Paula Gardner: Local Beekeeper
In her talk on beekeeping Paula made us aware of the importance of honey bees for food production through the process of pollination as well as making honey, their susceptibility to weather conditions, the threat of the varroa mite and insecticides, and what we can do to help them so that they can continue to help us.
She began with the life cycle of bees. The Queen Bee lays the eggs (up to 3,000 in one day) some fertile and some infertile. The fertile eggs are female and the infertile ones male. The eggs transform into larvae six days after being laid. All of them (female, worker and drone bees) are fed ‘Royal Jelly’ during their first three days. Then the Royal Jelly is only fed to the female larvae which will eventually become Queen Bees. The Queen Bee takes just 16 days to emerge as an adult while the worker bees take 21 days and the drones 24.
Royal Jelly is a milky secretion produced by worker honey bees to feed the larvae which will develop into Queen Bees with reproductive organs (unlike the worker bees). Made up largely of water it contains protein, sugar, minerals, salt and amino acid, its constitution varying according to geography and climate. It is used as an alternative medicine but there is no scientific evidence for its efficacy.
Honey bees live in a colony centred around the Queen Bee and all have their own job: the nursery bees look after the young, the house cleaning bees remove debris from the hive, the wax bees secrete wax to build and protect the cells, and the guard bees deal with anything harmful entering the hive. The drones have only one function and that is to mate once and then they die. The drones are not wanted in the hive as they consume honey and do nothing apart from occasionally flapping their wings to control temperature. The worker bees encourage them to leave. Only the Queen Bee will show any interest in them and that will be short lived. The bees usually range within a mile and a half radius of the hive; only if they can’t find food will they go further.
Bees are very much affected by the weather: this year has been difficult for them because of the long winter, a cold and dry spring and a summer with more rain and wind than normal. While Queen Bees may live for six months or even longer (two years has been known), adverse weather over the past ten years has meant that they haven’t been able to mate for long enough, have laid fewer eggs and lived shorter lives. If a Queen doesn’t come up to the mark the colony will get rid of her, take over her newly laid eggs as well as larvae and produce a new Queen.
Beekeepers have been collaborating to try and increase the bee population by mating Queens with bees from abroad but this can result in the introduction of foreign mites which damage or kill bees so that whole hives sometimes have to be destroyed. It is best to use indigenous bees and to encourage beekeepers to breed locally: there are Queen rearing classes available. The Varroa is a common mite which lives on bees; the female mite gets into the larvae and feeds on the immature bee which is therefore unable to grow properly, may be smaller with deformed wings and won’t live as long as a healthy bee. The Varroa is widespread and unless it is controlled it can eventually cause the hive to collapse. There are various treatments available which are effective providing that the infestation is spotted early enough. Another danger to bees is insecticides. Pollination of crops such as cereals is wind blown but bees do alight on these crops and can pick up chemicals that are harmful to them.
Honey bees give us such a lot but they also need our help. Not only do they produce honey from the nectar they collect from flowers and blossoms but they, together with many other insects, are important pollinators. About a quarter of the honey produced in a hive is used by the bees themselves so the beekeeper can harvest the rest from the hive when it is ripe and use it for human consumption. The honey will vary according to weather conditions and the types of plants and flowers available. As oil seed rape is now a common crop which flowers in spring the honey produced tends to be white, while later in the year clear floral honey will vary according to the flowers available and the hours of warm sunny weather. To be spreadable honey must be well stirred before it sets and care needs to be taken that air is excluded.
Basically, pollination is the way in which plants achieve fertilisation and genetic diversity. Bees and many other pollinators transfer pollen from the male part of a plant (anther) to the female part of another plant (stigma). Once pollination occurs the fertilised flower produces seeds which enable reproduction and the formation of fruit. Probably at least one third of world food production relies on cross pollination by insects. The decline of pollinators, including bees, is a risk to biodiversity and to long term food security.
Beekeepers such as Paula are a great help to bees. She has three hives in the Droveway at St Margaret’s, some at Walmer Castle, some on a farm and some on a patch of land surrounded by gardens. As Paula told us, it is possible to set up a hive in your own garden but you need to check with the neighbours first and make sure that the hive is positioned so that the bees fly up and away from habitation. We may not be able to keep bees but we can help by growing flowers.
More flowers are now being grown in the ‘June gap’, a time when bees used to suffer. Growing wildflower gardens will help bees and other pollinators. We need both closed and open flowers: bumblebees have long tongues to get into closed flowers but honey bees have short tongues and need open flowers which are easier to access such as daisies or sunflowers. Lavender and majoram are examples of plants to attract bees.
As we contemplate the importance of our environment and the future of the human race in the face of climate change, we must not forget the role of bees as pollinators who help in the process of food production all over the world. If we cannot keep bees we can perhaps provide more plants and flowers in our gardens or window boxes to help them continue their vital work.
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