This post looks at how honey bee hives can be used for purposes beyond the obvious honey production, particularly with respect to farmers and growers using regenerative principles to help heal the land. We observe the natural behaviour of the bees in and around their hive and use this data to evaluate the landscape, and in the next few posts I will outline how this can be done, and over the course of the new beekeeping season, demonstrate this with hives in situ.
Conventional beekeeping involves running a production livestock system: this is the case whether you have one or a thousand hives if your methods and manipulations are intended to produce a honey crop. Sustainable beekeeping removes the pressure on honey bees to produce surplus honey, and therefore markedly reduces the workload and intervention required as we are not influencing the bees’ behaviour in order to fill those jars, and any honey we get is down to the bees’ natural productivity. Regenerative beekeeping takes this one step further: we are not managing the bees for honey at all, but actually using the information we can glean from the hive as our primary reason for keeping hives. Honey will be produced, but it is essentially a by-product of the wider advantages of using honey bees as a data-gathering tool.
Any hive can be used, and the bees will need to be a local swarm and therefore used to foraging in the area. More on sourcing the bees to use in future posts.
In this post I’m going to briefly outline how we can evaluate the pollen we have available for our bees by just watching the bees returning from their food gathering trips – a useful indicator of how important and effective our forage provision really is.
Bees fly 3-5km from the hive looking for a variety of nectar, pollen, and other plant products such as sap to equip their hive for optimal performance. The bee colony population is made up of workers (sterile females), a small and temporary population of male bees during the spring, and a single queen who is the mother of them all. The overwintering cluster of 5,000-10,000 bees swells in summer to a population of over 50,000 to take advantage of the summer blossoms and gather enough to overwinter on the stored nectar. This sophisticated organism needs a diverse range of macro and micronutrients to thrive, and the richer the floral environment, the greater the likelihood of success. The colony can live for many years in the same space, and reproduces by sending out half the colony to set up home a mile or so away from the mother hive–a swarm.
Many beekeeping practises override this natural rhythm and require the bees to stretch themselves to achieve equilibrium which can negatively impact on the wider environment, but by keeping bees that are not supported by human intervention, they give us a valuable insight in to how good the area is for pollinators. Honey bees are generalists and will gather pollen and nectar from many different plants, and because of their “waggle dance” communication within the hive, can exploit a rich source of pollen, or nectar as shown in this clip, in a systematic fashion:
Pollens have distinct colours, and we can see where the bees have been by checking the colour and quantity of the packs they carry. Here are bees coming in with thistle pollen on their legs:
Pollen is used to nourish the bee larvae (bees have the same lifecycle as the more familiar butterfly: egg; larva; pupa; adult) and the pollen is mixed with honey and enzymes, then fermented to preserve it and add beneficial gut bacteria, so variety and quality is essential for development. There are a number of simple pollen guides, or more advanced ones once you really get in to it. Here is my rather scruffy example:
Watching for pollen loads is simple and quick, and although not totally accurate or scientifically rigorous, gives a great rough guide as to where your bees are foraging, and whether or not they are working the crops you want them to! Honey bees love to forage on shrubby trees, and hedgerow flowers are some most favoured: blackthorn, hawthorn and even the wind-pollinated trees such as hazel and oak are also visited by bees, plugging the gaps that are missed by the breeze; this is also shown with grapevines, that have greater pollination success due to the honey bee making the flowers more accessible to wind pollination. Willow and chestnut are also valuable forage sources, and many fruit and nut trees, soft fruit and vegetables are incredibly useful to honey bees – and therefore us too. Remember that all pollinators work better in concert; having a hive will encourage other species, and the other species will focus the bees’ attention as they all work the flowers differently.
Using your beehive as a marker point around which to base your diverse pollinator strategy is a far more effective plan than flooding the area with hives and getting the same inefficiencies of honey bees endlessly repeated. The beauty of a hive is that of course, you have easy access to evaluating the bees’ choices by watching the volume of bees and the pollen they are collecting, unlike with the suite of other pollinators you may have on your land. No other species can be observed so easily and this is the edge honey bees have over other pollinating insects regarding their worth on managed land: they provide a proxy for the bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps, hoverflies, flies, butterflies, moths and beetles that will hopefully be present.
Some flowers have flowers that ‘brand’ the bees as they collect pollen, adding another method of identification. OSR and Himalayan balsam are probably the most well known as rape leaves a mark between the eyes of the bees, and balsam is really visible as the bees have their thorax properly scrubbed by the pollen and come back almost white:
More advanced analysis of pollen – such as that done by the Bee Informed Partnership in the US – can be used to establish levels of heavy metals, the value of the pollen for rearing bees, and the diversity of floral sources. This service is not currently available in the UK but perhaps there will be opportunities going forward for further research and investigation, and it is easy to collect dropped pollen without interfering with the bees. Taking pollen from the nest area requires a little more skill but is a small intervention for a potentially informative return.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
In my next post I will be looking at the importance of allowing your bees to build their own wax.