The Secrets of Royal Jelly – Roald Dahl’s version.

royal jelly

The wonderful Roald Dahl once wrote a wonderful bee-story: Royal Jelly.

I have always thought this story is an unsettling mix between fact and fiction. Is the crazy beekeeper Albert Taylor for real? Is he serious about feeding his malnourished daughter tons and tons of royal jelly to make her nice and plump?

Eccentric character Albert Tayler refers to beekeeping magazines and scientific research discussing the great benefits of the magical royal substance. He tries to convince his wife with the “scientific facts”. For a long time I have wondered whether these scientific articles were real, or whether the amazing imagination of Roald Dahl had exceeded to the next level. Today, I want to find out.

First a few examples from the text –

In an article called “The Latest on Royal Jelly” Albert reads: “Royal jelly is fed in concentrated form to all bee larvae for the first three days after hatching from the egg; but beyond that point, for all those who are destined to become drones or workers, this precious food is greatly diluted with honey and pollen. On the other hand, the larvae which are destined to become queens are fed throughout the whole of their larval period on a concentrated diet of pure royal jelly. Hence the name.”

He explains in quite a blunt way to his wife where it comes from: “They get this stuff out of a gland in their heads and they start pumping it into the cell to feed the larva” (…)  “The nurse bees simply pour it into the cell, so much so in fact that the little larva is literally floating in it”

All right. That sounds all pretty true to me.

And then this: “Royal jelly must be a substance of tremendous nourishing power, for on this diet alone, the honey-bee larva increases in weight fifteen hundred times in five days. (…) This is as if a seven-and-half pound baby should increase in that time to five tons”

This is the sentence that basically drives him to a hysterical rage about the miracle of royal jelly.

And then some concrete names fly over the pages. The British Bee Journal, the American Bee Journal, and a few scientists: Frederick A. Banting,  Heyl, Still and Burdett. Real scientists or not? I put the names through the google filter and I found interesting results: Roald Dahl has ever so slightly changed their names. They are fictional characters, yet based on real scientists. Frederick A. Banting is in fact Frederick G. Banting, and Still and Burdett are actually Hill and Burdett.

Also, even though it was true that many of these scientist experimented with royal jelly on rats; it is not clear that they discovered exactly the stuff Dahl writes about. From what I have been able to find, it seems that Hill and Burdett’s research made claims about rat fertility and royal jelly (in relation to vitamin E) but later research has shown that their experiments weren’t set up in a proper way to obtain reliable data, so their conclusions were misrepresentations.

It seems ironical that Albert Taylor’s gets so excited about these scientists specifically. The cool thing is that it actually supports the story: it makes Albert even more of a crazy, ranting beekeeper (that  furiously believes in “dodgy science”.)

The most impressive story he puts forward about the fertility powers of royal jelly is that a ninety-year old guy sired a healthy boy after taking minute doses of royal jelly in capsule form.

Whether this is all true or not, the big question of the story remains:  Is it a good idea to feed royal jelly to malnourished human babies?

And this is one remarkable answer I found:

According to research conducted by R. Krell at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, royal jelly will help underfed children to gain in weight, more hemoglobin and red blood cells . (

So, besides from being a crazy beekeeper, perhaps Albert Taylor had a good point after all?


Image: Wikimedia Commons


Comments on Green “Queen” Porn

I would like to give a few comments on the  great “Green Porno” short educational film about the queen bee. Even though most aspects in this film are spot on, other ones may be a bit misleading.

First of all, the film starts off a bit dubious. Isabella Rossellini’s first line is: “If a were a bee, a queen bee, I would be very fat”. Then you see her dressed up as an enormously fat queen bee laying on the ground.

I remember thinking exactly the same thing before I became a beekeeper: I thought that queen bees were big and fat. I almost imagined a kind of bumble bee. I remember when a beekeeper pointed out an actual queen to me for the first time. I was so surprised – she wasn’t fat at all! She also wasn’t that big. Yes, she was slightly bigger than the workers, but you have to have a good eye to recognise her among the crowd. She is certainly not the big conspicuous blop that Rossellini embodies. Frankly, her visual representation of the queen -if anything- looks like a massive bumble-bee to me. I think her film re-enforces a misleading stereotypical thought about queen bees, and that is unnecessary. If only her outfit was a bit more “queen-shaped” I would have been a lot happier. In my eyes, the most outstanding aspect of the queen’s body are her wings that seem short in relation to her long abdomen.

Rossellini then explains the queen’s role in the bee society, and the roles of the workers and drones. She explains that when workers feed royal jelly to a larva, it will turn the larva into a fertile queen. Then she describes the journey of the queen’s mating flight. And this is where an other misrepresentation occurs.

She describes the mating flight from the point of view of one single male. First, you see “the brothers” hanging out together, completely bored and waiting to have sex; then one single male stands up, beats up his brothers to prove he is the strongest and flies up to the queen to mate with her.

Then, after sex, Lo and behold! When the drone tries to pull out his penis it gets stuck in the vagina and breaks off! “But it would prevent other males from mating with her”.

It seems like Rossellini says that only one strong drone has the privilege to mate with the queen, and after sex other males can’t mate with her anymore.  This one and only drone dies and the queen is fulfilled to give birth to his babies and start a new colony. It is a quick wrap up.

This film overlooks the fact that the mating flight of the queen takes place over a few days, and each day she mates with many different drones.

I think Rossilini has realised this misrepresentation. Perhaps this is why she made a second film about the queen bee. This one is called “Burt Talks to the Bees: Queen Bee”.

She corrects her simplified story in this second film. Here, she elaborates more thoroughly on what happens during the mating flight. She tells that the queen has “many husbands”. She flies out in spring, and the males are attracted by her perfume (in other words: her pheromones). The mating flight lasts for a few days, and each day the queen mates with about 16 or 17 males. “We bees don’t waste sperm like you humans do”, she says. She emphasises that the queen saves the sperm from all the males – and uses it throughout her lifetime to give birth to her daughters.

So, not just sperm from one male as the first film suggested. It is great that this second film was made, but it almost becomes a requirement to watch it in order to not be mislead by the first film. And that’s a shame: each film is an individual entity and they should be complete and correct in themselves.

I realise it is a dilemma for people like Rossellini who want to deliver science in a clever, accessible way. It is a battle between two evils: What do you prefer for your audience – ignorance or error? Is walking around with a simplified (mis)representation in your head, better than knowing nothing at all? Simple generalisations like these are a good way to attract an audience, but it is a challenge to depict the “simple” as accurate as possible.

However, I don’t want to bee too negative. I really love both of these films and I think Rossillini is amazingly convincing! It is great films like these are out there. Emphasising family relationships like husbands, fathers, grandfathers sons and daughters is a great way of creating a feeling of connectedness to bees. Looking at animals from a human point of view makes it so much easier to relate and to care about the animals- and that is exactly the goal.

What do you think?


Dance Lessons! How to Dance Like a Bee?

How To Dance Like A Bee? 

According to the German naturalist and Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch, who published his first work on honey bee communication  in 1920, bees perform two types of dances to communicate the location of food sources. They are called the round dance and the wag-tail dance. His descriptions of the dances are quite detailed, which allows you, if you feel like it, to give it a go yourself.

Instructions for the Round Dance.
This is a dance that scout bees dance when they have found food within 100 metres distance from the hive. It goes like this:

*Run in small circles
*Rush clockwise and anti-clockwise with quick, short steps.
*Make sure you dance on one spot for at least a few seconds or minutes
*Then, move to another spot and dance again.
*Take a break every now and then, and share a sweet gift with your audience. Then continue to dance.

It is a very enticing dance; don’t be surprised if others decide to join you!

This is exactly what the other bees do. Some of them become so excited that they decide to join the dance before leaving the hive in search for the food source. Unfortunately, this dance doesn’t provide the bees with very detailed information of the exact location. The only thing they know is that it is close – but they don’t know the direction. Therefore, they will start to fly out in all directions looking for this amazing source of deliciousness. (This is also a reason why robbing in urban areas is serious, and can cause a nuisance to neighbours, see my previous post)

Instructions for the Wag-Tail Dance.
This is a dance that bees dance when they found food more than 100 metres away.  It goes like this:

*Run straight and waggle your abdomen
*Turn a half-circle and begin the straight run again, but:
*This time, start the path on which you will return on the opposite side so that your dance will become a figure-of-eight pattern.
*Take a break every now and then, and share a sweet gift with your audience. Then continue to dance.

The more dances, the better! It is an indicator of how many food sources have been found.

This dance is more specific. It communicates distance and direction of the food source.
*The longer your straight run is, the further away the food source;
*Remember that the bees dance on a vertical ground – their comb. This is handy to them, because it means that they can indicate the direction of the food source in relation to the position of the sun in the sky. If the food source is directly towards the sun, the bee will run directly upwards on the comb, and if the food is directly away from the sun, the bee will run straight down the comb. All other directions can be determined in a similar way.

The dance communicates a few other things. The dancers share a bit of nectar, which isn’t just a deed of generosity, but it communicates information of the scent and sugar content of this food source, that will aid the other bees in finding it. Also, the bees communicate the best time to go and find it: some plants don’t provide pollen or nectar all day long. The bees need to know when they can go, and this is communicated through the particular time the dance itself is performed. Finally, bees don’t just dance to tell the other where food is (nectar & pollen) but also where water is, as well as the directions to a new home in the swarming season.

But there are two problems: They have to take in consideration that as time ticks, the sun “moves” through the sky. Also, the sun is not always clearly visible.Where the dance so far has been quite understandable for humans, here comes the point of difference. We can’t quite grasp it: how do the bees overcome these issues?

  • Apparently, bees have an inbuilt “sun-compass” system that takes the movement of the sun in consideration as the dance is communicated to them. Also, their eyes are built to be able to see ultra violet light, even on cloudy days, so they can always decide where the sun is.

There are still a lot of mysterious around the dances of the bees. Not everyone agrees on these theories…

How do they do it? How do you do it? Come on and Wiggle Dance for me!


Information from Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand, p.56-57

Defecating Insects Make Angry Neighbours!


I have been talking about good locations for beehives, and how you can successfully move hives to these locations. Between nose and lips I have mentioned that you should always consider your neighbours when choosing a site.

But actually, the latter isn’t something we should just quickly skim over. This is a serious issue that needs some more emphasis: Respect Your Neighbours! Consider them. Keep up good “public relations”. Neighbours don’t just include the people that live next to you, but also the passing pedestrians in your street, cyclists or motorists. If your hive is on somebody’s farm – “neighbour” translates into farmer and farm-workers. Make sure you and your bees don’t get in the way of them.

This is not just to make your own life friendlier and more pleasant, but it is also on behalf of beekeepers as a group: we don’t want beekeepers to be seen in a bad light – they deserve a good name.

Besides people being scared of getting stung, there are a variety of other complaints when bees get in the way. To understand these complaints better and to understand how we can avoid them, we need to look at a few aspects of bee biology.

  1. Bees poo. And their toilet is outside. Defecating insects is not something we are usually bothered by (I know that I’ve personally never gave it a blink of a thought before I became a beekeeper). We are bothered by dog poo and cat poo, because we can clearly see and smell it if owners don’t clean up after their pets – on the beach, on the street and in the garden. This is especially frustrating in public places.  Insect poo on the other hand, is so tiny it is simply not part of our daily lives. That is, unless your washing line is on the route from a bee colony to their hive. As they come and go, they drop their dropping while flying. Now that explains those weird orange blobs on your clean white sheets! This is especially an issue in spring. Other common places where people have found patches of bee poo are on houses and cars. To avoid this, you need to consider the bees flight pattern. For example, if the current “bee line” – the route that they fly –  is a nuisance, but moving them to a completely new location is too much of a big deal, you could rotate the hives 180 degrees one night, and block the entrances loosely with grass. This could force the bees to establish new flight routes.
  2. Bees swarm – and they might settle down in your backyard. Or your neighbours one. Be quick to remove them and especially tell children to be careful. For more information about swarming (and prevention), see my post Where Are You Going, You Flying Black Cloud?
  3. Bees get thirsty. They need to drink. If you don’t provide them with anything (like a container of regularly-changed water) when there’s no natural sources  they will inspect your neighbour’s property, on the hunt for dripping water taps, wet washing or swimming pools.
  4. Bees can be temperamental – and some bees are worse then others. You can control the bees’ temperaments to a certain extent. This depends on the strain of bees you choose to have. Italian bees are known to be gentle bees, and they are well suited for the New Zealand climate. Also, to keep the temper down don’t disturb the hive too often, especially not in rainy cold weather. If your bees are moody anyway, it might be time to re-queen: a new queen means a new spirit.
  5. One sting means many more stings! It sounds perhaps counterintuitive, but it might be an idea to stop wearing gloves once your comfortable enough. Stings on your hands will only hurt briefly and you can remove the stings quickly to continue your work. If the bees sting your gloves however, you won’t feel it and the smell lingers on, attracting other bees to sting. It may not hurt you, but it might very well hurt the neighbours…
  6. Bees are robbers. When they get the chance to munch on honey or syrup sources from other hives, they will take it, especially when nectar sources are hard to find in the environment. When scout bees find a honey source – they will quickly communicate it to the forager bees. The bees will gather and sometimes they will fly out in a big group to start the invasion. You may see a mass of bees that eagerly flies back and forth to find a way in; into the treasures of the Other Hive. And they will fight! You can tell by how they fly that something is up. Their flight seems nervous and less straight forward than normally. You don’t want this nervous flying to be happening close to your neighbours! They might complain about getting stung or being “buzzed” by the bees. One way to prevent this, is to make sure you don’t spill any syrup around the hive when you feed the bees, and don’t leave any honey exposed when you put a sticky honey box on top of your hive. Conduct these activities only in the late evening.

Finally, these are some other tips&tricks beekeepers could keep in mind, with respect to neighbours:

Out of sight, out of mind. It may sound dubious, but it works. If your neighbour -who is not familiar with bees-, sees that beehive every time they hang out washing or work in the veggie garden, they are bound to get a bit of an unnerving feeling at some point. If they can’t see the hive however, at least they won’t ponder about it on a daily basis.

…Unless one of the above things is happening. Even more so, some bees will fly exactly at human head height. It might freak people out when they hear loud buzzing close to their ears. There is a trick to avoid the latter: you can force your bees to fly at least two metres high from the moment they leave their hives. It sounds silly, but the only thing you need to do is placing the hive entrance close to a screen (a fence or hedge for example) which makes them go up.

If the neighbours are still not convinced, you could always bring up the point that your bees will help pollinating the crops and fruit trees in the area, and who knows, you might be kind enough to share your honey

cabbage tree and honey


Information from Practical Beekeeping for Beginners, p. 24-25-26

Bee-poop photo from

The Cycle Of the Beekeeping Season – Nuc’s!

Time for a quick re-cap: so far I’ve introduced you to some basic beekeeping issues like “what do beekeepers do?” pest and disease, bee-ethics, and an understanding of the bee’s role in ecosystems. At the same time I have followed a loose chronological time line, following the beekeeping season from the moment I started this blog in late summer/begin autumn until now (the onset of winter): from extracting honey to preparing the hive for winter.

Winter is a time to rest and breathe. There is not much to do for beekeepers once the hives are prepared for winter – except for perhaps feeding the hives if they need it.

This is why I would like to take a leap and jump to the next season: Spring!

Spring is time for renewal. This isn’t only true for beekeepers, but for most living things in nature.

For bees, spring means time for swarming (see my last post). Catching a swarm is one way for beekeepers to acquire new bees, but since the varroa invasion they are getting harder to find. So how else can we get them when we start from scratch?

We buy them.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It gives bees almost the same status as any other pet we acquire for our own enjoyment. Bees are different of course. We can’t “pet” them as individuals: we need them as a whole colony. However, we usually don’t buy them as a complete colony.  A great way of acquiring a new hive is to buy a nucleus colony (a nuc) in spring. You can get them from a local beekeeper or from a queen bee producer.


A nuc before entering a bigger hive box (photo from

A nucleus is a small colony. The bees occupy about four frames in the brood box (out of 9 or 10). You put them them in the middle of the box, next to the remaining empty frames. Then you introduce a queen. You can either choose to introduce a queen from a litte cage, or introduce a queen cell that will develop and emerge as a queen inside the hive (see my next post). From here on, your nuc is ready to go. You will find that the colony quickly expands and soon the bees will occupy all the frames, asking you for more space in more boxes.

For a successful introduction, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you introduce the nuc to their new home in the late afternoon or early evening. Otherwise they will  fly all over the place!
  • It’s best to feed them every week until the main honey flow starts in summer. Commonly beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their bees, but if you want to be organic you could feed them organic honey.
  • Reduce the entrance until the bee population has expanded more (for more about entrance reducers see my post Robbers! Slime!)
  • Be wise and get at least two hives. Seriously. When I started beekeeping I made the mistake of being modest, and I started small with only one hive. It turned out my hive wasn’t that doing that well because the queen was failing. If this happens when you have two hives, you can use your other hive as a back up. You could unite the colonies together, or you could swap brood frames between them, so your weak hive has some extra brood coming up which boosts the population growth. Because I didn’t have a back up-hive, I needed to look for another solution. Luckily, I found another beekeeper to swap brood frames with. But definitely not an ideal situation. Another benefit of having at least two hives is that you can make comparisons between colonies. Valuable experience for beginners!

A last important point is location of the hives.

Make sure its sunny, sheltered from winds, the ground is flat, it doesn’t annoy the neighbours, and that there are enough food sources around. Even though bees can fly between 3 and 5 kilometres if they have to, it’s best if they can find their flowers close to home. Make sure you weed the site. The hives shouldn’t be surrounded by long grass. If it rains the grass catches the wet drops and this makes the close surroundings of the hive damp. The bees hate it!

The hive doesn’t have to be in your backyard. Many places are possible, as long as you ask for permission and the site is  easily accessible. A trend in New Zealand is to ask farmers permission to locate hives on their farm properties.

A wise beekeeper once predicted the future for me. While we have to ask farmers for permission now, in the future it might be the opposite: they will ask us to please put hives on their land and they might even pay us for it!

I hope he is right. What do you think?



Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ps. There are alternative ways of starting up hives, like buying established hives or buying package bees. If you would like to know more about these options, please let me know!

Ouch, A Stinger in My Skin

Beekeeping means getting stung. 


No matter how much you are in tune with your bees, even the most understanding guru will receive a vicious reminder from time to time – the bees letting us know how they feel.

I can’t help but sometimes feeling that I am a troublesome invader to my beehive. I wish I could tell the bees that I mean well, and that everything I do is for their own good. But while I’m thinking this, I can quite clearly visualise what I must look like from a bee-point of view.

A giant white monster with a shaded face. I attack their house with a metal weapon. I tear off their roof, smoke out their house, and one by one I pick up their chambers and give them a good shake – a massive earthquake that causes them to fall down into the abyss. My giant eyeball inspects closely what their babies look like, where their food is stored. Their most precious goods are supposed to be hidden from the daylight, but now they are suddenly painfully exposed to enemies and weather. My giant eyeball doesn’t rest until I have found their leader, the queen, who brings order in the seemingly chaos of the hive. Sometimes I notice that my bees protect their queen by clustering up and around her: she must stay invisible for my crushing powers.

No wonder beekeepers get stung! I would do the same if I was a bee.

Getting stung is not that funny. When I was attacked for the first time – four decent pricks into my ankle, I had a good cry. I actually had to stop doing what I was doing, walk away from the hive, sit down and breathe.  It wasn’t because I was scared, but because it actually REALLY FREAKIN HURTS.

For some reason, when I get stung now it is not that painful anymore. It’s just a bit of an ‘ouchy’ feeling, and I carry on. Unfortunately, I still swell and itch for days afterwards…

When you want to become a beekeeper, you really need to consider bee stings.Bees will only sting you when they feel threatened, so if you see a bee buzzing around the fields, don’t worry too much. If you invade their house though, especially when it’s cold and wet outside, it doesn’t matter how good your protective gear is, the bees will find a way. For most people it’s no big problem, others get Severe Allergic Reactions that may even lead to Death.

So what actually happens when you get stung?

Worker bees have a barbed stinger in their bum. When they sting, the stinger lodges into the victim’s skin. It tears loose from the bee’s abdomen, digestive tract, muscles and nerves. This is what kills the bee – a few minutes later she is death. However, this only happens when bees sting enemies with a thick skin, like mammals. If they sting other insects, they can do so several times without harming themselves.

The sting consists of three parts: a stylus and two barbed slides on either side of the stylus. Instead of pushing the sting in, the sting is drawn by these barbed slides. They move up and down the stylus, gradually sliding the sting into the wound, quickly further and further. This mechanism even continues after the sting is ripped off from the bee’s body.

The sting releases a venom: apitoxin. At the same time it releases pheromones. The other bees can smell that one of their fellows is fatally injured. This will attract them to come to the “place of crime” and help out their buddy by stinging the victim even more. In most cases they will only stop stinging when the threat has gone: the victim has fled or died.

Interesting fact: Male bees can’t sting, and the Queen bee won’t sting – she has a stinger that she could use multiple times, but only in very rare cases she will use it on humans. Humans are generally not worth dying for – she will rather use it to fight another queen!


The first step you need to undertake when you get stung is to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Even when you only give it a few seconds in your skin, it will continue to release more venom. A few odd traditional “remedies” are  toothpaste, garlic, salt, baking soda or onion on your wound, but these remedies have probably mostly a psychological effect. In rare occasions people can develop hypersensitivity after being stung, which can become worse each time when stung again. They may suffer anaphylactic shock caused by certain proteins in the venom. They need an immediate treatment of adrenaline (epinephrine), otherwise it might be fatal.

Pretty scary.

Yet for most people, getting stung is no reason to not keep bees. And even after getting stung, I still always hope that at the end of the day, after I have fed my bees a big bucket full of sweet syrup, maybe they say to each other that I wasn’t so bad after all…


Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons

Plan Bee

Now I hope you don’t feel too discouraged by all the things that can go wrong with bees…. (see previous posts)

Today it’s time for an optimistic message!

cabbage tree and honey

We humans have strong destructive powers, but we should never forget that we also have great constructive abilities; and there is a lot we can do to support the life and well being of bees.

So, how can we help?

  • Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden. If you don’t have a garden you could perhaps plant in a local community garden. The more variety the better. Different plants and their flowers have different qualities: some are an excellent pollen source, while others provide delicious nectar.  Bees need both food sources. Examples of plants and trees suitable for the NZ garden are stone and pip fruits, hawthorn, lavender, manuka, cucumber and zucchini plants, cabbage trees, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage), thyme, sunflower,  rosemary, pohutukawa, buttercups, citrus (lemon), dahlia & varieties, mint and clover.
  • (Plus extra bonuses: your garden will look happy and full of flowers. It won’t only attract buzzing honey bees, but you might find bumblebees as well as other insect pollinators. Another bonus is the fact that some plants will be a food source for yourself as well!)
  • Try to avoid buying seeds that have been coated with neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Don’t use sprays; pesticides or insecticides for maintaining your garden.
  • Try to avoid buying sprayed food – eat organic.
  • Become a hobby beekeeper! You don’t need a big patch of land. One beehive in the backyard or even on top of a roof is a great start – certainly one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made.



  • If you feel that owning a beehive is too much responsibility, there is also the option to let another beekeeper put a hive on your property. You provide the space, they take care of it. Simple.
  • A Dunedin-based initiative is “Rent a hive“. Worthwhile checking out:
  • Word of mouth is a powerful tool. Talk to people and raise awareness in your area about the importance of bees and the threats of chemicals and pesticides.
  • It seems that within the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries no-one is responsible for protecting the welfare of bees. Also, there hasn’t been a lot of research going into the specific effects of pesticides on bees. We could write to our local MP or newspaper, calling for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, and urging for the importance of more research.


And good things are already happening….!

Currently there is a cool project planned in Christchurch, the destroyed city that deserves some extra love.

It’s called Plan Bee; a collaboration between the city council and an apiarist.

The goal is to put beehives all over Christchurch: in gardens, on rooftops, and even in city council-owned parks and reserves. It will be a big leap from the current situation – at the moment there are less than a dozen hives in Christchurch central city.

It’s an unique project that has never been executed anywhere else in the world. It has exciting prospects. Not only will it improve local ecosystems, but it is also going to create jobs: from construction and maintenance of the hives to harvesting and selling honey. To get the project rolling, people can buy shares in the honey and own beehives. A final exciting aspect of the project is the planned “bee house”. This will be a place where people can learn about bees and honey.

I think this is a great way of getting bees closer to the public. It gives people more insight in the mysterious ways of bees, emphasises the importance of bee-pollination, and teaches how we can be involved.

What do you think?  Feel free to comment!


Information based on The National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand,;  Fairfax News NZ,; and Organic NZ, March/April 2013, Vol.72, No.2, p.48, article written by Sue Kedgley. Pesticide photo from Wikimedia Commons, by Colin Grey.

Hidden Poisonous Potions and Intruders

Do you ever sit around in the grass and watch how bees fly by, hopping from flower to flower and happily buzzing to and fro?


I sometimes do. And sometimes it strikes me how good they look.  Nice wings with patterns and a sharp defined edge. Nice striped coats on their fuzzy bellies. Beautiful bags stuffed with colourful pollen. Cool skinny little legs and black shiny eyeballs. They look  like they are on a mission and it looks good.  They seem to know exactly what they’re doing and their bodies seem perfectly designed to make their purpose in life come true.

pollen basket

                                        I recommend to click on this photo

Until you see a sick bee.

Until you see that a bee comes home to a hive that is stuffed with sick, mutated larvae.

Until you see a hive that is destroyed by mice, moths, beetles or the freezing cold.

In my previous post I’ve fully concentrated on a fatal bee disease: AFB. But, you might have felt it in your gut, this was not a complete story. Unfortunately, there are lots of other things that threat our precious bees. From freezing to death to starving to death to being chewed by pests or being poisoned by pesticides.

In this post I’m concentrating on two Hot Topics: Varroa Destructor and the mysterious effects of pesticides on bees.

Varroa Destructor is a Parasytic Mite Syndrome. At the moment varroa is one of the greatest reasons for hive loss in New Zealand, and it is also the reason why it basically impossible to be an organic beekeeper these days.

Varroa is not a disease,  it is a mite – a pest, a parasite. It’s a little creature that chews on the bees and deforms them.


                                        Mmm yum yum, chew chew, says the happy mite.

                                                The bees die in agony.

This it how it works.

Varroa life cycle

  • The varroa jumps into the brood cell during the larval stage of the bee. It jumps into the brood food. There it waits until the larva matures and stretches out. When ready, it emerges from the food and climbs into the larva by chewing a hole. The larva is bleeding. It establishes a feeding station anywhere inside the larva that suits it, and starts laying eggs.
  • The first egg that hatches is always male, all the following ones are female.
  • They all form their own feeding station and chew away.
  • They eat body fluids, and while chewing they deform the brood.
  • Often the bee simply dies and doesn’t emerge.
  • The more the brood gets chewed the less survival chance. The consequence is less vigour in the hive.
  • When workers chew cap open varroa comes out of the cell and spreads.
  • The length of the varroa life cycle depends on the bee life cycle. Male drones take longest to emerge from their cells (24 days, whereas workers take 21 days and queens only 16). The longer they take to emerge, the longer the mite can chew and live. This is why the mites prefer drones (And this is also a reason for some beekeepers to scrape away drone cells from the hive)

Currently bees are being genetically selected to improve their hygienic behaviour. This would improve their ability to clean out the mite out of their cells, and hopefully will contribute to eradication of the pest.

Yet, before we get to that stage the most common solution for now is suppressing the mite is by a non-organic chemical treatment. Special Varroa strips are often used. Mites that have emerged from cells and start spreading throughout the hive, are the ones we can kill off. And it has proven to be successful.

varroa strips

The treatment we choose depends on the scale and type of our apiaries. There is a lot of discussion between commercial, organic and hobby beekeepers. Some organic beekeepers suppress the mite with organic chemicals like oxalic and thymol. Also, hobby beekeepers with hives on a small scale might choose more natural and labour-intensive ways of dealing with varroa. Some of them have been successful, others haven’t been.


The common treatment

  • There are two different chemical groups for varroa strips
  • You need to keep on changing between chemical groups, otherwise the mites develop resistance against the strips.
  • As soon as you take strips out of the hive, varroa starts winning the battle again. But you can’t leave the strips in continuously either. They should be removed in winter and when you’re going to harvest honey. The chemicals aren’t good for human consumption. (It may sound dubious, but it is fine to feed bees “chemical honey”…..)
  • Mind you:  bees hate the strips. They will move away from them. The queen is likely to not relay her eggs in the area where the strips are. The longer you leave strips in the same place, the more effective the bees get in avoiding them. This is why you need to keep on moving them around inside the hive, every 6 weeks or so.


Breathe again.

It’s not all doom and gloom. For the region where I live, Otago, New Zealand, there is a hopeful prospect. It gets very cold in winter and therefore there is the possibility that not every hive will have brood all year round.  This increases the chances you kill off varroa in winter when you have been treating your hive with chemical strips.

Does this mean we should embrace the use of pesticides in beekeeping practices completely?



There are many other pesticides out there, some of them are frequently used in agricultural practices with beehives. One important group of pesticides is called neonicotinoids. They are used for a wide variety of common seeds: grass seed, rye, maize, squash, sweet corn, pumpkin and brassicas. A lot of people don’t even relate the use of plant pesticides to the welfare of bees. The plants get sprayed for “better” crop yields; and the bees help pollinating the crops. No worries?

This is a pressing topic that urgently needs more attention.

Various articles have been published and speculate about mysterious hive losses. Bees feed from the flowers of these neonicotinoid-sprayed plants: the pesticides work their way up from the seed, through the plant, into the pollen and nectar. In other words: the bees feed on (small doses of) poison. The poison attacks their central nervous system and causes disoriented behaviour.

And there are many other types of pesticides of which the effects on bees haven’t been properly researched yet. They could be highly toxic . They might reduce their immune systems, which makes them more susceptible to external threats and diseases………..

Could this be one of  the reasons why we lose so many hives?

Let me know what your thoughts are, feel free to comment!


Information about pesticides obtained from Organic NZ, March/April 2013 Vol.72 No.2.  The first three photos in this post kindly retrieved from Wikipedia

Which Honey in my Tummy?

Finding a Way Out

Hum dum de dum, hum dum de dum,
I’m so rumbly in my tumbly.
Time to munch an early luncheon,
time for something sweet!

Oh I wouldn’t climb this tree
if a Pooh flew like a bee,
but I wouldn’t be a bear then,
so I guess I wouldn’t care then!

Bears love honey and I’m a Pooh bear,
so I do care, so I’ll climb there.
I’m so rumbly in my tumbly,
                                            time for something sweet!                   (Winnie the Pooh)

Pooh knows whats good. He climbs trees to find his treasures, and then simply sticks his paw in the hive.

As I have shown you in my previous post, us humans do it a bit differently.  After we’ve produced a lot of sweat by extracting our honey, the next question arises: what to do with it now?

Again, there are many options. We can choose to have our honey raw, or process it slightly. We can choose to have it as a runny liquid, or eat it straight off the comb. Did you know you can even have a mix of those two? It’s called Chunk honey. It’s a jar of liquid honey with chunks of comb floating in it….. Yeah, quite strange. I like the idea, but HOW on earth could this be useful? Let the person who knows please contact me!

So, the more likely options.

Raw Honey.

Raw honey is honey in its purest form, unprocessed. On average, it’s chemical composition is as follows:

Glucose – 31.3% /Fructose – 38.2% /Maltose – 7.3% / Sucrose – 1.3% /Higher sugars – 1.5%

This makes a total of 79.6% sugars. The water content is usually about 17.2% and the rest consists of organic acids, minerals and other components. (O, and if you care: its energy value is about 300 calories per 100 gram)

Very nice, raw honey. There is a downside though: it is unstable. The glucose crystallises over time. I’m sure you’ve seen that old jar in the back-corner of the cupboard that hasn’t been touched for years. Instead of looking nice and transparant, it now has white, coarse crystals in it. It’s because the glucose content in most honeys is more than can stay dissolved as a liquid. The result: it slowly starts to form crystals. There’s nothing wrong with it, it just doesn’t look that appetising.

Solution: Cream your honey! You don’t use cream, and you also don’t use icing sugar (a persisting myth due to the light colour of creamed honey)

Creamed honey is also called granulated or crystallised honey. 

Creamed Honey

You pretty much exaggarate the natural crystallising process, and make all your raw honey crystallise to small, smooth and fine crystals instead of big and coarse ones. You don’t need to add any mysterious additives and you don’t need to heat it. The only thing you add is a bit of already existing creamed honey and then stir. You stir slow and evenly, and don’t give up when you grow tired of it, because endurance gives you the best result. Don’t beat the honey – it will ferment!

Introducing a ‘starter honey’slightly resembles the idea of introducing a culture, but instead of a growing culture it is sugar building a chain. The small crystals of the creamed honey you put in your raw honey act as cores on which new crystals will form. Make sure both honeys are nice and warm, but not too warm because that will melt the crystals. By stirring it, the crystals get evenly mixed in and distributed. You need to persist stirring for 2 to 3 weeks; 2 or 3 times a day.

Funnily enough, when its ready to store it needs to be in a cooler temperature for about a week (between 12 and 14 degrees Celcius – a basement would be perfect for this). At this temperature the honey keeps on crystallising as quickly and finely as it possibly can.

Watch out! After this first week your creamed honey is a ready, stable structure and it needs to be stored at room temperature again. If you keep it cool, it starts frosting! It doesn’t actually freeze, but it’s a similar process. Normally the crystals create air pockets and reflect the light, just like ice does. But in this case it will overdo it, which causes it to shrink just like water shrinks when it freezes!

And just like you can keep on melting and refreezing ice, you can also melt and ‘refreeze’ your creamed honey. Just put it in the microwave, and it will become a clear and transparant raw honey again. Stir it again with a bit of creamed honey, and it will crystallise again! The cool thing is you can keep on doing this over and over again – the chemical and nutritional properties stay exactly the same!


This was Part 1 of Which Honey in my Tummy?  Bee-lieve it or not, but there’s more. Stay tuned.