Blog

 RSS Feed

  1. A gloomy January morning walk today had me thinking about how very different our world could have been without insects. 

    P1010992

    When we think of nature and conservation we tend to think of the larger animals and birds, but insects really are the invisible unsung heroes of our world.

    Around 135 million years ago, dinosaurs walked the earth.  When we think of dinosaurs roaming the earth, we tend to think of huge beasts tearing up the vegetation, colossal battles between gigantic armour plated warriors, and herds of smaller beasts being chased and preyed upon by larger dinosaurs, whilst the gigantic forerunners of today’s birds dominate the skies.

    We rarely, if at all, give much thought to the plants and insects which would have inhabited this world.

    fern

    Plant life was a mixture of greens.  Plant pollination would have relied on the wind (or large clumsy beasts brushing against them to dislodge the pollen).  Some plants today are still mostly wind pollinated but this is a very haphazard method of pollination.  The male parts of the plant produce pollen which is, hopefully, blown on to the female part of a nearby plant.  This method of pollination relies a lot on chance, and vast quantities of pollen must be produced for successful pollination.

    moss

    Amongst the vegetation were insects, including oversized butterflies and dragonflies.  Some of the winged insects started to feed on pollen.  As they flew from plant to plant feeding some of the pollen became trapped in their hairs or joints and was dropped on neighbouring plants.

    Much less pollen was needed for successful pollination by insects.  To begin with insects would have had to search for the insignificant green and brown flowers, but as pollination by insects was much more reliable plants responded by evolving ways to attract more insects.  Where before everything had been green, now the first flowers started to appear.

    Apple blossom (5)

    Petals helped to advertise where the pollen on a plant could be found, and if those petals were white rather than green they stood out against the background of green plants.  These plants would have been much more successful at attracting insects and so more and more diversification took place. 

    P1000456

    Some plants also responded by starting to produce nectar – a sweet, sugary reward in return for pollination.  As nectar producing is hard work for plants, plants evolved to attract the insects which were best able to pollinate them.  Different colours emerged, alongside different flower shapes.  Some plants developed long tubes with the nectar at the base, some butterflies responded by evolving long tubular tongues to suck up this nectar. 

    P1000308

    Others developed patterns to advertise where the nectar could be found.

    The most successful group of insects to emerge during this period were the bees.  Today much of our flora relies mostly on the pollination services of our bees.  Its hard to imagine how our world would have looked with out flowers.

    P1010729 (2)

  2. WINTER

    It really is a very bleak day here today.  Snow is causing chaos over much of the country.  We’re luckier than most in our patch in Surrey.  We’ve had a little snow, a lot of heavy rain and strong winds.  The sky is grey outside the windows. 

    The Winter Solstice (the shortest day and longest night the year) was last week.  Although I doubt any of us have noticed it yet, the sun is gradually growing in strength and the days are starting to get just a tiny bit longer each day.

    Photo:  Sun rise on the Winter Solstice

    DSC_0731

    During this time the beehives show little or no signs of activity and look abandoned.  However inside is a different story.

    This extra daylight will soon trigger a change inside the beehives.  The worker bees will start to feed the queen bee a little more food.  This in turn will trigger her to start laying increasing numbers of eggs. 

    Photo:  Pollen coming into the hive

    P1010520

    If the temperature is high enough honey bees will fly during the winter.  They’ll collect water to dilute their stores.  They’ll also collect pollen if any is available.  Pollen is a protein food for bees and so it is especially important for rearing strong healthy brood.

    (N.B. Brood is a term used to describe developing bees).

    SPRING

    As spring arrives the queen continues to lay more and more eggs each day.  By the time beekeeper does his/her first spring inspection the brood nest is usually quite large.  Forage is absolutely crucial at this time as there are more young bees to be fed.  The remaining winter work force is now very elderly and new young bees are urgently needed. 

    Photo:  Honey bee foraging in the spring

    P1000321 (3)

    Hopefully the days are sunny and mild and the bees are able to fly most days.  If so, the population will expand rapidly and quickly outgrow the hive.  If the beekeeper doesn’t give the bees some extra room this will trigger the congested bees to swarm.  Even with extra room the urge to swarm is strong and the colony may well prepare to swarm. 

    Swarming is the natural reproduction of the colony.  The bees will start to raise a new queen.  Once they are assured a new queen is on the way, they will stop feeding the old queen to slim her down ready to fly.  On a warm day, usually in the middle of the day, the old queen will leave the hive with many of the older worker bees.  Initially the swarm will land quite close by whilst the workers look for a new home to move into.  Then all at once they will all take off.  For a few moments the sky will be black with bees, but they rapidly disappear from sight on their way to a new home. 

    Whilst swarms look very scary, the bees are usually very placid as they have no home, stores or young to defend. *

    Photo:  A bait hive placed near a swarm of bees - these were so placid I had a vest top on and no veil (but don't try this at home!!!!)

    DSC_0275

    For a while the colony the swarm has left from will be quieter, but once the new queen takes over the egg laying duties of her mother, the population will rapidly grow again. 

    SUMMER

    As spring gives way to summer the queen’s rate of lay has increased to up to 2,000 eggs a day!!!!  No that wasn’t a typo – it really does say 2,000 eggs a day!!!!  All those young bees need feeding so worker bees forage from dawn until dusk (so long as it is warm enough and not raining).

    During the summer months colonies can reach 60,000 bees.

    The Summer Solstice (the longest day and shortest night) triggers another change in the bees’ behaviour.  Now they reduce the amount they feed the queen bee and her rate of lay drops accordingly.  This change means there are more adult bees available to forage just in time for the main nectar flow in late July and early August.  As there are less young bees to be fed, this means all the surplus nectar can be stored as honey in readiness for the winter months.

    Photo:  Honey bee foraging on thyme 

    P1000564 (2)

     

    AUTUMN

    During the summer months, worker bees will live for approximately 6 weeks.  In the winter months though the workers will live for up to 6 months.  The bees being produced in the autumn months need to be especially strong and healthy as these are the bees which will keep the colony going during the winter.  They are also the bees who will “kick start” the hive again in the spring at a time when they are very elderly and coming to the end of their days.

    Approximately 10,000 bees are needed to see the colony safely through the winter so as the days shorten the colony continues to reduce in size as the older bees die, and less young ones are produced. 

    Photo:  Honey bee foraging on ivy flowers

    P1010517

    The bees will continue to forage when conditions are favourable.  As the days shorten and get colder the bees will form a cluster.  In the middle of the cluster will be the queen bee and any brood, kept warm by the worker bees.  The bees on the outside will “shiver” or vibrate their wing muscles which generates heat, keeping the entire cluster warm.

    Beddington Park - 24.01.16

    Soon the Winter Solstice will arrive and the cycle will begin again.

    Cheeky plug – if you enjoyed this blog and you are a member of a group, you may be interested in booking a talk.  Talks are available for all ages groups – please see http://www.thelittlehoneybeecompany.co.uk/talksdemonstrations-workshops.html

     

    * If you see a swarm please don’t panic.  Many local beekeepers are happy to collect swarms.  If you take a look at the BBKA website you’ll find more details.  https://www.bbka.org.uk/help/do_you_have_a_swarm.php

     

  3. Up until the last few days most of us have been enjoying a milder than usual autumn, but the last few days have definitely turned colder.  Brrrrrrr

    Photo:  Carder bee foraging on hebe on a sunny afternoon last week

    P1010718 (2)

    I often get asked what happens to the bees in winter so now seems a good time for a blog about just that.

    The answer is - it depends on which type of bee it is.

    It is often assumed bees hibernate during the winter months and that is true of solitary bees and bumble bees. 

    Towards the end of the summer months bumble bee colonies will switch from producing workers to producing drones (males) and then new queens.  These will mate.  The new queens need to feed to build up their fat reserves ready for hibernation.  They will then look for a suitable nesting site, usually north facing so they won't be fooled into emerging too soon by the warmth of the sun shining on the nest on a sunny winter day.  The old nests and drones will die.  The new queens will emerge next spring to start the cycle again.

    Photo:  Stocking up on ivy, ready for the winter

    P1010581

    Solitary bees also hibernate during the winter.  It depends on the solitary bee though in which "state" they hibernate.  Some remain as eggs, or larvae.  Some remain as a pupae and a few hibernate as adults.

    Honeybees however don't hibernate although they do, for the most part, remain in the hive.  During the late summer the queen's rate of lay will drop.  As more of the older workers die than new ones are being produced the number of bees in the colony will drop.  In the autumn, the workers will decide the drones are now "surplus to requirements" and there will come a day when all the drones are summarily evicted from the hive.  These drones will perish from starvation or cold.  The colony continues to reduce in size until the numbers reach about 10,000. 

    Photo:  Honey bees stocking up on pollen ready for the winter

    P1010520

     

    As the weather gets colder the bees will cluster together around the queen and any brood.  The bees on the outside of the cluster will "lock" their wings and vibrate their flight muscles.  This generates heat and the temperature of the colony can be maintained.  As the bees on the outside chill they are replaced by warmer bees from the middle of the cluster.  The colder the weather the tighter the bees will cluster. 

    During the winter months honey bees will occasionally fly if it is warm enough.  Often on a sunny day honey bees can be seen collecting water.  They will use this to dilute the honey.  Honey bees need approximately 40 pound of honey to see them through the winter.   

    The warmer winters we've experienced recently has affected bees.  Some of the buff tail bumble bee queens don't go into hibernation at the end of the summer months, but instead choose to establish a nest.  If these nests are successful, in the spring they will produce new queens around the time the hibernating queens emerge.  Its therefore really important to provide as much winter forage as possible for the bees.  Mahonia is a fabulous choice as it continues to flower throughout the winter and will be one of the few sources of food available to bees.

    Photo:  Buff tail bumble bee on clover

    P1000508