Off Piste - Hive talking

Can useful parallels be drawn between apiculture and running a university? Ruth Farwell does both and isn’t sure, but one thing’s for certain: in both pursuits, losing your cool can sting

July 26, 2012

Times Higher Education was accused recently of having a “bee in its bonnet” about private providers. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I can sympathise if it has. I haven’t exactly had a bee in my bonnet, but I’ve had several under the veil of my beekeeper’s suit - and it wasn’t pleasant.

Let me wind back to where it all started when I was a very green beekeeper, having acquired my first “nuc” (“nucleus” or starter colony) two years ago. I won’t say I was a novice at the time because that might imply that I am now an expert. This is far from the case and I suspect that I will remain a novice for as long as I keep bees. In apiculture there is always something to learn (indeed, there is a strong case for lifelong learning and continuing professional development for beekeepers).

With the best of intentions, other beekeepers seem to specialise in confusing you. There are as many approaches to beekeeping as there are beekeepers. I want to learn but sometimes dread going to meetings of my local beekeepers’ association for fear that I’m going to hear contradictory advice about something I thought I had already got to grips with. Beekeepers generally are well-meaning people, but get a group of them in the same room and it is rather like attending a university senate meeting.

Then there are the weather conditions. No two years have the same pattern and that affects what bees can do and when.

All in all, beekeeping is a continual process of discovery and of rethinking your approach.

I t is no bad thing if your hobby reminds you of the importance of flexibility and adaptability. A person working in a university who is set in their ways probably shouldn’t be there. But I don’t know to what extent there are analogies between beekeeping and leading a university. When I was awarded an honorary degree by my alma mater, the University of Kent, the citation by Simon Thompson, professor of logic and computation at Kent, picked up on my being a novice apiarist and reflected on the question: “What better model of a university than a beehive?” There is the queen bee and under her benign charge, the workers who raise the next generation by nourishing them. The bees also make forays into the outside world in order to gather nectar and pollen to keep the colony flourishing. Then there are the drones - which perhaps is where the analogy should stop.

Bee colonies are complex, fascinating communities. Much research has been done on bee behaviour, how their communities operate, how members effectively communicate with one another and how the community replenishes itself. To get started as a beekeeper, you need to understand the basics of this in order to keep your colony going.

When the colony is active (generally between March and October, although it depends on the weather), regular inspections of the hive are necessary. Inspecting a hive is invasive and there is a school of thought that says that to be truly “environmental”, you shouldn’t keep bees like this. I, however, firmly believe that it is the bees that are controlling me rather than the other way round.

In a hive there are several “rooms”; at its most basic, a hive is a brood box consisting of around 11 wooden frames containing sheets of wax foundation out of which the bees build comb in a regular way. Inside the comb, the bees store food (honey) and rear their young. The queen lays eggs in the cells of the comb, which turn into larvae. When each larva is eight or nine days old, the cell containing them is capped with wax by the bees, a cap which remains there for 13 days until a fully formed bee emerges.

In a fully up-and-running hive, all of the cells of the comb are full of food, eggs and brood. When this happens, the beekeeper gradually adds wooden boxes called “supers” to the top of the brood box. Supers are shallower than broods but they also contain frames. The queen is kept out of the supers with a mesh net so that the cells built on the wax sheets contain only honey. This is the beekeeper’s prize, and the honey will be extracted from the super frames during the summer or at the end of that season.

Yes, before you ask, I have produced honey, but at my current rate of production and given the investment in the equipment, at this stage each jar has cost me in the region of £30 to produce. Still, the returns will improve, I keep telling myself - and the honey is, of course, the best ever.

Inspecting a colony involves making sure that it has a laying queen and enough food stored to keep going. You carefully remove each frame (which in a thriving colony is absolutely covered in bees) and look for the queen. There should be only one in the colony and she is quite distinctive. However, often she is quite elusive, too, so what you are really looking for is evidence that she is healthy: sure signs of this are eggs and brood at different stages of development. All of that sounds fine until you realise that a thriving colony at the height of summer contains about 50,000 - yes, 50,000 - bees. Opening up a hive is not for the faint-hearted.

At particular times of the year, the inspection also involves looking for signs that the bees want to swarm. Queens are made, not born: a queen is developed from a standard egg but is fed a special diet for longer than those that eventually hatch into workers, and bees sometimes build special cells to start the development of a new one. Workers will do so for all sorts of reasons: the existing queen is getting old and past her best, or is not very productive, or just because they have got itchy feet. Beekeepers have to watch for this final reason because if a colony develops another queen, the old one will take off in a swarm with about half of the workers and disappear. Unless you can capture the swarm, you lose half your colony in one hit.

It is also said that a “swarmy” colony remains swarmy, so, if it swarms once, it will probably do so again. Before long your colony would be totally depleted.

When you spot queen cells being produced, it is time to take action to prevent swarming. Destroying the cells isn’t enough: there is an elaborate process you can go through to kid the bees into thinking that they have swarmed, which involves dividing the colony in two. A by-product of this is the wherewithal to make a new colony and that is an important part of beekeeping.

It is not just the colony that has an interest in making sure the queen is productive. The beekeeper also needs to be aware that from time to time she may need replacing, and developing a new one from the ranks of the existing colony is certainly cheaper than bringing in new blood.

If the colony is left to its own devices with no intervention from the beekeeper, it may end up with more than one queen, or at least a queen and several near-queens still in their cells. Under these circumstances, a new one will “pipe” and the others in the cells will respond by piping back, helping her to locate her potential rivals by following the sound. She seeks them out and stabs them with her sting (in the back, perhaps).

Sometimes new blood is necessary if the colony traits are not the most desirable. Domesticated bees have been selected for their gentle behaviour: nonetheless, it is possible to end up with a very aggressive colony - you don’t even have to open up the hive before the bees accost you in the garden. If your colony is continually aggressive, beekeeping wisdom suggests that you change the queen and hopefully introduce gentler stock. However, I have heard it said that the stroppier the bee, the better the honey, at least in terms of quantity.

This is not the only problem beekeepers face, of course. Apiculturists in the UK are anxiously watching the skies at the moment for a particular type of hornet.

In 2005, Vespa velutina nigrithorax, an invasive, predatory species, arrived in southwest France (it is thought to have been imported in a consignment of pottery from China). It quickly became established and spread rapidly to many areas of the country, where it is causing big problems for beekeepers (killing bees) and biodiversity. It may be only a matter of time before it invades the UK.

One thing I have become better at over the two years in which I have kept bees is knowing how to handle them. When inspecting the hive, it’s much better to be calm and not subject it to sudden shocks. Slow, smooth handling of the frames during inspections is preferable. If you do that, then I fancy that the bees respect you and allow you to get on with the job without crowds of them buzzing around your visor.

To finish where I started: how did I end up with bees under the veil of my suit? Well, it was my own fault, really. As a newcomer to beekeeping, having inspected the hive, I was so interested in seeing what the bees were doing that I returned and stood relatively close to them rather than just letting them get back to their own routine. In those days I did not have an integrated visor in my all-in-one suit, but rather a floppy veil. The bees landed on the veil, I tried to brush them off and the rest is history.

What is amazing is the reaction that a sting to the face causes. The pain does not last long, but you then have to suffer the indignity of a massively swollen face - and I am not exaggerating when I say “massively”.

The swelling typically lasts for two to three days (with me at any rate). I remember very vividly coming into the university with several stings on my right cheek that had made one side of my face swell up to about twice its size, left my lips lopsided and virtually closed one eye because my face was so puffy. It’s a salutary experience. I felt obliged to tell everyone I met how this had happened. One well-meaning member of the maintenance team told me that I was brave coming into work looking as I did because most people would have stayed at home.

I took this as a backhanded compliment.

So all in all, I am not at all sure whether there really are any parallels to be drawn between beekeeping and leading a university. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. But bees in bonnets are fine as long as you don’t get hysterical about it. It is only when you lose your cool and try to bat them away that they become very likely to sting you.

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