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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
For almost a decade now I have been making yearly trips to the USA to visit American friends and enjoy a few weeks rest and relaxation away from the stresses of work (and to get away from my bees!). During my regular visits I’ve explored much of the Eastern and mid-western USA and made friends with many beekeepers along the way.
Over the course of my next few blogs I shall be writing up my experiences of meeting beekeepers and beekeeping in the US. In this first segment of my write up will give a brief overview of beekeeping in the US and how things there differ to our situation here in the UK.
Origins of US beekeeping and hive types
Firstly beekeeping in the US has a much shorter history than here in Europe. Beekeeping in the US began in the 1600s when the first Europeans colonised North America and took Honey bees with them for honey. Swarms quickly escaped and rapidly colonised the continent. The Native American Indians referred to honey bees at ‘the white man’s flies’. These early attempts to keep honey bees used the same Straw Skeps of European Apiculturalists. This changed in 1852 when the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth of Philadelphia discovered the bee space and invented the first box shaped hive featuring removable and re-usable frames which worked to the bee space. This discovery and the invention of the Langstroth hive (now the most used hive type in the world) brought beekeeping into the modern era. Today almost all American beekeepers use Langstroth hives to house their bees.
Aside from the type of boxes which the Americans use to keep their bees there are a number of differences in husbandry practices and social structures within the beekeeping community.
The beekeeping community
Firstly unlike here in the UK, there is no nationwide beekeeping association for amateur keepers. There is no American beekeepers association. Instead towns and cities or metropolitan areas will have their own associations and in some states there is a state association which acts as an umbrella organisation. Commercial beekeepers do have a nationwide governing body, ‘the American bee farming federation’ and ‘the American honey producers Association.’ These groups represent interests of commercial beekeepers only and lobby government on issues such as pesticides and bee welfare.
Another major difference to amateur keepers in particular is that in many US cities beekeeping is outlawed on grounds of public safety. Fears of swarming and poor husbandry leading to nuisance bees means many cities forbid the keeping of bees on domestic or residential properties and in some areas the keeping of bees is outright banned within city limits. Breaking the law can lead to hefty fines yet despite this there are a growing number of guerrilla beekeepers keeping hives on rooftops disguised as chimney stacks.
Some cities allow the keeping of bees only on commercial property or private non-residential green space. Most cities which do allow the keeping of bees have strict rules which must be followed. It is often mandatory for apiaries to be registered with public health and hygiene, a water source to be provided and maintained and hives are normally required to be no less than 15 feet away from your property boundary and or a screen in place to control the bees’ dispersal.
Often a limit of 4 colonies per property is enforced. Many Guerrilla beekeepers do not register, often because the buildings they keep their bees on do not conform to public health and hygiene standards whose inspectors they try to avoid.
As Thanksgiving approaches and Americans celebrate the
blessings of the seasons harvest let’s not forget the small and often unseen
pollinators that make it all possible.
North America has over 4000 species of bee from 39 genera all of which are pollinators of flowering plants including many of the flowering crops we grow for food and clothing fibres. Without them there would be no thanksgiving.
Read on to discover how the humble bees helps make your Thanksgiving feast possible and how you can give them thanks for their major role in your thanksgiving day feast..
You may be surprised to learn that Turkeys need the assistance of bees to even exist. Turkeys in the wild are omnivores feeding on a variety of seeds, fruits and invertebrates which exist in a natural food web reliant on bees and other insect pollinators to assist plants at the base of the food chains.
Domestic Turkeys live on large farms and are fed on a ration of poultry pellets made up predominantly of Maize, Wheat and other cereals. These pellet foods also contain significant quantities of Soya and or field peas as a source of protein. These are both legumes highly reliant on Megachile and Osmia bees for pollination. In addition free range Turkeys will graze and forage on fields of flowering crops and among orchard fruit trees where they can peck at fallen apples. These crops are heavily reliant on Honey Bees, Andrena and Osmia bees for pollination.
No Turkey would be complete without stuffing.
Stuffing typically contains onions, Herbs and spices all pollinated by Bees. In the US a small mining bee called Andrena prunorum is one of the most efficient pollinators of commercially farmed onions.
Another popular stuffing recipe is apple and walnut. Apples are pollinated by a huge variety of bees but the Osmia bees are particularly efficient pollinators of orchard fruits. Osmia lignaria is so much more efficient at pollinating Apples than the honey bee that just 300 female Osmia lignaria can perform the pollination role of 90,000 honey bee foragers.
Pumpkin Pie is a thanksgiving staple. Pumpkins are a huge commercial crop in the US where they are grown for carving at Halloween as well as for eating. Pumpkins are members of the cucurbit family and are pollinated by a wide variety of bees including honey bees, bumble Bees, Anthophora bees and Halictus bees. In addition to these there are Squash Bees of the Peponapis and Xenoglossa genus. These bees are squash and Pumpkin specialists only collecting pollen to feed their offspring from Pumpkin and Squash plants. The name Peponapis in greek means ‘pumpkin bee.’
Squash bees are solitary and nest in underground burrows often among the crop plants they feed upon. Tillage practices can cause significant damage to their underground nests and non-tillage farming practices have been shown to triple the number of these bees on pumpkin farms. A good population of Squash bees means the farmer can avoid having to bring in Honey bee hives at cost to pollinate his crop. These bees are active very early in the morning from 4am onwards when squash and pumpkin flowers are newly opened and before they have begun to wilt. This habit makes them more efficient at pollinating pumpkin than honey bees which are not active until the sun is up and has warmed the air temperatures. In addition the male Peponapis bees sleep, often communally inside Squash flowers where they pick up significantly more pollen than the females do on their brief flower visits. This makes the male Squash bees particularly efficient pollinators of Pumpkin and Squash.
The humble spud is a thanksgiving staple, roasted, baked or mashed often with cheese and herbs. The part of the plant we eat is the tuberous root and not a pollinated fruit as with other Solanum crops but bees are necessary to breed new varieties of potato. Potato’s belong to the Solanum family and have flowers bearing cylindrical pollen holding apparatus which very few bees can access. In order for the flowers to shed their pollen they must be sonically vibrated at a specific frequency. Bumble bees and a select few solitary bees have evolved the ability to do just this by revving their flight muscle out of gear vibrating their bodies.
In the USA Anthophorula and Exomalopsis bees work alongside Bumble Bees to pollinate Potato and other Solanum crops.
Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without Sweet Potato. Sweet Potato pie, baked Sweet Potato and Sweet Potato mash all feature regularly in Thanksgiving menus. They are not very closely related to the potato and other Solanums and in fact are more closely related to Morning Glory and Bindweed. They belong in the Ipomoea family and are pollinated predominantly by Humming birds but also by bees. Bee species that specialises in Ipomoea flowers are Cemolobus ipomoeae and members of the Melitoma genus.
Leafy vegetables in the cabbage family which include Collard Greens, Cauliflower, Sprouts and Broccoli feature heavily in thanksgiving recipes and are pollinated by a variety of insects including bees, beetles, Hoverflies and lepidoptera. Though the parts of the plant we eat are not reliant on pollination, bees are required to produce seed from which the crop is grown. In the US there are several bees which specialise in collecting Brassica pollen including species of Panurginus and Dufourea bees.
There are numerous thanksgiving dishes which contain Green beans as the primary ingredient. Skillet Green Beans, Southern Style Green Beans and Green Bean casserole are just a few ways to eat this food as part of Thanksgiving.
A number of bees help pollinate Green Beans and other plants in the Fabaceae. Calliopsis, Protoxeae, Colletes, Caupolicana, Osmia, Anthidium, Megachile, Eucera, Florilegrus, Anthophora and Bombus bees all work alongside honey bees to help to pollinate Beans and Peas.
No turkey day dinner is complete without Cranberry Sauce. Several species of wild bee are commercially important in the production of Cranberries. This fruit requires ‘buzz pollination’ and only a select few bees are capable of achieving this. Among them The Rusty Patch Bumble Bee Bombus afinis, the solitary bee Megachile addenda and Cranberry melitta bee Melitta americana. The Cranberry Melitta feeds its offspring exclusively on Cranberry pollen and is often the most numerous wild bee on large Cranberry farms. Unlike the honey bees which are shipped in to pollinate cranberry fields these bees are flower faithful and therefore far more efficient at pollinating the Cranberries.-