The image of country beekeeping is sedate, dreamy, redolent of a bygone age. Take, for example, the Soho Farmhouse apiary which I designed, installed and currently maintain. Nested up on a south-facing Cotswold hillside, it sits on top of the Farmhouse’s gorgeous production garden – an array of 10 WBC hives, knee-deep in wildflowers. Continue reading “Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs”
It’s that time of year. The swarming season. It starts when the first dandelion bursts into flower and lasts until the summer solstice is over, just over a month from now. So why do bees swarm ?
On a previous visit to Barbados, I had met Ben The Bajan Beekeeper. Following my blog post, I received an invitation from one of Ben’s fellow beekeepers, Bret Tujela, to visit his Bajan Bees when I was next on the island.
Bret responded enthusiastically when I let him know that the entire Apis beekeeping family would be holidaying in Barbados. He was keen for us to see his bees as soon as we got off the plane. That was before we had hired a car, so we postponed the invitation. That was to prove fateful.
Maff spotted the sign, on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Barbados: “Sawh’s Bee Hiving Enterprise – we specialize in bee hive removal. 100% pure Honey. 100% pure Bajan.“
Irresistible. I called the number. After a long, almost too long ring, the phone was answered by a woman’s voice. A kind, busy, slightly singing intonation. I explained that I was a beekeeper from London and that I’d like to buy some genuine Bajan honey. “Certainly”, the lady replied: “where are you staying on the island? I’ll bring some to you.”
It’s the summer solstice. Today is the longest day of the year with 16 hours, 38 minutes and 19 seconds of daylight in London. It’s also the day when Queen bees hit their peak daily laying rate of over 2,000 eggs a day. So it’s a good time of year to consider the dark side of beekeeping: the swarm.
A swarm of bees can be a nuisance and a distraction from everyday human activity, yet swarming is simply the way that honeybee colonies reproduce. Bees swarm in the Spring and Summer, when the colony is strong enough to divide, which is when people tend to be out and about more. Given the pressure on bees’ numbers in the U.K., this is a good thing. Yet the first time you see a swarm of bees, it’s bound to be an unnerving experience. Continue reading “Swarm”
“Three Feet Or Three Miles”: these five short words enshrine a golden rule of beekeeping. Maybe it is the hypnotic repetition of “three”, or the dramatic difference in scale between three feet (one yard) and three miles (5280 yards), or possibly the fateful choice hingeing on the tiny word “or“, which imbues this incantation with its mysterious, poetic charm.
But its meaning remains enigmatic until it is revealed as the shorthand version of an exhortation to the beekeeping faithful that: “Thou shalt not move a bee-hive more than three feet, nay, verily, nor less than three miles. No way. Or else.”
Why not ? The simple fact is that, if you move a hive by less than 3 feet, the flying bees will first return to the the exact spot of the old location, engage in a brief period of head-scratching but will soon figure out the new site nearby because of its proximity (as well as its familiar smell and appearance). The bee-brain allows for a certain amount of movement in its habitat – but not much. That’s the way the natural world behaves. All well and good.
Now, move a bee hive more than 3 feet, and less than 3 miles, and the bees will return to the precise and original location of the hive and become increasingly dis-orientated by the disappearance of their home. And they will quite possibly stay there until they perish of hunger and exposure, with their on-board sat nav insisting this is indeed their hive site, even if there is no hive to be seen or scented in the vicinity. In desperation, the homeless foragers may offer their nectar- and pollen-loads as the price of admission to an unfamiliar honeybee colony nearby. But in either case, the hive which has been moved will be deprived of its foraging bees and will soon be dangerously short of food. Not good. Between that 1 yard and the next 5280 yards exist 5279 yards of deadly danger for a beehive in transit.
And if you move a bee-colony 3 miles or more, the good news is that the bees will not recognise any of their former flight lines and will not attempt to follow them back to their hive (simply because 3 miles is the range for a foraging bee to travel to collect pollen or nectar and still offer a net positive energy income to the hive). So bees live in blissful ignorance of what lies beyond that 3-mile radius of their own hive and have no signposts to guide them back to the original site once moved more than 3 miles. They will settle in their new apiary location and happily get on with life.
So there you are. The commandment is: “Three feet or three miles”.
This being beekeeping, of course, there are exceptions to every rule: in deepest winter, hives can be moved between 3 feet and 3 miles. The clustered bees will not remember their previous map reference after a few days’ detention in the hive and will thoroughly orientate themselves at the new location when Spring arrives, dipping and bobbing at the hive entrance, before embarking on a forage trip.
Or you can move a hive a little every day or so, so that the bees drift along as the hive edges towards to its new position. Like grandmother’s footsteps.
Also, a swarm of bees can be rehoused in the same apiary from which the swarm has issued, since the act of swarming wipes clean the bees’ sense of location. No surprise – it‘s where they’re going next which matters to a swarm, not where they’ve just come from.
So now you know. Go on, bamboozle your friends with: “Three feet or three miles”. And, a word to the wise, I’ve found that that the metric version : “A metre, or 5K” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Between New Year and Easter, the question which I am most frequently asked is : “Do Bees Hibernate?”
The short answer is that they form a cluster, a gently dynamic, oval mass in the middle of the brood box, dropping their metabolic rate by a couple of notches. But the full answer to the question is a little more complicated than that.
It all depends on what you mean by “hibernate”. Insects are cold-blooded and bees are no different. However, honeybees fall into the small minority of insects which can generate their own heat, like mammals, through muscular exertion (human beings do this by shivering, for example). So let’s see where we can check the box on bees having a regular “hibernation“: seasonal cycle, Yes, metabolism slows down, Yes, own thermoregulation, Yes.
But if by “hibernation” you mean a state of suspended animation, like a bear or a bat, or a comatose Rip Van Winkle interlude, snoozing unrelentingly thorough 3 months of oblivion, then “No”, bees don’t hibernate like that.
As winter takes hold, bees form their cluster. Composed of some 10,000+ winter bees (late-born in the previous Autumn and physiologically endowed with a body able to store fat), it expands and contracts, according to the exterior temperature. Food consumption drops as long as the bees remain in this torpid state. But in warm spells, the cluster will relax, with some bees even leaving the hive to make “voiding flights” and dedicated mortuary bees removing dead bees from the hive.
But the cluster will huddle protectively tight to conserve heat as the temperature drops. The grim fact is that, if the thorax of a bee (where the wings are located, between the bees’ head and the abdomen) falls to a temperature a few degree below 10C, a bee will fall into a “chill coma” which renders it rigid, motionless and unable to vibrate its wing muscles to create the heat required for its cold-blooded body to stay alive.
Honeybees overwinter as a reduced colony, a living, slow-motion family unit with the Queen at the centre, unlike wasps or most other bees, where fertile queens shelter alone. This behaviour illustrates why scientists have described colonies of bees as “superorganisms” in which each individual bee is only a component part of the greater whole. The concept of a colony of bees as a single social civilisation is key to my beekeeping.
Let’s take a closer look at the cluster: the outer mantle of bees is like a string vest, insulating the soft body of this concentration of bees. These wrapper bees will eventually rotate their positions with warmer bees, bubbling up from the heated community of the cluster. In temperature terms, this outside layer will be at around 10-15C, with the main body of bees at 22-24C and new brood at the centre requiring a temperature of 33-35C. That means that the part of the hive where the bees cluster will be almost as warm as a centrally-heated home in winter, the main mass of bees overwinter at the same temperature as a balmy summer’s day, while the brood area as hot as a Caribbean holiday – even when the weather is freezing outside !
So my answer to the question “”Do Bees Hibernate?” is an unsatisfactory one. They sort of do, but they kind of don’t. But I was excited to stumble across one insight as I was thinking this article through.
The cluster is hard to see, buried deep inside a winter beehive and divided by brood frames, so my challenge was: how can I help people visualize a cluster? Then it came to me: take a look at the photo at the top of the page.
Here you can actually see the egg-shaped formation and mantle of outer bees typical of a cluster. But this is a swarm of bees, settled on a branch.
It really made my day when I realised that a swarm of bees is just a naked cluster !
The BBKA report on 2014’s honey yields (from over 2,000 respondents nationwide) puts the average yield/hive at 32lbs. All well and good. The BBKA also credited the excellent weather conditions in 2014 and improving husbandry skills of beekeepers for the 4lbs/hive increase from 2013’s 28lbs/hive. Fine.
But the fact that 2014’s yield falls well short of the historic average honey yield/hive of 40lbs begs a question: in a great year for weather and assisted by improved management skills, how come honey yields were still 20% below the historic average ?
There are two possible explanations. The first is that the BBKA’s assertions are incorrect. Well, there was certainly favourable weather for all of nature in the UK in 2014, so let’s take that as read. Improved husbandry skills ? BBKA’s survey also reported that only 58% of responding beekeepers attended any form of training with their local beekeeping association. Which means that a staggering 42% of beekeepers did not. And when you put that number next to the 2011 BBKA survey – in which 44% of respondents had been beekeepers for just 1-2 years – then there will be a sizeable subset of beekeepers with less than 5 years’ experience who are not seeking further training. Perhaps that is one reason why yields fell short of the historic average: in reality, husbandry skills may not be adequate to forestall crop-reducing events like swarming. And the survey also revealed that more than a third of respondents (35%) reported “early swarming” in their “Unusual Behaviour” observations. Sounds to me like inexperienced beekeepers lost a lot of honey to swarms which they did not expect, given the early build-up of colonies in 2014. So that’s a question mark against “improved husbandry”.
There is another variable, however, which the BBKA does not mention: forage. Bees need to eat. The dramatic increase in inexperienced beekeepers has been accompanied by a significant jump in the number of hives. More bees require incremental food supplies.
Amongst urban beekeepers, it is recognized that forage is a finite resource. For my part, I have personally arranged large-scale plantings of forage in local parks and have lobbied the Council to procure more pollinator-friendly plants for its green spaces and to reduce the frequency of mowing. But these are only gradually incremental to the expansion of available forage. The impact of added hives on demand for forage is immediate. In an ideal world, beekeepers introducing a new hive should either (a) make provision for forage in advance of the hive being introduced or (b) only introduce a new hive if another local hive is removed. I believe that adequate forage provision is the cornerstone of successful beekeeping, since healthy bees with good temperament and low disease loads can only thrive when they have sufficient food on offer.
And each hive requires a surprising amount of food: Bee authority, Dr Karin Alton, stated in 2013 that: “Our calculations indicate that each new hive placed in London would need the equivalent of one hectare of borage, a plant that attracts mainly honey bees, or over eight hectares of lavender”. It’s a rhetorical question, but how many spare hectares can any London beekeeper rustle up within a 3-mile radius of their hives ?
To focus on specifics: the government’s Beebase website indicates that there are 621 Apiary sites registered with within a 10-kilometre radius of my Bermondsey Street hives. As a guide, it is generally accepted that each apiary comprises 4 hives on average and that 25% of apiaries are not registered with Defra. Using those data, it is likely that there are already >3100 bee hives competing for food resources around my area. Assuming 50,000 bees per hive at the summer peak, that rounds out at 155 million hungry bees !
So the proliferation of beehives in London without an equivalent increase in forage availability has an inevitable mathematical effect: lowered honey yields, as bees compete for food. So given what was observed in 2014, an excellent year for forage, I am not looking forward to reading the BBKA’s survey after a poor weather year, when colony losses through starvation and disease will be far more of a problem for beekeepers than “early swarming”.
We should strive to raise awareness amongst beekeepers, local authorities, companies and the general public that forage is the key issue confronting London beekeepers today. And while we’re at it, from a practical perspective, here are my top 10 smaller-scale favorites for London garden planting:
- Crocus Great Spring starter
- Aster For vivid colour
- Russian Sage Preferred to culinary sage
- Borage All summer long
- Catnip A handy “filler” of space
- Lavender Classic sun-seeker
- Alyssum Low-profile, compact annual
- Rosemary Multi-purpose herb
- Forget-Me-Not Great in combination
- Stonecrop An undemanding sedum
Here’s my call to action to urban beekeepers – let’s get more forage in the ground !
‘Better weather and better beekeeping have upped honey production’ says British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), but warns against complacency Britain’s beekeepers have reported an average yield of 32lbs of honey per colony in 2014, according to the findings of the British Beekeepers Association’s annual Honey Survey, released on 26 November 2014.
The survey revealed a substantial 28% increase on the 25lbs per colony reported in 2013 and is a far cry from the 8lbs per colony nadir of 2012. Conducted by BBKA amongst 2,000 beekeepers across the country, the annual Honey Survey explores the current year’s honey yield and the factors affecting honey bee colonies and honey production.
Commenting on the increased yield for this year, BBKA Director of Public Affairs, Tim Lovett, said: “While this increase is great news for beekeepers and honey bees, the historic average is 40lbs plus per hive so there is still some way to go if we are to return to our most productive.”
To help counter the devastating impact of pests and diseases on honey bee colonies in recent years, the BBKA has funded research exploring honey bee welfare; but great emphasis has also been given to equipping all beekeepers with the husbandry skills needed to maintain healthy and productive honey bee colonies, and the 2014 Honey Survey clearly reflects this effort. Of beekeepers who reported an increased honey yield, around two fifths, 41%, cited ‘better beekeeping’ as a contributory factor. Further, 58% of all beekeepers reported that they had attended some form of training event with their local beekeeping association over the past year.
Other factors cited in the survey as contributory factors to the improved honey yields included the hot weather, mentioned by 60% of beekeepers; the early Spring, 58%; and swarming, 19%. And when asked to comment on any ‘unusual behaviour’ from their bees this year, 35% cited ‘early swarming’ and 15% late swarming’ (July or later).
Swarm management is central to good beekeeping and the ongoing welfare of honey bees. It can also impact greatly on honey yields, as Tim Lovett explains: “Swarming is a natural phenomenon whereby honey bee colonies reproduce by dividing to create new colonies. Early swarming leaves a weakened parent colony; while late swarming can sometimes leave new colonies with insufficient time to stock up for winter. “A well‐trained beekeeper will be able to spot the early signs of swarming and act swiftly to reduce potential losses, and build up the colonies after swarming,” he said.
Of the beekeepers that took part in this year’s survey, a third, 33%, manage one or two hives, while 28 per cent managed three or four. Over a quarter, 27%, manage five to ten hives. The average beekeeper has been beekeeping for around nine years but this year the number of new beekeepers has appeared to fall off slightly–just 22% having been beekeepers for 1-‐2 years, compared to 26% last year and 41 and 44% in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
“Beekeeping has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years and it is crucial that we do not lose the momentum. Honey bees are essential pollinators and vital contributors to food production,” said Tim Lovett. “The better weather has helped a great deal but it is also the improving husbandry skills of beekeepers, as they gain experience, that has made a big difference. These very precious creatures still need all the help we can give.”
Terror is terror. Abrupt and intense. Suddenly shunted into your face, indifferent to your rapt fear.
Like a swarm of bees, ancient and implacable: 20,000 spirographing projectiles ripping the air, weaponed with venom.
But the ancestral adrenalin reflex is awry. The reality is that a bee-swarm is about as menacing to human beings as a maypole dance.
It is simply the way bees reproduce; orthodox and customary. It’s a ceremonial procession, with the venerable Queen abdicating skywards with her followers, leaving a clutch of heirs to usurp her in the hive. It’s nothing more than a flash-mob choreography on a grand scale, an impromptu insect threnody.
Slowly, this soft shrapnel of bees implodes to cluster on a branch, whirring together to weave a taut bivouac. From this insect pelt, scout bees adventure out to locate a new home, where their cargo of honey will be turned to wax, hexing new comb out of thin air.
This is the time for me, ladder and saw in hand, bee-suited, to grip and cut the branch. I remove the swarm, adhesive and uncomplaining, down the ladder, along the lane and back to my bee-yard. I raise the roof of their new residence, steady the bees and rap the branch on the hive. A split-second waterfall of bees sloshes into the brood box. Hived!
Those full honey-stomachs and house-moving vocation make them as terrible as a Tunnock’s Teacake, as pugnacious as Christmas Puddings. No, really !