21 Oct 2011

Honeybee Democracy

The name of a book released one year ago about how decisions are made in a honeybee colony.

"Honeybees make decisions collectively--and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley's pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

In the late spring and early summer, as a bee colony becomes overcrowded, a third of the hive stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to produce a daughter colony. Seeley describes how these bees evaluate potential nest sites, advertise their discoveries to one another, engage in open deliberation, choose a final site, and navigate together--as a swirling cloud of bees--to their new home. Seeley investigates how evolution has honed the decision-making methods of honeybees over millions of years, and he considers similarities between the ways that bee swarms and primate brains process information. He concludes that what works well for bees can also work well for people: any decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect, a leader's influence should be minimized, debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.

An impressive exploration of animal behavior, Honeybee Democracy shows that decision-making groups, whether honeybee or human, can be smarter than even the smartest individuals in them."

Thomas D. Seeley is professor of biology at Cornell University and a passionate beekeeper. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Hive and Honeybee Ecology (Princeton).

Listen to (or read) an interview with the author on Radio National.

19 Oct 2011

Observations of a newbie

New to beekeeping (about 2 months now), perhaps there is some use in documenting what I've noticed in case it helps others in the same situation? Having a hive in the garden for the first time is like the moment you bring a baby home from hospital (well, sort of . . .) you feel so alone and responsible.

So I guess I see things that experienced keepers may take for granted . . .

  • The bees tend to stay in the hive when very cold and when raining. OK, no rocket science there. It's interesting to see how the morning temperature (cool, warm) affects their activity levels.
  • Finding bees walking around the garden. I noticed that I always have a few bees wandering around the garden - often a long way (for such a small insect) from the hive. These bees have lost their ability to fly (old age) and seem to be busy just walking around until they die. Just beware that you might not want to wander around the garden in bare feet once you install a hive . . .
  • Dead bees at the front of the hive in the morning. The nights fatalities removed by the workers - probably 2 or 3 per night at most for a small colony. Also the occasional mal-formed grub extracted and dumped.
  • Around mid-day or early afternoon - activity outside the hive may suddenly increase with bees crawling out and over the box, on the floor, flying around and looking in all of the nooks and crannies and hovering facing the front of the box. It all looks incredibly busy and then after an hour or so they all go back inside. Compare this with the field worker bees who fly in, land get inside, drop their load and fly out - no messing around. This mid-day activity is known as 'orienteering' where the mid life bees are being 'promoted' from duties inside the hive to foraging outside of the hive. They come out to practice flying and imprinting the location of the hive for their future navigation. To me, they look like teenagers at their first party - awkward, not exactly sure what to do and watching each other for clues.
  • Do not wear perfumed anything. This applies to de-orderants, shampoo/conditioner, perfume, soap, clothes washing soap etc. These artificial smells seem to upset the bees, or at least cause them to be more interested in you than you'd like.
  • I thought all bees stay inside the hive in the dark. On warm nights, a gang of them like to relax on the porch, like us humans. I read that they may be fanning fresh air into the hive for added ventilation.
  • Don't have bright lights in the bee garden, don't use torches at night next to the hive. The lights can attract the bees and encourage them to fly. Not very comforting having stinging insects chasing you in the dark.
  • Leave them alone. Bees seem to thrive without constant attention from humans. Being a beekeeper may mean NOT dressing up in all the gear, smoker in hand and constantly opening up the hive to take a look. I'm tempted to see how my 'babies' are doing and it's prabably a good learning experience for me, but I prefer to let them be (bee) as much as possible. Plus I reduce the chance of stings.
  • The smell of a hive in warm weather. It was described to me as 'intoxicating' and it surely is as it wafts across the garden on a warm day. Must be very heavy inside the hive itself and this apparently helps provide a safe environment for the bees and their young.
  • Protect the landing strip (if you have one at the hive entrance) from collecting puddles of water in times of rain. The water easily traps the insects departing or landing and can drown them. Same for the ground area in front of the hive itself, I have concrete pavers there and the bees often get stuck upside dwn (wings trapped on the wet pavers), They trash until they die exhausted unless I rescue them with a small twig. :-) I'm thinking of putting a rain roof over the top of the hive box to divert water to the rear of the hive.
More coming as I think of them . . .


Third time lucky

The story of how a swarm required three attempts to settle into a new hive . . .

1. 11.30am.
I assisted Andrew to capture a small swarm which had exited a possum box at a house on Riversdale Road. I brought a brand new one box hive with 8 frames of full foundation. We generally tear some holes in the foundation as Andrew believes it will help the bees get a better feel for the space available within the hive. We didn't have time for such nicities as it was a busy day.

The swarm was neatly placed near the end of a pear tree branch. Andrew climbed onto next doors garage roof with the hive and held the stem with both hands, while I very gently cut through it. The bees were then shaken into the (strapped but empty) box and the top mat a lid placed on. The box was manhandled down to ground level and we placed it next to the house at the base of the tree, but right next to the french windows as there was a stone plinth available. We looked for a better location, since this was rather man made, but none was apparent/convenient. The bees started fanning the entrance and we bade our farewell 'till nightfall.

2. 2.30pm.
The householder called to tell us all of the bees were outside of the hive and formed a 'beard' hanging off the landing strip. I returned to the house to try again with another hive in hand. Figuring they might either dislike the inside of the box or the location, we decided I'd tear the holes in the foundation this time (see above). In fact I tore 3/4 of the foundation off the bottom of the middle three frames for good measure

Sure enough, the bees were outside but were clinging onto the stone plinth. No chance of shaking them off. I asked the owner for a small dust-pan . I very gently slid the pan under the feet of the swarm and separated them from the stone (I wish I'd taken my camera . . .) and scooped them up as a mass. They did not object and I poured them into the box. It took two full scoops to get them all.

The lid went on, the hive went back on the plinth, the bees started fanning and I departed hoping that I'd be back after dark to take the hive home.

3. 4pm
The householder called again. This time the swarm/colony had absconded and settled in a magnolia buch about 2.5m off the ground. Obviously it wasn't a foundation issue now, possibly the location of the box. We resolved to see what happened by the next morning and try again.

Next day 8am
Nice warm morning at 15 degrees C. Bees were quite inactive and still in the magnolia. Used the same hive we'd tried the day before (big holes in the foundation, but now empty of bees!). Usual story, dropped the bees into the box, probably 95% went in. Lid on and we placed the box about 1.5M off the ground behind the bush, next to a fence where it was sheltered and quite a natural setting. Some bees continued to settle in the magnolia, so I asked if we culd snip off the end of the branch and tie it to the front of the hive, which we did. This meant the fliers were attracted back to the box rather than to the bush. I figured we needed all the help we could get. No fanning at the entrance and a growing clump of bees hanging off the landing strip.

Left the garden and kept the fingers crossed. Owner called 30 minutes later: 'the bees are fanning at the entrance'.

It's now 4pm and the householder says the bees are happily buzzing in and out of the hive. Maybe the job is finally done.

Draw your own conclusions - but I resolve in future to:
  • Take a lightweight capture box for swarms in future, with maybe 3 frames only in it. This is lighter to carry around and up into trees and will give the swarm a feeling of space inside.
  • Put a few holes in the foundation to help the bees communicate as they suss out their new home.
  • Place the occupied box in a bee friendly location, where they feel at home, until night fall.
  • Try to collect swarms towards twilight where they might feel more inclined to stay inside.
Bear in mind - all of this work was conducted with full bee-suit protection . . .


18 Oct 2011

Bees in the backyard

By Sarah Kellett
G Magazine

Help local bee populations flourish by becoming a backyard bee-keeper or creating a bee-friendly garden.

One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat is the result of insect pollination, while honey bees also pollinate food for native animals and play a big role in maintaining biodiversity. But bee populations are under threat worldwide, as G discusses here. One way to help local bee populations is to become a backyard bee-keeper or create a bee-friendly garden.

Backyard bee-keeping
“There are a lot of people getting interested in bee-keeping,” says Tim Malfroy, who teaches natural bee-keeping classes through Milkwood Permaculture. Natural bee-keeping is gentler than the conventional approach and gives bees more control over their environment. As a commercial bee-keeper for family-owned company Malfroy’s Gold, Malfroy has seen the benefits first hand. “You end up with healthier, more contented bees so you don’t get stung so much,” he says. “The honey is better quality as it’s virgin comb.”

Keeping bees naturally
The hive design used in natural bee-keeping was developed by French monk Abbé Warré in the early 20th century. Instead of frames, Warré hives use top bars – removable pieces of wood with a small edging of wax to which the bees attach their comb.
Malfroy recommends beginners add side-bars or use normal frames without the foundation, which is a sheet of beeswax embossed with hexagonal cells. Without the foundation, bees can build combs with cell sizes that suit them.

Swot up
Learn the basics of bee-keeping by reading, attending a workshop or joining your local bee-keeping association. Start now and you’ll be ready for spring swarming.
Location, location, location
“Most normal-sized urban backyards are suited for one or two hives,” says Malfroy. Hives should face east to north-east towards the morning sun, with the entrance more than two metres from any walls, facing away from traffic. Check with your council regarding regulations.

Get equipped
Hives can be bought from bee-keepers with or without bees, but be sure to ask for a vendor declaration to avoid disease in the bees or hive. Or you could make a Warré hive based on designs available online, adapted for Australian frame sizes. You’ll also need a smoker, a hive tool, and protective equipment such as a veil, gloves, bee suit or bee jacket.

Obtain bees
If you feel adventurous, you can catch your own bees. “If you see a swarm of bees, you can shake them into a box,” says Malfroy. “You get locally adapted bees.” Be safe and prepared before catching your first swarm. Of course, you can always buy bees from another keeper.

Bee care
“Cats, dogs and rabbits are all a responsibility, and bees are in exactly the same category. You need to care for them as you would for any other animal,” says Doug Somerville from the NSW Department of Primary Industries. That means ensuring a good supply of nectar and water, and keeping the bees healthy.
Checking for disease is important, but frequently opening the hive changes its internal temperature, causing stress. Natural bee-keepers read entrance behaviour for signs of distress, and open hives only when necessary.

Get registered
All bee-keepers must register with the Department of Primary Industries or other relevant department in their state for a small fee. Registration makes it possible for the state authorities to carry out disease prevention and control programs.

Harvest honey
“The buzz with bee-keeping is having a jar of honey to share with your friends and neighbours,” says Somerville.  Natural bee-keeping is about letting bees be bees – this means leaving them with the honey they need to survive, and only harvesting any surplus.
“Honey harvest depends on the season,” says Malfroy. “If you shake a big swarm into a foundationless natural hive, you could get 30 kg in a good season.”

Create candles
Occasional beeswax is another bonus of bee-keeping. Jeffrey Gibbs is the founder of Northern Light Candle Company, which specialises in organic beeswax candles. He says making beeswax candles can be tricky, but is worth trying at home.

One person in every 10,000 is highly allergic to bee venom, but most people find they feel less pain with every sting. Malfroy remembers growing up on a commercial bee farm and being stung as often as 100 times a day, even with a suit. With natural bee-keeping, he is very rarely stung. “The main thing that really surprises people is how gentle they are.”

Native or European?
European honey bees have been kept by bee-keepers for thousands of years. More recently, some Australian bee-keepers have set their sights on domesticating native stingless bees, the only native species that produce honey.

“Bee-keeping stingless bees is in its infancy,” says CSIRO entomologist Tim Heard. “It’s still a wild species that we’re utilising.” Heard also runs a company called Sugarbag, which sells hives of stingless native bees. Sugarbag is the name for the honey produced by stingless bees, which has long been enjoyed by indigenous Australians. The yield is far less than that of European bees (about 1 kg a year) but has a distinctive flavour.

European honey bees can deal with colder climates, and thrive anywhere in Australia, while native stingless bees are better suited to the warmer areas of Australia, including the NT, Qld and in NSW, north of Sydney. If you want to keep stingless native bees, choose a species local to your area.
For more info visit: www.biobees.com and www.aussiebee.com.au.

Creating a bee-friendly garden
If bee-keeping is not for you, why not provide local bees with a safe haven? These tips will make your garden more bee-friendly, and are suitable for renters and flowerpot gardeners.
  • “Plant a variety of species native to the area,” advises Heard. Gum trees are great for larger backyards. Palm and grass trees are more suitable for smaller gardens.
  • Most flowering native shrubs, including grevillea, tea tree, and bottlebrush, are an excellent source of food for bees.
  • In terms of introduced plants, try lavender, thyme and salvias. A broad variety provides a steadier supply of nectar throughout the seasons.
  • Avoid pesticides and seeds that have been coated with systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids.
  • Experiment with companion gardening, partnering high-nectar flowers with vegetables that need pollination.
  • Provide refreshments. Malfroy recommends “a shallow tray with a bit of timber or leaves floating in it, or a pond with some aquatic plants. Something the bees can sit on while they’re drinking”.
  • Let areas of your garden go wild. Dead stems, tree hollows and undisturbed soil provide nesting places for native bees.

Meet the natives
From the furry brown teddy bear bees to metallic green carpenter bees, Australian native bees are staggeringly diverse in both appearance and behaviour. Most species don’t have hives or queens. Instead, a female builds a solitary nest for her eggs. Sometimes sisters nest together, taking turns to guard and forage.

Here are some ways to furnish native bees with an artificial nest. You might not get any honey, but you will get a pollination boost for the vegie patch:
  • Bundle up some bamboo stalks and place them in a tree for leafcutter bees, which construct leafy cradles for their eggs, and resin bees that will seal the entrance with tree resin. Resin bees also nest in blocks of wood drilled with holes
  • 4 to 9 mm wide and 150 mm deep.
  • Homalictus bees come in dazzling colours such as golden blue, coppery red and green tinged with purple. They are ground-dwellers, so provide sandy, clayey and muddy soils for their burrows.
  • Blue-banded bees love mud blocks. Cut sections of rectangular PVC downpipe and fill with clay mixed with water. Dry for two hours, then poke two holes in the top with a pen. Dry again and shake loose from the PVC. Unlike European honey bees, these brightly striped native bees can pollinate tomatoes.
  • The Australian Native Bee Research Centre has information, photos and videos at:
  • www.aussiebee.com.au 
  • http://www.gmagazine.com.au/features/2794/bees-backyard