In the spring of 2022, I decided to create this page to pull together my various pieces of blog post writing, from over the many years, where I’ve recorded my own journey of discovery of a few aspects of the amazing lives that our ‘native’ social honey bees, Apis mellifera, enjoy as the exquisitely complex and highly studied social insects, that they undoubtedly are. And my attempts to ensure that they have a long-term presence in the garden and landscape here.
It was a relatively long time after we acquired Gelli Uchaf (in 1993), perhaps 2010, or 2011, that I became really excited by seeing, for the first time, a few honey bees visiting flowers in our developing garden here. Eventually, they became occasional but regular visitors to flowers in the garden during the summer months, and gradually I realised that in spite of our very high rainfall and upland elevation, they were indeed capable of surviving in our marginal environment. This led to early experiments with me creating my own simple hollowed out log hive; 3 separate occasions when conventional bee hives were located on site by 2 local beekeepers; 2 of which were unsuccessful for different reasons, before eventually Tony gave me some basic one to one tuition in conventional beekeeping and the chance to acquire a colony after he’d had one on site for several months.
By now I was becoming engrossed in the huge subject of honey bee ecology and physiology, as well as the separate issue of conventional bee keeping methodology. And quickly had to decide how I wanted to “keep” any honeybees here, since considerable money can be spent on physical hives and ancillary equipment, should one follow a conventional route. This decision really hinged on how important harvesting honey from them was going to be for me. In the end I reckoned that provided I could satisfy our own small annual honey consumption needs, it was much more critical for both me, the garden and our meadows, to have honeybees around throughout the year, both to enjoy their presence, observe their behaviours, and also to gain from their pollination services, with fruit and seed set, rather than being able to harvest huge amounts of honey from them.
Their value as pollinators seems particularly important with our many very early flowering winter/spring flowers, when no other pollinators are active – usually the third week of February is the very earliest we might expect to see our first emerged bumblebee queens.
By this time I’d also decided that, for many reasons, keeping the bees in a minimal intervention way, with no supplementary feeding, no swarm prevention measures, and almost no ‘hive’ opening, other than occasional honey removal and certainly no chemical treatments of the hive or bees, would allow the bees to manage their existence as they see fit, and indeed in a manner more similar to how they would exist “in the wild”. Much more is now known and written, about how honeybees do survive “in the wild”, and with no human assistance, than when I began this journey, and more “beekeepers” across the world are indeed keeping bees in a more Darwinian, or apicentric way – which I reference in my most recent posts.
With our apple blossom still looking great over the last week, I thought I’d spend an hour or so with the camera down by the trees, seeing just what was visiting the flowers. Initially there didn’t seem to be huge numbers of insects, but over the longer period a surprising variety were seen, and a number are shown below.
So who needs honeybees in an orchard when you have all these different insects visiting apple blossom in an hour? I started thinking about how many flowers there might be in a little orchard like this. It seems 6 or 7 flowers on average per cluster, perhaps 150 flower clusters per tree on the spirally trained trees, many more on the fewer standard trees, and let’s say 50 trees. Then each flower will have to be visited at least once, but in practice many more times, let’s say for argument’s sake 5 times and since the flowers on an individual tree open in a staggered way, the tree has open blossom for perhaps 21 days maximum. So I make that about a quarter of a million insect to flower visits over the blossom period in this small orchard space (do check the maths here, since I did it on a ‘Post it’ late in the evening). The other interesting thing gleaned from watching individual insects on blooms was how their habits varied. The couple of honeybees I watched were pretty methodical and spent 3 to 4 seconds per flower. Bumblebees were a bit faster and flightier, but the slowest, most methodical, and most obviously covered in pollen were the solitary mining bees, and masonry bee. These spent up to 20 seconds in a single flower before walking into the next flower in a cluster. But if we averaged the visits at 10 seconds for 10 hours a day for 21 days, a single insect would clock up about 75,000 flower visits, so only 4 insects could achieve the total number of insect-flower visits estimated above. Obviously no single insect will work so continuously though the bumblebees will work from almost dawn until dusk (longer than 10 hours at this time of year). What this little exercise seems to show is that with even just the number of different insects photographed here in about an hour, on a few trees, it is entirely feasible to expect very good, almost perfect pollination and fruit set in a year when flying conditions for insects are OK as they have been to date – i.e. dry, warm and not excessively windy.
Some interesting work was carried out on this subject at the now closed Long Ashton research centre. It was shown that from the point of view of pollen transfer, bumblebees and solitary mining bees were much more effective than honeybees, which in turn were more efficient than smoother bodied flies. The other interesting point which I’d already reflected and acted on after reading Joy Larkom’s book on vegetable growing, was that by putting up wind breaks around an orchard, the number of pollinating insects found could increase by as much as 300%. All of this is a bit academic this year. There will be such a good level of pollination, that barring late frost issues, most of the tiny fruit will either be dropped by the natural June ‘Drop’ (maybe this year in May), when the tree naturally sheds excess fruit, or need to be manually thinned to prevent over-cropping. There certainly won’t be a potential shortage. But it does show how nature often has huge spare capacity in a system to ensure success and resilience. None of the paring to the bone, and “Just In Time” mentality of much current business manufacturing policy.
Finally I shall introduce for the first time to the blog the Gelli version of a home-built vertical top bar bee hive. Made from sections of logs which I’ve hollowed out with a chainsaw, it was first erected last April (2010), in the hope of encouraging a swarm of local honeybees to take up residence. The photo below shows a single scout bee, on 24th May 2010, inspecting the Mk1, Gelli home made hive.
Whilst it had visits from scout bees on 2 occasions through the summer, each lasting for 3 or 4 days, permanent residence wasn’t taken up, and I felt a huge sense of rejection!
Thinking about it a bit more, I decided that perhaps the bees had not been allowed to swarm by a diligent beekeeper removing queen cells; or maybe they had swarmed and the swarm had been captured before making it to my ‘Des. Res’ hive. However, I read recently that these scout bees have no long-term memory, and don’t locate suitable future hives in advance and store the information for later. Basically they scout just as the hive is about to swarm, or just after swarming, and then will select the most acceptable of the vetted sites within an area – ideally over 250 metres from the base hive. This confirmed my initial thought that my potential hive had been rejected as unsuitable for some reason obvious to the scout bees. So it’s now been upgraded with an extra hollowed out section added, and been relocated from a semi-shaded area to one in full sun, after watching a video clip from America on where to locate a top bar beehive. I’ve also sealed some of the many cracks between the joins of the logs with clay from our stream.
Beautiful it is not. And I would find it very difficult to harvest any honey from it, but if it works, it will be a first step in simple, low-cost beekeeping, and as with saving one’s own seed strain suited to local conditions, I would much prefer a bee strain suited to the rigours of upland Wales. It shouldn’t be too long a wait. Last year the first visits by scout bees were around May 20th.
Along with the arrival of the butterflies, there’s also been a noticeable pick up in the number of bumblebees in the garden again. I’ve mentioned this dip in their numbers before, and in trying to find a bit more information on the topic, came across an excellent article from the Natural History Museum on the general decline in bumblebee numbers recently in the UK. It made the point which I’d never thought about before, that bumblebees are mainly insects of the temperate northern hemisphere, and their life-cycle is designed to cope with this environment. They survive through the hibernation of single mated queens to survive the harsh winters, followed by rapid new colony development and build up in spring. But always limited to a relatively small number of adults within a colony (a few hundred maximum).
In contrast, the honey bee life cycle requires the maintenance of the complete colony, throughout the winter. Although within the hive the number of bees reduces to just a few thousand, maintaining a core temperature of about 34 degrees C to sustain this nucleus of bees is clearly a big challenge. Honey bees and other bee species of this type are therefore more common throughout the tropical and Mediterranean climate zones of the planet. Indeed although we’ve had a few honeybee workers visiting both white and blue borage flowers recently, there have been no signs of scout bees around the hollowed out tree trunk at all this year. Perhaps I’ll give it one more season, and then decide whether to abandon the plan of having honeybees up here, or bite the bullet and shell out for a nucleus of bees to try to populate the homebuilt hive with.
The return of significant numbers of bumblebees after the July dip always seems to coincide with the flowering of Common Knapweed in the garden, and this is a magnet for many species, as well as hoverflies, moths and butterflies.
I spotted what I think was a new (for Gelli) species of solitary bee feeding on Knapweed flowers, striking not just because of its pale ventral abdomen, but also the way it aggressively plunged near vertically into the base of the flower in a very determined feeding style.
Finally after delivering the MK6 version of our “Botany Of Desire” talk/film on the appeal of different garden flower types to our native insects (to a large and appreciative audience of gardeners from West Wales on Saturday), this Monday suddenly turned into a manic one just after lunchtime. The morning mist had dissipated, there was little wind and the temperatures rose into high double figures. Suddenly the Hellebores and Pulmonaria to the West of our barn were buzzing.
Honeybees, for the first time this year, and so many bumblebees that they were impossible to count (I guess over 40) – four or five at a time on a single clump of Pulmonaria. In addition they were visiting flowers which I’ve never seen them on before, such as primrose. I wonder if the nectar production, release or aroma which will almost certainly rise with higher temperatures, only begins to flow with some of these flowers above a certain temperature? And since the first bumblebees only emerged on February 24th, I must assume that all these bumblebees were different overwintered queens each in the process of establishing their own new colonies. Because firstly the nest and honeypot of nectar has to be made by the queen bee, then eggs laid and the larvae to hatch from these eggs, undergo several moults, pupate, and then emerge as additional worker bumblebees which will help in the colony management. I reckon from what I’ve been able to glean that at least 5 to 6 weeks are required for all of this to happen.
Anyway, this bee blitz lasted for under a couple of hours, and made me wonder whether the Royal Horticultural Society strategy of apparently allowing just 5 observational periods PER YEAR, in their Bug Friendly Plant Project, is really adequate to make informed judgements about which flowers and plants are most friendly to our native insects. On the same Monday a glance through a mailshot gardening catalogue alerted me to “Beepol”….and the chance to “Discover the Value of Bees”. But a more in-depth discussion of this will have to wait until next week.
It’s also been our best ever year for visits to the garden by honeybees. We reckon the nearest ‘managed’ hive is about a mile away. There seem to be a variety of colours of visiting bees, the majority being a dark or even black bodied form. Are these native or wild bees? Or a hybrid form with the more yellow bodied European or Italian bees?
I’d already seen lots and photographed them on many flowers in the garden which they’ve never visited before – probably just a reflection of previously low visitor numbers. So there was only mild surprise when I opened the greenhouse up the other morning first thing and heard, and then saw, a honeybee inside. I started watering the tomato plants and then was halted by the sound and feel of said bee landing in my left ear.
Right by the ear canal.
I’m not usually phased by insect encounters, but I had enough time to think about the possibility of it exploring this dark, wax lined hole, and possibly stinging me there.
‘Remember that bees rarely sting unless provoked, so don’t panic’, I told myself.
But after a minute of standing still, with no sign of the bee flying off, and amplified rasping noises in the ear, I reckoned another tack was called for. So I left the greenhouse to stand outside where there was a brisk southerly wind blowing.
That should shift it!
Well, it didn’t, so I moved round to the front of the house into the sun, and close to some flowers, and then with the bee moving away from the ear canal, but still very much exploring the ear, I glanced in the kitchen window to confirm that it was indeed a bee. There it was, and at this point I realised a photo opportunity was presenting itself, so shouted to Fiona, who predictably responded speedily to (she’s well used to such sudden requests, by now):
“I’ve got a bee in my ear. Can you come and take a photo”.
The problem was, that as she pressed the camera shutter, a ping alerted her to the fact that the flash card was still in the computer upstairs. Eventually the camera was set up, she homed in and at the very last second, after I guess a good 5 minutes, the bee flew off. So, sadly no nice image of bee in ear to include, so I’ll add a few of bees in flowers instead:.
Honeybee in Rosa rugosa.
Honeybee falling from Geranium himalayense flower. Not as popular with the bees as G. phaeum or G. macrorrhizum, but still visited this year. It’s easy to miss a perfect bee shot.
G. phaeum is really popular with honeybees and smaller bumblebees.
A classic example of flower preferences. For the first time this year, after 3 years of looking, I’ve seen insects – honeybees, visiting the blue flowers of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Mayenne Blue’. But they seem to ignore the similarly sized pink flowers of native Geranium lucidum.
I did wonder later, given the very warm weather and the fact that the bee was in our western redwood cedar greenhouse, a timber often used for beehive construction, and that it seemed attracted to my waxy lughole, that perhaps it was a scout bee out on a pre swarm reconnaissance mission, and that shortly it would be back with company…
Visitors to London 2012 may have been interested to read that perhaps too many of the city’s residents concerned by the global decline in honeybee numbers might have jumped into bee keeping as a hobby/interest. A recent report which I read in the wildlife gardening forum’s latest newsletter, suggested that there may now be just too many bee colonies in central London to be supported by the foraging material available.
A square kilometre of foraging habitat will support just 5 colonies apparently (although precisely what is meant by this ‘foraging habitat’ is not defined). There are now areas of central London with over 150 registered hives per square kilometre! So, it seems pretty certain that as with us humans, there just ain’t going to be enough food to go around. Back here at Gelli, regular readers will know that we still don’t have a beehive, but have flirted with attracting honeybees to take up residence in a hollowed-out tree trunk – so far with no success. In this desperately poor summer, one of the real bright spots has been noticing that for the first year ever, we now have honeybees visiting some of the garden’s flowers every day, when the rain abates.
This has never happened in previous years. And just before a visit from the grandchildren, a tidy of their room revealed half a dozen honeybees which had sadly perished inside the bedroom window, presumably after entering through a small gap at the top of the frame, exploring the old house as a potential new home.
So, perhaps in our long term aim of making the garden more insect friendly we are indeed making steady progress. Below is a sequence showing the different pollen colours (cream, blue, orange) collected by honeybees from 3 different garden flowers in a rare sunny hour. Native Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), Echium ‘Blue Bedder‘ and Francoa sonchifolia. All growing in single tyres and so presenting sufficient massed flowers to attract concentrated bee pollen harvesting which reveal these rich colour differences. Interestingly, our local National Botanic Garden of Wales is currently using its globally unique complete database of native plant species DNA codes, to establish from pollen collected from honeybee bodies, exactly which flowers they have been visiting. A different take on direct observation I guess.
An earlier than anticipated return home after aborting a trip to the coast on the previous sunny Saturday meant witnessing a temporary invasion of honeybees into the garden. Not a real swarm, simply huge numbers being drawn into the garden by the opening flowers on the many clumps of Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ which I’ve gradually bulked up over the years. But we’ve never before witnessed such swarm like numbers of honeybees in the garden at the same time. We grow a few other forms of Sedum, many of which look lovely, but none attract insects to the same degree as ‘Autumn Joy’. And editing my spelling of spectabile, I’ve discovered that this is another AGM plant, although under the disguise of the synonym of Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’. It looks like there’s a foreign, and unplanned, flavour to the featured plants in this post. And for all the years since we first acquired this from Fiona’s parents’ garden, we’ve known it as ‘Autumn Joy’. Which, frankly, it is when grown en masse.
It always attracts lots of flies, bumblebees, moths and butterflies, and a week earlier there’d been hundreds of these all busy on the flowers and just a single honeybee.
But this particular late mid September afternoon, there were hundreds of honeybees on the flowers. The whole ‘event’ lasted perhaps a couple of hours, and as the light failed the bees started to take off with an orientating couple of circuits before flying roughly South West, in the general direction of the closest known hive over a mile away. Interestingly they were flying home almost directly into the wind, so any scent hadn’t been blowing in the direction of the hive. But presumably scout bees made it back to the hive earlier in the day and were sufficiently impressed with the quality or quantity of the Sedum nectar supply to call their friends over. Also, none of these bees were collecting pollen, whereas in another part of the garden there were other worker honeybees, though in ten’s and not hundreds, which were working the Hydrangea flowers for pollen. Do hives shift worker activities to predominantly nectar collection later in the year, with winter approaching? If so, is growing lots of Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ a good idea for bee keepers after poor summers?
Sunday saw cooler temperatures and the return of rain, and on a misty, cool Monday morning, there were no active insects around at all, but a couple of bedraggled and ailing worker bees left on the closed wet flowers, which I guess never made it back to the hive.
The last swallows have finally fled, the sun hasn’t showed for the last 3 days, the forecast shows more of the same and the nights have really drawn in, so I thought it might be appropriate to explore a topic which is unlikely to surface for the next few months – “Insect friendly flowers“.
Last week in the garden. Rose ‘Frau Dagmar Hartopp’.
Some regular readers may have explored an expanding separate section on my blog under the title ‘The Real Botany of Desire’, but a lot has happened over the last few weeks to make me want to review this issue in a blog post.
Firstly, I should say, since I don’t seem to have done elsewhere on the blog, that the reason we hit on ‘The Garden Impressionists’ as a title for our ventures is a play on the inspiration we gained from a visit years ago to Monet’s garden at Giverny in late May. In particular I noticed the huge numbers of insects of all kinds in the formal part of the garden, amongst more intermingled flowers than I’d ever seen in a British garden. Obviously, it’s a very labour intensive garden, in a different climate, with many annuals, and only open to the public for half the year, but it stimulated us to try to develop our garden in such a way that it would become equally alive with industrious insect diversity, and perhaps therefore support a greater wildlife diversity, across the animal kingdom.
Did you know that 32 of the 50 most common garden bird species in the UK have insects, at all stages of their life cycle, as the major part of their diet?
As I thought more about the subject, I realised that particularly in temperate zones, flowers have developed over millions of years in an extraordinary and often complex symbiotic relationship with insects – the flowers attract insects to fertilise them and so set seed, and in return the insects are rewarded with food as either nectar or pollen. Much more recently humans – gardeners, plant breeders and nurserymen have muscled in on the scene. To claim flowers as their own, and breed their own cultivars. And select them for largely aesthetic considerations, be that colour, scent or form.
As far as I know there are no, (and probably never have been), nurserymen who are selecting let’s say Aster varieties for their relative appeal to late season insects, yet there are big variations in the relative appeal in our garden of many Aster cultivars to the flies, bees, moths and butterflies which will visit their flowers with potentially valuable pollen and nectar. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be of value to apiarists to know which cultivars or species of flowers produce the best nectar quality or yields from a given area?
Unknown ( or rather unrecorded!) Aster in the garden last week.
However, awareness of the merits and value of insects in our gardens and landscapes is at last getting a bit more good press, and a couple of weeks ago I watched on line a recent disturbing American documentary on the decline of honeybee numbers and its possible links to large scale agricultural pesticide use (Click here for link). In particular a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. I’d encountered two of these, imidaclopramid, and fipronil as pet flea treatments called Advantage and Frontline, in my days as a veterinary surgeon.
Always wary of drug companies’ claims of human safety, I was nevertheless appalled to find their relative toxicity compared to DDT on a weight for weight basis, in a well laid out summary paper pdf by J P van der Sluijs from the Copernicus Institute at the University of Utrecht – 7,297 times as toxic and 6475 times as toxic as DDT to be precise. Click here for more. It’s worth also checking out their maps of groundwater contamination with these pesticides in France and Holland to get a feel for what our insects are up against. Never mind what humans are being exposed to! But never mind, it’s just insect nervous systems that are being disrupted by these chemicals, isn’t it?
This year, in our own pesticide free garden, in a pretty pesticide free part of the UK, in spite of the terrible wet summer insect numbers in early October have, on sunny days, been extraordinary. So perhaps our planting regime with insect friendly flowers is paying dividends after all these years.
Actea ‘Brunette’ last week in the garden.
Is this why some of our garden visitors from even coastal gardens in Wales have commented on our bumper apple crop, compared to their own? Actually it’s way down on last year, with smaller apples and I didn’t need to do much thinning in June. Nevertheless, we still had pretty good pollination and fruit set, given our altitude and rainfall.
Also driving over the mountain last week I spotted a new sign advertising ‘Honey for Sale’. This hasn’t appeared before, and in view of my comments in earlier posts about regular honeybee visits to the garden throughout the year for the first time in 2012, peaking with hundreds of bees on our Sedum spectabile a few weeks ago, I figured I should call in and see what the local honey looks and tastes like.
Interestingly the owner of the hives, Andy Ryan, happens to be the current chairman of the Lampeter and District Bee Keeping Association. I wondered how he came to have honey to sell after such a wet summer? He explained that the bees were able to bring in quite a lot of honey early in the year in the very sunny March and April. But that they’d used most of this up as food, through the wet summer. Then in August/September the bees from one of his 4 hives started to bring in a lot of honey, making a surplus of 55 lbs. I bought a couple of jars figuring some of it was sourced from our Sedum nectar. And like all natural products it has a very distinctive taste and light yellow colour.
The local honey, French comparisons, and Sedum spectabile in the background.
Andy’s comments confirmed my thoughts that particularly in an environment like ours, at relatively high altitude and with 70 inches plus of annual rainfall, there’s a need to try to plan your garden so that there are nectar and pollen source flowers available to bees, and all the other insects around, right the way through their periods of flight activity. Because a bad weather spell may mean an inability to fly for long periods, and stored food will be necessary to keep some of the colony insects going.
Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ last week.
But how do the gardening media and big plant retailers fare in promoting insect friendly flowers? Around the time I collected my honey from Andy, our 2 monthly subscription gardening magazines arrived on the same day. ‘The Garden’ magazine, produced by the Royal Horticultural Society, RHS, had an in depth article on Sedum cultivars. The RHS have done much to encourage awareness of beneficial insects with their ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ range of plants, and an ongoing ‘Plants For Bugs’ project.
‘Gardens Illustrated’ magazine had an even more extensive feature on Japanese Anemones. Both Anemones and Sedum are stalwarts in our garden and produce masses of late season flowers. The Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ which we grow, is a fantastic flower with honeybee, bumblebee, moth, butterfly and fly appeal. The Japanese Anemone has a more restricted appeal, mostly to a diversity of flies, and occasionally bumblebees and honeybees as a pollen source. It’s difficult to take a photo of either of them without some insect being included in the image.
Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ when the honeybees came calling on 9/09/12.
Anemone x hybrida ‘Honourine Joubert’ in the garden last week.
But what caught my eye was that none of the lovely flower images in either of these articles featured a flower with an insect actually on it. So, I broadened the analysis.
Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica, in the garden last week.
- ‘The Garden’ magazine contained just a single insect on flower image in its 98 pages. The last page had an image of Nerine flowers with possibly (!) an out of focus bumblebee on it.
- ‘Gardens Illustrated’ contained 3 small insect on flower images out of about 115 flower images. All were butterflies.
- The extensive wholesale bulb catalogue from J. Parker, including many species of insect friendly Allium cultivars, contained … actually, I gave up looking after 79 pages with about 20 flower photos per page and not a single insect on flower image.
- The 2013 seed catalogue from leading British seed firm Thompson and Morgan features 151 plants to grow from seed which carry the RHS ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ logo. Yet there were only 2 insect on flower images – both were butterflies.
Finally, whilst researching the scientific name for Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, which we inherited from another garden and which seems to be a lovely and insect friendly flower for autumn, I came across Sarah Raven’s website. Sarah has also done a huge amount to raise the issue of the decline in wild pollinating insects, and the value of native wild flowers for supporting healthy insect populations. She also has a range of flowers to grow from seed which are attractive to bees and butterflies for sale on her website. Out of 169 plants and images there are just 4 insect on flower images with 3 butterflies and 1 of a bumblebee.
Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, in the garden last week.
Errors and omissions excepted, as the saying goes.
So in total, in all these glossy pages stuffed with thousands of flower images which, you will recall from earlier in the article, are largely a life form which has evolved to appeal to insects, there are only 5 butterflies and possibly 2 bumblebees illustrated.
No beetles, or ‘Bugs’.
Not even a single honeybee.
There are lots of possible reasons for this dearth of insect on flower images. Perceived aesthetics, or perhaps detracting from the flower’s clarity or appeal on the page? Lack of suitable images to include? Commercial pressures from pesticide manufacturers and advertisers, to mention a few which spring to mind? But my point is that if this sort of skewed media coverage were applied in the UK to any other minority group, and heck, insects by total numbers, let alone species numbers, are the most numerous and diverse life form on the planet, so hardly a minority group, then there would be an outcry at the huge discrimination in operation.
Is it naive to hope that our gardening media and nurserymen might see that a gradual and progressive shift in the percentage of images selected where insects featured might, over time, help to raise the gardening public’s awareness of these creatures which are essential to the ecology of the planet? And awaken more to the issues surrounding vital pollinator loss.
Regular followers will know that we’ve been making the garden more appealing to native insects, and recording the most favoured flowers in this regard elsewhere on this site (click here). For the first time last year we had honeybee visitors regularly through the seasons, and eventually found where we think they were coming from, about a mile and a half away. I’m delighted that Andy Ryan has agreed to site one of his honeybee hives just above the garden at the bottom of our high meadow. So, at dusk a week ago, once the bees had all calmed down and cold weather was forecast, Andy arrived with the hive, a brood chamber and a ‘super’ containing a slab of fondant icing from the bakers in Llanybydder, all tightly bound together with a couple of belt straps. Even in such chilly weather, the bees would be capable of becoming quite irate if aroused.
Carried up into the meadow I’ve temporarily hurdled it off to prevent our inquisitive sheep rubbing against it. So far, so good. A bee has ventured out briefly, but there’s no indication of a sunny day on the horizon to see if the local bees would be interested in all those Caucasian flowers!
However the return to freezing ground and bitter Easterlies, has stopped the show for now.
I’m guessing the flocks are choosing to head to warmer conditions near the coast. 3 days ago in this run of dry days, the sun shone, and the wind dropped. It wasn’t really warm, but by 10.30 am the first worker honeybees had decided that it was indeed a suitable day for working. There had been several about the previous slightly windier day, but with brash burning bonfires to start after the recent hedge laying, I opted to leave the distraction of further observation and photography until lunchtime.I’m glad I delayed. Firstly, because it’s an extremely addictive way of passing the day, watching these eager insects beavering away. And you feel slightly guilty afterwards with an always huge list of ‘still-to-do’ jobs. But also, I would probably have given up earlier on in a long photographic stint, and then missed seeing the first 2 bumblebee queens of the year visiting our Crocus flowers. The white tailed bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, and Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum, (probably) were about a week earlier than last year (here shown on Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ and C. sieberi ‘Firefly’. The last clump has had flowers for nearly 6 weeks, waiting for a pollinator to turn up).It’s also interesting that in contrast to most early bumblebees last year, neither of these queens appear to be carrying any mites.
As in previous years, their preferred flower in the garden this early in the year is always the Crocus. I speculate this year that this might be because not only is it a potentially good source of both nectar AND pollen (more on this later), but these pretty large and heavy bees can straddle the flowers without them collapsing. So far I’ve never seen a bumblebee visit a snowdrop, Cyclamen coum or Scilla mischtschenkoana, though they will visit Pulmonaria and Hellebore flowers. Observing their early afternoon antics where they were collecting nectar as a food stuff and store for what will be their new colony, and pollen as the foodstuff to sustain the larvae which will form the new colonies’ workers, I realised how vital it is to plant the right sort of Crocus in a part of the garden where it will catch any sunshine that there is, between about 10.30 am and 3 pm.Outside these hours, and the bees are unlikely to be on the wing, since temperatures will be too low. No exposure to sun because of poor siting of the Crocus, and the flowers will remain firmly closed and inaccessible to the bees. Closing the flowers in this way is of course a sensible strategy by the plant to protect stamens and ovaries from weather extremes.The Scilla mischtschenkoana flowers must have a hardier constitution. They remain open, once the buds have matured and opened for the first time.This strategy has the big advantage that any insect which emerges early in the day can still visit the flower. And Andy’s honeybees seem to love them.This is also interesting, since we had no bee visits to them at all last year, and I suspect that the difference is that they are now readily accessible to the hive’s bees without them having to fly long distances to reach them – a strategy which would likely be perilous at this time of the year. My impression is that the honeybees are visiting primarily for the abundant pale pollen that they produce – there may be little nectar on offer? The honeybees also visit our many snowdrops for orange pollen (again hardly ever recorded before the hive was placed on site).As well as the Crocus flowers.But another interesting observation was also made. Although none of these short lived insects will ever have experienced any of these flowers before, firm preferences seem to become established really quickly. A cohort of bees preferred the Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’, where the principle goal was nectar gathering, judging by the upended duck like position adopted by the bees in the Crocus flower, straining to reach the nectaries at the base of the flower with their relatively short tongues. As I noticed last year, these C. ‘Cream Beauty’ are vigorous in our garden and multiply well, but set very little seed, and if you look closely they seem to produce little if any pollen. Interestingly the RHS have given Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ an Award of Garden Merit, AGM, and list it as a ‘Perfect For Pollinators’ plant. We can concur with its merits as garden worthy and insect friendly, though semantically, is a flower which produces virtually no pollen, “Perfect For Pollinators”?
In marked contrast a different cohort of honeybees will seek out the Crocus tommasinianus flowers which are laden with pollen and any bee, honey or bumble, will emerge with an all over dusting.Trying some time lapse photography with a Camcorder upgrade indeed confirmed this selective feeding by different groups of bees from the same hive.Part of the time lapse trial area. This division of labour is probably a very efficient strategy. As with a bumblebee colony, a honeybee hive needs both carbohydrate rich nectar to feed the colony (and eventually produce honey from any surplus) and oil and protein rich pollen as a food for the larvae which will hatch from eggs that the queen honeybee is probably already laying (she never leaves the hive at this time of the year). The hive’s number of active workers will grow rapidly as spring progresses into summer.
This observation again persuaded me that flower selection, placement and numbers can be a hugely important factor in whether a colony of either bumblebees or honeybees is likely to survive and thrive in your area. I also discovered that (many populations of honeybees’ reluctance to fly in any rain or drizzle, in contrast to the tougher bumblebee, can be compensated for by the ability of the hive to gather nectar in profusion, if the weather and food source are suitable. An American study showed that the weight of a hive could increase by a massive 6 kg in just 24 hours, largely as a result of nectar gathering, given optimum weather and available nectar sources.
The one disappointment after this very successful period of bee watching was that in spite of having hundreds of wonderful and permanently open Cyclamen coum flowers, the bees largely ignored them. So my hand pollination will have to continue to ensure seed production. The image below is the only time I saw a honeybee of Cyclamen coum flowers in nearly an hour of looking, in spite of hundreds of open Cyclamen flowers. Ninety nine out of 100 bees clearly expressed a preference for other flowers!Equally this apparent lack of insect appeal is probably the reason that the Cyclamen coum season lasts for so long in our garden.I’d planned a major snowdrop blog for today, but all this unexpected bee activity pushed it out. So just a couple of photos for now.
Many plants which survived earlier wintry blasts have succumbed after 2 or 3 days of freeze chilling by strong easterlies, in the middle of this month. There’s still no sign on the monthly forecast of when this wintry weather will abate.
And by midday, I wasn’t disappointed, although it’s always interesting to see which flowers they are actually visiting. We realised (after giving another talk the previous Monday in Llandrindod Wells, where there was still snow on the hills), just how lucky we are to have daffodils out in abundance right now, but these bees were completely ignoring these brash, human selected flowers. Instead they made for the few Crocus blooms still out, but more particularly the lovely small blue of Chionodoxa forbesii, ‘Blue Giant’ and the cheerful open buttercup yellow of the thug like native Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria.
As he took apart the hive I could see the construction for the first time, with a slab of dense sugar fondant just above several frames of comb, above an open mesh grill at the hive’s base.
I’m guessing that they simply died of hypothermia from prolonged hive wind chilling, perhaps with a bit of dehydration thrown in. Always wanting to learn from experience, perhaps if Andy restocks the hive in due course, we’ll add a windbreak of willow or hazel to the East/North to try to protect against a similar bout of prolonged severe weather in future years. Do bee keepers ever add extra insulation to a hive’s exterior in such severe weather? Just as we’d chuck an extra couple of quilts on a bed, or resort to hot water bottles and Long Johns? Would it be worth limiting up draught through the grilled open base of the hive, in such extreme conditions?
At least it confirms that the garden still has enough insect friendly flowers, even at this time of the year in this extreme spring, to attract honeybees to the garden, and gives hope for the long term viability of an on site hive.
If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up! Last night at Aberystwyth Beekeeper’s Group we gave another film/talk, and chatting to members over a cup of tea revealed losses of up to 50% of their colonies this year, because of this long, cold-delayed spring.
Shortly after my last post we’d begun our tedious manual small scale hay making on our steeply sloping field by strimming off selected areas of our this hay/wild flower meadow. I reckoned strimming around the empty bee hive might be a good idea as well since the developing heatwave might have triggered a swarm nearby. Indeed we’d both seen and heard a mini swarm fly overhead and down our track, a couple of days earlier. So 2 days later I got quite excited when Fiona noticed a few bees exploring the hive entrance at dusk.A day later and the numbers had increased, and another day saw tens of bees around the entrance in the mid day heat, which by now was regularly hitting the high ‘ 20’s degrees C.By dusk, activity seemed to have ceased, and keen to see whether anything was happening inside I carefully lifted the top super off the hive (after first pressing an ear to the flaky paint of the exterior for any sound of significant bee activity. None was detected).To my surprise there were perhaps 50 or 60 bees pressed in between a couple of the combs. But this confirmed my suspicions that all this activity wasn’t real scouting for a new home, but simply exploiting and robbing the residual honey stores left by the previous, long deceased, inhabitants. A later visit from Andy, the bee keeper, confirmed this. Within 2 days the honey had presumably been cleared and no more bees were seen around the hive. I do wonder if bees are capable of sensing death in a hive like this, and perhaps giving it a wide berth as a potential new home? This would be a sensible adaptive trait, in view of the evident vulnerability of the hive’s current position during the unusual freeze drying Easterly winds of the previous spring.
Pushed into last place of topics for this post, is a subject I’ve not quite managed to include before, but better had now before it becomes completely inappropriate for the time of year. Two interesting pieces of research on bee visits to flowers have caught my eye this year.The first, is from recent work from Bristol University around February of this year. I normally don’t include text directly from other pieces, but have done below since Ed Yong’s piece is extremely elegantly and succinctly written. You must however read the whole piece and look at the images which are there.Click here to see the fascinating whole piece. Below is a taster:
Dominic Clarke and Heather Whitney from the University of Bristol have shown that bumblebees can sense the electric field that surrounds a flower. They can even learn to distinguish between fields produced by different floral shapes, or use them to work out whether a flower has been recently visited by other bees. Flowers aren’t just visual spectacles and smelly beacons. They’re also electric billboards.
“This is a big finding,” says Daniel Robert, who led the study. “Nobody had postulated the idea that bees could be sensitive to the electric field of a flower.”
Scientists have, however, known about the electric side of pollination since the 1960s, although it is rarely discussed. As bees fly through the air, they bump into charged particles from dust to small molecules. The friction of these microscopic collisions strips electrons from the bee’s surface, and they typically end up with a positive charge.
Flowers, on the other hand, tend to have a negative charge, at least on clear days. The flowers themselves are electrically earthed, but the air around them carries a voltage of around 100 volts for every metre above the ground. The positive charge that accumulates around the flower induces a negative charge in its petals.
When the positively charged bee arrives at the negatively charged flower, sparks don’t fly but pollen does. “We found some videos showing that pollen literally jumps from the flower to the bee, as the bee approaches… even before it has landed,” says Robert. The bee may fly over to the flower but at close quarters, the flower also flies over to the bee.
This is old news. As far back as the 1970s, botanists suggested that electric forces enhance the attraction between pollen and pollinators. Some even showed that if you sprinkle pollen over an immobilised bee, some of the falling grains will veer off course and stick to the insect.
But Robert is no botanist. He’s a sensory biologist. He studies how animals perceive the world around them. When he came across the electric world of bees and flowers, the first question that sprang to mind was: “Does the bee know anything about this process?” Amazingly, no one had asked the question, much less answered it. “We read all of the papers,” says Robert. “We even had one translated from Russian, but no one had made that intellectual leap.”
To answer the question, Robert teamed up with Clarke (a physicist) and Whitney (a botanist), and created e-flowers—artificial purple-topped blooms with designer electric fields. When bumblebees could choose between charged flowers that carried a sugary liquid, or charge-less flowers that yielded a bitter one, they soon learned to visit the charged ones with 81 percent accuracy. If none of the flowers were charged, the bees lost the ability to pinpoint the sugary rewards.
The second piece of recent bee research I shall try to precis, for 2 reasons. Firstly, I was sent it in an email as a PDF and can’t find a link to the actual research paper, though there is a simple review which you can access by clicking here. But secondly, the actual paper by Mihail Garbuzov* and Francis L. W. Ratnieks Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, was a mix, at least for me, of incomprehensible complex statistical analysis theory, as well as somewhat poorly explained methodolgy.
But what it did achieve, was to stress that different flowering plants have hugely different appeal to many of our common garden pollinating insects – principally bumblebees, honeybees, flies butterflies and moths – perhaps with a 100 fold difference between the most insect friendly, and the least. A rather strange and limited selection of 32 different flowers were planted in 1 metre square blocks and then were observed on a number of occasions, and actual insect flower visits recorded (though the detail of what constituted these ‘snapshot’ records was a little confusing for me).Some of the information mirrors my own more basic, and not ‘statistically significant‘, observation records on most of the flowers which we grow in our garden. This is detailed in my ‘Real Botany Of Desire’ pages on this blog. It’s more confirmation that if gardeners widely planted more flowers which really are insect friendly, then there would be huge advantages for our native insect fauna.
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, so 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, for example badgers and 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 un-barbed 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 this 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.
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.
Returning to the afore mentioned pollinating brush, why do I bother?
Later in the year, I’m happy to do this, but so far we’ve only had two, very brief, occasions when any honeybees have been flying. February 4th and February 17th, and it’s still too early for any bumblebees to have emerged from hibernation here.So, since I think that these very first flowers of late winter and early spring bulbs (snowdrops/aconites/crocus/cyclamen coum), have huge added therapeutic value, for any winter-tired gardener, they’re the ones to concentrate on trying to bulk up.
But if they never get pollinated this is unlikely to happen!
It’s also really therapeutic and interesting, on a glorious sunny morning, to gently drift between flowers, Crocs on feet and brush in hand. You can spot subtle colour variations between Crocus tommasinianus forms, and even favour pollen collection from those flowers with stronger or more unusual petal hues.
You also begin to see the benefits of your efforts within a few short years – only Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ corms were planted on the slope below – the other colour variants are the result of scattering saved crocus seed on the surface, 3-4 years ago. How simple is that?
I also did a double take as I was flitting between the masses of purple goblets, and discovered a perfect opened flower, but instead of the usual 6 petals, (actually 3 sepals and 3 petals) there were 8.
And if you look closely there are 4 stamens and also 4 filamentous orange branches off the style, instead of the usual 3. From searching on line, this doesn’t seem particularly common in crocus – I only found one in all the thousands of flowers I’d moved across. But it led me to discover that crocus is one of those more unusual genus groups of plants in that they have a wide range of chromosome numbers. Click here for a comparison with other organisms, and here for variations in chromosome numbers in a single crocus species, Crocus biflorus. No one seems quite sure why, but it may be an aid to, or consequence of, species diversification. Whether or not my 8 petalled form has a different chromosome count to its neighbours, I guess I’ll never know.
But I also discovered that most floral symmetry, across all flower types, is controlled by a single gene, known as the CYCLOIDEA (CYC) gene. Click here for more, about how this gene is expressed within a flower, or even parts of a flower, and how this expression controls the way the flower looks.
The default, or evolutionary base, design is in flowers like the daisies, or indeed Crocus, which have multiple radial symmetries of 3 or more planes. Such basic variations on star shapes, are known botanically as actinomorphic flowers.
A variation in some flowers involves a simpler symmetry, so that like a human face, a mirror image of the flower is created down its centre, in just one position. Such bilateral symmetry is known as zygomorphic, and orchids and members of the pea family are examples of this floral type. Several variants of zygomorphic flowers seem to have evolved independently, and in the pea family, Leguminosae, the 3 sets of petals which make up the distinctive winged type of flower common to the group – standard, wings and keels – all develop into their very different forms because of different levels of expression of the CYC gene. This gene is more strongly expressed at the top of the forming flower bud, and not expressed at the bottom of the bud, producing flowers specifically designed to attract certain types of pollinating insects.
Finally, there are a few flowers which lack any floral symmetry, like valerian, Valeriana officinalis. Interestingly, some plants like snapdragons which are normally zygomorphic, have produced radially symmetrical flowers as an aberration. Such flowers are known as peloric, and whilst it can simply be a developmental error, breeders have exploited its potential to create larger flowers, though again in such cases the change in flower type all comes back to changes in the expression of the CYC gene.
I hope that the above detour into a bit of science doesn’t detract from the aesthetic essence of these wonderful crocus flowers, which whether open or closed, light up the generally still chilly garden scene.
We’re in the middle of the Pieris season. And since I was intrigued by the origin of the genus name, I thought I should explore a little.
Pieris, being evergreen shrubs, have year round value in the garden, but I increasingly appreciate them for their early season flowers, and the huge benefits that they provide as nectar sources for honeybees and early season bumblebee queens. I’m not sure about how much pollen they produce, but given an interlude from the prolonged colder weather, there’s an audible buzz near them, as the bees flock to the masses of flowers.
And under the midday sun, stand close to a bush in flower, and you can breathe in a really rich, honey like scent.
When the flowers are over, many of the cultivars then delight with the fantastic colours of the new season’s growth, which are picked up in some of their names, like P. ‘Forest Flame’ and, P. ‘Bonfire’. In most years here, they explode in late March with drooping pannicles of lily of the valley type flowers, which appeared in bud form, the previous autumn, to heighten expectations of when they’ll fill and open.
Quite why Pieris was chosen for the genus, I’m not sure, but it seems to be a link to Greek mythology and the 9 muses who were thought to be influential in most creative endeavours. I stupidly knew nothing about these goddesses of inspiration, obviously a failing for anyone attempting to write a regular blog, and sometimes struggling to gain motivation to sit and hit the keyboard, but they were purportedly the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Click here for more about their major significance in Greek and later artistic works, throughout the ages. In some records, the muses are represented as water nymphs associated with the springs of Helicon, and Pieris, or Pieria, which is a small region of North Eastern Greece.
But perhaps we have had a tenuous and previously unrecognised garden link to the muses for a few years, since we grow Narcissus ‘Thalia’, which is beginning to flower right now, and is named after one of these Grecian deities. Many thanks are due to a close friend Anne, for recommending this form to us. Multi-headed and a reliable flowering form, its lovely white flowers complement almost any other plant in the garden at this vibrant time of the year. Shown below with orange centred Narcissus ‘Actaea’.
Pieris are a small genus of shrubs within the Ericaceae, which includes all our heathers, which are equal bee flower favourites, with 7 species members native to Eastern Asia, and the USA. A popular spring white flowering heather, below, shows the similarity in flower form, to the Pieris.
Most of the Pieris we grow are cultivars of P. japonica, and they seem to thrive in the semi-shaded slopes beneath our mature larch trees, where they’re slowly growing – some are more dwarfing forms, but others like P. ‘Forest Flame’ can eventually reach several metres in height, at which point, I’m guessing they’ll keep an army of bees happy for a week or two.
It’s given me a real buzz (sorry), to hear Andy (the chairman of the local bee keeping association) report on his latest visit to inspect his hive in the garden. To his great surprise, the bees had only consumed half of a block of pollen fondant that he’d left to sustain them earlier in the spring. He’d been expecting to have to supplement it, as he has with his other half a dozen hives. Not only that, but they’ve already been laying down honey (by early April). So, all our efforts in planting a garden filled with insect friendly flowers, from early January onwards, seems to be paying off. I’m trying to persuade him to add an extra hive, since the local honey is delicious, and the bees do sterling work in pollinating many of our flowers, and so help proliferate the beneficial ones.
Unfortunately daffodils, Welsh or otherwise, are pretty useless on this front, but they do cheer the spirits, particularly in the fabulous sunshine we’ve been enjoying of late. Along with other tasks, I’ve managed to photograph a few more of my ‘Welsh daffodil sunrises’, which I’m also loading onto a new separate Welsh daffodils page, with more details about each one. I shall use more of these pictures to leaven the rather ‘dry’ section below – if you’d like to find cultivar names, then check out the new page.
The radio natter drones on as I make the morning cuppa. Then from the dark, outside the back door, a clear song strikes up. Quickly I move and switch off ‘Today’. (I wrote this section in italics in mid-January, but have only belatedly included it below)
Tomorrow perhaps, or later, the radio might win, but for now the robin delights me, and sets the tone for the slow frosty grey dawn. We’re still in winter’s depths, but the birds sense spring. I stand still on the terrace in light barely adequate for filming. The lightest of cold zephyrs on my southerly cheek hints at some air movement and I manage a good three and a half minutes of recording before the first ‘rush’ hour car breaks the spell at 7.45 am. Across the valley, a cow lows deeply. (Mooing seems such a lightweight word, for such a deep resonant sound which enriches the mood, and hangs long in the air). Tits, wrens, robins, blackbirds are all on the move though. Are they trying to grab my attention and encourage me to count them for the annual RSPB garden bird watch, I wonder?
Whether because we have a viable honey bee hive in the garden in April for the first time, or whether a single bee had an unusual appreciation of tulip pollen smell or consistency, I’ve never before seen a honeybee carefully sitting astride a tulip stamen, and stroking off the black pollen into fat balls on its hind legs, and then visiting more tulips. Normally the tulip visual feast for a weary gardener’s eyes, are an insect free zone.
Unlike the Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’. This is always reliably buzzing with a mass of honeybees, as the early Pieris flowers finish. If you grow just one male Pieris, this is the one I would recommend. The honeyed scent from the open flowers fills the air around the plant even on a chilly day. I do worry that well known gardening authors (the most recent being the otherwise excellent Mark Diacono), suggest plants for pollinators that very rarely get insect visits from the bees (bumble or honey), in our garden – the latest being Mark’s suggestion in the Saturday Telegraph of primroses and daffodils for spring pollinator appeal.
Do any other gardeners find these flowers buzzing with bees on a sunny day?
Eventually this year, with all our thousands of daffodil flowers, I managed a single photo of a solitary bee collecting pollen from Narcissus ‘Thalia’. With us, primroses (and cowslips) are usually the private domain of the pretty Dark-edged Bee fly, Bombylius major. Our bees give the primroses a wide berth. So presumably our other flower options are more highly regarded.
How big is a bee’s brain?
Clearly much smaller than ‘pea-brained’ size, as in my ‘Pea-brained!’ derogatory insult sometimes hurled at siblings in the battles of teenage youth. Although it seems from quite recent archaeological discoveries, that one of our ancestor primates, Aegyptopithecus zeuxis, from 29 million years ago, whilst possessing the larger eye sockets, and developing visual cortex indicative of a move to vision becoming the dominant sense, had a brain little bigger than a pea, inside a cat sized body.
From which paleontologists deduce that the much bigger brains typical of all higher apes developed considerably later on in evolutionary terms, than was previously thought. Click here for more. (I have few relevant images to accompany much of the text, so please bear with photos from the garden over the last 2 weeks to break up the tedium, and stop you seeing lots of white bands).
But where has this move to the dominance of visual acuity got us as a species?
And what about the bee’s brain?
I started to think about this with the annual morning buzz, which filled the air outside the front door, very suddenly, on the first day that the tiny Cotoneaster horizontalis flowers began to open. All it needed was a little warmth, and within 15 minutes, the flowers were covered in wasps, bumble and honeybees, with their probing tongues desperate to find a way into the tiny, still tightly furled, flowers.But none of these insignificant flowers had any obvious scent as far as I could detect. And none of these insects would ever have experienced any of these flowers before in their short lives.
So what was going on?It turns out that the attraction trigger for most flowers is not the nectar, as I’d assumed, but rather distinct volatile organic floral scents, released by specialised cells often closely located near the flower’s nectaries. (If you want a more complete explanation of what I’ll now try to précis, then do click here for a brilliant in depth, scientific, though thoroughly readable chapter by Judith Reinhard and Mandyam V. Srinivasan, titled “The Role of Scents in Honey Bee Foraging and Recruitment”.)The majority of floral odorants are chemicals called terpenoids, but there are also large numbers of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, and esters. Among theses are twelve odorants that occur in over 50% of all floral bouquets analyzed and are hence regarded as typical floral odorants. Different flower species obviously have different scents. The difference in fragrance can be due to a difference in the mix of these floral chemical constituents, but also in their intensity. A floral bouquet can also vary within a species, depending on the environmental conditions, such as the location of an individual flower, time of day, pollination status, nectar content, and age of the flower.
Honeybees are also exposed to numerous scents within the hive – both complex pheromones produced by the bees within the hive, but also exposure to the scents of pollen, nectar and those lingering on the bodies of the bees returning from foraging. It’s obviously pretty dark within a hive, so these scents are critical cues for much bee behaviour, including the amazing progression of roles that the typical honey bee has in its short 6 weeks or so existence.
Did you know that they can move through a range of tasks before they ever make it outside? I didn’t. Cell cleaning, nurse bee, wax production, honey sealing, drone feeding, Queen attendants, honeycomb building, pollen packing, propolizing, mortuary bees (a critical role in removing dead bees or larvae well away from the hive), fanning bees (to regulate the hive’s internal temperature in hot weather), water carrying bees (partly to help supply water for cooling to the fanning bees using a specialised water carrying stomach), guard bees.
For the last 3 weeks or so of their short lives, actually foraging for food – nectar and pollen. (Click here for more on worker bee tasks).
How they actually detect scents led me to the answer to the question I posed at the beginning. A honeybee brain is a mere 1mm cube size. Yet this, together with the neurological system for scent detection, places it as one of the most accomplished of scent detectors in the animal kingdom, being able to pick up traces of chemical down to one part in a trillion – equivalent to a grain of salt in an Olympic sized swimming pool. And their ability to track a scent plume down by flying upwind and in and out of the plume’s edge in a defined pattern means that they can quickly and easily track miniscule quantities of scent down to an origin source well over a hundred metres or more away.
Moreover their bee brains, and detection systems are very ‘plastic’ and intuitive, and a new scent can be learned within as little as 5 minutes, and then retained for their lifetime. This has led to some interest in their role as potential detectors of drugs, explosives or even in medical work, since they seem capable of being trained to detect scent cues released in people’s breath linked to certain types of cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis. Click here for pictures of an interesting glass chamber developed by a Portugese scientist, Susana Soares, which utilises the bees’ sniffer skills. They’re also very sensitive to the smells released from animal’s apocrine or sweat glands.
The medical bee training process is typically Pavlovian.
Expose them to a new scent, and when they respond to it appropriately, reward them with a drop of sugar solution. Within 5 minutes, they will have ‘learned’ the new scent and will stick out their tongue whenever they experience the scent in future, expecting their treat.
Their superb olfactory acuity is determined by their scent processing anatomy. Their antennae are covered with specialised sensory pore plates linked to 48,000 olfactory nerve cells. Within the pore plates are about 160 different ‘receptor’ proteins, which will bind to a scent molecule which drifts in through the open pore. As a result of this ‘binding’, a chemical/ionic reaction triggers the linking sensory nerves to fire off impulses, through a system of processing centres – all the different nerve fibres processing a particular receptor protein pore’s, reactions, converge on a single centre or ganglion, and eventually to the olfactory centres within that tiny bee brain. Some receptors are specific to single individual bee pheromone chemicals, whereas with floral scents, the sensor receptors are more generalised.
But it now became a little clearer to me that the Cotoneaster flowers, whilst having their own mix of chemical attractant cues, will no doubt be using a blend of chemicals which the bees will already have ‘learned’ from their earlier few days of spring flower foraging, as indicating a good food source.
It seems that with the exception of the occasional individual like Roja Dove, (who I only discovered this week, Click here for more, a British parfumier who claims to be able to detect 800 scents blindfold – and then blends them into perfumes starting at £275 a bottle), our particular line of higher apes has really regressed, when it comes to olfactory perception over the humble honeybee, with its miniscule brain.
And I haven’t even ventured into the role of olfactory cues released by plants in their battle against herbivores, which some think floods the world with a range of chemical scent cues, which vastly outnumber even those produced by plants in their quest to attract pollinators.(Click here for an interesting insight).
As a ‘higher’ species, how is it that we’re now so divorced from all these olfactory stimuli which are hugely influential in how the natural world that surrounds us goes about its daily life?
Do smells really only have a value to us when bought in a crystal encrusted bottle?
Is this evolutionary loss of olfactory appreciation now beginning to come home to roost, with a more general disconnect of our species from our place within the vastly complex ecosystems on our planet?
But all this revelation, for me, in the role of olfactory cues, came after the event of having to ask our bee keeper to come and remove his hive of honey bees from one corner of our hay meadow. Why?
Well I’d begun to notice that later on in the day of Andy’s roughly weekly visit, clad in protective gear, to check the single hive, I was being ‘charged’ by guard bees.
Even some distance from the hive.
Two days later whilst filming bumblebees on the flowers in the high meadow I had to abandon the camcorder after being ‘buzzed’. It’s difficult to describe just how unsettling it is to have a guard, or should it be ‘attack’ bee, approach like this. It’s fast, sounds really angry, and often hits you in the face, close to the eyes, in an instant, at speed.
Is it a solitary bee?
Or a fly?
A similar sound to my ear, but not as menacing or persistent.
No facial hit.
In the end, whether the bees were really a ‘cranky’ hive, or not (it seems that ‘cranky’ is a euphemistic term amongst bee keepers to describe such aggressive bees), I felt that they had to go. We still have visiting honeybees in the garden, but I can relax, when outside. I really don’t blame the bees. It was yet another demonstration of their supreme abilities – in this case warding off a much bigger potential predator – from proximity to the hive, extremely effectively.
I now realise that such impressive hive defence almost certainly came down to olfactory cues (from my sweat, or possibly a leather hat) that placed me in the same category of Andy with his leather gloves on, who on his weekly visits would regularly end up, with his best endeavours, squashing a few bees during his inspections, and coming away with a few stings in his suit. And consequently, all those ‘ATTACK’ pheromones being released by the dying bees, with ripped out stings leaking yet more of these potent pheromones.
What perhaps made it worse was that he always visited us after first checking out his other hives elsewhere, so his suit was probably really suffused with anger inducing chemicals by the time he got to our hive!
Bee keepers recognise that hives are unsettled for several hours after being opened, and with regular garden work, and hay making shortly, there were genuine safety concerns for me and other garden visitors. So very sadly, and with great irony for someone who has worked for years to create a garden full of insect friendly flowers, it was bye bye bees.
Actually, the garden still has numerous worker honeybees in it, flying in from further afield. Perhaps in time I might feel inclined to put out a bait hive, to try to attract a colony, so that we have honeybees around early in the spring, when it’s just too cold for them to reach the garden from a distance. (Click here for a fascinating insight from Amelia on “A French Garden” on how this process of attracting in a swarm can work in practice.)
With little water available at root level, most plants have struggled to flower well, or sustain flowers for any length of time. The impact for many invertebrates on availability of pollen and nectar must be significant, so it was a delight that a visit by Clare Flynn from Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCT) to survey our bumblebees was so successful.
She managed to find many bumblebees, of 7 different species, including a Cuckoo bumblebee, Bombus vestalis, which I’d never seen before (above), and Clare was particularly pleased to confirm this, once she’d temporarily popped into a pot to examine more closely.Convinced by the day’s results that we do have vibrant bumblebee populations here, I felt I should try to record these insects in a more meaningful way and so have set up a transect walk using BCT’s Beewalk programme. Click here.
This is an impressive attempt by the charity to get amateur observers involved. However, the site loads really slowly on our sluggish satellite internet, and after spending over an hour inputting data from my first walk (actually taking longer than doing the walk), I was aghast to see that after clicking the “save” data button a page popped up telling me that for an unfathomable reason my data hadn’t been saved and was indeed lost.
I shall resort now to a simple home designed spreadsheet (thanks to Fiona) which will be quicker and hopefully more resilient, if not as shareable. However, the very helpful staff at BCT have now offered to input my data if I can get it to them on such an Excel based spreadsheet. Well done indeed to them.My initial walk around the garden and 2 of our meadows, of about 1300 metres length, and recorded in bee walk fashion – noting any bees seen 2 metres either side of the route, and 4 metres ahead – recorded 101 bumblebees and 6 honeybees.
What will be very interesting to monitor, if I can manage to repeat this often enough, is the range of flowers the bees visit through the year. In part, this obviously reflects the number of available flowers in the garden and meadows at a particular time, and which are close to my route, but is also obviously influenced by the bees’ preferences.
An initial glance at my figures suggests that over 60 % of the bees on this first walk were found on just 3 flower species – Common knapweed, Centaurea nigra, Marjoram, Origanum vulgare, and Greater Birds-foot-trefoil, Lotus pedunculatus. All native species in peak flower during the last week of July.
Buddleja and Stachys officinalis flowers accounted for another 15% of their flower visits.
So, a very narrow selection given all the different flowers still available in the garden and meadows. I wonder to what extent these are the species in this year of extreme drought conditions which have coped best and continued to flower well, and still produce a good nectar and pollen resource for the bees?
The Trefoil flowers are growing in our wet meadow and so haven’t been as affected by water shortage, but the Knapweed, Marjoram and Buddleja certainly seem to have coped better than many other plants in very poor dry soils.
A recent piece of research attempted to assess the impact of (artificially created) drought on flower and nectar production. Droughts are widely expected to become more common even in temperate regions as a result of climate “change”. Click here for a very readable and interesting study paper,
Drought reduces floral resources for pollinators
by Phillips,Shaw,Holland, Fry, Bardgett, Bullock and Osbourne
Using trials based on common calcareous grassland species in the UK, an ecosystem type which is naturally held to be quite drought resistant anyway, they found that flower abundance, flowers actually containing any nectar, and nectar quantity per flower, were all reduced significantly by drought conditions. Clearly this would likely impact on pollinator behaviour, and populations as well.
I just hope they’re still here!The second day after they arrived, lots of honeybees were obvious around the garden, collecting pollen, but 5 days later a very hot day saw a lot of bee “milling-around” activity outside the hive, and now there seem far fewer bees entering and leaving. Might some of them have swarmed?Tony will fill me in on his next visit to check them. (They are still there!) I love to see honeybees working in the garden, but have long felt that I simply don’t have time to manage a hive, so Tony’s offer to place a hive on site and manage it was too good to decline.
The third event which was of piffling significance by comparison was the spring meeting of the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group held about 2 weeks ago in the very rural, musty village hall at Pumsaint in North Carmarthenshire. A couple of excellent speakers – one, Laura Jones, gave a resume of her work on using DNA analysis of pollen samples in honey to monitor foraging preferences of honeybees on the extensive estate at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.
Regular readers will know that for years now I’ve been really interested in what I call “insect friendly flowers”, and have a separate web page on this subject – though it’s long overdue for an update. Indeed, for many years, our garden and meadows have been moved towards creating an environment as rich as possible in flowers which appeal across the whole range of insects.
Laura’s PhD thesis, when completed, will give some fascinating quantitative data insight into honeybees’ foraging choices throughout the season, beginning apparently with predominantly Salix and Acers, then moving on through Cratageus and Malus before other less woody plants like bramble, Rubus fruticosus, play more of a role.
The combination of now having a honeybee hive on site, and a formal transect walk for counting (mainly) bumble bee numbers should yield some interesting data of my own on preferred flowers through the seasons to update my previous anecdotal observations.Although an early idea is that it’s tricky to work out whether it’s the sheer numbers of a particular flower which makes it a hit with the bees, or the particular flower type. Since the flowers we’ve planted, or allowed to grow en masse, have tended to be those which, years ago, I assessed as getting frequent visits from many insects.
So this week, the real stars have been Persicaria vaccinifolia, Anemone japonica, as a simple unnamed thuggish pink form, Clematis tangutica, Gernaium procurrens, and in the meadow, Fox-and-Cubs, Pilosella aurantiaca. As a simple thought to leave you with, the thug like Geranium procurrens, which thrives and has spread along the large bank behind the house, stabilising the shale surface on the process, begins blooming in early August most years and continues until the first frosts – sometimes into November.
A quick estimate of current flowers on this patch which originated from perhaps just 3 plants many years ago, came out with a figure of about 5,000 blooms open at any one time. Though an individual flower is fairly short lived, each of the multiple stems has around 10 spent flowers on it. Thus this native of the Himalayas, which would probably be a thug in good soil, is a tremendous resource, for a diverse range of insects, on a difficult to manage site. Perhaps even exceeding a modest suitable tree, in providing nectar and pollen in quantity over a prolonged period. And at the fag end of the season, an obviously easy to locate beacon for those bees to reach, when weather conditions are suitable.
For much of the last two weeks, we’ve been under the weather. Or the cloud.A brief and glorious day on December 22nd saw a spell of warm sunshine which warmed the bee hive, and brought many of its occupants rushing outside for fresh air and to stretch wings and legs.Then the grey returned.
I’ve been very surprised to find how many times the honey bees have been out and about already this month. I’ve yet to find any returning to the hive with obvious pollen loads, but they are flying purposefully now, given half a chance, so whether they’re just scouting potential flower sources, or actually collecting nectar, I don’t know.
It’s wonderful in mid-January to have the sometimes very loud sound of buzzing bees, as a background noise on often still, cold mornings – just 5.5 degrees C the other morning outside our back door at 10.20 when the bees emerged. Some even seem determined to inspect us more closely. One inquisitive lass landed on my garish yellow and orange woven fabric and rubberised glove and then began exploring. I actually felt the bee’s tongue probing through the fabric and touch my skin, before presumably working out that the yellow coloured object wasn’t an early nectar source.
There are plenty of flowers now “open” in the garden with bee appeal (Hellebores, Pulmonaria, Scilla, Snowdrops, Cyclamen coum), but apart from a single observation of a bee visiting an open snowdrop flower in early January, as yet, no more confirmed intimate contacts between flowers and insects.
So, choosing one of those fleeting moments when the bees opted to fly, the sun shone, and the northerly wind hadn’t picked up strength, I did what I often do at this time of the year: picked up my small paintbrush and, for half an hour or so, visited the massed Cyclamen coum in David and Valentine’s bed.
There was no bee activity at all on February 3rd, with ice around in most other areas and the ground still frozen hard, yet the early white Crocus chrysanthus ‘Ard Schenk’, were indeed wide open in these benign pockets of warmer air, with obvious loose pollen inside a few flowers. A few Crocus tommasinianus grown from seed scattered along the cobbles at the very front of the house were the only other Crocus which could manage to open, anywhere else in the garden.
On the 4th, having checked the morning weather forecasts, I was ready to have a look at the hive once the sun broke through the clouds, just before 12.30 pm. Masses of milling bees, but no sign of any actually moving away from the hive, and visiting flowers in the garden.
However, by 1.45 pm, it was a different story. At last I found a couple of honeybees inside a snowdrop, above the croquet lawn, with collected pollen – interestingly this was a local form of G. nivalis.Then another one, inside a rather sad looking Hellebore, hit by those earlier very low temperatures.Finally, I headed down past the massed Cyclamen coum and into the lower copse.The bees had very quickly discovered that this was where the real action was, and this small area of the garden was audibly buzzing with hundreds of bees collecting pollen and nectar from all the plants I knew would be visited, given benign weather. With great delight I also discovered, for the first time, masses were visiting the exquisitely scented flowers of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill, which we’re now very fortunate to have growing in a few thickets.
But it does highlight the benefit of growing many of these early flowering spring bulbs, and also that where they’re sited is really important. All our more “special” snowdrops in their East facing, slightly more exposed location, simply never got warm enough to attract any bee visitors. Galanthus ‘Imbolc’, below, first found in the garden of the galanthophile extraordinaire, Primrose Warburg.
G. “Primrose Warburg”, below.
In my last post, I mentioned how honeybees had started to become active in our garden in early February, during occasional sunny moments. As Valentine’s day dawned, the weather had changed.A high pressure system built, and sucked in warm air from the Azores. Thursday and Friday, the 14th and 15th, were warm and sunny all day. The garden came alive in a way we’d never witnessed before. All the years of planting bulbs and other flowers with appeal to early pollinators had paid off.We’ve never witnessed such intense bee activity in any garden before at any time of the year. For example there are at least 6 honey bees in the image above. Word clearly got spread back to the hive, and by lunchtime on both days, hundreds if not thousands of bees were actively harvesting pollen and nectar from the hundreds of thousands of open flowers. It was intensely exciting, almost emotionally so, to witness this. Piet Oudolf et al, eat your hearts out – grasses and dead perennial foliage may be lovely with frosts on, but I wish I could share the wonderful total flower, scent, movement, and sound experience that a late winter garden can be, if massed bulb flowers are incorporated into planting schemes.
Alive, not dead.
Vibrant, not dormant.
We also recorded the first bumblebee of the year on Valentine’s day, an emergent Bombus lucorum queen, as well as a nectaring Peacock, Aglais io, and Red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, butterfly. I’ll finish this post with just how different our garden experience was, compared with the flower-free desert, that is typical of much of West Wales’ agricultural landscape at this time of the year.
But as the weather became a little cloudier over the weekend, I suddenly wondered whether our bees could run out of storage space so early in the year, and if so, what would happen. After all, huge quantities of pollen and nectar must have been harvested by this constant activity, from before 9.00 am until nearly 4 pm each day.
Tony, our beekeeper, after having similar thoughts, felt it sensible to arrange a quick inspection, and the photos below, show his approach to this. Conventional beekeeping wisdom would counter against ever opening a hive at this time of the year, since there is a risk that chilling of the bees could cause significant fatalities of bees, and more particularly developing brood (bee larvae), so these photos may represent an unusual insight into what is going on in a beehive in mid-February, when the weather is unseasonably warm, and the bees have access to abundant nectar and pollen sources. (there are simply NO flowers open in the wider landscape around here yet, except on a few distant gorse bushes).
Below: lighting the smoker – my job was to keep the bellows working and puff smoke onto the bees when requested, to drive them down and into the hive.
Lifting the top off the hive and revealing the store of candy supplement, beneath an insulating foam mat, supplied to the bees as back up feed in early January – largely untouched over the last few weeks.
Freeing up the stuck down top board over the combs, then quickly replacing the board with an unrolled cloth to keep the bees warm and still largely in the dark.
Tony pointed out the brown capped cells which house recently laid eggs which have and developed into bee larvae, which having been fed to maturity are now entombed for the pupation and metamorphosis phase. The queen reduces egg laying in late autumn/winter, but will begin again when food – pollen and nectar – begin to be brought into the hive by worker bees in spring.
There are also paler capped cells to the right edge of the frame which contain stored honey, as well as some empty cells. Apparently bees always leave a few empty cells within the comb and these can then be occupied by special “heater bees”, which enter the empty cells head first and by uncoupling their flight muscles and effectively shivering, can maintain an average thoracic temperature of around 43 degrees C and as a result are capable of warming larvae in adjacent cells. These heater bees use a huge amount of honey to generate their higher body temperatures – perhaps 10 degrees C higher than other “normal” bees in the colony – but play a critical role in aiding bee larva development particularly early in the year. Click here for more details on this amazing process.
Tony’s verdict was that the bees seemed fine, and that there was still sufficient space for them to expand their numbers in readiness for the year ahead, so that no further frames, or action, were needed. The whole inspection was completed very smoothly, and quickly and it was particularly interesting for me, as my first glimpse inside the bee colony.
I’ve recently wondered about the significance of the bees bringing in so much pollen and nectar from snowdrops, which is probably laden with some of the vast range of alkaloids like galantamine found in different snowdrop species. Many of these chemicals have actions on our own brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals. Indeed, one of these compounds, galantamine, is currently one of the most popular drugs used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
What effect might these alkaloids have on bee brain function? Or indeed bee larval neuro chemistry, and development? Might it even have been significant in a co- evolutionary development allowing some of the very complex social and organisational strategies and behaviour which characterise honeybee ecology. The Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, (the most common of the dozen or so honeybee species worldwide), and Galanthus (snowdrop) species seem to have quite similar indigenous ranges. Who knows, but a final thought is what function are these complex alkaloid chemicals actually providing to the snowdrop plant? Click here for more insight into just how diverse this range of chemicals is.
These floral – insect interactions, in spite of modest cool breezes within the garden during these special days, represented to me an almost spiritual sense of idyllic calm, natural harmony and interaction, in spite of the near constant buzzing which filled the garden.
They have also been part of a perfect storm for seed production this year, and probably seedling germination, given that our slug population is still extraordinarily low after last year’s freezing spring and dry summer. In addition, our amphibian and reptile populations seem really healthy. Most torch lit, night time forays, now highlight as many frogs, toads and newts, as slugs.
The other B-benefit, at least for me, stems from the bee hive, shown wrapped up for a few days this week, courtesy of horrendous chilling South Easterlies, which brought down huge amounts of debris onto the croquet lawn.In what’s (generally) been a fairly benign end to winter and early spring, it’s been a revelation to see how quickly levels of honeybee activity have built up, in spite of the first three weeks of March which saw rain every day, generally cool temperatures, and gusty winds. Our bees are frequently out and about at temperatures around 6 to 7 degrees C, even in strong winds. Most texts say bees need 10 degrees C or higher to forage. This shows the huge advantage of having a strain adapted to local conditions.
Although we have a number of excellent Skimmias in the garden, which have the most fabulous honey scent in flower right now, and get lots of bee visits, this clearly wasn’t the source of the yellow pollen – there simply were insufficient bees on the bushes, and the pollen is more of an orange/buff colour.So I was intrigued to discover where the bees were sourcing this bright yellow dust from. A glance around the landscape showed the very first Pussy willow, Salix caprea, blossoms opening down near the stream, about 300 yards away.Walking down to these confirmed that this was indeed the origin.Large numbers of honeybees (and bumbles) were busy collecting the vast quantities of pollen from the often enormous, examples of Salix caprea, which are found throughout the landscape of our valley and hedgerows.
Sitting at our terrace table later I could see the bees flying overhead and back to the hive with remarkable frequency. What I didn’t realise before researching whether willows provide both pollen and nectar (which they do) was that willows are dioeicious trees, so different trees produce exclusively male and female flowers. The wonderful golden tassles being the showy male flowers – the female flowers are a much less impressive green form.
Suddenly a light bulb moment occurred to me. All the years I’ve spent observing insects in the garden and detecting apparent sudden declines in numbers and wondered why this might be, probably simply reflects the fact that there are sometimes many more plants in the wider landscape outside our garden which are of greater bee appeal. Or at least in greater numbers to divert the bees away from whatever we grow.
In this regard, we are truly fortunate living in this part of the world, since we have many areas with hedgerows which are unflailed, and copses of mature and varied trees. In particular masses of the early spring flowering Goat willows.
At this point I’ll bring in the fantastic research which scientists at our local National Botanic Garden of Wales have been carrying out into bee foraging habits.
Headed up by Dr. Natasha de Vere, who was behind the garden team which DNA barcoded the whole of Wales’ native flora, (the first country in the world to do this) a detailed study has been conducted to see which flowers have been visited by bees from some of the Garden’s hives, by using an analysis of what plant species’ pollen has been found in honey samples. Click here for the full paper, (“Using DNA metabarcoding to investigate honey bee foraging reveals limited flower use despite high floral availability”) from Nature magazine, which is well worth reading, perhaps skipping some of the methodology.
In brief summary, some of the important findings from their study conducted during the critical early season foraging months of April and May were that:
- During this period, in the study area of around 1 km from the hives, a total of 437 different genera of plants were found to be actually flowering at some point, by a group of knowledgeable volunteer plant spotters. Being a National Botanic Garden, the site actually holds over 8,000 different flowering plants on site, so has a nearly unique and vast diverse potential range of food sources available to their bees.
- However traces of pollen from only 11% of these species were actually found in the honey samples analysed, which were taken from 3 different hives in the garden’s apiary.
- And pollen from only 10 of these flower types (identified to taxa level, not always down to individual species) was found at more than 1% in the honey samples.
- In April the only plants found at greater than the 1% level were in order of decreasing significance: Willow (Salix spp)., followed by Prunus spp., ( probably mainly blackthorn and cherry), Ulex europaeus, (Gorse) Helleborus/Caltha, (Marsh Marigolds?), Fraxinus spp., (Ash), Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion), and the Crataegus/Malus/Cotoneaster (Hawthorn and Apple) group.
- In May, the only plants featuring above the 1% level were: Crataegus/Malus/Cotoneaster,(Hawthorn, Apple, Cotoneaster) followed by Acer spp., (Maples/Sycamore), Ilex aquifolium,(Holly), Quercus spp., (Oak), Salix spp., (Willow), Taraxacum officinale, (Dandelion), Prunus spp., (Blackthorn and cherry), Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Bluebell), and Ulex europaeus (Gorse).
- Each hive had different mixes of some of the less frequently visited flowers
- The pollens detected didn’t represent the closest flowers to the hives, simply those that the bees presumably preferred to collect – there are excellent images of maps in the paper showing where the plant species tended to be located within the environs of the apiary to help asses this.
- The major pollen sources tended to be both native and woody trees or shrubs with the exception of bluebells, dandelions, and Hellebore/Caltha. This may reflect the fact that there is simply a much greater biomass of these particular plants in the environs, or an actual preference for their nectar and pollen, or indeed a mix of both. It’s known for example that Acers and Dandelions have particularly high sugar content in their nectar, whereas bluebells don’t.
- Pollen also varies considerably in its protein and major amino acid composition, and other research work has suggested that bees prefer a mix of diverse pollen with high protein features.
- Pollen also provides the major lipid source for bees, and again levels vary hugely between different pollens.
As an adjunct to this research, and indeed my own observations of insect friendly flowers, click here, I’m also going to include a link to the most useful assessment I’ve yet found of the relative bee popularity of several widely available garden flowers. Collated from 5 years of observations, it’s only based on which plants the nursery owner actually grows, but her methodology of ranking the merits of each flower in an easily accessible visual display is an interesting and probably worthwhile concept to use. Click here for Rosybees research data.
Linked to an intensive course of instruction from my brilliant bee mentor and local beekeeper; a struggle to grasp and settle on which of the numerous potential hive options to choose; and undertaking to construct a couple of these along with ancillary bits of kit, has meant a quite exhausting period of physical and mental activity here. Probably a familiar story for any of the 0.07% of the British population who have ever ventured into the science, art and myth of the apiarist.
Fiona has sensibly commented that she hopes I become a little less intense on the subject of bees, or she’ll regret me ever getting them. She has a point. And certainly for blog readers, this little bee related piece is (nearly) already long enough. I’d hate to become a bee bore!
Was it the full moon?
Or the sudden warming in temperatures last week? Or impending Easter – which won’t fall this late in April again until 2030? Or the threat of predators? At that stage unseen.We’ll never know, but after a full beehive inspection last week, when every frame was lifted out and examined – and still the queen bee wasn’t spotted among the increasing numbers of workers covering most of the frames, the bees became stroppy. For the first time since this hive has been on site. They obviously felt that my mentor’s comment, rating their behaviour as just 3 out 10 on a scale of potential aggression during the inspection, needed some adjustment.
Our subsequent tea on the terrace was aborted after we got buzzed in warning fashion by a bee.
The following day, it was warmer still, and Fiona and I both got “head” buzzed in a similar way – not the direct in your face smack that I’d experienced years earlier, but still unnerving. Later in the afternoon the alert level ratcheted up a notch, when our weekly garden helper got stung beside the eye. After appropriate short term first aid William left early to recuperate, whilst we pondered the way ahead, with 5 insect averse grandchildren due to arrive about 4 hours later, and our planned first ever “pop up” garden open day just 2 days later.
After much discussion, garden visitors were emailed and warned about the situation and we decided that with the grandchildren, we’d better get them down to the stream whenever we could, and hold the annual garden Easter egg hunt after supper, when the temperatures were falling. Interestingly, nearly all of our garden visitors still wanted to come…
Fortunately, the bees behaved up to a point – late afternoon, around tea time, one or two bees decided to do some slightly aggressive head circling and buzzing, but visitors sensibly withdrew inside and the day ended with an after-supper Easter egg hunt for the grandchildren skillfully laid by Fiona, once the temperatures had dropped a little.
Thinking that was the end of the excitement for the weekend, we were proved wrong, as on Sunday morning, our oldest grandchild remarked on the very big wasp inside our high ceiling living room, next to a Velux window. Fiona quickly spotted it wasn’t a wasp, but a queen hornet, so once more our guests decamped to the stream whilst I figured out how we could tackle this large insect. Hornets will certainly catch and eat honeybees, though we’ve never seen one at Gelli before, and perhaps this had contributed to the bees’ grumpiness.
Eventually, with patience, my bee suit, a butterfly net, and an old can of Vapona, we removed the potentially troublesome insect. It certainly has a fearsome set of jaws, but it was a relief to see, up close, that it was a European hornet, Vespa crabro, and not an Asian one, which are currently viewed as a huge potential threat to British bees, should it ever become established in the UK. There is a very good Natural History Museum ID guide to Asian hornets which I found, after this event. Click here. Recently updated, it hints that Asian hornets may already have become established in a couple of parts of the UK, so vigilance is called for. A quick guide to their differences is that the Asian hornets have an orange face, yellow legs, and a blacker body than the native European one. Although European hornets will take honeybees on the wing, Asian hornets lie in wait by the beehive and grab worker bees as they return to the hive, chopping them up, and feeding the thorax to their own larvae. Since there can be up to 1,000 hornets in their colony, the significance of this threat becomes clear.
For now, with cooler weather, the hornet removed and the moon having waned, the bees are once more, calm (see later!), though we’re still avoiding those areas closest to the beehive until the cool of the evening.
It’s also a great regret that I can’t phone Margaret and tell her about the uses we’re making of the unnamed willow which we now grow extensively here. Margaret had many clumps of a variety of coloured stemmed Salix and Cornus, which she kept pollarded around her mill at Cellan, and every year she took armfuls of cuttings into the local garden centre for them to sell.I think that this is a form of osier willow, Salix viminalis, and hence potentially of value for basket making. We’d always noticed how if left uncut, it produces fabulous long, arching, yellow catkins in mid spring, (shown below after all the pollen has been stripped away by bees).However, it’s only since my recent interest in honeybees developed more seriously, that I’ve realised it’s an extremely useful plant to grow to extend the willow pollen season beyond the masses of Goat willows, Salix caprea, which seem to kick off the spring bee pollen fest. And not just for bumblebees, but honeybees as well.
And with this I’ll segway into a major section on how the bees have been over the last month, which is the main reason I’ve not managed a post recently.
In summary I’ve had to try to get up to speed on bee ecology and management in just under 2 months, since I was given the chance to acquire the hive and its resident bees, which a local beekeeper, Tony, and now long-suffering friend and advisor, had installed on site, last summer.This has proved to be a gargantuan task – and one that has nearly exhausted me and tried Fiona’s patience to breaking point. Not only does one have to try to understand how a honeybee colony functions at an individual and social scale, but there then comes the decision about how one wants to keep them – in a more conventional, interventionist way where maximising the potential honey harvest is one of the primary aims; or with a more “natural” bee centred approach, where opening the hive and honey removal is done in a very limited way. It intrigues me that whilst one can take university courses in the UK on surfing, politics, sporting injuries or multitudes of “media ” based options, there isn’t a single university attempting to encompass the social life, ecology, biology and management of bees. Perhaps there should be, and our world would indeed be the better for it?
The critical decision about how one decides to try to “keep” bees can only really be made after one starts to develop an idea of the pros and cons of each approach, and this has huge implications for a novice beekeeper, because it will determine what equipment, and in particular which hive and frame designs, one decides to use. And most aren’t easily compatible.
Suffice to say, I decided to go the more natural route and settled eventually on a hive design based around one developed by a French abbot called Émile Warré, in the mid-twentieth century. Click here for an article which I found to be very persuasive by a Welsh beekeeper, David Heaf, who has used Warré hives for a number of years.
The plan was that starting from the initial hive we acquired, which was housed in an existing conventional, and larger “National” hive, and which had grown by mid-April to look as above, I’d hoped to gradually establish 3 or 4 more colonies to give my little set up more resilience, using Warré style hives which I’d constructed. Plans for making such a hive are freely available on line, click here, and I reckoned it gave me a good chance to recycle many of the bits of left over wood and assorted building materials from decades of projects here, which were languishing and cluttering our barn.
However, the trouble with beekeeping is that the bees don’t directly communicate their own plans with you, their potential landlord.
So whilst I was making good progress with constructing the several boxes necessary for a single Warré hive, the initial colony threw a swarm on the last day of April, which by a pure fluke, I’d managed to photograph on my trail camera which I’d set up simply to try to record the varying numbers of bees obvious outside the hive, throughout the day.
Since we’d been working on a potential site for another bee hive in the morning, I only came across the swarm cluster just after lunch, as I was halfway through a bumblebee count walk, around the garden.
Apologies to any experienced beekeepers who read this and are mortified or amused by the following tale – it’s simply how things happened and I don’t have space to go into many of the reasons why I’m going a more natural route, though some of the most helpful pieces of intelligent writing about bee management I’ve found can be read here, and here, and here. For a concise and clear insight into the complex issues of a more “natural” versus more mainstream and interventionist approach to beekeeping, I’d urge anyone interested either in eating honey, or the long term viability of honeybees, to have a look at the introductory page on the Oxford Natural Beekeeping Group’s web page which you can read here. I’m guessing many readers, like myself before this year, really have little idea about how most bees are kept and managed.
By coincidence, there have been two relevant BBC Radio 4 pieces on honeybees recently as well – click here for Tim Harford’s well produced short piece on the significance of the design of the Langstroth hive in industrialising bee keeping – one of the items he’s chosen for his series on “50 Things that made the modern economy”; and here for a piece on Saturday Live involving a discussion with Sarah Wyndham Lewis, a honey sommelier. Will you ever taste honey in the same way after listening to this? (The section on honey begins 30 minutes into the programme)
The experience of discovering and capturing this first swarm can best be described as akin to my fraught first weekend on call as a young vet. With no back up, no trained nurse (just dear Fiona who as a geography teacher was expected, as part of me taking on the job, to muck in and be my unpaid anaesthetist), I was presented with an emergency Caesarean section to perform on a cat. My previous total personal hands on surgical experience had involved completing a single incredibly lengthy cat spay, in the university operating theatre.
No back up was available. I just had to get on with it. Times have changed since I qualified. Fortunately!
At least the cat survived, though sadly not the single kitten.
But the advantage this sort of previous stressful exposure in a veterinary career, particularly with surgery where a life was usually at stake, and just how a living body handles and reacts, is that I knew that never mind this swarm was a completely novel experience – I just had to get on with dealing with it as quickly as possible. It had settled reassuringly low down on a conifer branch barely 15 yards from the source hive, and I needed to move it into some sort of container, before they all flew off to a new home that scout bees would have been searching for, even as I stood, secateurs in hand, camera round my neck, and visibly shaking.The only thing to hand, which I deemed appropriate to use for an initial capture, was an old German butter churn, which I’d been toying with turning into a basis of a hive since the internal dimensions of the cavity approximate to a typical natural bee colony in the hollowed out centre of a tree – about 60 litres, in fact.
A spare frame with bee’s wax was quickly dropped in, on an angle to make it fit, and to try to make the musty butter churn smell more hive-like, and to try to avoid them deciding to leaving in disgust a.s.a.p. The branch was clipped off the tree with secateurs. The majority of bees still clinging to the branch dropped in, I removed the bung from the base of the churn and gradually placed the lid on top. The bees sat on the lid and all round about, abdomens raised, pumping out swarm pheromones telling all the remaining bees milling around – “this is where we are”.
The plan was to leave the churn where it was for a few hours to allow most of the bees to settle inside, and indeed to be certain that the vital queen bee was inside the churn, and not left outside. Later in the day the captured swarm could be moved to its eventual new home, which even whilst this was all happening was being prepared for just such an eventuality – but not quite finished!
It was remarkable to watch the all the bees left outside gradually find their way in, through the small hole at the base. I should add that at this stage the butter churn had no fixed bottom to it, so I’d had to rig up a temporary cardboard and thin ply base held in place with Duck tape.
I felt hugely elated at what I’d witnessed and achieved, until safely back inside, I pondered the problems I’d now created for myself.
The bees would settle on the lid of the butter churn and begin to build their comb there which would then be impossible to remove. The eventual weight of the butter churn with comb, bees and eventually honey, would make it really difficult to lift or move, and of most immediate concern I still had a cut branch and the dropped-in-frame, which would completely wreck any chance of the bees building any sort of ordered comb.
Later in the day, the bung was inserted into the base hole and the whole structure which had at least been previously fitted with an (only white primed) base plate, with a central cut out allowing it to eventually sit on top of one of my Warré boxes, was wheeled down to the now nearly finished site.Located beneath a few large trees, and with its own roof, this again is not the typical approach. Most apiaries consist of hive boxes really close together and out in the open, which obviously makes for a much more efficient management process if one’s going to open the hives or do any intervention on a regular basis.
But if you’re not? I figure that in our wet environment, having most of the rain kept off the hive will be hugely beneficial from an energy conservation point of view, and also having hives separated may be helpful for reducing potential disease transmission and even pheromonal chemical communication. This is hugely important for bee behaviour. Click here for an extensive and quite up to date review of the complexity of pheromones in the ecology of honeybee hives, and in particular the importance of alarm pheromones in initiating aggressive/defensive bee behaviour, (when viewed from a human/bee perspective) and their stimulus for kamikaze stinging. And click here and here for some of Derek Mitchell’s thoughts on the importance of good insulation for not just winter colony survival, but also reducing energy expenditure during the vital process of turning nectar into honey, within the hive.
Later in the evening I returned to attempt to remove the branch and frame. I lifted the lid carefully, but there was an extraordinary and quite unique thumppp whoooshh sound, as the balled mass of thousands of bees which had been clustering beneath the lid, fell to the base of the churn.
A tiny piece of green foliage poked out from this disturbed mass of Apis mellifera.
I bottled out.
Although in my protective bee suit, and with gauntlets on, I just couldn’t force myself to plunge my hand into this seething cauldron of aggrieved bees. I retreated and slept on it rather fitfully.
In the morning I’d resolved the issue – I’d use our long-handled barbecue tongs. So once more suited up, I returned to the hive, lifted the lid again, heard the same extraordinary sound of thousands of bees collapsing in a heap, but this time carefully fished out the conifer branch and shook most of the bees back in the churn, and then returned into the seething pit with the tongs, to retrieve the frame with wax.
On close inspection of this frame, with its pre-pressed hexagonal wax foundation, you can make out the effect of a weight of warm bees resting on it for just a few hours, and causing it to buckle and warp.In addition, you can see the faint white outline of where the bees were already beginning to make new beeswax comb, building on the template provided. Probably hundreds of bees making wax crystals out of nectar, or honey taken before they left the original hive, and carefully chewed and manipulated in their mandibles, before being placed so speedily onto the outline cells. No hanging around after the thrill of the swarming event, and with none of these insects ever having done this before, amazing innate behaviour, for them to get on with new home renovations, as quickly as possible.
How I assess what is going on with this “hive” or colony will clearly be limited, but by the following day I’d lifted the churn onto two of the by then part finished, but incompletely painted, Warré hive boxes, which I’d already managed to make. The hive also had a proper base with access board, though there probably aren’t too many beehives with reclaimed Victorian mahogany table top base plates.
The natural beekeeper can always just sit and watch, and listen, and there’s a much quoted book by a German apiarist “At The Hive Entrance”, which provides useful guidelines from observing the bees, their numbers, behavior and amount of pollen carrying, as clues to how things are inside the hive. Click here for the pdf. I’ve yet to delve into it, though I had already experimented with using my stethoscope on the hive wall, as a refinement to simply placing my ear there. There’s a pleasing distinctive low regular machinery hum of an active hive, which I noticed changed once the first swarm had left the mother hive, into a more variable, almost wailing, sound. But could one record this?
This led me to exploring digital stethoscopes, but with high costs, and poor reviews was quickly abandoned as a sensible option. So googling cameras that can see round corners, I was amazed to discover the British designed EazyView digital inspection camera system. Click here for more. Reminiscent of the sort of endoscope technology that we dabbled with in my latter days of small animal practice I was so impressed by the website and demo You Tube video, and its excellent value for money, that I bought one within an hour, and eagerly awaited its arrival. Although I should add that the technology uses a tiny camera and LED light on the tip of the long, but only 8.5 mm diameter, flexible bendable access tube, rather than the much more fragile and expensive fibreoptics of endoscopes. Apparently, all British Gas engineers now carry one of these, and it gets rave reviews from plumbers and electricians but I couldn’t find any examples (yet!) of one being used to look into bee hives.
Within 2 hours of reading the manual, and waiting until dark, I was back down at the butter churn, removing the butter churn bung and carefully inserting the LED light and probe for a glimpse of what the bees were up to.
The camera can take still images, and short video clips onto an on-board memory store, zoom in, adjust LED brightness, and upload images to a computer really easily. The video format is a small AVI file which I’ve found I need to convert to an MP4 file to upload directly into a blog.You can add an additional flash card if required too. Obviously controlling the position of the tip takes a little bit of practice, and I reckon the bees are aware of the light, and slight warmth which would limit regular or long term use.
But for a quick peek into a “natural” hive like mine, with some sort of access point, or even through the main entrance, it’s a fascinating insight into how active they all are, even well after dark. In the clip above they’re starting the critical task of building new wax comb so that the queen can begin to lay eggs once more, to re-establish a viable working colony, since during the summer months most of the working bees which have flown out with the swarm will only have a relatively short 3 or 4 more weeks of life ahead of them. The clip below is from swarm 2 hive where I retro-drilled a narrow, pluggable hole in the side of one of the boxes, though I may find that this gets permanently sealed in place by the bees quite quickly. .IMAG0010
My sense is that if done occasionally, on a cooler night and not around the time of a full moon for a quick look, although some bees will resent the LED light and its warmth, the potential disruption is far less than that involved in taking the hive apart and inspecting frames – though obviously of much more limited “practical” or “interventionist” use.
Having had one swarm which had used up my still unfinished hive component parts, I was really surprised to exit the house 2 weeks later to hear the air full of noisy bees. There had been a lot of activity on the Sycamore tree above the original hive, so I thought I’d take the camera up to have a look. Over the next half an hour, another huge swarm had emerged from the original hive, and very gradually drifted across the garden before very gradually settling as a cluster on the arched Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’. Once more it was chopped off and into a holding container, again on the very same day that we had finished creating an additional potential hive site.And relocated later in the day.
The experience of being beneath so many flying insects with huge potential for causing personal harm, but instead entirely focused on relocation, was a very special one indeed.
I was now very short of boxes, and had needed to swap boxes with the butter churn base hive to enable me to finish painting them. So I was shocked to find Fiona telling me as she mowed the upper hay meadow path just 3 days after swarm number 2, that the hive was swarming again.
Whether all these new colonies are large enough to be viable, remains to be seen, but with my minimal intervention approach I’ll wait and hope that since they’ve all emerged early in the year, they at last have a fighting chance. This is now the critical phase for them – apart from the bees left in the original hive, obviously none of them have any honey stores to draw upon. They have to make new honeycomb from scratch not just to allow storage of surplus foraged nectar and pollen brought in by worker activity, but also to provide a hopefully mated and viable queen somewhere to begin to lay eggs in.
Apart from the first swarm, which would have been centred around the original “old” queen who left from the national hive, the new queens, if present, would have had to take off at some point on a mating flight as virgin queens. If all went well, they could then begin to lay fertilised eggs which would develop after a period of just over 2 weeks into more potential female workers to continue the new colony’s establishment. If the queen has died, or not been mated, or not returned to the swarmed hive base, then that colony will gradually peter out, as existing workers die off, and there are no new worker bees to replace them.
Yesterday, just 2 weeks after the final swarm was caught, and on a day when all 4 colonies were extremely (worryingly?) quiet, as assessed by bees flying in and out of the hives, the EazyView camera used at dusk, again proved really helpful. The clip below shows just how quickly this last swarm has built out some brand new wax comb inside the inner frames of its hive. IMAG0047
There’s still quite a lot of blossom around for them in what has been a stunning year, and one of the most interesting aspect of this whole saga has been discovering that most of the time so far, the honeybees aren’t present in the garden in huge numbers, preferring instead the mature trees, so have progressed through the different willows, onto the apples and other Malus, and hollies.Lately, they’ve have been focused on the sycamores and other maples – just as expected from the scientific paper from the NBGW on honeybee foraging activity, mentioned in my earlier post.
Have you ever stood beneath a mature sycamore on a sunny May day when the drooping flower panicles are rich with nectar, and heard the noise of working bees, both honey and bumbles?
A whole second phase of Warré box and frame construction has begun, and I’ve finally tweaked my own design for frames to use in these boxes, based on bent willow wands and wire.How will the bees enjoy working on these? Only time will tell, but my initial impressions after this burst of activity is that the huge advantage we have in this part of the world, to offset the possible weather challenges for honeybees, is the vast amount of early season, mature tree, pollen and nectar. And hopefully the garden, meadows and abundant brambles will pick up the slack as we move past peak tree flowering season. Quality of accommodation probably comes a fair way down the list of factors in likely survival. Fingers crossed.
The other corollary of June’s mixed weather is that the honeybees have had limited chances to forage. A consequence of this for the 3 recently swarmed and rehoused hives, is an inevitable shortage of food, which manifested in one of the hives robbing the last to swarm, and weakest hive, during the last week.I’d spotted the tell-tale signs of a different type of flight by some bees outside the hive entrance, as well as obvious aggression by guard bees towards these would be scavengers, and taken the advised precaution of reducing the hive entrance (though probably not by enough, and probably too late). Two and a half consecutive wet days meant no opportunities to fly at all, and after haymaking on the third day, when I popped down to check around tea time, the hive was clearly being overwhelmed with invaders, with evidence of some freshly broken comb at the entrance. They’d even started to lever off my simple entrance restriction. How did they do that? Pulling or Pushing?
Although this third small swarm had only been in situ for about 4 weeks, it had clearly built-up sufficient stores for the robber bees to find this source of stored nectar easy pickings, compared to flying to lots of flowers.
The robbers were almost certainly from the first swarm hive located about 100 yards away, since there was a similar burst of frenetic activity outside this one – though with bees returning heavily laden (first image below).Within just 24 hours the small swarm hive had clearly been trashed (above). The landing board littered with wax debris from plundered honeycomb.
A savage lesson for me about vicious Apis mellifera asset redistribution. And another aspect of the learning curve that comes with any new set of experiences.
Just before we left on holiday, much to my surprise, I noticed a sudden big increase in bee activity around the swarm 3 hive, which had been savagely robbed to destruction about a month earlier, and since then seemed completely quiet and unoccupied.
When we returned from our break, this hive was still really active, so I’m assuming that a swarm from elsewhere had checked out the hive, considered it up to scratch, and moved in. This was really very satisfying given that the “hive” still hadn’t been finished, and that I’d had to knock it up in a hurry with the swarm flurry in May, from old floorboards and a vintage mahogany table top we’d bought years ago. With some leftover bubble-wrap insulation from The Hut’s construction, added as a late addition.
But a couple of days ago, I suited up and put a proper Warré style quilt box and protective vented lid onto it.There was minimal disturbance involved in this, and fortunately the bees seemed as benign as all the other swarmed hives this year. I’m hoping that this will be all that’s needed for this hive in 2019. So, after starting the year with just one colony in a traditional National beehive, in spite of my low intervention approach, we now still have four separate colonies, moving into August.With the weakest colony of all being in the original “conventional” hive, which of course started off at the end of April with the advantage of masses of frames of honey, built out comb, and larval bees.
Meanwhile the first swarm, in the German butter churn ‘hive’ above, looks to be becoming very active and strong. Fingers crossed that it hasn’t done so well that it won’t be thinking of swarming again this year.
Meanwhile wasps have reached plague proportions here. Normally wasps are the dominant insect around our terrace Nectaroscordum flowers in late May into early June. This year there were none.The bumbles had the flowers to themselves, yet as the year’s progressed, more wasp nests have appeared under the eaves, in the hay shed, and most worryingly beneath tyre rims in the re-tyred matrix garden – easy to inadvertently kick and then suffer the consequences as a wasp storm appears.
Normally I’d have been more relaxed, but with honeybee hives obvious targets for plundering, I’ve set up several wasp traps, which have collected hundreds.In spite of such a significant haul, it was depressing to watch over a few days the second swarm hive be attacked, to destruction, in spite of my best efforts to reduce the entrance, to help the bees protect themselves.Within 2 days of August 24th, when both the early swarmed colonies seemed to perform the annual brutal kick out of drones, wasps were entering the hive with impunity. Note the larger eyes below, and fatter bodies of the sting less male drones clustered in the first image, compared with the smaller worker bees in the last image. Even after reducing the entrance to as small an opening as possible with the pipe fitting, which another beekeeper recommended as a means of deterring wasps. This trick failed miserably – the wasps got the hang of it faster than the bees and no remaining bees are now obvious. There may well have been an additional issue with this hive which weakened and the wasps were then able to exploit.
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)
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.
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…
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).
The phenology of snowdrop cultivar opening is playing out in typically predictable fashion, though still running a little late for many forms. As I write this on January 11th, we’ve about 73 different forms “open”. Though my definition of an “open” flower would differ from a strictly botanical, or indeed insect, viewpoint.
For the flowers to open their outer segments and so expose the hidden pollen, nectar, stamens and stigma/style ovaries, a temperature of about 10 degrees C is needed, which usually arrives with a burst of warmish, winter sunshine.
However, in this year’s grey, wet but generally mild weather, sunshine has so far been in very short supply. Notwithstanding this, on January 9th, with little wind and a hint of lightening in the grey, temperatures were high enough for many of the early stalwarts to open their flowers properly.
A new variety here, G. “Watlington Greenman” above, and below, acquired in 2019 and flowering for the first time seems very special in this regard, being able to open outer segments wide even in cool drizzly conditions. Looking vigorous as well, it’s one to watch in years to come, having been found and named by Paul Barney of Edulis nursery who now lists a huge number of forms each year. Click here.
What was even better was that my walk to check which new forms had dropped their flowers to horizontal or below overnight (my definition of the flower “opening” and creating significant visual impact), coincided with my first honeybee sighting in months.
Even better, this intrepid early worker bee spent a few minutes refuging inside the barely opened lanterns of “Mrs. Macnamara”. She quickly seemed exhausted and spent a few moments resting before noisily heading off.I guessed that given the very short weather and flying windows which present bees with foraging chances so early in the year, she may have come from one of our hives.
The following day, with cooler temperatures of about 5.5 degrees C, but light winds and full sun, I was ready with the camera at about the same time of 10.20 am.Sure enough a single bee appeared, gathered pollen and nectar for about 5 minutes and headed off.Within a further 10 minutes, a bee re-appeared. Then another, and another.Within half an hour most clumps of snowdrops with properly opened flowers were being visited.As were the first opened flowers of the sublimely scented Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’.
What a delight for me to spend an hour or so, after so many weeks of unpromising weather, simply watching the bees, and their ability to comb the pollen onto their hind legs whilst still hanging onto the flower, or even in mid-air.
Yet how much more thrilling must it be for the bees?
Weeks on end, pressed tight in a warm, dark, unventilated space, with, well just other bees.
Then suddenly honeyed, perfumed nectars and rich orange pollen to collect.
And fresh air.
And early birdsong.
Can bees experience ecstasy?
(Try googling ecstasy, to see how word definitions have morphed over time. Click here for a more erudite than most link, to the poem “The Ecstasy” by John Donne; or click here for stunning porcelain figures of this title by Angela Farquharson, an artist member of our gardening club).
Perhaps Apistasy, or Apiphoria would fit the bill:
Apistasy / Apiphoria – noun: the sensory overload and euphoria which honey and bumble bees experience on their first foraging flight after their winter hibernation, or dormancy.
Sure enough, later in the day, I checked out the 2 remaining hives, and there was a steady trickle of bees purposefully flying in and out from one hive, the first swarm of last year, with some carrying orange pollen.
Even the bees are out and about infrequently, but in numbers, in the rare drier moments. But frankly things are very sodden, and even with our grass matting on sections of path, are sadly just too wet to allow any visitors at present both from their, and the garden’s, perspective.
On the way back up the hill, still frost white and crisp, I paused to check the beehive and (rashly as it turns out) opted to slightly increase the opening width at the entrance. I found a couple of bees, dead at the hive threshold, with orange pollen burdens and reckon they probably didn’t make it back in time, and perished in the cold. However I figured they’d be good props to show our garden visitors to stress the merits of having garden plants with pollen and nectar available this early in the year, for those rare occasions when the bees can fly. The fact that the bees are collecting pollen already also indicates (probably!) that the queen is still alive, and has also (probably) begun to lay eggs again to boost worker numbers ready for spring…
… So back at the house, I put the bees on a plate, took a photo and moved them inside.
Just before the first garden visitors had arrived, I noticed that the two “dead” bees had moved further apart on the plate. Close inspection showed them both to be moving. In spite of warming up, and a little sugar solution to try to aid a recovery, they never achieved normal mobility and I returned them to the hive later in the day, more in hope than expectation, where I found another half a dozen similarly collapsed, and pollen laden, below. (By the way, what are the little white mouse type droppings next to the top left bee, and what do they indicate? Has an animal been clearing up bee carcases outside, or even entering the hive and eating some honey/wax?)
Are the dead bees a sign of a significant issue, or merely workers near the end of their lives who’d been making the most of a rare calm spring day? Could they sense that this might have been the last time in a while that they could forage, with Storm Ciara about to bear down, so they’d better stock up? The three photos below are from 2 and 3 days later.
Honey bees can detect barometric pressure changes, and hence probably will be aware of a dramatic change in the weather ahead of it arriving. Click here for more. In addition, it’s been shown (albeit in a different climate and time of year), that honeybees constantly monitor the weather at the hive entrance, and can adjust foraging activity as quickly as within a minute should sunshine and temperature levels change, and will also fly later in the day if clues to an imminent deterioration in the weather is detected. Click here for more.
I’ve been really excited by reading another book about honeybees recently. “Honeybee Democracy”, by Thomas Seeley. Many thanks to Tony, my local bee mentor for loaning me this. It’s so interesting that I shall buy my own copy to re-read.
Seeley begins one chapter thus:
Anyone who has the immense good fortune of watching a honeybee colony cast a swarm will be treated to many astonishing displays of animal behaviour.
(Or at least you will if you know what to look for! I wish I’d been able to read his book last winter, though frankly the amazing experience of watching, and hearing the swarm leave the hive will remain with me forever).
That I witnessed a swarm last year, in my first full year of “keeping” bees was a huge fluke. (Click here, for my description and other video clips of my swarm experience, and the collection of two others).
I’m including an edited, but very well written review by Phillipine Reimpell from an LSE blog, as a summary of “Honeybee Democracy”. Click here for more.
Before reading this, bear in mind that most conventional beekeepers actively strive to prevent honeybees from swarming, although this is the bees’ natural approach to survival, expansion and colonisation. As with the reviewer, I found Seeley’s comparisons between a swarm’s apparent intelligence and methods of decision making in comparison with how the human brain, or indeed human society, makes decisions to be very thought provoking…
Cornell University Professor Thomas D. Seeley opens Honeybee Democracy with a passionate overview of exactly how inspirationally democratic these insects are. For bees, the quality of their home is linked to their survival, thus they are genetically programmed to recognize nest sites best suited to the swarm’s needs. Prospective homes in the vicinity of the mother colony are surveyed by up to 300 ‘scout bees’, who then perform the famous waggle-dance (on the clustered swarm’s surface: sic) to report the distance, direction and quality of the sites to their fellow workers. Scout bees are programmed to stop dancing after a determined period of time regardless of the quality of their proposal and the level of support, (though by now having interested other scouts to check out “their” site too, and report back independently) ensuring that the best site is chosen and avoiding the equilibrium of support being tipped towards a mediocre choice that entered the race early.
Seeley invites us to think of a swarm of bees as a single organism rather than as tens of thousands of individual bees. He draws an analogy between neurons in the human brain and individual bees, comparing the basic decision-making process in primate brains with that of an entire swarm. Working as a swarm allows the bees to exceed their individual capacity to gather and process a wide range of information.
Bees are not infallible however …. and the deliberation process only includes those bees who have been actively involved in the house-hunting process, which is a mere 3% of the swarm population. It is perhaps appropriate to consider the scout bees as a highly informed elite, who have not been democratically elected but who make decisions for the entire swarm. For bees, this may not lead to problems of representation as there really is just one common public good: (finding a good new home quickly and so) not dying and succeeding in passing on genes.
But rather than getting caught up in the details about the analogy between social and natural behaviour one cannot help but be inspired by the beauty of Seeley’s hypothesis-driven experimental work. The book is beautifully presented with illustrations, photographs, charts and anecdotes, and succeeds in making a whole field (of complex investigation and theory) accessible to the non-specialist.
A part of the specific and vital behaviour of honeybees in their swarming period is related to inter-bee physical contact – squeezing (and piping sounds) and also Schwirrlauf – the German descriptive term used by the first scientist, Martin Lindauer, to describe this behaviour. Or “buzz-running”, (in translation), of excited scouts charging over the swarm surface, and even through its mass, to let all the bees know that the new home has been chosen; they’ll soon have to take flight again to reach it; and so they all need to warm their bodies up to the 35 degrees C necessary to be able to fly, and get ready for synchronised take off. PDQ!
I’ve long been interested by how touch is a poorly ranked sense in most of human life, so was interested to hear of a new citizen science research project hosted by Goldsmith’s college, BBC radio 4, and the Wellcome Foundation. Click here for the touch test. Designed as a quite lengthy questionnaire, it may interest any readers of this post who are also keen to contribute a little more to what is known about attitudes to touch in contemporary society…
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
(Lines of a part verse ex “Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen”).
Our own honey bees have, for now, continued to seize any brief weather windows to forage, and I’ve found the temperatures when they’re out and flying are sometimes incredibly low (3 or 4 degrees C, plus an added wind chill).
This ability to fly at way below the oft quoted minimum of 10 degrees C, has even attracted the attention of the great Thomas Seeley, who wrote a recent article in conjunction with a Scottish beekeeper on this very topic of (Northern climate) bees collecting water over the winter at very low temperatures. Click here for more. (Cold flying foragers: Honey bees in Scotland seek water in winter).And here for a simple diagrammatic appraisal.The bees will need water supplies to be able to access and utilise in hive honey stores which are too concentrated to be digested in their stored form without dilution.
The bees need to maintain temperatures around 35 degrees C for their flight muscles to work effectively. They will leave the warmth of the hive cluster of bees at roughly this temperature, but this will fall rapidly in external conditions which are so chilling. The IR photographs demonstrate that they selectively maintain higher temperatures in the central thorax (where the flight muscles are located), whilst the abdomen is allowed to become cooler.
The head is kept at a slightly warmer intermediate temperature, apparently because the suction apparatus which the bee uses to suck up liquids only functions efficiently at higher temperatures. In addition these studies have shown that bees not only know that they can’t carry full loads back at lower temperatures, but also seem to be lighter than normal when they leave the hive – perhaps as a result of shedding faecal loads before take off. All clever strategies to allow them to fly, forage and return to the hive before hypothermia kicks in, and they’re then simply unable to fly back into the warmth of the hive in time. Click here for much more detail on this.
With the last 6 months’ dreadful run of weather stretching back to mid September, should our bees make it through the winter, it’ll be an extraordinary tale of survival against the odds. Fingers crossed.
Monday March 16th dawned clear, cold with a light frost, and sunny for a good couple of hours. Thrushes were serenading, small feathers drifted across the yard, as house sparrows and wagtails built nests.
By 9.30 honeybees were visiting the Hellebores around the garden, their current favourite plant and by 11.30, with sun hitting the opened flowers of the earliest of our Skimmia cultivars in bloom, began to home in on this for the first time this year.
With honeybees now regularly active in the initial swarmed hive housed in the old butter churn, it was time to dismantle the final hive which had housed the third swarm, which had been robbed out, only to be recolonised by another swarm last summer.The hive was full of dead bees, many with heads in empty cells, and to my great surprise quite a lot of sealed honey along with areas of uncapped honey which was turning mouldy. The late swarm had clearly had a chance to lay all this down before the weather turned at the end of September.
Overall there was evidence of a lot of moisture, and I suspect that in this very wet grey winter, the hive was too large for the bees to be able to maintain an adequate temperature and regulate ventilation and humidity. This honey filled box was the middle one of three – I’m sure that I should have removed the upper box, but the swarm had already moved in, before I’d got round to doing this.
In these challenging times, much enjoyment was taken in removing the worst affected comb and salvaging the capped honey, scraped off into an appropriately large Pooh Bear style pottery storage jar. I’ve no in-process photos of just how messy this was, completed on the kitchen table whilst Fiona was away for a couple of days, but the photo below shows the more benign earlier session working on conventional frames from the original hive in February.
Well worth doing and the honey is completely different to that taken from the bees earlier in the year – sweeter, much runnier and lighter in colour. The empty hives are currently being reworked with cork insulation and will be relocated in time for swarm season in late spring to see whether they appeal to any local scouting bees.
The sideboard is now at least well stocked with natural sweetener as we move into the enforced 12 week self isolation heading our way this weekend.
Ironically I can’t recall such a fabulous early spring run of weather without frosts harsh enough to knock everything down, overnight.
Day after day of unbroken sunshine, even if the wind’s been nippy, or downright bone chilling – particularly first thing, when I’m out in my nightshirt and long johns. But I hope you enjoy these merged clips.
It’s such a thrill to find that after so many years of deliberately selecting and planting more and more insect friendly flowers, it’s now (relatively!) easy to film such pieces – so many insects find our garden an oasis of provision this early in the year.
Images that reinforce the message that although we all love our flowers, millions of years of evolution have really developed them for their nutritional value to our insect fauna. And anyone with bumblebee queens a plenty in their gardens in March will be familiar with the distinct impression that when walking round your garden, surveying the delightful floral vistas, one or two of these incredibly tough, and large insects will meet you, and if not exactly greet you, then certainly check you out.
Carefully. Circling you three or four times, before heading off on more urgent duties. Just to let you ponder whether it’s them invading your personal space.
Or vice versa. Truly our flowers’ (human) aesthetic appeal is just a bonus!
You’ll see in the video clip in this order, these wonderful symbiotic pairings, and see how much work is still going on outside, BJ restrictions notwithstanding.And for any unfamiliar with the marvellous vegetarian adult Bee fly, it has a sinister life cycle – its larvae preying on bumblebee larvae.
Chionodoxa “Pink Giant” : Honeybee – Apis mellifera
Scilla bithynica : Honeybee – A. m.
Skimmia “Emerald King” : Honeybee – A. m.
Chionodoxa forbesii blue : Honeybee – A. m.
Primula vulgaris – primrose : Peacock butterfly – Inachis io
Muscari armeniacum: Honeybee – A.m.
Aubrieta : Dark-edged Beefly – Bombylius major
Muscari neglectum : Small Tortoiseshell butterfly – Aglais urticae
Primula vulgaris – primrose : Bumblebee queen – Bombus terrestris
Primula vulgaris – primrose: Dark-edged beefly – Bombylius major
Pieris “Forest Flame” : Bumblebee queen – Bombus leucorum
Narcissus “Brunswick” : Peacock butterfly -Inachis io
With the honeybees nearly having notched up a complete year in the old butter churn, and with barely a month left until the date when they swarmed last year, I’ve been tweaking the empty hive designs – adding extra insulation in the form of surplus 50 mm thick cork boarding. (Click here for some of the latest ideas from Derek Mitchell at Leeds University on thermal conductance and smaller entrance size of natural hives and their effects on humidity and Varroa mite control).and also experimenting with a jar system for small scale honey harvesting with minimal intervention .Click here for a little more discussion of this.The plan is to have 4 or 5 such hives set up and ready, dotted around the smallholding, in case they attract in a swarm from elsewhere, or for me to transfer a swarm into in more controlled fashion than last year, should I happen to be around if our own bees do swarm again this year.And since our week away in a Shropshire B&B at the end of April has had to be cancelled, I probably shall be around for all the potential swarming season this year.
Whether this is a “good” swarming year like 2019, remains to be seen. Like our Shepherd’s Hut Bird box, they may well sit empty for a year or two before they’re hopefully deemed to be suitably “des-res”.Certainly they now all fulfill 5 of the 6 criteria outlined by Thomas Seeley (in “Honeybee Democracy”, and elsewhere) as being innately appreciated, and assessable, signs of an ideal new home to honeybee scouts :
These parameters, which he found bees consistently prefer, given a choice, are :
- Internal volume between 30 – 40 litres.
- A small entrance opening, around 15 – 20 square centimetres.
- An entrance opening at the base of the hive, not the top.
- The entrance opening facing South East to South West.
- They all contain already drawn out old honey comb, so bees might assume that the site’s been occupied by honey bees before.
The one criterion mine all fail on, for fairly obvious reasons, is height off the ground – in Seeley’s studies, (American) wild honey bees will select, other things being equal, a site 5 metres up, over a site just 1 metre off the ground. Some of my sites do manage to be a little bit higher from ground level than others…
Although watching how quickly scout bees have already discovered all 6 hives, and how they then begin to check them out, and measure them up, both inside and out is fascinating, and a wonderful way to persuade me to stand still for a while and just observe …
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.
I guess we’ve all played kick the can at some point, a great multi generational game though possibly needing modification in these days of social distancing – actual physical contact probably not being a good idea. But I’m now programming myself to remember a new usage for the phrase here, at least for me.
Over the years I’ve occasionally referenced my habit of recycling urine and the number of valuable uses it has around the garden and land – compost heap and leaf mould accelerator, rabbit, fox and badger deterrent being the most common. Frankly I rarely seem to be able to generate enough of it, and it has to be of male origin for deterrent purposes. Lest readers are appalled by this, there’s an interesting read by Mohi Kumar, entitled “From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine”, and beginning with the line – “There’s a saying that one man’s waste is another man’s treasure”. It illustrates that from both a historic and now contemporary perspective, urine is something of a wonder product – far too valuable to just flush down the loo.
However it does need collecting in a simple hygienic way, and for many years a watering can has seemed to me to be the best solution. Easy to pick up and use, and great for subsequently dispensing where it’s needed, though over time significant crystalline deposits akin to limescale in a kettle seem to accumulate. Regular local visitors know about this (one of many?) quirky habits of mine, and avoid this paticular can located conveniently near the back door, though it’s usually tucked away when we have visitors.
I’ve never had any problems with this system, although by the time it comes to be emptied, as happens with urine over time, decomposition of the urea it contains into very alkaline ammonia has well and truly begun, and if emptied en masse on to the compost heap, it does leave a very strong ammoniacal, rather than urine, type pong for 24 hours or so.
Perhaps because of the recent change in the weather, reverting to very grey damp gloomy conditions for days on end, or perhaps because we have more honeybees about the garden this summer (more later), I now have a significant safety issue with using this pee collection system.
Most days now, there will be one or two honeybees lurking inside the watering can. The first time I encountered this, as you can imagine, was a bit of a shock, since the bee exited the fairly narrow opening just as the collection process began.Suffice to say a sting anywhere, but certainly there is best avoided, so I now have to remind myself that before picking the watering can up and performing, I give it a gentle kick. This is usually all that’s needed to startle the bee(s) which suitably, but gently alarmed, speedily buzzes out and off. On occasion I’ve even had to rescue a bee, which unrelated to my kicking, has already slipped and fallen into the toxic brew, gently giving it the woody end of an ash seedling as a lifeline escape route.
The question which occurred to me though is why are the bees attracted to it, and what are they harvesting from the contents? Trawling on line, suggestions of diabetes kept cropping up on bee forums, but I’m pretty certain that isn’t an issue. However I do eat some of our home harvested honey most days. Might some olfactory cue from the honey be surviving passage through the kidneys and attracting the bees? It’s certainly well known that bee’s sense of “smell” is about 100 times more acute than than ours. Or perhaps they’re after some of the other minerals which will be concentrated in urine? In a paper titled “Salt preferences for honey bee foragers” there’s interesting consideration and assessment of bee mineral requirements for healthy larval development, and discernible forager worker bee preferences for sodium from different water sources.
I’d been pondering this when I sat down outside in heavy mizzle at the terrace table to write some plant labels, after potting on some of the many tiny Sorbus seedlings I now have, following our gardening club seed collecting trip to Hergest Croft last autumn.In a thoroughly miserable, wet, grey scene I was amazed to hear persistent loud buzzing. I’m now getting much better at recognising the pitch and nuances of different insect buzzes, and am also now quite used to seeing the local honeybees foraging whatever the wind strength, temperature, or rainfall. They’re a very tough bunch.
Looking around to see what flower the bees were exploring in such soggy conditions, it took me a while to actually spot the bees, which were systematically exploring the terminal tips of the Persicaria vaccinifolia where it was extending over the terrace gravel.This particular plant’s pink spires of tiny flowers are a magnet for honey bees later in the year, when the whole terrace buzzes with animated bee noise. But the flowers are only just beginning to open, and the bees were ignoring these. It then occurred to me that they might be after the salt, which I apply to all areas of hard paving and yard, mixed with washing machine detergent, to suppress weeds. I’d applied my mix, using a different watering can, to this area about 36 hours earlier, but we’ve had over 20 mm of rain since then and what’s more the bees were completely ignoring the gravel itself, or even other plants around the perimeter.
The tips of the plant where it’s spreading across the gravel are consciously also wetted by me with the hot salt/detergent mix as a means of defining margins to the path. As a result within 36 hours some of these tips were starting to show signs of wilting and damage. What if in the process the plant cell walls become leaky and start to ooze plant fluids? Which in turn have a similar sort of attractive, or nutritious content as the Persicaria flowers?Might the bees now be able to detect and harvest this “sap” or tissue fluid from the damaged shoots?
I guess I’ll never know, but it prompted me to read up and discover that bees not only have a highly developed and sensitive sense of smell (through huge numbers of olfactory receptors in their antennae), but also have separate receptors for taste, although these are found not only in their mouths, but also in their antennae and in their feet! Interestingly their sense of taste isn’t so acute – they can’t apparently specifically detect and avoid bitter substances directly, even if the presence of a bitter material in a mix with a sugary material like sucrose will slightly modify their enthusiasm for it.
Another question therefore is do the bees “smell” these leaky plant tips first from flying nearby, or land on them and “taste” them through their feet? I’m guessing that they must.
Once one starts exploring the research conducted to explore the physiology and biochemistry of honeybee taste, you discover some probably necessary, but frankly unpleasant sounding lab techniques. Including chilling individual bees down so much they become immobile; securing the chilled bees in special metal tube braces, with taped extended legs so that they can then be subjected to various chemical (taste) stimuli being applied to their antennae; or feet; or electrical shocks being applied to them; or even having their antennae cut off to confirm that it’s just their feet that are detecting the taste ( since they can taste through their antennae receptors as well)! Bees that fall out of the range of compliance parameters are “eliminated” or “discarded” from the experiment and data sets.
Science has often progressed through such experimentation, but elements of this work read like something from a CIA torture manual. Much of the assessment relies on the fact that even when confined and restricted in such a way, the poor bee will reflexly extend its tongue (proboscis – Proboscis Extension Reflex) when a “favourable” taste is applied. See here and here for examples of some of this quite recent work, and in the image below the red arrow indicates a drop of sucrose applied to the tarsus (foot) and the proboscis being extended. ( From “ The tarsal taste of honey bees: behavioral and electrophysiological analyses” – Maria Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, Esther Lorenzo, Songkun Su, Fanglin Liu, Yi Zhan and Martin Giurfa.)