11 Sep 14


A good couple of days; I will certainly try to get to the next one, wherever it is held.

Allergy and Anaphylaxis.  Prof Stephen O’Hickey from the immunotherapy department of Worcester Royal Hospital went through the various chemicals in bee venom, pointing out that the chemicals causing the initial pain and redness were not the same as those triggering the late-phase inflammatory response.  The treatment we can provide for bee stings consists of cold compresses, and over the counter medicines (antihistamine and analgesics).  In serious cases of local swelling the GP can prescribe steroids which reduces the swelling very quickly.  Cases of anaphylaxis are mercifully rare (1:10,000) but are medical emergencies when they occur.  Auto-inject systems include EPIPEN, JEXT and EMERADE.  Interesting points:

·         These systems were designed for self-injection into muscle by fit young soldiers in a chemical warfare environment; nowadays most civilians, particularly women, have much more fat over their thigh muscles and so there is a risk that the needle will not be long enough to reach the muscle.  Better to inject into the bicep muscle in the upper arm where fat layer is usually thinner.

·         He recommended that anyone teaching beekeeping should have an auto-inject device to hand in case the student is one of the unlucky ones.

·         There was no scientific research backing up the well-established idea that dried bee venom on the suit would sensitize members of the beekeepers family (but suits should still be cleaned for other reasons).

·         Your chances of getting an anaphylactic reaction increase in various proportions if you have any of: a family history of it; if you are a woman; if you have been keeping bees for more than two years; if you have been taking antihistamine beforehand; or if you have already suffered an attack.  The number of stings seems to have no correlation.  The actual risk remains relatively small unless you have already suffered an attack.

·         It is impossible to predict when a bee sting will trigger anaphylaxis.

·         Immunotherapy takes time – typically from 3 to 5 years – but is 85-95% effective so beekeepers don’t have to give up beekeeping if they develop anaphylaxis.

Pollen and Nectar.  Pam Hunter gave a detailed talk about the food elements bees get from pollen and nectar.  Pollen provides protein.  Bees prefer pollens with a high fat content (e.g. dandelions and sunflowers) – fats improve the conduction of nerve impulses, and are essential for building cell membranes and for larval development.  However they cannot judge the benefits of pollen.  They are equally happy with sunflower or rape pollen but in an experiment when larvae were fed while solely providing the bees with sunflower pollen the resulting adults lived for an average of 31 days whereas those fed on rape pollen lived for about 51 days.  Some pollens, e.g. Nicotiana, are actually toxic to bees.  The nutritional value of stored pollen reduces by three quarters in a year.  Young nurse bees start by feeding older larvae since their hypopharyngeal  glands are still developing but by about 6 days old they start feeding young larvae and can produce royal jelly.  Nectar provides  energy and can be stored as honey.  A colony needs to gather 200kg or more of nectar for use during the summer and for storage for the winter.  There are also 10 essential amino acids which are not made by the bee’s biology but can be absorbed from nectar.  A variety of plants is essential for bee health.

Colony Management and Swarm Control.  Ken Basterfield, a bee farmer and beekeeping instructor from Devon, is a great advocate for double brood boxes. 

·         It gives the bees more space so reducing the risk of swarming.

·         Frames drawn out in a single brood box usually have holes or gaps at the bottom whereas combs drawn out in the upper of two brood boxes are almost always perfect.

·          Swarm cells are usually formed where they are easy to see on the bottom of the frames of the upper brood box. (He also uses top bee space so that when the upper box is drawn forward over the top of the lower box and tipped up for inspection the risk of crushing bees is reduced.)

·         There is more space for stores.

·         You can place a frame feeder in the edge of the top box for emergency feeding without disturbing the nest.  The bees do not fill it with comb if there is adequate space elsewhere.

He also employs the same arrangement for swarm control.  If swarm cells are discovered on inspection he reduces the number of cells to one and then places a split board between the boxes.  The board has gauze pinned to both sides of the hole so that proboscises of the bees in each box cannot touch each other. The lower box and floor are turned through 180 degrees. He also provides an entrance for the upper box facing in the original direction.  This bleeds flying bees into the top box.  Check after 5 days to make sure there are no other queen cells raised as emergencies in the upper box. Then leave for 4 weeks and reunite by turning the whole lot through 90 degrees and using newspaper between the boxes.  For the really nervous beekeeper one of the gauzes can be taken off a day earlier to give the bees a chance to get used to each other.  Once united the bees will sort out which queen they wish to keep – usually the younger.

Tips and Tricks.  Ken’s son Dan followed on with many useful tips. E.g.

·         Reduction of risk of disease.  If using double brood boxes then each hive ought to be numbered so the boxes stay together.  The lower one each spring is removed and the comb changed for foundation if necessary and then replaced on top of the (by now) lower box.  When extracting, use a chinagraph pencil to record the hive number.  They can then be returned to the right hive.  The Basterfields use deep boxes rather than shallows as supers and extract honey often.

·         Queen cages.  If they find the queen on an inspection they always cage her and place the cage on top of the frames.  This makes other manipulations easier to do as the queen is now accounted for.  Similarly if you think you may have a queenless colony a 5-minute queenlessness test is to place a queen in a cage on top of that colony’s frames and in about 5 minutes the bees will be showing an active, non-aggressive interest in her.

·         Microwaving seed honey to soften it.  If you put only ONE honey jar (with lid) into the microwave fairly near the outside of the rotating plate and put it on high power for no more than 30 SECONDS there will be no arcing and the set honey will soften nicely.  Don’t overdo it or it may boil and explode…

·         Warming cabinet.  Aquarium thermometers, including a max/min record, are useful, and a thermostat is essential.

·         Feeders.  A washing up bowl full of straw, ensuring the rim is up against the side of the surrounding box so the bees can climb up to it, makes a cheap feeder.

·         Cleaning frames.  They use a converted immersion heater with 100 litres of water,  4kg of washing soda and a replacement 120 degree C heating element.

Marketing.  Chris Broad, a bee farmer suggested that honey could be marketed in a ‘value added’ way by making such things as honey butter, pears in heather honey, adding it to vodka or gin.  However when selling in jars there was a psychological barrier at the £5.00 point, so better to sell in smaller jars e.g. 340g for less than £5.00.  He used a ‘best before end of’ date 2 years after bottling.  Her advised always to avoid the word ‘Blend’.  The warning that honey is not suitable for infants under one year old is not obligatory; the risk of infant botulism is very small indeed.   He reckoned that to break even you would need to sell some 70 or 80 lbs a year but if the bees produce more than 120 lbs then it might be more cost effective to sell in bulk (buckets).  You can also sell surplus bees.

Medication.  Pam’s talk on medications was provocative.  She stated that no proper toxicology had been carried out on many of the currently marketed products.  Her maxim is that ‘A poison in small amounts is a medicine and a medicine in large amounts is a poison.’  She was very much in favour of using acetic acid for sterilising combs.  While she felt that the formic acid (used in Miteaway and MAQS, was found naturally in hives there was some doubt about the dosage being right for British National hives.  She supported the use of thymol in whatever form it came.

Dissection.  Dan Basterfield talked through a series of short video clips on the dissection of the honey bee.  He recommended a polish tin lid with wax and a wetting agent of 1/3 alcohol to 2/3 water.  He also kept a pad of kitchen towel between himself and the microscope to wipe bits of bee off his dissecting tools.  He recommended the following books, in ascending order of complexity for the reader:

·         Practical Microscopy                              Bob Maurer

·         Anatomy and Dissection                       Dade

·         Form and Function                                                  Lesley Goodman

·         Understanding Bee Anatomy             Ian Stell

·         Anatomy of the Honey Bee                                  R E Snodgrass

Honey and Wound Healing.  The Advancis Medical representative  showed some dramatic and rather gruesome pictures of leg ulcers being healed (and healed remarkably quickly) by honey plasters – specifically, using irradiated pure honey from the Manuka plant (Leptospermum scoparium).  Any honey has an antibacterial effect because by osmosis it removes from the wound the moisture the bacteria need to survive.  Manuka honey is something else again.  It has been found to contain an active ingredient (methylglyoxal), not present in other honeys, which makes it very bactericidal indeed.  Many Acute Trusts now have Manuka-based products on their formulary, ranging from tubes of honey through to very thin impregnated gauzes including traces of Manuka oil to make it easier to change the dressings without damaging the skin forming beneath.  One of the great advantages of honey dressings is that wounds treated with them no longer smell, they can fill cavities and absorb exudate, but usually they need an absorbent dressing on the outside to soak up the liquid.  For some reason it should not be used on those with an allergy to bee stings – perhaps it is because bees are more likely to land on the wound location and may sting if alarmed?