Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects
The smallest honeybee?
I thought India had four types of honeybees, but on a trip last month I discovered a fifth which is so small it is all too easy to overlook, but its honey is highly prized in Indian medicine.
Alongside Apis cerana, Apis dorsata, Apis florea and Apis mellifera (non-native), India has the dammer bee or Melipona irridipennis.
It’s very tiny (3mm long), has no sting and I was shown two nests: one in a house wall and another in an electric fuse box. I had walked past both without noticing them at all.
They can produce up to 700 gm of honey each year, but this small amount can fetch very good prices: about twenty times the price of other honeys because it is favoured in Ayurvedic medicine. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to taste any, but it is said to be not overly pleasant.
The dammer bee has no sting, but it can fend off unwanted intruders with its bite, sometimes mixed with propolis for added irritation.
As well as producing valuable honey, the dammer bee is of course a very good pollinator. Both of the nests I was shown were on coffee plantations in southern India, one in Coorg, Karnataka, and the other at Ecoscape in Tamil Nadu.
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger
Why hasn’t SHB spread further in Italy?
Small Hive Beetle (SHB), which appeared in Italy in 2014 and in the same area again this year, poses a serious threat to beekeeping, but it seems not to have spread very far in Italy yet. Action by the Italian authorities and a fortunate quirk of the local topgraphy seem to be helping to contain it.
In September we reported on the reappearance of SHB in southern Italy. It was a great disappointment, but there has been relief that it doesn’t yet appear to have spread from the area in which it was originally discovered.
At the Hampshire Beekeepers Autumn Convention last weekend, Nigel Semmence, of the UK Plant and Animal Health Agency, has responsibilities to try to keep out non-native species and revealed why the spread hasn’t happened as well as a very curious characteristic of SHB.
Fortunately, SHB’s first appearance was in a valley surrounded by mountains and the sea in Calabria, Southern Italy. No-one yet knows how or when it arrived, but the mountains may well have provided a barrier to its spread. In addition, the Italian authorities imposed a surveillance zone (even larger than required by regulations). The appearance of SHB on Sicily seems to have been a result of colony movement by a Calabrian beekeeper before the beetle was discovered.
Nigel also revealed some quirky habits of SHB. When attacked by bees, they close their legs and therefore find it difficult to move. At which point, the bees often encase them in propolis. But SHB can generate signals that persuade the bees to feed them! So the bees often leave a little hole in the propolis tomb through which they can feed their enemy! Ah, the wonders of nature!
There is an excellent SHB leaflet from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (not yet online, I think).
If SHB does arrive in Britain, plans are afoot (including the use of nematodes) to try to prevent its spread. There are sentinel apiaries throughout the country at possible entry points.
Herb farm apiary
A friend and I were lucky to be invited to put some hives on a local herb farm next season. Tucked away between the country roads, the farm is about 400 hectares growing a fascinating selection of herbs for their drying and oil production. Because extensive herb growing is so rare in this country, we’re not quite sure what to expect. But we do know that the area is rich in bumblebees so that should prove an interesting distraction.
My usual bible of plants and honeybees, the wonderful Plants for Bees, isn’t much help for once! The herbs are so rarely grown in quantity in Britain that not much is known about their usefulness to honeybees here.
The most interesting may be Angelica. One Chinese vendor says that the honey from angelica is:
rare and valuable …. Its colour varies from rich brown to brownish with a red tint, sometimes … with light greenish tint … It has a fairly sharp specific aroma, some bitterness and leaves a well pronounced bonbon aftertaste.
Angelica usually flowers in June/July, but the grower suggests that the crop on the herb farm flowers early.
The mint should prove interesting. It is a very rare old English variety (Black Mitcham) destined for chocolate! Like most mint, it flowers late in the year and, according to Plants for Bees, mint flowers can yield honey where it grows in quantity (rare in this country). August should prove interesting, then, as the nectar flow is usually long gone here by then and the bees should be able to focus on the mint. The honey is reported to be amber in colour with a minty taste which disappears with time (rather than thyme).
There is some coriander. Unlike its cooking components, the nectar seems to yield a delicate honey that is light amber and crystallises quite quickly. I think its flowering time is likely be quite late in the bee season.
Lovage is also grown and seems to be popular with bees, but I cannot find any reports of the honey produced.
There is also lots of chamomile, but it is of no interest to bees and, I’m told, doesn’t even produce seeds. The parsley will flower in its second year, but may be harvested before it gets to that stage.
I will let you know what happens and try to arrange some pollen analysis to see if the bees are working the herbs or finding more interesting wild plant and tree honey – not to mention whatever other crops farmers may be growing in the vicinity. It may of course be a race between the herb harvesting and flowering.
Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger
Mystery of the ‘superbees’ solved
The mystery of the apparently Varroa-resistant honeybees in a UK apiary has been solved, and the answer has been a real surprise.
Over the past few years there have been dramatic headlines about what seem to have been Varroa-resistant honeybees in the apiary of a beekeeper in Swindon, England (not far from Vita’s HQ). Ron Hoskins’ bees have been dubbed “super bees” and it was thought that their hygienic behaviour was the reason for their success.
However, new research presented by Catherine Thompson of Salford University at the UK National Honey Show last Friday and now published in The ISME Journal has revealed the reasons for Hoskins’ bees’ success. A non-lethal form of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) is prevalent amongst his bees and is acting to exclude the more lethal form.
DWV is now well-known as a killer of honeybees and its virulence seems at least in part to have been caused by Varroa which, because it injects the virus straight into the bees’ bloodstream, has spread the virus with disastrous effects. Honeybees have long had DMV, but pre-Varroa spread by sex and other methods had not enabled it to spread so quickly and thoroughly throughout a colony.
For reasons that are not yet understood, Hoskins’ bees have been subject to a relatively benign version of DWV — Type B. In contrast DWV Type A is lethal. Type B has become dominant in Hoskins’ apiary and kept Type A out — or at least at very low levels. It is even thought that Varroa spreading Type B have in effect inoculated the bees against Type A!
Unfortunately, simply moving Hoskins’ bees to another apiary where DWV Type A is dominant is likely to be futile. The colony is likely to be swamped by the lethal Type A and face the disease threat common to most colonies.
Nonetheless, it is hoped that this exciting new finding may eventually help in some way to produce a break-through in helping honeybees.
At the UK National Honey Show
On a fleeting visit to the UK’s National Honey Show today to hear a lecture on honeybee mating by Juliana Rangel of Texas A&M University, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger learned some fascinating new things:
Firstly, he discovered he might be called a Drone Congregation Area Whisperer! There’s a certain buzz to that title.
Secondly, 50% of honeybee queens take just one mating flight; 45% take two flights and the remainder take three or more. A very few take lots and lots! I suspect there will be a name for them soon.
Thirdly, after the lecture talking to a beekeeper from the island of Jersey, there’s a Drone Congregation Area (DCA) above his friend’s house and it seems to offer great potential to find DCAs in a very well-defined territory.
Vita’s Blogger will be back tomorrow to learn lots more.