Border Bees Diary

Diary of a Beekeeper in the Scottish Borders

Posts Tagged ‘honeybees’

The Trouble with Queens

Posted by borderglider on August 12, 2009

Many beekeepers in the UK are having problems with queens: virgin queens fail to mate, disappear on mating flights or mate successfully, only to become drone-layers within weeks. I had a good queen-rearing season and bred 6 new queens – all of which mated successfully – and all produced fertile eggs and good brood-patterns over a number of frames. However, three of these queens were superseded (replaced) by the bees within a month – which is highly abnormal; it is however a phenomenon being seen up and down the country.  Normally, a newly mated young queen would be good for at least two years, possibly three or even four – though most beekeepers try to replace their queens annually these days. However, many beekeepers are reporting that young, apparently vigorous and fertile queens are being killed by their own workers and replaced with new queens within a matter of weeks; this is highly abnormal behaviour and indicates that something is going terribly wrong.

My own hypothesis is that we are seeing the results of bio-accumulation of neo-nicotinoid pesticides in young queens which are affecting their behaviour in sub-lethal ways.  French research by Dr Bonmatin at Montpelier University in 1998-99 revealed that the neo-nicotinoid pesticide Imidacloprid kills bees when they ingest it at levels of just 3-5 parts per billion (ppb)however, his team also found sub-lethal effects at far lower levels of contamination – a mere 0.1 ppb – an almost infinitesimally small level of poison. This independent research dramatically conflicted with that of Bayer- the manufacturers of Imidacloprid – who initially claimed that their new nerve-poison only killed bees at levels in excess of 50,000 ppb; they revised this downward to 10,000, then 5,000, then 1000 – and latterly – in the face of mounting evidence they have said that it kills bees at 50-100 ppb.  Bonmatin’s research still claims that it kills bees at 5 ppb.

Why might Pesticides be Affecting Queen Bees?

Well, a worker bee only lives for 6 weeks – and sometimes less, depending on how hard it has to work in the field. So in its short life, it only eats pollen and nectar for this limited period. However, a queen bee lives for up to two years, and while a queen larva is growing in its cell, it is fed far more food than a worker larva. So if pesticides are present in the pollen and nectar which is used to feed a developing queen-larva, it will bio-accumulate far more pesticide than a worker-larva.  The levels may still be sub-lethal but since these are neuro-toxins, they affect the nervous system and brain first – which control all complex queen-activities such: as the mating-flight, navigation to and from the hive, mating on the wing, laying eggs and so on. Moreover, the nervous system controls the production of pheromones by the queen, which affect all activities in the hive.

The queen bee regulates virtually all the activities of the hive through her production of queen-pheromones, sometimes called ‘queen substance’. In reality the ‘queen substance’ is made up of a dozen or more distinct pheromones, each of which plays a vital role in the governance of the hive.  One vital pheromone for example suppresses the urge of the worker bees to produce queen cells – and hence make new queens; as the queen gets older, she produces less and less of this substance and at the same time, the population of the hive increases to perhaps 50,000 workers – so there is less and less inhibiting chemical to go around.  When the ‘queen-cell-inhibition’ pheromone drops below a certain threshold, the workers cease to be repressed and they suddenly start to make new queen cells and new queens.

However, if the queen loses her potency in terms of any of the 20 or so pheromones which she creates and distributes in the hive, the bees will sense that ‘somethng is wrong’ and they may kill and replace her.

In addition, if the queen’s nervous system is damaged in any way that affects her behaviour, her egg-laying pattern for example – the bees will kill and replace her. There have been reports from France and from America that while bee-colonies have died by the thousands in areas where pesticides are routinely used on sunflowers, oilseed rape, almonds, apples, peas, beans and so on – there have been virtually no bee-losses in areas where such pesticides are not used: forests, heather-moorlands, offshore islands, mountain districts.

I recently read about a beekeeper called Andrew Abrahams who keeps native black bees on the remote island of Colonsay in the inner Hebrides:

http://www.colonsay.org.uk/

His bees forage on the wildflowers of the ‘Machair’ – the famed coastal flower-pastures which thrive because of the calcareous shell-sands created from billions of sea-shells ground by the Atlantic waves.  The Machair habitat is found on many West-facing shores of most of the Hebridean islands and the vast carpet of wildflowers feeds millions of insects in May, which in turn attract thousands of migrant wading birds to breed here.

Since there is no intensive, pesticide-based farming on islands like Colonsay, the bees are uncontaminated – and the varroa mite has not reached the islands either, he writes:  http://www.colonsay.org.uk/honey2.html

Industrial farming has laid waste the natural bee forage of most of Britain. Hedges uprooted, every weed sprayed, grasslands fertilised by nitrogen instead of clover. Only now at the margin, in places such as Colonsay, can a wide diversity of wildflowers still be found. Colonsay and Oronsay have varied habitats from the machair near the shore, to non intensive farmland, hedges, woodland and open heather moorland. Over 50% of all British wildflower species grow in this small area. A very mixed and varied feast for the bees!. The important nectar flows that make the bulk of the honey are sycamore and bluebell in the Spring, hawthorn, bramble and clover in the summer months and then the bell and ling heathers of the autumn. But it is the fragrant nectar of the numerous wildflowers that gives Isle of Colonsay Wildflower Honey it’s unique and special flavour. The strong aromatic oils of the wild thyme, growing on the sandy machair, are just one example.

A Queen from Over the Sea

I contacted Andrew to see if I could buy one of his Colonsay Queens to create a new colony at my Apiary in the Borders, and was lucky to find that he did have some queens for sale.  The new queen would be sent through the post in a small plastic cage, protected in bubble-wrap and accompanied by a dozen or so attendant bees, with a block of honey-candy as food for the journey

The new queen would arrive a couple of days later but I had to prepare a nucleus hive of queenless bees to receive the new queen.  This is a tricky procedure, since it involves taking bees from a hive which already has a queen and separating these bees from their mother-queen, whose pheromones are the very basis of their survival.  Each queen has its own distinct pheromone-character and each hive of bees has its own ‘family-smell’; the bees will fight and kill any strange bee which attempts to enter their hive, because it does not have the right smell. So, in order to get bees to accept a new queen, with a new smell, they first have to be made queenless, by separating them from their mother-hive for at least 24 hours.

Queenless bees realise they are queenless within an hour or so, and they display all the classic signs: all normal activity in the hive stops and the bees run about all over the front of the hive in a disordered, frantic mob – ‘roaring’ loudly all the time.  This noisy-chaos  is unlike any other sight you will ever see around a beehive, and once seen it is never forgotten.

Having left this newly-made colony queenless overnight, I introduced the queen in her cage between the frames of the hive at dusk the next day.

The effect was dramatic; within two minutes the noisy roaring died away, the frantic searching hither and thither stopped, and all the bees on the front of the hive trooped inside in an orderly manner.  As soon as the queen was introduced into the hive, signal-bees appeared on the landing board where they stuck their tails in the air and exposed the white Nasonov Gland which is normally concealed beneath their tail segment.  This exudes a ‘homing-pheromone’ which essentially signals that ‘this is home, everything is alright, come on in’.

Within minutes there was hardly a bee in sight and the Island Queen was being feted as the new mother of a new bee-colony; all that could be heard from the hive was the deep, contented hum of happy bees, which is one of the wonderful sounds of the world.

So I now  have a new queen from a pesticide-free island, heading up a new colony in my apiary.  The only problem of course is that I live in the Scottish Borders, in a centre of intensive, industrial, pesticide-laced arable farming. So the question is – ‘how long will she last?‘.

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Wasp Attack on Bee Colony

Posted by borderglider on August 13, 2008

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I had a small tragedy this week when a newly created hive of bees was overwhelmed by a wasp attack:every single bee was killed, all the eggs and larvae were eaten and all the honey was stolen by the wasps. The hive had been created as a nucleus with a couple of thousand young bees – which were given a queen-cell. All went well and I was pleased to find the new queen had mated and produced two sizeable patches of brood.

I saw the hive last weekend and all was well – though there were some wasps around. When I went to inspect this weekend I found a large pile of dead bees on the mesh floor – no living bees in the hive at all. There were a few dead wasps as well. The most striking thing was the hundreds of bee-wings scattered on the varroa inspection tray – and on closer examination I could see legs, heads, thoraxes by the hundreds.

Bee colony massacred by wasps
wasps and bees lie among hundreds of dis-membered bee wings

I did not realise that wasps physically dis-member bees – biting off wings, legs and heads; possibly they do this to carry away the bee’s abdomens which they may use to feed their own larvae. Wasps are predators of other insects and feed their own young on insect prey. In return their own larvae excrete a sugar-rich fluid which the adult wasps feed on.

Wasps and bees lie among hundreds of dis-membered bee wings
Wasps and bees lie among hundreds of dis-membered bee wings

DIY WASP TRAPS
I made 6 new wasp traps today and placed them in a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the hives; there were dozens of wasps inside the traps within 15 minutes – so the local wasp population is evidently really high this year.
I have created a web page showing how to make wasp traps out of 2 litre plastic milk containers – at zero cost in less than 5 minutes. To download the design for the wasp trap please click below:
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Pesticides Are Seriously Messing Up Our Honey Bees

Posted by borderglider on August 6, 2008

“The Indictment Against Farm-Insecticides Is Growing More Detailed”

Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture

Kim Flottum, Editor of Bee Culture

A thought-provoking article by Kim Flottum – Editor of Bee Culture magazine in the USA which reveals that some very experienced beekeepers are convinced that neo-nicotinoid pesticides are directly involved in Colony Collapse Disorder. For full article please visit:

http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/bees/honey-bee-pesticides-55080101

ABSTRACT:

” How the Government Serves the Chemical Companies

These chemicals I’ve mentioned are all in the neonicotinoid family of insecticides. They came along after the government, several years ago, decided that the long lived pesticides had to go and better, shorter, less troublesome chemicals and integrated pest management programs had to replace them (this was called the FQPA … food quality protection act … you can sound out the letters any way you want).

Well, those long lasting chemicals were the bread and butter of the agrochemical companies and the government essentially took them away. But the government wants cheap food and there’s only one way to do that, and that’s to have good management practices, including good insect control. Very good insect control.

Long story short, budget cuts forced the EPA to cut corners and one of those corners was testing new products. Why not let the chemical companies test them, and we’ll evaluate the results, went the EPA thinking. Better: why not let the fox in the chicken house, went the thinking, and we’ll see if the chickens die.

So now the only major chemicals used to control insects on crops are in the neonic family. They are all the same, and they are all over. And all the chemicals listed here are in that family.

Do they accumulate from one year to the next in the soil, building to levels three to four times what they should be? When, after three or four years they are ingested by honey bees in nectar or pollen do they cause behavior or health problems?

There seems to be evidence that they do, but it’s only anecdotal, and science doesn’t deal with this sort of data, does it….

Dave Hackenburg has brought up a boatload of questions about pesticides. Whether they have anything to do with CCD or not is less important than if these chemicals, and their multi-season accumulations are causing significant risks for bees, or people, remains to be seen.

And what about this agrochemical complex Dave describes? What do Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto, and others have in store for us?

Dave’s comment? “We still don’t know what’s going on, or why. But bees are dying, and we better figure it out … quick”.”

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SWARM TIME IS HERE

Posted by borderglider on May 24, 2008

Spotted my first swarm by a roadside in the Borders yesterday – a ‘prime swarm’ near another beekeepers apiary – he collected it shortly afterwards. It seems likely that the only swarms we are seeing these days are ‘escapees’ from managed colonies in beekeeper’s apiaries – since wild or feral colonies will have been killed by varroa mites.

Prime Swarm on an Elderberry Tree: May 23 2008

Pillar of Bees: Swarm on a Barbed-Wire fence at my old Apiary – 2001

This was my most challenging swarm to date – at my old Apiary near Dunbar in Scotland. This large swarm chose to cluster on a barbed wire fence – on a post wrapped around with both barbed wire and square sheep fencing. Took me the best part of an hour to coax them upwards into a straw skep – using a combination of ‘drumming’ on the wooden post – and wafting smoke over the lower part of the swarm.

They did eventually climb up into the skep and I later set this on a white bedsheet – leaving them to settle down until evening, when I lifted bedsheet and skep and hived them in a new home.

Straw skep placed on fence to tempt the swarm into taking up residence. I smeared the inside of the skep with honey and also tacked a piece of comb in there to give them something to grip onto.

Swarms are ‘usually’ gentle and non-stinging

If any non-beekeepers come across a swarm – it’s important to understand that swarms are not ‘dangerous’ and in fact they are usually very gentle and non aggressive. They are simply not interested in any passing humans – and they are filled with honey to provision their new home. If you see a swarm, alert a local beekeeper – the local council or police will often have a list of beekeepers, who will be only too happy to come and remove the swarm to a new home.

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Dandelion Days – May 2008

Posted by borderglider on May 22, 2008

Dandelions peak in early May

Common Dandelion – Good source of Pollen

May has been dominated by dandelions on the roadsides – which provide lots of pollen and nectar for bees – though the vast yellow fields of oilseed rape (OSR) provide pollen and nectar on a totally different scale. Sadly the Oilseed Rape flowered too early for our colonies to take advantage of – my hives are stuffed with hatching bees and sealed brood – but there just aren’t enough foraging bees to ‘cash-in’ on the golden harvest of OSR. The newly emerged bees will spend at least two weeks inside the hive feeding larvae, cleaning cells and acting as ‘house bees’ – receiving nectar from foragers – before they start to go out and collect nectar themselves. However, this vast bloom of flowers is the perfect source of food for accelerating the build-up of the bee population in the hives.

Oilseed Rape (OSR) in full bloom – fifty acres of it!

POLLEN BUILDS BEES

Honey provides the bees with their daily food needs – but they can only create new bees if they can provide larvae with protein in the form of pollen. Thus -in Spring the hive usually has stores of honey – and some stores of ‘sealed-pollen’ (last season’s pollen mixed with honey as a paste – sometimes called ‘bee bread’.

However, the limiting factor on breeding more bees is the availability of pollen. So May is the crucial month here in the UK when vast swathes of wildflowers and huge crops of oilseed rape provide an ocean of pollen. The problem is that the hive needs foragers – older bees – to collect the pollen, and if the hive population is still low, there just aren’t enough pollen-foragers to do the job.

Worker With Full pollen Baskets Returning to the Hive

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