Keeping Bees by John Senter

Bees collect and store nectar and pollen. A variety of different plants will provide food for most of the year. The nectar is used to make honey. Pollen is carried to the hive by the worker bees, attached to their two rear legs. In the early spring the bright yellow pollen from catkins and spring flowers makes the bees look as though they are wearing fashionable boots. The beekeeper is pleased to see the bees arriving at the hive with generous supplies of pollen because it is a good sign that the colony has survived the winter and the eggs laid by the queen are maturing into the next generation of bees. Many insects survive the winter in a state of solitary dormancy. Honey bees live through the winter as a colony and massed together they have some control of their body temperature. The ability of honey bees to control the hive temperature allows the queen to lay eggs and new bees to be reared when it is cold outside. In the autumn and early winter the number of bees in the colony falls dramatically. The stores of honey and pollen collected the year before will feed the growing colony through the winter. On warm days in the winter the bees will be active cleaning the hive and looking for food. Ivy produces an inconspicuous flower that is an important food source for many insects late in the year. The queen will begin to lay eggs early in the year to build up the size of the colony ready to take advantage of the spring flowers.

The beekeeper provides a home for the colony of bees in exchange for a share of the honey store. If the bees are well managed and plenty of space is provided, a healthy colony will make at least sixty or seventy pounds of honey that is surplus to the needs of the bees. Because the queen is bigger than the worker bees, it is easy to exclude her from the part of the hive where the honey is stored by dividing the hive with a mesh that the workers can climb through but the queen cannot. The queen is confined to to the area of the hive adjacent to the entrance, the eggs are laid here and the young reared. Space provided above the brood from which the queen is excluded will be filled with stores of honey by the workers. The main ingredients of honey are nectar and water collected by the worker bees. The source of the nectar will determine the taste and consistency of the honey. Trees are the most important nectar source for the Dulwich beekeeper. Bees will make honey from other sources of sugar, and bees are often fed a syrup of sugar and water by the beekeeper to replace the honey that has been removed from the hive. I have been told that, as the result of a broken window at the Cadbury chocolate factory, honey in Bourneville tasted of peppermint cream.

Our interest in the honey bee goes beyond the culinary. We seem to see our complex society and our industry mirrored in the beehive. A keen interest is taken in stories that predict the pending extinction of the bee. This disaster can be seen to herald our own destiny. The causes are attributed to human activity, from global warming and the destruction of the natural environment to the use of mobile phones. There is nothing new here. The ancient Greeks recognized that each colony of bees was controlled by a single bee that was substantially larger than the other bees. The assumption was made that this bee must be the king. Other bees were warriors defending the hive with weapons. For the ancient Greeks these bees had to be male. It was not possible to explain reproduction in this male-dominated world and it was thought that new bee colonies were the product of spontaneous regeneration from the carcass of an ox.

That life for the honey bee and some humans in the agricultural countryside has been precarious since pesticides became an integral part of food production should not be a surprise. It is for this reason that city suburbs with a variety of species of mature trees and large gardens have been seen as a haven for bees. Over the last few years many of these colonies have not survived the winter. The beekeeper has opened his hive in the spring to find it empty, all of the bees gone.

If the hive is inspected more closely new residents can usually be found. The caterpillars of the wax moth will have reduced the comb to threads and then chewed into the timber of the hive to pupate. Slugs and sometimes mice will be found disposing of anything edible. There is a special ecology devoted to recycling empty bee hives.

The most likely culprit for the recent high mortality in suburban bee colonies is a parasitic mite. The Varroa mite has its origins as a parasite of the Asian honey bee. Varroa arrived in the UK in the early 1990s and spread very quickly throughout the country. Unlike the Asian bees the Western honey bee has not evolved defences against the Varroa mite. The mite feeds on the adult bees and destructively on the developing brood. The mites also spread viruses. The successful beekeeper must keep up to date with the methods developed to control Varroa numbers.

Varroa is the most recent threat to the bee colony but the others have not gone away. There are several highly contagious diseases that damage the developing brood. There is a legal requirement to notify the authorities if these diseases are found. In the past, infected hives would automatically be destroyed. There is now some scope for treatment if the infection is not too severe. Some birds eat bees and woodpeckers can be very destructive particularly in winter. This year I found a number of holes drilled by a woodpecker through the walls of the hive. The holes were just big enough to allow one bee to emerge at a time and crawl through, and the woodpecker was able to pick them off as they emerged at the entrance. Bees are naturally curious and tapping the walls of the hive will encourage the bees to leave the hive to find out what is going on. Hornets will take bees on the wing. Wasps and other bees will soon empty a weak hive of the honey stores.

It is becoming difficult to keep bees unless you are prepared to devote some time and skill to the activity. The amateur who pursues a policy of benign neglect is unlikely to be successful and will not be popular with other beekeepers. Some of us find that the introduction to the world of insects holds many fascinations. These animals have played an essential role in the evolution of life over a period of four hundred years million years. There would be no flowers without insects. This quotation from the beautiful book by the entomologists David Grimaldi and Michael Engel, Evolution of the Insects, summarises the debt we owe to these animals. ‘In terms of the biomass and their interaction with other terrestrial organisms, insects are the most important group of terrestrial animals. Remove all the vertebrates from the earth, by contrast and ecosystems would function flawlessly (particularly if humans were among them.’

John Senter keeps bees in Dulwich.

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