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).

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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 ~

Scramble in the Bramble

Not too far from the hive, I discovered a patch of bramble which is ALIVE with bees, bugs and butterflies. The bramble flowers are just opening, and there’s a sort of creeper there too, just blooming. The best time to go is mid morning – I think there’s plenty to go round, but I did witness a couple of altercations.

~ a Marbled White Butterfly takes on a bee ~
the butterfly won

~ Large Skipper butterfly ~
has a large furry body and striped antennae

another butterfly v bee altercation
the butterfly is a Cabbage White

~ Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaes) ~
sitting on Travellers Joy flower (Clematis vitalba)

Bee Ready

Bee Square : all ready for the new hive

Not long to wait now – all is in readiness for the new arrivals. All bee-keeping kit and caboodle has been sourced and purchased (quite an extensive list of Stuff). Exterior walls of the hive have been painted a rather odd, metallic green. Sheets of wax have been melded onto frames (more of that later, and the Delhom Methode for melting wax). A patch of the ‘garden’ has been determined suitable for bees (not too hot / cold / windy), cleared of weeds, covered in gravel and a pallet carefully levelled. This is now referred to as Bee Square (it’s 3m x 3m).

A local Master of Bees, Monsieur G. of Colomiers (henceforth referred to as the Venerable Beede), with 74 years experience of keeping bees, was contacted to let him know that we were keen to take the plunge into the intriguing world of apiculture. He called back some days later to let us know that he had a new colony up and running, and it was time to take the empty hive to him. He has added the populated frames, and anticipates that it will take about 10 days for this new colony to feel established in the hive. We saw them a few days ago and they are thriving and multiplying.

Now we just have to wait for the next phone call to say that we can go and pick up the hive and bring the babies home.