Tree Bumble Bees

Hello? I’ve got a bees’ nest in my bird box… can you help?

So start about three phone calls per day here at Nascot Wood HQ at the moment (late May). Actually a fourth one usually starts “Hi… I’ve got a bees’ nest under my eaves / in my fence / outside my window”.  A few brief questions later, we’ve usually established that the caller has Tree Bumble Bees (and probably have had for a little while).

At this time of year, the tree bumble can make it’s presence felt due to a behaviour by the males, who are quite chunky insects. Up to a couple of dozen will fly around outside a nest, not going in, but orbiting about and making the air seem full of bees.

image by BumbleBeeConservation.Org

image by BumbleBeeConservation.Org

These are male bees – drones – waiting at the nest entrance for a new queen bee to emerge and go on a mating flight. It’s likely the nest has been there quite a while, but the small number of workers in the nest may come and go without being noticed. If you’re very lucky you may see a queen – much bigger than the others – emerge, and one of the lucky males mate with her, usually falling to the ground in the process. Once all the new queens have emerged, usually within a week or ten days, the drones will lose interest and disperse. Their “lecking” behaviour starts from soon after dawn until dusk.

Mating tree bumble bees (Nascot Wood Bees HQ, June 2015)

Mating tree bumble bees (Nascot Wood Bees HQ, June 2015)

The good news is that a tree bumble bee nest will never get very big – not much bigger than fist-sized, and contain only hundreds of bees – not the tens of thousands of a honey bee colony. Any mating activity is likely to finish fairly quickly, and the whole colony will die out toward the end of July. In many cases wax-moth larvae will clean out the nest and, if located in a bird box (as many are), hopefully the intended occupants will use the site the next year. If the nest is in a roof space accessed through a small hole, you may wish to block the whole in mid-Autumn to prevent bees – and wasps – from using the space next year.

The bad news is that, of all the bumble bee species, tree bumbles are probably the most easily provoked. I deliberately avoid the word “aggressive”, because they’re not; but they will protect their nesting site and, in particular, they dislike vibration. So if they’re in a shed roof, for instance, they won’t like it if you slam the door, and may well sting. Unlike honey bees, their stings aren’t barbed so a single bee can sting repeatedly. They’re supposed to only deliver a small dose of venom, but having been stung by a tree bumble (when messing with their nest – my fault!) I can tell you it hurts!

So it’s best to avoid disturbing them, and certainly try to avoid walking through the lecking drones during mating time. If they’re located near a window, feel free to open the window but put up net curtains, sealed with tape around the edges, to stop the bees coming indoors – and shut (and open) the windows carefully.

As beekeepers, we’re happy to come out and re-home a swarm of honey bees. If we can’t keep them ourselves, (and we’ve only a finite amount of room / kit / time!) we pass them on to another bee keeper. Wasps we don’t touch. Tree bumble bees fall part-way between the two; in extreme cases, we may be persuaded to come and remove a bird box to a safer location. (As it happens, while I’m writing this the Beekeeper is out with some colleagues re-locating a tree bumble bee nest in a bird box; it’s in a public space and located at head-height right next to a footpath. It poses a risk to passers by but we don’t want to see the nest destroyed.) Unfortunately, as with honey bees, if the colony has taken residence in a roof space or high up, then we can’t help as we’re not builders and are not insured to work at height nor to dismantle your house!

So, there’s no need to call us if you have tree bumble bees, unless they’re really a significant public health risk. Please, enjoy these interesting insects, who are excellent pollinators, won’t damage your property nor pose a risk to other bees. If you’d like to make a contribution to a “citizen science” project, report your sighting to the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society here.

Some further information about tree bumble bees - Bombus hypnorum

Tree bumbles are not native to the UK; they arrived here in small numbers in 2001 but have spread significantly since 2007. They now extend as far north as Aberdeen, and westwards to Wales and Cornwall.

They lack the common yellow or orange stripe of most bees; instead they have a ginger or reddish brown, noticeably furry, thorax (front part of body), a black abdomen, and always a white tip to their tail. Compared to many bumble bees, and certainly honey bees, they’re relatively round, rather than long.

Queen bumble bees go on “nest searching” flights in March and April, from which time the colony starts to build in size. Mating tends to take place in May / June, with the colonies reducing in size until few are seen after the end of July. The queens will leave the colony site and find somewhere else to hibernate over winter.

Queens very often choose bird nest boxes to setup home; they especially like it if there are already some “soft furnishings” such as down or moss, and have been known to evict bluetits from their nests. They will also find spaces under eaves, behind soffits, and in suitable holes in trees. Quite often you’ll see their nesting material partly blocking or bulging out of the entrance hole, below which may be yellow splodges – tree bumble poo.

For more information, see this article.

Comings and Goings

Nothing remarkable here at all… just a video of bees going about their daily business.

The video shows activity at the entrance of a poly-nuc (polystyrene nucleus box) containing a large swarm that was collected a few days ago. It’s due to be re-homed very shortly. In the meantime it’s in our garden, along with some other colonies. It’s very busy though, and sitting watching it earlier I felt I ought to share the sight.

 

The problem with bees…

Spring is well and truly here and the bees are very busy bringing in pollen and nectar, with the colony sizes building up well.

Locally, we’ve heard reports of the first “swarm calls” – members of the public asking beekeepers to come and collect swarms that have temporarily settled in an inappropriate place. As well as the honey bees, other bee species are active too, and we’ve had a couple of calls about bumble bees and mining bees. We can’t do anything with these, other than reassure householders that “their” bees probably won’t do any harm.

While bee swarms can often be collected from their “temporary” location (in a tree or on a wall), once honey bees settle into a new permanent home a whole new set of problems arise. Bees like secure, enclosed spaces and in our towns that can often mean a chimney, a roofspace or ventilation duct. There, they can create issues by causing blockages, having flightpaths in conflict with people, or even damaging structures with dripping honey and wax deposits. As beekeepers, it’s usually impossible for us to help in these situations; once inside a cavity with a small entrance, the bees have achieved their objective of safety. We’re no more qualified than the next person to start doing structural works or working at heights. Beekeepers don’t carry insurance for this kind of activity, for one thing. Sadly some householders may try to take matters into their own hands, smoking bees out of a chimney or worse, attempting to use chemicals to kill the bees off. This last approach carries a big risk; bees are not protected as such, but allowing pesticides to enter the human food chain is against the law and by poisoning your bee colony you’re leaving tainted honey for other colonies to rob.

When contacted by distressed householders with bees in chimneys, sheds, flues etc we generally try and establish to what extent they’re really likely to be a problem. If their flight path is out of the way – or can be diverted to avoid people – very often just learning to live with and appreciate your new neighbours is the best solution. However we are aware of one – and only one – company that will happily take on the safe removal of bees from property. They not only don’t harm the bees, passing them on to a local beekeeper for re-homing, but actually guarantee that the same space won’t be re-colonised by bees for up to 25 years, taking steps to make the location bee-proof. They’re not only expert bee-keepers themselves, they also have a background as professional builders and come with all the right kit – scaffold towers and/or cherry pickers – to get the job done safely, efficiently and legally. Inevitably this service can’t be provided cheaply, but it’s definitely worth giving them a call if you find yourselves with an unwelcome bee colony as they can give you expert advice and an idea of the likely cost for your particular situation. Contact BeeGone Honeybee Removal on 0800 9551 999 or find out more at www.beegone.co.uk/

Removal from behind tilesRemoval from inside via ceilingRemoval from chimney, using a cherry-picker

Harrow BioBlitz – part 2

My last post described listening for – and watching the bats at the Harrow Beekeepers’ Association apiary, and setting the small mammal traps on the Friday evening. A group of us re-convened on the Saturday, and first task was to collect and open the mammal traps.

Out of 12 traps, we found a number had been sprung, though in several cases the only inhabitants were slugs (it had rained the evening before). However 3 were more productive, each containing a single short-tailed (or bank) vole. Two adults and a juvenile, these little herbivores are among the most common mammals in Europe. All were unharmed by their overnight adventure and were let go to scamper off into the grass around the apiary.

Short-tailed vole

Taking a close look

Next, we set off – singly and in pairs and threes – to every corner of the apiary, noting anything and everything as we went – trees, shrubs, birds, insects and more. Personally, I was surprised at the wide variety of shrubs and trees on the site. A survey like this, whilst not ignoring anything, barely scratches the surface (especially as none of us were expert plant-hunters/identifiers) yet we found easily more than 40 species on what’s really quite a small patch. Of course there were plenty of insects (although only one of the participants actually noted Apis mellifera – the honey bee!). We did find, however, a nest of Yellow Meadow ants (Lasius flavus). These are significant as they are a species that takes the caterpillars of endangered chalk hill blue butterflies into their nests, affording them protection and helping the butterflies to thrive.  Other interesting finds included galls of the Acorn Gall wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis). These wasps are relative newcomers to the UK, arriving in the 1960s, and reduce the ability of the oaks to reproduce.

Sampling the River PinnAfter a tea-break mid-morning, our bat guide from the previous evening led us in a river-dipping exercise. Some of the HBKA members were surprisingly keen to get the wellies on and poke about in the River Pinn (which runs right through the apiary). Examination of the results indicated the river was surprisingly healthy and had a rich abundance of wildlife. Observations of the river have shown that it periodically gets polluted, but at least on this occasion it was supporting a lot of life. This included lots of freshwater shrimps, cadis flies, water hoglouse, mayfly larvae, leeches and quite a few small stickleback fish.

Checking the river finds

Other finds included a wide variety of slugs, but including the carnivorous Leopard slug (Limax maximus) – a gardener’s friend, this one, as it eats other slugs! Spotted flying over the apiary, along with the expected pigeons, magpies and blackbirds, were a couple of ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameri). First recorded in the UK in 1855, these exotic birds (presumably descended from escaped pets) are becoming more common across the south-east and are commonly seen around Harrow.

We wound up the morning around 12:30 as planned. We’d found a rich and seemingly healthy habitat in the apiary, with a few surprises thrown in. In due course we’ll be publishing a full list of species identified, and there’s always scope for follow-up in the form of another bio-blitz or a more detailed and thorough survey. It seems everyone enjoyed the event and hopefully we all learned a little too. Many thanks to all who came and participated, and especially to Rowena for organising loan of traps, bat detector, nets and other paraphernalia, and for her help in identifying and understanding our finds!

Thanks to everyone!
Thanks everyone!

Harrow BioBlitz – part 1

Last Friday, 2nd September, we organised a mini “BioBlitz” at the Harrow Beekeepers’ apiary site, in Hatch End. The apiary is quite a small but diverse site – if you’ve taken the train north from Harrow you may well have seen it, tucked away behind Morrison’s car park. It’s bordered not only by the railway line, but by playing fields, gardens and the River Pinn (which gives Pinner its name). It has small grassy areas, mature trees, river banks, hedges and shrubs.   But we’ve often wondered just exactly what lives there besides the bees.

So a BioBlitz was planned – getting lots of people involved, looking really closely at the full biodiversity of the site, and recording as much nature as they could in just a quick snapshot. We decided that in order to get a picture of the mammals on site, we’d need to be sneaky and set some traps overnight. So on Friday evening a small group of us convened to lay a dozen small mammal traps – very kindly loaned for the weekend by the Field Studies Council. One of their field studies tutors, our very own Rowena, came along and explained in detail what sort of creatures we might find and how the traps worked. They’re humane traps that leave the animals unharmed to be released the next day – seems at the FSC some animals get “trap happy” – they offer free food and dry bedding! Then everyone placed a trap in spot they thought might be popular with our furry friends.

But that was just part one of the evening. Rowena went on to give us a really interesting introduction to bats…  we know there are bats around, people have caught glimpses of them recently. We learned that around 1 in every 4 mammals on earth is a bat – quite amazing for these creatures of the night that we barely interact with. We learned about bats’ echo-locating senses, and about the bat detector devices that allow us to hear the bats’ squeaks even though they’re above our hearing range. (Rowena also demonstrated a range of high pitch sounds to put our ears to the test). Then, with the detector on, we very quickly picked up their sounds. Heading just outside the apiary, we could hear their calls as they navigated, found and homed in on their flying insect prey. We could see, in the very last of the daylight, a couple of bats flying around very low over us, and by the frequency of their calls learned that they were “Soprano” Pipistrellus pygmaeus (so-called because their call frequency is somewhat higher than the slightly more common Pipistrellus pipistrellus). The pipistrelles are Britain’s smallest bat.

As the last of the light faded, the rain came down – but we’d set our traps, seen our bats and it was time to go anyway.

Huge thanks to Rowena and the Field Studies Council for loan of equipment. It was obviously much enjoyed because one of the BioBlitzers purchased their own bat detector that very night…!

Preparing the mammal traps

Rowena explains to the group how the traps are baited and triggered, and what types of animal we might catch in them

More to come, including what we found in the traps next day, in the next post!

 

Harrow in Leaf success!

Bank Holiday Monday was the annual Harrow-in-Leaf show. A one-day show this year, it includes the honey show of the Harrow Beekeepers Association.

Nascot Wood Bees entered quite a few classes and again was delighted to win an award in the “Taste” class (best tasting honey), honey (set or creamed), as well as in cookery (honey cake), candles (moulded), and wax (tablets) classes. The target for the show had been to win a cup for best mead, and this target was achieved, with a first in the sweet mead class. Congratulations to Doreen!

Cup for the best sweet mead

Cup for the best sweet mead

2016 Honey available for sale

At last! We finally have some 2016 honey available for sale. Right now we just have 1lb (454g) jars at £6.50 each. Please email beekeeper@nascotwoodbees.co.uk or call 01923 243232 to confirm a time for you to collect from us.

2016 Honey Harvest

Lots of people are asking – when will there be honey for sale?

Honey Harvest

Checking frames are capped and ready for harvesting

It’s been a funny year. Our colonies are generally strong, and there’s been a reasonably good nectar flow, but the challenge has been the weather. When the bees store nectar in the hive, it has to “ripen” into honey. Primarily this involves the reduction in water content, but with a very wet June the humidity has meant the ripening process has taken a long time. Often, just as honey was nearly ready, we’d have a few rainy days and the bees would have no option but to consume the honey they’d put away for, well, a rainy day.

With the recent hot spell, however, stores are building up and in the past couple of days we’ve taken off and extracted the first full “supers” of honey. There are plenty more to come but with finite resources (including time and energy!) we can only take off one super at a time and will wait until most are extracted before we begin the bottling process.

Uncapping a frame

Uncapping a frame prior to extraction

Loading the extractor

One frame loaded into the extractor. A further 3 frames will be added before the honey is spun out

So there’s good news and bad – good that at last the harvest is about ready, but there will still be two or three weeks before we can once again put up the “Honey for Sale” sign again.

Be assured that as soon as we have honey to sell, we’ll also be posting here and on twitter, so watch this space!

Bee quiz

Here is the Bee Quiz presented at the Harrow Beekeepers‘ Christmas Social on 13th December.
There were five members who shared first prize, each with a total of 20 out of 25 questions correct. Well done to all those who entered!
To see the answers, view this post on it’s own (click the heading) and then hover over or click each question.

Pollen is a source of ….. for the bee?
Protein
Number of eggs a queen can lay in 1 day
1000 – 3000
How fast do bees’ wings beat
180 – 200 beats per second
Why are honey bees reluctant to sting
Loss of sting (usually) causes death
What gives a bee sting its ouch and itch
Chemical mellitin
What colour can honey bees see that people can’t
Ultra violet
What colour can people see that bees can’t
Red
Life span of a queen
2 – 8 years
Colour of new wax
White
Pollen is carried in the ……
Pollen basket hind (metathoracic) legs – (Corbicula)
What senses do bees and humans have in common
Taste, touch, smell, sight (we accepted hearing too as although bees don’t have ears they can detect sonic vibrations)
How many eyes does a bee have
5 (2 compound, 3 ocelli)
What is H2C2O4 better known as
Oxalic acid
What’s the equivalent in grams of 1 lb
454g
What’s the average water content of natural honey?
18%
What’s the maximum permitted HMF (HydroxyMethylFurfuraldehyde) content in honey in the EU?
40mg / kg or equivalent
What colour should 2016’s queens be marked?
White
What’s the scientific, binomial name for the honey bee
Apis mellifera
Is the Asian Hornet bigger than the native UK hornet
No – it’s smaller
At what outside temperature do bees begin to cluster
12°C – 15°C (54°F – 59°F) Although quoted from multiple sources, we disregarded this question as our experience is that bees are still flying at that temperature; even at 10°C they stop flying but do not cluster until lower temps
What are the three major subdivisions of a bee’s body
Head, thorax, abdomen
In taxonomic terms, what order do bees belong in
Hymenoptera
What are the breathing holes along a bee’s body called
Spiracles
In what year was the HBKA founded
1919
What’s the address/URL of the HBKA website
(http://) (www.)harrowbeekeepers.co.uk/