Thursday, 5 December 2013

Animal Testing

Animal testing is, for reasons that should be obvious, a controversial issue. I've been asked for my opinion on it by various people recently, so I thought I'd make a blog post stating what my stance on it is.

In short: I think at the present time, it's a necessary evil. I can completely understand why people are against it, and I sympathise with people who want to stop using animal testing in medicine and biomedical research, and I'd love for us to be at the point where we can realistically say "Yes, we have the technology to provide a robust alternative to animal models in medicine and biotechnology", but we're simply not there yet, unfortunately. The day we are, I'll gladly join the ranks of those who want to end the practice of animal testing.

Fighting against animal testing per-se will never win in the current state of the art, because people place a high value on medicines and other treatments which can cure and prevent human illnesses, disabilities and diseases. It could be argued that this is the result of myopic human attitudes that place themselves at the centre of everything, but if it were your loved one with cancer your priorities would likely change to being willing to sacrifice a few animals in a dark lab somewhere out of sight and out of mind to keep them alive, and if it were you living with a potentially debilitating disability that can be controlled with medication to give you a normal quality of life, you probably wouldn't decline that medication on the basis that it's been tested on animals to ensure it's both effective and safe to use on humans.

In fact, I'm one of those people who has to use medication every day to maintain a normal quality of life. Without it, I'd be a danger to my own health, because I'd be prone to losing consciousness at any moment in time, while still giving a superficial appearance of being conscious (I can still walk, look around, and do other routine, automatic movements without being aware of it). This medication was tested on animals before being put in human clinical trials. This isn't a source of pride for me; I'd much rather it hadn't been tested on animals if that were possible, and I hope we soon develop technologies that will make animal testing obsolete. But I also like being a functional person. If there's anything that being taught to hunt at a young age taught me, it's to never treat the taking of an animal's life to sustain your own lightly.

But, unfortunately, I can't say I'd trade my functionality as a human, and of people like me and with a myriad different medical conditions for not having done those tests. And that's coming from me; I love animals. I study them at university. But I think that simply fighting against animal testing is futile; you're essentially running a negative campaign against what most people perceive as a necessary evil to keep people alive and improve their quality of life.

We currently have some good leads into producing new techniques in the future that may allow us to replace animal models entirely - through stem cells. The more research that gets funded in this field, the faster we will probably be able to make animal testing obsolete. Instead of campaigning to stop animal testing right this minute, consider the good that could be done by instead spending those resources and that money on raising funds for that research area. Animal testing simply won't be banned until there's a viable alternative - why not help to create that alternative instead?

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What would you like me to write about?

Well, I need topics to write about!

Is there anything about bees/wasps/bugs in general you want to know about?

ASK! And I'll try to write about it.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Stop buying supermarket honey

Most beekeepers in the UK are hobbyists, with there being about 300 commercial beekeepers to ~40,000 hobbyists, with the average hobbyist managing between 1-8 hives.

Because of the economies of scale, commercial beekeepers can produce bulk amounts of honey and sell it for cheap. In fact, much of the honey sold in UK supermarkets is imported from abroad, including from countries where husbandry practices which a British beekeeper would describe as "dubious" or even dangerous for the health of their own bees, and bees at large (diseases spread, y'know). As with what happens when supermarkets enter any kind of market, the supermarkets quickly outcompete local and small-scale producers on price, and marginalise or push them out on the market.

Amateur/hobbyist and semi-professional beekeepers often find it hard to compete with supermarkets and other mass retailers - as I once read a beekeeper say on a beekeeping forum, "Aldi sell 1lb jars of honey for 99p, I can't compete with that, so I don't."

Yes, buying from amateur beekeepers is more expensive. Yes, you can buy cheap honey at the supermarket. But amateurs are the beekeepers in our communities, amateurs are the beekeepers who invest hundreds, or even thousands of their own money in their hobby to help conserve bees and provide a service to their communities. Honey sales help amateur beekeepers to maintain their hobby and even invest in new equipment, which often means, more bees.

Please consider buying from a local beekeeper, a reseller for a local beekeeper (they do exist - in some butchers for example) or an amateur who sells over the internet, before buying from a supermarket.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Defining CCD - Colony Collapse Disorder

One of the problems with the current media attention on bee problems and colony failures is that the media often implies that all colony failures are due to CCD. And while all causes of colony failures are sad and need research to help us prevent them, CCD is actually a specific type of colony failure. Indeed, I'd actually prefer the disorder were called Colony Collapse Syndrome, because we have a list of very specific symptoms that mark out CCD (or CCS) against other colony failures, but we have very little understanding of the underlying mechanisms which cause the colony to fail.

So, what is CCD, exactly? I can't find any one article that scientifically lays out a set of symptoms, so I'll attempt to define its symptoms as best I can here:

  1. The colony should have been previously healthy - there should have been no indicators of poor colony health in the days (or even hours) prior to the collapse event.
  2. The colony must collapse in a timescale of a few hours up to a couple of days
  3. There must be no dead bees in or near the hive (it is normal to find some dead bees in or near a healthy hive - this number should not be statistically greater than expected for a healthy hive) - this implies that the bees did not die in or near the hive, but abandoned the hive before dying.
  4. Small number of living workers (far below the threshold required to maintain a stable brood nest temperature of 35-37°C) and often the queen left in the hive (the strictest definitions of CCD require a live queen to confirm a diagnosis of CCD - as the live queen indicates that the colony was still able to produce young workers - a colony which dies from being queenless is not considered CCD)
  5. Food stores intact - absconding bees did not consume honey/pollen stores before abandoning the hive
  6. Brood nest intact but abandoned - brood in all stages (egg, larva, pupa) abandoned in the hive, but left to die as the brood nest requires a large number of bees to incubate using wing muscle thermoregulation.
  7. Other honeybee colonies are reluctant to rob the food stores of the dead hive, wasps are reluctant to rob the hive, honeybee pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle are reluctant to lay eggs in the hive. This contrasts with other colony failures, where other colonies and wasps will eagerly steal the remaining food supplies in the dead hive, and wax moths etc. will keenly take up residence to reproduce on the wax comb.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The weird disc thing

I recently posted this picture on Twitter, and asked if people could guess what it's for:

Some people had some good suggestions and ideas about what it is, but nobody quite got it, and I suppose that's natural, as some of its functions aren't going to be apparent to non-beekeepers.

The first setting, which is the one it's on right now in the pic, is fully open. Bees can freely come and go from the hive.

The second setting (Working clockwise) is a fully closed position. Bees cannot enter or exit the hive, and there is no ventilation through the exit. This is usually used during transport, and bees, being a diurnal animal, will assume it's night time. The drawback here is, as I said before, a lack of ventilation.

The third setting, at the top, is a queen/drone excluder. Workers can move through the holes, but drones and the queen cannot. Queens usually do not leave the hive except to a) mate, or b) swarm, so it can be used to prevent swarming (swarms will return to the hive without the queen's pheromones), and it can be used to prevent mating (when you want the bees to continue foraging, but you want the queen to wait until you can move the hive to a mating station before allowing her to mate. If you are trying to selectively breed your bees and have chosen NOT to allow drones from this colony to mate with queens, this setting can also be used to prevent drones from leaving for mating flights.

And finally, the mesh setting closes the hive but allows ventilation. The trade-off for the ventilation, however, is that exposure to the light outside can make them angry during transport (because they can't get out to forage - how would you feel?) During transportation in particularly warm weather, you might have to resort to this setting to avoid baking your bees alive.

Another funky beekeeping fact.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The BBKA's new campaign: Friends of the Honey Bee

The BBKA's new public awareness campaign is called Friends of the Honey Bee. It aims to educate the public about the importance of honeybees to our ecosystem, and thus, the importance of beekeepers to maintaining a healthy honeybee population. Members of the public can join with a small £20 donation per year, and get some awesome information packs about maintaining a bee friendly garden, as well as regular issues of "The Forager", a newsletter with a focus on informing Friends about the progress of the campaign and practical tips for making your garden bee-friendly.

The campaign, I feel, does a lot to try to reclaim the debate about bee health from the one-track crowd who constantly push the issue of pesticides (which, yes, is a big problem, but the problems facing bees generally and honeybees in particular are much broader than pesticides). It aims to educate the public on everything from chemicals (no, it doesn't neglect that subject) to varroa, to climate change, and to lack of forage for bees.

I have to say, I really love it. :D I only became aware of it while reading the July edition of the BBKA news. Time to see if I can get any packs to spread around...

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Understanding Haplodiploidy

A few facts about bees, wasps and ants...

  • 98% of social bees, ants and wasps are (technically) female (workers are usually sterile).
  • The queen can select the sex of any given egg at the time of laying.
  • The sperm of a drone (male bee/wasp) contains his entire genetic code, unlike human sperm, which contains half of the father's DNA.
  • Serious genetic defects and deleterious mutations rarely survive more than a generation, as there is no such thing as a "recessive gene" when it comes to a drone.
  • Males have no father, but they have a grandfather.
  • Sister bees, wasps and ants share on average, 3/4 of their genes, unlike humans where 1/2 of genes are shared between siblings.

Haplodiploidy is a sexual reproduction and sex-determination system, where individuals with two sets of chromosomes (diploid) are female, while individuals with one set of chromosomes (haploid) are male. In other words, the biological sex of the offspring depends upon whether the egg was fertilised with sperm from a father, or not.

In other words, female honeybees (queens and workers) have 32 chromosomes, while drones (males) have 16.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Understanding honeybees: Swarms 101

I was asked this privately, so I thought I'd explain.

A swarm is not an arbitrary number of bees, it's nothing to do with bumblebees (they don't swarm), and it's nothing to do with wasps (they don't swarm either), and if you had a swarm in your garden, you'd know it, because there's nothing remotely like a swarm of bees in the entire natural world.

Swarming is a behaviour that's unique to honeybees because of their unique colony lifecycle. Bumblebees and wasps have an annual colony lifecycle - that is, the colony dies out in the autumn, after which a batch of new queens and drones (males) have been produced, and the new queens mate, and go into hibernation for the winter, allowing the number of colonies to (potentially) increase in the following Spring. This colony pattern is common to all eusocial bees and wasps... Except honeybees.

Honeybees have a perennial colony cycle, meaning the same colony lives through the winter into the following Spring, without hibernating. This is, essentially, why honeybees produce a surplus of honey when other species don't (bumblebees create little pots of honey, but nothing substantial; it's for their immediate food requirements). This perennial colony cycle means that the same queen survives from one year into the next, indeed, queen honeybees can survive for up to 5 years in some circumstances, although this is very rare, for various reasons, and the mean lifespan for a queen honeybee would, as an estimate, be between 18 months and 2 years.

A queen honeybee produces a set of pheromones which maintain the colony's sense of balance (in fact, the absence of the queen, and thus, these pheromones, can alert the colony to the loss of the queen in less than 45 minutes, and they will begin to prepare a new queen from the eggs she laid before she was lost). As she ages, these pheromones weaken, and when she is around a year old, her pheromones will be roughly half as strong as when she was born, and if the colony is large, the pheromone will be spread out among even more workers. This triggers a biological reaction in the workers, that leads to a change in behaviour.

They prepare to swarm.

The swarm is a reproductive behaviour more or less unique to honeybees. Since queen honeybees cannot survive or establish a nest by themselves, as queen wasps and bumblebees can (queen honeybees are adapted to producing copious amounts of eggs and pheromones, but pretty much nothing else), the colony cannot simply produce new queens and let them fly off to found their own colonies.

When the bees decide to swarm, they will build special queen cells around the outside of the brood nest, and the queen will lay an egg in each one; these eggs are to be raised into new queens. She may lay as many as 100 eggs in queen cells in the space of a couple of days, while the workers reduce her feed to slim her down for flight.

These eggs will hatch into larvae, and then after 8 days these queen larvae are sealed to pupate. As long as the weather conditions allow it, the swarm will now leave the hive. Between 40-50% of the workers, as well as the incumbent queen, leave the colony as one; a swarm. They will then form a "beard" on a nearby object, such as a tree branch, while the scout bees (a subset of the foraging bees) seek out a new home, which is usually a cavity about the size of a beehive. Once the bees have decided on a new home, the swarm leaves again as one, until they reach their destination.

Once they start to establish themselves in their new home, they will build wax comb, and start to store pollen and nectar (honey) on it, and the queen will begin to lay eggs, and voila, a new colony is born.

Meanwhile, back in the old colony, the new queens will start to emerge. Depending on the number emerging, and the number of workers left in the colony, the young virgin queens may leave with more workers, in a smaller "cast swarm", or they may fight to the death until only one queen remains. This queen then leaves the hive between 10-30 times to mate with drones, before she starts laying eggs to continue the original colony.


What does a swarm look like?

Swarms are unmistakable, and as I said at the start of this article, there is nothing quite like a swarm of honeybees in the natural world. You will know if you are looking at a swarm. 

I think I have a swarm. Should I get a pest controller/exterminator?

No! Absolutely not. A beekeeper will have the knowledge, experience and confidence to non-destructively remove a swarm except in extreme circumstances where the bees aren't readily accessible. Moreover, most beekeepers will be ecstatic to take a swarm to expand their own bee stocks, so as well as being allowed to live, the bees get a new home with a caring steward to look after them.

It's also worth noting that, despite popular belief, bees ARE NOT generally dangerous while swarming. They will still sting if provoked, but it is actually more difficult to provoke them while they are swarming than in normal circumstances, as they have no brood or nest to protect.

You can find local beekeepers and swarm collectors here.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

AMA: Ask Me Anything

Use the comments section to ask me anything about beekeeping or bees, and I'll try to answer. If your question warrants a particularly complex answer, you might end up giving me an idea for a whole blog post instead.

If I don't have an answer, I'll try to get one by speaking to more experienced beekeepers and get back to you.


Saturday, 15 June 2013

Will Greenpeace talk to beekeepers?

Today I was linked to an article that reminds me why I struggle to find it in myself to support Greenpeace. It seems like Greenpeace is committed to furthering political agendas over actually engaging seriously about modern ecological problems, and finding solutions to them. In the article, the author asserts that "We know what is killing the bees", and, in fact, we do. So let's take a look at the causes of bee decline he chooses to list:

"Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors—pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and so forth."

Among those, the single most prevalent factor involved in honeybee decline on the minds of most beekeepers, is not listed. Furthermore, with the upshoot in urban beekeeping and its steady rise as the predominant form of hobbyist beekeeping, the argument of "habitat destruction" is, at least in the context of honeybees, absolutely absurd. I have bees in an urban garden, and know beekeepers who keep very successful colonies on top of city centre buildings, for crying out loud.

The article goes on to say things like "In the U.S., where bee collapse first appeared, winter losses commonly reached 30-50 percent and in some cases more." Firstly, Colony Collapse Disorder is completely distinct to winter colony failure, which has always existed, and is far from unique to the US. Winter colony losses have increased dramatically over recent years, certainly, in large part due to the Varroa mite (that "single most prevalent factor" I alluded to above), but CCD is an in-season failure of the colony, and by that aspect of its definition alone, is totally distinct from winter colony failure, which is accelerating to unsustainable rates.

A simple factual inaccuracy like this indicates exactly how much time Greenpeace have spent speaking to beekeepers, who are the front line of honeybee conservation, about the issues they face, and what needs to be done about it. The article makes it blatantly clear that Greenpeace prefer a blanket political campaign against pesticides instead of an evidence based debate to remove those pesticides proven to be environmentally damaging, and encourage the use of IPM as a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative, using bees as a pawn in their mission.

It's obvious that Greenpeace don't really care about bees, or at least, this journalist doesn't really care about bees (and by extension, the organisation as a whole as he carries their endorsement), and they'd rather use bees and beekeepers as a pawn in their anti-pesticide mission.

This is why Greenpeace has no credibility in the debate about bee decline, and they never will, until they actually speak to beekeepers about their problems instead of making simple factual mistakes like this and skimming over the issues that really affect beekeepers on a day to day basis.

Greenpeace, if you want credibility in this area, talk to us, listen to us, and don't use us as a pawn.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

If honey isn't vegan, what else can't vegans eat?

Tonight, I watched a video titled "Why honey is not vegan", which explains that honey can't be vegan, as veganism, as a principle and life philosophy, aims to eliminate all forms of animal exploitation by humans.

So, if honey isn't vegan because of "animal exploitation", what other foods are not vegan?

  1. Okra
  2. Kiwi fruit
  3. Cashew nuts
  4. Apples
  5. Strawberries
  6. Star fruit
  7. Sugarbeet
  8. Mustard
  9. Rapeseed oil
  10. Canola oil
  11. Peas
  12. Beans
  13. Chilli peppers, Red peppers, Green peppers, Bell peppers
  14. Papaya
  15. Chestnuts
  16. Watermelon
  17. Tangerines
  18. Cucumber
  19. Squash
  20. Lemons
  21. Limes
  22. Buckwheat
  23. Soybean
  24. Cotton (not a foodstuff, but you can't wear this as a vegan either)
  25. Sunflower oil
  26. Walnuts
  27. Pears
  28. Mangos
  29. Apricots
  30. Almonds
  31. Peaches
  32. Pomegranate
  33. Black currant
  34. Red currant
  35. Raspberry
  36. Blackberry
  37. Elderberry
  38. Sesame seeds
  39. Blueberry
  40. Cranberry
  41. Tomatoes
  42. Grapes
If you are wondering, "But why can't we eat all this plant-related foods as vegans?", let me explain.

All of the above crops rely on pollination by bees to produce the end food product that ends up in your mouth. While honeybees aren't the only insect pollinator, industrial level agriculture which is used to feed the millions of Western mouths in the modern world requires managed honeybee colonies to be placed on farmland to ensure adequate pollination. By eating any of the above crops, you are eating something that can only be produced on the scale that it is today specifically because of human-managed honeybee colonies, and thus, should not be considered "vegan".

Think about that next time you try to vilify beekeepers for their "overall lack of respect for bees".

While not all vegans think like this, there is definitely a vocal minority who spout this kind of ridiculous nonsense without realising the implications of what they say.

The video in question, by the way:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

My bees are swarming ALREADY?!

The colony in my back yard originated from a Nucleus this year. They have already built up to cover the entire brood box, and are building comb in the first super.

Today, I found queen cups on all frames containing brood, and some already had eggs in them. This usually means that in about 7-8 days time, a swarm will issue from the hive, carrying about half of the colony's workers and its queen, while the bees left behind rear a new queen to take over the colony. So I've come up with this action plan to control the swarming:

1) Split colony using my nuc box to carry the queen and some of the bees, replace frames with foundation
2) Wait for new queen to emerge and mate
3) Select either the new queen or old queen depending on how well mated the new queen is
4) Place nuc frames into brood box with the rest as new foundation frames
5) Unite over paper and convert to double-brood

The reason I've chosen to split and re-unite is because I don't currently have a Snelgrove board, which I'm still waiting on in the post. I'd just use that instead of doing a full-blown split, if I already had it. But, c'est la vie.

If you don't understand any of the jargon used here just ask about it in the comments if you like. ;)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Chemtrails, or what part of meterology don't you understand?

I remember about 2 years ago, I became aware of a new conspiracy theory, called "Chemtrails". Taking their name from the trails of condensed water vapour left behind by aircraft at high altitude, known as "contrails", chemtrails are supposedly some sort of clandestine attempt to spray people with some kind of chemical.

I wouldn't normally try to disprove this kind of conspiracy theory, but I'm seeing references to it more and more frequently, and more and more people who I encounter seem to be becoming drawn in to some kind of belief that the government is using commercial aircraft to spray the populace, not just in this country, but around the world (predictably, America seems to be rife with this conspiracy theory).

There seem to be two factors driving this theory; the first of which is the predictable mistrust and hatred of the government, and the second of which is the observation that some contrails (the condensation clouds left by aircraft at high altitudes) linger for much longer than others, and so the ones which linger are believed to be part of some government programme to spray the population with chemicals.

There are insurmountable problems with this conspiracy theory, and some of them are described below:

  1. The most obvious and gaping flaw with the theory from my perspective, is that it is the contrails which linger in the atmosphere which are picked out as chemtrails. This makes no sense, as surely a chemical dispersal system which lingers at high altitude is a poor method of delivering any chemical? If any, wouldn't the contrails which don't linger be more likely to be chemtrails?
  2. Further to the gaping flaw in scientific understanding above, the phenomenon of variance in contrail duration is well understood by scientists as the result of normal variance in atmospheric conditions. Humid air inhibits evaporation, and so the more humid the atmosphere is, the longer the contrails are likely to last. As with many conspiracy theories, this theory completely ignores and sidesteps fundamental and well established scientific understanding.
  3. The number of people involved in this kind of conspiracy would be vast. Even just considering the people of, say, the USA, you would have government officials, bureaucrats, chemical companies, their workers, logistics technicians, the airline executives, pilots, flight engineers, aircraft ground crew, airport staff, and probably many others, who all know at least something about what's going on here, and are silent. There has been no compelling evidence presented by anyone in any related field to support the allegations of chemical spraying. Given that the US in particular has an abysmal record of being able to cover up anything for very long, it seems very implausible that they would be able to cover up something like this, which would involve many more civilians than other conspiracy theories. When you consider that this is a global conspiracy, supposedly spanning many governments, it becomes even more implausible that they haven't been caught out red handed yet.
 Never believe a conspiracy theory at face value. Use your critical thinking skills to consider whether it's even a plausible theory, and then look critically at any evidence given, if there even is any.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Rethinking bees and pesticides

Late last month, the EU voted to ban neonicotinoids on all plants except those unattractive to bees and other insect pollinators, for two years, as part of the precautionary principle regarding environmental issues. It is expected that in this time, further research into the field effects of neonicotinoids on insect pollinators will be performed.

While I believe this is precisely the right thing to do, there are two issues with the current framing of the debate that I'd like to illuminate:

The first is the need for further, rigorous research, as suggested above, into the effects of neonicotinoids (and other pesticides) on bees and other pollinators. While I am confident that this research will confirm what is already suspected, there is no room for speculation within science. And, perhaps more importantly, the ban will not hold up against future scrutiny without it. This is especially true in the face of an opponent like the agribusiness lobby; even if the streets fill with millions in protest, the agribusiness industry will win without hard evidence when this policy is reviewed in two years time. It's also worth noting that in other parts of the world, such as the USA, government bodies like the EPA are resisting the call to ban neonicotinoids, citing a lack of evidence. Here in the EU where we are taking a lead on banning these pesticides, we should be setting an example to the rest of the world, not only in making a precautionary ban on neonicotinoids, but by carrying out research to convince other countries to follow our lead.

The second problem is that pesticides are coming to dominate the debate about bee health. It is all very well to campaign to ban pesticides that harm pollinators, but these pesticides are not the only major problem facing bees today. In the case of the honeybee, they are not even the biggest problem facing honeybees. If you were to ask any member of my local beekeeping association, or the one across the river on the Wirral which I visited last month, pesticides were not even mentioned once, despite the debate being at its climax in Europe at the time. What I did hear was talk of varroa, of colonies dying out because of out-of-control mite infestations, despite control in the previous autumn, of the notifiable diseases, European and American Foulbrood, and of colonies struggling to build up in the Spring, with newly-born bees being evicted from the colony because of their stumpy, useless wings, courtesy of the Deformed Wing Virus, to prevent the infection from spreading further within the colony.

Of course, there are other bees than just honeybees; bumblebees and solitary bees are also in decline. So what's causing those to die out, if not pesticides? In the UK, we can list loss of forage, large monocultured fields, loss of habitats and suitable nest sites, and climate change causing changes in seasonal climate patterns which these animals have simply not adapted to.

Of course, the body of evidence is building to suggest that neonicotinoids can become concentrated in stored food (honey), and then bioaccumulate in the workers bodies, resulting in maladaptive behavioural changes, like forgetting the hive location. This is a further stress on our bees which needs to be removed, and you won't see a tear of pity for the companies that lose out from this ban from me.

However, people need to be aware that this is one stress among many for our bees, and we need to ask our politicians for funding into research into the other problems driving bee decline. This means not only acting against the use of harmful pesticides, but also for research into the many other causes of bee decline, such as Varroa mites and diseases.

Act against the use of harmful pesticides.

Ask for research into the causes of bee decline, including Varroa mites and diseases.