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Clare's Bee Blog

Sunday 4th March

Well the weather people were right! I guess the bees weren’t out foraging the catkins and the cherry plum blossom for a couple of days. As I write the temperature is about 9 degrees and it feels positively balmy with a massive thaw underway. Lots of water around. For us it seemed to be a major event but to the bees it was just weather which they avoided by staying inside and keeping warm. Such is life. Maybe there are lessons which we can learn from our eusocial friends?

Sunday 25th February 2018

What have we done this week? The weather people have forecast very cold conditions for next week and so we have been around all of the bees to check their food levels. Fondant has been distributed to colonies which were active and up near the feedhole
Bees keep warm by eating. They form a cluster (cuddle up) inside the hive in cold weather and the bees on the inside eat honey which gives them the energy to vibrate the middle section of their bodies, the thorax, by dislocating their flight muscles from their wings. This activity generates heat in the thorax and it’s shared out to the bees within the cluster. There is a mantle of bees (2 or 3 bees thick) which insulate the cluster and keep the heat in. These are generally the older bees which prefer cooler conditions. The temperature is maintained at around 30 degrees centigrade within the cluster and it is raised to 34 degrees when brood rearing begins (when the queen begins to lay eggs again after her winter rest).
We had a look at the observation hive in the Education centre this week and the queen has already been busy because we saw some sealed brood which will begin to produce new bees in a week or so. When the larvae is 5 days old the bees cap the cell with a predominantly wax lid so that the larvae can undergo metamorphosis – we beekeepers call this sealed brood. Our observation hive in the bee barn is showing no signs of eggs or larvae yet on the outside combs but maybe there is some in the inside surfaces which we cannot see yet. Seeing the first sealed brood is very exciting for BEEKS (beekeeping geeks). We live very sheltered lives.
Martins “Very interesting and surprising bit of information” from the Somerset lecture day last week came from Professor Michael Keith- Lucas from the University of Reading. He is a pollen specialist and can tell what flowers the bees have been working on by identifying the microscopic pollen grains in honey. Bees make honey from nectar which is the sugary secretions exuded from flowers. They collect pollen as a separate product and it is processed and stored in the wax cells as a protein rich and probiotic ingredient used to make royal jelly to feed the queen bee and to make food for the babies (larvae). There are always traces of pollen in honey in much the same as you will get traces of nuts in food which has been produced in a factory that also handles nuts! Anyway he found that in analysing hundreds of jars of honey that the most common pollen grains found were those of oilseed rape. No surprise there as many beekeepers take their bees to the rape to cash in on the abundance of high sucrose nectar. The next most common pollen was a real surprise though. Dandelion came in third place (we probably knew that). Dandelions are ultra-important for our bees. The second place goes to………………forget-me-nots! I was gobsmacked. Then I did a bit of research (from a book not on the internet) and found in Plants and Beekeeping by F N Howes that the forget- me- not pollen is so prevalent in honey because the forget-me–not flower tube which the bees stick their tongues down to suck up the nectar is so narrow that the bee cannot help but dislodge large amounts of the pollen which then gets mixed up with nectar. The pollen is absolutely miniscule and so gets processed into honey by default much more than the pollen of other flowers. So there! Just an example of how statistics can be totally misleading.
Not to say that forget-me-nots aren’t important for pollinators If you want to sit in your garden and watch and hear bees: forget-me-nots are still good value for money and they are easy peasy to grow and maintain. We will be putting them in the home apiary this spring.

Sunday 18th February 2018

This week Martin and I have been busy on every level: practical and cerebral! On Monday we   recycled old brood and super frames. These are the wooden frames which have been used by the bees to hold their wax combs for storing honey and for housing larvae and pupae before they hatch out to become bees. We melted out all of the old wax earlier in the year and refined it by filtering it through old pillow cases in our amazing Apimeltor machine. This has been sold to a local furniture restoration company to be made into polish. The manky old wooden frames were then boiled up on Monday in in a soda solution. Br Adam used to have a massive cauldron heated by electricity to do this job but those facilities are now history so we did our job outside by building a fire and chocking up a large metal drum on breeze blocks above it. Frames were boiled up in batches. It took all day but we cleaned and sterilised more than 500 frames ready to be used again this spring. Replacing the old and well used combs is an important part of our hygiene and husbandry programme needed to keep the bees healthy. We had to wear all of the safety gear which was uncomfortable and arduous but absolutely necessary. We only do this once a year and I loathe the actual day but am so pleased when it is done. Martin loves it! Something to do with men and fire………

We moved some bees from the teaching apiary to a new apiary site at Dean Prior. This site is only for a few hives but gives us some flexibility for placing nucleus hives during queen rearing.

We both attended bee conferences on Saturday: Martin went to Somerton for the Somerset BBKA Lecture day and I trolled down to the Eden Project for the BIBBA (Bee Improvers and Bee Breeders Association) conference: Sustainable Beekeeping: A future Without Imports. I will get Martin to summarise his experience tomorrow but my day was great. I love listening to everyone’s point of view about bees and the Dark European honey bee conservation people really do have some valid points. A much stated aspiration from many of the black bee brigade is to stop importation of queen bees from abroad. These mass produced queens come from all over the world in their thousands every year and many think that they are not only unsuitable for our climate and the amount of forage we have to share but also make it difficult for the native “Black bees” to remain pure. Others love them! Certainly they are cheap and are often gentle and prolific in the first couple of generations when they are displaying “hybrid vigour” but thereafter they can become aggressive and very average. Not sustainable for the beekeeper but very nice for the dealers who then get to sell more to replace the not so nice F2 generations.
I loved Norman Carreck’s view (Sussex University) that there is no such thing as a ”perfect bee” and that locally adapted bees are best because they build up immunity to the local strains of disease and pathogens. Did you know that chalk brood or EFB has regional variations?

It is a very hot potato and I have friends who have polar opposite views on this situation. I can see both sides but have to say that here at Buckfast we work with what we have got and try to select from our best colonies rather than doing any kind of specific hybridisation.

Celandines are just coming out (lesser) and the first cherry plums are blossoming. Hurrah! Today I saw bees working the gorse and the bell heather and we saw the corresponding orange and buff coloured pollens going into the hives at the community apiary.

Sunday 11th February 2018

Well I’m just about fed up with winter now and I’m eager for spring to begin in earnest. This time of year seems to me to be infuriatingly erratic with tantalising glimpses of sunshine sandwiched between indelicate slices of cold winds and rain. During the warmer moments the bees are dashing out for a comfort break (they have to be desperate to have a poo inside the hive) and to gather nectar and pollen from some of the early spring flowers such as the beautiful snowdrops and crocuses which have appeared all around the home apiary. They are also working back their winter stores which will undoubtedly contain a fair bit of ivy honey. By now this will be solid in the cells and the bees need a water source nearby in order to work it back. They do this by squirting water on the surface of the honey and then scrubbing it up with the little brush which they have on the end of their tongues so that they make a kind of syrup which can be sucked up and used as a food. Water is collected by bees and stored in their honey sac (a kind of internal pocket) in the same way as nectar is stashed for transport. They prefer to suck water from wet soil or moss rather than to risk drowning in a river or deep pond. They like it too be warmed up as well so the beekeeper can help a lot by creating a water source in a spot that gets a bit of sun during the day.

We are checking our colonies weekly for food stores now by “hefting” them. This technique of lifting one side of the hive up from the stand gives us an idea about how much winter stores the bees have left. If we are not sure we err on the side of caution and give the bees a slab of fondant for them to snack on until the weather allows for more reliable foraging. This bit of extra care can make the difference between life and death for a colony and although it isn’t as nutritious as food which they have made for themselves they generally only take it if they need it so it is a brilliant insurance.

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