Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects
Following the Wild Bees
Many thanks for this book review by Richard Rickitt, editor of the Honey Bee Times, the newsletter of the Wiltshire Beekeepers’ Association. The book could make a very good Christmas present for beekeepers with all the hive tools they can handle.
Following the Wild Bees by Thomas D Seeley
Princeton University Press
Professor Thomas Seeley, author of some of the most fascinating recent books about honey bee research, has taken time out to write a quite different sort of book: Following the Wild Bees.
Bee hunting or bee lining is the practice of following honey bees from their foraging sites to their nests. This is not as simple a task as it might sound and whilst Seeley has found some wild colonies in less than an hour, others have taken him more than three years to locate.
Seeley describes how bee hunting in the USA was developed by early woodsmen searching for wild nests made by bees that had been first introduced to the continent by European settlers. Their reward was valuable honey and wax, but sadly it often entailed the destruction of the colony. One Victorian bee hunter apparently earned a small fortune from the 1700 lbs of honey that he found and gathered in just one season.
Contemporary bee hunters require patience but very little in the way of equipment. The main device is a homemade box for scooping up and holding bees as they collect nectar from flowers. Once several bees have been captured, they can be fed sugar syrup laced with a tiny amount of anise. The well-fed bees are then marked before being released.
If you are lucky your original bees will return with recruits – and by recording the returning times and direction of flight, it is possible to estimate the distance and direction of the nest. After collecting and releasing bees several times, you can move your feeding station to a new position in the direction that the bees are flying, hoping that the returning bees will find you in your new position. In this way, you gradually move closer to their home. Each time you record the time it takes for each of the bees to return.
Seeley has found that it is surprising how many detours are made by the bees, who rarely fly directly towards their home, but often take a curved or angled route which takes into account various obstacles and geographic features.
Eventually, there should come a time when you have moved close to the nest and the bees are taking almost no time at all to return to your nectar source. Then it is a matter of studying the nearby trees to find their home – a task which can be exceedingly tricky when there are dozens or even hundreds of trees within sight.
Seeley describes bee lining as a leisure pursuit or even as a sport – a sport that is all about the chase and not the kill. The general text is very informal in style, but it is also interspersed with what Seeley calls Biology Boxes – fascinating research-based sections that explain the detail of the science behind the hunt. The reader even learns about the different flying speeds of bees in search of forage and those returning with full loads.
As someone who doesn’t have an athletic bone in their body, this sport appeals greatly to me, combining as it does a gentle walk in the countryside, close interaction with honey bees and the use of a little bit of gadgetry in the quest to solve a mystery. The reward is the discovery of a bee colony that might otherwise have never been known to anyone.
Beyond the pure pleasure of the hunt, Seeley believes that it is important to find and record colonies of wild bees, enabling us to keep track of which ones manage to survive without human intervention. It is those colonies that prosper despite the threat of varroa and brood diseases that he thinks are the key to the survival of the wider honey bee population. Indeed, Seeley now only restocks his own apiary with bees acquired using bait hives placed near to the location of wild colonies.
Attractive though the activity sounds, I wonder if bee hunting might be quite so rewarding in the UK where, instead of finding a nest in a 1,800 ha (4,500 acre) forest, British bee hunters might be more likely to find themselves blundering into a fellow beekeeper’s garden in search of a colony. That said, Seeley does say that he has successfully used his methods in many countries, including the UK, and even in urban environments.
Whether or not you intend to take up bee hunting, this book is an elegantly written and absorbing read. The author’s love and respect for honey bees is clearly evident and quite infectious. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about bees and our relationship with them.
Born to beekeep
Paulo Mielgo (miel means honey in Spanish) has joined Vita as its new technical manager. He comes from Argentina and beekeeping is in his blood. His father has managed 700 hives across a wide territory north of Buenos Aires and he can’t really remember his first encounter with a beehive because he would have been only a very few years old.
After gaining a degree from a veterinary college in Argentina, Paulo has worked in many different countries including Italy, México, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.
Paulo comes to Vita from Apilab, Vita’s South American partner, and will be working with researchers and universities to help develop new honey bee health and nutrition products.
On his first trip to see some British apiaries, Paulo called in to see the church at Wooton St Lawrence, near Vita’s HQ. The village church has a great beekeeping history because it was once the parish church of the Rev Charles Butler, author of The Feminine Monarchie, published in 1623 and the first book to promote the idea that the head of a hive is a queen and not a king.
The glory of heather honey
Nectar from ling heather produces of one of the world’s most stunning honeys. It takes quite a lot of effort to obtain a crop, the harvest is usually limited in size, but the taste makes it all worth while.
Here is one of the fascinating aspects of the end result.
Once extracted, pure ling heather honey is as stiff as a gel. But one quick swirl with a spoon and it turns liquid again before settling back into its gel state. This characteristic even has its own word: thixotropic.
The honey even looks diffferent. If it is extracted with an apple or honey press, bubbles will appear in the gel and won’t disappear. That’s another sure sign it’s pure ling heather honey. Extracting with a normal centrifugal extractor is not easy – the gel will just sit in the cells unless it is first agitated with a special multi-pin, agitating device.
Obtaining a harvest requires some special steps. Ling heather, growing in Britain in upland moors or lowland heath like the New Forest, begins flowering in late July and continues until September. So, any colonies taken to the heather need to be approaching peak condition after the summer flow has finished. They need a young queen and plenty of bees ready to forage.
Healthy bees are vital. The varroa population needs to be low – at a time of year when varroa populations are near their peak. And care must be talken at the heather in reducing entrances to try to ensure their is no robbing by other colonies. Migratory beekeeping can promote the spread of disease, and plenty of beekeepers take their bees to the heather.
As ever, good weather is essential. Throughout Britain this August seems to be brought fairly good conditions and there are reports of it being a good heather year. Yields are seldom high, but at worst bees usually fill their brood boxes with plenty of winter stores.
And the taste? Ling heather honey is not as sweet as other honeys and even has a slightly bitter taste. Caramel, woody, fruity and tangy spring to mind as taste descriptors. The taste persists for a long time on the palate and the smell of an opened jar is instantly recognisable. A small amount will go a long way in flavouring foods. My favourite is to have it with Greek yoghurt and banana.
There is a new, very comprensive book on Heather Honey just published by Bee Craft: Heather Honey by Michael Badger. It tells the story of heather honey from its environment and ecology, through the history of ‘heather-going’ to the practicalities of heather honey beekeeping today.
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger
Bees and horses can mix
The new venue of the UK’s National Honey Show at Sandown park race course was very popular with Vita folk who attended. There was lots of space and not many hurdles.
Here are some photos to give a flavour of the event which is a mix of honey show, lecture programme and trade stands.
Drone Congregation Areas 2016 – roundup
To coincide with an article on Drone Congregation Areas to appear in the Bee Craft November 2016 issue, here is a small selection of videos of drones in action and below that a series of links telling of my searches for DCAs over the past two seasons.
1 July 2015 In search of a mate
2 July 2015 Drone Congregation Areas
7 July 2015 Another Drone Congregation Area
20 July 2015 Video of Life in a Drone Congregation Area
28 July 2015 Do drones assemble above prehistoric sites?
3 August 2015 Drone Goal?
10 August 2015 Rediscovering the first recorded Drone Congregation Area
8 September 2015 In search of a Drone Congregation Area SatNav
27 October 2015 Hilltopping
4 July 2016 Greenham Common DCA first visit
16 July 2016 Greenham Common – finding the extent of the DCA
25 July 2016 Drone to Drone
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger