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 . (http://oregan.co.nz)

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

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Defecating Insects Make Angry Neighbours!

bee-poop

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

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

Bee-poop photo from http://spudlust.wordpress.com/

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.

nuc

A nuc before entering a bigger hive box (photo from www.littlehouseonthebighill.com)

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?

Black_sheep_on_paddock_with_Lake_Rotorua_in_the_background

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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. 

sting

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!

sting2

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…

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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.

 

hive

  • 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:  www.rentahive.co.nz
  • 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.

Warning2Pesticides

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!

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Information based on The National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand,  http://nba.org.nz;  Fairfax News NZ,  http://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/8524553/Plan-Bee-citys-sweet-ambition; 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.

Bee Ethics: The Battle Continues

battle3

 

In my previous post I have started a heated fictional discussion between a beekeeper and a vegan/animal right activist.

Find out what happens next…

 

battle continues

Vegan/animal right activist: Do you consider how disturbing your actions must be to the bees? There are studies out there that have shown us a new perspective about insects and pain. Some insects avoid negative stimuli, which is an indication that they are sentient. They are living organisms, after all! No human interference, means no more stressing and crushing bees!

Beekeeper: Crushing bees is unavoidable, indeed. But colonies are amazingly resilient, and can expand very quickly. A loss of a few individuals won’t be a big deal to the hive as a totality. Bees have good hygienic behaviour and are very industrious: they clean up the mess and carry on.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify the stress you cause when you transport hives from one location to another? They might suffocate on the way!

Beekeeper: We aim to do this under the best conditions as possible. We strap the hive tightly together so it doesn’t fall to pieces on the way. We make sure it is not too hot or too cold. We take them on the back of a ute, so that the hive stays well ventilated and the bees can breathe. We won’t visit friends on the way, and we even avoid taking a break at the petrol station: we go straight for our destination to get the bees grounded as soon as possible.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify using nasty chemicals in the hive for pesticide treatment?

Beekeeper: First of all I would like to emphasise that in New Zealand it is forbidden by law to use drugs for curing bee-diseases. However, we are allowed to use chemicals for pesticide treatment and especially right now it is absolutely necessary. At the moment the biggest enemy of the bee is the Varroa mite. This is such a dangerous enemy; there are simply no effective organic alternatives.  If we want bees to survive Varroa, the only way we can effectively help them is with chemical strips. The bees won’t enjoy it, but in the right dose this chemical doesn’t hurt them. In fact, it saves their life.

Vegan/animal right activist: How do you justify the artificial feeding regime you put them under?

Beekeeper: we feed bees a sugar syrup. This is a mix of water and sugar. Organic beekeepers feed them honey, but for most beekeepers this option is too expensive. Yes, it is artificial, but we simply do it to support the bees when they can’t find enough food themselves. Especially in winter, when food sources are scarce.

Vegan/animal right activist: Bees are very good in sourcing their own food. They can fly up to 5km. If you didn’t steal their honey they wouldn’t need artificial feeding!

Beekeeper: This is not true for new, beginning hives. They are often very weak and need the additional support. In nature, these hives would have a great struggle for survival. We simply make live a bit easier for them. And we don’t take honey from these weak hives. We acknowledge that they need all their honey to survive winter.

Vegan/animal right activist: Still, don’t you think you overwork your hives? By putting on all these extra stores boxes, the  industrious bees exhaust themselves in trying to fill everything up with honey. Only so that you can take it away from them! What makes you think that we humans deserve the sweet gold product of their hard labour? Give them a break, leave them alone.

Beekeeper: It’s not as if we take and don’t give anything back. As I’ve said before, we always make sure that they get enough food and that the hive is balanced and healthy.

Vegan/animal right activist: I still don’t think that this outweighs the negative effects. Remember how important the survival of bees is to the world: they pollinate about 90% of our crops!  You breed, buy and sell them: how could you not call that exploitation?

Beekeeper: Indeed, pollination through bees is very important. And that’s exactly why it’s so important that we keep bees and encourage bee populations to thrive. We look after them and encourage even more people to start keeping bees!

……

You see, it’s quite a tricky debate and both parties are very sure about their position. Too often they find ways around each other’s argument and keep their opinions firmly. And this is not even nearly a picture of a complete discussion…

What do you think? Let me know!

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I have derived the vegan arguments in my ‘fictional debate’ from the Vegan Society and Animal Right Activist websites.