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.