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Category: Bees, Bees and more Bees

  1. In The Beginning . . . (Part 2) . . . Where did bees come from?

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    I love giving talks to children’s groups because they ask such wonderful questions and I have learnt so much from talking to them.

    One of my favourite questions is, “Where do bees come from?”.  Especially when I can answer that bees were around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth!

    Around 135 million years ago when dinosaurs walked the earth there were also some insects.  Some of these insects were oversized butterflies and dragonflies.

    Plants had been mostly wind pollinated up until this point, but insects and plants had recently discovered a beneficial relationship.  In return for a sugary reward in the form of nectar insects were now pollinating flowers.  Prior to this time flowers were drab greens and browns which blended well with the rest of the vegetation, but they had now started to evolve different colours and shapes to attract the most beneficial insects to pollinate them.

    Flower meadow

    Another group of insects, the wasps, had also evolved.  The term “wasp” usually conjures up images of black and yellow insects being a nuisance at late summer picnics.  There is very much more to wasps then this though.

    Some wasp species catch prey which they feed to their young.  The female wasps stock a nest, often an underground burrow, with the corpses or paralysed bodies of their prey for the young grubs to feed on.  For some reason some of these wasps started to stock their nests with pollen.  It may have been that there was a shortage of their preferred prey, or the pollen may just have been a supplement.  Pollen is very rich in protein (as other insects had discovered) and eventually a wasp species evolved to feed their young solely on pollen and had become the first bees.

    As insects rarely form fossils it is difficult to be precise as to when bees first evolved.  DNA suggests that bees have been around for approximately 130 million years and so were evolving alongside the first flowers.

    Since that time bees and flowers have continued to evolve and diversify side by side. 

    Flowers have adapted various ways and means to attract the bees best adapted to pollinating them, whilst bees have evolved to become specialised nectar and pollen feeders/collectors.  Many species have hairy bodies which trap pollen as they fly from flower to flower. 

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    Others have stiff hairs on their back legs on to which they pack pollen to transfer it back to their nests. Common carder

    Some have evolved longer and longer tongues with which to reach nectar, and so the variations go on.

    Today there are approximately 25,000 known species of bee worldwide.

    In the UK we have around 280 different bees.  1 of these is the honey bee, 27 are bumble bees and the rest are solitary bees.

    And the wasps?  Well they evolved too . . .

    Ruby tailed wasp - bee tubes (2)

  2. In The Beginning . . . (Part 1)

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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. 

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    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. 

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    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.

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  3. Honey Bees Through The Seasons

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    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

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    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

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    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

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    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!!!!)

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    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 

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    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

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    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.

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    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