Category Archives: bees

Naming the bees – a nod to Iain M Banks

Having left them in peace for many weeks, we looked in on the bees last Sunday. The hives felt heavy and the bees are collecting a lot of stores, hopefully enough that they won’t need extra feeding over the winter. Steph came over and acted as an observer, while we lifted frames and looked at the brood, honey and uncapped nectar. These bees have been busy.

The bees have been paying attention to the Malva moschata flowers

While she was with us Steph commented that, as we now have three colonies, we ought to give them names. She names hers after the places she collected the swarm from, which is a good method. We decided to be whimsical instead and have tipped our hats to late author Iain M Banks and the names he gave to spacecraft in his Culture novels.

The ships, and some planets, in the world of The Culture are run by sentient, hyperintelligent machines called Minds. The Minds choose their own names for ships which are often based on the Mind’s character or role. Thus, a military ship of the Limited Offensive Unit class called itself ‘Gunboat Diplomat‘ while a General Contact Unit ship chose ‘Just Read The Instructions‘. Sometimes the reason for a ship’s choice of name isn’t clear, at others it is, as in the Cruise Ship ‘Just Passing Through‘.

With the above in mind, here are the names we’ve chosen –

The first hive we had in the garden came to be here via our initial meeting with Steph when she came to collect a swarm that settled in the Magnolia tree last summer. She said that the garden would be good bee habitat and suggested that we foster one of her colonies and see how we liked it. If all went well, the colony would be divided the following spring and she’d take half back. Those bees are now spending the summer here before going to her apiary a few miles away. We’ve designated this hive as a GSV (General Systems Vehicle) and called it ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting‘.

On the right is ‘A Very Fortunate Meeting’. The box on the left is the colony division – it now has another layer on it as the bees are bringing in more supplies

The second colony arrived as a swarm on May 22 this year. It started out in a ‘nuc’ box, a temporary hive smaller than permanent ones. Earlier this month we transferred the bees into a larger hive and Karl made special extended frames to give them more building space. Because of the large frames we put it into SL (Super Lifter) class and, for no particular reason other than we liked the sound, called it ‘The Pipes of Apis‘ (after the biological name Apis mellifera and the sound new queens make).

‘The Pipes of Apis’ being transferred from the nuc box to their new hive

The third colony also arrived as a swarm, some time over the weekend of June 3-4 when we were away. Karl had seen a description and plans for a swarm box, a box attached to a tree in order to attract a swarming colony – an easy way to acquire bees if you have a tree they like. The swarm box had been put in the tree, but we’d only put three frames in it as we hadn’t yet taken delivery of the materials to make more. When we went away, the box was empty and we got home a few days later to find a colony had already moved in and set up housekeeping.

We decided to let them keep the box and be wild bees. They seem content to do that, they’re increasing in numbers and busy filling the box with comb. We’ve assigned them to the GCU (General Contact Unit) class and, additionally, put them in the organisation known as Special Circumstances. Given that their box hangs 3m high in the tree, we’ve named them ‘Sisters of Swing‘.

‘Sisters of Swing’

This is what we saw when we used an endoscopic camera to look inside after they’d been in there for three weeks. This type of camera is new to us and the film is pretty jerky, but you can see what’s going on. The last section shows the inside of a nuc box.

There you have it – frivolous names chosen simply to amuse ourselves, but now the colonies can be identified more easily than just pointing at them. If you’re familiar with Iain M Banks, then I hope this amuses you!

 

New bees in town

‘A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly‘ – mid 17th century bee-keepers’ saying, meaning that the later in the year it is, the less time there will be for bees to collect pollen from flowers in blossom.

The first swarm to arrive

May is the start of bee swarming season and we saw a good deal of it without even needing to leave home. Late on Monday afternoon, I heard a familiar sound. There was a loud buzzing coming from the garden and I looked out to see bees swirling around the top of the Magnolia tree. Sure enough, just like last year, they settled on a branch near the top of the tree. We could have left them there and they’d have moved on after a short time, but we know of a bee keeper who is on the look out for extra colonies, so we caught it and put it in a temporary hive. Swarming bees want nothing but a new home and to protect their queen and they settled into the box right away. They are healthy looking bees, dark in colour and lots of them.

We thought that might be it, but the weather was warm and calm, ideal for swarming. So it turned out, for late afternoon on Wednesday another swarm arrived and that too settled in the Magnolia. This one was too high for us to reach without great difficulty and since catching a swarm often means cutting branches we decided to leave them alone. They moved on the next morning.

Wednesday’s swarm was heart-shaped

The warm weather continued, encouraging bees to move house and on Friday afternoon yet another swarm arrived, once again settling in the Magnolia. Again it was too high to reach and, as on Wednesday, it moved on after a short time.

Friday’s swarm

By now the week was starting to feel slightly surreal. A swarm every other day. What next? We had a feeling that another swarm was going to turn up and if things happened as they had been doing, it would probably arrive on Sunday. The number of bees passing through means that they would have left pheromones on the tree, which would attract other bees. We didn’t want to cut any more out of the tree and wanted to come up with a plan.

We’d already found out about swarm boxes – wooden boxes put into trees that the bees find and, hopefully, move into on their own. Once settled they can then be transferred to a permanent hive, easing the stress of having to shake them into a hive off a branch. Attracting them in this way also means that the colony is quickly housed and less likely to cause upset if it moves on and doesn’t find somewhere to settle. We quickly made a swarm box out of various pieces of old wood (plans here). It was fixed into the tree, held in place on a hanging basket hook and kept from blowing about with rope.

The swarm box in position 

Within hours, scout bees were investigating and, par for the course, within a couple of days they had moved in and taken up hive activities.

Here they are fanning pheromones at the doorway to let the rest of the colony know where they are.

There you have it. If you’re after a colony of bees to give a home to and take care of, this could be worth a try.

Bees scratching at damp compost

The bees are making their presence known again this year and forcing us to question what they’re doing and to learn from their behaviour. As is so often the case when looking at wildlife, I have a puzzle and a burning question in mind. A few weeks ago I potted up some rooted cuttings and some bulbs that I’d forgotten to plant out last autumn and the pots are standing together in a large tray outside. It has rained and the tray has water in it. There are pots of herbs, irises, Heucheras and ornamental Alliums all coming along nicely. The puzzle is that three of the Allium pots have bees visiting and scratching at the compost.

This has been happening every day for about a month now and none of the other pots appear to attract them, though all have the same compost and they receive the same amount of water. What are they doing?

Having watched the mycologist Paul Stamets talk about bees seeking out fungal mycelium for its sugary secretions, my guess is that these three pots contain mycelium. This probably means the compost is a bit damp for the bulbs but I’m loath to change that because I want to see what the bees do. Stamets says he first noticed bees scratching at compost when he grew Stropharia rugosoannulata and noticed bees coming to sip at the sugary droplets on the mycelium. Well, we can grow mushrooms here, too. They could grow in big tubs in the garden, or even in the bark mulched borders, and we could watch to see what the bees do.

Happy new bee year

On sunny days recently I’ve been going into the garden to check for bee activity at the hive. For many weeks now the only way to gauge if they were still there has been to look at the debris beneath the hive or press an ear to the outside and listen to the faint buzzing from within. It was with great pleasure that I looked again this last Saturday (February 3) and saw bees coming and going. There weren’t many of them, only ten at the most, but it was encouraging to see them.

bee-yellow-pollenFirst bee sighting of the year – early in the year but bringing in pollen

Yesterday, February 7, is another sunny day so I looked again and was delighted to see dozens of bees milling about on the outside of the hive and many coming in with pollen.

17-02-07_1Their first big outing of the year

Pollen is in short supply in February, but the bees clearly know where to find it. The pollen the bees were carrying was in varying shades of yellow and orange and looking at a pollen colour chart suggests that blue and yellow crocus, willow and snowdrop (Galanthus spp) flowers are the most likely to have been foraged.

17-02-07_3Spot the pollen

Willow (Salix alba) grows along the banks of the nearby river Windrush and flowers early in the year, providing a useful source of early pollen and nectar. Snowdrops and crocuses are both common in local gardens and I’ve put in quite a few more since we’ve lived here. The large-flowered snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii flowers two weeks earlier in this garden than the more common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, giving the bees a longer season of foraging those flowers.

bee in flowerYou can just see a bee in this Galanthus elwesii flower

Looking at the bees themselves, I was pleased to see shiny bodies and wings with no signs of deformity, which would indicate a problem with varroa mites. It’s hard to avoid these mites completely, but they do need controlling. I’d taken quite a lot of pictures of the activity on the hive and in a closer examination of the photos, I spotted something reddish-brown on one bee’s thorax, a varroa mite. I’ve looked very closely at all the other pictures, but haven’t seen any more.

varroa-1The bee in the centre has a varroa mite on her thorax – look for the shiny, red-brown disc

Our bee-friend, Steph, the one who came to collect the swarm last summer, gave us a device to put in the bottom of the hive. It’s a Bee Gym, and it helps the bees to scrape off the mites by themselves as they rub against the wires and ‘flippers’. You can see a Bee Gym being used here.

beegym_shopA Bee Gym

The reviews I’ve seen look positive, so it went straight into the hive and we’ve also put in a varroa board so we can count the number of mites that drop off. They’ll be prevented from crawling back into the hive by Vaseline (petroleum jelly) smeared on the board, which they’ll stick to.

varroa boardHome made varroa board smeared with Vaseline

There was a great deal of bee activity yesterday and it wasn’t easy to track the bee’s movements, but I did notice some gathered in small groups, as if gossiping, and what may have been grooming behaviour. Grooming amongst bees isn’t something I’ve seen before, so I’ll keep a look out for it. On the ground in front of the hive, I noticed three dead bees – alarming, but it’s natural for some of the bees to die over winter and some beekeepers report finding dozens or even hundreds of corpses in late winter, so there’s no reason to be concerned. On the hive itself are small streaks on the wood near the entrance, evidence of the bees answering the ‘call of nature’.

All in all, barring unavoidable calamity, it looks like a good start to the bee year.

bee shadows 2Bee shadows

Growing mushrooms for the bees

It’s winter and the garden is a quiet place without summer’s buzz. The robin and our regular pair of blackbirds attend us every day and sometimes the robin will appear to charm visitors as well as us, which is lovely. The sparrows twitter and flit from willow to Cotoneaster and back again.

robin-janOur constant companion, the robin

Winter plants are flowering – bulbs, Hellebores, the Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa); the witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) is glorious, its ribbon-like flowers glowing in the winter sun. There are a few insects to be seen, there are always bobbing gnats dancing in the air and I see the occasional bumblebee, but the honey bees are spending nearly all their time inside the hive. We probably won’t see much of them for several weeks and then the day will come when they come out to find the spring flowers. I feel a keen anticipation for that day.

hamamelis mollisHamamelis mollis brightens up a gloomy winter day 

I’m thinking about the bees and have been looking into ways of helping them to stay healthy. It was via these thoughts that I came back to something I’d read about last autumn and turned to my favourite mycologist, Paul Stamets, who, with others, has investigated how bees use fungi – you can listen to him talk here. He’d had some raised beds in his garden, which were covered in a thick layer of wood chips, and he noticed that the bees were paying a lot of attention to the chips and went to see what they were doing. He saw that they’d moved some of the wood to get at the mycelium growing beneath and were sipping droplets of liquid from it. Being both mycologist and bee keeper, he wanted to know more. The bees were attracted to sugar-rich cytoplasm from the mycelium and were seeking it out. That’s a good reason to encourage mycelium in the garden and to pay attention to good cultivation rather than turn to fungicides.

2-dec-16-2Mycelium growing on rotting wood

Stamets has also created a mix of honey and a particular fungus that the bees search out for immunological benefit and has found that it improves bee’s disease resistance and longevity. This means that bee numbers stay at a healthy level and that young nurse bees are not prematurely recruited into becoming foragers, leaving the bee nursery under-staffed. It is thought that improving the overall health of the hive should reduce the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder.

It’s all fascinating to read and think about and I find Stamets’ enthusiasm infectious. Whatever your opinion of him, here is someone who wants to do good, who is trying. I’m going to follow some of his advice and to this end, mulches of wood chips have been laid on the beds, where mycelium will form and spread. Birch logs, one of the woods said to attract bees, have been added to the log piles. This was done in early autumn so whilst there will undoubtedly be a wait for the mycelilum to develop, once the weather warms and it gets started, the bees should find it and start investigating. I’m very keen to see what they do. Another bee keeper has told me that she’s noticed bees investigating rotting wood and has heard reports of the same from others, so I’m hopeful that this experiment will prove positive. To find out if the wood chips and logs are attractive to the bees will mean I have sit in the garden watching the bees. This does not seem too onerous a task and I shall ready myself for it.

Looking at the relationship between bees and fungi, Stamets says that bees search out particular trees, mainly willow, birch and young firs, especially those where the bark has already been damaged by wild animals such as deer or squirrels.

squirrel-damageTrees damaged by squirrels are being left standing to encourage insects and fungi

Unexpected visitors

Sunday was meant to be a gentle day – we’d bake some bread, potter outside and cook something delicious. That didn’t happen for, as Robert Burns said in his poem, ‘To a Mouse‘, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. In other words, you can plan all you want to, but don’t expect any of it to happen.

I was enjoying the ‘potter outside’ section of this plan, cutting back spent perennials, and was thus engrossed when I heard buzzing. It grew louder and I looked up to see bees overhead. How wonderful, a swarm of honey bees setting forth to build a new colony. I expected them to fly over in a column, as usual, and disappear beyond the rooftops, but they didn’t. Instead I found myself at the centre of a swirling mass of swarming bees. At first it was alarming, then I recalled all those times working in flower filled beds, with bees almost buzzing in my hair, and realised that they probably hadn’t even noticed me and were interested in their own business of finding a safe place for their queen. Still, probably better to close a couple of windows, just in case, and find the number of a local swarm collector on the British Beekeepers Association site.

bee-swarmThe swarm clustered in the Magnolia tree

I spoke to a swarm collector, Steph Green, from a nearby village, who said she’d be there within the hour. Outside the bees were still active but gradually settling high up in the big old Magnolia tree outside the kitchen window, the worker bees – Steph calls them ‘the girls’ – clustering protectively around the queen. Every so often, I’d go and check that they were still there and hadn’t moved on. Here they are in the clip below.

In due course, Steph arrived with her bee collecting gear – two bee keeper’s suits, boots, gloves, a sheet for any falling bees to land on so they would be seen and not squashed, and a special polystyrene box called a ‘nuc box’, or nucleus collecting box, which was set out under the tree.

IMG_20160703_171805Karl in the tree

The work of bringing the swarm down to the ground began. Our longest ladders weren’t quite long enough for Steph to reach the swarm and the upper branches were congested so would need trimming. Karl was the tallest and had the longest arms so he volunteered to go up. He cut out some wood, a job which needed doing anyway, got into the tree, removed the branch with the swarm and very carefully lowered it down. Steph took it from him, held it over the box, gave a sharp downward shake and most of the bees dropped straight in. The others continued to swirl around us, their buzzing surprisingly loud.

bee-branchGetting ready to shake the bees into the box

in-the-boxLooking for the queen

Steph had told me on the phone that the bees would have filled their stomachs prior to swarming and would be fairly docile. She said their stomachs would be so full they’d find it hard to get into position to sting and anyway they were intent on the queen, not stinging. It made sense. I had long sleeves, was wearing gloves and my trousers were tucked into boots, so I kept what seemed a sensible distance, tidied up the cut branches, took pictures and listened to Steph talking about what the bees were doing.

suits-bootsKarl and Steph

Some remained in the tree top, where they could still smell the queen, whilst others were standing in rows on the edge of the box with their rear ends pointing skyward and their wings flapping. They were giving off the Nasonov pheromone, which smells of geraniums and is used to signal stragglers to the colony’s whereabouts. Beware of eating bananas before dealing with bees, as the alarm pheromone reputably smells much like them.

hive-530pm

The bees fan their pheromone scent to encourage the stragglers to join them

Gradually, the bees were coaxed into the box, the lid put on and a hole left open for latecomers to get in. Steph was extremely gentle in her work, taking care that none of the bees were inadvertently harmed. Inside their box, the bees ‘fanned’ to alert the rest of the colony, sounding very much like an electric fan, while a small group of female workers stood by the round doorway, bottoms pointing up, giving off their geranium scent.

brush-lidSteph gently moves bees out of harm’s way

By 7pm, most had gone inside and only three workers remained at the doorway, so we went in and had dinner. As dusk fell, the bees went to bed and Steph took them to their new home amongst other bees, in a field.

hive-7pmBy 7pm, only three bees were still signalling

What a day. Karl said later how surreal it felt to find himself not doing the odd jobs he’d intended to, but in a tree and holding a branch with a swarm of bees clustering on it. Not the plan, but a very good day indeed.

IMG_20160509_075712Their new home