I spent much of the day travelling across Dartmoor and back, with an interlude at Yelverton where there was a DARG (Devon Apicultural Research Group) meeting scheduled for noon. I left home at 9.30 and got there on time (unusual for me)! Apart from our speaker, Lea Bayley and her Bee Buddy, Hilary, I was first there. By the time we started, after beverages and lunch, there were 7 of us in total. That was rather fewer than usual, possibly because of a clash with the National Honey Show and also because of the horrendous weather forecast. I know that my apprentice, Sarah, had intended to be there but decided, instead, to do what she could to protect her polytunnels at Bee Happy Plants from the approaching hurricane. She told me that she had secured the roof of my top bar hive there.
We spent some time chatting about beestuff before Lea’s presentation started. Clare Densley, of the Buckfast Abbey apiary was there. She had a book with her: The Spirit of the Hive by Robert E Page jr that she had found fascinating and recommended. We talked about the problems caused when people import queens or packages and they are within range of our own hives. The imports are fine at first, but their drones get around and cross with all and sundry with the effect that your perfectly peaceable bees become very bad tempered a generation or two later. Horticulturalists would describe this as ‘hybrid vigour’.
Clare brought up a subject that I had noted in ‘Getting the Best from Your Bees’: that the temper of a colony deteriorates when the amount of queen pheromone is reduced. This might be because the queen is getting old or that the colony is overcrowded and so it isn’t distributed as well as it should be. It is often a prelude to swarming or supersedure.
The talk began with the question of what was special about colonies that had survived the severe winter we had. One thing that was noticed was the large amount of propolis: whether this was because of Caucasian genes, better weather-proofing or less susceptibility to disease because of the health enhancing quaities of propolis wasn’t concluded. People used to select against propolis gathering bees, but it is one more product of the hive that can be used or sold. Recently an elderly (older than me!) lady asked me for some propolis. I scraped some frames and got a jarful for her, labelled it Lily’s Propolis and took it round to her son’s house. Her daughter-in-law answered the door and took the jar. She asked what it was. ‘Are you a witch?’ I enquired. She denied that she was, so I said that in that case I couldn’t possibly tell her!
The acronyms BIPCO and BIBBA were bandied around. I am familiar with and a member of the latter: the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association, but I hadn’t heard of the former. It is the Bee Improvement Programme: Cornwall. Both bodies are trying to save and propagate the native black bee: Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm).
Lea raised the question: what is a feral bee? Are they simply swarms from managed colonies that are doomed to die out in a year or two, or are they unmanaged and self-sustaining and regulating colonies living in the wild? Are they genetically distinct from the local managed hives? Is the occupation of a site continual or continuous? There is sometimes long-term occupation of a site for more than 20 years. I mentioned my friend, Jean’s, that have occupied the space above her kitchen ceiling continuously for over 25 years; also the swarm that I had collected in 1992 that came from the chimney a nearby manor house. The late John Atkinson told me that there had been bees in that chimney last time he was there in 1948! I hived them near where I live and they swarmed again the following year and occupied the Church Tower and there they stayed until 2010 when a Church Warden had them killed to enable some work to be carried out.
The Psycho-Social aspects were discussed. People, we were told, have a powerful sense of ownership of feral colonies and they are cherished as an invaluable part of the building or area. This may have implications with regard to the quality and reliability of the information available.
Do feral bees actually exist? One Catherine Thompson is heading for a PhD looking at a number of issues: do unmanaged colonies suffer winter losses at the same rate as managed ones? Does the type of bee dictate survival chances? The projected results are likely to show that there are no feral colonies where there are no managed bees; that feral colonies die out every 1 – 2 years; there is some illegible, might be hybridisation, there are lots of Amm genes in local mongrel populations.
Lea went into morphometric analysis and showed us the scattergrams of cubital index and discoidal shift in the wing veins of the several feral colonies of which she had obtained samples. The sample size was rather smaller than that usually recommended, about 15 instead of 30. Only one of these showed strong Amm indications (most of the dots being in the bottom left hand corner of the graph.) Wing veins don’t tell the whole story: colour, tomenta width, hair and tongue length can also help decide. There can be some human error in collecting and analysing the data; even the various computer programmes that automatically assess wing veins can vary. Physical data can best be used as a preliminary method of assessment prior to spending money (about £200 a time) on DNA analysis.
One of the feral colonies occupies a Church. I asked from which side of the Church they flew as three Churches within a couple of miles from where I’m sat have bees flying from the north side. Lea’s did too! Richard Ball suggested that this might be because of the bees’ use of polarised light when navigating making it easier to find their entrance while facing south. However, I have known a colony in a Church to be on the south side, at Shepton Beauchamp in Somerset. In a pristine interior there was a trickle of honey coming down a wall from above. I checked by taste that it was really honey. So easier temperature regulation to prevent over heating might be a reason for preferring the north side.
Lea ran through the study samples which included two of her own colonies and I was amused that she follows Clare’s practice of naming them after the queen: in this case Rosie and Joy.
The colony showing most promise is at Sheepstor. It is high up in a north facing wall and has near-native morphometry. Lea needs to know whether there are more such colonies around in the area and what Amm characteristics would enable survival at this site. The characteristics of Amm are: tendency to supersede rather than swarm; drones mate at lower altitude and in cooler weather; apiary vicinity mating; longer life span of workers; no brood in winter; food storage among brood cells; breaks in brood rearing leading to better disease resistance; larger fat bodies in workers and cotonase in the rectum meaning that fewer cleansing flights are needed.
Lea’s conclusions are: the phenotype doesn’t always reflect the genotype; Amm may be more prevalent in the feral state than previously thought; one should breed from what does best in the area. Future work is to discover whether there are any other Amm colonies in the vicinity of Sheepstor House, which is in a wooded area; to set up bait hives thereabouts; to carry out more morphometric analysis to discover possible changes or a distinct type and to encourage enquiries about feral bees within the Devon BKA’s area.
The hurricane hadn’t happened by the time the meeting was over, soon after 3pm so I risked going back over Dartmoor by the B road rather than using the main road. The weather remained innocuous, but while I have been typing this, I have heard rain pelting down outside. Looking outside, the rainfall seems to be vertical rather than horizontal, but that may change by morning!