Bees love heather

Probably Bombus lucorum on heather. (Fin) Mantukimalainen, (Eng) White-tailed bumblebee, (Swe) Ljus jordhumla.

Apis mellifera.  (Fin) Tarhamehiläinen, kesymehiläinen, (Eng) Honeybee, (Swe) Honungsbi.

There’s a beautiful lake far away from the traffic and other people and it’s surrounded by hectares of forest, bees and in the late season, heather.  I had no idea there were honeybees around at all, but apparently someone has a hive or two nearby.

It’s been a really, really amazing and hectic August and currently we’re making sure the bees are ready for overwintering, which creates it’s own chaos- though a good and rather organized one.  Apparently I have gotten the “bug”- this infectious and intense disease that starts with admiring bees in general and ends up with everything in your life tied to those tiny and amazing creatures.  It’s incurable, I’ve been told, so I’m just happily spreading the love of bees around.

In April 2013 I asked, “who will be taking care of the honeybees of our department?”  Then everything just escalated ridiculously quickly and I have so many stories to tell and even more to come, only if I’d find the time to type them down.  Luckily there’s a bunch (a couple of thousand) of photos insects taken during this summer so there’s always something to share.

Long live the queen

Some weeks ago I found around 20 queen cells from hive number 7.  Next week they were gone, some of them completely vanished (could the wax have been re-used?) and a few left with open heads.  No sign of queen being present.  As a precaution we moved a frame with eggs from another hive and hoped for the best.

This week I wasn’t at Helsinki and hence had no chance to visit the hives, but I was happily informed that all hives, including 7, have active queens, and plenty of eggs.  Two new hives arrived a week ago, and will probably be joined with each other sometime later.  Eight more hives from Åland islands were transported to Houtskär for Sanibee project.

Beautiful and amazing, aren’t they?

Varroa project, part 2 ; some hives are happy and some hives are sad

It was supposed to rain heavily on July 19th so I went to hives a bit earlier than others.    Hives from 1 to 4 are under a support frame that gives shelter from the rain, but other three have no such thing and since I’m not keen on opening the hive when it’s windy and pouring rain I was prepared on taking a lot of breaks in the laboratory and just waiting.

I like taking care of bees on my own- it somehow feels a bit different and I find myself in a nice zen state of mind.  But I love working with others, since ergonomics and lifting hive boxes filled with bees and honey really don’t meet; they rather pass each other from distance, not really being certain the other actually exists.  So my relief was evident when I found out that there really wasn’t much need for lifting this time.  How do other beekeepers do this all the time?  I do exercise and I’m not unfamiliar with physical work either (quite the opposite- I like it) but lifting heavy boxes with awkward size and shape rings all the alarm bells in my mind.

An active and eager population.  Underneath the bees you can see sealed pupae cells.

Hive 7 has two boxes and for reasons unknown to me, they fancy doing everything on the top one.  It was filled with frames heavy on honey and larvae, when the bottom box was light and quite randomly stacked with honey.  Bees were active, and quite interested on my presence.  Lots of smoke was used to get them from squishing to death while moving frames and boxes.  Last week’s selection of queen cells was vanished almost completely, with only a few empty ones remaining.  No sighting of the queen nor eggs, but since it had been a really cold and windy week, she probably hadn’t even flown yet.  Pollen stock was quite tiny, as it has been with other hives as well.

Hive 5 with it’s two boxes was quite calm- could it have been the weather that made the bees so easy to handle?  Upper box had a nice amount of honey, and as I found eggs right when the heavens opened and it began pouring, I stopped searching for queen and left the hive be.

Hive 6, passive and sadder than ever. No-one has energy to do anything.  Some slight activation of Nasonov glands happens, that’s all.

Hive 6 was a miserable disaster.  The bees couldn’t have cared less if you’d just began eating them right then and there.  They were moving on slow motion and didn’t come out much.  And it got worse- all the larvae moved earlier to this hive from others, were dead and dried to their cells.  There were almost fully-grown pupae on the bottom of the hive and no honey to be seen- the nest was dry and dying.  In their desperation they had opened the sealed cells and eaten the royal jelly and nectar meant for larvae, and could have even emptied the fluids form the growing youngsters.  This sort of behavior is the last resort which usually takes place only on late winter, when there are no food left and no new nectar and pollen to gather.

So what had gone wrong? Was the transport too much for the bees? Was the hive too weak to begin with in some way?

As first aid I placed a full frame of honey to the hive, from hive 3 since the last I knew, it had been doing really well.  This is the part when I also realized that we really needed to have common notes available to all of us- if someone isn’t present when needed and no notes of persons hive are available, you have no idea what the history of hive has been and is it ok to do changes like this.

The starving bees of hive 6 practically wolfed eagerly to nectar-dripping frame and I let them to feast.  A frame with larvae was also placed there, and the next morning when I paid them a visit they were much livelier than before.  Let’s see what the next visit brings.

Varroa-project, part 1 ; arrival of the bees

In the end of June, 10 small hives of healthy, mite-free bees were transported to Helsinki from Åland islands.  Unfortunately only seven of them survived the trip- the temperature at the ship’s cardeck rose too high and though the traveltime was quite short, it was still too much for bees to tolerate.

Seven hives were placed near the bee laboratory at Viikki campus and arranged to their stands- which differ from ordinary stands, since the hives are rather hanging from support structure than standing on the ground.  Each of us have marked hives to tend and dedicate our spare time to- “mine” are hives 5 and 7.

The bees are spreading pheromones from the Nasonov gland. The tip of their abdomen is bent open and it exposes the gland, and they spread the pheromone for other bees of their hive to find their way home. You can often see this at the entrance of the hive after the beekeeper has paid a visit.

On July 5th the hives 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 were strongly alive and active.  Queens were found from all of them, though with hive number seven there were no sightings, but a few freshly laid eggs gave an impression of queen being present.

Hives 4 and 6 weren’t doing so greatly- they were phlegmatic, passive and uninterested of humans poking around their tiny realm.  There where only a couple of hundred bees in those hives, when the stronger hives presented the estimated amount of 10 000 or more.  We took a few frames with eggs and tiny larvae from stronger hives and gave them a few empty frames in return, hoping it would activate bees to turn one of the into a new queen.

As for the research project; we took samples, which means the unfortunate job of collecting bees to a small bottle, telling them I’m sorry and I know it’s cruel but this time there are no other scientifically reliable way to do this.  Then we label the bottles and put them in a freezer for later examination.  The amount of bees gathered was supposed to be around 50, but as it appears they dislike being shut in a bottle just like we would and frantically escape whenever possible, the result of 15 to 20 bees was quite enough.  This procedure will be repeated ones every two weeks or so.  In the near future there might be another way of checking this- hopefully one that doesn’t need killing the bees.

On July 11th we were beginning to concentrate to our own hives more and more, keeping our own notes.  It has it’s pros and cons- on the other hand we get to know the bees better and better but on the other hand have practically no idea of the status of other nests, which creates small problems later on.

Hive number 4 was still phlegmatic, though with more bees than last time, and no indication of queen or making of one.  But number 7 was as active as ever- I went through the whole hive, every frame, and found no queen nor eggs, only some week old larvae.  What they did have, was an amazing amount of queen cells.  Considering the fact that a queen obviously wasn’t there, and the hive wasn’t even half full yet, I deduced that there were no danger of swarming and let them keep their queen cells.  I took one frame with two queen cells and introduced it to hive 4.   All the hives had now either queen cells or indication of queen being present.

Research and development project with honeybees and Varroa

Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that has infested most of the areas where honeybees are kept, is obviously problem on a global scale. Varroa-free areas can only be found from small islands such as The Åland Islands in Finland. The only continent that is thought to be free of Varroa is so far Australia- though they have other mites that beekeepers on other continents consider as unwanted.  It is a major problem, since it affects greatly the health and well-being of the hive, and though there are various methods of battling against the infestation it’s still alive and kicking.

As a newly hatched beekeeper starts to collect all sorts of equipment to make the actual beekeeping possible, eventually the bees are needed as well.  Where do you obtain a swarm of bees? It is possible to catch a swarm after they’ve left their hive but it’s a matter of luck whether you get one at all;   usually the bees come from another beekeeper who raises them.  Unless you import the bees from Varroa-free areas, you’ll almost certainly end up with a readily infested population.

Which leads us to following; in year 2013 at Helsinki University began a research and development project under the name of Sanibee ©.   With any other domesticated animal it wouldn’t be acceptable or wise to buy a stock that already carries an infectious parasite or a disease that lowers the functions of the collective and infests others quite rapidly.  But that’s exactly how it works when you buy bees carrying Varroa.

What happens with Sanibee © is that in June 2013 healthy, mite-free hives from Åland islands were transported to Helsinki.  On the surrounding areas of their new hive site there are a couple of other hives as well, ones carrying Varroa.  What the research is about is measuring how long it takes for the bees to get infected, as well as how the actual mitecontrol treatments affect the hives, and how long the hive will maintain productivity without Varroa prevention and control.

Professor of agricultural zoology, Heikki Hokkanen, is behind the project, and me and two other students are participating with normal beekeeping activities, collecting samples from the hives and naturally taking notes of all that happens.  It’s a wonderful possibility to learn about bee behavior, handling them, observing the life on the hive and gathering practical knowledge of it all.

Considering the panda-factor

I recently read an article stating that bumblebees are pandas of the insect world.  When I mention my keen interest to these creatures, I often hear people summarize quite the same things as the article does.  I’ve been giving it a thought before and decided to write down some general thoughts about this;

So, bumblebees and panda-factor.  They’re furry, look and act as what seems to us as clumsy, are strict vegetarians, not on the menu of humans and do no harm.  Hence, they are and exception amongst  creepy crawlies with alien looks and unpredictable, fast moves.

Panda-factor works brilliantly when it comes to saving endangered species.  The child-like chubbiness and cuteness- with fur- gives the species in case a sympathetic look, and in general people tend to show greater sympathy when it comes to the well-being of those.  At least more than with less cute creatures- the wild salmon of the Baltic sea is still sold daily on the markets of Helsinki, even though it is red-listed; something that would hardly be tolerated with giant pandas.

While preserving species with high panda-factor, people accidentally often help other species as well.  While the rising awareness of declination of native pollinators in the British Isles has been primarily focusing on bumblebees, the actions that follow greatly aid other less noticeable insects.  When preserving areas of wild flowers and natural nesting habitats for bumblebees and supporting biodiversity of plant species, people also support the large variety of solitary bees and hoverflies, as well wasps, ladybugs and other natural predators.

However, what goes wrong with the panda-factor is the illusion people concur in their minds.  Soft, furry, chubby, cute creatures- must be meant for petting, then.  Just stop when they say no, as the article states.

So let’s give it a thought then.  An average bumblebee worker is, let’s say, 1,7cm long (varies greatly depending from species, time of the summer, available food etc).  You are 170 cm tall, with a mountain-like figure, odd, probably artificial smell and no exoskeleton nor fur.  As for a comparison- you would be pet by an alien-looking giant 170 meters of hight.  When leaving out the radio masts, the second-tallest building in Finland, Näsinneula observation tower with it’s antenna spire is a few meters short of that.

Teaching people of nature is more than necessary no matter the age or such matters.  However, it is possible to study the habits of animals without actually touching them- as a grown-up you also have a great possibility to teach that to kids as well.  If the animal is not in immediate danger or doesn’t come willing to be petted by humans, there are very little reasons to do so- no matter how cute the thing might be.  So, unless it’s clearly telling you “yes”, trust me, it’s telling you “NO”.   It’s about respecting other creatures- they are vastly greater in numbers than we, and wider with biodiversity.

As an example, other creatures in the category of “high panda-factor but still unwise to pet”;

No matter how cute, climbing into their cage in a zoo at the feeding time will win you a Darwin award.

Pussy moths
The larvae are cute, fuzzy and filled with venomous spikes that cause radiating pain in extreme proportions and are considered dangerous species.

Rabbit of Caerbannog.
With it’s nasty, big, pointy teeth.

The nest of thoughts

I fell for insects- especially pollinators- and I fell for them hard.  Everything I read was about them no matter the format.  I watched documentaries and mainly, talked about insects with anyone willing to do so and plenty of those less keen.

After some period of enthusiastic frenzy I came to a conclusion that for sake of my social relationships it might be better to have a blog of some sort, in case that someone wouldn’t like to hear all about the exiting new solitary bee I just recently saw.  Or bugs or larvae or such.  So, here it goes.  Plenty of pictures will follow, and occasional posts related to mushrooms, plants and such.

Mainly this blog will be about learning about pollinators and beekeeping, effects of pesticides and thoughts of making life easier to bees in modern agricultural surroundings.  The blog is meant as a notepad for me and by making it public I hope others to benefit from it as well.  If I haven’t identified species correctly please notify me.

Unless mentioned otherwise, all pictures are under my copyright, so please mention the source if using them.

Bombus lapidarius(Fin) Kivikkokimalainen, (Eng) Red-tailed bumblebee (Swe) Stenhumla
Found exhausted from a greenhouse, cupped, and taken outside for some honey.