Bees in the time of corona

I usually write a review of the past year and plans for the year ahead in the middle of winter. This year I reviewed 2019 and intended to write about my plans when they were a little better formulated.

Inevitably, with the coronavirus pandemic, any plans would have had to be rapidly changed. It’s now not clear what the year ahead will involve and, with the speed things are moving at, anything I write today 1 may well be redundant by publication time on Friday.

Nothing I write here should be taken as medical advice or possibly even current information. I teach emerging virus infections and have studied RNA viruses (like DWV, coronavirus also has an RNA genome but it is a fundamentally different beast) for 30 years but defer to the experts when hardcore epidemiology is being discussed.

And it’s the epidemiology, and what we’ve learned from the outbreak in Italy, that is determining the way our society is being restructured for the foreseeable future.

Talking the talk

I gave three invited seminars last week. It was good to see old friends and to meet previously online-only contacts. It was odd not to shake hands with people and to watch people seek out the unoccupied corners of the auditorium to maintain their ‘social distancing’.

All of the beekeeping associations I belong to have cancelled or postponed talks for the next few months. Of course, there are usually far fewer talks during the beekeeping season as we’re all too busy with our bees, but those that were planned are now shelved.

Not me …

I expect that forward-thinking associations will be looking at alternative ways to deliver talks for the autumn season. If they’re not, they perhaps should as there’s no certainty that the virus will not have stopped circulating in the population by then.

I already have an invitation to deliver a Skype presentation in mid/late summer (to an association in the USA) and expect that will become increasingly commonplace. Someone more entrepreneurial than me will work out a way to give seminars in which the (often outrageous 2) speaker fee is replaced by a subscription model, ensuring that the audience can watch from the comfort of their armchairs without needing to meet in a group.

There is a positive spin to put on this. My waistline will benefit from not experiencing some of the delicious homemade cakes some beekeeping associations produce to accompany tea after the talk 😉 … I’m dreaming thinking in particular of a fabulous lemon drizzle cake at Fortingall & District BKA 🙂

It will also reduce the travel involved. For everyone. It’s not unusual for me to have a 2-3 hour journey to a venue 3 and, much as I enjoy talking, the questions, the banter and the cake, driving for 2-3 hours back can be a bit wearing.

At risk populations

Everyone is getting older … but beekeepers often have a head start. In the UK the average age of bee farmers is reported to be 66 years old. In my many visits to beekeeping associations I meet a lot of amateur (backyard) beekeepers and suspect that the majority are the wrong side of 50 4.

And that’s significant as Covid-19 is a more serious infection for those over 50.

Infection outcomes are also worse for men, and the majority (perhaps 65%) of beekeepers are men. The rates of infection appear similar, but men – particularly elderly men – often have less good underlying health; they are more likely to smoke and have less effective immune responses.

Enough gloom and doom, what does this mean for beekeeping?

Mentoring

If you took a ‘beginning beekeeping‘ course this winter you may struggle to find a mentor. If you’ve been allocated one (or someone has generously volunteered) think twice about huddling over an open hive with them.

Actually, don’t huddle with them at all … the veil of a beesuit is no barrier to a virus-loaded 5μm aerosol.

Mentoring is one of the most important mechanisms of support for people starting beekeeping.  I benefitted hugely from the experienced beekeepers who generously answered all my (hundreds of) idiotic questions and helped me with frames of eggs when I’d inadvertently ‘lost’ my queen and knocked back all the queen cells.

Without mentoring, learning to keep bees is a lot more difficult. Not impossible, but certainly more challenging. Beekeeping is fundamentally a practical pastime and learning by demonstration is undoubtedly the best way to clear the initial hurdles.

But thousands before have learnt without the benefit of mentoring.

However, if you can wait, I suggest you do.

If you cannot 5, you need to find a way to compensate for the potential absence of experienced help ‘on hand’.

All of us are going to have to learn to communicate more effectively online. Camera phones are now so good that a quick snap (or video) sent via WhatsApp may well be good enough to diagnose a problem.

Get together (virtually!) with other beginners at a similar stage and compare notes. Discuss how colonies are building up, early signs of swarming and when hives are getting heavier.

Bees in the same environment tend to develop at about the same rate. If your (virtual) ‘bee buddy’ lost a swarm yesterday you should check your colonies as soon as possible.

Getting bees

Thousands of nucs, packages and queens are imported to the UK every year. I’ve no idea what will happen to the supply this season. It might be unaffected, but I suspect it will be reduced.

If you’re waiting for an “overwintered nuc” and your supplier claims now not to be able to supply one 6 all is not lost.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

Set out one or two bait hives. With isolation, movement restrictions, curfews and illness 7 it’s more than likely that some nearby colonies will be poorly managed. If you use a bait hive you can attract a swarm with almost no work and save an overworked beekeeper from having to do a cutout from the roofspace of the house the swarm would have otherwise selected.

At the very least, you can have the pleasure of watching scout bees check out the hive in the isolated comfort of your own garden.

Keeping bees

I think the last few days have shown that the future is anything but predictable. Who knows where we’ll be once the swarming season is here. You can practice swarm control with social distancing in your out apiary unless there are movement controls in place.

In that case, you cannot get there in the first place.

Let us hope that it doesn’t come to that.

What you can do is be prepared. Give the bees plenty of space when the first nectar flow starts. Two supers straight away, or three if your knowledge of local conditions suggests two may not be enough.

Clip one of the wings of the queen. This doesn’t stop the bees swarming (almost nothing does) but it does stop you losing the bees. Although I cannot be certain that queen clipping is painless – because I’m not sure that bees feel pain (evidence suggests they don’t) – I do know that clipped queens have as long and as productive lives as unclipped queens.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

Clipped queens buy you a few days grace. The colony tends to swarm when the new virgin queen emerges rather than when the queen cell was capped. That can make all the difference.

The colony swarms but the queen spirals groundwards and usually then climbs back up the hive stand, around which the swarm then clusters. Sometimes the queen returns to the hive, though it doesn’t always end well for her there in the subsequent duel with the virgin now in residence.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Not lost swarm

Honey sales

Selling honey is not without risk of virus transmission, in either direction. When I sell “from the door” it often involves an extended discussion about hay fever, local forage, bumble bees and the weather. All of that can still continue but both parties will have to speak a bit louder to maintain social distancing.

Selling through shops might be easier … if the shops stay open. Farmers markets, village fetes and country fairs (fayres?) are likely to all be cancelled or postponed, at least temporarily.

There’s a neighbourhood initiative here selling high quality local produce, ordered online and collected at a set date and time. Similar things are likely to be developed elsewhere as customers increasingly want to support local producers, to buy quality food and to avoid the panic buying masses fighting over toilet tissue 8 in the supermarkets.

Peter Brookes, Panic Buying, 7-3-20, The Times

An initiative like Neighbourfood might make even more sense if there was a local delivery service to reduce further the need for contact. No doubt these things exist already.

The unknown unknowns

I’ve discussed the unknown knowns previously. These are the things you know will happen during the season, you’re just not quite sure when they’ll happen. Swarming, Varroa management, winter feeding etc.

To add to the uncertainty this year we will have the unknown unknowns … things you didn’t expect and that you might not know anything about. Or have any warning about. Social distancing, quarantine, school closures and potential lockdowns all fall into this category.

Preparing for things that cannot be predicted is always tricky. All we can do is be as resilient and responsible as possible.

My beekeeping season will start in late April or early May. I’m self-sufficient for frames and foundation and can switch entirely to foundationless frames if needed. I have enough boxes, supers, nucs etc 9 to maintain my current colonies.

I’m actually planning to reduce my colony numbers which I’ll achieve by uniting weak colonies or selling off the surplus. With a bit more free time from work (and I’m working very remotely some of the time) I intend to rear some queens when the weather is good. These will be used to requeen a few tetchy colonies for research, though it’s increasingly looking like we’ll lose this field season as the labs are effectively closed.

I’m not dependent on honey sales other than to offset the costs of the hobby. If I cannot buy fondant for autumn feeding I’ll just leave the supers on and let them get on with it.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

Which leaves only the treatments for Varroa management as essential purchases … and if I cannot mail order Apivar then things have got very serious indeed 🙁 10

In the meantime, I’m planning some more science and beekeeping posts for the future. This includes one on a new collaborative study we’re involved in on chronic bee paralysis virus which, like Covid-19, is classed as causing an emerging viral disease.


Colophon

Love in the time of cholera

The title is a rather contrived pun based on the book Love in the time of cholera by the Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez. There are no other similarities between this post and the Nobel laureates work … cholera isn’t even a virus.

Cholera, which has characteristic and rather unpleasant symptoms, might be an excuse to panic buy toilet rolls.

Covid-19, which has equally characteristic and unpleasant (but totally different) symptoms, is not 😉

 

Footnotes

  1. Thursday.
  2. But not in a good way!
  3. Although that’s nothing in comparison to the ‘rock star’ beekeepers like Michael Palmer who regularly fly the Atlantic to talk at meetings here … or used to.
  4. ‘Wrong’ as far as virus infection is concerned. Right in almost every other way … experience, confidence, patience, style and good looks. Well, OK, not necessarily all of those.
  5. And if not, why not?
  6. Hmmm … was it overwintered at all, or was it a box of old bees with an imported queen chucked in shortly before sale? This happens every year. Avoid these sellers like the plague.
  7. I know we don’t have some of these – yet – and I hope everyone stays healthy, but the way we live is changing before our eyes.
  8. Why? Covid-19 is a respiratory infection, not gastrointestinal. It turns out that panic buying is a natural reaction to a loss of psychological control. Which doesn’t make it any less stupid or unsociable.
  9. To start a retail business my wife says!
  10. Though alternatives do exist.

9 thoughts on “Bees in the time of corona

  1. Chris

    Great post. I teach epidemiolgy and it is important to realise that it is not an exact science in the way that physics may be. Predictions are fairly good as they are based upon experience, but at the end of the day the reaction, not the preparation, to epi/pandemics is a bit like the awareness needed when looking after bees – observe, think, decide, take action. Nothing is written in stone.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Chris

      And, being predictive modelling, epidemiology is very dependent of the quality of the inputted data. The range of figures quoted for Ro early in the pandemic had a profound influence on the likely outcome. Now things are a little more certain the restrictions being imposed are – rightly – being ramped up, though it’s still clear that some consider it not serious.

      I’m listening to a discussion of panic buying and wondering if we’ll have rationing … during the war beekeepers got 10 lb of sugar for autumn feeding and a further 5 lb for spring. Some of my bees are pretty frugal but I think they’d struggle on 10 lb of sugar, so it would have a big impact on honey production.

      Let’s hope Neil Ferguson and his colleagues are working with good data and producing accurate models for the next few months. It’s going to be an interesting year.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    2. Duncan

      Chris, Thought you might be interested / amused(?) to know that in the sub-discipline of particle physics, the requirement for a discovery is 5 standard deviations. I suspect it’s different (less?) in epidemiology.

      Reply
  2. Eric France

    As I’ve thought about this season of lower honey sales with closed farmers markets, I’ve decided to focus on increasing my apiary. I’ll spend more time this year in expanding my operations through more aggressive splitting at the cost of lower honey production. Hopefully next year will be open to our social movements and I’ll have more honey to sell through my new hives.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Eric

      Sounds like a plan. Make sure you’ve got sufficient spares of everything needed before there’s any further interruption to the supply chains. Of course, Sod’s law dictates that it will be a catastrophic year for queen mating 🙁 … if it is, at least that means it would also have been a bad year for honey production.

      But … if it’s a good summer for queen mating you’ll be very busy next year 😉

      Good luck
      David

      Reply
  3. Paul Kirk

    David, thank you very much for this article. Your articles are just brilliant, clear, informative, evidence based, scientific, thought provoking and helpful – so welcome in modern times when we have been told (without mentioning the BREXIT word (oops) to ignore experts. What a life it has turned out to be. There is an interesting TED talk on youtube by Bill Gates, who talks about the ebola outbreak and how it’s a wake up call. Talk date? 2015.

    It’s nice to keep and observe bees, their behaviours are probably well adjusted for the long term, whereas there is another species which cannot exist sustainalby, sorry no prize for knowing the answer. Behaviour change – probably the most difficult challenge.
    Paul

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thank you Paul

      Fortunately (or is it unfortunately?) pandemics seem to appear a generation or two apart. Consequently we forget the devastating impact they have on societies. The 1918 ‘Spanish’ ‘flu killed ~50 million, smallpox (which wasn’t a re/emerging virus, it had been around a long time) killed 200 million in the 20th Century, HIV killed about 32 million in the four decades since 1980 and now we have Covid-19. The figures are sobering now, but they’ll be very much worse before we’re over this. In the West we’re worried about our health services collapsing … spare a thought for the countries which have no established health care systems. The tiny number of cases many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have reported simply indicates that they’re not testing … not that the virus isn’t circulating widely.

      I always hated the Windows OS but I’m delighted Gates sold so many copies … The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation continue to make an incredible contribution to global healthcare and to improving the quality of life of people across the globe.

      I’m not sure Covid-19 reflects us not living sustainably. Humans have always exploited animals for food, and that’s what probably happened here. Ebola, SARS, HIV-1 and -2 (and many others) all jumped species in pretty much the same way. What we need is a better awareness of the risks involved and (the data and) a willingness to act very promptly should transmission occur … neither happened in the case of Covid-19.

      Let’s see what new measures the government has to introduce to ‘encourage’ the necessary behavioural change … if it doesn’t happen, we’ve got a problem.

      And on that happy note 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. James Fischer

    Clipping queens is a barbaric practice that often prompts supercedure, and does nothing but delay an invevitable swarm. The smart money is on swarm traps, placed at 100, 300, and 500 feet from the apiary, constructed per the specs in the classic work by Tom Seeley/Roger Morse “Bait Hives For Honey Bees” https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/2653/2/Bait%20Hives%20for%20Honey%20Bees.pdf

    In the City, we expected ever-more-draconian lockdowns, so I supered up all my hives, made one early split into a generous 3-mediums brood chamber with 50% drawn comb, and wished the bees the best of luck before fleeing the City for our place on the west side of the Hudson River. In speaking with doormen and maintenance men for the buildings my bees are atop, they reported normal entrance activity on the few warm days we have had, including one sunny day of nearly 70 F (21 C). I may not get a first harvest, or, for that matter, a 2nd harvest. But the bees will have plenty of stores to make it through the dearth, and as all the queens were newly-introduced last fall, my odds of swarms are minuscule.

    But I still deployed 8 swarm traps among 5 rooftops with a total of 26 hives. Woodenware in storage is of no use to a beekeeper, so might as well put everything out, and see what happens.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi James

      Apologies, only just catching up with a backlog of stuff. You won’t be surprised to know that I don’t agree that clipping queens is barbaric. Unless you’re using barbaric to mean unsophisticated … which it might be. I think there’s reasonable evidence that bees do not feel pain and my clipped queens don’t appear to be superceded any more frequently than those not clipped. I know that Micheál Mac Giolla Coda (Galtee Bee Breeding Group) stated that clipped queens selected for long-lived queens eventually replaced by supercedure. Again, this isn’t my experience, but he had a lot more queens than I have.

      I’ve discussed bait hives extensively here and also recommended the publications by Thomas Seeley. All except the locating them at a height bit. I think the convenience and safety of having them at knee level outweighs the potential advantage of being a more attractive altitude. I keep bees in a semi-rural location and never fail to get bees into my bait hives. Perhaps there are fewer natural nest sites around?

      As you suggest, too early to know what the season will bring but it’s certainly going to be unconventional. Our beekeeping season doesn’t start for at least another 3 weeks and I’m expecting to have a manically busy couple of days preparing them for who knows what. Perhaps the rest of the year.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *