Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

     It's a cool Christmas Eve in Vancouver with the possibility of snow through the night and a white Christmas. The bees are snuggled in their hives waiting for Santa.  Penny, from the Natural Beekeeping Trust of the United Kingdom says "Traditionally, Christian beekeepers have visited their colonies at midnight on Christmas Eve to tell the bees of the nativity.  They also hoped to hear the special melodious humming that the bees were said to perform at this time, portending health and prosperity throughout the coming year.  It was thought that this custom was predated by an earlier pre-Christian one when the return of the sun was by no means guaranteed!"
     If you're wondering what to recite to your bees on Christmas Eve here is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight's key;
all the garden locked in ice -
a silver frieze -
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive -
trembling stars cloistered above -
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.

      At this time of year I'm especially appreciative that I have a roof over my head and food in my belly when so many in the world have neither.  Giving gifts to those in need who are not as fortunate as I seems like a good idea at Christmas and for that matter throughout the year.  Here are a few Christmas gift ideas for less fortunate beekeepers in the world. 

    I hope that you, your bees and your family have a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.  Peace on earth and good will to all.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Charles Darwin and the Bumblebee (Humble Bee)

     This quote from Charles Darwin is applicable to present day bees.  Bees have a very weak immune system and are not very adaptive to environmental changes caused by us.  Global warming and the increased presence of agrochemical toxins are conditions many species of bees will not survive. Their extinction will effect others species dependent on their pollination.
     I think like many of us Charles had a special place in his heart for Bumble Bees or Humble Bees as they were known prior to World War I.  With the help of 5 or 6 of his children between the years 1854-1861 Charles made a number of recorded observations on the flight routes of male Humble Bees (Charles Darwin on the routes of male Humble Bees).  In the first edition of "On the Origin of the Species" by Charles Darwin (1859) he describes how essential Bumble Bees are for the pollination of plants and specifically the red clover (Trifolium pratense).  This he explains is because of it's unique ability to reach the nectar which eludes other bees. (Different pollinators for different plants)

     "Charles Darwin wrote of "humble-bees"... "plants and animals, most remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations. [...] I have [...] reason to believe that humble-bees are indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease (Viola tricolor), for other bees do not visit this flower. From experiments which I have tried, I have found that the visits of bees, if not indispensable, are at least highly beneficial to the fertilisation of our clovers; but humble-bees alone visit the common red clover (Trifolium pratense), as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that 'more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England.' Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, 'Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.' Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!" (from Chapter 3 "On the Origin of the Species").
     A logical extension made in jest by Thomas Henry Huxley (Huxley, 1892) was " that old maids keep cats, and by unknown others to include the concepts that the economy of the British Empire
was based on roast beef eaten by its soldiers, and cattle rely on clover, so as to conclude that the prosperity of the British Empire was thus dependant on its population of old maids." (Charles Darwin, Humble Bees, Clover and Cats).
  Bombus pascuorum (Common Carder-bee) on red clover

     As most bumblebees are ground dwellers their existence depends upon the population of nest destroying mice whose population depends on the subsequent population of predatory cats.  Therefore, the greater the population of cats the greater the number of bumblebees and the greater the pollination of red clover.  We must also consider the negative effect of cat predation on birds, amphibians and reptiles.  This is why an ecosystem functioning in equilibrium (balanced populations) is so important.
     In May of 1858 with the aid of a beekeeper Darwin carried out studies on honey bee cell building at his home in Kent, England.  "For people to accept his theory of evolution by natural selection Darwin knew that he had to explain how the hexagonal cells found in the wax of the beehive were fortified by natural processes.  As a result of his observations he concluded that the hexagonal shape is produced as a result of spherical cells touching each other and the bees using the minimum amount of wax possible.  The experiments are described in "On the Origin of the Species".

     The family home of Charles Darwin is wonderfully preserved in Kent and is much the same as it was in the 19th century when he and his children carried out their observations of both the honey and humble bee.

     Due to habitat loss and the use of agrochemicals many species of Humble Bees are endangered.  In Britain the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust is working to save the Humble Bees.  In North American join Bumble Bee Watch to help endangered species of Humble Bees.

Left Bombus Mixtus (Male) and right Bomus Caliginosus or Bombus Vosnesenskii on a sunflower at Cottonwood Garden

My favorite an Orange Rumped Humble Bee (Bombus melanopygus) enjoying a cranesbill geranium at Cottonwood Garden

Another Humble Bee beutifying Cottonwood Garden

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fried Honeybee Pupae

     As a beekeeper I have tried many different honey recipes but have never considered eating the bees or bee pupae.  In the mountain district of Zhangjiajie, China the large,wild honey bee (Apis Dorsata) is very nutritious and a favourite part of the Tujia people's diet.

     The cooking directions for fried honey bee pupae (which I do not intend to follow) are:

Heat the oil till boiling, put the honeybee pupae into the oil and do not take them out until they float to the surface of the oil. Then put them into a clean pot, add salts, green onion, bruised ginger, chili, and peppers into the spot, and stir-fry them for 1 to 2 minutes.

     Apparently this dish goes well with wine.  Might I suggest tequila and a lot of it.  For more recipes go to the Recipes section of our Beekeepers' Library (honey recipes).


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Natural Beekeeping

     The greatest dilemma for many beekeepers today is whether to be treatment free or not.  The most widely used label for treatment-free beekeeping is "Natural Beekeeping" although there are several others.
     Natural beekeeping is not to be confused with "Organic Beekeeping" which allows for the use of organic medications and large cell bees.  The actual definitions of these Beekeeping Labels are like most beekeeping issues arguable.  When I started beekeeping an old beekeeper told me if you have 6 beekeepers in a room you will have 8 different opinions because two will change their minds during the discussion.  I have found this to be true.  To be a true "Natural Beekeeper" you must be treatment-free and regress the cell size of your bees to their natural size (approximately 4.9 mm).  The European Honey Bee was artificially increased in size by increasing the foundation cell size over 100 years ago to produce more honey. Although the honey yield was increased with bigger bees "Natural Beekeepers" will argue that some of the subsequent health issues that we are now dealing with are a result of messing with Mother Nature.  Philosophically I agree 100% with this approach but the pragmatic skepticism in me needs absolute proof.  There are no long term scientific studies which prove the benefits of small cell beekeeping though Dee Lusby (a pioneer of Natural Beekeeping) will adamantly argue that point.  Dee and her late husband Ed (commercial beekeepers) began small cell natural beekeeping in the 1980's and published their findings in "The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping".  Dee is the owner and moderator of the yahoo discussion group "Organic Beekeepers".
     Both Michael Bush and Dee Lusby are extremely knowledgeable beekeepers and I highly recommend visiting their websites for a natural perspective on beekeeping.  The difficulty with "Natural Beekeeping" for most of us is in order to develop a survivor, resistant stock of bees (treatment-free) you must allow your weaker colonies to die.  This is often referred to as the James Bond method or "Live and let die".  Despite the obvious long term benefits this goes against our natural instinct to help the weak and sick. The other issue is the possibility that the sick, untreated colonies may pass their pests and diseases onto other (i.e. neighbours') colonies.  For small, backyard beekeepers this can be devastating.
     Despite the lack of scientific proof of the benefits of small cell, natural beekeeping I hope to one day follow this natural approach.  For more information on "Natural Beekeeping" go to the Natural Beekeeping section of our Beekeepers' Library.
      Jacqueline Freeman is the author of an upcoming book "Bees, the OTHER Way". She points out the different strategies that conventional bee keepers might try to save their hives from colony collapse disorder. Although she refers to her beekeeping methodology as organic (which it is) I believe it is what most would refer to as "Natural".  Similar to organic farming there are a number of organic bee medications (i.e. Essential oils, formic and oxalic acids) that would not be acceptable to "Natural Beekeepers".

#1 general approach: use organic practices
#2 general approach: strengthen bee immune system instead of "attack and kill" what nature uses to remove weak bees
#3 don't use insecticide (for mite control or any other insect problem) inside of hives - bees are insects!
#4 allow bees to create their own cell size (typically smaller) - no more pre-made foundation or cells
#5 genetics based on "survival of the fittest" is superior to genetics resulting from mass production where the weak are medicated
#6 swarming is the natural way to good genetics
#7 local bees have adapted to challenges in your area
#8 stop moving hives
#9 feed bees honey, not sugar water
#10 feed bees polyculture blossoms, not monoculture
#11 stop using insecticides on crops - bees are insects!
#12 raise hives off the ground

     Another book "Natural Beekeeping" (Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture) by Ross Conrad describes the philosophy and methods involved in organic beekeeping.
Natural Beekeeping Excerpt

     Natural Beekeeping follows the basic philosophy of permaculture which is sustainable agriculture systems based on natural ecosystems.  To learn more about permaculture go to Permies.

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