Today was the December meeting of DARG, the Devon Apicultural Research Group, held at Uplowman, a village near Tiverton in East Devon.  It was a good day for the meeting as it was chucking down with rain all day so I’d have been doing nothing outdoors.

I’d missed the AGM last month as I was away on holiday but I remembered to hand Chris Utting a tenner for my annual sub today.  Things may be looking up with DARG as there were 15 people there, which is more than usual, and several were younger than me!

The theme of the day was to wind up the current year and to plan next year.  Our Treasurer, Bob Ogden, has been kidnapped by his daughter and whisked away to her home in Lancashire to live, so we won’t see him again, probably.  A letter will be sent to thank him for his many years service.  Chris Utting was formally elected as his replacement.

Chairman Richard Ball told us of some new EU Data Protection Regulations under which it appears that we won’t be able to keep a list of our members on a computer.  I suggested that we do something really novel and use paper instead but that won’t be allowed either.  We’ve got until next May to get our heads round it.

Much of the year’s activity has involved microscopy of pollen and of queen spermathecae.  It is now looking as if the disrupted spermathecae may be the result of normal ageing rather than mite-transmitted virus as some queens with healthy spermathecae had been laden with viruses.  Glyn Davies has been able to count the spore density of nosema but could not tell whether they were Nosema apis or ceranae.  Professor Keith-Lucas has examined pollen from the Holy Shroud and found that it matches pollen from the Holy Land.

Next year’s programme with commence on 14th January at Buckfast Abbey apiary/studio where Brother Adam’s successor, Claire Densley, will lead us on Chronic Paralysis Virus.  February 11th will be either Glyn Davies on drone laying queens or else it will be an Asian Hornet day.  4th March will be a microscopy day at Uplowman, covering both pollen and deformed wing virus.  On 8th April we will be playing with an ultra violet camera to look at hives.  On 6th May (my birthday!) we will be hunting drone congregation areas in East Devon. 10th June hygienic bees. 8th July microscopy at Quantock’s apiary and big shed. No August meeting. September 7th will be disease and predators day. 7th October to be decided.  3rd November AGM and dinner at Buckfastleigh.  9th December a repeat of today.

Glyn Davies led a discussion on what to do about Asian hornets and the pros and cons of trapping.  He’s going to circulate his 10 bullet points for us to consider and comment on.

We finished at 4pm. Driving home through the rain I noticed flooded fields that had been above water in the morning.  Miraculously it stopped raining as I got home!




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The postman brought a pleasant surprise parcel today.  It came all the way from America and contained two books.  One was “Getting the Best from Your Bees” that I co-authored with Dave MacFawn from South Carolina.  He’d autographed it for me.

If you’re going to the National Honey Show in the next few days, I expect you’ll find copies on the National Bee Books stand.  I’d shall be around all three days and would be happy to autograph one for you.

The other book was one that Dave has just had published: Beekeeping Tips and Techniques for the Southeast United States, BEEKEEPING FINANCE.  I’m pleased to see my name in the list of people Dave thanks for reviewing and commentating on the manuscript.

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They were expecting over 100 people at the Convention today at Stratton Village Hall, but very few of those present were of that age yet, most having 2 or 3 decades to go.  There was nobody who could be described as a ‘young beekeeper’ despite recent efforts to encourage youngsters to take it up.

The presentations were blighted by the use of Powerpoint, about which I’ve bleated before.  Not only do eyelids tend to go down when the lights do but also it is very difficult to take notes and for the lecturer to interact with the audience, although the last speaker, Marin Anastasov from Bulgaria, managed to do so quite well.

If people insist on using Powerpoint there’s no great advantage in going through all the trouble and expense of booking a village hall, baking lots of cake and wasting fuel getting there, when people could see the presentation downloaded from a link on the website (if the website manager has the skills!).

My notes of the lectures are therefore brief and based on memory as much as my scrawl.

The first speaker was our SBI, Kevin Pope on queen rearing.  He’s been keeping bees for 50 years and knows his stuff.  He prefers the grafting method and makes his own wax queen cups. Start when there are lots of drones as drones can take up to 6 weeks from an egg to sexual maturity.

He splits a hive in 2 brood boxes, the lower one has the queen and all the young brood. The upper one, above a queen excluder, has only sealed brood apart from the frame with all the cups into which very young larvae have been grafted using a fine paint brush.  The frame next to the cups should have lots of pollen.

Lots of drones are needed per mating.  He sees little sign of inbreeding; diploid drones making a spotty brood pattern.  Chemicals in wax and food can reduce drone weight and sperm count.

Average age of queen? Up to 3 years but they’re not so good at that age and he usually requeens when they’re 2. The average therefore is less than 2.

Best way to improve stock is to cull the worst. Drones are highly important so he doesn’t like the removal of drone brood for Varroa control. Lots of drones have no sperm. He doesn’t know why. (I shall ask Sue Cobey).

He prefers the Butler cage for queen introduction, with 4 layers of newspaper and 2 elastic bands. A tiny hole is made in the paper to get them started.  It’s best not to introduce queens in a honey flow.

The next speaker was Ken Basterfield, also on queen rearing so there was an overlap with Kevin.  Although Ken certainly knows his stuff, he’s not as good a communicator: he was talking faster than we could listen, often straying away from the microphone, and had even more curtains drawn so he was practicably invisible.  At least the darkness will, I hope, have concealed me nodding off in the front row.

Here are a few scattered points that I can read from my notes. He started keeping bees in the mid 1970s and does so on  a large scale. The price of a good queen at £40 is a bargain he asserts (I started beekeeping in 1977 and haven’t paid for a queen yet!).

Inbreeding may reduce longevity.  Buckfast bees are a trade name and they aren’t kept at Buckfast Abbey. They’re mostly Carniolan.

Drones take 38 days from egg to sexual maturity while queens take only 22 days so drone rearing must start at least 16 days earlier than queen rearing. Drones can fly up to 10 miles to a drone congregation area.

The first speaker after lunch was Ivor Davis who was struggling with a croaky voice because of damaged vocal chords.  Nevertheless he was quite good in that he kept on the move and interacted more with the audience. I think some of the curtains may have been drawn back as I could see him better.

His subject was Winter Bees and he started by trying to define winter using a range of criteria such as temperature, daylight etc but, in practical terms, it is a period without forage as bees can behave in a similar way if deprived of forage at any time of year.

He showed graphs based on statistics of winter losses, both at home and abroad.  His conclusion on the American CCD was that it was a money spinner, drawing in Government funding, not only in America but here also of about £9 million!

His preferred method of Varroa control is a Christmas present of oxalic.

The last and best lecture was by Marin Anastasov, who started beekeeping in Bulgaria 25 years ago. He asked for the curtains to be drawn back so he could see and interact with us. His subject was: How do bees learn?

One answer was as he began his beekeeping: by trial and error.  There’s instinct, inherited and embedded in the genome, and also communication: information obtained from others. Changes in function over time such as from a house bee to a forager are not learning.

Why do bees need to learn? A changing environment.  Foragers need the ability to respond to change. Their sense organs enable taste, touch, sound (maybe), speed, magnetism, humidity and CO2 to be detected and assessed.

They don’t see things the same as we do in that they can’t tell red from black, but they can see into the ultra-violet, which we can’t.  They can recognise patterns but their criteria are not the same as ours. They can remember colour, shape and pattern.  Memory is not a tape record as no two people who experience the same event have the same memory of it.

He gave us a test, flashing a series of 15 words on the screen for 2 seconds each and asked us at the end to tell us what they were. Most of the words that were shouted from the floor were from the end of the series, thus demonstrating that short term memory is more reliable.

He mentioned the waggle dance and told us that there’s also a very short waggle in the circular dance as well as in the 8 shaped dance.  Bees’ distance judgement is based on the variety of the terrain and bees sent down a 6 metre tunnel to a food source may dance as if it was 200 metres long if the tunnel was zebra striped.

Factors affecting learning include age, juvenile hormone, pupal temperature while developing, neuroactive chemicals (neonics), strain/sub species.

Neonicotinoids interfere with nerve signal transmission. High doses kill and low doses cause disorientation, at colony level having more effect on solitary and bumble bees than on honeybees.

Drone congregation areas aren’t learnt but are based on landscape features causing rising air currents.  Waggle dances indicate the general direction but the flight of bees who have already found the target assist with guidance.  He told us that Tom Seeley has also done some work on dances.

The day had been punctuated by tea and cake. As there were fewer people than cakered for, I came away with a substantial doggy bag!

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I drove down to Devon today for another meeting of the Devon Apicultural Research Group.  Last night, electronically, I suggested to my friend Leila Goss that she should come along as we need younger blood but she replied that she’s working today.  I wonder whether that entails seeking Asian hornets?

By coincidence her name came up several times during the day as she, in her role as Seasonal Bee Inspector, had been filmed catching Asian hornets in a butterfly net without wearing any protective clothing.  This was at the recently found infestation in North Devon and it was much discussed during the meeting.  Chris Utting, who lives not far from the site, brought an Asian hornet and a European hornet (both dead!) along for us to look at.  I took a photo which I may post here later if I can find the instructions how to do so,

It seems that people are not very gruntled with the National Bee Unit’s response to being told that Asian hornets had been spotted.  They wanted concrete evidence before they would do anything so the beekeeper who had seen the hornets had to spend many hours lurking with a camera trying to get a decent photo to send them.

In our discussion it was suggested that each branch should have a couple of people nominated to provide rapid assistance if somebody sees an Asian hornet in their area.  I like that idea and shall pass it on to our BKA.

I know that the NBU are now being active as our local Seasonal Bee Inspector, Kevin Pope was due to send time up there in hornet country from Tuesday onwards. On Monday he had been inspecting the rest of my colonies with me to see if there was any more AFB, which there wasn’t as far as he could see.  A couple of colonies had no sealed brood at all for no apparent reason apart from the weather.  I wonder whether the brood break will reduce the Varroa?

There were only eight of us around the table today, of whom three were former Presidents of the BBKA.  They aren’t very impressed with the way it’s running nowadays: ‘Red tape gone mad’ was one comment.  They were glad that the Technical Committee has been reinstated though.

They are concerned at the continuing importation of packages of bees from Italy, 1500 this year in 45 consignments, only about half of which were checked.  It seems that the only check is of the paperwork, not the bees and anything, such as Small Hive Beetle, that they might be carrying.

Our host from the local BKA, Vic, said that today he learned far more about bee politics than he did about bees!

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At Thomas Hardye’s School on Monday, the Lecture Theatre was packed for a lecture by Professor Dave Goulson of Sussex University on Bumblebees.  As usual, Dave gave a very good lecture, despite using Powerpoint, active and interesting.

He did mention honeybees briefly at the start, also solitary bees such as masonry bees and leaf cutters but concentrated on bumbles.  He described how his students had used specially trained dogs to find bumble bee nests with not too much success, the student eventually being better than the dogs!  In the question session at the end I mentioned Prof. Jerry Bromenshenk’s method of training honeybees to find mines, or drugs and suggested that Dave trains honeybees to find bumblebee nests.

When bumblebee nests were found, they were monitored by web cameras and we were shown a film of a great tit nabbing the bees.  Different birds have different methods some take the head off the bee and eat the contents of the thorax while others refer to devour the abdomen.

Bumbles are under threat because of industrial agriculture/monoculture and the use of insecticide and we were recommended to do what we could by growing bee-friendly plants in our own gardens and also encouraging larger landowners such as local  councils to do the same.

Dave kept us entertained for over an hour and afterwards sold a lot of his books to us.

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There was a meeting of DARG, the Devon Apicultural Research Group today. We came, not just from Devon, but also Dorset, Somerset and Cambridge so, if you’re interested, don’t be put off coming to join us just because you aren’t in Devon.  We did have a new person, John, today and he, like the rest of us (10), was blue or green eyed as I’ve noted before.

Winter must be on its way as the wood burning stove was lit for us in Newton Abbott BKA’s off-grid establishment in a field near a quarry in Clay Lane.

As usual, there was random bee-chatter before the main subject: observations at the hive entrance.  Richard Ball said that there was a starvation warning from the National Bee Unit. Yields of honey are generally about 25% of what’s considered normal and several people had experienced losses in queen rearing or observation hives.

There was concern about the vast number of packages of bees, 1,500, imported from Italy where Small Hive Beetle is rife, and only about half of them had been properly inspected.  That led on to the lack of action by the BBKA which, opinion has it, is poorly managed and ineffective nowadays.  Their ‘Technical Committee’ has only one member! It is possible (although maybe not very likely) that there may be a  motion or two at the next Annual Delegates’ Meeting seeking to ameliorate the situation.

It was also mentioned that the SWCJCC (South West Counties Joint Consultative Committee) has far less influence than it used to and that their most recent meeting spent far more time discussing tweaks to their constitution than beekeeping.

There are problems with Chronic Paralysis Virus near Buckfast in Devon and also North Somerset and this may perhaps be associated with imports from Greece. Deformed Wing Virus has three non-lethal strains and one lethal one so possibly a form of innoculation could be devised.

Eventually we got onto the subject of the hive entrance.  Apparently Bristol University has been using web-cams in front of hives. Does anybody know whether the film is available on-line?

Chris Utting, who is a BBKA Examiner, commented that most exam candidates don’t look at what’s happening at the entrance before opening the hive.  Someone mentioned that bees at the entrance, before they take to the air, pause to clean their antennae with their fore limbs. Why do they do this?  Is it like polishing your spectacles as you leave the house? Does it clear away the in-hive scents and pheromones, making the bees more sensitive to the problems and opportunities outside?  One more thing we don’t know!

There was talk about using modern technology not only to count the number of bees leaving and entering the hive, but also their gender (drones going out/returning from mating flights), timing, and the proportion of workers with pollen loads.

Somebody mentioned all the debris thrown out of hives, which is very noticeable if you keep your hives on a concrete area. That gave me the idea that I should use my currently unused seed trays by placing them in front of hive entrances to see what they collect. It might be better, visually, to have a sheet of white plastic material lining the trays, but the rainy (rainier) season is upon us and it would block the drain holes.  I shall have to experiment.

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The second lecture on Tuesday morning was Dr Ralph Buchler on Selection for Varroa Resistance. It was good and interesting but I was nodding a bit at times as a consequence of poor sleep.

My notes tell me that Varroa evolved with Apis cerana, a species very similar to our bees, Apis mellifera.  They deal with it by nestmate grooming and by uncapping pupae and removing mites and pupae, seasonal production of drone brood, entombment of parasitised drone cells, swarming and absconding.

10 populations worldwide are resistant to Varroa including Gotland in Sweden and Avignon in France.

Varroa reproduction can be suppressed or reduced by hive population dynamics eg swarming and brood breaks.  Grooming helps too.

Mite reproduction is affected by: the attractiveness of brood via kairomones, uncapping and removal of infested brood, uncapping and then recapping, duration of post-capping period, brood nest humidity and temperature.

Virus resistance/immunity. Locally adapted brood cycle – weather, climate, crops. Better honey producers are also better mite producers. Grooming. Hygienic behaviour, which can be tested by the ‘pin test’, ie pricking with a pin a patch of 50 sealed brood cells, replacing the frame back in the brood box and taking a look next day to count how many of the pricked cells have been emptied by their hygienic sisters.

Summary: Varroa resistance is a realistic goal. We know some relevant traits. Genetic markers are coming soon. Beekeepers must cooperate.

At question time I asked about colony density in view of Tom Seeley’s observation that well dispersed hives can cope with Varroa but as soon as they are congregated in one apiary they succumb.  I was told that this will be covered in the afternoon lecture.

Time for lunch. I had potato soup followed by an inch thick beefburger with chips, green beans, mashed potato and onions. Then we had to assemble outside on the steps for the group photograph. I had difficulty in seeing the camera and so had to stand on a seat at the back.

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