NGS Garden Openings; Flowers and Drones and Swarms.

I’m beginning with a quick update on the current situation regarding possible garden visits to Gelli Uchaf for the rest of 2020.

National Gardens Scheme (NGS) gardens in Wales are still currently unable to open to the general public, though this might change very soon. For those across the globe who read this, Wales has been in quite severe lock down now for 3 months because of the Covid outbreak, leading to this current page on the Welsh Tourism page…The latest Welsh government announcement continues to limit travel to 5 miles from home, so Wales is indeed largely closed to visitors. In rural areas this distance limitation poses challenges, but it’s worth recording that the rural county of Ceredigion which we are on the border of, has consistently maintained the lowest incidence of Covid cases in the whole of the UK. Possibly because very early on the local authority did institute a significant lockdown, and its own simple track and trace initiative.

Something the UK government as a whole has still struggled to get to grips with. Only yesterday announcing that its much heralded tracing app has been abandoned many weeks after a trial on the Isle of Wight, which confirmed what techies had predicted – that the app could only locate a tiny proportion (4 %) of Apple i-phones.

As one of the private gardens in Wales that opens for charity for the NGS, we do hope to welcome visitors again, when we are allowed to by government later this year, and absolutely agree with their current determination to get case numbers of the disease down even lower before completely easing lock down measures. But when we do open again it will still be only by short notice pop ups. More importantly, as we only open the garden to the public through the NGS, we shall have to adhere to the new NGS policies for all of their garden openings, which will be mean a big change from how we’ve opened in the past.

The specific changes below which will come into force if/when we can open, should be read in conjunction with our instructions on our “Visiting The Garden” page of this website:

Only people with pre-booked tickets can visit the garden at the time-slot they have booked. These tickets can only be booked and paid for through the NGS website. Please show or print out your order confirmation email as proof of ticket purchase when you visit the garden.

Please do not arrive early and if you arrive late, you will not be able to stay longer than your original time slot.

Please observe social distancing rules on your visit.

There will be no refreshments on sale.

There will be no access to the house or WC in the house

Please respect any signage or instructions the garden owner has. (For us this will mean following our already number marked route around the garden. We’ll include a PDF of our garden notes and the map of the garden when we publicise a garden pop up. Sadly there won’t be physical copies handed out to our visitors as in the past.)

Picnics/brought refreshments will be allowed if everything unconsumed is taken home. 

Tickets cannot be exchanged or refunded.

Any plants available for sale will be by cash into an honesty box. No change will be given.

We hope that this will still allow for enjoyable visits to the garden when we can open, and hopefully have the advantage of making the garden visit even more peaceful and enjoyable. The reduction in “hands on” time from us on open days might even mean we can open a little more often, though time will tell. Though we’ll clearly still be around – just at an appropriate distance!

We have many seats throughout the garden for socially distant sitting and enjoying picnics, though we may have to position some external seats outside the shepherd’s hut, for now, and keep this closed. Sorry!

We’ll email any readers who are on our mailing list when we first have garden visit tickets available through the NGS website, and obviously numbers are going to be very restricted, and since we can’t allow car shares from the village, it might limit numbers even more. So do bear this in mind. Sadly we suspect such changes may well have to operate for quite some time.

However we do hope we can still welcome occasional visitors in due course to this very special place, and in so doing help raise valuable funds for the several mainly nursing charities that the NGS supports.

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The weather has now reverted well and truly to a typical, damp most days, June, after the stunning dry spring. Not only have our water shortage concerns dissipated, but the stream has at last been flushed clean after a muddy, thunderstorm induced spate, and we’re having to bide our time with any further hay cutting. This has the huge benefit of allowing us to appreciate the floral diversity and profusion which is really beginning to establish in our meadows, some 7 years after beginning our drive to achieve this.

With more bees, grasshoppers and other invertebrates than ever before, it’s going to be a real wrench to have to cut more, and remove this valuable insect forage, but the upside of delaying is ever more seed drop, and the prospect of faster progression of flower and species spread across our land in the years to come. A year like 2020 should produce exponential increases in flower numbers in 2 or 3 year’s time.

Even those of our fields which aren’t set aside for hay are becoming more floriferous, with a less intensive grazing regime. Our “Cae efail” field, below, which was flower free 10 years ago has, from a single patch of clover at the top of the field where the land drain from the yard exits, now produced a river of flowers from top to bottom…A great resource for honey bees particularly as we hit the potential “June gap” before species like bramble and willow herb begin to bloom.

I’ve also noticed for the first time this year that some honeybees began to visit the many Aquilegia flowers which we have in the garden. Previously they seem to have been the preserve of just the larger bumbles. But this only happened as most of the flowers were finishing. I’m not sure why this was – perhaps other more favoured nectar/pollen sources had finished, or maybe the bumbles had moved on. But on closer inspection I noticed that most of the honeybees were actually robbing by biting holes through the tips of the flower spurs.

Though one clever bee seemed to have decided, or worked out how, to enter the flowers for pollen. As a result I’m leaving all the Aquilegias alone until after all the petals have dropped, and only then will dead head a proportion.

____

I’ve been really amazed by some of the video footage I’ve recorded of drones leaving our main butter churn based hive over the last 2 or 3 weeks.

As a quick resume of the complex genetics of honeybee society, drones are the haploid (possessing just one set of chromosomes) male form of honeybees. They are produced from selectively laid eggs which the diploid (two sets of chromosomes) queen bee lays – without fertilising these eggs with sperm which is why they’re haploid – into special large drone cells. These cells are built by the (also diploid) female worker bees, specifically to house these larger bodied drones.

I shan’t try to go into what controls this drone cell production, or how the workers and queen co ordinate this process, other than to say that drones only tend to be produced during the spring time. But there’s a really interesting well written discussion here, of how both workers and queen bee have a role in determining how many drones are produced in a paper titled “The honeybee queen influences the regulation of colony drone production”.

The drones are physically different to the workers being larger bodied, with much of the abdomen being taken up by their genital organs. They also have much bigger eyes. They don’t have a sting, don’t forage to collect nectar for the hive, or bring back pollen, and conventional beekeeping tends to regard them as having no other practical function within the hive other than occasionally helping to circulate air around the hive by fanning their wings. (But I wonder whether all those female bees agree with this view of male redundancy?)

However they are key to the reproductive cycle of the honeybee. But bizarrely, the males don’t mate with queen bees in the hive. Rather as warm weather appears in late spring and early summer, they leave the hive and fly off, sometimes kilometres away to gather in specific areas high up in the air, which are rather appropriately named “drone congregation areas” (DCA).

These DCA’s have been studied over decades, though their existence has been known about for centuries, and they typically measure up to 200 metres long by about 30 to 40 metres wide, are elliptical in shape and occupy a space in mid air between about 10 and 40 metres off the ground. Drones from many (up to 200 plus) colonies will fly into these zones, and then cruise around them for as long as they can manage with the energy they can take on board from a full stomach of honey which they fuel up on before leaving the hive, hoping for a virgin queen to appear. Typically only 20 minutes per flight.

Researchers still don’t fully understand how the drones find these apparently well defined DCA’s, which it’s been recorded can be used year after year for centuries! Or indeed how the virgin queen bees that emerge from their special cells after a primary swarm has left the hive, are drawn towards them. But for the virgin queen to be capable of ever laying any diploid eggs which will eventually hatch into all the female worker bees, or very occasionally new queens, she must make one or sometimes two maiden flights out into these DCA’s to find a mate. She’ll then in these very brief encounters, take on board and store enough sperm to enable her to lay potentially hundreds of thousands of eggs during her lifetime.

Within the DCA’s, the patrolling drones will quickly detect any queen that flies into the area, and the race is then on to catch her and mate with her (though interestingly if she flies just a few metres outside the invisible DCA margin, the queen will be ignored). These high altitude chases appear like a comet of drones chasing behind the queen. The successful drone will grab the queen with all his six legs, evert his large endophallus into the queen’s sting chamber, and then ejaculate, all in mid air, at speed and in a matter of just two to five seconds.

The force of the mating and size of the drone’s endophallus is so great that it is instantly ripped from his body, and the broken bulb tip of the endophallus remains in the queen’s body. Sperm is forced through the sting chamber by the power of the ejaculation and into the oviduct and is then stored in a special organ in the queen, the spermatheca. This organ can keep the millions of drone sperm inseminated during a mating flight, viable for the up to 7 years of productive life of an egg laying queen.

The broken endophallus bulb tip left in the queen is known as “the mating sign”, and by reflecting ultraviolet light acts as a beacon for subsequent drones to mate more easily with the queen. The bulb not being a physical barrier for further drone penetration. After this extremely violent coupling, the drone inevitably then falls to the ground bleeding to death.

This mating process typically gets repeated between 10 to 20 times for each “virgin” queen’s short duration nuptial flight. So strictly speaking she’s no longer a virgin queen for most of these matings. She then, all being well, flies back to her hive, and unless she subsequently leaves the hive in her own swarm, she’ll never fly again. Simply spending her time continuing to lay eggs, through most of the year, and being the central controlling influence in the hive, though her egg production diminishes dramatically from mid summer on into autumn.

The vast majority of drones will be unsuccessful with mating, and so return to the hive, refuel and potentially try again. Maybe a few trips per suitable day. But they only tend to fly on warm afternoons between about 2 and 5 pm.

With all this necessary background to what is a frankly extraordinary life cycle strategy, still poorly understood in many ways, I began to notice over these past few weeks, an obvious swarm like buzzing around the hive in mid afternoon. My video clips confirmed that this noise and activity did indeed mainly consist of drones leaving and re entering the hive in quite large numbers, but only for a short period in early afternoon.

The first interesting thing I then spotted on the video clips was the behaviour of the drones just before they took off. They almost always spent a second or two wiping their big eyes with their front legs, as though to clean them after a night and morning spent in the claustrophobic dark of the colony –  presumably in part to give them the best chance of spotting the queen ahead of the pack.

The second thing I was able to do was the track the direction most of the drones were flying – which turned out to be slightly South East, towards our stream and then above the tall trees in the copse on the far bank, to the left of the above picture. At this point, high in the air, I lost all trace of them, but did notice a group of animated House Martins circling above the tree line. My guess is that if not the actual edge of a DCA, the Martins were probably picking off fat bodied, sting free drones high above me, as they headed towards their eventual aerial goal.

But the most dramatic moment after a week or so of observing these regular noisy drone gatherings around the hive entrance was witnessing an extraordinary tsunami like mass return of drones around 3.15 pm. If you look carefully at this video clip below, you can see a few drones are still leaving the hive, and quite a lot of worker bees are still entering with pollen loads swept inside with the drones. A few are also leaving, but for this brief period it’s almost a complete deluge of drones returning en masse.

At this point I should add that for several sound reasons conventional beekeepers don’t want many drones in their colonies, since they’re viewed as being completely unproductive from the point of view of nectar, and hence honey, collection and production. Worse still they’re extra mouths to feed from whatever nectar has been collected.

But in a wild hive or one that has been built by the bees on its own design and size of wax comb, rather than using the small cell pressed supplied wax “foundation” typical of most commercial bee hives, the bees will naturally produce far more drone cells – perhaps up to 30% of the total number of cells for the queen to lay drone eggs into. So perhaps I might well expect to see more of the maybe 10-20,000 plus hive’s population as hyped up males at this time of the year. However I’ve failed to find many other video clips of this sort of tidal wave of drone bees entering a hive. Videos of bees and mating flights seem to concentrate on the queen bee, or even very cleverly the occasional clip of the actual mating process – see below for a technically superb bit of filming…

Literally just 5 minutes after filming the torrent of returning drones, and this was how the scene was calming down…

At 1pm, or indeed any time in the morning, and almost no drones would be visible – just busy female workers leaving and returning.

There is also sadly a chance that I might be witnessing the first signs of collapse in this colony. If the queen bee has died for any reason or been replaced with a queen that wasn’t able to mate successfully; or in the absence of any queen, when the sterile female worker bees will transform and begin to to lay their own eggs, then there’s a chance that the only eggs being laid within the hive now are simply haploid, unfertilised ones, which will inevitably the hatch into drones. Without eggs being selectively fertilised by a queen with stored sperm from a previous successful mating, that’s the only sort of egg, and hence bee, which can be produced.

In this scenario, gradually the existing worker bees will die out over a few weeks, and without workers to gather food, the drones will die as well. In due course, the colony will probably be robbed out to destruction, since the stingless drones have no defensive capabilities. Intervention beekeeping with regular inspections would spot this change in egg laying and drone production, and potentially could rectify the scenario by placing a replacement queen into the hive.

However if all’s still well with the colony, is this huge drone population actually a very good way of influencing the genetics of the local bee population? This is where I struggle a little with bee genetics and the haploid male/diploid female strategy employed by a few of the “eusocial” insects like honeybees, ants and wasps.

An individual queen bee can only produce haploid drones which will carry identical genes to her own, and in turn the drone’s ten million or so sperm will also all contain the same genes, apart from any one off mutations which might occur in individual sperm.

In contrast her fertilised queen or worker bee eggs will include not only her own genes, but also chromosomes with genes from the 10 to 20 different drones which she mated with. So future queen bee cells, and workers, will carry quite a range of genetic diversity.

However the genetically identical drones which fly out from a single hive can mate with queens from potentially many different hives, thus giving the chance for this hive to leave a significant mark on the genetics of the local bee population, if drone numbers are as high as they seem to be. See here for more information and probable clarity!

So maybe the left-to-its-own-devices bee hive approach of producing really quite large numbers of “unproductive” food eating individuals which hang around in the hive for much of the day, contributing very little, isn’t quite such an odd strategy from an evolutionary point of view. Time will shortly show me whether this extraordinary event was a one off, and merely the precursor to the hive’s decline and fall…

___________

Equally exciting following on from this was collecting a swarm from our near friend, Tony, who supplied our initial colony in the late summer of 2018, and which he managed to shift into one of my modified insulated conventional type hives. Not so encouraging was a second swarm which flew into another vacant hive from somewhere, unknown, at the beginning of a poor spell of weather around the 11th, and apparently succumbed to cold and wet within a few days.

As the weather improved a bit more, I found scout bees once again checking out the larch tree hive. This was the third occasion this has happened this year, at roughly monthly intervals, each time about mid way between full moons. Each time lots of bees were “measuring it up” and carefully flying in and out; and round; and up and down to assess its size and suitability – all part of the careful assessment a swarm will make of multiple possible new homes before deciding which one to head for.

However, this month, after such a scouting session in the early evening, I found that they were back again first thing in the morning – a change from previous scouting sessions when they hadn’t reappeared until about lunchtime. Sensing a possible difference I set up the camcorder on time lapse with 10 second exposures and did some garden tidying and then a longish bike ride before lunch. Arriving back ahead of Fiona, who’d done a detour to try to buy some eggs, I’d gone inside to put the kettle on when Fiona returned and told me she hadn’t been able to release the battery from her bike.

This proved to be extremely fortunate, since instead of sitting down and enjoying a cuppa, I struggled outside for a couple of minutes before sorting the battery problem and just as I was turning to come inside, heard the unmistakable building sound of swarming bees from behind the barn.

Dashing to the camera, I arrived just in time to change the recording from about 3 hour’s worth of silent time lapse, to real time video with sound, as the first bees of the swarm arrived at the hive entrance, and the sound began to build. Interestingly the time lapse showed fairly consistent bee activity around the hive all morning until about the last 4 seconds of recording – equating to about 15 minutes of real time. Almost all the scout bees then disappear from view and must have headed back to the swarm cluster, resting outside its base hive, somewhere due West of us, to speedily help prompt and guide the waiting mass of bees to fly to this, their newly chosen home. I’m including the last 15 seconds of this time lapse recording (just over an hour in real time) below:

I’ve also included a few merged clips below of footage of what I still find is an extraordinary spectacle, as the swarm arrived. The real time span of these clips from beginning to end is less than half an hour. You’d have no idea if you watched just the last few seconds though, what you’d missed earlier on, both in sound or spectacle !

I find it amazing that probably over ten thousand of these tiny creatures can move en masse in tight formation and can locate this novel (to most of them) location, from perhaps a mile away; flying there with accuracy in less than 10 minutes, and within less than half an hour all of them have managed to make their way inside, and set to work to make it a (hopefully) viable colony home.

_________

Last time I said that I was easing off on any in depth posts.

So much for that then.

But maybe that’ll start next time! At least we’re nearly past the peak of bee swarming for this year. Just more haymaking ahead…

I’ll finish with a few photos of garden scenes, to illustrate the weather hasn’t all been grey and wet…

…second plate of Tomcots from the greenhouse…

… and 2 Scarlet Tiger moths, Callimorpha dominula, found simultaneously in our terrace garden…… and a possibly very rarely described large (maybe 3 cm plus) Ichneumonid wasp which I spotted close to some yellow rattle in our lower wet meadow. If it’s the species I think it is, Protichneumon pisorius, it parasitises the caterpillars of large Hawkmoths. Here’s a link to a good guide to identifying some of the more distinctive Ichneumonid wasps…

 

7 thoughts on “NGS Garden Openings; Flowers and Drones and Swarms.

  1. Lovely photographs and lots of action despite the rain in your garden. Bees arriving in a swarm is such an amazing sight. It is not only what you see but the sound, you really feel part of it. I wish I knew where our swarms come from too. I cannot see how the queen and bees can regulate the drone congregations but if I could, I’d be the first person to understand it. Amelia

  2. Good to read that NGS visitors may well be able to visit your wonderful garden in the near future.
    The bees in our roof have a similar swarming of drones…I’m saying drones…they are all just bloomin’ bees to me! When the weather is warm there are one or two instances in the day when there is an absolute swarm of bees in and out of the roof…one knows about it due to the noise! Where they are in the roof is where swifts used to nest. The swifts have now moved along a tile or two to make a new entrance under the facia board so we have swifts zooming in and screeching and bees buzzing and it seems neither the twain will mix! All this outside our bedroom window! Bees get in our bedroom but we don’t know where from and die quite quickly…by themselves…not me swatting them!
    Now in the news I heard about queen bees ‘tooting’ and ‘quacking’….have you heard these sounds from your queens?
    NBGW sent out mails regarding their meadows and saying that if one wanted any wild flower seed to ask…I’m first in the queue!! They have ‘eyebright’ growing…interesting piece about it in their post which I’m sure you’ve seen and read and knew all about already.
    Thank goodness the rain is easing but now Derek…weatherman…says it’s going to be really hot next week!! Can’t win!
    Lovely photos as usual. Best wishes.

    • Hello Marianne,
      And thanks for the comment – at least you now have a date to aim for when the cottage can become available again?
      And now you know that they’re not all “just bees”!
      But it’s actually very interesting to hear that your bees, which essentially are like mine – in a wild built colony, not managed and provided with comb, are also producing such large numbers of drones.
      I did indeed read about the tooting and quacking, but firstly thought it would be too much for this post, but also the paper – if you try to read it- really isn’t designed for mere mortals – far too complex and full of scientific jargon 80% of it was unfathomable to me. How he thought he was designing a system that would be used by beekeepers to predict swarming was beyond me.
      However I also read the day after posting something which implies that the queens mate with far more drones than previously thought likely and how the researchers came to work that out – maybe something to explore in future!
      I did indeed read Bruce’s excellent piece on Eyebright which are one of the flowers we’ve introduced here from hand collected seeds, and it’s now spreading well and it’s a real charmer…
      Don’t know about the rain easing though…16 mm overnight here, but we do need some more dry weather to cut some more hay sometime!
      Best wishes and hope you get lots of bookings now,
      Julian

    • Hello TP, I think you’re right, certainly if you keep them conventionally. In my more laid back, non intensive approach, I’m more interested in watching them, and their pollination capabilities rather than hoping for masses of honey. The voyage of discovery thus outweighs the worry aspect, though Fiona might not agree with this comment!
      Best wishes
      Julian

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