Every year, the thrifty worker bees gang up on their free-loading half-brothers, the drones, and evict them from the hives. The female home-maker bees are jealously guarding their winter stores against the voracious and high-maintenance males, whose utility expires with the end of the queen-mating season. This normally happens in late Summer / early Autumn, as forage becomes scarce. The females chivvy the drones out of the hive with nippy bites, even de-commissioning the wings of persistent asylum seekers. Dainty and deadly. No mercy is shown. Starvation or predation await the astonished drones…
The strange thing in the Bermondsey Street Bees apiary this week has been that this process has already begun! What a year 2013 has been – rotten weather early on, setting nature back 3 weeks from its normal cycle – until July ushered in a 3-week heatwave which put everything onto fast-forward. And now this !
But before you feel too sorry for the drones, it is worth bearing in mind that a living drone is, by definition, an unsuccessful drone. The fact that the drones’ lower abdomens are ripped out by the Queen during their airborne mating (with a “pop” like a champagne cork, apparently!) means that drones die the instant after they have passed on their genes to the Queen.
So guys, one way or the other, when you gotta go, you gotta go…
The hives are hosting the maximum amount of bees at this time of year – the Queen has decreased her rate of laying from her 2,000 eggs-a-day peak around the summer solstice in late June. Right now, a single colony’s inhabitants can number 75,000 bees (especially in Langstroth hives or the larger “14 x 12” National brood boxes which we use in the Bermondsey Street apiary), as opposed to an overwintering tally of just 10,000-15,000 bees. This is the tipping-point of the bee-year.
Soon, the balance in the hive will shift, with productive foraging bees outnumbering hungry youngsters. The “income” which they have been bringing into the hive will continue to outweigh the “expense” of rearing new bees – and a honey surplus should result until the nectar flows dwindle in early August.
Each colony has its own story to tell, though – here’s how the Bermondsey Street Bees line up in the second half of July 2013. Let’s start with a snapshot of Amber, Queen of Abbey Hive – I like to think of her as the Dame Maggie Smith of the apiary!
Abbey Hive: The Stately Queen Amber
Abbey Hive is the textbook hive of 2013. Amber, a late-bred 2012 Queen has presided over a calm, industrious colony – and has provided new Queens for the two small Kieler mating hives and, more importantly, for Shard Hive, this year’s problem hive. This mutual helping-out between hives is why beekeepers should ideally maintain more than a single hive.
Thames Hive : A Nice Brood Frame, Building Up New Bees
This hive had built up nicely with Primrose, a home-grown, late-mated 2012 Queen (pedigree: CK1.1.L.5.12.BS) producing bees which are a delight to work with. Thames has recovered nicely from the knock which it took with the failure of one half of a Snelgrove manipulation in June. Thames Hive is a real survivor !
Shard Hive : Scarlett, New Queen of Shard Hive!
At one stage this year, I thought that Shard Hive would see more luckless Queens pass through it than Henry VIII’s bedchamber. Fortunately, Scarlett, Queen of Shard Hive was preceded by only two curtailed Queens (a 2012 drone-layer and a New Zealand import – which sound somewhat similar to some of Henry’s infertile and foreign-imported attempts to find a suitable Queen). As you can see from the photograph, Scarlett has a long, sleek abdomen and stalky legs. These seem to be good indicators of success in Bermondsey (and often in Hollywood, too!). She also has some “go-faster-stripes” on her red marking – the heat of the day kept the marking fluid liquid for longer than usual, so when Scarlett hurried out of the make-up wagon, some of her rouge got smeared !
While the world celebrates our new Prince George, we have our own Bermondsey-born Princess ! I am hoping for great things in 2014 from our promising new starlet, Scarlett (or CK1.2.L.6.13.BS, her pedigree name!).
One of the great maritime mysteries was hatched on 4th December 1872, when the Mary Celeste was discovered in mid-Atlantic, apparently abandoned, with a single lifeboat missing. The weather had been fine, the Mary Celeste was in seaworthy condition and still under sail heading toward the Mediterranean. Six months’ of food and water stores were discovered on board and the cargo was untouched, as were the personal belongings of the seven experienced crew members. None of those on board were ever seen or heard from again.
There is a troubling parallel with the Mary Celeste mystery in the world of beekeeping: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This features the sudden loss of bees from hives, which are suddenly abandoned despite ample stores, capped brood and an apparently ideal honeybee habitat – leading to the swift extinction of the colony. The story of the Mary Celeste has an irksome resonance for beekeepers who hear (again mostly from across the Atlantic!) of deserted hives and mysteriously departed bees.
While scientists have been cast adrift on a sea of speculation about the cause of CCD, there has been some important academic work to understand the dynamics which can reduce a colony of bees to a Mary Celeste condition. While this research does not attempt to explain which factors afflict the collapsing colonies in the first place, I thought that it would be useful to look at Dr. Andrew Barron’s collaboration with David S. Khoury and Mary R. Myerscough in: A Quantitative Model of Honey Bee Colony Population Dynamics .Here is the abstract from the detailed research:
“Since 2006 the rate of honey bee colony failure has increased significantly. As an aid to testing hypotheses for the causes of colony failure we have developed a compartment model of honey bee colony population dynamics to explore the impact of different death rates of forager bees on colony growth and development.
The model predicts a critical threshold forager death rate beneath which colonies regulate a stable population size. If death rates are sustained higher than this threshold rapid population decline is predicted and colony failure is inevitable. The model also predicts that high forager death rates draw hive bees into the foraging population at much younger ages than normal, which acts to accelerate colony failure.
The model suggests that colony failure can be understood in terms of observed principles of honey bee population dynamics, and provides a theoretical framework for experimental investigation of the problem.”
Clearly, there is much more work to be done in identifying the root cause and precise dynamics of CCD, but somehow a credible academic publication which models the precipitate dereliction of a colony once the balance of foragers gets out of kilter with the house bee population gives us hope that we are inching towards greater discoveries – even if our statisticians and biologists have only scratched the surface of the greatest Mary Celeste-style mystery of the beekeeping world.
True, the quaint tradition of sending picture postcards to loved ones from holiday locations has been eroded by the tide of electronic communications. But nothing lifts the heart or jump-starts the imagination than a flash of colour on the doormat. So here goes:
“Dear Bermondsey Street Bees,
I know how much you bees like to giggle at these 100-foot high granite monuments to a primitive navigation system, you with your infallible on-board GPS, so please add Ardnamurchan Lighthouse on the wild West Coast of Scotland to your collection!
A quick sea-side Quiz: True or False ?
1/ It is pelting it down here, with a harrying onshore wind, while you lot luxuriate in an extended heatwave ?
2/ Ardnamurchan Point is the westernmost place on the British mainland ?
3/ Bees in Ardnamurchan can responsibly claim to be varroa-free ?
Answer: They’re all True (sorry about the second one, Land’s End!)
As for deliverance from the pestilential varroa, your braw celtic cousins are flying here, in the whip-saw wind and bucketing rain, blissfully free of the parasitic mite. But the plague-wave of varroa has advanced to Acharacle, by Loch Shiel (http://craigardcroft.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/checking-bees-for-varroa.html), just 25 miles from Sanna Bay’s white sands, elephantine volcanic rocks, dappled in a sapphire sea. (Mostly.)
Sadly, it will not be long before this outpost of swarthy, North British bee-nuggets will be contending with a new and sinister foe…that said, the weather seems to have kept them at bay so far !
As a beekeeper, you get used to answering questions about your hobby. Here are a few old favourites: “Do you get stung?” (Yes. In 2012). “Can I buy some honey?” (Very possibly). “I’m allergic to bee-stings, but I want to help the planet, should I have a go?” (No). “How much does all the hives and stuff cost?” (Don’t ask, and if you ever find out, certainly don’t tell any of my nearest and dearest). “Aren’t they all dying, or something?” (Well, how long have you got….?)
The one question which I never get asked is about all that wax. I’m surprised, since wax is the stuff which is central to this whole honeybee thing. Without it – no bee metropolis. So I thought that I would ask my beekeeper avatar that question here on the Apis blog, because it’ll never be a pub quiz question and it certainly doesn’t make the top five questions above. And the answer which I got back from my amanuensis was: “Wax is the building material for comb, which provides a home structure, a brood nest and a honey store for bees“. Not quite good enough: “Ah-ha“, I challenged, probing boldly beyond the bleeding obvious: “I get all that, but where does it actually come from?”
Well, you can’t get wax on the High Street during the summer sales, just try (note: please resist the temptation to pop into your local “Prêt à Cirer” parlour and ask about wax, unless you like the sound of the word “pampering” a lot and have a slightly masochistic tendency). There’s just no wax to be had out there at retail. It simply isn’t an SKU item. So where do the bees get it from ?
Perhaps we are not looking in the right place, in our consumerist, pre-packaged, retail externalisation of reality. We must get in touch with our inner wax, explore the grand design of our own being. Consider: the production of wax is not limited to bees in the animal kingdom. We do it, too. Ours comes, typically, from our ears, or rather from glands in the auditory canal between our ears and our brain. It’s just that we don’t tend to grab that wax with alacrity, chew it hard (I am, of course, excluding young human males of the “Just William” variety from this commentary) and then build our houses out of it. But bees do exactly that!
So now let’s take a look at where wax comes from in bees. First you need plenty of honey. It takes around 10 pounds of honey to make a single pound of beeswax. In the hive, well-fed young bees cluster and raise their body temperatures. Then, from wax-producing glands under their abdomens, the young workers slowly secrete glass-clear slivers of wax about the size of a small sea-salt crystal (yet consisting of some 284 different compounds!). Other worker bees harvest these wax scales and take them to the part of the hive requiring the new wax, where this wax, now white after being chewed by the builder-bees, is used to form perfect hexagonal cell panels. Interestingly, bees often form a continuous string of linked bees while constructing wax comb. So far, biologists have failed to discover why this “paper-chain-conga” of bees is important to the process (although my avatar’s guess is that this assists in raising the temperature locally, making the wax easier to work into comb).
It really is worth drilling a little further down to consider the crucial role of wax in the beehive. Wax forms not only the infrastructure, but arguably, the central nervous system of the “superorganism” which is every honeybee colony. That’s how Juergen Tautz characterises wax comb in his book “The Buzz about Bees – Biology of a Superorganism“. Here the term “superorganism” is employed to designate each bee colony as a social and behavioural entity which is greater than the sum of its individual parts. As such, JT characterises the comb which the bees build from wax as “the largest organ of the bee colony”. As a scientist, Herr Tautz’s default setting is to deploy anatomical prose, rather than to wax lyrical, I suppose.
My avatar chimed in: “I’d say that your Juergen’s more Mahler than Mozart. Sure, he has the benefit of an ordered, Germanic analysis of the role of wax in this slightly-worryingly-titled “superorganism“. But if you ask me, a beekeeper’s humble avatar, this wax business is all a bit of a song and dance for the bees. By the way, how long have you got…?” He always likes to have the last word.
While countryside bees are jumping gleefully onto the flowering blackberries and clovers, urban bees are about to enjoy the foraging highlight of the year – the Lime-flow. No, before you ask, the Lime trees which produce this bounteous nectar and pollen are not related to the green citrus sort of lime. It is confusing, but the common Lime trees (tilia x europaea) – Linden if you’re American or German, tilleul if you happen to be of the French persuasion – make this a terrific time of year for the bees, as long as the temperature is high enough (above 23C) for the flowers to produce nectar. And that’s the way the next fortnight’s weather is heading….
Lime honey has a pale green tinge to it, is very bright and tastes incredible: for me, Lime is a luscious, long-tasting honey with a twist (somewhere between elderflower, mint and passion-fruit) to balance the intense sweetness. It resists crystallization and is highly prized by beekeepers. Lime has been the foundation of prize-winning honey for the Bermondsey Street Bees: a jar of honey from Shard Hive won “Best Honey From Inside The M25” in the National Honey Show in 2011 and a jar from Abbey Hive won “Best Rooftop Honey” at the 2012 London Honey Show.
So the next couple of weeks will be make or break for this season’s honey crop for the Bermondsey Street Bees. The prospect of surplus honey stores has looked precarious, at best, up to now this year. But with a couple of weeks blessed with a temperature in the high 20s, the nectar-flow from the Lime trees should be impressive – especially since, coming a bit late this year, it has given the bees a chance to get their foraging numbers up to strength to take advantage of this tree-top feast.
The one drawback of Lime trees is the gluey slime which mats the pavements when the nectar-flow nears its end. That is honeydew, exuded by aphids which also revel in the Lime nectar, and is nothing to do with honey (“Blimey – first its Lime trees which don’t grow limes and now its honeydew which isn’t honey, is he having me on ?”).
Next time you feel a sticky sole underfoot as you walk along a humid London pavement, look up and listen. You may well hear the low hum of bees at work on the lime flowers at the dome of the tree. And be sure to inhale, deeply….the Lime top-note of Bermondsey Street Honey will flood your senses !
A tough call, but the three haikus from “so fear not fire” have pipped the honeysuckle haiku from “oval” for the top spot.
True, a purist might fault the syllable-count in the winning triptych (but let’s face it, if we were perfectionists, we wouldn’t be beekeepers!), but the imagery is charming and each haiku has exquisite balance.
So in the spirit of magnanimity the judges award, glory, great honour AND a guided tour of the Bermondsey Street Bees’ Apiary to both the winner and the runner-up of the Haiku Competition!