On 7th August, I went to the first day of the Foodies Festival in Inverleith Park.
If you haven’t been, you should: it was a fantastic day out “celebrating its 10th anniversary in Edinburgh with a three-day showcase of Scotland’s finest culinary talents and regional produce”. (To be clear upfront, my free ticket was provided by Lanyard Media, but I got no instructions from them what to say or what to blog about.)
One of the free lectures for Friday was on urban beekeeping, by Brian Pool, a third-generation professional beekeeper, who teaches beekeeping at the Secret Herb Garden and is Beekeeper in Residence at Edinburgh Zoo (where they’re having a Bee Festival on 29th August, free to anyone who visits the Zoo that day).
I learned that the British black honey-bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is more aggressive and more inclined to sting if provoked than the mellower Italian honey-bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) which Brian Pool attributes to the Italian bee expecting to find honey all year round, breeding to huge numbers within the hive and therefore needing to be fed by the beekeeper: whereas British bees (“hardier and have smaller populations going into winter, so they need less food to survive, and they also have fewer mouths to feed during a cold spring snap” says Terry Clare, president of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association) are better at saving honey for a rainy day.
And that is quite literal: beekeeping is dependent on the weather, and this year has been a bad year for bees. Brian Pool has eighty bee colonies and has yet to get any honey for sale from any of the hives this year: it’s been too cold and too wet. More than a third of what we eat – very much more than a third of the food at the Festival – is dependent on the pollination of honey-bees. It takes, he said, a million colonies of bees to pollinate the Californian almond crop.
When the last bee died,
nobody noticed. Nobody put on black
or made a dirge for the death
of honey. Nobody wrote an elegy
to apricots, no one mourned for cherries.
The cause of the dying bees is discussed regularly – insectides lethal to bees or an accumulation of pesticides and fungicides that weaken bee resistence to parasites and threaten bee population collapse: a dying of bees that only seems to be getting worse.
When the last bee died,
everyone was busy. They had things to do,
drove straight to work each morning,
straight back home each night. The roads
all seriously hummed. Besides,
the pantries were still packed
with cans of fruit cocktail in heavy srup,
deep deep freezers full
of concentrated grape and orange juice,
stores stocked with artificial flavouring.
Brian Pool told us that the wild honey-bee colonies in Britain don’t exist any more, or not to any degree worth speaking of: he says this of his experience as a beekeeper and a beekeeper’s son and grandson. In past decades, it was a common occurrance for the local council to have to call in a professional beekeeper to remove a bee colony from an inappropiate location – the ledge inside a chimney, blocking the flue, used to be a common enough place for a wild colony to attach itself to – but he can’t remember the last time he was called on to do this. He reckons this is down to the parasite, Nosema ceranae, which is now known to infect bees as larvae, and can be kept under control only by constant treatment. A bee colony in a hive being looked after by beekeepers can survive the parasite, which made the jump from the Asiatic honey-bee (Apis cerana) in the 1950s. But a wild bee colony will die out after two years or so. The Asiatic honey-bee has long since made accommodation with this parasite, and wild colonies in southern and southeastern Asia can survive infected, but the Asiatic honey-bee can’t survive in Western Europe: too cold and wet.
Honey-bees survive winter in a huddled ball inside the hive – constantly moving, those on the outside of the ball eating, those on the inside of the ball staying warm.
Why it’s impossible to isolate uninfected bee colonies has to do with the organisation of the colony. Each bee colony is a single entity; a bee queen, the only fertile adult female in each colony, mates up to a dozen times with drones – male bees, hatched for the summer. Worker bees, all females, do all the work of the hive and only rarely lay eggs, but contrary to the male-dominated image of Bee Movie, there’s no specialisation: worker bees go through age-related assignment of the necessary work of maintaining the hive, feeding the larvae, flying out to search for and collect pollen, making honey, regulating the temperature of the hive by fanning their wings to direct warm air this way and that – while drones, once hatched, can fly into any hive and be fed and groomed and do no work. Only, when a virgin queen rises to fly through congregation areas for drones – she will mate as many as a dozen times on that one flight – and all the drones will strive to mate with her. Mating is death for a male bee:
As he grasps the queen, the drone everts his penis using a contraction of his abdominal muscles and hemostatic pressure, and inserts it tightly into the queen’s reproductive tract. He immediately ejaculates with such explosive force that the tip of his penis ruptures, and is left behind inside the queen. The drone falls to the ground, where he dies soon after.
Because, once hatched, a drone is welcome in any hive all summer long, and may fly to many hives before mating, to be fed and groomed by worker bees, it is impossible to quarantine an infected hive. The wanderings of the drones is how the bee colonies mix genetic material. Once mated, the queen is ready for a lifespan of three to five years, in which she can lay 2000 eggs a day: all the fertilised eggs are sired by the long-dead drones she mated with in the air on her first flight. Worker bees hatched in the autumn who spend most of their lives safely in the hive might live for months; worker bees that fly out during the spring and summer to gather pollen may live no longer than six weeks. Worker bees and queen bees are hatched from fertilised eggs; drones are parthenogenetic males, hatched when the queen lays unfertilised eggs.
Brian Pool recounts how the swarming works to let a bee colony create new colonies: when the population pressure in a hive gets too high, the queen will lay eggs in large queen cells, and the larvae are fed with royal jelly: a nutritious creamy substance secreted by young worker bees but fed only to larvae in queen cells, who will eat twice their own weight for the first four to five days. Nine days after the eggs were laid, the workers cap them with wax and the prime swarm – comprised of older workers – leaves the hive, with the old queen, and finds another place for the colony to live. (For wild bee colonies this could be anywhere, but a beekeeper’s bee swarms will end up in another hive.)
Eight days after the prime swarm left the hive, the first queen bee hatches, and she too will lead a swarm of bees from the hive, the first cast. Other casts may follow as the next queen bees hatch, but eventually a queen bee hatches who is aware – by whatever instinct bees count – that there are now not enough worker bees in the hive to sustain another cast from it. Instead of leaving the hive, she kills the remaining queen bees in their cells before they can break the wax cap and leave, and about a week later, will take her first flight from what is now her hive.
In early autumn, all the surviving drones are killed by the worker bees of whichever hive they’ve flown into. A live drone in a hive after September, Brian Pool said, means the hive is in trouble – usually there’s no queen.
When the last bee died, nobody saw
the poppies winking out, nobody cried
for burdock, yarrow, wild delphinium.
Now and again a child would ask for
dandelions, quickly shushed: That pest!
One of the best crops for honey-bees in the UK is oilseed rape, because of the long flowering season. More than half commercial honey is from oilseed rape flowers. This honey, unprocessed, sets hard like a concrete brick, explodes in the extractor. To process, this honey must be extracted from the comb, filtered, left to set inside a plastic bucket, and then heated a second time and mashed up when liquid to break up the granulated honey. Then the honey can be poured into a jar and sold as soft set honey.
To get your bees to make honey from different flowering crops, you move the hives: all farmers whose crops are dependent on honey-bee pollination welcome a professional beefarmer’s visit. The hives need to be moved very early in the morning – wrapped up before the bees leave the hive. Brian Pool reckons to begin with the oilseed rape flowering, then move the hives to the Pentlands for the heather blosson (late this year) and then to the Borders for lime trees in flower.
Manuka honey, Brian Pool said, gets an unfairly good press because it was the first honey analysed for its healthful properties: heather honey is very similar to manuka honey. Lime flower honey (not citrus limes, but the deciduous British tree that flowers late) is the best, in his opinion.
But mostly, with the end of wild swarms unable to survive the parasitic infection, he wanted to urge us to consider beekeeping: to keep the bees alive.
Someone asked what it cost to set up a hive from scratch: £200 for a swarm of bees, Brian Pool said, then anything up to £500 depending how much of your equipment you have to buy new and how much you can get second-hand if you know a beekeeper.
And everyone is fine. The children healthy,
radish-cheeked. They play she love me/not
with Savoy cabbage leaves, enjoy the telling
of the great myths, peach and peony.
No one believes in apples any more.
(The poem is “End Notes for a Small History”, Betty Lies, published in Southern Poetry Review Summer 1998 Vol. XXXVlll, No. 1 page 33)
(If I’ve made any mistakes in my account of what I learned about bees and beekeeping, that’s down to my notetaking, not Brian Pool’s interesting and informative lecture.)