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 15 Oct, 2017

Whilst in Atlanta I attended the Metro Atlanta Beekeeping Associations monthly meeting and lecture.  I have a few friends there among the association and whenever I come to town I get invited to attend their meetings, meet their members and exchange beekeeping experiences.  

Their October guest lecturer was the internationally known Dr Keith Delaplane MBE from University Georgia. See his profile here: http://caes2.caes.uga.edu/bees/personnel/delaplane.html

Before the meeting my friend Cindy, former president of the association introduced me to Keith who has previously worked on bee research projects in the Uk with current colleagues of mine at FERA/DEFRA. We had a brief chat about the work Keith participated in and my colleagues he'd had the pleasure of working with.

As the room packed out with around 50 people attending Dr Delaplane began to gave his talk on his latest research project which has just been funded by the United States Department for Agriculture. 

He started off by explaining some of the background of honey bee social evolution and Honey Bee reproductive strategy and how having a single queen devoted to reproduction within the colony brings benefits to the hive. He went on to explain that having highly promiscuous queens which practice polyandry also brings benefits through the diverse genetic make-up of the colony which enables the colony to brave environmental stressors, be more disease resistant and produce more honey.

His latest project will involve the artificial insemination of a large number of queen bees from various stocks. These queens will be inseminated in 3 groups. One group will be given the sperm of just 10 drones, another group the sperm of 30 drones and the last group the semen of 60 drones. The researchers will then compare the colonies performances against varroa resistant hygiene, Productivity, disease etc. Their hypothesis is that instrumentally inseminated queens with a more diverse package of sperm will produce more productive colonies.

At this point he pointed out that the queens receiving sperm from 60 drones will not burst with semen because they are too full! The sperm from multiple drones is blended together then the same amount of the mixture given to each queen. Apparently he’s been asked if queens burst if they are full on several occasions.

Dr Delaplane explained that within each colony there exists sisterhoods made up of workers belonging to the same drone father. These different sisterhoods made up of super sisters often display a preference or exceptional ability at certain tasks within the hives. Some may be better at foraging, others better at producing wax or comb construction, whilst others may be better at brood rearing and others may be more inclined to swarm. Having a diverse workforce means you have more sisterhoods with task specialisms  that are well equipped to excel at a wide  range of tasks within the colony therefore the colony can survive and thrive easier.

This is the exact opposite of what happens in most bee breeding programs when beekeepers are selecting a small number of drones to inseminate queens as they are looking for a specific set of desired traits. Dr Delaplane believes that rather than selecting for specific traits we should be aiming for queens which have slept around allot and produce a diverse workforce which in itself produces better bees.

He also explained that among the sisterhoods in the hive there are some bloodlines which are royalty and do not make good workers. These bees when they are larva emit a pheromone which screams out to the nurse bees ‘make me a queen’ and in the event the the colony needs to make an emergency queen cell its these larva which are chosen over others as preferential queens because they are genetically programed to be better queens but poorer workers. As workers these bloodlines are basically social parasites and do little to no work in the colony. This was the first I had heard of royal bloodlines in the Honey Bee and had always thought queens were chosen at random or that the bees somehow can tell which larva are fittest and chose them.

It had for a long time been widely hypothesised that sisterhoods would prefer a supersister to raise as the next queen as that super sister queen would share more DNA with her sisters but this has turned out to be one of the biggest scientific flops of the 20th century with over 100 studies failing to prove this is what happens.

 So it turns out some queens are born to be queens – but may never become one and others which are not ‘born to be queens’ just happen to get laid in a play cup and become a queen anyway without any particular desire or choice to become one.

Dr Delaplane thinks his new research project could challenge established practices by bee breeders and queen producers  forcing them to re-think the trend of selecting a narrow range of desirable traits which produces genetically limited stock.

My own preference for raising new queens is the miller method or I use a special frame inside the parent colony which then snaps apart into several smaller frames fitting into a mini mating hive populated with nurse bees and I leave the bees to decide which of the larva they want to raise into queens. Its less work than grafting and providing you supply the nuc with a frame consisting plenty of eggs or very small newly hatched larva for the bees to choose from they have plenty of time to feed the larva royal jelly and make good queens.

I find that this method works for me better than grafting or using the jenta cup system which I have also experimented with. I get great queens using this method and I think my results coincide with Dr Delaplanes findings thus far.


By mark patterson 07 Aug, 2017

Late summer for the bees is one of the most desperate times of the year when they can struggle the most to find enough food to eat. Many people find this fact difficult to believe as the weather is often hot and sunny and presumably great for the bees but it is in fact often one of the leanest times for the busy insects. At this time of year colonies are large with many mouths to feed and as the beekeeper has removed the honey crop the flowers are also diminishing in abundance meaning the bees can struggle to replace honey which has been taken off. For this reason it’s crucial not to be over greedy and take all the honey leaving the bees with no stores for themselves.

Come late summer the majority of our nectar rich native wild plants have ceased flowering and gone to seed, especially woodland and meadow flowers whose flowering period is in rhythm with the closing of the woodland canopy and cutting of meadows for hay. Bramble and all our native trees have also long since finished flowering and are now sporting fruits and seeds leaving little for the bees.

Away from Heather moorland and Heaths, the only real bountiful sources of forage from native wild plants are Greater Willow Herb, Thistles, Ragwort, Bindweed and Hogweed – though many of these are early this year and already going over. Along water courses Purple Loosestrife, Marsh Woundwort, Water Mint and the invasive Himalayan Balsam provide welcome relief but not everyone is in range of such localised sources of forage.

By mark patterson 16 Jun, 2017

Early summer, June in particular is a time of the year which brings uncertainty for many a beekeeper, and for those in rural areas in particular. June is the beginning of the summer season when the spring flowering plants and trees shed their blooms having been pollinated and now begin to form seeds but the main flow of summer flowering blooms has yet to begin. Beekeepers refer to this period of change as the June Gap.

At this time of year Honey bee colonies are approaching their peak in worker population in readiness for the summer flow, Queens are laying at a prolific rate and colonies have many larva to feed. A reduction in incoming nectar and pollen as the spring flowers cease but the summer flowers are yet to peak can leave large colonies struggling to feed themselves or fill supers with surplus honey for the beekeeper.

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.

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