It seems at last that those of us in the north are being rewarded with a hot summer after enduring six months of winter weather. The bell heather is in full bloom and friends report taking a couple of colonies to the moors and being surprised to find one box of new foundation has been drawn and partially filled in a week. It is almost at the capping stage. The beauty of bell heather honey is that, unlike thixotropic ling heather honey, it is extracted normally and has the most exquisite delicate taste. It is the colour of port wine and the best honey that I have ever tasted. Not often do we get a monofloral crop of bell and this is because of our fickle weather.
The blaeberries are early this year on account of the warm weather and I feast on handfuls as I make my way slowly up Ben Wyvis on an outing last week. It is early morning and the dew is still glistening on the berries as the sun breaks out from behind mist. These plants are in the heath family and are known as bilberry, whortleberry and blue berry (blaeberry). The Latin name is Vaccinium myrtillus and they are delicious. I wish that I had brought my Scandinavian collecting tool but I would never have ventured further up the hill or enjoyed the wildflowers and the burn tumbling down over the rocks in waterfalls and small deep pools if I had.
The queen cell in the photograph was recently capped and the larva inside is at the propupal stage before metamorphosis begins. It is always a shame to destroy such cells but this is swarm season and I have no need for more nuclei. I used this one to carefully study its contents under the microscope. You can see plenty royal jelly in the bottom of this cell and the larva was visibly “hoovering” it up and moving its head which is at the top of the photograph. Under the dissecting microscope, I could see respiratory movements and the spiracles, lying along its sides like ship portholes, open and close. When I get close up with an animal like this, even for a short while, some sort of connection makes me feel sorry to be destroying it so I place it in the freezer to finish it off more quickly than by throwing it away. If I’m standing over the hive, I put the larvae and royal jelly back in for the colony to recycle the precious protein.
Unlike worker bee larvae who finish feeding once the cell is sealed, queen larvae have a well stocked larder that allows them to continue feeding after cell sealing till pupation, and this partly accounts for adult queens being larger than workers.
Workers and drone honey bees are fed the same diet, and as lavishly, as queen larvae for 3 days after the eggs hatch. After this time the queen continues to be fed lavishly and with a much richer diet of royal jelly and other essential nutrients, whereas workers go on hard rations and are effectively undernourished on pollen and hypopharyngeal secretions in smaller quantities and at intervals rather than continuously. There is more sugar in the queen’s diet which increases her appetite because sugar is a phagostimulant. That’s why sugar is added to most human foods and why we want to eat much more than we need.
The partial starvation of the worker larva causes quite a weight loss and just after cell sealing it weighs around 162mg and a day later it falls to 148mg. On the other hand, the queen larva continues to grow in size after cell sealing and the one in my photograph probably weighed around 192mg. By the time cocoons are made these queen larvae weigh around 278mg. The research on larval food differences was carried out by Ukrainian scientist Mykola Haydak in 1943 and can be found in Larval Food and Development of Castes in the Honeybee. Journal of Economic Entomology, Vol.86,No.5
It is interesting to learn how diet plays a key role in the development of the 2 very different female castes and how undernutrition makes the worker who she is. I am also fascinated to know that it is the reduced pollen income towards the end of summer that alters worker bee physiology and triggers the production of specialised winter bees who live for around 150-200 days compared with 15-38 days for their summer sisters.
A Swarm in July.
The swarm that Cynthia and I collected nearly a week ago is worth much more than a fly to me. It was the biggest and easiest to collect in a long time and was a short distance down the hill at the entrance to the Brackla Distillery on a low holly tree branch. Needless to say I forgot the camera, but take my word for it: it was massive! Four days later all the frames of new foundation were drawn and nectar was being stored in the super. It has 2 supers now and we are in the middle of a big nectar flow with limes (basswood) in full bloom. I know that they are working lime because I see them coming home from the big stand of lime trees at the bottom of the nearest field outside the garden. The grass in this field was cut 4 days ago for haylage and I like to walk round the field perimeter in the evenings as the sun is sinking low behind the treeline. I see bees flying uphill with golden wings caught in the light of the large orange globe that doesn’t disappear from view till 21:39. The bees start work at 04:30 so no wonder I see many tattered wings on bees at the hive entrance.
We have the heat to promote lime nectar secretion, and a bit of overnight moisture. No June gap here and we have had over 10 continuous days of summer heat around 23-27 degrees C which is unusual for us.
Ode to The Beekeepers: Documentary Film
I was delighted to hear about this lovely professionally made documentary film about beekeepers in Aberdeenshire, some of whom are my friends. The scenery is magnificent and the beekeepers are great communicators. The film shows beekeepers at each end of the age range, and the star of the show, Sandy, has kept bees for 50 years. Sandy is in tune with Darwininan beekeeping and listening to him speak about his beekeeping is heart warming and hopeful.