Distraction: Of Mice and Bees and Salmon.

Though not necessarily in that order.Locked into the combination of rain, frequently grey skies, and the lethargy that comes with insufficient light waves winging their way towards my retinas, comes the added torpor induced by the recent media coverage of a tedious and shoddy mid-winter general election.   Regardless of perceived political imperatives, a decision to inflict this on a nation at this time of year could only originate from those locked within a 24 hour artificial light stimulated urban bubble.

Here, as often towards the turn of the year, there’s blood in the heavens when the clouds occasionally part, and most of the effort out there is on survival. Which brings me on to bees.

I’d been planning on writing a follow up piece on my bee experiences over the latter part of the year, after acquiring and reading within 24 hours an excellent book by Thomas D. Seeley, “The Lives of Bees – The Untold story of Honeybees in the wild.”  For anyone with even a little interest in these creatures, science or ecology, I can thoroughly recommend it as a last minute festive present. Click here for more, and some review comments.

In its preface, Seeley mentions that in the U.S.A. alone, over 4,000 different honey bee related books have been published over the last 300 years. Why add to this pile?

Well, with his background of a lifetime of interest and study of these creatures, and many decades spent as Professor of Animal Biology at Cornell University, Seeley melds years of painstaking observation and analysis of honeybees’ behaviour and life cycles together in a very accessible format. Not just a beekeeper, but a scientist who is intrigued by animal behaviour, I’ll include this introductory section from his biography page on the Cornell University Dept. of Neurobiology and Behaviour, to tempt you further.

My scientific work has primarily focused on understanding the phenomenon of swarm intelligence (SI): the solving of cognitive problems by a group of individuals who pool their knowledge and process it through social interactions. It has long been recognized that a group of animals, relative to a solitary individual, can do such things as capture large prey more easily and counter predators more effectively. More recently it has been realized that a group of animals, with the right organization, can also solve cognitive problems with an ability that far exceeds the cognitive ability of any single animal. Thus SI is a means whereby a group can overcome some of the cognitive limitations of its members. SI is a rapidly developing topic that has been investigated mainly in social insects (ants, termites, social wasps, and social bees) but has relevance to other animals, including humans. Wherever there is collective decision-making—for example, in democratic elections, committee meetings, and prediction markets—there is a potential for SI. (sic: my bold)

Click here for more.

Perhaps a little co-operative swarm intelligence is what we could all have done with in recent times.

Has it really been there, hidden beneath the continual bluster and argument?

Or has our intelligence, collective or otherwise, and the apparent ability to debate and argue ad nauseam left this nation in limbo, a vulnerable swarm starving in the open, as it vacillates over where to go next.

Take a cue from the bees. Reach a decision.  ANY decision. Move and get on with it.

Be prepared to live with the consequences.

Somehow, I’m not that optimistic, but perhaps the post election analysis tomorrow would do well to contemplate how bees with individual brains smaller than pinheads, can manage their lives and resources pretty resiliently, when left to their own devices.

Now I must quickly leave the dangerous mire of political thoughts, and return to the mice, or rather single mouse, of the title.

I’d decided to tidy up the various elements of beehives around the property for the winter which are unoccupied, so began with a second continental, (Swedish for anyone interested), butter churn. I’d modified this as a potential bait hive quite late in the season, and had placed it on an upturned plastic dustbin, to raise it well off the ground. Lifting the butter churn, together with a two part base plate similar to a typical Warré style landing board, I headed back up the garden from the lower compost bays where the “hive” had been positioned.

The complete set up, although empty, proved heavier than I’d imagined, given its awkward shape and size, so I paused half way and put it down, releasing the bottom 2 boards and picking up just the butter churn. As I stood up, there in the centre of the base board on top of a pile of dry leaves, and with a surprised, if not terrified stance to find itself so suddenly exposed, was a Wood/Field mouse, Apodemus sylvaticus. Sadly, I didn’t have the camera to catch the mouse, which anyway very quickly scampered off into the undergrowth. I was left to examine the relatively enormous nest of dry leaves and debris, which it had carefully carried up above ground level and stashed in the butter churn base. It had also chomped through a couple of my curved willow stem frames. Click here for more on the Wood Mouse.

Mice are a known problem with honeybee hives, particularly over the winter months when the bees tend to cluster in a ball towards the upper centre of their nest, and becoming less active, aren’t as able to defend their rich honey stores. In this case my guess is that the mouse clambered up the adjacent lopped ash stump, crossed the metal grid frame, and made it in through the narrow “bee” entrance at the front centre of the base. And found the perfect dry secure location for a winter refuge of its own.

One of the points that Seeley makes from his study of the sites which wild honeybees select as nests in the native forests of New York State, is how high above ground level – typically around 4 metres plus – the entrance holes tend to be. One of the principle potential predators in such forests are bears, but it’s probably also an effective strategy for deterring even the keenest tree climbing rodents. Given the choice, “wild” honeybees in the UK seem equally likely to choose high access options for hive entrances. Click here to read (and see photos) in an excellent report by the Oxford Natural Beekeepers Group of between 7 to 10 feral honeybee colonies all found within half a mile of each other in a rural village. And all high up in buildings and a tree. So much for wild honeybees no longer existing in our landscapes.

One of the interesting parts of Seeley’s book (for me, having embarked on a more “natural”, or apicentric beekeeping route) is his discussion of the wild honeybees’ quite speedy development of resistance strategies to Varroa destructor. This parasitic mite caused huge losses in all honeybee colonies, commercial and otherwise, when it switched hosts from exclusively parasitising a specific, distinct Asian honey bee species, and also began to attack European, and eventually American honey bee populations during the last two decades of the previous century.

However after a decade or so of recovery, the wild New York Forest bees currently have very good natural tolerance of Varroa mites, partly through the natural selection of strains of bees that are more efficient at grooming and attacking mites within the hive, and partly through strains of bees which regularly remove the wax capping and then recap the larval brood (where the mites also breed), which seems to disrupt the mite’s breeding cycle.

From studies of shifts in bee DNA genomes, one of Seeleys’ co-workers has confirmed that in these wild bee populations, much of the previous and presumably susceptible genomic mix has been wiped out. Which is what one might expect with any evolutionary adaptation to a new threat to species survival. The naturally smaller nest sizes of wild bee colonies and their different insulation and humidity profiles probably also help Varroa resistance too, though this hasn’t changed significantly over the years.

Varroa treatments are a major ongoing regular therapeutic imperative for most conventional or commercial beekeepers, and the mites can also act as vectors for other deadly or debilitating virus diseases, which probably have more scope for serious damage in the intensive close placing of beehives in typical commercial apiaries. (Seeley’s studied wild bee nests are typically about 0.5 kilometres apart).

Swarm behaviour, nest site selection, and a calculation of the likely viability of any swarm surviving its first year, are other fascinating topics discussed in Seeley’s book, which is reflected in much that I have observed in the small sample of “hives” which haven’t made it through the autumn here, let alone the winter.

My initial swarm which emerged from the original conventional National hive, on April 30th (above,) and which is located in a vintage cylindrical German butter churn, with additional insulation, was still active on a rare dry day on November 27th, below. (I inadvertently refer to it as the “original” colony in the video clip)

This swarm would have consisted of the original queen bee from the National hive, together with around a third of the cohort of worker bees (probably over 10,000), who all abandoned home, leaving queen cells behind to release new queen bees to keep the original hive going.

Seeley calculated from his observations of many wild honey bee swarms that the chances of this, a first and strongest swarm, actually surviving into the following year is only about 0.23. Less than 1 in 4. So very much fingers still crossed for the butter churn hive.

The reasons for this high failure rate, includes the fact that the swarm’s mass of bees has to first find a suitable location to set up a new home (in this case selected, located and positioned by a novice “beekeeper”, and not the real experts – the bees themselves).

Plus, although this swarm starts with an already mated and egg laying queen, which gains it a few weeks in terms of additional worker bee production, they’ve obviously had to leave all their larval bees and eggs behind as well as much already stored honey. And thus start from scratch, creating new wax made combs before egg laying and rearing new workers, before laying down new honey stores for the winter can even begin.On the plus side for the viability of this first swarm is that having got this far, the butter churn size more accurately matches a successful wild colony’s nest size and shape, of about 45 litres and is quite well located and shielded from rain, with additional insulation. (Hopefully)

What of the original hive, shown incredibly active, below, pre swarming, on 17th April?

Seeley again explains, with numerical probability, that a daughter queen would have inherited the original hive after emerging from a specially constructed and larger queen cell, an example is shown below…

Inheriting both the wax combs, stored honey, and eggs and larvae left behind, her survival chances should have been quite high (0.7). However the virgin queen would have needed to make a risky “nuptial” flight at some point, hoping to get mated with multiple male drones from different source colonies, in specially defined aerial drone congregation areas, at some distance away, before returning to a life of laying eggs within the confines of the hive. With no protective retinue to attend her on this flight, she’s quite vulnerable to predation from birds or dragonflies. So she might not even make it back to the hive, or for some other reason die after return, or be infertile.

Meanwhile, as in many of the 87% of Seeley’s studied wild colonies which typically swarm every year, after the initial annual swarming event, our original hive produced 2 follow on after swarms – on May 11th,

and 3 days later on May 14th

These would have taken 2 more virgin queens with them, and additional worker bees. So each would have started with a smaller, and hence weaker colony of workers, and also had the same risk attached to the subsequent nuptial flights for their virgin queens. Seeley puts the survival rates, after 1 year, for such “after swarms” as about 0.12. Merely about a 1 in 8 chance.

The end result of this type of natural colony multiple swarming behaviour is predicted by Seeley to be that for every single colony alive in the spring, one would expect there to be just 1.14 colonies the following spring. Thus on average a very gradual increase in bee population will occur at a wider scale, which is quite a clever strategy for exploiting what will always be finite resources within a particular environment.

In my case, swarm one still survives…

Swarm three failed first, being robbed out, on June 21st …

Swarm two failed later in mid August, again being robbed but principally by wasps, in spite of reducing the entrance, shortly after masses of drones were evident at the hive entrance…

Whilst the original hive, was also robbed out, although after I’d removed some excess honey…


On a plus point, the first, and smallest swarmed hive, which was placed into one of my Warre hive type set ups, only to get robbed out, was recolonised by a further swarm, of unknown origin on July 6th.

Although much later in the year and with no honey resources to inherit, since they’d all been removed by the earlier robbers, at least this swarm would have had combs already built, and (? possibly) arrived with an already mated queen.

It’s also quite pleasing that Seeley reckons that a typical swarm will assess an average of 24 different potential nest sites, before opting to travel to a specific one to set up home, so I guess that gives a little endorsement to the design, construction and placement skills of this hive. Many recent followers will probably not be aware that years ago, in 2010 and 2011, I had 2 failed attempts at attracting in a swarm using a hollowed out tree trunk as a bait hive, which got assessed, but rejected by scout bees from an unknown local colony. Click here for more. I don’t feel quite so bad about this now, given how many sites a swarm will actually assess.

Referring to Seeley’s swarm survival figures again, this early July swarm of unknown origin has probably at best a 1 in 4 chance of making it through the winter, and probably more like 1 in 8 if it was itself another “after swarm”.

The now empty or robbed hives have given me the chance to inspect both the comb that the bees had constructed, (given the chance to work from scratch without any prepared bought wax comb “foundation”), as well as some of their multi coloured stored pollen reserves…

… In addition I could count and examine the number of queen cells that were produced in the original hive, many of which were clearly viable, and had their caps removed, though not all.

Seeley also references the fate of virgin queens in an un-managed, or wild colony. The original queen escapes unscathed, as do any after swarm queens ( 2 from my hive). However of the queens that are left, one will eventually dominate, and through fights will kill any remaining emerged, or possibly as yet unhatched queens, until only one remains (usually! – there are occasional records of colonies with 2 viable egg laying queens co-existing)

This process of queen destruction to leave just one viable inheritor can only be imagined from the obvious larger queen cell relics found in the brood chamber of the original national hive.  Elimination of the extra queens occurs either by a recently emerged adult virgin queen destroying the cell containing a developing rival or by direct fights or “duels.” Cell destruction entails a queen chewing a 3–5 mm diameter hole in the side wall of queen cells and then stinging the developing larvae through this (unlike worker bees which die after stinging, the queen’s sting has a smaller barb, so can be withdrawn and reused).

Queens are able to discriminate between cells and target those that contain the oldest larvae, as they represent their biggest threats. If a queen is able to eliminate all her rivals in this manner, pre-emptively, she inherits the colony. Otherwise, she will come in contact with other recently emerged queens and must then duel with them.

The process of queen elimination by duelling can last up to 7 days, with individual duels to the death by stinging lasting up to 60 minutes. Fancy reading more about it? I guess Kari Jackson’s M.A. thesis studying artificially set up virgin queen duels in Petri dishes, contains about as much detail as anyone could wish for… Click here, and reflect that all of this fatal inter-feminine gladatorial aggression takes place, naturally, within the hot and humid dark confines of a (mainly) female filled wooden box, or tree cavity.

In older Scottish research this process of duels averaged out at 5.3 stung and killed virgin queens per hive. Counting the number of opened queen cells on the several frames in my hive which had them, suggests that 12 virgin queens had actually emerged. There were also a number of unopened queen cells.

2 left the hive with the after swarms, one presumably “won” the last fight, and inherited the hive, implying that perhaps as many as 8 others had fought and perished.

Survival of the fittest? Or fastest? Or first to emerge? Or those whose attendant workers vibrated “their” queen cells hardest to prepare the queens for battle?

Designed over millions of years to keep the species well adapted and resilient.

My final thought is that armed with much more knowledge, hive boxes, and already created comb than I began 2019 with, perhaps next year’s bees, wherever they may originate from, will have slightly higher survival chances.

(For those serious apiarists who read this, apologies at my evident incompetence, but I do hope you might enjoy reading more of Seeley’s work, which concludes with some practical suggestions for what he describes as a more Darwinian approach to the management of honeybees, to the advantage of both bees and beekeepers).


So finally to Salmon…

In this, 2019, the designated International Year of the Salmon, I’ve been hunting.Not with malevolent intent, rather to see if I can catch a glimpse of any adult salmon or indeed sea trout, returning to spawn in our upland stream. Inspired by the find of spawning lampreys in April, I’ve been hoping to see a larger quarry.

We know they still return – we find the small young fish, above, with characteristic finger smudges on their flanks throughout the spring and early summer months. But finding an adult is tricky.

It wasn’t always so. Chatting to our neighbour, and Gelli’s previous steward this week, he told me that he always managed to catch one or two – of suitably impressive outstretched arm size. Using a simple spear, and hunting by torchlight at night – apparently they’re inclined to freeze like a rabbit in the bright light. It’s much trickier to approach these wary fish during daylight hours. So when the stream hasn’t been rushing down in spate, I’ve donned my darkest clothes, picked up a torch and wandered down to the stream.

So far with no luck, although earlier in October on one dawn foray I think I glimpsed 4 or 5 dark and modest sized forms shoot up from the tail of our largest pool and disappear beneath the undercut bank.

Perhaps I should have started earlier. Glyn reckoned October and early November was the best time.

The other sign to look for is the nests or redds which they create in gravelly sections often at the tail ends of pools. Here the hen fish will gouge out a depression to lay her eggs in, before the cock fertilises them, and they’re then covered over with gravel to protect them during the many wintry weeks it takes before they hatch.

The last 2 days will have seen a unique international symposium take place in Cambridge to celebrate the life of the salmon, its place in history, culture and the arts as well as discussion of what factors may be responsible for the current decline in its numbers. Click here for more on this event, which I hope will be available in some format in the near future. (Another significant effort by my brother, Mark in staging this).

‘Owned by everyone’: the plight, poetry and science of the salmon.

Or click here for a quick discussion of the perceived threats to salmon survival in a changing world.

Clearly as stewards of a salmon and sea trout spawning upland tributary, which feeds into the Afon Cothi, we have an albeit small role to play in ensuring that Afon Melinddwr continues to provide a viable spawning and rearing environment in the years ahead.

For now, these nocturnal forays have been disturbed only by the shadowy presence of our flock creeping up behind me as I pace the bank, the hooting of owls and the distant silent gaze of 3 pairs of fox eyes, from across our long wet meadow.

Yesterday’s full moon didn’t see enough of a drop in water from the previous day’s spate, so again I drew a blank..


At last, as late as I can recall, the Cyclamen coum are just beginning to unfurl their pink and white buds, and a few more early snowdrops are pushing through. The days are about to lengthen and the worst of the gloom is surely over, even if the ground remains waterlogged.


6 thoughts on “Distraction: Of Mice and Bees and Salmon.

  1. Good luck to your bees in the winter days that lie ahead. I read an interesting article in our bee magazine here on research on queen honeybees. The research claims that, naturally, queen bees lay differently into natural queen cells, taking longer and passing on more vitelline to the eggs so it is not just the royal jelly nutrition alone that is different. The claim was that these queens are larger than the queens produced as “emergency” queens as in artificial division or death of the queen. Interesting that bees leave .5 kilometres between colonies, makes sense. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Thanks for that – I fear I may start spring 2020 with no bees, but we shall see.
      How interesting that, naturally, the queens may lay differently in the way that you describe – I shall have to see if I can find something online about that.
      I’m sure if you have a spare hour or so you’d enjoy the MA thesis on queen duels I mention, since it has other background info too.
      Seeley’s wild hive spacings are of course in a forest environment – those in the Oxfordshire village are much closer. But one thing I’m often intrigued by is how little info there seems to be on the actual forage density/availability requirements of a hive, and thus what one might expect a given area to be able to support – clearly hugely variable, from place to place and through the seasons, but it’s always seemed to me that it must be one of the big factors in colony survival rates and possible densities.
      I’m sure you’d find both find much in the Seeley book of interest,
      best wishes

      • Thanks for that Amelia – the abstract looks really interesting, but sadly as is often the case with such academic papers, I can’t seem to read the whole thing and shan’t feel able to shell out to read the whole paper.
        I do find this frustrating. I know that there is a cost to publish such magazines/journals, but it is a real brake on knowledge dissemination. And I do remember reading somewhere that the typical research paper only ever gets read by a very low number of people, yet occasionally one does find open access articles.
        Anyway thanks for your efforts, and no doubt in a year or two it’ll pop up somewhere else. In contrast I spent a happy couple of hours yesterday reading about pH sensitive fibril formation in the protein mix of fluids the workers place at the base of queen cells, and how apart from providing nutrition, the completely reversible process (according to pH) ensures increased viscosity of the royal jelly, which in turn prevents the developing queen larva from falling out of the vertically orientated cell – very clever!
        Best wishes

  2. Wonderful photos and more interesting information about bees. Maybe a mouse will get under our tiles and sort out the bees for us! Fingers crossed! Looking forward to seeing our snowdrops early next year and being able to walk on the grass without water covering my wellies! Best wishes for Christmas to you both.

    • Hello Marianne,,, I think that’s unlikely sadly. I think one of the Oxfordshire village hives in a roof had been there for nearly 40 years, until a ceiling collapsed under weight of honey …. they then relocated to a different part of the roof, I think, so some houses really seem to appeal….
      I do agree about the grass and wellies though, not yet quite as winter 2015/2016, but not far off!
      Happy Christmas to you both too,
      Julian and Fiona

Comments are closed.