Tuesday 27 September 2016

On Bats (Good), Dragonflies (Good and Bad) and Mosquitoes (Definitely Bad)

A rescued (and shy) Noctule Bat
Dragonflies and damselflies have been flying around the smallholding for weeks. From a distance, they're beautiful, like little jewels hanging in the air. I've been watching them in the meadow where the bee hives are kept where they dart around, hunting, their translucent wings glowing with light. But this is the problem - lovely though they are to look at, I think they're hunting my bees.

Female black tailed skimmer

I'm not an expert on the different dragonflies, but I'm having a go at the ID. I do know they are fierce little hunters that will use their large, bulging eyes to spot their prey. I think they're probably spotting my bees as they fly to and from the hives, so I really hope my bees are managing to outwit them.

Instead of my bees, I wish the dragonflies could have gone for the numerous mosquitoes we had here during the hot weather. We were under attack for about two or three weeks as they came buzzing in through the open windows at night - possibly from our moat. So I bought some citronella (known to repel mosquitoes) and scattered it everywhere, but I think its effect was limited. It has to be reapplied every few hours.  I got tired of the smell soon, too. I thought about a mosquito net, but I really didn't want such an cumbersome and ugly thing hanging up.

Common darter
It goes without saying that I'm very lucky I don't live in a malaria area. But a note on this; for a long time Essex (or rather the coastal marshes) was well known for malaria or, as it was known then, the 'ague'. There's one story that illustrates how bad it was - the 'Robinson Crusoe' author Daniel Defoe travelled through Essex in 1722 and he later wrote that when the men of the Essex marshes brought home wives who weren't local, the women would soon sicken of the ague (or they would 'decay' as he put it) and die. The men would then go and find another wife and it would all happen again. And again. According to Defoe, some men had married up to fifteen times (one farmer was on wife number twenty five). This sounds like a huge exaggeration, but there's probably some truth in it, so it's a wonder why these women kept taking the risk by marrying the marsh folk.

No one seems to be sure why the ague began to disappear in the late 19th century, but it may have been down to improvements in medicine. The last outbreak in this part of the world was recorded about a hundred years ago when soldiers from the First World War returned from the Mesopotamian campaign (where they had contracted the disease) to the Isle of Sheppey.

Anyway, there's no chance of the mosquitoes coming back now the nights are cooler.  But it has spurred me on to put up some bat boxes here. Bats hunt insects and they hunt mosquitoes. They're no threat to my bees because my bees won't be flying at night. I've hardly seem any bats around the house this summer and I don't know why, because soprano pipistrelle bats have been here in the past, and I do know they're roosting just over the fields. So I'm going to put up some boxes to encourage them back.  Will they control a future plague of mosquitoes? I don't know, but I really hope so.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Bad News about a Nasty Visitor - The Arrival of the Asian Hornet in Britain.

Like other British beekeepers, I've been on the look out the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), which is a particularly nasty alien species.  Earlier in the summer, there were scare stories in the press about sightings of this 'killer hornet' in Britain, but fortunately none of these turned out to be true. A few weeks later, though, there was a confirmed sighting in the Channel Islands - and so beekeepers knew that it was just a few miles away from the British mainland.

Yesterday, it has been confirmed that the Asian hornet has been found in Tetbury, Gloucestershire.

Image result for asian hornet beekeeping uk
Asian hornet
This is bad news for honey bees and many other pollinators. European hornets kill honey bees, but these two species have evolved together. Strong honey bee colonies usually survive wasp attacks. The Asian hornet (thought to have entered France in 2004 on pottery from China) is a new and unfamiliar predator that is likely to have a terrible impact on honey bee colonies.

Asian hornets will attack honey bees as they go to and from the hive. They can kill them when the bees are returning loaded with pollen in their baskets. Then, when the colony is weakened, the hornets will enter the hive and attack the young bees. The Asian hornets can wipe out a honey bee colony very quickly.

So what can I do to protect my bees? Beekeepers have been encouraged to make special, DIY Asian hornet traps out of plastic bottles. Putting out the usual wasp trap would catch them, but in this case a trap needs to be made so that the Asian hornet can be clearly identified i.e. not the commonly used jam-jar trap that picks up lots of wasps together.

I found this European hornets' nest close to my smallholding this summer
I generally only put out wasp traps if I think my hives are being attacked (I haven't this year because the wasps haven't been a problem here). I don't want to catch wasps for the sake of it. But now I'll have to put out a wasp trap first of all in the spring, when the Asian hornet queens are about and looking to build a nest - and then keep it out throughout the summer. If I see an Asian hornet, I'll need to notify Defra at once through the Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS) at alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk (there is a link to the NNSS on the Asian hornet here)

I'll also help to locate the nearby nest, although the advice is for the public not to destroy the nests themselves. In Gloucestershire, a three mile surveillance zone has been placed around the original sighting and the nest or nests is/are being sought and destroyed.

Obviously I hope all the early hornet nests are destroyed at once - and that this nasty visitor doesn't get the chance to survive and spread across the UK.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

The Hive at Kew and the Music of Bees

The Hive at Kew Gardens
I'm completely fascinated by the different sounds and movements honey bees make in the hive. They're constantly communicating with each other, whether it's by the 'waggle dance' (where a returning forager shows the others by a dance where a good source of food is) or whether it's a new queen bee 'piping' (as she emerges from her cell for the first time) or whether it's from the thousands of daily exchanges the bees make with each other that beekeepers see and hear but don't fully understand yet.

So when I heard about the Hive at Kew Gardens (designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress), I was very keen to see it as soon as possible. The Hive was opened earlier this summer and I eventually managed fit in a trip last week. Luckily (for me) there was a bit of break in the heatwave on that day and the weather was cooler and fresher - much more pleasant for wandering around the gardens.

The Hive has been constructed to highlight the importance of honey bees and pollinators to our food security and its design has been inspired by a traditional skep surrounded by a swarm of bees. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hive is that it's linked to nearby honey bee colonies - and the intensity of sound and light in the structure is controlled by their vibrations.

This element of the design is based on the pioneering research by Dr Martin Bencsik of Nottingham Trent University into bee vibrations and communications. Dr Bencsik's work investigates the use of accelerometers in bee hives. These tiny devices can detect vibrations within hives as bees communicate and they help to predict behaviour, for example, sensing when bees are about to swarm.

Visitors to the Hive are able to feel four types of bee-vibrations in their heads by biting on a small wooden stick connected to a conductor. These vibrations include the queen's piping, begging - when one bee requests food from another, and the waggle dance. The overall sound in the Hive is the hum of a bee hive colony mixed with specially recorded music. This music is based on bees humming in the key of C. I found this gentle sound quite soothing. The only problem was the constant roar of planes flying overhead to Heathrow. I once lived for a while close to Kew Gardens and I'd forgotten how low, loud and distracting the planes are.

The ever-changing light in the Hive is from hundreds of LED bulbs placed within the 170,000 pieces of aluminium that make up the structure.

The Hive is surrounded by an area of wildflowers for pollinators, but I was obviously too late in the year to see the best of this, because most of the flowers had finished.  The bees were finding plenty of other flowers in the gardens, though, such as these alstroemeria;

After leaving the hive I went to look for 'real' bee hives and found them by the kitchen garden. These will be very lucky honey bees; they have so much forage in the gardens here all year round.

Honey bee and bumblebee hives at Kew. These colonies aren't linked to the Hive.
I do believe, then, that the Hive is worth a visit. I know I found it interesting to experience the behaviour of bees through a piece of art. The Hive also reminded me, once again, of the natural beauty of bees and how there's so much more to discover about them.

Here is a link to information on the Hive here  It'll be open until the end of 2017.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

After the Harvests and the Apple Thief

The honey harvest is over. I've taken all the honey I want from the hives and I'm now pouring it into jars, ready for sale. I'm not greedy; I've only taken a fraction of the honey I could take because I like to leave a lot for the bees. After all, this honey is the result of their hard work - not mine - and I don't want to raid all their food because they need it for winter stores.

I've been fascinated by this year's honey because it's much darker than usual. I'm really not sure what the bees have been foraging on, but they've loved something flowering locally that has produced honey with a deep, rich colour. And it's not only my bees that have been heading to and from this mystery source. I've been talking to a fellow beekeeper in the village and she's found exactly the same in her hives. We're both very keen to find out now where the honey has come from.

This year's honey ready to be extracted from the comb
The dark colour can sometimes mean it's honeydew honey. Honeydew is a sugary liquid secreted by sap-sucking insects on leaves - and honeydew honey has a strong, slightly bitter flavour.  As my honey is not as dark and is sweeter than this honey, I'm still none the wiser as to where it's come from.

So I'll just have look into what my bees have been up to this summer. In the meantime, they're foraging quite happily now with the bumblebees on some late summer flowers, such as single-flower dahlias, helenium, japanese anemones and verbana.

The other harvest has also taken place in the surrounding fields and we've collected bales of fresh straw from a local farmer for animal bedding.  I love the smell of fresh straw; it's a smell of late summer. The straw is now stacked in the barn with our winter logs.

Straw and logs stored for winter - and Harry watching a rabbit hole 
In the garden, we're picking plenty of vegetables such as tomatoes and courgettes, so there are lots of tomato and courgette-based meals here at the moment.  Some of the apples are ready to pick, too, but we've found we have a problem with our apple harvest, because apples in our new orchard are disappearing almost as fast as they're ripening. Why is this happening? Well, it seems we have a thief among us - and I've been watching him try his luck.

This is the technique. First of all try and knock the young tree to loosen the apples - and act casually, as though you're not up to anything...

Then rub up against a tree, which might be more successful...

Gaze up at the tree for inspiration...

Then just take a leap...

And success. you've grabbed an apple!

It's a good job the other sheep aren't following his bad example, otherwise I don't think we'd have any apples left.