In the last week of November, with the bees all safely tucked up for winter, I had two speaking engagements. One was in rural Suffolk and the other in gritty Hackney. Each addressed a very different topic. The first was to an audience of fellow beekeepers, the second to a bevy of young food and drink entrepreneurs. The theme of the initial talk was a genteel one: “Preparing Honey For Show”, while the next was the fire-branding: “Bees Can’t Eat Kind Words”.
This is a little experiment. Penny Robertson, Secretary of my local Leiston and District Beekeeping Association in Suffolk, told me in 2014 that she was not aware of any of the LDBKA’s >100 members using, or ever having used, a poly hive. So I installed this one last summer and this is what I saw last weekend – with the thermometer showing a chilly 4C !
With the bees flying at these low temperatures (note that 10C is generally viewed as the lowest safe temperature for bees to fly) it is possible to offer both positive and negative interpretations about Castle hive’s unusual excursions. Here’s how:
An Optimist might rejoice that the bees are so well insulated in their poly-hive that they are able to fly in unusually low temperatures. A Pessimist might respond that this could equally be a function of their breeding line, rather than their lodgings, a classic case of nature, rather than nurture. Furthermore, he might add, there is no obvious advantage to be flying in dangerously low temperatures, so perhaps something about their the poly hive is forcing them to fly. Perhaps they need water to dilute their honey stores, or the fondant and pollen feed which I can see them eating on top of the frames. Ah-ha, replies the Optimist – that suggests that they are benefitting from an early build-up of brood, which will position them well for the Spring – unlike the draughty Snape and Iken cedar hives. Then again, perhaps the bees in the traditional wooden hives are regulating their hives so that some natural condensation is retained inside for diluting their stores to make them edible for brood-raising, so they do not have to fly, counters the Pessimist. Hmmm.
So will I be enthusiastically recommending the use of polystyrene hives to the good beekeepers of the Suffolk coast in 2015 ? Too early to tell.
But while the jury’s out, here are some other considerations about using the poly hive. The Pessimist would note that, as configured, it has bottom bee-space, so the semi-rigid transparent plastic sheet supplied as the roof to seal the hive, makes it fussy to close up the hive, jiggling the sheet around to avoid squashing bees between the plastic roof and the frames. Also, the walls of the hive are too wide to attach a frame holder, which are very useful to keep a couple of frames pressed up close to the outer wall of the hive at inspection time, rather than putting them on the ground, leaning against the hive. The Optimist would strike a more positive note, pointing out that the hive floor has a nice sloped landing board, that the polystyrene body makes the hive lightweight to handle, and that all the poly infrastructure can be intermixed with wooden brood and super boxes, if required. And finally, it is easy to strap down to a paving slab to keep it from blowing away in the wild coastal winds.
So it will be a while before I can assess the outcome the first year of my Suffolk poly hive. And when I’ve made my mind up, I’ll take the Optimist and the Pessimist down to the Jolly Sailor to buy them both a pint of Adnams bitter.
“That’s funny, Dale. Why do you stand behind your hive when you’re working it?” Penny Robertson asked.
Good question. It had never occurred to me to think about where I stand in relation to the hive I am inspecting. I paused and thought about it.
The first rule of beekeeping is, unsurprisingly, don’t stand in front of a beehive (take your time, if you can’t immediately figure out why this might be a bad idea). Penny continued: “Because it has to be easier to pick up both ends of the frames standing sideways on to the hive.” It certainly is, if you arrange your brood box the “cold way” (with the frames end-on to the hive entrance), as I do. Your arms simply reach out the same distance to pick up each frame-lug.
Unlike the majority of free-born Englishmen (and women), when a beekeeper encounters BIAS, contentment reigns. BIAS is the acronym for “Brood In All Stages” inside the engine-room of the hive. Those stages are: egg, larva, pupa, emergence of new bee. In this particular case, that means that Thames hive has a healthy, laying Queen as the bee-year draws to a close.
As Autumn advances, Queen Primrose of Thames hive is now laying only Worker bee eggs, and in limited quantities. The normal cycle of development is unaffected: eggs will hatch 3 days after laying for Worker brood (and for Queens and Drones alike, at expansive times of the year). These “Winter Bees” will have a wholly different physiognomy from their sisters and half-sisters. Notably, winter bees have a higher fat body quotient. That’s not an insult, it’s a biological fat-body-fact.
Fat bodies are tissues which contain lipids, glycogen, triglycerides and some protein, storing and releasing energy according to the conditions. Winter bees are better adapted more to shivering-in-a-cluster-in-the-hive than to derring-do-on-the-high-seas-of-forage. Which is another way of saying that they don’t flap their wings off in a search for ever-diminishing returns outside the hive in late Autumn, but settle down to over-winter in the warm, pulsating rugby-ball of a winter bee-cluster. These bees will be next Spring’s foragers, working like a team of six-legged centaurs, voraciously gathering in snowdrop, willow and crocus pollen to feed the swelling brood chamber in the early months of 2014.
So let’s take a closer look at Thames hive’s winter bees, starting with the recently-laid eggs:
Spotting eggs is an important part of the Beekeeping’s Got Talent! You have to get the frame at the correct angle for the right light to pick out these little white dashes. It’s about 7 out of 10 in degree of difficulty on a cloudy September day, while virgin Queen spotting is definitely a 10. (Thanks to Penny Robertson for her 10/10 last weekend!).
After the standard 3-day egg phase, the development cycles of Worker, Drone and Queen bees start to diverge significantly. As mentioned earlier, at this time of year, winter Worker bees are the only sort produced in a healthy hive.
Once the egg has hatched, the nurse bees energetically feed the curled, bright-white larvae with bee-bread (a concoction of pollen steeped in honey) to supplement their small starting dosage of royal jelly. As the egg-phase ends, the larval stage begins, like a starting gun going off. The timing of the progression to “sealed cell” status and pupation runs like clockwork: for a Worker its 6, Drone 6-7 and Queen 5 days. What could be simpler ? Finally, the larva is sealed in her hexagonal cell with a cornflake-light wax capping, permeable to the air, to commence pupation. Here’s some sealed brood which Thames hive made earlier…
Once sealed with wax, the bees leave each cell occupant alone to spin its cocoons in the pupation phase – until emergence, another 12 days for Workers (and theoretically 14-15 days for Drones, but only 8 days for Queens). Then the Workers nibble their own way out of the wax bee-hole cover on top of each cell and emerge to be greeted by the nurse bees and are immediately assimilated into the sisterly tide.
And there the BIAS ends: Bees In Amazing Sequence!
At the LDKA apiary last Saturday (no, that’s not us at the apiary in the picture – more about that later!), the highlight of “going through” the hives with our tutor Penny Robertson, was seeing two foragers performing vigorous “waggle-dances” on the brood comb. As we watched this energetic ballet, a distant memory popped into my mind…
In 1999, I went on a charity-bike ride to Cuba. One night, in the (aptly-named, in my opinion) city of Colón in Matanzas, I was walking back to the team hotel in the pitch dark, thanks to a power-cut. As I stepped slowly past the large, arched, peeling windows of a row of Spanish colonial houses, I heard a muffled footfall and caught sight of a movement in the shadows inside one of the buildings.
I halted, as much apprehensive as inquisitive, and glimpsed through the open window a sight which was quite breath-taking – a family of four, two adults and two teenagers – dancing with silken elegance in the silent shadows….as if the music of their heartbeats, the welling of an unremembered rhythm, had risen like a tide and flooded their senses – so they danced anyway, through the dark, pin-drop silence of the power-cut.
Which brings us back to the bees’ “waggle-dance”: likewise a muted cha-cha, performed at home in total obscurity and with the participation of close family. Let me describe it to you, before suggesting a link which shows the “waggle-dance” and has a David Attenborough voice-over: the “waggle-dance” is a hushed communication, with one bee dancing, at antenna’s length, from the circle of bees around her, like a lasses-only version of the Scottish reel “Dashing White Sergeant”, but performed without the lights on ! But over to that nice Mr. Attenborough for some visuals of:
So the purpose of the “waggle-dance” is for the dancer to communicate the direction and distance from the hive of food sources. Just like our own dances, the “waggle-dance” is conducted on a specific patch of comb. The returning forager dances to convey information about the nectar or pollen source which they have just visited by waggling their abdomens and moving on the comb, for the benefit of a small group of available foragers, who touch her with their antennae to gather information from her movements.
Looking at a bee “waggling” on the comb, the human brain understandably attempts to assign meaning in the optical plane. Close, but no cigar! Remember, in the bee-world inside the hive, all is dark, so visual communication is null and void. The actual meaning in the “waggle-dance” display is pulsed through vibration, as the dancer grips the comb and the signals resonate to her rapt audience. With the comb hanging downwards, as it does in nature, in its “waggle-dance” the bee encodes, relative to gravity, the distance and direction of the food source. The other bees absorb this pulsating intelligence, but by the time they are ready to fly from the hive to the feeding-zone, the instructions have been miraculously de-ciphered into a flight manual based on the orientation of their hive to the sun, specifically at that time of day. Amazing and accurate.
You may be one of the few fortunate souls on god’s green earth who has not been button-holed recently by a beekeeper complaining about how depressingly poor the last couple of years have been for bees. But in any case, you are probably aware of the severe pressure on bee-populations, of the trials and tribulations of the craft of beekeeping. But please take away from this monograph that, however tough it has seemed, there are still rewarding moments to be extracted, jewels of appreciation to be mined with a hive-tool – including the simple waggle of a single bee !
ps: For those wishing to delve deeper into the mysteries of the “waggle-dance” (and why foraging bees switch off their colour vision when flying back returning to their hive) I can recommend Jürgen Tautz’s “The Buzz About Bees – Biology Of A Superorganism”.
pps: And for those who wish to see a drone “waggle-dancing”, (clue: plenty of noise, lights, music and purely recreational) – there’s always “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen in 1984.