Learning from the Bees, Berlin – bees au naturel!

The second international Learning from the Bees conference featured a recurring theme: bees in trees. It left two lasting impressions on me:

  • It will influence German beekeeping for years to come, catalysing the spread of natural beekeeping;
  • A paradigm-changing insight making me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about bees.

So, nothing much to report…

Here, I’ll discuss German beekeeping, how bees live in the wild and what we can learn from this, and related stuff I learned about trees, forests, hives and some cool stuff like a varroa-devouring mite. Let’s start with trees, as other subjects flow from this…

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ONBG+ meeting, August 2019: insulation, cavity size, Golden Hives

Warré hives in Gareth’s apiary. Image (c) Ann Welch 2019

The Oxfordshire group invited members from the neighbouring Hampshire and Wye Valley natural beekeeping groups to join us for a joint meeting at Gareth’s apiary – 34 people from 7 counties converged for the session. These annual co-events allow for wider networking than one group can provide.

The meeting lasted all afternoon and was in 3 sections: an informal opportunity to chat over a bring-and-share meal, a lecture by Gareth presenting the latest findings on insulation and cavity size, and an apiary visit focusing on the Einraumbeutes (Golden Hives) which Gareth has been experimenting with for the last 2 years. Continue reading

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ONBG meeting, July 2019 – what makes a good hive?

Foreground: cork insulated TBH with hinged lid; background: converted National with copper roof and internal cork insulation to give internal Warre dimensions

19 of us converged on the beautiful village of Long Crendon to discuss and admire a variety of hives built by Eric. This led to a wide ranging discussion of a plethora of hive types and their tradeoffs.

Background – season’s overview: This has been an exceptional year for Oxfordshire bees. Broadly speaking, there has been ideal weather and forage for longer, allowing bees to swarm early and often, and prepare for an unusually pronounced June Gap (nectar dearth) which caught out fewer colonies than usual. We’ve collected at least twice as many swarms as last year, and three of the colonies these founded have themselves swarmed – “swarms from swarms” – a very rare event, the bees cramming in an extra reproductive cycle this season.

Eric’s hives

Most people choose one hive type, then continue with it so equipment is standardised. Eric however is more experimental and not interested in drastic interventions like swapping combs between hives, and the abundance of swarms this year has permitted him to populate hives as fast as he can build them. We saw seven, all different, and I think he has more elsewhere.

Eric began with a vigorous swarm a few years ago which he named St Trinians, who saw off all problems. In this first photo they are on the right, essentially unbothered by the wasps plaguing the small new colony on the left. The left hand Warré has a wasp guard fitted, a mesh tube. The bees learn that the  entrance is at the end of the tube but predators try to enter where the hive smells are strongest, next to the mesh-covered entrance. (Click the image to enlarge.)

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At the village fete

We were asked to demo “bees” at our local village fete, so Keith and I obliged with a stand displaying various Stuff for people to touch, smell etc and answered Questions.

The organisers had originally assumed that we were going to bring a hive full of bees, and been Very Excited about this… until we pointed out the health & safety implications! (Of course our main concern was the risk to the bees from comb collapse, lost foragers and general stress, but sometimes one simple point is a more effective argument than many!)

It was a Very Hot Day, over 30C; we had to move our sunshade at one point to stop some sample comb from melting. But to put this in context it was 10C hotter in France, which must have been unbearable. Several people assumed I was very hot in the suit, but it’s a ventilated one and with just shorts and T shirt underneath I was fine: it was a very thorough test of this style. Mine came from Mann Lake; other manufacturers are available these days.

Keith brought along some honey and it sold out – the reputation of local honey for curing hayfever meant it sold itself!

We had 5 types of “hive” to demonstrate different beekeeping styles: a section of a hollow log, a skep, a small TBH nuc, a Warre and a conventional polystyrene nuc with frames. With veils for kids to dress up in, samples of comb, solid wax, close-up pictures of bees, a sample of propolis to smell and prism viewers to look through and “see what a bee sees” there was plenty to engage visitors and talk about.

The church fete itself was exactly how you imagine an English village fete to be – a band, stalls like a coconut shy and others selling books, plants, jams; archery, the Womens’ Institute, tea and cake, vintage cars, pony rides, a vicar and a chap in a boater hat. On returning home there was an Agatha Christie (Poirot) program on TV which featured a fete almost like it, except the modern one also had a Mindfulness tent and a mass Tai Chi session!

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Learning from the Bees Conference, Berlin

A quick plug for the next LfB conference! –

  • When: August 30th – September 1st
  • Where: Berlin
  • What: an international symposium of natural beekeepers and like minded individuals
  • Why: Hear cutting edge research from top bee scientists. Network with fascinating folk. Learn, have fun!
  • Website: www.learningfromthebeesberlin.com

This is the second such conference. The first, in the Netherlands, was a huge success; I attended and found it a very rewarding experience. You can see collected impressions here; I wrote up my impressions here and some specific useful bee stuff I learned here. I am sure this one will be as rewarding and fun as the first. The focus this time seems to be on bees in trees, and environmental activism. The 2 day conference is preceded by a 1 day workshop on tree beekeeping.

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ONBG meeting, 15th June 2019 – TBHs, Freedom hives and a surprise swarm

Lunch – with swarm of bees in the box. Image (c) Jane Denby, 2019

Fifteen of us met in a beautiful cottage hidden near the middle of Oxford. The plan was to have lunch, inspect Top Bar Hives and see a nearby Freedom Hive, and we managed to meet these targets due to skillful herding by Jane despite the massive amount of chat and laughing.

People staring at mobile phones walked past oblivious as this was gathered in central Oxford

Serendipitously, a call came in about a swarm just before the meeting, and it was only about a mile away so I collected it en route. It was huge, especially as most prime swarms occurred last month, so is probably from a commercial colony (i.e. the numbers are larger than found in our hives because the beekeeper stimulates the queen to lay at maximum rate all the time, to maximise honey yield). It was so large – perhaps over 2kg – we wondered if it was an entire colony absconding from a hive that had got damp in the recent extended heavy rain.

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Swarm stories

Swarm outside Nigel’s house. Photo (c) Nigel Webb 2019

Here’s some things our group has learned, from over 120 swarm collections over several years: what went right…. and what went wrong!

First though – what are swarms? – Within each hive is a queen who lays eggs which become new bees for that hive. But honeybee queens can’t set up a new colony on their own, they are too specialised. Swarms are how bees found new colonies – a queen flies off with 30-50% of the flying bees in a hive. Usually, they gather in a clump on, say, a tree branch, while scouts look for the best home available. While in this clump, we can easily gather them in a box and take them to a hive. Occasionally though, they fly straight from a hive to their chosen new home which could be a roof, chimney, hollow tree or if we’re lucky, an empty hive.

Swarms are useful because they can be used to populate empty hives, and act as a firebreak against disease – most bee pests attack the larvae, but only flying adults are in a swarm.

Early swarms are desirable because they have all year to build up and furthermore, a late swarm risks a dearth of food in this area (the June Gap) just as it is trying to set up home. The bees need to build up to a “critical mass” of numbers and stores to survive the next winter.

Unlike buying a nucleus (mini colony) of bees, or a package (an American abomination), swarms are free but take a year to build up to full strength – you don’t take honey in their first year. Prime swarms hit the ground running and build comb rapidly; afterswarms (casts) have unmated queens, are smaller, are later – so have less forage – and more likely to die in their first winter.

Some commercial beekeepers catch swarms, kill the queens and use the workers to reinforce honey-producing hives with queens they trust. Our group’s emphasis is to propagate survivor genetics and we particularly prize queens and swarms from unmanaged colonies. Continue reading

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