Beekeepers under the microscope

Lab equipment included a centrifuge, hotplate and... flowers, for pollen samples!

Lab equipment included a centrifuge, hotplate and… flowers, for pollen samples!

In late September, I went on an introductory course on microscopy led by master beekeeper Marin Anastasov. He led a dozen of us through the basics of using microscopes and their applications in beekeeping. Subjects covered included disease diagnosis (nosema, amoeba, acarine mites); wing morphology, an indicator of a bee’s race; and pollen identification, used in determining a honey’s provenance.

To me, the most intriguing part was using wing vein patterns and measurements (cubital index) to identify the race of a bee. I intend trying to identify the racial mix of the swarms I’ve collected and hence the genetic variation in my apiary – more on this I hope in a future post once I’ve had a chance to do some analysis. Edit: I’ve now done this and written about what I found out about my bees in this article.

Mounting and staining samples on slides

Mounting and staining samples on slides

Equipment used varied from the high tech to low tech: compound microscopes, one with a digital camera and projector attached; dissecting microscopes; a centrifuge; stains and alcohol; hot plates;  dead bees; and vases of fresh flowers – for pollen samples.

The conventional beekeepers on the course were most interested in analysing the pollen in their honey. This isn’t just about identifying grains by shape, size, and how they stain. Some pollen grains end up in honey much more easily than others, so if just 10% of the observed pollen is lavender, the sample can be counted as monofloral lavender honey! Honeydew honey (collected by bees not from nectar, but from the sticky exudations of aphids) lacks pollen but has yeasts.

Apart from our own honey samples, a commercially available honey was analysed and the presence of chinese  pollen was of some interest!

My honey is cloudy with pollen etc... the commercial jar on the right contained Chinese pollen

My honey is 3rd from the left, cloudy with pollen etc.

In my philosophy of beekeeping, I don’t take much honey from my colonies, some years none at all unless there is a dead-out. But conventional beekeepers take honey really seriously and some competitively. One had brought along a sample of a rival’s prizewinning honey to learn their secret. (It turned out to have an extraordinary and exotic mix of non-native pollen, we eventually figured the the hive must be situated near the Botanic Gardens in Oxford.) This inquisitive beek was teased by the lecturer because his own honey sample had pollen from both Spring and Summer flowering plants. “Er, maybe the bees licked out old supers and moved it down…” My own honey sample, which had simply been crush-and-strained, barely needed centrifuging it was so cloudy with pollen – just how I like it.

Everyone had a high power compound microscope. Marin projected the view from his own.

Everyone had a high power compound microscope. Marin projected the view from his own.

For those interested in taking this subject further, Marin reccomended Brunel Microscopes as a good source of high quality but relatively affordable microscopes for beekeeping. Also note that if you are a member of a BKA then you might be able to borrow their microscopes – for those interested who are members of OBKA the microscopist contact is Heather Horner, but I currently have them out on loan to do some analysis myself! A big thank you to Heather for the loan of the equipment and a basic tutorial in its use.

Books recommended by the tutor included:

I have the above books and find them informative. The course tutor also suggested these sources which I have not read/used:

Many thanks to Marin, who does this gratis each year (except a small fee for hire of venue/equipment), to OBKA‘s Nick Holt Kentwell for setting it up, and Vera Jordan for coordinating the course

This entry was posted in Honey, Pests, pollen, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Beekeepers under the microscope

  1. Lindylou says:

    Hallo Paul, is this an interesting link for you? It describes the morphometry for apis mellifera mellifera.
    Karl Michael Engfer is the black bee guy in Germany from

    I hope that it works for you. If it doesn’t let me know and I will send the link with an e-mail. Best regards, Lindy


  2. Paul says:

    Thanks Lindy, unfortunately I only speak a few words of German, but I could follow the general thread. It looks similar to what our course tutor taught us about how to monitor wings. Of course you need the right software (and a Windows computer) so I am doing it the simplest way initially, Cubital Index (mentioned in the video), but I want to back that up with observations on pilosity (hair length) and colouration.


    • Lindylou says:

      cid:6708D1B7-4AE4-461E-B8D4-272EBA76548D In this country bee people have been doing mophological cubital cell measurements since the 70’s. My bee mentor Johannes places worker bee wings on a projector slide which is then fastened. He can then project the image onto a white wall. This way it is very easy to measure the different cubital cells. These days it’s not so easy to find unused projector slides or even a projector itself, but if you have one hang on to it, they are very useful for this work.
      Key: bottom line says: part of worker bee forewing.
      (vb.: C.I. = 1.8 is that a is 1,8 times longer then b
      The cubital index is the relationship between a and b
      This is from a brochure on the subject written by F.J. Jacobs, M. Rens and L. Podevijn. It was published by the Flemmish Bond for Beekeepers in 1974 (I think)


  3. hunneybun says:

    Hi Paul This was a really interesting report – thank you. Helen

    On 9 October 2016 at 16:30, Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group wrote:

    > Paul posted: ” In late September, I went on an introductory course on > microscopy led by master beekeeper and Buckfast queen rearer Marin > Anastasov. He led a dozen of us through the basics of using microscopes and > their applications in beekeeping. Subjects covered in” >


  4. Pingback: Racial harmony within North Oxfordshire mongrels | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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