Connie’s Bees & Non-Native Plants and Pollinators.

Connie’s Bees.

Installing the nucleus.

Connie is reaching the end of year 7 at primary school and has just got her own email address. Since she left Nairnshire two years ago we have been writing paper letters but now we can share news by email and I’m excited to hear all about her bees. After five years of wanting to keep honey bees, Connie her own colony. They arrived 2 weeks ago. Connie also has a lovely mentor called Mary who provided the bees and is helping Connie and her family get started in beekeeping. We can look forward to a guest blog in a few months time, but meanwhile Connie sent some photos to share with us along with a short account of her first inspection.

First Inspection.

Can you remember your first inspection? Connie hasn’t handled bees for a couple of years and she looks calm and confident in this photo. Notice the nitrile gloves which Connie has worn since we started beekeeping together when she was 6. The only difference is that they fit her now. So, amazingly, does the bee suit that I bought for her at Hudson Valley Bee Supply NY in 2019, but it was several sizes too big to start with. Great news, Connie and Mary, and congratulations on getting started with a fine wee colony of bees.

"We had our first look into our hive since the bees arrived last week. It could only be a very quick look as Mary was in a bit of a hurry and so were we. I was about to go out to a Birthday party and she was on her way to see family. Anyway!!! The bees were a bit twitchy because the weather wasn’t great and there were thunderstorms later. However, we did have a good look for the Queen and saw lots of lava, capped brood and enough stores. I was still a bit nervous seeing as I hadn’t opened a hive in a while but I managed ok". 

Non-Native Plants.

Himayan balsam.

June is awash with nectar flowing from all kinds of local flowers including clover, bramble (blackberry) bell heather, and snowberry in Nairnshire. But soon, Himalayan balsam will start gaining height along the banks of the river Nairn and our bees will be attracted to it like moths to a flame later in the season. Non-native plants grow in abundance in the UK and some of them have out-competed native species and ousted some from existence. How can this be?

The History.

The Victorians were as unremitting in their quest to conquer the natural world as they were to control far flung foreign lands. However, they can hardly be held totally responsible for all the damage done. During the previous century, Carl Linnaeus, the deeply religious Swedish botanist responsible for creating the binomial system of species classification in use today, believed that humans had a divine mission to both take care of the world and to exploit it for their own benefit.

Captain James Cook’s voyages of discovery in the 18th century not only brought home information about new lands to colonise but returned with plants and animals completely unknown till then. Some of these were useful to the economy– an example being potatoes from South America, and later the tremendously successful tea trade between British India and Britain. Botanist Joseph Banks accompanied Cook to Tahiti and Australia discovering and collecting many plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and giving his name to some found in Australia. Later, Banks was to become president of The Royal Society in London, a scientific role he maintained for forty years whilst continuing to encourage plant collection and botanical studies.

The scene was thus set for continued collecting and the 19th century Victorians were keen to enhance the gardens of their stately homes and outdo each other in displays of colourful horticultural extravaganzas.

An example of a plant now commonplace in Scotland is the rhododendron which was brought back from the Himalayas by the Victorians. It escaped and flourished to paint the landscape pale purple and become a nuisance and so it is now illegal to plant or propagate it in the wild. Fortunately, Rhododendron ponticum is not an attractive nectar source to British honey bees because it contains a toxin called grayanotoxin which will harm humans and honey bees in Britain. Bumble bees are unharmed here as are honey bees in Turkey where the honey produced is known as “mad honey” and much sought after by thrill seekers and those interested in alternative medicines. Having said that, honey bees were found dead near Rhododendron ponticum on the island of Colonsay once but perhaps lack of other available forage forced them to feed there.

Looking more seriously now at invasive non-native species it helps to understand what they are and why they are such a threat to our British wildlife. They are species that are introduced to areas outside their normal ranges. The group includes: birds; mammals; reptiles; amphibians; fish; invertebrates; viruses and insects. The problem is that those surviving species do so with such vigour that they take over the habitats and feeding grounds of the natives.

There are estimated to be around 2,000 established non-native species in Britain and the cost to the government is about £1.7 billion annually. These species are so adaptable and strong that they have compromised and displaced some of our natives. Interestingly, there have been introductions to the UK from every continent of the world apart from Antarctica.

A good example of a bad outcome is the North American mink that escaped from UK fur farms in the 1960’s and proceeded to decimate populations of water voles, moorhens, kingfishers, ducklings amongst a list of victims.

After habitat loss, invasive non-native species are thought to be the biggest global threat to biodiversity so are taken seriously by the UK Government, and the Non-Native Species Secretariat (NNSS) was established to tackle the threats. To this end a hit list was drawn up by the NNSS in 2016 under European Union (EU) regulations. It comprises 37 species which can be viewed at . Of course it remains to be seen what happens now that Britain has left the EU.

On this list are 14 plants and 23 animals including: racoon; Asian hornet; Siberian chipmunk; muntjac deer; ruddy duck; signal crayfish, water hyacinth, water primrose and skunk cabbage. This means that it is illegal to import any of the listed species or grow, breed or sell them, in an effort to limit damage to our native species. They must also not be released into the environment without a permit. Incidentally, the rather attractive skunk cabbage is prolific in Scotland where it thrives in damp environments. It certainly brightens up a dull day.

Yellow skunk cabbage, Lysichitum americanum, by Anne Baley.
Honey Bee on Himalayan Balsam, Photo by Tom Seeley.

Himalayan Balsam.

I draw your attention to Himalayan balsam, Impatiens glandulifera because of its important relationship to pollinators, especially honey bees for some of whom this plant might just be essential. Himalayan balsam is a well-established non-native plant that was brought back from India in 1839 by Dr John Forbes Royle a keen botanist born in India and educated in Scotland. He gave his specimens to The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where it was first grown in Britain, and from where it escaped. It rapidly spread reaching Middlesex in 1855, and by 1892 it was established in the north of England. From there it spread to Scotland and can be found today over large parts of Great Britain, Ireland, mainland Europe, the United States of America and Canada.

Himalayan balsam was advertised as a great plant for ordinary gardens because of its ability to proliferate in the British climate. A packet of seeds was affordable by most gardeners and now they could compete with the wealthy orchid owners for a colourful and unusual garden. The landed gentry liked it too so it was a popular new plant.

The common names, policeman’s helmet, bobby tops, copper tops and gnome’s hat originate from the hat-shaped appearance of the flower, and bee’s bums from the fact that bumble bees disappear far into the flower leaving only the ends of their abdomens visible. It is also known as poor-man’s orchid and stinky pops.

The Latin name Impatiens means impatient and refers to the way that the seeds are instantly fired out of the flower up to seven metres when contact is made with the seed capsule. Each plant can produce around 2,500 seeds annually.

Having the reputation of being the tallest annual plant in Europe and growing higher than 250 cm, Himalayan balsam favours riparian situations which means that it spreads quickly in the waterways. The greatest damage caused appears to be erosion of river banks when the plants die back at the end of the season leaving bare soil to be washed away by rain. Shorter river banks plants are out competed and animals like water voles lose their homes. Waterways can get clogged causing flooding.

However, the greatest controversy relates to pollination and has been posited by some scientists that the very high nectar production and sugar concentration attracts pollinators away from native plants. Research scientist, Rinke Vinkenoog (1) discovered that most bumble bees actually preferred native plants like common knapweed and bird’s foot trefoil. Hoverflies also preferred other food sources but honey bees are strongly attracted to Himalayan balsam at an important time when they need to build up honey stores in order to get through the winter successfully.

Our own bees visit The River Nairn for Himalayan balsam nectar and pollen from August till October. I know this because of the tell-tale white stripe down their thorax that they sport on return from the river, and from the pale off-white peachy pollen on their back legs. They cannot reach their own backs to groom hence the stripe and the grooming dance display they perform back inside the hive to attract a nest mate to help tidy them up and remove the pollen.

So, what would happen if Himalayan balsam was not here at all? Local “Balsam Bashers” are doing their best to eradicate it along the river using Roundup (glyphosphate) and poisoning it in the name of enhancing the environment which seems like completely contradictory behaviour. Would our bees be able to find other equally good sources of nectar at this crucial time of year when other floral sources are diminishing? I think that more research is needed to give non-biased balance, and informed Government policies need to be made to ensure safer methods of eradication of such plants, if it is decided that they are indeed causing more damage than good to the environment.

Reference (1) Vinkenoog, R. 2017, Himalayan Balsam-the impact of an invasive species on the plant-pollinator network, ISBN: 978-1-904379-31-7, The Central Association of Beekeepers, Essex.

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