Sunday, 13 August 2017

Front page news

I am pleased to say that the cover of the latest edition of BeeCraft has one of my photos.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Wild comb

I have always been one for taking photos so when I took up beekeeping five years ago it was natural to take photos of what I saw as I started learning.  Reading Rusty Burlew's latest blog post (if you haven't read it you really should) reminded me of my second visit to the Hexham Beekeepers' apiary in 2012 for a beginners' teaching session with Robert Furniss.  We looked at a hive on May 27th which had overwintered for some reason with an empty super as an eke below the roof.  The bees had taken advantage of the empty space, as they do, and filled it with comb.  This is the view from underneath as the comb was fixed to the roof.

It is beautiful to look at but completely disorganised and presents quite a problem.  You can see it includes brood comb and possibly queen cells as well.  2012 was a terrible summer for bees but a good time to start learning as we saw so many problems in a short time.  I learnt a lot of things and this wild comb was one thing I didn't forget. Another lesson was always carry a camera.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Rosebay willowherb

Rosebay willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium) is in full flower just now and is a common sight along roadside verges.  In the US it is known as fireweed because it colonises areas burnt by forest fires.  It is popular with all types of bees and both pollen and nectar are collected by honey bees.  Although the flowers are a vivid pink the pollen is blue. Honey bees mix the pollen with a little nectar to pack it tightly in their pollen baskets (corbiculae) so it looks a bit darker.

This is a leafcutter bee (Megachile sp.) which carries the pollen loose on a pollen brush (scopa) under its abdomen so it looks a lighter blue than on the honey bees.

Monday, 31 July 2017

An Inspector Calls*

I have just had my first visit from an inspector from the National Bee Unit as part of the Statuary Inspection Programme.  Although I registered with BeeBase (the NBU's website) as soon as I got my first bees in 21012 this is the first visit I have had and it was the first time another beekeeper has looked at my bees.  It was a coolish and fairly blustery day.  I told the inspector the story of the hives - they had all had MAQS treatment two weeks before so, apart from removing the strips a week ago, the hives hadn't really had a full inspection for three weeks.  After lighting the smoker and suiting up we were off, with me holding the smoker and the inspector doing the inspecting.  The first thing was to take a GPS reading to localise my apiary precisely in the BeeBase records. Some of my bees are fairly stroppy (as we found out) so we started with the gentlest bees.

The main purpose of the inspection is to look for exotic and serious diseases and pests, especially Tropilaelaps mites, small hive beetle and asian hornet, as well as European foul brood (EFB) and American foul brood (AFB), none of which we did find.  Apparently my apiary is relatively high priority for checking for exotics, being close to Newcastle Airport, although none of these problems is close by.  Tropilaelaps mites and small hive beetle are not (yet) found in the UK and although asian hornets were found in Gloucestershire last year they are not (yet) established here.  This map, from the BeeBase website, shows where inspections in 2017 have found AFB (red squares), EFB (yellow squares) or have been clear (green circles) so nothing has been found within 50 miles of here.

We did find signs of parasitic mite syndrome from varroa infestation in my largest colony, something I had known about and was the reason for recent MAQS treatment of all the hives.  Worryingly when the inspector pulled out two larvae for examination they both had live varroa mites on them, rather surprising as they had just been treated.  He reckons that hive needs follow up treatment with Apiguard.  It was very interesting to watch as both mites were pounced on by worker bees and carried off.  One other colony had signs of chalk brood and sac brood.  To show me how it is done the inspector kindly did an AFB test on a sac-brood-affected larva with a lateral flow device.  First he took a sample from the larva with a spatula.

After shaking with a reagent in the extraction bottle for 20 seconds two drops of fluid were pipetted into the device.

A pale blue dye spreads across the viewing window from left to right

and a deeper blue line appears at the control (C) point showing the device is working.  The absence of another blue line at test (T) shows the disease is not present.

So it was a very reassuring and worthwhile experience, one which I think is now to be repeated each year.  One other thing the inspector brought with him was an asian hornet!  Fortunately this Vespa velutina worker was pickled.  It came from the Gloucestershire nest last year and was bigger than I had expected.  I do hope it is the last one I ever see.

*An Inspector Calls is a play written by JB Priestly in 1945.

Saturday, 22 July 2017


This is Phacelia tanacetifolia, also known as blue tansy.  It is a native of the South Western USA but in this country it is mainly grown as a green manure - that is it is dug in to improve soil structure and fertility.  It also a wonderful flower for bees.

I have planted a bed of it in my kitchen garden, partly to improve the soil but mainly for the bees.  You can see they don't have far to travel.

Phacelia has wonderful navy blue pollen.

Bees value phacelia both for its nectar and its pollen and they behave differently depending on which they are collecting.  They seem to do one thing at a time.  If they are after pollen they climb through the tall stamens, rubbing themselves against the anthers.

If they are after nectar they are head down in the flowers.

Phacelia attracts other bees including bumblebees and solitary bees such as Hylaeus, the yellow-face bee.

This buff-tailed bumblebee had been collecting pollen elsewhere but couldn't resist the nectar.

The phacelia's flowers are nearly over now so I'll soon be digging it in.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Holding on tight

The recent swarm that spent 24 hours on the outside of its hive gave me the opportunity to take a few close up photos.  The bees that interested me most were those in the front rank, acting as anchors to take the weight of the bees behind them.  They stayed like that with no chance to eat or drink or change position, unlike the mobile bees behind them.

Monday, 17 July 2017

White clover pollen

Proof, if proof were needed, that white clover pollen is brown.  It is interesting that it also shows the yellow bits of stamen that I saw in pollen coming into the hive on the previous post.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Summer pollen colours

There is still plenty of pollen being brought into the hives but the colours have changed because of the different flowers now in bloom.  In the spring most pollen was yellow or orange but we now have a more subtle colour palette.  Grey pollen has been coming in from blackberry.

Last week I was intrigued by this chocolate brown

and coffee brown.

Having looked them up I think it is likely that both are from clover.  Some of the brown is flecked with yellow but looking closely the yellow seems to be bits of stamen from the flowers.

This blue is probably from rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium).

This blue is darker with a sparkly appearance.  I'm not sure where it comes from, possibly also willowherb.  I wonder if it might be great hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) but can't find any reference to its pollen colour.

Apple green is from meadowsweet.

There is still some yellow pollen coming in.

I am not sure about the source of the white.  Himalayan balsam pollen is white but even though they get covered in it the bees don't seem to collect it - they just go for the nectar.

Unlike bumblebees, honey bees usually collect only one pollen at a time so the pellets in their pollen baskets are all of one colour.  Here is a rare exception from this morning.  This bee changed from blue to yellow mid foraging trip.

It is fascinating that the bees also go to the trouble of keeping pollen from different flowers stored separately. There must be a reason for it.

Although pollen from many flowers is orange or yellow, it comes in every colour in the spectrum plus black, white, grey and brown.  Pollen from different sources is sometimes put in the same cell, presumably when one source runs out before a cell is full.

It is also interesting that pollen cells are never filled to the brim, unlike nectar and honey cells.  I guess it is so the pollen doesn't fall out and the bees have room to work with it.

I have watched returning bees with pollen loads walking backwards and forwards over a comb, sniffing all the cells containing pollen until selecting the right one.  

The bee scrapes off the pollen into the cell herself, using her to back legs, rather in the manner in which I take off my wellies.  Unfortunately the process doesn't show up on a photo but here she is just before and just after.

Honey bees probably collect lots of different pollens because the nutritional content of the pollen varies.  A wide variety provides them with a healthy diet and offers all the amino acids, trace elements and micronutrients they need.