Dancing In The Dark

Cuban-Dance-2

At the LDKA apiary last Saturday (no, that’s not us at the apiary in the picture – more about that later!), the highlight of “going through” the hives with our tutor Penny Robertson, was seeing two foragers performing vigorous “waggle-dances” on the brood comb. As we watched this energetic ballet, a distant memory popped into my mind…

In 1999, I went on a charity-bike ride to Cuba. One night, in the (aptly-named, in my opinion) city of Colón in Matanzas, I was walking back to the team hotel in the pitch dark, thanks to a power-cut. As I stepped slowly past the large, arched, peeling windows of a row of Spanish colonial houses, I heard a muffled footfall and caught sight of a movement in the shadows inside one of the buildings.

I halted, as much apprehensive as inquisitive, and glimpsed through the open window a sight which was quite breath-taking – a family of four, two adults and two teenagers – dancing with silken elegance in the silent shadows….as if the music of their heartbeats, the welling of an unremembered rhythm, had risen like a tide and flooded their senses – so they danced anyway, through the dark, pin-drop silence of the power-cut.

Which brings us back to the bees’ “waggle-dance”: likewise a muted cha-cha, performed at home in total obscurity and with the participation of close family. Let me describe it to you, before suggesting a link which shows the “waggle-dance” and has a David Attenborough voice-over:  the “waggle-dance” is a hushed communication, with one bee dancing, at antenna’s length, from the circle of bees around her, like a lasses-only version of the Scottish reel “Dashing White Sergeant”, but performed without the lights on ! But over to that nice Mr. Attenborough for some visuals of:

The Waggle Dance

So the purpose of the “waggle-dance” is for the dancer to communicate the direction and distance from the hive of food sources.  Just like our own dances, the “waggle-dance” is conducted on a specific patch of comb. The returning forager dances to convey information about the nectar or pollen source which they have just visited by waggling their abdomens and moving on the comb, for the benefit of a small group of available foragers, who touch her with their antennae to gather information from her movements.

Looking at a bee “waggling” on the comb, the human brain understandably attempts to assign meaning in the optical plane. Close, but no cigar! Remember, in the bee-world inside the hive, all is dark, so visual communication is null and void. The actual meaning in the “waggle-dance” display is pulsed through vibration, as the dancer grips the comb and the signals resonate to her rapt audience. With the comb hanging downwards, as it does in nature, in its “waggle-dance” the bee encodes, relative to gravity, the distance and direction of the food source. The other bees absorb this pulsating intelligence, but by the time they are ready to fly from the hive to the feeding-zone, the instructions have been miraculously de-ciphered into a flight manual based on the orientation of their hive to the sun, specifically at that time of day. Amazing and accurate.

You may be one of the few fortunate souls on god’s green earth who has not been button-holed recently by a beekeeper complaining about how depressingly poor the last couple of years have been for bees. But in any case, you are probably aware of the severe pressure on bee-populations, of the trials and tribulations of the craft of beekeeping. But please take away from this monograph that, however tough it has seemed, there are still rewarding moments to be extracted, jewels of appreciation to be mined with a hive-tool – including the simple waggle of a single bee !

ps: For those wishing to delve deeper into the mysteries of the “waggle-dance” (and why foraging bees switch off their colour vision when flying back returning to their hive) I can recommend Jürgen Tautz’s “The Buzz About Bees – Biology Of A  Superorganism”.

pps: And for those who wish to see a drone “waggle-dancing”, (clue: plenty of noise, lights, music and purely recreational) – there’s always “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen in 1984.

Word Of Mouth

Trophallaxis - A Language For Bees
Trophallaxis – A Language For Bees

It is a sure sign that Spring has finally arrived once bees of all shapes and sizes start busily gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. And if you just allowed yourself to stop in the sunshine and zoom-in on a bee on a flower, you might see her amazing, extendible tongue syphoning the sugar-rich liquid from the plant into her honey-carrying stomach. But, for honeybees, that is the simple part of the job.

And if you then could peep behind the scenes when that bee returned to her hive with a full tank of nectar, bumping down onto the landing-board, you would witness something quite unusual. The foraging bee doesn’t just walk through the hive door, issue a sisterly greeting to all and sundry, dump her cargo into the nearest empty honeycomb and put her (six!) feet up, job done. Instead, something exceptional occurs, something which might disquiet even the keenest honey-eater. Something which, here in Michael Caine’s old Bermondsey stomping ground,“not a lot of people” know about: it’s the transmission of the nectar from the gatherer’s honey stomach, face to face, to a waiting house-bee’s stomach via – as you can see in the picture above – their unfurled tongues. Docked together, our bees begin the transformation of nectar into honey with a comestible kiss.

In English, this exchange of nectar has a name which itself is a bit of a mouthful: it is called trophallaxis. Pronounced Tro – fa – laxis. Try saying it…..those three syllables force your tongue forward, backward, forward again, your mouth-parts mimicking the action itself as you pronounce the word !

For our bees, this transfer of nectar is much more than simple food-processing. It is a download transmitting the most precious commodities a bee-colony can possess: energy and kinship. It is a sensual etiquette, exuding innocence in its nutritional necessity. Yet it also communicates fluent messages: about the quality of a food source, the outside temperature, a need for water in the hive or even the condition of the Queen bee.

And like language itself, in this exchange both the donor and the receiver play their part in turning basic materials into higher-value goods. The oral transfer of nectar starts the transformation into honey in the same way that, for primitive humans, the spoken word would have helped refine raw information into shared intelligence.

This blog is called “Apis” after the Latin word for bee. In linnean lingo, the honeybee’s full title is “apis mellifera” – which translates as the  “honey-carrying bee“. My intention is to carry to these pages my experience of bees, of beekeeping and of the bee-world. When we meet here, we become interlocutors. We share words – like trophallaxis (try it one more time for luck: Tro – fa – laxis): a communication, a connection, a communion.

Up Close And Personal

Thames Hive: Brood Frame
Up Close And Personal : Thames Hive

The first inspections of 2013 in the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary took place in the balmy evening sunshine on Thursday 25th April 2013.

Abbey Hive

Queen Bee On Brood - Abbey Hive
Abbey Hive – Queen Bee

Result! 4 frames of dense worker brood. This hive is firing on all cylinders, all things considered after this never-ending Winter. If anything, there is a danger of “honey-block” here – where the 5 frames of honey stores limit the room available for the Queen (centre frame in picture above, with Yellow dot on her thorax) to lay eggs. Will swap some frames of honey  for empty frames of drawn wax comb for the Q to lay in – and also spare a frame of emerging brood to help the new Q-in-waiting to build up Shard hive when she moves in this weekend.

     Thames Hive  

Queen Marking - Crown Of Thorns
Thames Hive – Queen Marked Yellow

Much better than I could have hoped for. The bees were calm and relaxed in the 18c sunshine. I found and marked the small, black Queen from last year (Yellow was the “in” colour for Qs in 2012 – see above – this year’s Queen hatches will all be marked with a Red dot on their thorax). The picture shows the Q in a “Crown Of Thorns”, which is a gentle restraining device, having been marked with the distinctive Yellow dot. Glad to say that there’s no need to re-Queen now, but  the bees might decide to supercede her if she turns out to be poorly mated. I will add 1 frame of honey stores from Abbey Hive to give her subjects a little boost.            

  Shard Hive

Shard Hive - Drone Brood Fron DLQ
Shard Hive – Domed Cappings Of Drone Brood

Again, no surprises here, but a big disappointment nonetheless: a really good-looking, leggy Queen was eventually tracked down – a drone laying Queen (DLQ) – as evidenced by the two cricket-ball-sized clumps of domed drone brood on the frames (see the slightly long-focus picture of the domed Drone cappings above). The worker bees would not have permitted her to lay more idle, layabout male bees. Without intervention, this colony is doomed., despite plentiful and colourful Pollen stores. The DLQ was removed (sorry, Elaine, I know that you were rooting for Shard hive !) and she will be succeeded by a NZ Queen from London’s pre-eminent beekeeper, John Chapple, this weekend.

So my predictions about the state of each hive were pretty much spot on – a neat trick. How’s it done? Well, I took note of what was going into the hive (pollen / nectar / water) and the energy/listlessness of the flying bees at the hive entrance. And then I looked at the hive debris under the open mesh hive floor, for signs of wax, pollen (and even varroa mite) activity. That told me a lot about the closed-up hives….certainly enough to guess all three hives right before they were opened for the first inspections – and after all, first impressions are lasting impressions !

 

BLink: Got The Builders In

Bee BuilderEver wondered how bees build their nests? 

Take a look at this high-speed time-lapse video (hat-tip to pioneer Eadweard Muybridge) to see this 3-month construction of a summer brood nest – all in under 2 minutes !

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=821uVRAcZ1I

This is a “top bar” hive in which the bees build their own brood and honey comb hanging down from the bars. In London’s dense, urban environment, Bermondsey Street Bees require a little more “management” to ensure their good health, my neighbours’ peace of mind and a decent honey crop in September!

And if you’re wondering why the hive suddenly looks a lot emptier halfway through the video…. welcome to another characteristic of natural beekeeping – and arch-enemy of urban beekeepers – the Swarm, recently departed, with the old Queen taking with her half of the work-force.

Bees And Cocaine : “The Buzz From Oz”

Bee On Balsam

In Australia, Dr. Andrew Barron has been working to understand the neural pathways involved in human addiction and recruited the honeybee to study how human/bee brains react to addictive drugs, by depositing a dose of cocaine (certainly “experimental”, but definitely not “recreational” !)  on the bees’ thorax – that’s the bit between the head and the body to which the bee’s wings are attached. 

http://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/alumniPublications/The_Buzz_from_Oz_Optima_15.pdf 

Bees on cocaine “danced more frequently and more vigorously for the same quality food,” Dr. Barron said. “They were about twice as likely to dance” as undrugged bees, and they circled “about 25% faster.” In other words, they became hyper-charged blaggers…..

The study suggested that honeybees are affected by cocaine in ways similar to humans (ie cocaine made the bees much more enthusiastic communicators) and therefore may be useful as experimental models of drug addiction. The researchers concluded that that cocaine activates neuropharmacological reward mechanisms in insects which are analogous to mammals, but that “Despite its reinforcing properties, cocaine remains an effective plant defense because the concentrations occurring in coca leaves are such that herbivorous insects very rapidly ingest a toxic dose“.

And if you spot white powder on the backs of your Bermondsey Street Bees, stay cool – from June onwards it’s probably pollen from the Himalayan Balsam plant (see photo above)!

With special thanks to Dr. Andrew Barron, Alison Carter, Editor of Optima, and to The Master and Fellows of Fitzwilliam College in the University of Cambridge for their kind permissions. 

London Honey Show – 7th October 2013

Save the Date!

 London Honey Show 2013_edited-1

The London Honey Show will be back again this year! Make sure to keep the

7th October 2013

free so that you can join in celebrating all things honey at Lancaster   London!
There will be more information regarding the competitions closer to the date – but in the meantime, keep a watchful eye on the website!

www.londonbees.com

Social Responses Of Bees To Population Stresses On A Colony

Skep

As scientists continue to be baffled over the recent decline in bee populations around the world, a new model developed by Dr Andrew Barron at Macquarie University in collaboration with David Khoury and Dr Mary Myerscough at the University of Sydney, might hold some of the answers to predicting bee populations at risk.

Since 2006 the rate of honeybee colony failure has increased significantly with a report released by the UN Environment Programme concluding that the disastrous decline in honeybees over the last few years is unlikely to stop without a better understanding of the reasons behind the decline. Dr Barron says “while an enormous amount is know about honeybee sociobiology, comparatively little is know about the social responses of bees to population stresses on a colony”.

In this latest study Dr Barron has discovered links between rapid population decline and chronically high forager death rates, suggesting that by examining forager numbers in a colony this new model could help predict colonies under threat. This research also looks into one of the most mysterious aspects of colony collapse disorder (CCD), the disappearance of bees from colonies leaving abandoned brood and food stores. On this Dr Barron says: “Our model suggests that the response of bees in a stressed colony is to get outside and forage, but this just increases the stress on individual bees and makes the problem worse.”

The model also suggests strategies to rescue failing colonies. “Treatment strategies to restore failing colonies need to focus on supporting bees in the hive, and encouraging them to raise brood to boost the colony population. We’re currently testing some ideas how to do this.” said Barron. According to the UNEP head Achim Steiner: “The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century.

The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” This research aids better understanding of the multiple threats facing bees around the world which unless addressed could lead to serious long-term consequences for food supplies. By identifying colonies at risk, this research can help scientist better understand the process of catastrophic colony failure, and how best to intervene to restore failing colonies.

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2011-04-mystery-bees.html#jCp

 

Wiggling And Waggling: The Amazing Bee Brain

 

Kuwait Stock Exchange

Australian research published by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London has shown that the bee brain has the ability to estimate energy expenditure while foraging for pollen.

“To make honey, bees must gather more nectar from flowers than the energy spent collecting it, so in order to forage efficiently they need to know how much energy each foraging trip costs them,” said Dr Andrew Barron, the author of the study and senior lecturer at Macquarie University.

Bees estimate distance visually, by watching the environment pass them during flight. Barron set out to determine whether bees also use this visual information to estimate their flight costs. His first step was to build two tunnels – one 10 metres long and one 20 metres long – and place feeders at the end of each to attract the bees. He then created an optical illusion to trick the bees into believing that the closest feeder was actually the furthest distance away.

“When bees return from a foraging expedition they let the other bees in the colony know where they have been and how good the nectar was by performing what’s known as the waggle dance,” Barron said. “The waggle dance performed by the bees in this study indicated that they were fooled by the illusion and believed that the feeder in the 10-metre tunnel was furthest away. Yet they could still tell somehow that they weren’t using up as much energy by flying to Therapy that feeder – they favoured that one anyway and advised the other bees to do the same.”

The results of the study showed the bees were definitely not using distance to estimate cost, but raised another question – how were they doing it?

“The bee brain has an incredibly simple make-up and yet it appears to possess an onboard calorimeter or stop-watch,” Barron said. “Our study showed that bees can separately calculate distance travelled and foraging efficiency and communicate both independently using different elements of their dance language. Such mental agility explains bees’ proficiency as nectar harvesters.”

Barron said his aim was to work out how the bee brain makes these complex calculations.

“Through their dance behaviour we get a window Bees into bee psychology and perception,” he said. “Bees are beautiful little animals with great personalities – and we’re only just getting a sense of how smart they really are.”