get a bee sting, one of the best things to do is immediately remove the sting using something like a credit card to scrape it from the skin surface. This will limit the potential for further venom injection. And only then maybe rub on the plantain leaf! Fortunately 48 hours saw maximal swelling, which then gradually dispersed over a few days.
After all this bee inspired activity, rather appropriately, last Sunday saw a lovely group from the Aberystwyth Beekeepers visit the garden, and one of them explained to me that if you watch a bee stinging, (which most people won’t do for understandable reasons!) it will rotate on the spot – presumably being driven round by the forces created by the spiral motion of the sting as it is driven through the skin.
Equally appropriately for a group of beekeepers, tea on the terrace on a perfect warm and sunny afternoon was enlivened by a swarm of ants. It was when tidying up, that we got an inkling of just how many ants had been around… the remaining milk in the jug had to be tipped away… But I also managed to see the frantic efforts of several winged males trying to mate with a virgin queen on the table top, which is of course the whole purpose of the ant’s nest annual sudden release of huge numbers of winged offspring, carefully nurtured within the nest by unwinged workers, in just such suitable conditions.I also suffered an ant sting, from an ant which got trapped beneath my tea shirt as I was clearing up, but fortunately not in the same league as the bee’s for physiological impact. I suspect that the ants were the reddish brown species of tree ant Myrmica ruginodis.
And this led to my discovery of the wonderful world of myrmecology, the study of ants. One of its most eminent researchers, the American scientist E.O.Wilson, has spent a lifetime investigating them – apparently in part resulting from a fishing accident as a child which left him with visual impairment in one eye, such that he could see close up and tiny, better than normal distance vision. (Click here for more). He co-wrote the definitive myrmecology book “The Ants”, which won the Pullitzer prize for non fiction in 1991. (Perhaps of more appeal to the layman is a scaled back version Journey to the Ants: a Story of Scientific Exploration published in 1994.) Until I can get my hands on a copy of this, there is an appealing website with much useful information on ant behaviour and ecology – Myrm’s Ant Nest. Click here for more.
I thought that this concluded ant swarm events for 2014, having had the first obvious swarm event of black ants at the more usual time of the end of July, whilst hay making. However I happened to wander into our High meadow 3 days ago when the Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus, had decided that NOW was the right time to swarm. Swarming of most ant species is usually very tightly linked to favourable weather conditions, so that predators are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of above ground insects energing from multiple nests, and the winged form of the ants have the best chance to mate with genetically different groups, and disperse to set up new colonies. Even so, the mortality of young female queens is huge, though still not enough to dent the fact that the biomass of all the world’s ants currently exceeds that of all humans. But since queens can remain active egg layers for up to 15 years, only the odd one needs to survive to ensure species success…Lasius flavus are the most common ant hill forming species of meadow ants in the UK. Very large above ground nests can form over years, (about a litre of soil per year is shifted above ground, giving a hint at an ant hill’s age), but the ants themselves are rarely seen above ground. Unlike many other ant species, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with a very small number of species of root feeding aphids, kept in special chambers below the soil surface in the nests. The ants eat some of the weaker aphids as a protein source, and also eat the aphid’s sugary excretions as a carbohydrate source, within a mini ant created environment managed with almost agricultural like husbandry efficiency. And by so doing, create unique beneficial effects on the surrounding soil and vegetation. Click here and here for more.
Our largest ant hill was covered with mainly winged virgin queens, slowly making their way up the tallest grass stems… There were far fewer obvious winged males around, and even the occasional much smaller and wingless worker ant… But none of the queens seemed to be flying. Had I missed this? Were all the queens already mated, since this was quite late in the day? Maybe this is why I saw so few winged males, since mating is so violent that the male ant dies almost immediately afterwards. Click here for a bit more on basic ant anatomy.
There were even some queens without wings which were already starting to make attempts to dig underground to establish new colonies. In some species the wings snap off, sometimes they are chewed off, since they would clearly be unnecessary impediments for the rest of their lives spent below ground… I can see that a new field of interest could be opening up for me, to burrow into in more detail later (2 burrowing queens below) …
The following day, the same ant hill scene was completely ant free.
I rarely have time to look for moths these days, but a trip back to Bristol for our niece’s wedding had me making a pee stop just outside Bwlch. Gazing at the cream coloured pebble dashed wall without my glasses on, I was aware of a bright yellow smudge at eye level. Pulling on my glasses revealed the reason. A pristine Canary-shouldered Thorn moth. A spectacularly pretty moth, and one I’ve only ever seen on a handful of occasions. So I wondered about the wisdom of returning to the car to bring my camera in to the urinal to take a picture for you, my dear blog readers…
But quickly rejected the idea as rash, and open to misinterpretation.
I wondered whether to point this beautiful insect out to this complete, and youngish, stranger, as I stood there, facing the wall.
I quickly came up with ” Have you ever seen one of these before?” (Having waited until our call of nature had been completed).
On towards Bristol and we passed the extraordinary interminable iron, or strictly steel, cage erected for miles around Celtic Manor for this week’s NATO summit. (Where do they store all that steel fencing for 51 weeks of the year?) And tanks on the golf course, not putters and wedges, this the scene of the Europeans’ Ryder Cup heroics in torrential rain, just under 4 years ago.
Much more suitable weather for swarming this year.
And what determined ant and bee like endeavour to protect societies’ few queens, and their 10,000 strong entourage during their brief Welsh swarm later in the week.
On past the blue capped police guarding the second severn crossing bridge, and motorway junctions, several days before the queens/leaders flew, (or drove) in.
And on to the wonderful wedding at the SS Great Britain.(Click here for more on this iconic vessel’s history, and here for more about visiting the museum.). Jenny, the bride, looked gorgeous. Russell well groomed… The bouquet was tossed, and caught …The bridal party clearly enjoying the wonderful occasion…whilst our grandchildren explored the upper decks near the riveting funnel on this, the world’s first iron hulled and propeller driven ocean going steam ship…
But if you read more in the link above, you’ll find that the vessel had so many design flaws and refits that it was nearly a year late being finished, was too big to leave Bristol docks without getting stuck, ran aground early on, and perhaps not surprisingly the commissioning firm, The Great Western Steamship Company, went bust. Eventually after multiple ownership changes and further refits, it went into reliable service ferrying immigrants to Melbourne for nearly 30 years, before being retired in the 1880’s. Like so many advances, cutting edge technology turned out to lead to a fair amount of bleeding in the early stages of development.I was fascinated by the riveted hull plates, and the clever restoration of the ship in its dry dock setting..
Back home, and marooned, with no car or company for a few days, early September has seen glorious weather… Warm and sunny, over tea and cake, I was admiring the elegant design of the Pitcher plant funnels on the terrace table… Covered in minute hairs, they are phenomenally successful at capturing all manner of insects, now that the magpies have left them alone (the juvenile birds took great delight in trashing the very early flowers and then the first of this season’s new pitchers, just for the hell of it. Thugs.) How much bleeding, and dead end speciation went into creating such efficient, yet beautiful, protein capturing technology?
There really was very little hope for this fly after it stepped over the rim… Once down in the funnel shaft, an insect rarely manages to escape. It can’t walk up the walls and can’t fly out near vertically.
It’s last pose before the drop into oblivion…