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:

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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.

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