Looking at very small things.

Life can be a series of triggers, moments that trigger us into doing something we might not otherwise have done.

Honey Bees are quite small and I need help to see them close up when examining a colony. I can just about spot bee eggs without reading glasses, but to look at anything smaller, or to look at the bee in more detail some form of magnification is needed.

This summer some young bees flew out of a hive I was inspecting and settled onto some leaves at the hive entrance and there they stayed. I helped some back to the hive entrance, but they were very lethargic and I wondered what might be wrong with them. There was no visible sign of parasitic mite syndrome so I thought it might be tracheal mite. To check for tracheal mite needs the use of a  something that can magnify up to 40x.

I have no previous experience of using a microscope, but how difficult can it be? I went off to see Roge who has a pair of microscopes to have a quick lesson in looking for tracheal mite. If you have any interest in using microscopes for investigating honey bee related things then two are needed; a dissecting and a compound microscope. The first is around 40x and the latter up to 1000x. The compound scope is for looking at anything from nosema and foulbrood to pollen.

To have a look for tracheal mite you have to look at the tracheal tubes in the bee. This means killing the bee, taking its head off and then carefully exposing the tubes. If they are clear then there is no tracheal mite. If the tubes are grey/black then there is a strong possibility of tracheal mite. My bees were all clear.

As the summer progressed I started to harvest honey and became interested in what the bees had been collecting nectar from. There are times when there is a nectar flow and there can be a strong smell of the flower that the bees have been feeding on; oil seed rape, heather, ivy are very distinct and ones that I experienced this year very clearly. With heather and ivy I wasn’t sure to start with what they smell like, but with ivy I could easily go and smell the ivy flower to be sure that that was what the bees were feeding on. With heather I hadn’t really got a memory of what it smelled but when I extracted this late honey I became strongly acquainted with it. Learning and remembering what these flowers smell like is greatly helped when there is the context of the nectar and the honey that is made by the bees.

These were great learning experiences, but I wondered about the honey in particular and the distinct smell that the pollen gives off, so there must be pollen in the honey, but how can a honey be attributed to just one flower? With heather it is quite possible that it is the only flower that is excreting nectar, but the bees forage on so many flowers. I wanted to have look at the honey in more detail and in particular the pollen grains that must be in the honey.

The National Beekeeping Diploma runs a course on Microscopy and Dissection and they are run by two renowned beekeepers father and son Ken and Dan Basterfield at their Honey Farm Visitor Centre near Honiton. Two days of learning about microscopy with the chance to chat to fellow beekeepers and the Basterfields during the breaks.

The course was held in late October 2014, there were nine of us on the course all beekeepers, some with vast experience, one bee inspector and one student. The breaks and the lunch all prepared by Maureen Basterfield were wonderful and always overran as did the two days. A course? More like the perfect holiday 😉

A good mix of theory and practical, ‘I don’t do maths’ doesn’t fit with microscopy nor does ‘I don’t do physics, chemistry or biology’. Nor really to beekeeping if you want to anything worthwhile . This was a reminder of maths and physics O level, probably more like A level in today’s curriculum, but don’t worry you don’t really need to know the maths but to remember the outcomes.

Lunchtimes were a time for various stories as well as in the classroom, with Ken telling about the time that he was on a course with Rex Sawyer the author of Pollen Identification for Beekeepers and Honey Identification. Both comprehensive volumes are useful today as they were when Rex compiled them. Ken informed us that Rex was the most quiet of men, sitting hunched up at a desk or microscope and the the tutor would every now and then go over to Rex to ask what they should do next. Of course why would Rex be anything other than someone totally dedicated to pollen. Ken explained to us that Rex was often brought in as an expert witness in cases of honey contamination which Ken seemed to intimate were more prevalent years ago than now. Although there is the strange situation of there being three times as much Manuka honey on sale than is produced.

As we started to look at pollen taken from honey under the microscope we quickly realise how very difficult it is to prove that honey has been adulterated. We looked at Mallow pollen straight from the flowers growing in the garden and heather pollen centrifuged from heather honey as both of these are quite easy to identify. There are some that are from the same family for example the rose which includes hawthorn and apple where the pollen grains look identical. Interesting to know that Rex used the hazel pollen as a standard from which to measure all other pollen grains.

To create a slide with pollen from a flower we used stained petroleum jelly cut into small cubes. With one cube on a pin we placed this onto the anther of the flower to pick up some pollen. This was placed on a glass slide and then a cover slip placed on top. It was then placed onto a heating plate for about a minute. The jelly melts and moves across the plate. To seal the slide paint nail varnish remover around the edges of the cover slip. Slide under the compound microscope to look at the pollen.

Of the other beekeepers on the course there was a bee inspector who also worked as a Farrier, a Bulgarian who has lived in the UK for 20 years and a lady who taught beekeeping to children in a private school. When I asked if the children had their own bees, I realised that they were boarders.

The Bulgarian beekeeper’s parents kept bees at over 4500m in Bulgaria, he explained that the active season is only six months, the bees grow their colonies at a phenomenal rate. When he imported a couple of queens expecting them to do well, they did so well that he had had three swarms by the end of April and so decided to go back to Buckfast queens. He had also attended a course on queen insemination in the US and intended inseminating his own queens. His method is to import German Buckfast queens let them breed one generation before renewing them.

A thoroughly enjoyable two days!

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