Hives of Horror!

The Deadly Bees copy
“Hives Of Horror”

Thirty years on from the discovery of the first “Killer Bees” in Mexico, here’s a link to an article in Scientific American, which proposes a rehabilitation for that dreaded strain. Now those “Africanised Bees” are said to have thoroughly interbred with local bees and become decent, hard-working members of the community. Worth remembering that nothing stands still in nature.

Hat-tip to David Finlay (and no-one wears a hat more stylishly than David), for the link !

Fascinating stuff…..couldn’t help myself wondering how Craig and Leanne Knox, intrepid beekeepers in Belize, are getting on with their bees.

In fact, I’m heading off to do some bee-research of my own in Barbados, then staying with friends on Antigua. Wish me luck…


Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel 1
Nikki’s Witch Hazel

I’m not the superstitious type. But no sooner had I finished reading an enchanting article on witch hazel when my beekeeping buddy, avid roof-top gardener and ace cat photographer, Nikki Vane, tweeted an image of her own livid-red witch hazel, seemingly spidering across a canvas of paving-stones. A mere happenstance, of course.

But enough to put a bee in my bonnet. So I set out to discover a little more about this eerily-named shrub. Witch hazel is a leggy, deciduous plant with 5 distinct varieties (3 U.S., 1 Chinese, 1 Japanese). Its hermaphrodite flowers materialise in winter for the delight and delectation of early foraging bees. And although its name summons up visions of cackling pointy-hats waving magic wands, a simple wiki-search unearths the banal linguistic root of “witch“. Which is “wiche” (#spellcheck). “Wiche” meant “pliable” and referenced the use of the witch hazel’s bendy forked twigs as dowsing rods. Folklore has it that the early American settlers noted that this new-world shrub shared these properties with the home-spun hazel. By a happy hex, language rendered “wiche hazel” as an amalgam of these two.

Witch hazel’s most common manifestation in this country is on rootstock from the hardy Hamamelis virginiana, native to the northestern United States. This variety was introduced into English gardens in the 1730s by Peter Collinson, who maintained a botanist’s garden at Ridgeway House, Mill Hill. By an otherworldly coincidence, Ridgeway is now part of Mill Hill School. I know it well. It is my old school.

Now, had I been paying attention to the botanic traditions of Collison and Buckland at Mill Hill, or indeed to OJ Wait’s Greek class, I might perhaps have been aware that the formal classification of witch hazel, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”.

However, to my mind, “together with fruit” sounds more like the strap-line of the dating agency which introduced Adam to Eve. But in reality it describes a little hocus-pocus which sets the witch hazel apart from other shrubs. Unlike other plants, the witch hazel juggles flowers and fruit at the same time. Since its fruits take a whole year to ripen, last year’s setting seed pods rub shoulders with the newly-hatched flowers.

And there’s a final flourish in the witch hazel’s repertoire: as the seed-case withers, it contracts and squeezes the pips. Suddenly, the pod cannonballs a pair of glossy back seeds up to 10 feet away. In my book, that’s a pretty extrovert party-trick for shrubbery!

For an encore, witch hazel’s smooth grey bark and its leaves can be boiled down (I’m guessing that a cauldron is optional) to an astringent, anti-oxidant balm. Spare a round of applause for the indigenous alchemy of the Mohicans, who spirited up this concoction as a medicine for insect bites, skin irritations, headaches, sore muscles and bruises. But, with its name up in lights, the star of the show is the hermaphrodite, colour-bright, fragrant, vagrant, winter-flowering, water-divining, medicating, detonating witch-hazel.

Which takes us back to where we started: that article on witch hazel. I hope that you, too, will be enchanted by this mystical and starkly beautiful shrub. Take a bow, witch hazel.

Ronsard’s Rose

Ronsard's Rose copy_edited-10
Ronsard’s Rose

It is rare to find a line of poetry which can thrive on a stand-alone basis, like a red rose stem, secateured from the bush and vased. Here’s one:

Comme on voit sur la branche au mois de mai la rose…

Thankfully, you don’t need a degree in French to grasp these words from Pierre de Ronsard’s 1578 sonnet. Ronsard’s language is simple and direct, as well as being sensually poetic.

Try reading this opening line out loud (yes, it really does “open”, as it extends languorously, narcotically towards the final exhalation of the word “rose“). Comme on voit – Just as you see – sur la branche –  appearing on the stem – au mois de mai – in the month of May – la rose – the rose.

I’ve a confession: I’ve done French Medieval poetry. I was young, impressionable and, yes, I inhaled. I was a regular user for 3 years and have never quite kicked the habit.

My craving isn’t helped by the coincidence that my wife’s paternal grandfather wrote the definitive Ronsard biography of the 20th century (Blue Plaque moment: DB Wyndham Lewis).

And for good measure, Marie Dupin, Ronsard’s rosy-cheeked paramour, lived bang next door to where my mother-in-law and my wife’s stepfather have lived for 25 years – at St. Nicolas de Bourgueil in the Loire Valley.

So anyone would think that it’s sailing-off-into-the-sunset time or me and my bees, serenaded by Ronsard and garlanded with red roses. Cue violins – and tie a pink bow on it !

Not quite. Understandably, people tend to believe that honeybees love roses. In fact, roses barely quicken their pulses. That’s because modern hybrid double roses have layers of petals which make the nectaries inaccessible for honeybees. Here’s a clue: when did you ever see “Rose Honey” for sale ?

Ronsard’s rose only seduces the petal-folds of human imagination. For bees, it holds no allure. So if you wish to enchant your beloved, heed the bees. Scorn the spray of jet-lagged, clichéd roses. Prefer a pure and ancient love potion.

Honey. The distillation of a thousand flowers. Creation’s exquisite kiss.

Parc Monceau

Parc Monceau  Hives
Hives In Parc Monceau, Paris

Parc Monceau offers an oasis of sanity in the whip-smart 8e arrondissement of Paris. I took a stroll there yesterday to pay a brief visit to the beehives atop one of the park’s phantasmagorical landscape features.

For a breath of fresh air, here is a link to some great photos of Paris’s Bees (The apiary in Parc Monceau is at number 24).

And, with apologies to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s irreverent ditty: “Oh, dear Little Flo“:


Oh, dear parc Monceau

I love you so,

Especially for your apiary.

When the sun arrives

Full on your hives…

Oh Jesus Christ Almighty!


Of Vampires And Varroa

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Varroa Vampire (Blown Out Of All Proportion)

If you have ever been to Whitby on the North Yorkshire Coast, you will be familiar with its literary history as the beach-head of British vampirism. In the form of a black dog, the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel sprang ashore from the Russian schooner “Demeter” and mounted the 199 steps to the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary, perched below the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Cue a century of black cloaks, bat puppetry, fake fangs and heaving bosoms.

Indeed, from the melodramatic technicolor gore of 1960s Hammer Horror films to Hollywood’s mellow-dramatic, baby-faced mannequins in “Twilight“, vampires have never had it so good. Yet thanks to Buffy, we can sleep safe in our beds, secure in the knowledge that Dracula, vampirism and all that blood-sucking lark is just rollicking good fiction….. Or is it ?

On the science (Renfield’s syndrome; porphyria) and mythology (Vlad “The Impaler” Tsepesh; cult of the undead) of the vampiric condition, I defer to gothic master – and great friend – Sandy Crole. But I can reveal that, in the world of the honeybee, vampirical behaviour is epidemic. Meet the varroa mite…or varroa destructor, to give it its full, ghastly nomenclature.

And it is the female which is the more fiendish of this species. These oval vamps, the colour of dried blood, sink their fangs into the pale, defenceless larval bee. Consider if you will, a dinner-plate-sized succubus bolted with sharp claws to the middle of your back, sucking your life-blood. That is the human equivalent of what varroa-infected bees experience.

And not only does the varroa parasite gorge on haemolymph (the blood of the bees’ circulatory system), depleting the protein values of the residual fluid, but it also acts as portal for other diseases to enter the bees’ system. Weakened by the loss of vital nutrition and with its exoskelton breached, the bee is vulnerable to varroasis (spotty brood, disfigured and deformed wings) and is dramatically more likely to succumb to viral diseases such as Acute Paralysis Virus and Chronic Paralysis Virus.

Like vampires, varroa delight in the coffin-dark environment of the bee-hive, either living on the bee itself (called the “phoretic” phase, which is like the “hanging off your neck” phase) or in the brood cell (called the “reproductive” phase, which is “I thought that they only showed that sort of thing after the watershed” phase). Indeed, varroa mites can only reproduce in honeybee brood cells. So they have to bother honeybees that way that vampires importune virgins.

Let’s assume that varying levels of varroa exists in all bee-hives. The problem then arises that we need to diagnose the varroa “load”, before deciding on appropriate steps to combat it. The first thing to do is to place a varroa tray under the mesh floor of the beehive (a mesh floor alone is said to reduce varroa load by 14%, relative to a solid floor). This catches debris, including live and dead varroa mites, falling out of the hive. Morbid, maybe, but it’s a simple job to tot up the number of mites and note the number of days for which the tray was in place.

Step forward the Van Helsing of the varroa-world: the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) varroa calculator website. Just load your varroa data into this black box and it will tell you the level of infestation and suggest a treatment strategy to deal with your Varroa Count. I am reliably informed by Dedva (Department for Dracula & Vampire Affairs) that this calculator is also a pretty good rough-reckoner for assessing the level of vampire infestation in your neck of the woods. Just substitute “Vampire” for “Varroa Mite” and hit “Calculate“.

By a spooky coincidence, one of my hives is called Abbey Hive. So I took two 3-day readings, which I averaged and entered into the varroa calculator:

Natural Mite Drop
1 Mites detected over 3 days
Month: February
Season: Long
Drone Brood level: Low
Average Daily Mite Fall = 0.3 varroa mites
Estimated number of adult varroa mites in the colony = between 16 and 130
Treatment is recommended in about 4 to 7 months time

That’s the equivalent of a clean bill of health (thank goodness that the garlic, crucifixes and wooden stakes have staved off the vampires and my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques have done the job on suppressing the varroa). Whatever else may happen, Abbey Hive is unlikely to be vampirically challenged until the honey harvest in August.

So I can relax for the time being (uh-oh, as any seasoned horror film aficionado or beekeeper knows, that’s almost invariably fatal!) and recommend that, if you do happen to be in Whitby – yes, the Abbey and its the Church of St. Mary are superb, but the Fish & Chips from the Magpie, eaten on the harbour wall, mobbed by greedy gulls, ain’t half bad, either !

Beekeeping By Numbers

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High-Tech Shard Hive Shows Off To Its Namesake

It’s time to own up to a little experiment. This winter, I fitted each hive with a £3.85 (batteries and shipping from China included) Temperature/Humidity monitor. The plastic sensor sits on top of the cluster, just below the crownboard under the metal hive roof, linked by wire to a digital screen which displays the data. The idea was that this would give me something to mull over during the 3 or more months of “no-go” winter beekeeping, when the bees are best left to start the spring-build up on their own, unmolested.

So how’s it going ? Well, it’s thrown up some fascinating results:

Shard and Thames Hives have broadly similar readings : 23.0C and 45% Humidity and 21.5C and 52% Humidity, respectively.

But Abbey Hive is dramatically different: 13.5C and 62% Humidity. A Temperature of just 13.5C  – what’s going on here ?

Let’s take a moment to recap the location of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ hives: 4 floors up on a windy rooftop, sitting on a fine wire mesh floor amidst swirling winds and an ambient temperature of 5C-ish.

Two thing to bear in mind straight away. Firstly, any temperature reading inside the hive which is above the outside temperature is a sign of life. Secondly, I bet that the readings from Shard and Thames are warmer than your own home! But there is a clear gap between the Temperature readings between toasty Shard and Thames Hives and chilly Abbey Hive. That’s a concern.

My guess is that the Queen Scarlett in Shard Hive and Queen Primrose in Thames Hive have started laying in earnest and that the bees have raised the temperature of the colony to accommodate the needs of the spreading brood nest. The pattern of debris from the varroa boards (more about varroa at the end of this week) under the mesh floors of the hives suggests that this is indeed happening.

In Abbey Hive, I suspect that either the venerable Queen Amber has yet to come into lay or, perish the thought, that she has not survived the Winter. The minimal debris from Abbey’s varroa board suggests that this colony is still clustered, conserving energy.

All this means that I must be vigilant about Abbey Hive this Spring.

So what  have learnt so far from my gizmos ? I am not a great believer that technology automatically improves the outcomes of your endeavours  (heck, I don’t even wear a watch and my mobile is from Tesco’s!). But I do believe that information, properly gathered and intelligently assimilated, can enhance decision-making-processes. Even in the gentle craft of beekeeping.