Sunday, 11 May 2014

What can cause holes in frames?

I was asked today to weigh in on the potential cause of this apparent damage to a frame. In actual fact, it isn't damage as such.

To explain, we have to consider a critical concept when working with honeybees, the bee space. The bee space was discovered in the 19th century by the Polish beekeeper, Johann Dzierżoń. The idea behind the bee space was the discovery that honeybees will always build their combs so that they maintain a 6-8mm gap between their combs, just enough to allow workers to pass each other by, back to back.

It was this discovery which a few years later led to the invention of the modern removable frame hive by Lorenzo Langstroth, and every removable frame hive is designed to have spacings that allow bees to build combs according to the needs dictated by the bee space.

However, bees sometimes build their combs in a crooked manner. This is especially true when the adjacent comb has projections such as drone cells or queen cells, which always project from the comb and thus reduce the bee space between the combs. As a response to this, the bees may start to chew away the comb on the adjacent frame, to restore the bee space.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

On starting as a beekeeper

I've said it quite a few times that one of the ways to help stop honeybee declines is if we had more beekeepers keeping bees. And indeed, there have been more and more people taking up the hobby in the last few years. But one of the trends I've noticed (and it was noted in a fairly recent issue of the BBKA's newsletter) is that many of those who have taken up the hobby have left it within a year or two - a much higher level of attrition of low-experience (0-2 years) than in the past. So I wanted to cover a few points of advice before people start.

  1. What's your ultimate motivation for starting? Take a serious thought about this one; is your motivation a genuine interest in bees and/or the craft of beekeeping, or is it ultimately down to what you've seen in the media about pollinator declines? There's nothing wrong with feeling a little inspired by that - but unless it's paired with a genuine and prior interest in bees, you're unlikely to continue the hobby long-term.
  2. Find your local association, go to a meeting or two, ask a more experienced beekeeper to show you around their hives and show you what an inspection is like. Importantly, absolutely do go through an inspection with a beekeeper so that you have both a rough idea of what's involved in day to day beekeeping, and so you can gauge your reaction to the reality of having thousands of stinging insects flying around you (which, by the way, can and do sting through a bee suit).
  3. Allow yourself to be stung at least twice, a couple of weeks apart, by honeybees, before you get your own. You will be able to gauge your body's reaction to the sting and whether you're potentially allergic to the stings. You don't have to have anaphylactic shock to be allergic, but milder allergies can still have unpleasant reactions. You'll also be able to gauge your psychological reaction to the prospect of being stung. If you feel you're likely to be walking on egg shells while inspecting your hives, then it's probably not for you. You must be able to handle bees confidently and able to concentrate on the task at hand rather than the prospect of being stung. Critically, you should also be able to continue a hive manipulation after being stung and scraping it out - you should not have an adverse behavioural reaction to a sting.
  4. Read, read read. Get books about beekeeping. Read things on the internet (though take it with a pinch of salt unless it's from a reputable source). Learn about what's actually involved. Beekeeping is more than keeping bees in a box. Make sure you know what's actually involved, as well as your responsibilities (see below).
  5. Consider the commitment and time involvement - from April to late July, you'll need to spend at least 30-60 minutes per week inspecting each hive you own. For various reasons, you'll want at least two colonies. Additionally, it's reckless to make the commitment to a colony of bees unless you're sure you'll be able to make this time commitment, and won't bail after getting stung a few times, and neglect the colony. In addition to the problems your own colony can encounter due to neglect (including the death of the colony), you can spread disease and parasites to other peoples' colonies, and you have a legal responsibility to notify DEFRA on suspicion of notifiable parasites and diseases. Not suspecting them because of wilful negligence or ignorance isn't a defence. Neighbours tend not to like uncontrolled and repeated swarming onto their property, too, and neglect to prevent swarming as far as is possible jeopardises the reputation of beekeepers, reinforces fears about bees, and makes it harder for other beekeepers to reassure people of the safety of bees.
  6. Consider the costs. It can cost upwards of £500 to get started with one colony, and you will almost certainly need to buy additional equipment down the line. Once you're established, you can offset some of these costs with honey sales, but don't depend on being able to pay off the credit card you bought your equipment and bees with from honey sales in your first year or two.
I don't intend to put people off of becoming beekeepers, but for the good of your own colonies, and for the good of other people's, please take into serious consideration whether this is something you can commit to long-term before you start.

Avaaz: Before the bees are gone?

For a while now, Avaaz have been spamming out more of their emails, this time regarding bees. But it's not a petition this time - they want you to dig deep to fund their little science project. In short, they want your money so they can fund a research project to find out why bees are dying, because all of that industry funded junk science getting in the way of the facts.

Apart from the astounding irony of an explicitly and openly partisan organisation that has previously run petitions presuming the primary cause of bee declines (pesticides), accusing the other side of junk science when asking for money for your own science project, there are a lot of problems with this "project".


  1. Given Avaaz's open political agenda regarding pesticides, how can we be sure that this study will be unbiased, and not "junk science" as they accuse the industry of?
  2. The language they use, such as "go head to head with big pharma" strongly indicates that they do, in fact, have a strong bias, and this research will be worth about as much as the paper it's (not) published on
  3. The scientific consensus is currently that there is no "silver bullet" to halt bee declines, which are actually caused by multiple interacting factors (of which pesticides are just one). See this TED Talk by a well known bee researcher for more detail
  4. Bee and pollinator declines are now subject to a rapidly growing body of research. There has already been a lot of research, and there is a lot of ongoing research, into the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees, independent of the industry, which has shown that they are harmful to bees. My own university tutor has performed published research about the effect of imidacloprid (the most widely used neonicotinoid) on honeybee learning at concentrations likely to be encountered in contaminated nectar.
  5. In light of #4, it's hard to see how Avaaz think a project like this will be a magical panacea in the fight against pesticides
  6. Avaaz have not stated exactly what the research would be studying ("pesticides" is not a good enough answer, be specific), or who would be performing it
In summation, this is almost certain to end up being junk science. It will divert a lot of money from peoples' pockets to a junk science project that could be spent on other charities projects fighting pollinator decline. A list of the charities working to fight pollinator decline is below:
  1. Friends of the Honeybee is the British Beekeepers' Association's fundraising campaign, and seeks funding for research into honeybee parasites and diseases, particularly Varroa.
  2. Hymettus funds research into bees, wasps, ants, and other pollinators, and disseminates information regarding their conservation.
  3. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust does exactly what it says in the name.
  4. Buglife is a charity dedicated to "saving the small things that run the planet" and has a long-standing campaign to conserve pollinators.
  5. Find your local beekeepers' association - they're all branches of the BBKA and usually charities in their own right, and support beekeepers in the local area. Donating to them can help the association to rent land for their members to set up a communal apiary, help to buy equipment and/or bees for new members, provide training for both beginners and established beekeepers, and potentially a myriad other things.