honey bees

Bees and Planet under Threat

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Lecture date: Sun, 31st May, 2015
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Estimated 9 min read
From his shop at No. 326 Holborn, a stone’s throw from Conway Hall, Daniel Wildman sold both bees and hives. The bees were encouraged to build comb and store honey in bottles and bell jars on the top of his hives. Curious to know where his urban bees foraged for honey, Wildman would dust them with flour as they emerged from his Holborn hives and tracked them as far as Hampstead. Wildman also gave bee shows as far away as Germany. His book A complete guide for the management of bees, published in 1773, was a best seller, running to numerous editions and being published in French and Italian editions on the continent.Londoners have always kept bees. There has been an association for beekeepers in the city since 1883. A century ago there were an estimated one million managed colonies of bees in Britain. Now the figure is a quarter of that but is growing again. It has been the decline of the honey bee and our increasing awareness of our dependency on it that has been in large part responsible for the growing twenty-first century increase in interest in bees and beekeeping. As England became urbanised bees became fewer. Before the industrial revolution some think that every second or third dwelling had a bee hive. As the cities encroached on the countryside, many of those hives disappeared. Others just moved upwards onto roofs.Today the plight of the honey bee is well known and we are all more aware of how dependent we humans are on them for pollinating much of our food. Support for urban beekeepers could not be stronger. About a third of all the food we eat and drink is the result of pollination by honey bees and without them our diets would be much the poorer. Einstein is reputed to have said that if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination….no more human-kind!

Some think that Einstein’s quote is apocryphal; whatever its origins it is a stark reminder of just how dependent we are on honey bees for the pollination of so much of what we eat and drink. Something like a third of all we consume is reliant on honey bee pollination. Examples of crops pollinated by bees include: Allspice, Almonds, Artichoke, Asparagus, Avocado, Blackberries, Blueberries, Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, Cabbage, Cacao, Cantaloupe, Caraway, Cardamom, Cashew, Cauliflower, Celeriac, Celery, Chicory, Chives, Cinnamon, Citrus, Coriander, Cranberries, Cucumbers, Currants… and that’s just A – C.

 

Bees and Flowers Evolved Together

Bees have been on our planet for something like 130 million years; as long as the first flowering plants. Flowering planets are dependent on flying insects for pollination and flying insects are dependent on the nectar and pollen in flowers for food, so the two must have evolved side by side. It was a long while before man came along and for most of those 130 million years bees lived without humans stealing their honey. The first hominids – the homo species — came along about two and a half million years ago. Humans as we know them, Homo sapiens, appeared about 160,000 years ago. For thousands of years humans did not think to ‘keep’ bees, but left them in the wild, raiding nests for honey and wax.

On the wall of a cave in southern Spain is a painting. It shows a figure climbing to a bees’ nest and stealing honey. It was painted perhaps 3,000 years ago and we will never know why or who by. It is the earliest image we have of human and honey bee. Sometime between the appearance of humans and that image being painted onto the wall of the Spanish cave, humans realised the taste and energy giving properties of honey. They may also have discovered the wonderful light that could be made from the burning of beeswax. Our Spaniard is not keeping bees but climbing high into a tree to retrieve honey and wax from a wild nest. In some parts of the world that is still the way in which honey is taken and bees are not kept but left to live wild as they have always done.

In the wild, bees live in dark voids, usually empty spaces inside dead trees, sometimes in caves or mountain clefts. They are creatures of the dark, the queen in the deepest darkest space of all, the tens of thousands of workers around her communicating not by sight but by smell, a complexity of pheromones that tell the colony all they need to know and control all that they do.

 

Eventually Bees Were ‘Kept’

It was all very well climbing high into trees and up cliffs and crevices but what if the bees could be kept somewhere closer to home and contained in something from which the honey and wax could easily be extracted. Eventually humans devised ways to keep bees, breed them, and harvest wax and honey as it was needed. The first hives replicated the bees’ homes in the wild, carved out of felled tree trunks and placed horizontally or vertically with lids or doors for easy access to the colonies within.

There are other early images of human and bee and archaeological discoveries of ancient bee hives. Pictures of hives made of clay can be found in tombs of the Pharaohs. They are still used in the Middle East. Other cultures wove their hives from straw or wicker. Called skeps they are like upside down wastepaper baskets with a small hole for the bees to come in and out of. You can still find them in some parts of Europe where they have to be brought indoors or stored in a brick ‘bole’, a kind of open air cupboard, over cold winters. Different designs of hive were made in different parts of the world, using the materials to hand and adapted to different climates. All these simple hives have a major disadvantage – the colonies of bees have to be destroyed in whole or part to extract their contents.

It was an American pastor, the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, in Massachusetts in 1851, who came up with a solution. Bees, he noticed, always build their comb in vertical sheets and always with just enough space between them for the bees to pass one another on facing sheets of comb without knocking each other off. This is the crucial ‘bee space’. Too much space between the combs and the bees will fill it with wax, too little and the bees will not be able to work. If the parts of a hive could be kept between ¼ and 3/8 of an inch (6 mm and 9 mm) apart, the bees would be able to work and would not join them together with bits of comb or sticky propolis.

Langstroth realised that if the bees could be persuaded to build their comb on moveable wooden frames that could be kept in boxes piled on each other and removed at will without destroying the nest, it would then be possible to inspect the bees, remove frames and extract honey, add extra boxes of frames to encourage honey production and so on, all without harming the colony. The story goes that Langstroth experimented with an old champagne crate and that it was the size of the crate that dictated the size of his frames. Whether true or not, Langstroth created the first modern bee hive and all those made since have been constructed on his principles.

 

The Hive Population

A hive can contain up to 70,000 bees in midsummer. There is 1 queen, 250 drones, 20,000 female foragers, 30,000 female house-bees, 5,000 to 7,000 eggs, 7,000-11,000 larvae being fed and 16,000 to 24,000 larvae developing into adults in sealed cells. The queen makes a mating flight during her early life during which she stores the sperm from up to 20 drones. Drones that mate with her die in the act. She can store the sperm for up to 5 years. Bees are busy outside of the hive from the onset of warm spring weather until the beginning of autumn. While flowers are in bloom they will collect nectar and make it into honey which they store in the hive to live on over the winter months. A worker honeybee in summer lives only 6 to 8 weeks from the time she hatches as an adult bee. Before that, it takes just 3 weeks for her to develop from an egg. During the winter the bees rarely leave the hive but cluster together to keep warm. Winter bees live for 6 months and will occasionally go outside to defecate in order to keep the hive clean.

Honey in its natural state can be in two physical states, clear (runny) or crystalline (set). When removed from the hive in late summer, it is warm, runny and clear. Once extracted some honey will crystallize (or set) within days, most naturally will not set for many weeks or months. Because of its antiseptic properties, during the First World War honey was used to dress soldiers’ wounds. In the Second World War it was used until penicillin became available. Honey is still widely used in UK hospitals for treating open sores and ulcers.

To collect 450 grams of honey a bee might have to fly a distance equivalent to twice round the world. This is likely to involve more than 10,000 flower visits on perhaps 500 foraging trips. In a single collecting trip, a worker will visit between 50 and 100 flowers and return to the hive carrying over half her weight in pollen and nectar. Honey is stored on frames of wax inside the boxes of the hive. It is removed usually just once a year at the end of August and strained and bottled. A jar of honey weighs 454 grammes and a bee can carry about 0.04 grammes of nectar. But nectar is only about 40% sugar and honey needs to be about 80% sugar so the bee actually only carries about 0.02 grammes of honey on each trip. 22,700 bees are required to fill a single jar of honey.

This sounds impressive but of course a colony of bees doesn’t just make one jar of honey. Over the year the queen will produce between 100,000 and 200,000 bees that will each spend between 10 and 20 days collecting nectar. Bees continually use up their honey as fuel, primarily to keep the brood warm. So at any given time there may only be between 10 and 20kg of honey in the hive.

The Mayor of London and the GLA are advocating the support of increased beekeeping in London. This is what they say:

“In the winter of 2009/10, Britain lost a third of its bee colonies. Bees are a vital part of Britain’s ecology, and are directly responsible for pollinating at least 30% of the food crops we eat. They are also an important indicator of our ecosystem’s overall health. There are many reasons for the decline of bees.

What is clear however is that large, urban centres are becoming havens for bee populations. They provide a milder climate and a wider range of food than the countryside. London has a key part to play in the future survival of Britain’s bee populations and with more Londoners than ever choosing to grow their own food, bees are more important than ever.”

 

Note. A hive has now been established on the roof of Conway Hall, looked after by Luke. Small pots of the honey produced are on sale at the shop in the foyer of Conway Hall. {Ed}

 

 

 


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Luke Dixon spends the summer months looking after beehives across the rooftops and gardens of London. He tends the hives on the roof of Conway Hall and is the beekeeper of The Natural History Museum. Luke is also author of Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities and Bees & Honey:…