Young people and bees

  • By mark patterson
  • 19 Jan, 2016

My thoughts and experiences of engaging young people and schools in bee keeping

Young people at Stewarts Road Adventure Playground make up frames for their hive
I recently took part in the Bee Craft Magazine live web debate discussing ' engaging schools and young people in bee keeping.'

This is a subject I am passionate about and have accumulated a fair bit of experience in, which I'd thought I would share in my first blog post.

My first experiences of working with children and bees

My first ever bee hives I managed on my own were cited in the grounds of an adventure play ground and youth club in the centre of a South London housing estate. I had already successfully introduced chickens and ducks to the centres large garden when I managed to convince the centre manager that bees would be a great education opportunity for the young people as well as assisting in pollinating their vegetable garden.

after a thorough risk assessment was carried out we started  with a Langstroth hive and a nucleus of bees in July 2010 and the following year we were able to harvest 70lbs of honey from the hive. The youngest children involved in the bee keeping project were 8 years old and the eldest were 18 so we had to buy a rage of suits in varying sizes to accommodate them all.

Many of the teenagers involved had a history of gang culture involvement and a few had criminal records. Through their involvement at the centre the the youth workers were trying to place these unruly kids back onto the path to becoming successful young people with a contribution to make to their community. Many of the young people were afraid of the bees at first but this fear quickly dissipated and became more of a respect for the bees rather than a fear. After a few months most of the kids were confident handling frames of bees as they assisted me with the weekly hive inspections. Taking part helped to provide these young people with anew sense of confidence and the resulting honey and hive products harvested an enormous sense of achievement.

The hives were cited in a corner of the garden behind the vegetable beds and were screen off with a 6 foot screen of green horticultural mesh. The bees lived in the garden up until 2013 when the centre ran out of funding and the hives had to be relocated. During their 3 years in the garden we never had a problem with swarms and we only had 1 incident of a non beekeeping child being stung - a boy tried to rescue a drowning bee from the garden pond and was stung.

Since 2012 I have also kept several hives of bees in a community garden on a west London housing estate where I run a training apiary and produce honey to supplement the gardens income. The garden has 8 hives including a permanent wall mounted observation hive inside the garden classroom which among other things is used by visiting school children.  Among my students at this training apiary is a elderly lady who often brings her 4 year old grandson who comes along in his own mini bee suit. He has no fear of the bees and is calmer and more sensible around the bees than many of the adults some of whom scream and flap their arms at any flying insect that buzzes past them.

Like the youth club apiary the apiary at the community garden is screen off but with  a taller 8 foot screen of fine nylon mesh. After 4 years in the garden we to have only had one non bee keeping related sting and again this was a child rescuing a drowning bee from the garden pond - Children just cant seem to ignore the plight of a drowning bee despite the warnings from adults not to pick them up!

My first experiences of engaging schools about bees

I'm no stranger when it comes to working with schools. In my career as an ecologist and horticulturist I've worked with many schools  on a variety of projects but my first experience of engaging schools about bees came in 2014 when  the charity I worked for received a grant from Tesco to deliver a pilot education project in primary schools educating small children about the wonders of bees and other pollinators. I started off by purchasing a BBKA bees in the curriculum pack for £15 and read all the materials and resources inside it. I then put together my own program which links into parts of the key stage 2 syllabus.

I put together a package of 3 sessions which would be delivered in 6 schools as part of the pilot project.

The first session was an introduction to bees, the different types of bees found in the UK, why bees are important for providing us with the many products of the hive but also for pollination. This is where my anatomically correct bee puppet 'Lizzy' and my giant foam sunflower come into play. I talk about how the bees transfer pollen from one flower to another fertilizing the flower so it can set seed and produce fruit. I also point out to the children that pollination is not just important for food production but that things like cotton we make our clothes from and timber to build houses are also possible because bees pollinate the plants those materials come from.

The session then focuses more on honey bees, the castes within the colony, their roles and how the bees communicate where the best flower patches are. For this section of the session I dress some children up as fury bees (using some inexpensive costumes I purchased off eBay) and get them to perform the waggle dance. I tell them to shake it like Beyonce!  I then get them to pretend they are brushing pollen from their bodies, starting with their antenna, backs, tummy and  then packing it on to their imaginary pollen baskets on their thighs. This is great fun for the kids and helps to embed what they learnt into their memory.

We end this first session discussing threats to bees including pesticides, climate change and pests like the varroa mite. I leave them with one final thought which is that they can all help bees at home by using less pesticides in their gardens and growing the right kind of flowers.

The second session in the program involves returning a week later and following a quick re-cap of what we learnt the previous week we discuss what things we could and could not have if there were no bees or other pollinators. With some of the classes I took them on a short walk to a local super market were I gave them a shopping list and a budget of £50 and they had to go on a trolly dash and buy the items - I negotiated with the Tesco community champions to have this for free!
Once we had made our purchases and were back at school we discussed what we had bought and placed our items into 2 neat groups on separate tables. One group included things we could have and the other things we couldn't because they rely on pollinators in their production. I had to explain why we couldn't have dairy products if there were no bees, because the clover the cows eat are pollinated by bees, how we could have no chicken because the soya feed they eat is reliant on bees for pollination and how coffee and chocolate are also pollinated by insects - at which point the teachers usually yell SAVE THE DAM BEES! I get the impression that coffee and chocolate go along way to helping many teachers survive the school day.
The session serves as a graphic demonstration of just how important bees are in our every day lives. The children were not impressed with the prospect of living off grains, cereals and starchy foodstuffs in the absence of pollinators.

The third and final session of the pilot project involved working with the school to plant up a bee friendly zone within the school. For some schools this involved planting their garden but for others with little or no green space we provided containers and window boxes which we planted up. We also made solitary bee houses and erected them around the school grounds.
We encouraged the school to use their new bee gardens to study what insects visited the different flowers. We got the children to count the insect visitors to the flowers and draw charts showing which were most popular. The children also made their own bee puppets and wrote essays about what they had learnt - some of these were quite funny to read. One particular 6 year old wrote that 'drones are lazy and just sit about all day talking about girl friends.'

The pilot project was successful and we ended up delivering this to dozens of schools. I've since shared this format with the London Beekeepers Association who use elements of it in their own schools delivery. We've been gradually training up volunteers to deliver these sessions and are investing in a range of props for them to take with them into schools.

By far the most exciting resource we take with us into schools is the observation hive - this requires a risk assessment be undertaken whenever it goes out to a school, and we need two responsible people present as you don't want to leave a box of thousands of stinging insects unattended in a school - you never know where curious children with wandering hands may be lurking.

Progressing my experiences of working with schools and learning from other

Keen to improve my offer to schools I've spent a great deal of time talking to other associations and experienced educators about how they go about engaging schools about bees. In 2014 I visited Metro Atlanta Beekeeping Association where I spent time with their then chair person Cindy Hodge. Cindy was instrumental in setting up a junior membership of their association. Cindy kicked this off by hosting an essay competition which all the local schools were invited to participate in. The best essays received each year entitled the school children to free membership of the association for a year, attendance of a free introduction course, several mentoring sessions and a visit to the school the winning child came from to give a presentation about bees.
Their essay competition is now quite popular and the number of young people in the MABA is rising. When I visited in 2011 I met the associations youngest master beekeeper - then the tender age of 17 years old!

I have also visited Washington DC's bee keeping community and was privileged to spend a afternoon in an elementary school working alongside the brilliant Toni Burnham  - chair of the DC beekeepers association.
Toni is a real champion when it comes to working with schools and bees. I spent the day learning how 2nd graders were being taught about pollination and how they were using actual dead bees glued to green plant sticks to pollinate fast growing genetically modified mustard plants in the classroom. The special mustard plants take as little as 40 days to complete their live cycle so the children get to witness the whole process from pollination to setting of seed to germination and flowering in a complete cycle. I think this is a great way to integrate 'bees' into the part of our national curriculum which covers pollination, plant anatomy and plant growth and development. Now I just need to find something suitable to grow in the classroom that's not GM but will complete its life cycle in a short space of time whilst providing the children with large open flowers featuring exaggerated reproductive parts. 

My own  brave move to keeping bees on the schools premises

Recently I've ventured into the realm of actually keeping bees in a school ground. I'm currently working with the St Paul's Way Trust School in East London to introduce a cross curricular  beekeeping project working with their year 9 pupils.
The school have undertaken a thorough risks assessment and after almost a year developing the project their hives are being installed in April 2016. I am currently delivering a 10 week theory course to a group of students and once our hives are assembled and the bees installed in April the pupils will be participating in weekly inspections of the bees.

As well as training the students who will be working towards their junior bee basic certificates I am also training the schools staff with the aim that in a years time they will be in a position to carry on the project on their own unassisted.

The school's enterprise department will be working with myself and the pupils to produce and market a range of natural products of the hive which the pupils will be selling at their outlet at Borough Market, St Katherines Dock and various school events. A local pharmacy and health shop has also expressed an interest in selling the schools bees wax cosmetics (once we have had them safety assessed and they are fit for retail).

Hurdles to overcome when introducing bees into schools

Probably the biggest hurdle one has to overcome when engaging young people in beekeeping, especially in schools is the dreaded risk assessment.
It is impossible to undertake any kind of activity in a school these days without a thorough risk assessment being carried out and the risks signed off by a senior member of the schools staff. The purpose of a risk assessment is to identify potential risks and identify measures which can be put in place to reduce the likelihood of risks becoming a realistic threat and to reduce the impact of such potential threats.

As long as there is an experienced and competent beekeeper in charge of the hives of bees, the apiary is appropriately laid out and protective clothing is worm correctly the actual risks from bee stings is quit minimal. Away from the apiary bees are seldom aggressive. When searching for flowers bees are not bothered much by children playing and unless a child tries to catch a bee the insects are unlikely to sting when away from their hive. If you want evidence of this then take my two examples I gave earlier  - in both locations where I worked with children and bees the only stinging incidents were children rescuing a bee from the pond.

The problem is schools are terrified of the compensation culture we now live in and the threat of legal action being taken against them. No school wants that sort of media attention or financial penalties should such an incident occur. For this reason school children are increasingly being metaphorically wrapped in cotton wool.

What is surprising is that an increasingly large number of schools now keep chickens and there is little fear about keeping poultry within school grounds. This is despite the fact that a small child is far more likely to be harmed by a chicken then by a bee living in a hive in a cordoned of area of the schools grounds or school roof top.

Risks associated with chickens include, feisty birds kicking and pecking at children, which can break  skin and occasionally draw blood. Then there is the risk of secondary infections from such breaks to the skin, not to mention the potential for contact with nasty bacteria found in chicken faeces or the possibility of children being allergic to the dandruff like dusk which is produced by birds feathers, particularly as they grow new feathers following a moult.
I would be willing to bet that far more children suffer respiratory allergies which could be triggered by exposure to poultry then there are children allergic to bee stings.

As long as a risk assessment has been carried out and some one suitably trained to care for the bees is in charge there is no reason why bees shouldn't be able to be housed in many schools.

When engaging a beekeeper in a schools project the keeper should always provide copies of their insurance certificates, beekeeping qualifications and input into the risk assessment as a non beekeeping person will not be fully aware of all the bee specific risks.


Something all schools will need to have is comprehensive insurance to cover any beekeeping activities which take place within their school or involve their pupils.  All school will have Public Liability insirance as standard and this should cover any instances of bee stings or reputational damages. If an experienced beekeeper is involved in a beekeeping project within a school then they should also have their own insurance (both public liability insurance and bee disease insurance) which are available via membership of the BBKA. 

The BBKA are currently investigating introducing a schools membership option which would allow schools to join as an organisation rather than an individual teacher trained as a beekeeper having to take sole responsibility for BDI and PLI.

The risk of swarms in schools

This potential hazard is often blown out of proportion. Any experienced well educated beekeeper will know that a swarm has one thing on its mind - finding a new home. Bees are at their least aggressive and most passive when they are in a swarm and children and parents should be taught this.

the presence of a suitably qualified beekeeper greatly reduces the likelihood of a swarm emerging in the first instance and having a keeper within the school means should a swarm occur they can quickly and safely be collected and hived.

Spreading enthusiasm

One of the most important qualities a person needs to have if they are to engage young people in apiculture is to have a dynamic ad engaging personality and ability to spread their enthusiasm for bees. There are plenty of very knowledgeable beekeepers out there but far fewer who have a gift for working with young people in an engaging way.

Working with special educational needs and young people with learning difficulties

I've limited experience of working with young people with severe learning difficulties and bees but have worked on a number of therapeutic horticulture and nature conservation projects engaging  SEN (Special Educational Needs) children and young adults. The key to working with these individuals is to identify each individuals limits and abilities and work with them to gradually progress them. This will mean working with much smaller groups at any one time, higher ratios of adult supervision, taking your time to explain things clearly, concisely and at a level they can absorb.

My closing thoughts on this subject

Working with children takes a special kind of energy and enjoyment in what you are doing. Its something that I've dabbled in quite a bit as you can see but even so its not something I would want to do every day. Working with very young children in particular I find quite demanding and sometimes stressful.

Its something I enjoy doing in small occasional doses but I'm not about to retrain as a primary school teacher!

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:

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.


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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