Swarming from the bees’ perspective

My notes from a second brilliant talk by Scottish bee farmer Tony Harris at our Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September.

“What’s the earliest swarm you’ve had?” Tony asked the audience. The winner was: 23rd March! According to research by swarm expert Tom Seeley, most wild colonies swarm once in spring, but 40% of those swarms will swarm again before the end of the summer. Seeley’s studies indicate that the average survival rate of wild swarms may be low, with around 80% of swarms moving into natural cavities failing to survive their first winter.

Swarming countdown

Below is a photo I took of one of Tony’s slides, showing the timings leading up to a swarm, which I thought was quite helpful. Bee maths! He showed us some videos of behaviour such as the Dorsoventral abdominal vibration (DVAV) shaking dance, which can be done up to 300 times an hour on the old queen as the first queen cell is sealed. The workers grab hold of the queen and rapidly vibrate her. As a result, her egg laying behaviour is inhibited – she’s being harassed too much to have time to lay! The DVAV dances stop a few hours before the swarm departs. The workers will also do dances on sealed queen cells – communicating with the virgin queen inside.

Swarming countdown chart

Swarming countdown chart

Composition of a swarm

  • 70% of workers less than ten days old leave with the swarm.
  • Drones make up less than 1% of the swarm population

Choosing a new home

Once the swarm leaves, they will temporarily settle in a spot (such as an inconveniently high tree – or, for some lucky beekeepers, a low bush!). The swarm sends out a small number of scout bees, who will explore an area of up to 30 square miles in their search for an ideal home. Below is one of Tony’s slides summarising what a perfect bee home looks like, based on research by Winston and Seeley & Morse. Although bees are supposed to prefer high-up locations, Tony noted that he’s had more success with bait hives placed on the ground!

Swarm site selection criteria

Swarm site selection criteria

Meanwhile the swarm hangs clustered together. They can maintain their temperature at 35C in their core and 17C for the outside bees, regardless of the ambient temperature that day. The scout bees return to the cluster and carry out waggle dances for the best location they’ve discovered. If it happens to rain, the waggle dances will be paused!

Gradually, a consensus will be reached once all the scout bees are dancing for the same location.  When that happens, the cluster will soon take off and head for their new home. If you need to buy yourself some time while you get equipment ready to collect a swarm, Tony suggested gently spraying the hanging swarm with cold water (please don’t train a hose on them!). The reason behind this is that all the bees need to warm their flight muscles up to 35C to be ready to fly.

Virgin queens

Back in the old parent colony, the first virgin to emerge from her cell will often seek out any ‘quacking’ virgins still in their cells. The quacking noise is produced by the virgins vibrating their flight muscles, pressing their thorax against the comb as they do so. The emerged virgin’s sting is long enough to reach her rival queens and kill them before they hatch.

If two virgins emerge at the same time, they may fight, using their mandibles to grasp each other. Another possibility is that a virgin will leave with a secondary ‘cast’ swarm, taking a smaller number of bees off with her.

Aren’t swarms wonderful? As long as they’re not in your chimney, of course.

Emily Scott, CBKA member

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Maximising your honey crop – tips from Tony Harris

Tony Harris, a Scottish bee farmer, gave two talks at our annual Cornwall Beekeepers Association/West Cornwall Beekeepers Association ‘Bit of a Do’ conference this September.

Obviously Scotland is a long way up from Cornwall, so Tony reckons his hives in the Moray Firth are about two months behind ours. After going up to 150 hives last summer and nearly killing himself running around after them all, this summer he’s reduced his operations down to 70 hives. Here are my notes from his first talk, which had plenty of jokes along with great tips.

  1. You need a plan – write it down
  2. You need the right bees – young queen, strong colony. More than 1 queen per hive helps!
  3. Rigorous management – regular inspections
  4. Swarm prevention and control (more on that later)
  5. Apiary location – know your forage! And think about the numbers of hives, not just in your apiary but locally.

Some general tips

  • Keep strong colonies – build up large colonies before the main summer flow
  • Check stores in winter
  • Replace 1/3 of your brood combs per year – consider the ‘shook swarm’ method to do all your brood combs in one go in spring
  • Cull poor queens
  • Carry out integrated pest management for varroa all season, monitor!
  • After you’ve dealt with swarming and have seen the new queen is laying, relax inspections. Let them get on with it.
  • Build up a store of drawn comb for supers. You can keep using super comb for years and years.
  • Tony doesn’t mark his queens the year they emerge, as he’s had them balled by the bees if he marks too early. Instead he waits for the following spring – easier then too, as there’s less bees in the colony come spring.

Tips for finding queen

  • Use minimal smoke
  • Do not be distracted, have a one-track mind on finding her
  • Go straight to the middle brood frames and examine the ‘dark side’ of frames first as you lift them out.
  • Last resort – use the wine method! (This would be when you phone up your best beekeeping buddy and offer them a bottle in return for them finding her majesty).

Getting foundation drawn

  • Tony does a lot of ‘chimneying’. This involves putting an empty large poly brood box full of foundation over a colony in a poly nucleus, and feeding. He will quickly have a box full of drawn out foundation.

Tony’s main honey crops

  • Oilseed rape (OSR) – harvest May/June
  • Main summer – harvest August
  • Ling heather – harvest September

He takes colonies to OSR in mid-April, puts three supers on at once, then goes on holiday for a week. Then comes the hard part – “If you’ve got a nice job you enjoy don’t even think about being a bee farmer”. After returning from holiday he extracts the oil seed rape honey fast, as otherwise it sets like rock extremely quickly. He will extract 10 supers a day, in 16 hour shifts. Starting in the early morning, working through to 10pm at night, having a shower, then starting again the next morning. His wife is involved in the business too, as she cleans the extraction room up each day.

Part of the skill of being a bee farmer is keeping strong colonies, which means avoiding having swarms. Tony uses a much more proactive form of swarm control than me, which I was intrigued by. He’s found that making up nucleuses is the easiest method for him. He removes 1,2,3 or 4 frames from a colony in spring to delay its swarm preparations. He then puts foundation in the middle of the boxes the frames are taken from – as he noted, contrary to what beekeeping books will tell you! The removed frames are used to make up 5-frame nucs: 2 frames of honey/pollen, at both ends, 2 frames of eggs/larvae, 1 frame foundation, plus bees shaken in.

Emily Scott
CBKA member

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Bit of a Do 2019 – 21 September 2019

An exciting opportunity to hear the best speakers on beekeeping right here in Cornwall!

Saturday 21 September 2019
10.00-17.00
Fal Building, Truro College TR1 3XX

This annual event is your chance to hear excellent speakers and meet other beekeepers and traders without leaving Cornwall!  The event has been in its present format since 2009.

This year, bring a jar of your own honey (any size or type) for a tasting event and/or a gadget that you have made and found useful for your beekeeping ( for a competition).

You can book now and pre-order a pasty lunch (or bring your own food).  The speakers will be there to answer your questions at the end of the day – submit them before 1pm to have them included.  Book today and encourage your friends. Without support these events cannot run.  The joint committee from CBKA/WCBKA look forward to seeing you there.

– Mary Trace

Speakers:

Bit of a Do 2019 Programme

Tony Harris, NDB: “Maximising your honey crop”, and “Swarming from the bees perspective”.
Tony is a bee farmer based on the Moray coast in Scotland, where he manages 150 colonies for honey production. He is an assessor for the Scottish Beekeepers’ Association, a Scottish Honey Judge, a BBKA Correspondence Course tutor and a regular contributor to beekeeping publications in the UK.

Dr Ben Woodcock, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology will be speaking on “Neonicotinoid pesticides and bees”.
Ben is an Ecological Entomologist in the Community Ecology Group at CEH Wallingford. He is involved in research that develops applied management solutions to enhancing ecosystems service delivery and biodiversity within arable and grassland ecosystems. 

Victoria Buswell
Victoria will provide an update on her research into investigating the phenotypic and genomic basis of local adaptation in the UK native honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera. Victoria studies at the School of Biological and Marine Science within the Ecology and Evolution research group. Currently she is working towards her MPhil/Ph.D. investigating the phenotypic and genomic basis of local adaptation in the UK native honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera.

As well as the speakers, there will be trade stands, a gadget competition and local Bee Inspectors to answer all your questions.

Bookings:

Tickets and pasties can be booked after 1st July by sending the booking form to:

Heather Williams, heather@quillet.org.uk

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Callington Honey Fair 2018 – report from the team

Back in April the Callington Lions Club contacted us to say that they were proposing to rearrange the town hall layout this year as they wanted to utilise the space better for their activities and entertainment, therefore our honey show area would not be in the main hall but expand sideways into the lounge area. After a visit to the hall we thought we would be able to accommodate the show in the rooms though the sales table and display stands would remain in the hall itself. So we assembled on 2 October perhaps not being at all certain if the arrangements would be suitable.

Judging the mead at Callington honey fair 2019

Judging the mead at Callington honey fair 2018

However, after several attempts the tables were finally in position covered by their green cloths, the cups and plaques were on display on a small side table and we could start taking entries for the show. There was a steady stream of exhibits brought in by their owners and by 6.30pm the tables were nicely filled with more expected the following morning. The observation hive was in place and in the main hall the display boards with posters and photographs had been erected as had the sales table with honey and other hive products put out for sale.

We all arrived quite early on the fair day and the additional show entries came in to take their places on the tables. The judges and stewards had also arrived. We were delighted that Peter Lewis from Yorkshire, the judge in 2016, and Christine Walters from North Hill, the cookery judge of last year had both kindly agreed to come again, so at 9.30am they and stewards Rosemarie Lane and Ross Hanley were ready to begin their scrutiny. It is to be expected at the Honey Fair that judging will be interrupted on occasions during the day by the media wanting to take photographs and interview the judges and this year was no exception.

It took a great deal of deliberation throughout the morning but eventually all the results were known, the prize cards written and placed with the winning exhibits on the glass display stands.

The Cup winners were:

  • Callington Lions Rosebowl for most points in Cookery – Jenny Saundry
  • Callington Motors Cup for most points in show – Daniel Woodward
  • Trevithick Cup for Best Exhibit – Grant McTaggart
  • Very Ghey Cup for Best Light Honey – Sue Hoult
  • Reg Pomeroy Shield for Best Novice – Phil Price
  • George Prinn Shield for Best Young Person – not awarded
  • Pestkil SW for Best Wax – Grant McTaggart
  • Kernow Bees Shield for Best Granulated Honey – not awarded
  • Wesley Wilton Shield for Best Mead/Wine Exhibit – Sue Hoult

There were 116 entries altogether this year, slightly down on last year though the honey classes had a few more as it was a better season for honey production. The judges left some written comments to explain why some exhibits had not been awarded a place. In particular, Peter said more attention should be given to cleanliness of jars and lids, also the state of the top of the honey, some had been entered in the wrong class, some wax exhibits were either old or had been overheated to produce a dark colour and some wine bottles did not have the correct seal. So it is important to read, understand and follow the rules.

A most popular attraction for the public was of course the observation hive with bees kindly supplied by Sue Malcolm. Chris Boughton was on hand to to explain what the bees were doing and Henry Kendall, CBKA Chairman, also spent time talking about the bees to several groups of schoolchildren who visited at times during the day. The hive had been sited just inside the entrance to the suite of rooms which led to a bit of congestion at times so a rearrangement may be necessary next year.

Another attraction that did extremely well was the candle rolling, introduced for the first time this year, which had been organised by Mary Hardman. Many of people were surprised that it was such a simple method. A lot of interest was also taken in the piece of comb Sue had brought over. There was a good mix of candle rolling volunteers of all ages and a total for 33 candles were taken away. All 15 kits were sold and, with the benefit of hindsight, Mary thought she should have had more in stock. This is obviously a display that could be expanded next year.

Sales of honey and wax products were rather slow but picked up later in the day though not a great deal of honey had been sent for sale and the table was topped up with honey from Nine Maidens Mead brought in by Carole Allen. However, at the end of the day the income came to just over £1100. There was a separate board with posters and information about the Asian hornet which generated a lot of interest and Sue Hoult took time to explain to the public why this insect is regarded as such a threat to honeybees.

A surprise came in the afternoon when a presenter and cameraman from ITN arrived in the rooms and CBKA President Mary Trace agreed to be interviewed. It seemed that rehearsals were needed first to decide exactly what questions were to be asked and what was to be filmed. Mary showed them round the show itself before finally going “live” answering the questions and enlarging on the danger of the Asian hornet not just to honeybees but all pollinators. They thanked Mary afterwards and it’s understood a short report of the filming was shown the same evening.

The weather on the previous day had been rather mixed though it was better on the day of the Fair. It’s difficult to estimate numbers but it seemed that not as many people came through the hall into the show area this year to look at the exhibits. Of necessity the layout had to be restricted because of the size and shape of the rooms, a point which needs to be addressed next year with better signage to direct the public into the show area. There was also some space at the back of the main hall which could be utilised for further display or more hands-on activities.

Towards the end of the afternoon President Mary assisted the Lions Club Chairman with the presentation of the Cups which had been taken onto the stage in the main hall where members of the public were still eating their cream teas. It was disappointing that two could not be awarded, one of which would have been to the best young Person as there were no entries and though there were several entries of Granulated Honey none were judged to be worthy of a First Prize. Congratulations go to Callington Childminders for their entry of drawings of bees which had a First Prize.

Special thanks must go to judges Peter and Christine. Many thanks also must go to all the helpers: Chris Boughton for collecting and returning the display equipment, Henry Kendall for coming to help on the day, Rosemarie and Ross for stewarding, Miggy Singh for helping with the admin work of the show and also Mark Hoult, Peter and Linda Hunkin, Michael Pickles, Velven Harding and Geoff Hardman. Without all of them there could be no honey show or CBKA presence.

Judge Peter has left some comments and suggestions to be considered and if the show has to remain in the side rooms next year it is obvious that some changes will be needed for its future staging. All these will be discussed at the review meeting. Although it’s a long day it is always enjoyable and we hope to see everyone again next year.

The Callington Honey Fair Team

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CBKA ‘Bit of a Do’ 2018 – Honey bee dances: new insights

Our first talk of our annual joint Cornwall Beekeepers Association & West Cornwall Beekeepers Association Bit of a Do day this September was given by bee farmer Dan Basterfield and was all about honey bee dances and ‘The dance language controversy’.

About Dan:

Dan grew up with beekeeping around him and now helps to run the family beekeeping business in Devon, expanding the business and building a brand new honey farm. He is an active member of the Bee Farmers Association, was trustee and Chairman of the International Bee Research Association, is a BBKA Master Beekeepers and Examiner; and holds the National Diploma in Beekeeping. He runs 120 – 140 double brood Modified Commercial hives, migrating between various farm crops in East Devon, and raises queens for prolific, productive and healthy qualities. Outside the beekeeping season, Dan undertakes teaching for the BBKA and NDB.

What is the dance language controversy?

Dan began by explaining that he was surprised to hear honey bee expert Tom Seeley make a casual comment along the lines of: ‘Of course, there’s really only one honey bee dance’. The standard information given by beekeeping books is usually that there’s at least two or three: the direction-less round dance, saying ‘go out and look for it’ for forage within 15m of the hive; sometimes included is the transition dance, for food between 15-100m away; and the famous waggle dance, giving directions for food over 100m away.

Dan decided to investigate Tom’s comment further – in fact, his talk took us all the way back to 1744!

“Bees certainly have a language among themselves which they perfectly understand, tho’ we do not, or at best do very imperfectly.”
John Thorley (1744)

I love those old beekeeping quotes. Dan used this quote to explain that we have gained an ever better – but still imperfect – view of the dances since then.

He said that what he loves about bees is that the deeper you dig, the more there is to look at, the more little tangents they send you off on.

The discovery of the waggle dance

Karl von Frisch won his Nobel prize for decoding the dance language of bees. Just two years into his research career, in 1914 the young von Frisch published a paper demonstrating that bees could see in colour, through an elegant experiment that trained bees to go to syrup on a blue square. By 1923 he had produced a paper which described ’round’ and ‘wagtail’ dances. And in 1946 he published  the book “Die Tänze der Bienen” (The dances of the honey bee), which described two dances, round and waggle. At the time it was a quite revolutionary discovery that bees had their own crude language.

Other experiments since have reinforced von Frisch’s discovery that the waggle dance indicates the direction of the nectar or pollen in relation to the sun. For instance, if you anaesthetise bees for a couple of hours, when they wake they don’t realise the sun has moved since they observed the dance, so they set off in what would have been the right direction, but arrive at the wrong location!

Fascinatingly, there are even regional dialect differences! For instance, French & Italian bees seem to misinterpret the distance when watching each others’ waggle dances.

But not everyone agreed…

The honey bee dance language debate was led by two scientists called Wenner & Wells between the late 1960s-early 1980s. They had a competing theory: odour finding, supported by experimental data.

Criticisms of the dance language included that:

  • Stingless bees use buzzing runs to recruit other stingless bees to forage; are honey bees similarly just dancing to encourage other foragers to go out, after which they find the forage by scent?
  • Why do only honey bees do these dances, when no other social insects do?
  • Many recruits fail to find the forage and return empty-stomached, are they just generally searching in response to the dance? (Dan pointed out that the bees are observing the dance in the dark, within a busy, jostling environment full of thousands of other moving bees – no wonder they make a few errors!)

The debate led to experiments being repeated. The end result was that Von Frisch’s theory was generally agreed as correct, but how odour attracts foragers became more clearly understood.

The great honey bee researchers

Dan ran through some famous names who turn up in the big honey bee dance language studies. In the 1980s-1990s the round dance was redefined by researchers including Kirchner, Lindauer & Michelsen as being effective from 1m upwards.

Martin Lindauer carried on Von Frisch’s research into honey bee behaviour. Lindauer then in turn developed a working relationship with Tom Seeley, who has now also become a renowned expert on honey bee behaviour.

In 1997 Jensen, Michelsen & Lindauer slowed down videos of honey bee round dance and showed a little waggle – there is a ‘waggle phase’ present in round dances.

And in 2008 the idea that there are different dances was challenged by Gardner, Seely & Calderone in the paper ‘Do honey bees have two discrete dances to advertise food sources?‘. They concluded that the round and waggle dance are really two ends of the same continuum, both containing information about distance and direction, with no clear switch between the two. They are just variants of the same recruitment dance.

In 2012, further experimental data was published by Griffin, Smith and Seeley: Do honeybees use the directional information in round dances to find nearby food sources? They verified Seeley’s earlier study with new experiments to show that the round dance communicates direction too. They used two feeders, one with a much stronger and therefore more appealing sugar syrup, placed at varying distances under 100m from the hive. They found that most of the bees went to the stronger syrup feeder after observing the round dance. Directional bias in recruitment was found for food sources as close as 5m from the hive.

Honey bee on echinacea?

A honey bee forager – had she watched a dance first?

There is always more to find out about bees!

Questions

There was an interesting question from the audience: “Do bees communicate height in the waggle dance?” For instance, in a wood, would the dance communicate if the forage was up in the trees or down on the ground?

Don said he didn’t know! He thought von Frisch had done some experiments on this, but couldn’t remember their outcome. We also don’t know how bees communicate finding food above them in the hive, for instance when a feeder is put inside. This seems to lead to general robbing in the area.

Emily Scott, CBKA member

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Bit of a Do 2018 – some photos

The Cornwall Beekeepers Association and West Cornwall Beekeepers Association put on a great ‘Bit of a do‘ day of talks and trade stands on Saturday 22 November. Here’s a few photos from the day.

The first exhibit as soon as you walked in was an Asian hornet nest and special hornet proof ‘Ultra Full‘ suit made by BBWear. The hornet is on everyone’s minds at the moment as we’ve just had three sightings in Cornwall – two nests have been destroyed in Fowey now and a single hornet sighting confirmed in Liskeard. We are an Asian hornet hotspot!

Asian hornet suit

Look closely at the nest in this photo and you can see a couple of little orange heads poking out, these hornets died just before they could hatch. The nest itself is quite remarkable, it’s amazing what insects can create. Like a wasps’ nest it is very fragile and light.

Asian hornet nest

There was a lot of discussion about the Asian hornet in the final Q&A session, including the best type of bait to use and whether monitoring traps should be put out.

Most of the five panellists (Dan Basterfield, Chris Park, Anne Rowberry, Dr Peter Kennedy and Will Steynor) were in favour of using monitoring traps in spring and checking these daily to remove any beneficial pollinators. Dan Basterfield goes as far as sticking his hand in the trap to let any European hornets climb out on him! Some of the panellists were in favour of using killing traps in the autumn as they believe most of the insects trapped at that time of year will be wasps.

Different bait seems to be successful in different areas. Dr. Peter Kennedy, a field ecologist, mentioned that in Jersey protein based baits have not been that successful. There they use a specialist wasp attractant called Suterra. In Spain the hornets seem more attracted to fish based baits – prawns are often used. There has been speculation that the hornets may have reached the island of Majorca on fishing boats.

There was also a question about a proposal in the new Agriculture Bill that bee imports should be banned and that all beekeepers should be registered. Dan Basterfield, who is a commercial bee farmer, felt that banning imports would not stop bees being brought in within people’s pockets. Anne Rowberry, a master beekeeper from Avon, was in favour of banning imports, particularly as the small hive beetle is now in Italy, where many of our imported bees come from. One of the panel noted that Jersey has compulsory registration but there are still unregistered beekeepers there.

This was the well-deserved winning exhibit from the Gadget competition – a useful stand for all your equipment during inspections.

Gadget competition winner 2018

Thanks very much to everyone involved in organising and running the day. We had great refreshments too – delicious pasties and cake.

Emily Scott, CBKA member

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