Plight of the Humble Bumble Bee

Keepers in Ealing and Kew Gardens helping out

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The humble bumble bee may be in serious decline but Ealing bee keepers and Kew Garden's experts are fighting back.

Over the last few years a third of all bee colonies have been wiped out in France and around 4000 of their homes have disappeared from London alone.

West Ealing has at least one bee keeper who produces honey from his garden colony (details available from West Ealing Neighbours).

Meanwhile Kew Gardens - a natural paradise for bees - has installed two new colonies and senior bee advisor, Anthony Smith recently gave a lecture on how they did it.

In order to start a new hive a queen is needed.

British bees died out in 1929 so queens are often sent over from New Zealand, these bees are particularly docile and non-aggressive, important for any beekeeper, and visitors to Kew.

A hive is made up of workers, drones and a queen with all the bees in a hive taking on a similar colour and shade which they inherit from their queen.

Care is needed to prevent existing workers from killing the new queen - these bees have been separated from an existing hive to form the new colony and take less than 30 minutes to realise they no longer have a queen.

The queen lays eggs which hatch out into workers 21 days later. They start work within two minutes after birth and can travel up to 6 miles in search of nectar and pollen.

They return to the hive and do a 'waggle' dance in the dark telling the other workers what's available and where.

A worker lasts 6-8 weeks and produces one twelfth of a teaspoon in a lifetime.

It takes nine pounds of honey to produce one surplus pound for human consumption, the rest is needed by the bees. Workers are highly efficient and can travel up to 7 million miles on a gallon of honey- collectively that amounts to 3 times round the world.

The drones are slightly larger than the workers, with bigger eyes. Those with the largest eyes find it easiest to spot the queen when she rises for her mating flight and she will mate with up to 14 of these in the one flight. She returns to the hive to lay her eggs. By September time the workers will stop feeding the drones and eventually push them out of the hive to die.

The queen hibernates for much of the winter, although that season is shrinking, with 10-15000 workers and few if any drones. Bees eat the stored honey over the winter and convert it to heat, keeping a constant temperature between 21-25 degrees Celsius.

An average colony requires forty pounds of honey to get them through the winter. Mouse guards need to be placed at the entrance to the hive or else the mice will steal the honey.

The Kew Bees produced 40 pounds of surplus honey the first season.

There are are many reasons for the decline of bees. The varroa parasite can settle into the newly laid eggs producing a drone or worker that is very weak.

Climate change plays its part, bees used to hibernate from September but can still be seen up to December now and bad weather can wipe them out. Pesticides on the pollen affect the bees and the wax and honey produced are currently being analysed to assess how much blame can be placed here.

Investigations are being carried out as to the gene pool from which the queen is selected as to whether it is wide enough.

(With thanks Kath Richardson)


If you are interested in keeping bees in your garden, allotment or in the Ealing apiary, please visit Ealing Bee Keepers (even if not resident in Ealing) who are happy to give tours and information and support if you decide to give it a go.

Membership of a beekeepers association brings with it membership of the national British Bee Keepers Association which in turn insures your beekeeping.

Information about talks at Kew Gardens are available at their website. They are open to Kew members at a cost of £4.

October 15, 2009

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