William Smith's 1815 Map
William Smith’s 1815 Map

 “The question is not what you look at, but what you see. We must look for a long time before we can see”. Thoreau.

This  entry in Henry Thoreau’s Journal in 1851 is so Zen that you could plausibly add the epithet, “grasshopper” to the end of the quote without corrupting its tone.

It is also a fantastic piece of advice for beekeepers : looking alone will not help you with your bees. Granted, looking at bees is a rewarding occupation in its own right, but a deeper dimension of looking is deciphering – or “reading” – the condition of the hive from surveying the underlying comb and from the behaviour of the bees is the key to actually understanding what is going on inside a beehive.

To illustrate this notion in a real-world context, next time you are strolling along Piccadilly, knock on the door of the Geological Society (nb this doesn’t work if you just land on the yellow “Piccadilly” square on the Monopoly board!) and ask nicely to come in. Smile winningly and ask to see the “William Smith map”.

The receptionist will eagerly unveil for you (the delicate watercolour tints to the engraving are preserved behind some rather grand curtains) two remarkable early geological survey maps of the UK. For me, William Smith’s 1815 map entitled “A Delineation of the Strata : England and Wales with part of Scotland”, the earlier of the two maps on display, is a treasure.

The map is on a scale of five miles to an inch and consisted of 15 sheets. Published by the mapmaker John Cary to Smith’s topographic specifications, it was meticulously hand coloured using 20 tints to represent the different strata, and shading to represent depth. This information was designed to assist mineral extraction and canal-building (and later, presumably, the building of the railways).

The map is a work of art from the Industrial Revolution. Its swirling, psychedelic pinks and pert yellows and greens, fringed with blues and greys penetrate the underlying composition of the UK’s territory, usurping the childhood certainty which carves the country into neat, conventional counties on traditional maps.

In Smith’s survey, we see below the surface, we gain a fresh perspective. It is even a little uncomfortable to observe, since it powerfully contradicts that cosy image of the U.K. which we have carried forward from the cradle. But that is the whole point !

So let your eye be still and open your mind to see. Piccadilly or SE1, Zen Buddhist or Industrial Revolutionary, 1815 or 2013, geologist or beekeeper, William Smith’s legacy helps us to transform plain sight into insight.

Keeping It Clean

Washing Soda_edited-1
Washing Soda

Hive hygiene is important all year round to preserve healthy bee colonies from cross-infection by diseased bees. And even more so at this time of year, as we clean and repair the tools of our beekeeping trade in preparation for winter storage. But all year round, by far the most effective method of controlling the spread of disease is for the beekeeper to exercise a minimal, but crucial, cleansing ritual for the kit.

My own hive inspection routine involves using different hive tools (a hive tool is like a flat spanner specially designed to work with frames of comb and other hive components) for each of my 5 hives. After each inspection, and before I take my purple nitrile gloves off, each hive tool is immersed in a solution of washing soda and water. This disinfects and cleans the tools.

Any other equipment which is designed to go into and come out of beehives gets the same treatment. Porter escapes, for example, used for clearing bees from supers when it is time to separate the bees from the honey, often become propolised ! And nothing shifts sticky brown propolis stains quite like Washing soda !! And it’s only £1/kilo at Tesco’s !!!  (A missed opportunity, I really could have scripted “Madmen” with copy like that…)

Anyway, here’s a 5-minute video clip, exquisitely put together, as Alec Harden, a beekeeper in East Sussex, discusses “Bees, Trees and Disease” from the site.

Thanks to “B” Scott from Woodland Heritage for drawing my attention to this important message on hive and tool hygiene. You have certainly earned the right to call yourself Queen “B”.

NB. Washing soda is sodium carbonate. DO NOT use Caustic soda, which is sodium hydroxide – that is something quite different – and drastically dangerous!


Bermondsey Street Honey
Bermondsey Street Honey

It’s time to think about honey, now that August is going out in a blaze of glory and September’s honey-harvest is fast approaching. But let’s not lift the lid on the conventional toast-and-butter outcome just yet. There’s more to that jar of golden honey than meets the eye.

Take, for example, this sciencey look from the Smithsonian at the curative qualities of honey. It set me thinking: “cure” is an innocent-looking word. But while the Smithsonian acknowledges the role of honey as an ancient wound-dressing, the medicinal sense of the word “cure” is not the only one which can be applied to bees and honey.

At its Latin root, “curare means “to take care”. From that we derive the ecclesiastical term “curate” (as a shepherd for souls) and museums like the Smithsonian get the word “curator” (as someone who organises and maintains a collection of artefacts).

So what is a beekeeper, if not a bio-curator ? We use our experience and empathy with the bees to provide the optimal environment to develop the collective good, which generally finds its expression in a healthy honey crop.

And just as a curator doesn’t create the exhibit, the beekeeper doesn’t actually make the honey. Yet the way in which a beehive is orchestrated, or the craft with which individual artworks or exhibits are displayed, will have a vast influence on the final reckoning. A curator should understand the biology of art, and a beekeeper should interpret the aesthetic of the bees.

And to complete this catalogue, there is one final sense of the word “cure” to consider, one which carries an intensely local resonance for the Bermondsey Street Bees, whose hives are situated on a rooftop opposite both Morocco Steet and Leathermarket Street,  just north of Tanner Street.

Those street names offer a clue: until the last century, Bermondsey was the low-lying tidal epicentre of London’s leather-tanning industry. “Curing” an animal hide – reducing the moisture content to prevent bacterial spoilage – is the first step in the alchemy of leather processing. And let’s not forget that, in the honey factory of the beehive, the bees’ fanning wings “cure” the raw nectar, reducing its water content from 80% to around 18%, to produce the elixir of honey which shines through the Bermondsey Street Honey jar.

But like all good things, it’s really not complicated. So when the toaster pops up, enjoy that spoonful of honey. Just remember to screw the lid back on tight !

BLink: Bee Sky Bee Or Bee Bee Cee?

Bee Sky Bee_edited-1
Bee Sky Bee

Last year, I came back from holiday to find that a satellite dish had been installed directly on top of White’s Hive, making beekeeping access to the hive impossible (beekeepers raise the roof to inspect our beehives, so to speak).

Irrationally, the first thought which crossed my mind was that the bees must have clubbed together for a Bee Sky Bee subscription. Swiftly and mercifully, a second thought: a Banksy/ Kapoor collaboration? Then thought three cascaded in: of course ! A secret camera would be filming my little rooftop headscratching and tut-tutting dance for prime time TV. Then the penny finally dropped – this was the genuine article: a satellite dish installation atop a beehive. Next day, my delightful neighbours, aghast that their contractors had been so inconsiderate, swiftly resolved the problem.

But I thought that this image would make a fine overture to this BLink to the BBC, which offers an equally visually arresting picture contained in a report about bee-based data transmission and reception (in the BBC story, a radio antenna is glued to the bee itself and is as tall as the bee is long – and weighs “only” 10% of the bee’s bodyweight!) enabling research into honeybee foraging and related issues:

BBC News: How do you track a honey bee?

At the foot of the BBC magazine article, I came across a link to the website of the earnest Berlin-based Menzel Research Group: neurobiologists who are involved in many different and fascinating research projects into honeybees. Luckily, the transcripts are in English:

Menzel Research Group

Two BLinks for the price of one! Having discovered the Menzel website, my preference is for the Science channel over the News channel!

Ladies Who Lunch

Ladies Who Lunch
Ladies Who Lunch

Overheard: a languid French accent, from a table of elegant ladies-who-lunch (or dames-qui-déjeunent!), after a disdainful glance at the pudding trolley: “Chérie, I would not get fat for zat”.

Presumably, our gallic gourmet could imagine foodstuffs so exquisite that she would be prepared to “get fat”, but just not for “zat. According to recent research, honeybee foragers make similar fussy calculations about the pros and cons of any food source.

Here is an abstract from the Journal Of Experimental Biology: Christoph Grüter, Heather Moore, Nicola Firmin, Heikki Helanterä and Francis L. W. Ratnieks: Flower Constancy In Honeybees Workers Depends On Ecologically Realistic Rewards

“As first described by Aristotle, honey bee (Apis mellifera) workers show a strong tendency to visit flowers of only one type during a foraging trip. It is known that workers rapidly learn a flower colour when rewarded with artificial nectar (sucrose solution). However, some previous studies report that the degree of constancy after training is unaffected by reward quantity and quality when bees are tested in an array of artificial flowers of two easily distinguished colours, such as blue and yellow. One possible reason for this surprising result is that large reward volumes were compared. This is likely to mask the abilities of foragers to make adaptive decisions under more realistic conditions.

To test this possibility, we offered untrained honey bee workers ecologically relevant rewards (0.5, 1 or 2 μl of 0.5 or 1 mol l–1 sucrose solution) on one or two consecutive yellow or blue artificial flowers and then recorded which flowers the bees subsequently landed on in an array of 40 empty flowers. The results showed that an increase in all three factors (volume, concentration and number of rewards) significantly increased constancy (proportion of visits to flowers of the trained colour) and persistence (number of flowers visited) during the foraging bout.

Constancy for the least rewarding situation was 75.9% compared with 98.6% for the most rewarding situation. These results clearly show that honey bee workers do become more constant to blue or yellow with increasing nectar rewards, provided that the rewards used are ecologically realistic. As the most rewarding conditions led to nearly 100% constancy, further reward increases during training would not have been able to further increase constancy. This explains why previous studies comparing large rewards found no effect of reward on constancy.”

Hmmm, that’s a bit convoluted for we beekeeping folk, so I thought up a short-cut. At the beginning of “Annie Hall”  Woody Allen tells a gag about two other ladies-who-lunch: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”  

This research shows that a honeybee just wouldn’t get that joke, since she is programmed to seek out only “Ecologically Realistic Rewards“!