Arran bees chosen for research project
Honey bees on Arran are thriving thanks to the work during the last four years by the Arran Bee Group. Now the island has been chosen to carry out a national piece of research into honey bees and the fight against Varroa. Here Elanor McNamara explains:
In 2013 the Arran Trust made a substantial grant of £2,000 to the Arran Bee Group to enabled us to subsidise the buying of 11 nuclei - baby colonies - of honey bees.
The bees were sourced from Dumfries, and are Scottish black bee hybrids. Scottish black bees might not be always as prolific in the honey department as the Italian bees popular over the border, but they get out of bed earlier, and are better able to forage during border line conditions, which is quite often what they get here - bees not liking damp.
Four years, some ups and downs and a few hundred jars of honey later, our bees have blossomed. There are now 57 colonies of honey bees on Arran, and one on Holy Island, busy gathering pollen and nectar from a huge variety of plants, and pollinating them in the process. I have certainly noticed an increase in my yields of pears, apples and soft fruits and I hope you are feeling the benefits, too. Honey bees are essential to life on earth in their capacity as pollinators, and this is why many of us keep bees.
It’s been a learning curve for many of us in the Arran Bee Group since many of us were new to beekeeping. But the experienced members, and members who quickly gained experience, have been working hard, travelling all over the island to support any beekeeper who needed help.
The beekeeper’s year is divided firmly into two: the winter is a waiting game. You don’t open hives in the winter for fear of chilling or disturbing the cluster of bees huddled very much like penguins in a rugby ball shape deep in the hive. You give them a bit of bakers candy to keep them go- ing, and cross your fingers.
When the bees wake up in early spring the fun begins. Spring and summer are spent by the beekeeper trying to make sure that the bees don’t swarm making sure the bees have room, performing artificial swarms where necessary, and other tricks to discourage the bees from heading off for pastures new. All being well there might be a small surplus of golden treasure at the end of the summer to make it all feel worthwhile.
Bees feel swarmy when they are strong - it’s the bees’ way of having a baby. While beekeepers like their colonies strong, they don’t like their bees flying away. Especially so now that varroa destructor has colonised Scotland. Varroa is the major threat to honey bees at the moment. They are parasitical mites that breed in the cells of developing bees. They are physically damaging to bees since they latch on behind the head, and they carry fatal viruses.
Varroa were a native pest to the Asian honey bee, but jumped ship when European honeybee keeping spread east. European honey bees are less able to cope with varroa and untreated infestation is fatal.
There are several chemical and mechanical ways to treat varroa, and bee scientists are looking for improved treatments all the time. In this regard Arran Bee Group has been selected for a national piece of research.
Graeme Sharp is our local expert. He works from the agricultural college at Auchincruive where he has a huge apiary and teaches beekeeping. He has been over several times to run training courses for us, and when he heard of this latest research project he suggested Arran Bee Group as a well-coordinated group. Obviously Arran is great as a study area since it has such clear boundaries.
Honeybees can only range three miles from their hive meaning it is unlikely that a swarm could arrive here on their own.
Arran Bee Group collectively agreed to participate and last week Fiona Highet, of SASA (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture), was here with St Andrews and Aberdeen universities PHD student Luke Woodford to explain their project and take a small sample of bees from all 57 hives. They are looking at our varroa burden and also the virus burden carried by the mites. They are also taking over charge of our varroa treatment programme. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to aid in the war against varroa, and to end up with the healthiest possible bees ourselves.
It is more important than ever that nobody brings bees to Arran. Doing so could skew the results of this research, and give all our bees a setback. If you would like to start beekeeping you would be made very welcome at any of our meetings, usually the third Thursday in the month at the Ranger Centre at the castle at 7pm. We have club hives which exist to supply colonies to those who need so we can probably supply you with bees more cheaply than importing them. Additionally they will be locally adapted bees, best prepared for our dubious climate.
One other issue of importance is in identifying any wild colonies on the island, which are a nuisance to householders as well as being a reservoir of infection and disease. We would be grateful to hear from anyone who knows the location of any wild colonies either in properties or elsewhere. Please contact either Margo, on 302393 or Robert on 830302.
Our next meeting is Thursday September 21 at 7pm at the Ranger Centre, where Luke will talk in more depth about the science behind his research. All are welcome.
Pictured left to right at one of the club apiaries at the Arran Community Land Initiative are: Fiona Highet, SASA, St Andrews and Aberdeen universities PhD student Luke Woodford and bee expert Graeme Sharp.