Other uses for drones (hive 3 always was a bit different…)

Heap of guard bees. Click to enlarge

The wasps probing my hives are being put off by masses of guard bees at the entrances. Watching the way they approach then suddenly veer off, I was struck by this pile of living bees at the entrance to hive 3. These bees are all alive, and they seem calm and happy – no struggling. But why are they piled up in a heap?

The photo reveals what my eye didn’t spot. There are 2 layers of bees. The upper ones are female – guards with stings. The underlayer is drones. It is not the famous “drone exclusion” when the drones are booted out after mating season: everyone is calm and purposeful, and there are only a few drones. I can see two reasons for the stingless drones to be here:

  • They keep the guards warm! Warm bees can launch into the air immediately. On cold days, bees need to sun themselves a bit before taking off.
  • They add to the apparent numbers of guard bees. Fooled me, probably fool wasps. A deterrent.

Propolis and wax entrance barrier

It’s odd that this is the only one of the 4 hives that does this though. Today I rechecked. It’s colder, earlier in the day and there is a bit of rain so the guards (and wasps) were not yet present, but I noticed something else different about hive 3, which its neighbours lack – they’ve built an entrance reducer. Unlike other times I have seen this, the colony is strong, and it is not under attack.

There is one other thing worth noting here. A couple of the bees are holding their wings out in a V. I’ve seen this with a few other bees on this hive’s landing board recently. It’s a sign of a viral disease, but there’s nothing I can do about it so I am leaving them to sort it out. One way bees do this is that bees which feel unwell instinctively leave the hive to die outside, and the queen lays replacement eggs. They only live a few weeks anyway and the queen can lay 1500 eggs a day; so whilst ruthless, this slight speeding up of the egg production line is efficient at removing infection.

Observations on wasps and bees

It’s interesting that as soon as the ivy started flowering here, the wasp attacks ended. It is easier to get nectar from ivy than steal honey from a defended hive. I assume they will return later in the season, as other food supplies disappear.

The ivy is densely covered in wasps, flies, hoverflies, I even saw a hornet. Yet the wasps are not attacking the other insects. Now they have finished raising young, their priority is not protein, but keeping their bodies going with carbohydrates.

There are no honeybees on the ivy. Bees forage up to 3 miles from the hive, I think they have found a better food source: they only seem to forage on ivy as a last resort. It forms poor quality honey, which crystallises rock-hard in the cells. Wasps and small flies have a short flying range – wasps are very territorial and risk fights if they go into other nests’ territory – and have to forage on what is nearby.

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A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings

A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings is a book by Helen Jukes, a member of our group while she lived in Oxford. Autobiographical in nature, it describes a period when she was generally rootless and dissatisfied with how her life and career were unfolding, until some friends gave her some bees. Caring for these made her reflect on her own life, and this ultimately led to a much happier balance for her.

The book was launched on 26th July at Blackwells in Oxford and Jack, Gino and I went to the event, where Helen spoke to 50-60 people, reading some passages, answering questions from the audience and being interviewed by writer Nick Hunt, who described the work as ‘humble and full of joy’. I particularly liked her equating a hive with a symbol of a house / home.

50+ people listened as Helen read extracts

The book has already been reviewed by The Guardian, you can see readers’ reactions on Amazon, Goodreads etc and you can see some extracts in the Mail. So I’ll discuss some of the back story instead, as she was a member of our bee group at the time. It mixes touching personal insights as she tries to find a new personal path, and discussions about bee life, surreptitiously educating the reader in ecology and bee biology. It draws you in and is a compelling read – I now realise Helen teaches writing professionally, which I wasn’t aware of while she was in Oxford. Continue reading

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ONBG at Sutton Courtenay School

In May Sutton Courtenay Primary School asked us if there were any ONBG members willing to do a presentation on bees for its Year 1 and Year 2 children. I live in an adjacent village and had just caught a swarm not 100 yards from the school, so I could hardly refuse.

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Two of my hives (packed with bees) have currently got two things going on in parallel at their entrances. This picture shows them both; click on the image for more detail.

On the horizontal landing board, bees are fanning to cool the hive. Their wings are invisible in the photo.

Above them, in the shade of the projecting handle and a plant, are bees apparently using their mouths to clean the hive. You see this sometimes, and it is a sign that a hive is happy and un-stressed. This behaviour is known as washboarding and is characterised by the bees going back and forth over the same area. Often there are many more bees doing this and as they move back and forth you can see they do it in synchronicity, waves of mass movement, like line dancers.

I caught this on close-up video a couple of years ago and you can see it here.


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Lines of bees fan air through the entrance (click on image to expand)

Hottest day of the year so far (27C), and I saw bees fanning at the entrance to this hive, though not the others near it. This colony was smaller and a while ago, I put a block of wood across part of the entrance to help them guard it in case of wasps or robbers. Fanning is one way bees cool their hives, like air conditioning. (Evaporating water or nectar is another.)

After removing partial block

I pulled the block away and returned 10 minutes later. Most, perhaps all the fanners were gone and the entrance simply a normal bustle of activity.

It’s worth mentioning these hives’ floors are sealed, the entrance is the main path for air to circulate through. Some beekeepers prefer open mesh floors, but these increase energy requirements in cold weather, and allow small parasites to hide below them; I prefer the bees to have access to a solid floor, allowing them to clean it themselves and kill or expel parasites. Bees didn’t evolve with mesh floors.

A swarm entering a box

You also see fanning when a swarm is entering a cavity, where workers raise their hindquarters and fan air backwards over their Nasonov glands to release a “come here!” pheromone. It looks similar (see picture left – many bees pointing to where the main cluster & queen have entered a capture box). The only other time they do it that I am aware of is when a new queen goes on a mating flight, and the colony left behind again fans Nasonov pheromone into the air from the entrance to help her find her way home.

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Where are all the swarms this year?

Noooo! One of the few swarms this year enters a roof as I arrive just too late

The bees in this area have been acting very unusually this season: firstly high mortality at the end of winter, and now far fewer swarms than usual. We’ve been discussing this amongst ourselves and here are some preliminary conclusions.

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ONBG meeting, 20th May 2018 – TBHs and tall tales

Telling tales round the camp quiche

An anarchic group of beekeepers met on a very sunny day at Shadiya’s farm near Oxford to celebrate International Bee Day with a picnic and a peek at her Top Bar Hives.

We began by discussing winter losses, which were high, and swarms – which were almost totally absent so far this year (but started a few days after this meeting). These are probably linked: England had a “false start” to Spring, followed by a week of intensely cold Siberian winds (the “Beast from the East”). This knocked back spring blossom by about 6 weeks, and the colonies are only just beginning to swarm. Continue reading

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