Not everything in the garden is rosy

Hurrah, at last, a bit of seasonal warmth. It has been so wet and so fresh for weeks now that I was beginning to wonder if the bees could hang on much longer. Today, finally, it’s sunny and warm and the bees are out in force.

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roses are red

The roses are all doing well, but this ancient variety is definititely their favourite – the bees are numerous and the activity is somewhat phrenetic.

Over in the herb garden, the chive flowers are attracting much attention – from butterflies, bumblebees and honey bees alike.

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chive flowers are blue

However, hiding in amongst the charming chive flowers, dark forces are at work – and this poor honey bee has become a victim.

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Crab Spider (Xysticus) enjoying a spot of honey bee for lunch

Another unwelcome visitor in the garden is the Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) – also a predator of bees. The following image is actually a European Hornet (Vespo crabro) which has been adeptly neutralised by a swift knock from Andy’s mobile phone, its thorax becoming squished in the process. This hornet is not reviled as much as its Asian counterpart, but is nonetheless not something I am fond of finding near the house.

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European Hornet (Vespa crabro)

I put out some bottle traps for the Asian Hornet monsters a few weeks ago, especially near the hives. These are simple devices constructed from 2 empty water bottles and filled to a depth of about 10 centimetres with a mixture made up of brown beer, white wine and a syrupy cordial such as grenadine. These traps do attract other flying creatures (crucially not bees or butterflies), and the liquid bait will contain flies and moths, but essentially they are targeted at attracting hornets. Here is the haul from one bottle after just a few days…

an assortment of hornets from a bottle trap

an assortment of hornets from a bottle trap

The metal grill is back on th hive – this narrows the entrance to the hive, so that, in theory, only the honey bees can gain access. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for a nest – these tend to be spherical, often high up in trees, but also in other sheltered spots. Here is an example of what I’m on the lookout for …

Asian Hornet nest

To end on a happy note, we go back to the chive flowers and a contented bumblebee.

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Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) investigating chive flower

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South Bank Show

Just opposite the kitchen window is a southerly facing bank, which is covered in a thick carpet of wildflowers and weeds, with a hint of grass. At midday, it is a mass of colour, very picturesque, and is attracting a multitude of wildlife – especially bees.

Honey Bee visiting Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Honey Bee visiting Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

With all the buzzing, it doesn’t take a detective to track down some of the visitors. Especially when they are relatively large and sporting black and yellow furry stripes (with a cute white bottom)…

Bumblebee on Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

Bumblebee on Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)

There are one or two honey bees in the mix, gleaning every little they can. Most of their sisters are over at the box tree, which is currently pollen central (more of that in another post).

Honey bee on Common Field-speedwell (Veronica persica).

Honey bee on Common Field-speedwell (Veronica persica).

my new friend, the Carpenter Bee

my new friend, the Carpenter Bee

and finally, something new to me, even though it is apparently one of the most common bumblebee species, here is the Common Carder Bee. It is medium-sized, has a long tongue and nests on the surface of the ground…

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

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Bee Film : More Than Honey

Of Bees and Menif the bees disappeared...

Of Bees and Men
if the bees disappeared…

Last night we went to the cinema to watch a new documentary – Des Abeilles et Des Hommes (also called More Than Honey), reporting the decline in bee populations, and the multiple possible reasons behind this phenomenon. Swiss film producer Marcus Imhoof, journeys around the globe filming folk closely involved in bee-keeping – apiarists, honey producers, hive transporters, pollen gatherers etc, and each tells their story. The film lasts about 90 minutes, and comprises factual snippets, nuggets of information, some bee-keeping basics, all with beautiful cinematography including some amazing macro work.

The film begins in a stunning Alpine setting, with Fred who is out gathering a swarm, no hint of protective clothing. He is descended from a long line of bee keepers and can recall how things used to be. For him traditional methods are all important. Fred is fighting cross-breeding, striving to keep the local race of black bees pure. He discovers one of his queen bees has been interbreeding with a yellow bee from a neighbouring valley, and without compunction, squeezes off the head of this traitress.

The story moves to a vast almond producing area in California, and the associated honey producing / pollination operation. The scale is immense – and the driving force is money making. The orchards were alive with bees collecting pollen – but after just a short while the hives have to be transported on – as, once the pollen has been collected there is no more nourishment for the bees and for them it is has become a desert. The trees are fumigated during the day – and traces of fungide can be found in the resultant honey. Additionally the bees are fed antibiotics, to help assure the continued presence of this all important component of such industrialised agriculture.

We meet Heidrun Singer and her production line of Queen Bees – she gently transposes larvae into false royal cells, thereby tricking the bees into feeding them royal jelly. Apparently her queen bees are sold around the world – and we see them packaged up and hauled off by a courrier company.

Onto China, to an area where bees are so scare that pollination is done by hand – by human beings (mostly women). Pollen is collected and sold in small packets, and then a team of workers, armed with cotton buds, the pollen in a bottle round their necks, pollinate the trees, flower by flower.

Back to the US, to Arizona, where Fred (another Fred) works collecting Africanized Killer Bees. Having retrieved a swarm, he doesn’t destroy it, but rather keeps it – noticing that they are more hardy than their normal counterparts, produce good honey, but have to be treated with a good deal of respect.

There are further tales of Foul Brood, pesticides and the varroa mite. Evidence of stress sufferered when transporting the hives on the back of lorries for thousands of kilometers each year. Footage of bees fitted with tracking devices. We meet a German neuroscientist investigating bee brains. And much more.

This is not a film with a beginning, a middle and an end – it is educational, a neutral presentation of facts and information, from which we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. We see that traditional and natural methods, and unlimited growth may be unsustainable. Does the answer lie in a totally unexpected source?

The film is originally in German, and is available with French subtitles (there is a certain amount of spoken English).

Is it a bee?

carpenter bee

sounds like a bee

Whilst trying to photograph a bumble bee, bumbling around in the now rather lush ground cover, my attention was drawn to this big black bug, behaving in much the same fashion as the bumble bee.

It had a loud buzz and was busy foraging within the flowers. But the body is glossy, heavy and black which made me think ‘beetle’. The wings are fabulous – a gorgeous irridescent blue.

Anyway, a quick google has provided the answer – it seems that I have met my first Carpenter Bee. Apparently fairly common in France, they make their home in old rotting trees, live a somewhat solitary existence, and are not aggressive and rarely sting.

In France, they are called the blue bee or abeille charpentiere and its Latin name is Xylocopa violacea.

Carpenter Bee

Carpenter Bee

Do They Know its Christmas

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May your days bee merry and bright

Remarkably the hawthorn tree at the front gate is starting to blossom. We have had some beautiful, mild days recently, but the nights are chilly and so it seems far too unseasonal to be seeing these flowers. The bees however have been quick to latch on and are busy collecting the pollen, as they do.

Its nice to be seeing them out and about again, and be able to wish them Happy Christmas.

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A Big Thank You to the Sunflowers

The sunflowers this summer have been quite magnificent, and the house has been surrounded on three sides by their sunny, cheerful faces. This years are even more special because of the added dimension of suspecting that they could possibly be providing the raw materials for our first honey.

At their peak, each flower had perhaps 2 or even 3 bees working away collecting pollen / nectar.

I think we can be fairly certain that the honey that we did harvest comes virtually exclusively from the sunflowers. In other words, its a monofloral honey. I like to think that the bright yellow colour backs this theory up. The honey is now starting to crystallise- so whereas the honey initially was clear and reasonably fluid, it is now more opaque and much thicker and creamy – but equally delicious.

I have read that honeybees collect mostly nectar from sunflowers, whilst wild bees collect the pollen. Honeybees however cannot avoid picking up pollen – and will transfer it from flower to flower. Sunflowers rarely self-pollinate, and scientific research shows that pollinated sunflowers have a higher seed yield. A nicely balanced partnership.

The sunflower head is made up of individual florets, which start to open from the outside in. In the image below, there are five or six rings of florets which have opened – and will continue to open at the rate of two or three rings per day. On the day I took this image, all the bees were to be found just in this inner rim of the sunflowers. Each floret will mature into a sunflower seed.

flowers within the flower

So, a big thank you this year to the sunflowers – not only for their aesthetic perfection, their colour and cheer – but also the 30 odd jars of super honey. I must go and deliver a big pot to the farmer who planted the sunflowers, although I’m not sure if he should be thanking us (and the bees) as well – I wonder if the seed output has increased.

they can even be used for floral displays

Protein Packed Pollen

honey bee collecting pollen from asparagus flower

If its not to make honey, then what is the pollen being collected for?

It is the bees’ source of protein. In a year, a colony needs to collect and eat about 45 kilos of pollen. No single pollen delivers the full protein requirement, so bees collect pollen from many different sources.

When stored in the comb, it is possible (to someone more experienced than us) to identify the flowers from which the pollen was collected, by looking at the colour.

Back at the hive, the pollen is mixed with salivary products and small quantities of honey, and then stored in antiseptic cells adjacent to the empty brood cells that await the new generation. There it undergoes a chemical change becoming what is referred to as ‘bee bread’. This bee bread is also the principle food of adult nurse bees. Once she has ingested it, her digestive enzymes transform the nutritional supplement into a type of ‘mother’s milk’ which is then fed to the infant bee larvae.

  • most pollen is used as food for the larvae
  • pollen is the male reproductive spore of the plant
  • the baskets on the back legs are called corbiculae

honey bee, with full pollen baskets, on asparagus flower

Bee Forage : June

Would madam prefer nectar – the sweet, sugary fluid provided by the bramble flower? Also, the drink of the gods.

What’s on the menu this month? Forage is the term that we beekeepers use for the food sources available to bees. The reference books talk about the June Gap – a time when one mass food source has finished and another not yet begun. Its true that the oilseed rape has long since lost its bright yellow plumage and the sunflowers are nowhere near flowering. I am keen to find out what the bees are feasting on – not least so that we can perhaps plant more of their favourites for next year.

So far, I have seen plenty of activity around the lavender, honeysuckle and blackberry flowers. And then my attention was drawn to the asparagus bed. We stopped harvesting the asparagus about 4 weeks ago and it is now a mass of ferny foliage. And heavy buzzing. Its full of bees, all sporting bright orange pollen sacs on their back legs. The bees over at the bramble patch don’t have this. Time to delve into the reference books – here’s some pertinent foraging facts…

  • honey bees collect both nectar and pollen from flowers
  • only the nectar is used to make honey
  • they only collect one or the other on a trip
  • the nectar is transported in the stomach
  • this stomach is separate from the digestive stomach, although the bee can open a valve between the two if she is hungry
  • nectar is mostly water with dissolved sugar – the sugar content being between 25% and 50%
  • honey bees will collect nectar as far as 14 kms away from their hive
  • after visiting between 150 and 1500 flowers, the nectar stomach is full and almost equal to her starting weight

    Or perhaps, madam is partial to the nitrogen rich, protein packed pollen as found in these asparagus flowers?

    Phwoar

    birds do it, bees do it…
    ~ Spotted Asparagus Beetles ~

The Plight of the Bumble Bee

or beware squiffy aerodynamicists

they’re fat, they’re round, they can’t get off the ground…

The odd thing about this myth regarding bumblebees theoretically defying the laws of physics, is that the story is so widespread and has persisted for so long.  The basic principles of bumblebee flight have been pretty well understood for many years. Somehow, though, the idea that bees ‘violate aerodynamic theory’ has become embedded in folklore.

The origins of this myth is unclear – one story tells of a dinner where a biologist asked an aerodynamics expert about insect flight. The aerodynamicist did a few calculations and found that, according to the accepted theory of the day, bumblebees didn’t generate enough lift to fly. The biologist promptly spread the story far and wide. Another version concerns a French entomologist, who applied the laws of air resistance to insects, and concluded that bumblebees clearly shouldn’t be able to get off the ground.

Returning to the first anecdote, the aerodynamicist, once he sobered up, realised that the problem was a faulty analogy between bees and conventional fixed-wing aircraft. Bees’ wings are small relative to their bodies. If an airplane were built the same way, it would never take off. But bees aren’t like airplanes, they’re like helicopters (a bit). Their wings work on the same principle as helicopter blades – to be precise  ‘reverse-pitch semirotary helicopter blades’.  A moving airfoil, whether it’s a helicopter blade or a bee wing, generates a lot more lift than a stationary one.

Another challenge with bees wasn’t figuring out the aerodynamics but the mechanics: specifically, how bees can move their wings so fast – roughly 200 beats per second, which is 10 or 20 times the firing rate of the nervous system. The trick apparently is that the bee’s wing muscles (thorax muscles, actually) don’t expand and contract so much as vibrate, like a rubber band. A nerve impulse comes along and twangs the muscle, much as you might pluck a guitar string, and it vibrates the wing up and down a few times until the next impulse comes along.

I also need to mention dynamic stall – which sounds like an oxymoron (and possibly handy to know about if you are at a dinner party with a squiffy aerodynamicist) – its the effect that occurs when the wings change their angle of attack – ie they don’t just flap up and down, they also do some interesting gyrations. The rapid change can cause a strong vortex to be shed from the leading edge (front) of the wing, and travel backwards over and above the wing. The vortex, containing high-velocity airflows, briefly increases the lift produced by the wing. As soon as it passes behind the trailing edge (back), however, the lift reduces dramatically, and the wing is in normal stall.

Bumblebee flight is being studied using lasers and special cameras. Much remains to be done to understand it fully, but the manoeuverability and efficiency of bumblebee flight tells us that we need to better understand it to improve our own methods of flying.

My observation is that they are blinking difficult to capture on film, especially in flight – constantly on the move, whizzing hither and thither – too much dynamic and not enough stall for my purposes.

‘there is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss’
~ the late, great Adams Douglas Adams : Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

sources : Cecil Adams and Wikipedia