Beekeeping in the USA part 3

  • By mark patterson
  • 24 Dec, 2016

In the third and final installment of his experiences of beekeeping in North America Mark discusses pests and pathogens which US beekeepers have to contend with.

Insect pests

Firstly lets start with wasps Beekeepers in America like those the world over have a hateful relationship with wasps. Here in the UK we have about half a dozen species of wasp which can pose problems for our bee colonies. These are mostly social wasps which build paper nests but there is also one solitary wasp – the Bee Wolf Philanthus – which hunts almost exclusively on honey bee workers which it buries underground and lays its eggs on after paralysing the bee. Most of these wasps are little more than a nuisance, few can actually cause any real damage, and when they do it is usually already weak colonies which are effected. Reducing hive entrances to make the colony easier for the guard bees to defend is usually all the intervention needed. In the US they have a whole different range of native wasps which predate bees as well as common Wasp, German Wasp, Tree Wasp and European Hornets which have been accidentally introduced from Europe. In total they have around 20 species of social wasps which all, to some degree prey, on honey bee colonies.

Honey Bees are not native to North America so have few defences against the native wasps which must have delighted at their arrival in the 1600s. Among the most common social wasps which can cause problems for US beekeepers are the Yellow Jackets. These are very similar to European common wasps which are the scourge of picnic tables in late summer and sometimes rob our honey bees. Yellow Jackets almost always nest underground among thick undergrowth. In 2013, I was the victim of a vicious Yellow Jacket colony which went on the rampage after an innocent bystander accidentally stepped on their nest during an event in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. 100s of wasps came pouring out of a small hole in the ground – probably an old mouse burrow and flew straight up my shorts stinging my groin. My friends were stung on the face, arms and legs. The stings were extremely painful and burned intensely. They were far more painful than any bee sting and I would not want to experience it again. There are several species of Yellow Jacket which all look very similar. They are the Eastern Yellow Jacket, Western Yellow Jacket, Prairie Yellow Jacket and the Southern Yellow Jacket. All the Yellow Jackets are in the genus Vespa which is the same Genus that our common wasps and European Hornets belong to.

A Bald Faced Hornet - caught at the hive entrance whilst attacking the bees

 In the genus Dolichovespula is the bald faced Hornet. This social wasp is a bit larger than our common wasps but not as big as our hornets. They are a black and white pied patterned wasps – they are actually quite pretty. Like common wasps and hornets they are opportunistic raiders of honey bee colonies in late summer. An introduced European relative of the Bald Faced Hornet is the European Tree Wasp. These are also quite common in the US. Despite being called tree wasps they often nest underground. Tree wasps are the typical waspy black and yellow.

European hornets are a real problems for beekeepers in some parts of the US where they have naturalised. They have no natural predators in the US and appear to behave differently to hornets here in Europe. Perhaps their presence in an alien ecosystem where they have no natural predators has caused them to develop a more aggressive temperament and adopt different predatory strategies than their European counterparts? The beekeepers I met certainly had respect for them. From my experience European Hornets are usually quite mellow towards humans and don’t deserve their fearsome reputation.

There are a number of other social wasps known as paper wasps. These are similar to the before covered social wasps and like them build paper machete like nests but their colonies are sometimes structured differently. Rather than rearing a Queen caste some build nests where all the female workers in the colony can become the queen if they can dominate their sisters and suppress their desire to lay. Over the course of the year several members of the colony may have a turn at being the queen if they can manage to bully their way to the top and become the egg layer. These are large wasps and fearsome hunters. They make our European hornets look diminutive. Fortunately they seldom attack honey bee hives and are content preying on caterpillars. I saw allot of these large wasps around an apiary in Atlanta and they were very fearsome looking. They belong to the genus Polistes.

An apiary in the mountains surrounded by a solar powered electric fence to keep out Black Bears

Large Mammals

Other more unusual pests of the Honey Bee in North America include several species of large mammal. Here in Europe, very few beekeepers have Brown Bears to content with, and throughout most of Europe the most serious mammalian pests are probably badgers and martins. In the Northern United States Black Bears are still very common and pose a real nuisance to beekeepers in rural areas. When I visited an apiary in the Appalachian Mountains I saw first-hand the damage that Black Bears can cause to hives. The brood bodies were deeply scratched and hives regularly toppled over spilling their suppers. The beekeeper had to create a concrete base with a series of bolts set into the concrete. Attached to these bolts was the hive via a series of ratchet straps. This prevents the bears from easily knocking the hive over, but if determined they can claw their way in. Polystyrene hives are seldom used in rural areas in the US because they are simply too easy for mammals to break into. The most effective method at keeping the bears at bay was to keep a large dog nearby, Bears are wary of the dogs barking and tend to stay away. One keeper I met even had a solar powered electric fence – it gave me quite a shock when I accidentally leaned against it so I imagine it would give most bears cause for concern too.

Other mammalian pests include racoons, skunks, armadillo, possums, and in the far North, martins and Grizzly Bears.

Outbreaks of American Foul Brood are far more frequent in the US than here in the UK

Bee diseases

American Foul Brood outbreaks are far more common in the US than here in Europe. This is largely due to the fact that there is no national program to eradicate it. AFB is not a notifiable disease in all the states, there are not always requirements to notify the authorities, quarantine the apiary or restrict movement of colonies and keepers are quite easily able to acquire antibiotics to treat their colonies – unlike in the Uk where issue of antibiotics is extremely rare and only legally administered by a authorised bee inspector.

Whilst the use of antibiotics relieves the symptoms of the outbreak on the colony it does not eradicate the pathogen from the environment completely so the bees are free to pass it on to other colonies as they drift and rob one another. Many beekeepers I met blame feral colonies as reservoirs for AFB but in practice I think a lot of cases are probably the cause of the beekeeper failing to implement strict enough standards of apiary hygiene and failing to clean away spilled honey or dispose of comb safely. I was horrified at a lecture I attended to hear a highly regarded beekeeper in one state speak of their joy at watching all the bees in her yard flock to her garden table to rob the old combs she leaves out for them to clean so that she can harvest the wax! In my apiary any bits of comb removed from the hive are placed immediately in a plastic container with a lid or wrapped in a plastic bag until they are to be disposed of or melted down and cleaned for use later on.

Other pathogens like Nosema, chalk brood etc are also present in the US and are probably no more common than they are here in the UK. One thing effecting the bees in the US that we do not have here in the UK is CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. This is a condition where entire colonies disappear overnight leaving behind only the queen and a handful of nurse bees. Basically all the flying bees vanish in a very short space of time. There are many theories as to what causes it but pesticide exposure is widely believed to be one of the factors. There has been some research which shows that bees subjected to sub lethal doses of some pesticides exhibit weakened sense of orientation and can’t navigate as easily. Some beekeepers think their poisoned bees are leaving in the morning and become lost and simply can’t make it back to the hive. Emerging evidence seems to be pointing towards migratory beekeeping practices and lack of diversity in the bee’s diets as one contributing factor to CCD in the US. Researchers at George Washington State University recently found that bees which have access to a wider variety of pollen sources were healthier than colonies with poor diet and that the better fed bees were more tolerant and able to cope with environmental stresses such as pesticide exposure. It’s obvious to me where the problem lies but US commercial Beekeepers still seem to be scratching their heads unable to figure it out. Fortunately no cases of CCD have been confirmed for a number of years now and according to the US Department for Agriculture numbers of managed hives in the US are starting to recover – in fact in 2015 the USDA announced that numbers of managed colonies was at a 20 year high exceeding the numbers of hives present in 1996 when the first case of CCD was diagnosed.

Parasites

Varroa Beekeepers in the US just like us here in the UK have varroa to contend with. Like us Brits many keepers in the US have switched to open mesh floors to help combat varroa, they also use thymol treatments and a growing number are using Oxalic Acid as a winter treatment which has recently been granted as legal to use.  In the far north where freezing temperatures can last for many months a long break in the bees brood cycle helps reduce varroa build up. Several keepers I met on my travels spoke about a new hygienic strain of bee known as ankle biters. These bees are derived from a blood line which have developed an unusual behavioural defence against the mites. The bees are said to bite the mites and chew their legs off with their mandibles which immobilises the mite and prevents them from clinging on to their hosts. Immobile and unable to feed the mites quickly die. There was an atmosphere of hope among the beekeepers who spoke of these bees and that they may offer a new method of combating the mite.

Small Hive Beetle

Small Hive Beetle originate in tropical Africa and are a pest of the native Honey bee Apis mellifera scutellata. In their native host the beetles pose little threat as the African bees have regular long gaps in their brood nest, swarm frequently and are more aggressive than European Honey Bees. This enables them to better defend themselves against the beetles. The beetles themselves are also restricted by the changes between the hot and wet seasons in Tropical Africa. Beetle larva require moist soil in which to pupate and for much of the year the soil will be baked dry and impenetrable to burrowing beetles. This restricts their ability to multiply rapidly so they rarely become a serious pest to the colony. Outside of their native Africa the beetle can exploit ideal breeding conditions and become a serious honey bee pest.

Small Hive Beetle first Arrived in the US in Florida state in 1998 and early detection failed to contain the initial outbreak. Within a very short time after their initial discovery the beetles had spread to countless surrounding apiaries and within 2 years had infected 20,000+ colonies across the state. Today they are found in 30 states across the US and are serious pest particularly in the southern states where the long hot summers and humid climate create ideal breeding conditions for them. Further north they are less of a problem and more of a honey super storage issue similar to wax moth.

Small Hive Beetles are highly mobile and adults can fly many miles to locate new colonies to infest. The adult beetles enter the hives at night (they avoid daylight) and help themselves to stores of honey. They lay their eggs in the comb cells which the bees try to clear up and remove. The bees will respond aggressively to the presence of beetles in the brood nest and will coral the beetles away from the brood areas. Although the bees are unable to sting the beetles through their protective armour nor are the bees able to grip the beetles to carry them away, their harassment of the beetles does discourage the beetles away from the centre of the colony and can usually confine them to the outside reaches of the nest. This is the outermost frames and corner of the brood box. The beetles will gather in the corners of the brood body and in hives with open mesh floors will be found in the corners just beneath the crown board where it is darkest.

Small Hive Beetle larva infesting the combs of a hive

Another response by the bees to the presence of these invaders is the increased use of propolis. The bees will attempt to contain beetles in corners of the hive and seal them in with propolis. They will also fill any gaps in the hive woodwork where beetles may attempt to hide their eggs. Female beetles can lay up to 2000 eggs in her 3-4 month life time and each developing larva once hatched will burrow through the comb attacking bee larva and devouring honey and pollen stores. Stores they don’t eat are usually left soiled and quickly ferment and go sour. When fully grown the larva then migrate en-mass and leave the hive to burrow in moist earth where they will pupate. Time from egg to adult beetle varies and can be as little as 3 weeks or several times longer than this depending upon the temperatures. 

Large infestations can devastate a colony and the combs become ‘slimed’ by the messy larva. Temperatures are important to the beetles as outside the warmth of the honey bee colony the larva require warm conditions to quickly pupate in. They cannot survive freezing temperatures in any life stage or form therefore in the far north only small numbers of beetles able to penetrate the winter cluster will survive. Whilst they are an unwelcome guest in the hive and real thorn in the side of the beekeeper they are far from the nail in the coffin which they were initially seen as.

a beetle jail trap - one of the more successful methods of trapping and removing mites from the hive

Keepers in the US have had almost 20 years to develop strategies to cope with the beetles and have came up with a variety of integrated management techniques which if applied correctly are effective at keeping their number in check. Like varroa they are impossible to eradicate completely but can be managed and kept to a low population threshold allowing the bees to cope with their presence.

Control methods include:

  • Pesticide soil soaks. Chemicals are available which when mixed with water and applied to the soil at night are very effective at killing pupating beetle larva in the earth. Unfortunately the poison is also detrimental to most soil life leaving the ground void of beneficial soil fauna.
  • Smash technique. This is a crude but highly satisfactory method of killing hive beetle – aim and splatter with the flat end of your hive tool!
  • Blow torch technique. Some beekeepers will gently shake frames over the upturned hive lid. The nurse bees will cling to the frame but the beetles will mostly fall off and land in the up turned roof. You can then take your blow torch to them. Again allot of satisfaction can be gained from this crude method.
  • The use of treatment strips and poison bait traps. These are baited corex board strips or plastic traps placed inside the hive usually suspended between the frames or on the hive floor or laid across the top bars. The beetles will enter the traps or the recesses on the corex strips and come into contact with an insecticide which then kills them. Death is not instantaneous though and there is concern among many beekeepers that the chemicals used could harm the bees therefore they are not the most popular option.
  • Beetle jail traps. These are the best beetle traps I’ve seen so far. Slot the traps in the seam between the 2 outer most frames in the hive using the hook attachments over one of the top bars. The traps contain 2 compartments fitted with a gate which can be filled with a little vegetable cooking oil. There is then a small bait compartment. Usually a piece of rotting fruit, some dead beetles or apple cider vinegar is used as bait. When the beetles enter the traps they fall into the vegetable oil and quickly drown. Every so often the keeper empties the traps and recharges with fresh vegetable oil. The traps themselves are inexpensive, dishwasher safe and re-usable making them a very economical option.
  • Beetle Baffle. This ingenuous invention is very simple but highly effective. The baffle is a series of thin metal strips which is fitted to the lower inside edge of the brood body directly where the brood body touches the hive floor. The baffle acts as a physical barrier which the cumbersome beetles cannot climb over and physically prevents them from climbing the walls of the hive and accessing the brood nest. Used in combination with the beetle jail traps they make managing beetle numbers very easy.

There is a great deal of worry and concern about the recent arrival of Small Hive Beetle in Europe but I think armed with the 20 years of experience the Americans have had with combating this pest we have no excuse for not being prepared for their eventual arrival in our apiaries and rather than solely focussing on early warning and containment the authorities here should be investing more into educating keepers how to cope with them once they arrive.

a beetle baffler fitted to the floor of a Langstroth box
By mark patterson 09 Apr, 2017

Following a very mild March the forage this season appears to be well advanced of recent springs, even in comparison to last year’s very mild winter and warm start to the year. 2017 has started cold and chilly but in late March this has warmed up considerably. So much so that I experienced my first attempt at a swarm during the last week of March and already the new queens have emerged and unbelievably appear to have been mated and are laying in the first week of April!!!

During the first week of April many of our true heralds of spring had already begun to flower across the city. Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasus an evergreen shrub who’s flowers are a useful source of spring forage have been out in bloom since mid-March 2-3 weeks earlier than last year. Whilst manning the LBKA stall at Ascot race course on the 2nd April I saw many Andrena Mining bees, Honey bees, Bumble bees, Hoverflies, Queen wasps and Queen Hornet nectaring on the blooms of these tall shrubs growing around the car park.

Damson, Plum, Gage, and other stone fruits have largely flowered and gone over already as have crocus, daffodils and snow drops. My flowering currant normally just blooming now is almost over already meanwhile Blue Bells are coming into flower. 

Blue bells may be visited by Honey bees and can produce a honey crop but they are also popular with some of the longer tongued solitary bees and Garden Bumble Bee Bombus hortorum . Most of the Blue Bells found growing in our gardens and sadly in many of our wilder places are the larger invasive Spanish Blue Bell Hycinthoides hispanica and not the native English Blue Bell Hycinthoides non-scripta . You can tell the two species apart by the way that the individual bells hang on the flower stalk. In English Blue bell the bells all hang on the same side but in the Spanish Blue Bell they hang at different angles all around the stalk. They also have green to blue pollen whilst English Blue Bells have a creamy coloured Pollen. Blue Bells frequently hybridise and these offspring can be difficult to differentiate.

By mark patterson 04 Mar, 2017

March is officially the first month of spring for us in the UK, though in London it has felt spring like for several weeks now.

 Already the first of the spring flowers are putting on a colourful show of yellows, purples and shades of white. Snow drops are starting to go past their best having flowered in numbers since Late January. The early flowering species crocuses are currently looking at their best across most of London and the later flowering large flowered Crocus varieties are just starting to join the display too. 

These and other spring bulbous plants including Winter Aconite, Anenemone blanda, Squill and Muscari are valuable early sources of pollen for bees.

By mark patterson 31 Jan, 2017

2017 has started off quite differently from last year’s exceptionally warm January. Last year in the first week of January I participated in the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s annual New Year’s plant hunt and found 76 species of plant in bloom during an 8 mile walk around East London. In contrast on the 3rd of January this year I found just 9!

January 2017 has seen a return of the more usual cold winter temperatures and from what I can tell so far the return towards more normal timings of the seasons and emergence of spring plants and animals. The recent cold weather has meant that late season flowering plants have ceased blooming before Christmas and not persisted through winter as they did last year meanwhile spring flowers have remained doorman and not yet begun to emerge.

Despite the weather being generally cold with some particularly harsh ground frosts there have been occasional mild days when the bees will fly to cleanse their bowels and look for food. Despite the cold there are a select few flowers in bloom which they can take advantage of.

Few native plants are yet in bloom but several exotics flourish in late winter through to early spring providing a bounty of forage for the few insects brave enough to venture out and take advantage of them.

Mahonia or Oregon Grape grows in our towns and cities in abundance and flowers throughout the winter providing nectar and pollen for bees. In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees Bombus terrestris are increasingly continue to be active throughout the winter surviving largely on this plant. Around 75% of winter flower visitations by bees are to Mahonia. The variety ‘winters sun’ is particularly attractive. Bees taking advantage of Mahonia blooms in winter have few other insects to compete with and can fair better than some colonies active in summer. On the 12th December I discovered an active Buff Tailed nest in west London beneath a Pyracantha hedge. I’ve been monitoring it all winter and whenever there is a warm day the workers can be seen busily coming and going from a large stand of Mahonia shrubs across the street from the nest. The blooms will only last a few more weeks so hopefully an equally good source of forage will come into bloom nearby to ensure the colony has sufficient forage coming in to enable it to produce new queens and drones by spring when the nest dies off.

Viburnum shrubs include a number of deciduous and evergreen species which flower during the winter months. They are relatives of our native Guelder Rose Viburnum opolus . Some of the most popular Viburnums with our bees include the evergreen Viburnum tinus who’s sweetly scented cream blooms flower from November through to March and Viburnum bodnaatense whos pink flowers bloom from around Christmas to March.

Winter Heliotrope Petasites fragrans is a relative of our native Butterbur but flowers much earlier. Its not a UK native and can be quite invasive when established in the wild but is a great garden plant for bees in late winter. The flowers are shaped like a toilet brush and pink in colour.

Clematis . Several Clematis species are useful forage sources to bees in winter. Clematis amandii and Clematis cirhossa both have creamy white flowers and bloom in winter. Honey and winter active bumble bees will visit them for pollen.

Hellebores include the familiar ‘winter rose’ with its large white blooms ‘ orientalis ’ and its many cultivated hybrids and the native Stinking Hellebore helleborus foetidus .

Winter Flowering Cherry Prunus subhirtella flower from late November to February producing pale pink flowers. I’ve very rarely seen any bees on the blooms but have often seen flies on them. In the absence of better forage like Mahonia bees will visit the flowers.

Sweet Box Sarcococca confusa is a short growing evergreen shrub which produces extremely fragrant blooms (reminiscent of hyacinths) from late winter into early spring. It’s one of those plants that you almost always smell long before you see it.

Winter Heather/Heaths Erica species produce tubular blooms in shades of white to pink throughout the winter. They are coming to the end of their flowering period now but still providing forage for bees brave enough to venture out.

Winter flowering Honeysuckle . Several Honeysuckles flower during winter. Some are climbers other are shrub forming. One of the best is Lonicera fragrantissimima .

As we progress beyond February into March the usual array of spring blooms will begin to appear. Their arrival is not far off, already a few brave Daffodils, Snow Drops and Winter Aconite have made an appearance. They will be joined by Crocus, Muscari, Sweet Violets, White Deadnettle and Pulmonaria.

By mark patterson 24 Dec, 2016

Insect pests

Firstly lets start with wasps Beekeepers in America like those the world over have a hateful relationship with wasps. Here in the UK we have about half a dozen species of wasp which can pose problems for our bee colonies. These are mostly social wasps which build paper nests but there is also one solitary wasp – the Bee Wolf Philanthus – which hunts almost exclusively on honey bee workers which it buries underground and lays its eggs on after paralysing the bee. Most of these wasps are little more than a nuisance, few can actually cause any real damage, and when they do it is usually already weak colonies which are effected. Reducing hive entrances to make the colony easier for the guard bees to defend is usually all the intervention needed. In the US they have a whole different range of native wasps which predate bees as well as common Wasp, German Wasp, Tree Wasp and European Hornets which have been accidentally introduced from Europe. In total they have around 20 species of social wasps which all, to some degree prey, on honey bee colonies.

Honey Bees are not native to North America so have few defences against the native wasps which must have delighted at their arrival in the 1600s. Among the most common social wasps which can cause problems for US beekeepers are the Yellow Jackets. These are very similar to European common wasps which are the scourge of picnic tables in late summer and sometimes rob our honey bees. Yellow Jackets almost always nest underground among thick undergrowth. In 2013, I was the victim of a vicious Yellow Jacket colony which went on the rampage after an innocent bystander accidentally stepped on their nest during an event in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. 100s of wasps came pouring out of a small hole in the ground – probably an old mouse burrow and flew straight up my shorts stinging my groin. My friends were stung on the face, arms and legs. The stings were extremely painful and burned intensely. They were far more painful than any bee sting and I would not want to experience it again. There are several species of Yellow Jacket which all look very similar. They are the Eastern Yellow Jacket, Western Yellow Jacket, Prairie Yellow Jacket and the Southern Yellow Jacket. All the Yellow Jackets are in the genus Vespa which is the same Genus that our common wasps and European Hornets belong to.

By mark patterson 09 Dec, 2016

By now the vast majority of the UK’s 277 species of bee are well tucked away for winter. The majority of our bees are solitary and the most of these bees die in late summer leaving behind their offspring entombed deep inside underground burrows or imprisoned inside hollow plant stems or decaying wood. These bees will either overwinter as a pupae, pre-pupae or as a fully mature bee but they will not vacate their birth site until spring.

Bumble bees colonies die out in autumn and only the queens survive winter by hibernating. In autumn the queens feast on pollen and nectar to fatten up for their long sleep.

In the south of the UK, particularly in towns and cities some of these bumble bees may remain active all year round. The Buff Tailed Bumble Bee is our most winter hardy bee, they are large and furry, can regulate their own body temperature and regularly fly on cold days when other bees are nowhere to be seen. They will even fly in snow.

In southern towns and cities Buff Tailed Bumble Bees are increasingly starting to found new colonies in late autumn rather than going into hibernation. The abundance of exotic winter flowering shrubs in urban areas and lack of competition from other pollinators means these bees can thrive during the winter months. Mahonia is particularly important to winter active bumble bees, 75% of flower visitations by bees in winter are to this plant alone. There are numerous varieties of Mahonia but my favourite is ‘Winter Sun’ which is popular with the bees.

By mark patterson 09 Dec, 2016

The Christmas Wreath

Christmas wreaths predate Christmas and Christianity by several thousand years. Originally ancient Britain’s and other northern Europeans would have made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung from the walls of their home) as a means to warn off winter spirits. It is only later with the rise of the Christian churches that Wreaths adopted a circular shape mirroring the crown of Christ. Our ancestors believed that evergreen plants were magical because unlike other plants they didn’t die back and shed their leaves in winter. Additionally many evergreen plants like Holly produce long lasting berries which were a symbol of life and fertility. Plants like Ivy who’s berries persist long into winter as well as being evergreen climb and entwine representing matrimony and togetherness. Strongly scented sprigs of conifer would have hidden the foul odours of winter (no fridges back then so perishable foods would not last long even when dried and salted and would produce a pungent smell)

Key items used in wreaths include Holly Ilex aquifolium which is pollinated by Honey bees and Andrena mining bees who’s short tongues are well equipped to manipulate the strongly scented but visually insignificant flowers. Ivy flowers are pollinated by a wide variety of insects and are a valued autumn forage source but has its own special pollinator the Ivy Mining Bee Colletes hedera which only collects pollen from Ivy and times its emergence to the opening of the Ivy flowers.

By mark patterson 09 Dec, 2016

One of the things I have been very interested in during my travels throughout the United States was investigating how different urban areas compare to London in terms of forage availability. To begin my comparison we first need to understand what we have here at home in London.

London

Here in London we have very high hive densities in some parts of the city. According to 2016 figures from the National bee Unit Greater London has around 5000 hives and around 1400 beekeepers. The exact number is unknown as it is estimated that 25-30% of beekeepers do not register. With this in mind the actual number of managed hives in Greater London could be as high as 6200. NBU data also shows that in some central London areas hive density is as high as 13 hives per square kilometre – greater than many rural areas. Unlike many rural areas which have vast swathes of agricultural crops which provide a limited variety but seasonal super-abundance of nectar, London has less abundance of forage but a greater variety due to the wide range of exotic plants grown in the city’s parks and gardens. What this means for bees and beekeepers in London is that our bees have a much more balanced and varied diet offering them a wider range of nutrition but our honey crops generally fall 30% short of the UK national average. According to the BBKA honey survey results for the past decade London has consistently been the lowest yielding region in the country in terms of average volumes of honey produced.  The exception to this trend has been 2015 and 2016 when national averages plummeted due to the cold, wet and windy spring weather but London yields remained the same (due to our microclimate and more stable weather patterns)

London is 61 percent green space by land area. Of this 14% is domestic garden green space, 38.4% is public green space and the remaining is made up of commercial green space, railway sidings, brownfield land and green roofs according to data from Green Space Information for Greater London (GIGL), The General London Assembly (GLA) and the 2012 World Culture report.

London also has an abundance of trees with tree canopy covering 21.87% of the city. In 2003 London had around 7 million trees – almost as many trees as there are people and there are targets to increase this by 5% by 2025. Under the Mayors RE:LEAF initiative 75’000 new trees are planted in the City each year. On the surface London is a pretty green city but when we look more closely at the available data we begin to see that some parts of the city’s green areas are little more than green deserts. According to Kew Gardens around half of London’s half a million street trees are sterile London plane trees, as are many of the trees in central London parks. These sterile hybrids offer no pollen or nectar for pollinators and much of our parks these trees grow in are also largely short cut grass with few flowers for bees. Increasingly urban planners are planting birch and alter trees because they grow rapidly, take up little space and are low maintenance and tolerate the poor, dry urban soils. These trees offer no pollen or nectar for bees.

Generally speaking the green spaces closer to the city centre tend to offer less foraging opportunities than those further out which are often more wild and rugged and contain more wild flowers. Further out we have more large habitats including heaths and commons which are less intensively managed. Also further out into the London suburbs more of our railways are above ground and lined by thickets of Bramble, avenues of trees and more of the road verges include green buffers. There are exceptions, the gardens at Buckingham palace for example are known to have a rich diversity of flowering trees including wilder areas. For some time there has been a growing concern that in some areas of the city we may have reached saturation point where numbers of hives has reached the limits of what local forage can support. It is this concern which is leading many organisations including LBKA to promote the planting of flowers and trees for bees. There are now a number of initiatives such as river of flowers and bee lines project which aim to create landscape scale bee friendly corridors of suitable flower habitat through parts of the city to link up pollinator populations and help provide forage for bees. On the whole though London is a good place for bees, and is by no means a bad habitat for bees but as I discovered on my travels there is much room for improvement and some of the US cities I visited put us to shame when it comes to providing habitats for pollinators.

By mark patterson 24 Nov, 2016

For almost a decade now I have been making yearly trips to the USA to visit American friends and enjoy a few weeks rest and relaxation away from the stresses of work (and to get away from my bees!). During my regular visits I’ve explored much of the Eastern and mid-western USA and made friends with many beekeepers along the way.

Over the course of my next few blogs I shall be writing up my experiences of meeting beekeepers and beekeeping in the US. In this first segment of my write up will give a brief overview of beekeeping in the US and how things there differ to our situation here in the UK.

Origins of US beekeeping and hive types

Firstly beekeeping in the US has a much shorter history than here in Europe. Beekeeping in the US began in the 1600s when the first Europeans colonised North America and took Honey bees with them for honey. Swarms quickly escaped and rapidly colonised the continent. The Native American Indians referred to honey bees at ‘the white man’s flies’. These early attempts to keep honey bees used the same Straw Skeps of European Apiculturalists. This changed in 1852 when the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth of Philadelphia discovered the bee space and invented the first box shaped hive featuring removable and re-usable frames which worked to the bee space. This discovery and the invention of the Langstroth hive (now the most used hive type in the world) brought beekeeping into the modern era. Today almost all American beekeepers use Langstroth hives to house their bees.

Aside from the type of boxes which the Americans use to keep their bees there are a number of differences in husbandry practices and social structures within the beekeeping community.

The beekeeping community

Firstly unlike here in the UK, there is no nationwide beekeeping association for amateur keepers. There is no American beekeepers association. Instead towns and cities or metropolitan areas will have their own associations and in some states there is a state association which acts as an umbrella organisation. Commercial beekeepers do have a nationwide governing body, ‘the American bee farming federation’ and ‘the American honey producers Association.’ These groups represent interests of commercial beekeepers only and lobby government on issues such as pesticides and bee welfare.

Another major difference to amateur keepers in particular is that in many US cities beekeeping is outlawed on grounds of public safety. Fears of swarming and poor husbandry leading to nuisance bees means many cities forbid the keeping of bees on domestic or residential properties and in some areas the keeping of bees is outright banned within city limits. Breaking the law can lead to hefty fines yet despite this there are a growing number of guerrilla beekeepers keeping hives on rooftops disguised as chimney stacks.

Some cities allow the keeping of bees only on commercial property or private non-residential green space. Most cities which do allow the keeping of bees have strict rules which must be followed. It is often mandatory for apiaries to be registered with public health and hygiene, a water source to be provided and maintained and hives are normally required to be no less than 15 feet away from your property boundary and or a screen in place to control the bees’ dispersal.

Often a limit of 4 colonies per property is enforced. Many Guerrilla beekeepers do not register, often because the buildings they keep their bees on do not conform to public health and hygiene standards whose inspectors they try to avoid.

By mark patterson 19 Nov, 2016

As Thanksgiving approaches and Americans celebrate the blessings of the seasons harvest let’s not forget the small and often unseen pollinators that make it all possible.

North America has over 4000 species of bee from 39 genera all of which are pollinators of flowering plants including many of the flowering crops we grow for food and clothing fibres. Without them there would be no thanksgiving.

Read on to discover how the humble bees helps make your Thanksgiving feast possible and how you can give them thanks for their major role in your thanksgiving day feast..

Turkey

You may be surprised to learn that Turkeys need the assistance of bees to even exist. Turkeys in the wild are omnivores feeding on a variety of seeds, fruits and invertebrates which exist in a natural food web reliant on bees and other insect pollinators to assist plants at the base of the food chains.

Domestic Turkeys live on large farms and are fed on a ration of poultry pellets made up predominantly of Maize, Wheat and other cereals. These pellet foods also contain significant quantities of Soya and or field peas as a source of protein. These are both legumes highly reliant on Megachile and Osmia bees for pollination. In addition free range Turkeys will graze and forage on fields of flowering crops and among orchard fruit trees where they can peck at fallen apples. These crops are heavily reliant on Honey Bees, Andrena and Osmia bees for pollination.

The Stuffing

No Turkey would be complete without stuffing.

Stuffing typically contains onions, Herbs and spices all pollinated by Bees. In the US a small mining bee called Andrena prunorum is one of the most efficient pollinators of commercially farmed onions.

Another popular stuffing recipe is apple and walnut. Apples are pollinated by a huge variety of bees but the Osmia bees are particularly efficient pollinators of orchard fruits. Osmia lignaria is so much more efficient at pollinating Apples than the honey bee that just 300 female Osmia lignaria can perform the pollination role of 90,000 honey bee foragers.

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Pie is a thanksgiving staple. Pumpkins are a huge commercial crop in the US where they are grown for carving at Halloween as well as for eating. Pumpkins are members of the cucurbit family and are pollinated by a wide variety of bees including honey bees, bumble Bees, Anthophora bees and Halictus bees. In addition to these there are Squash Bees of the Peponapis and Xenoglossa genus. These bees are squash and Pumpkin specialists only collecting pollen to feed their offspring from Pumpkin and Squash plants. The name Peponapis in greek means ‘pumpkin bee.’

Squash bees are solitary and nest in underground burrows often among the crop plants they feed upon. Tillage practices can cause significant damage to their underground nests and non-tillage farming practices have been shown to triple the number of these bees on pumpkin farms. A good population of Squash bees means the farmer can avoid having to bring in Honey bee hives at cost to pollinate his crop. These bees are active very early in the morning from 4am onwards when squash and pumpkin flowers are newly opened and before they have begun to wilt. This habit makes them more efficient at pollinating pumpkin than honey bees which are not active until the sun is up and has warmed the air temperatures. In addition the male Peponapis bees sleep, often communally inside Squash flowers where they pick up significantly more pollen than the females do on their brief flower visits. This makes the male Squash bees particularly efficient pollinators of Pumpkin and Squash.

Mashed Potato

The humble spud is a thanksgiving staple, roasted, baked or mashed often with cheese and herbs. The part of the plant we eat is the tuberous root and not a pollinated fruit as with other Solanum crops but bees are necessary to breed new varieties of potato. Potato’s belong to the Solanum family and have flowers bearing cylindrical pollen holding apparatus which very few bees can access. In order for the flowers to shed their pollen they must be sonically vibrated at a specific frequency. Bumble bees and a select few solitary bees have evolved the ability to do just this by revving their flight muscle out of gear vibrating their bodies.

In the USA Anthophorula and Exomalopsis bees work alongside Bumble Bees to pollinate Potato and other Solanum crops.

Sweet Potato

Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Sweet Potato. Sweet Potato pie, baked Sweet Potato and Sweet Potato mash all feature regularly in Thanksgiving menus. They are not very closely related to the potato and other Solanums and in fact are more closely related to Morning Glory and Bindweed. They belong in the Ipomoea family and are pollinated predominantly by Humming birds but also by bees. Bee species that specialises in Ipomoea flowers are Cemolobus ipomoeae  and members of the Melitoma genus.

Collard Greens

Leafy vegetables in the cabbage family which include Collard Greens, Cauliflower, Sprouts and Broccoli feature heavily in thanksgiving recipes and are pollinated by a variety of insects including bees, beetles, Hoverflies and lepidoptera. Though the parts of the plant we eat are not reliant on pollination, bees are required to produce seed from which the crop is grown. In the US there are several bees which specialise in collecting Brassica pollen including species of Panurginus and Dufourea bees.

Green Beans

There are numerous thanksgiving dishes which contain Green beans as the primary ingredient. Skillet Green Beans, Southern Style Green Beans and Green Bean casserole are just a few ways to eat this food as part of Thanksgiving. 

A number of bees help pollinate Green Beans and other plants in the Fabaceae. Calliopsis, Protoxeae, Colletes, Caupolicana, Osmia, Anthidium, Megachile, Eucera, Florilegrus, Anthophora and Bombus bees all work alongside honey bees to help to pollinate Beans and Peas.

Cranberry

No turkey day dinner is complete without Cranberry Sauce. Several species of wild bee are commercially important in the production of Cranberries. This fruit requires ‘buzz pollination’ and only a select few bees are capable of achieving this. Among them The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee Bombus afinis,   the solitary bee Megachile addenda and Cranberry melitta bee Melitta americana. The Cranberry Melitta feeds its offspring exclusively on Cranberry pollen and is often the most numerous wild bee on large Cranberry farms. Unlike the honey bees which are shipped in to pollinate cranberry fields these bees are flower faithful and therefore far more efficient at pollinating the Cranberries.

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By mark patterson 14 Nov, 2016

Many people will be familiar with Gibraltar. Our long standing feud with the Spanish over its sovereignty regularly hits the national press and it has its own TV show ‘Gibraltar –Britain in the Sun’. 

The area is a popular tourist destination with its large population of wild monkeys attracting crowds from around Europe. But there is much more to this British territory than its wild apes as I found out in April when I spent a week there searching for wild flowers and their pollinators.

Before I talk about Gibraltar’s flowers and its pollinators I’ll give a brief overview of the area’s history and geography. Gibraltar is a small British territory (6.8km2 in area) on the southern tip of Spain’s Iberian Peninsula, its affectionately referred to as ‘Gib’ by the locals who mostly identify themselves as being British. It was captured by the British in 1704 and has been a British territory since 1713 despite numerous attempts by the Spanish to re-take it. The area is unique in having a diverse mixture of Afro-European fauna and flora found nowhere else in Europe. The ‘Rock’ itself is a large Jurassic  Limestone formation rising 426 meters above sea level with steep slopes on the West side of the rock and almost vertical cliffs on the opposite East Side.

The rock and its limestone geology are unique in Spain where the main rock type is sandstone and granite. Gibraltar’s rocks belong to the same Limestone formations found across the narrow sea crossing in North Africa. Around 5 million years ago the Mediterranean basin flooded and the rock was separated from Morocco. At this time many African species of plant and animal became trapped and isolated and have since evolved alongside European species. Many of the rocks African plant species cannot survive in the typical European habitats found on the mainland as they are limestone specialists and cannot cope with the acid conditions on the granite and sandstone areas. The result today is a unique mix of Africa meets Europe with assemblages of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world including several rare and endemic species.

I had visited Gib before but on short trips in the autumn and found the entire area to be baked tinder dry and aside from the occasional Autumn Colchium and Amaryllis belladonna there were very few wild plants in flower and even fewer bees. Gibraltar like much of southern Spain is subject to scorching hot summers so many plants and animals go dormant or hibernate for much of the dry season mid-summer to winter. The spring in Gibraltar is quite spectacular though in contrast. Winter rains and a frequent supply of moist air rising up the rocks Eastern cliffs brings lots of moisture in spring transforming the arid rock into a Lush Tropical paradise. The best time to visit to see wild flowers and their pollinators is late March and April, but there is still plenty to see if you visit in May.

I decided to visit the second week of April because I wanted to see flowers at their best but I also wanted to coincide my trip with the peak in spring bird migration. Having the narrowest sea crossing in the western Mediterranean the rock is a magnet for many migrating birds, especially birds of prey such as kites, eagles, buzzards and Vultures which rely on thermals to cover great distance. There's something really special about watching 100's of eagle sized raptors soaring just meters over your boat headed for the mainland.

It’s not just birds which migrate here in spring. Many species of Dragonfly, large Solitary bee’s, butterflies and Hoverfly’s also make the 14km journey from North Africa to Europe. One of the best ways to see these migrations is to take a pelagic boat trip out into the straight. Many tired insect travellers will alight on the boats to rest their tired flight muscles. Migrant hawkers, Chasers, and Darter dragonflies are numerous, Vollucela hoverflies are also common and occasionally clouds of Painted lady Butterfly flutter past. I noted many insect bodies floating on the ocean surface during the boat trip. Clearly the sea crossing is treacherous for insects and many don’t complete the journey – Gulls, Cory’s Shearwater and Black Terns eagerly pick their lifeless bodies from the waters surface. Occasionally a large bee will also buzz past. Another reason for taking a boat trip is to see the numerous whales and dolphins which inhabit the straight alongside sea turtles, Sun fish, Basking sharks, Humpback, Minke and Sperm Whales. The Local Striped Dolphin are among the most social and easiest to approach in Europe and come right along the side of the boats. We had the pleasure of a pod of around 15 adults and a calf bow ride our boat for around 40 minutes.

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