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Vita Bee Health Global Honeybee Health Experts

Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects

What Rev Gilbert White heard?

UPDATE: This story and audio featured on Paddy O’Connell’s Slow Radio feature on BBC Radio 4 on 25 June 2017. You can listen here, starting at 41 mins 8 sec in.

On 28 June 1792 – 225 years ago – the Rev Gilbert White, a pioneering English naturalist living in Selborne, Hampshire, England, heard a mysterious sound which he documented:

Humming in the Air
There is a natural occurrence to be met with upon the highest part of our down in hot summer days, which always amuses me much, without giving me any satisfaction with respect to the cause of it; and that is a loud audible humming of bees in the air, though not one insect is to be seen. This sound is to be heard distinctly the whole common through, from the Moneydells, to Mr White’s avenue-gate. Any person would suppose that a large swarm of bees was in motion, & playing about over his head. This noise was heard last week on June 28th.

From The Natural History of Selborne by Rev Gilbert White.

Gilbert White did not know what it was, but we now realise that it was almost certainly the sound of a drone congregation area (DCA) – where male honeybees go to mate on the wing with queens. No-one can satisfactorily define the characteristics of these special areas, but they can persist year after year – and seemingly century after century.

Today, 225 years later, Sheep Down on Selborne Common is still a drone congregation area.

This week, armed with a queen pheromone lure, we recorded the sound that Gilbert White might have heard:


And below is a video of drones flashing about Sheep Down in search of queens (unfortunately interrupted by the audio of a passing airplane!). Those little flashing specks are drones caught in the late afternoon sun.

Without the queen pheromone lure, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear the sound so clearly today unless there are queens in the vicinity. How, then, did Gilbert White hear it so well? Perhaps there were many more honey bees in his day? There are many orchards in the area, so, with orchards, you should find pollinating bees. Perhaps, like us, he heard it on a very fine day.

Looking back through what sparse weather records exist, it doesn’t seem to have been a good summer, but that 28 June 1792 might have been an unusually good day.

1792: “A wet summer (in London).”
24 June: “Thunder, & hail. A sad midsumr day.”
21 June: “Longest day: a cold, harsh solstice!”
May & June: “cold and dry”.
July “wet and cold”

But wait:
28 June 1792: “Glow-worms abound on Baker’s hill (Selborne).”
Glow worms: “muggy nights from June to August usually see more activity than cool ones”.
So, perhaps it was a rather special day when lots of cooped-up drones and queens came out to play!

For more about DCAs on this blog, start here.

Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

Varroa in the UK: 25 years on

Dr Max Watkins - Technical Director

Dr Max Watkins

In April 1992, the varroa mite was discovered in the UK for the first time. By May 1992, the talk of varroa was on every beekeeper’s lips.

Dr Max Watkins, now Technical Director of Vita (Europe) Ltd, but then working as technical and commercial manager with Sandoz, recalls:

‘The news travelled rapidly that varroa had been seen in Devon. It had been spreading across Europe where Sandoz was supplying the acaracide, Apistan, but I hadn’t been expecting varroa quite so soon in the UK. However, I knew that the first identification of the mite was bound to lag its actual arrival by quite some time.’

Dr Watkin’s suspicions were soon confirmed when, a little later that fateful spring, a semi-professional beekeeper in the Home Counties contacted him about suspicious mites in his colonies.

‘I visited the beekeeper and sure enough it was varroa – lots of them, even though the bees didn’t look to be visibly suffering. In desperation, he had unsuccessfully tried a home-made miticide, but when he used Apistan the mite population very quickly came under control. He was very impressed!’

‘At that time, Apistan was not yet officially approved for use in the UK and we did our best to accelerate the registration. The pan-European approval procedures were not then in place and registration did not happen until 1997, partly because part-way through the legislation changed!

‘However, we managed to have approval just in time for the autumn 1997 National Honey Show. There was a lot of interest! Vita (Europe) Ltd had just started up in earnest after the management buy-out from Sandoz and we were already working on Apiguard.

‘Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, a lot of old-school beekeepers didn’t want to admit that varroa was a real problem. Sadly, they were wrong and many of those older beekeepers lost their bees and ceased beekeeping. Since then, beekeepers have become far more vigilant about the general health of their honey bees.’


Welcoming world’s young beekeepers

The England team ready for IMYB 2017

Vita is delighted to be a major sponsor for the International Meeting of Young Beekeepers that is coming to Britain in just over one month’s time.

More than 20 teams of young beekeepers aged 12 to 16 will descend on the beautiful and historic Wiltshire town of Marlborough to test their beekeeping skills and knowledge.

Working in mixed nationality teams of six, communication will be the key as they take on challenges like … well, actually we don’t even know because it’s all being kept top secret to surprise the entrants.

Vita’s Blogger has been called into action to see if he can find a Drone Congregation Area in the vicinity so that the youngsters can take a break in competition to go for a hike one afternoon.

Set in the prehistoric landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge, visitors are in for a treat – with visits to those sites and Bath too.

For space reasons the event is private, but Bee Craft’s Richard Rickitt will be there to video some of the action and post it on You Tube. We’ll keep you informed.

VitaFeed Nutri field trials

Vita’s new protein supplement has been tested in extensive field trials and found to increase honey production by up to 18% (2.54 kilograms more honey per colony fed with VitaFeed Nutri compared with control colonies fed only with sugar syrup).

Here’s the report.

Sick bees explode across the landscape

The importance of controlling varroa populations especially in areas of relatively dense bee colonies was stressed by Dr Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the BBKA Spring Convention earlier this month.

A sick colony explodes into the landscape and infiltrates surrounding apiaries, he said.

He identified the three key risk factors to bee health as varroa mites and associated viruses; pesticides in the field and in the hive; and poor nutrition.

Of these varroa is the biggest threat – and he and a research student soon expect to publish a paper showing that varroa mites feed off the fat rather than the haemolymph of honeybees – a factor that is of considerable importance for bees going into winter.

In a sample survey, he found that 56% of beekeepers had not used varroa-control products in the previous twelve months. For some hobbyists, not treating for varroa and losing, say, nine of ten colonies doesn’t matter too much. However, the impact does not stop at their own apiary.

In another study, he and his team marked bees in an apiary either yellow or blue. Yellow indicated that the colony was collapsing, blue that the colony was healthy. The collapsing colonies duly died out, but their surviving yellow-marked bees exploded like a bomb in the landscape. Those yellow bees were found in almost every apiary in a two-to-three-kilometre radius!

The implications are clear. You are treating for varroa not just to keep your own bees healthy, but also those of your neighbours in the surrounding landscape.

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