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.
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!
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.
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:
- Pollen Identification for Beekeepers by Rex Sawyer
- Guide to Bees and Honey by Ted Hooper
- Breeding Techniques and Selection for Breeding of the Honeybee by Friedrich Ruttner (trans. Ashleigh and Eric Milner) – Chapters IV and V contain a lot of interesting details on identifying different bee races
I have the above books and find them informative. The course tutor also suggested these sources which I have not read/used:
- Practical Microscopy for Beekeepers – Bob Maurer
- The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Beekeeping – R. Morse and T. Hooper
- Honey Identification – Rex Sawyer
- PalDat – Palynological (pollen identification) database
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