The varroa mite is an ubiquitous parasite on British honeybees.
Just imagine having a spikey dinner-plate stuck to your back, vampiring your vital fluids – and you have an idea of what a varroa mite does to a bee.
So beekeepers treat their bees against varroa throughout the year, but this mid-winter application of a very dilute (3.2%) rhubarb acid (oxalic acid) in sugar syrup is the most important off all, since the hive should have little of no brood in it – which is where the varroa mites themselves breed – and so all the mites are on the bees (the technical term is “phoretic“) and they are vulnerable to the acid, which the bees transfer around their winter cluster.
In this video, the hive is opened for just one minute as the treatment is applied, so that the overwintering cluster of bees in the brood chamber, heated by the bees to a mid-20C temperature even on my chilly rooftop, does not get dangerously cold.
This will reduce the varroa load dramatically and set the Abbey Hive bees up for a healthy build-up into the spring. Merry Christmas !
The human eye is a thing of mesmeric beauty and fascination. Indeed, its form and function are so perfect that it has been proposed as proof of divine creation. It even caused Charles Darwin to cast doubt on his own evolutionary theory – in the “Origin of Species” he voiced his disquiet at the notion that something as flawless as a human eye “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.” The human eye is a sublime piece of apparatus.
A close-up of a bee’s eyes, on the other hand, is strikingly alien. Is it that we simply do not consider insects to have “faces”, or is the miniature scale of an insect’s physiognomy just too small for us to register ? Then again, perhaps it is because bees don’t have two eyes. They have hundreds of them.
In common with most insects, the honey bee has compound eyes. These are large, dark ovals in which hundreds of single eyes (called ommatidia) are arrayed next to each other, each with its own lens and each looking in a different direction. This does not mean that the bee sees lots of little pictures, as each ommatidium contributes a pixel to the overall image perceived by the compound eye and organised in the bee-brain.
There are other important differences between the bees’ view of the world and ours: the bees see colours differently. We base our colour perceptions on red, blue, and green parts of the spectrum, yet bees use a palette of ultraviolet, blue and green and are “colour blind” to red (although they can see red-tinged wavelengths such as orange and yellow). Research suggests that bees’ favourite colours are purple, violet and blue (which is just as well, since my basic planting advice for absolute novices is that they can’t go too far wrong using these colours for bee-forage!)
And then there are the bees’ ocelli (“little eyes” in Latin). These are a triangular grouping of 3 simple eyes on the top of the bees’ heads, each of which focuses light through a single lens and helps the bees fix on the sun’s orientation so they can navigate precisely to and from the hive during daylight.
But a fascinating recent discovery, discussed in Juergen Tautz’s “The Buzz About Bees” (pg 80) has been that, while bees use their full visual capacity in outbound foraging journeys and in collection, they switch to a basic black and white vision on their high-speed return journey to the hive. Once the foraging job is done, the colour sensitivity of the bees’ eyes becomes superfluous and they become fast-forward homing devices.
If you’re reading this on your commute home from work, you’ll know exactly how that feels !
At last Saturday’s Night Market on Bermondsey Square, we were selling our award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey. And we sold out.
Our stall was very much a family affair, with Sarah’s immaculate styling putting our product on elegant display and Xander, Maff and I selling the honey, candles, honey and salt hand-scrub, natural beeswax furniture polish, bone-china bee-mugs and organic T-shirts (OK, so we didn’t sell many T-shirts at a couple of degrees above zero!).
A shiver ran down my spine as it occured to me that our stall was precisely on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey had stood, founded just after the Norman Conquest on the site of a 7th Century monastery. That sudden time-shift placed the Bermondsey Street Bees as the inheritors of a 1300-year history of beekeeping in that very place.
While I knew that bees and monks went back a long way, I pondered on that connection and came up with a few reasons why monks would have been keen beekeepers.
Wax was an important commodity for churches. With stoutly-build walls to withstand Viking raids and small windows to allow maximum advantage to defenders against aggression, the ability of a beeswax candle to light the interior, even on the brightest summer’s day, was invaluable. Unlike tallow (animal fats), beeswax burns clean, with a heavenly smell of wax and honey. So the monks would have valued their bees partly for the devotional aspect of their wax combs.
Bees are excellent pollinators. Even though the science of pollination was unknown in the 7th century, the happy propinquity of honeybees with a kitchen garden – and many arable crops – would not have escaped notice. Bees would have been important to sustain a large religious community. But in a modern, urban brickscape like Bermondsey Street, it is imperative for us to create adequate forage. To that end, I have put flowerbeds into St. Mary Magadalen Churchyard (Southwark grant) and fruiting, edible plantings into Leathermarket Gardens (with plants from Bankside Open Spaces Trust) and I maintain an allotment at Alscot Road, by Bermondsey Spa. We need to do more than just talk about forage provision to ensure a healthy, happy bee-population in London.
And finally, there’s the honey itself. Let’s not underestimate what honey would have represented in when the Bermondsey Abbey was set up in 1082 by Alywn Childe. It had been a luxury item in nature long before human beings existed – ask any bear! And consider: when you put some honey in your mouth, that sunburst of sweetness is precisely the same sensation as the first human being would have experienced. True, the same would go for oysters – except that honey is a substance made by other creatures, it is not the creatures themselves. Surely that is part of the wonder of honey as a foodstuff.
It is humbling to acknowledge that honey had already reached its peak of perfection millions of years before mankind started walking upright and that, subsequently, the ingenuity of the human race has failed to improve upon honey’s sublime simplicity.
Remember that, in the 7th century, there was no sugar, no treacle, no chocolate, no candy. Honey was the only way to store sweetness to enjoy on its own or to add to another foodstuff. Honey, this rare and remarkable substance, once sealed on the comb, can be stored almost indefinitely.
And then there honey as a medicine, salving wounds and soothing allergies, and then again as an agent of fermentation, used to produce intoxicating drinks, like mead. And do you know what ? Bermondsey Street Honey is a key ingredient of award-winning Hiver Beer since the first batch was bottled in 2012. Another resonance, ringing down the years from ancient Bermondsey Abbey to today.
But before I get completely carried away, let’s just say that I’m proud to be carrying on the ancient tradition of Bermondsey beekeeping – and selling our honey with Sarah, Xander and Maff on the spot where Bermondsey Abbey used to stand.
Chilly, overcast days are not ideal for putting bee-feed on a hive which has weighed in a bit light. But needs as needs must – so a gentle re-arranging of the crownboard to place a slab of fondant on top of a hive of bees which I won’t be seeing again until after Christmas was a necessity. Now, in this season of goodwill, you’d have thought that the appearance on your roof of a jolly, mature male wearing fancy dress and bearing a gift would be construed as a welcome event. But the bees in Iken Hive were not impressed by my Santa Claus impersonation: rowdy and impatient, they were determined to end my intrusion into their roof-space.
They expressed themselves in two ways. In the first instance, a dozen of them flew hard at my white bee-suit, pinging off my veil. I got the message. In the second place, there was pervasive odour, rising from the bees, as they skeetered out of the small, uncovered gap in the crownboard. Normally, the beekeeper is greeted by a mellow aroma of warmed wax, seasoned with a twist of propolis and a waft of honey. This smell was harsh, like nail-varnish, with a cloying, figgy top-note (variously described by others as pear-drops or banana). For those unaccustomed to the odour of nail-varnish, imagine instead a niff of stale furniture lacquer, or a snooterful of drying boat varnish. That is the odour of isoamyl acetate, or C7H14O2 to its friends, which is the bees’ alarm pheromone. For the bees, with a sense of smell far more finely tuned than our own, this scent can turn dainty demoiselles into a flash-mob of feisty amazons in seconds flat.
No surprise to learn that isoamyl acetate is released in quantity when a bee uses its sting. This has the effect of a marking the target zone with a pheromone beacon on which other bees can concentrate their attack. Believe me, if you are stung while working a bee-hive, other bees will rapidly converge to the site of the sting and add their own barbed contribution, unless you can pump your smoker to lay down a smoke-screen to mask the chemical war-cry.
When I can sniff of isoamyl acetate rising from a hive, I know for sure that I have outstayed my welcome. Ideally, as was the case on this occasion, the job in hand is swift and simple: the hive was closed up in a jiffy and settled right down. There are times, however, when my exit strategy is complicated and slow (such as putting a disassembled hive back together following an inspection). In that case, amidst a chain-saw cloud of braveheart bees and puffs of isoamyl acetate, all beekeeping joy is forfeit, and it is a matter of cold efficiency to beat a retreat under cover of smoke, until the hive is restored to completeness.
As a beekeeper, my sense of smell is an important tool in the management of my hives. And it’s surely no coincidence that my surname, spelt backwards, is: “Nosbig“.