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Welcome to Apis – A Blog About Bees And Beekeeping. Mostly.

flyingpigmc1

No sign of our London rooftop bees yet, as for weeks now the 10-day weather forecast has shown the prospect of Spring weather forever receding onto  the horizon.

Maybe this will prove to be a pivot-point in this year’s weather, just like drought warnings and expensive media campaigns on that theme early last year (even the sides of London buses trumpeted this message!) heralded the beginning of a 12-month rainy season.

So while we’re waiting for the real thing – here is Apis, taking wing for the first time!

 

 

Wiggling And Waggling: The Amazing Bee Brain

 

Kuwait Stock Exchange

Australian research published by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London has shown that the bee brain has the ability to estimate energy expenditure while foraging for pollen.

“To make honey, bees must gather more nectar from flowers than the energy spent collecting it, so in order to forage efficiently they need to know how much energy each foraging trip costs them,” said Dr Andrew Barron, the author of the study and senior lecturer at Macquarie University.

Bees estimate distance visually, by watching the environment pass them during flight. Barron set out to determine whether bees also use this visual information to estimate their flight costs. His first step was to build two tunnels – one 10 metres long and one 20 metres long – and place feeders at the end of each to attract the bees. He then created an optical illusion to trick the bees into believing that the closest feeder was actually the furthest distance away.

“When bees return from a foraging expedition they let the other bees in the colony know where they have been and how good the nectar was by performing what’s known as the waggle dance,” Barron said. “The waggle dance performed by the bees in this study indicated that they were fooled by the illusion and believed that the feeder in the 10-metre tunnel was furthest away. Yet they could still tell somehow that they weren’t using up as much energy by flying to that feeder – they favoured that one anyway and advised the other bees to do the same.”

The results of the study showed the bees were definitely not using distance to estimate cost, but raised another question – how were they doing it?

“The bee brain has an incredibly simple make-up and yet it appears to possess an onboard calorimeter or stop-watch,” Barron said. “Our study showed that bees can separately calculate distance travelled and foraging efficiency and communicate both independently using different elements of their dance language. Such mental agility explains bees’ proficiency as nectar harvesters.”

Barron said his aim was to work out how the bee brain makes these complex calculations.

“Through their dance behaviour we get a window into bee psychology and perception,” he said. “Bees are beautiful little animals with great personalities – and we’re only just getting a sense of how smart they really are.”

 

BLink: A Sick Note For Bees

Stethoscope

The Daily Telegraph carries an article headed: Listening To Bees Buzz Can Help Spot Disease:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/beekeeping/9950045/Listening-to-bees-buzz-can-help-spot-disease.html

Apart from the quaint mis-spelling of varroa as “verroa” (most likely a sub-editor with deformed spelling virus !) in Richard Grey’s article (and the sensational assertion that “honey bees don’t have ears” – I suppose it needs saying, but for beekeepers, or mahouts, its a bit like saying “elephants don’t have wings”), this article on a bee disease diagnostic device under development at Nottingham Trent University holds considerable promise.  There’s quite a lot of modern research on vibration and pitch of buzzing to alert beekeepers that something’s up. After a few years, you will have heard the lot: from roaring, through piping to fanning….

 

The Beekeeper’s Fear Of The Apiary

UK In Snow

In every walk of life, there is a time of year which brings heightened anxieties. For farmers it is the harvest, for office workers it is the annual pay-rise, for motorists it is the first snowfall of the winter, for students it is the hiss on the doormat of the unopened letter of acceptance or rejection, for sprinters it is the hiatus between “On Your Marks” and the pop of the starting gun. For we Beekeepers, is the wait for the first warm day of the Spring, to open up a beehive and see how the overwintered bees are doing.

This year, 2013, the freezing weather has lasted to the end of March, almost 5 months since the hive was last opened up and inspected. That passage of time, as the days slowly lengthen and the present apprehensively tip-toes into the future, is a rich canvas for the human mind. Somewhere between knowing that the die is cast and its unseen consequence, our imagination trespasses into a world of  different outcomes – and only one outcome is good – a healthy hive. The psychologists have a word which blankets it: “Angst”. This German word is variously translated as “Fear”, “Dread”, “Apprehension” or “Anxiety”, but it expresses a colly-wobbling anticipation of an uncertain outcome (which is why “Angst” is generally preferred for its descriptive brevity!). The cult Seventies film “The Goal-Keeper’s Fear Of  The Penalty” centres on this prickly period: the eponymous goalkeeper and a policeman are watching a football match: on the field, the whistle has gone for a penalty kick; all attention now focuses on two players, the poised penalty-taker and the goal-keeper, shifting his weight tensely. The observers and the players know that the outcome depends on the actions of the other. But the tension is greatest for the goal-keeper, since he cannot influence the event : he has no choice but to wait until the referee has blown his whistle and the penalty-taker has started his run to the ball before being free to move. The goalkeeper, like me, has no choice but to anticipate, and wait.

So this the time of year when I experience my own version of this existential phenomenon, which I call “The Bee-keeper’s Fear Of The Apiary”. The dark depths of January and February have passed and the fate of each over-wintered bee colony has yet to be disclosed. The ball is placed firmly on the penalty spot. Will this be a healthy, queenright Spring, or will there be a gut-wrenching “dead-out”? Will the Queen be laying worker eggs, signalling a rapid build-up, or will the listless and unconnected wanderings of the bees on the comb indicate a Queenless hive, doomed through indolence and indifference to fail, just as April starts serving up its bounty of blossoms? Only a shirt-sleeves temperature will allow the beekeeper to lift the roof, the insulation and the crown board to reveal the true state of a Colony’s health. The Angst is pupating in me.

As the days lengthen into March, the waiting gets more oppressive. My imagination is pulsing, the flow-charts of indecision budding freely. Things will not always be what they seem. The appearance of numbers of dead bees outside the hive is not bad news at all – the good news is that  at least there are  sufficient live bees inside to carry out this macabre housekeeping. Even before my first inspection, activity at the hive entrance should include the reassuring sight of bees taking colourful baskets of pollen into the hive to feed the new brood, but only the first peek inside will reveal whether clumped domes of drone brood indicate a failing Queen and a drastic management decision.  But, like the goal-keeper, the beekeeper is rooted to the spot, waiting for the whistle, waiting for a warm day, the hit-and-miss of a seven-metre shot, a cracking of the crownboard to open the hive. But for now, I wait. And wait.

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