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Vita Bee Health Global Honeybee Health Experts

Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects

Roman Ralph 1945-2014

Roman Ralph 1945-2014

Dr Roman Leon Ralph (Roman Leon Rafalski) 1945-2014

Vita is very sad to report the passing of Dr Roman Leon Ralph, Business Manager at the company from 1997 to 2009.

Roman was born in Lincoln to a Polish father, a World War II RAF pilot, and an English mother, a Royal Navy Wren. When he was two and a half years old, the family moved to Poland where he was educated and learned to dance, play the piano, learn to fly a glider and was by family accounts “a little tearaway climbing roofs and roaming the streets of Katowice”. The family say that he just managed to scrape through school, but when it came to the final exams he had such high marks that the tutors couldn’t believe it was the same boy!

Roman went on to study agriculture at the University of Olsztyn where he won a scholarship and became a very popular student, a key organiser of the student rag week and President of the Students’ Union. It was at University that he met Mira who was later  to become his wife.

After university, Roman moved back to England, found his biological mother (who had left Poland some years before) and took a job as an Industrial Microbiologist. In 1971 he was joined by Mira, they married and moved to Cambridge where Roman studied for a doctorate at Wolfson College. During this time their two sons were born.

Roman held several posts including Crop Research manager at  Imperical Chemical Industries and in 1992 joined Sandoz as Country Manager for Poland going on to work in logistics at Sandoz Agro. It was at this time that he met Jeremy Owen and Max Watkins.

Max Watkins remembers a long association with Roman: “Both Jeremy and I had known and worked with Roman in our previous employ at Sandoz/Novartis Animal Health in Camberley. Roman joined us as Business Manager when we formed Vita in Basingstoke in 1997. By then we had known each other for several years. He was always affable, always willing to help and he was extremely well-liked by everyone who had contact with him – and there were very many, over the years. He found the world of bees and beekeeping fascinating, so he was happy and authoritative when chatting with beekeepers and other customers alike. On occasion we wondered if Roman needed a telephone at all, as his booming voice could often be heard from long distances.”

Jeremy Owen recalls Roman’s work: “Roman was meticulous in all that he did and, as the business grew, he developed his own complex logistics programme that tracked all components and products in and out. Without doubt it was Roman that kept the Vita products flowing and ensured that Vita complied with the export regulations that became more stringent as the years went past.”

In 2007, Roman was diagnosed with cancer but defied his prognosis of surviving for three years and refused to let the illness dominate his life. He continued to work at Vita until he retired in 2009.

Always with a sense of humour, Roman was asked on his hospital bed how he felt and replied: “according to my age”.

Roman is survived by his wife Mira, two sons, Adam and Richard, and two grandchildren.

Roman’s family requests that if anyone would like to make a donation in memory of Roman, it be made to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Dr Roman Leon Ralph (Roman Leon Rafalski)
12 December 1945 – 1 September 2014

Vita is grateful to Roman’s family for permission to use excerpts from Roman’s Memorial Service about his life.


What’s the honey?

IMG_2659Can you identify this rather distinctive honey? Here are some clues: its aroma fills a room, it’s thixotropic, it’s very late season and in the UK it’s often called the king of honeys.

Yes, it’s heather honey — ling heather honey from the New Forest in Britain to be precise. The harvest is seldom large, but the quality makes up for that and it fetches a premium price (although I can seldom bring myself to sell it).

It’s not much fun extracting it because it is a gel and won’t turn to liquid unless it is stirred — and only then will it remain liquid for a short while. So a spinning honey extractor is of little use. The honey doesn’t respond that well to heating either, so eating it from the comb is the most satisfying solution.  (My favourite is with fruit and Greek yoghurt.)

I took two hives to the New Forest in August and despite that cold month, each colony has produced about 12 kgs (c25lbs) each — enough to see friends and family through winter.

The colonies are just about ready to come home now to their usual apiary, but will need to be thoroughly inspected to ensure that they aren’t going to bring back any diseases from mingling with all those other holidaying honeybees in the New Forest.

For those unfamiliar with England’s New Forest: it’s neither new nor much of a forest. it dates back almost one thousand years when a Forest meant a hunting ground. Today it is one of the largest remaining unenclosed tracts of pasture land, heathland and forest in the densely-populated south of England.

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger



Small Hive Beetle arrives in Europe

Small Hive Beetle

Photo courtesy of the UK Food and Environment Research Agency

Update 2 Dec 2014: See Beetle Blaster, a device to control Small Hive Beetle.

Update 24 Sep 2014: There has been a fourth sighting of Small Hive Beetle  in southern Italy near the first 3 sightings. A 5th is under investigation.

The Small Hive Beetle (SHB), Aethina tumida, damages comb, stored honey and pollen and can be a major threat to the beekeeping economy. The beetles multiply quickly and the larvae tunnel through brood, eating as they go and ultimately wiping out the colony. Once established, it cannot be eradicated.

SHB was spotted in a university bait hive in Italy, in Reggio Calabria, opposite Sicily. Professor Vincent Palmeri of the University of Reggio Calabria said in a report in Apitalia that he found the beetle in three small swarms near the port of Gioia Taura. He couldn’t be sure that the beetle had arrived with the bees as the beetle typically moves in fermented rotting fruit. And since SHB can survive without food for 120 days, there could be several plausible explanations of its appearance.

Professor Palmeri expressed concern at its possible spread throughout country because migratory beekeeping is common in that part of southern Italy. He has urged beekeepers to be on high alert. He does not discountb the possibility that SHB may already be widespread spread in southern Italy and that beekeepers may be fearful in reporting it.

Dr Max Watkins, Technical Director of Vita (Europe) Ltd said “As yet there is no foolproof way of protecting bees from the Small Hive Beetle and it has proved impossible to eradicate them once they have become established. Interestingly, its impact has varied in the different parts of the world it has invaded. In the USA it can be devastating, but in Australia the damage caused by this pest has not been as extensive or severe as in southern USA, although it remains a serious threat. If it does become established in Europe, the full extent of its impact cannot really be predicted. Vita is of course monitoring the situation closely and will continue its investigations into possible control mechanisms.”

The appearance of SHB in Italy seems much more serious than its earlier arrival in Portugal when it was immediately eradicated from an imported consignment of queens from Texas.

SHB is a native of sub-Saharan Africa, but appeared in the USA in 1998, spreading through several states, into the Caribbean, Canada and as far as Hawaii. In its native African home, it is a minor pest as the indigenous bees can defend against it.

The authorities in nearly all countries will want to know of any suspected sightings of SHB. In the UK, SHB is a legally “notifiable” pest and British beekeepers suspecting the beetle’s presence should immediately inform the National Bee Unit of their concerns.

There is a detailed description of the pest and its life cycle on Beebase.

The investigatory and communication power of bees

IMG_2523I’ve made a disastrous mistake. During honey extraction I put aside some very good-looking frames for cut-comb.

Storage was a bit of an issue, but I decided to put them in a super inside a cardboard box. The box was put in the spare bedroom, a north-facing room with no history of bee invasion (you can see where this is going!). A small window was left ajar and the cardboard box wasn’t quite bee proof.

This storage worked as expected for a couple of weeks and I took out frames for cut-comb as required.

Then after a two-day gap when I didn’t enter the bedroom, I went to retrieve another frame and found the room alive with bees! In two short days a bee or two had somehow discovered the slightly open window, found the slightly open box and taken a sample. (The weather was quite cool, so the enticing smell of the honey was certainly not apparent to me.)  The investigatory scouts had then gone back to tell their relatives of a poorly hidden honey hoard.

In less than 48 hours, a golden throng had decimated four frames (one remained intact — I know not why). Sadly some bees died in the exercise as they couldn’t find the small top window exit to take away their plunder.

The bees investigatory and communication powers had made a fool of me in less than two days. I won’t be making that mistake again.

Turlough, Vita’s Guest Beekeeper Blogger

How feral colonies fare with Varroa

Feral honeybee colony

Feral honeybee colony. Photo: Julie Lake.

Could feral colonies be a reservoir for varroa-tolerant bees? New research in Plos One suggests not. Abandoning Varroa treatment could leave colonies dangerously exposed, say  the researchers.

Anecdotal reports have spoken of a recent resurgence on feral honeybee colonies and the hope that they may be resistant to Varroa, but new research does not support those hopes.

It indicates that feral colonies in the UK have similar profiles of viruses to managed colonies, and that the feral colonies contained a significantly higher level of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), the virus that is often lethal to the colony.

Rather than being a distinctive genetic group of honeybee colonies, the research thought that the feral colonies were probably simply escaped swarms from managed colonies. Untreated “managed” colonies closely resembled the virus profile of feral colonies in many ways.

The researchers gave a stark warning about not treating for varroa:

“A workable level of Varroa tolerance is keenly sought by UK beekeepers, but abandoning Varroa treatment without ensuring colonies have evolved a natural resistance to the mite, or without virus-free Varroa, could leave colonies dangerously exposed, particularly in areas of high beekeeping density.”

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