Insect ID Workshop

Can you spot anything wrong with the book cover shown below? (The answer is below the picture.)

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Yes, the insect in question is a fly, not a bee.

In a similar vein, Guardian article about bees published last month was accompanied by a photo of a hoverfly, an error which they later corrected:

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Stave Hill Ecological Park, which organises many fantastic events for nature-lovers, recently organised a free Insect ID Workshop – a fun way to learn about insects and avoid embarrassing errors like the ones above.

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LSE Bees was represented by yours truly (Sroyon), and former president Amelia Sharman.

The workshop began with an introduction to the ecological park by site manager Rebeka Clark. Grant Smith and Dawn Scarfe of soundCamp played recordings of insect calls and gave tips on how to identify crickets and grasshoppers by sound. The field workshop was led by entomologist Mike Fray. We walked around the beautiful park, capturing insects in specimen jars which Mike then expertly identified (and then of course, we promptly released them back into the wild).

Mike taught us to recognise honeybees, bumblebees, wasps and various other insects including, most interestingly, hoverflies which mimic bees and wasps to deter predators. In our specimen jars we captured and inspected dozens of species of insects including red-tailed bumblebees, mining bees (which nest in underground burrows), leafcutter bees (which are solitary, not social like honeybees), Myathropa florea (a wasp mimic), bush-crickets, grasshoppers, ladybirds and crab spiders (which can change colour for camouflage).

The workshop ended with a BYOF picnic lunch in the park shed.

Meanwhile closer home, hive visits are continuing as usual. The nuc box, now headed by a queen imported from Slovenia, is doing well. We have added an extra tier to the cedar hive (the hive is a natural cedar hue but new tier is white, so the hive now sports a variegated look). Our rooftop garden has suffered a bit in the dry spell, so we watered it well, did a spot of pruning and used some dead lavender for our smoker (best smelling smoke ever!) Lastly and most excitingly, we are preparing for harvesting this summer’s honey this Wednesday (August 24), so we hope to see many of you on the Connaught House roof!

Two Birds with One Stone

Having shared news of an unsuccessful project, we now bring you happier tidings about a successful experiment.

Earlier this summer, we faced two problems. One of our hives – the cedar hive – was looking weak, with much less activity than we like to see. On the other hand, another hive – the painted hive – was hyperactive, overcrowded and showing signs of swarming. But strange as it may sound, sometimes two problems can be better than one.

The solution (which may have struck you already) was to transfer some frames from the painted hive to the cedar hive. But it is not quite so simple as that. If bees from one hive are summarily transferred to another, the two clans will fight each other, resulting in mass fatalities. Luckily, there is a clever way to prevent this.

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Step 1: Patiently rummage through the Connaught House recycling bins and find some large sheets of thin paper.

Step 2: Make pinpricks in the paper to allow the bees to breathe.

Step 3: Install the paper as a barrier to separate the two clans of bees. By the time the bees chew through the paper, they will become familiar with each others’ scent and no longer predisposed to kill each other.

One week later, we came back to find that everything had gone according to plan. The bees had chewed through the paper and were getting on like a house on fire.

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So the cedar hive has now been reinvigorated with the influx of hard-working, motivated painted-hive bees. And the painted hive, no longer plagued by overcrowding, has settled down and hopefully will not swarm this summer.

We end this post with a video that has nothing whatsoever to do with bees, but is relevant to the title of this post: Ken Cheng hilariously deconstructing the phrase ‘to kill two birds with one stone’.

A Greek Tragedy

Beekeeping is not all honey and roses. This summer we had a stark reminder of how, despite our best efforts, a project can go inexplicably wrong.

The project in question was the creation of a new ‘nuc‘ or nucleus colony – a small ‘starter colony’ consisting of a queen and some worker bees. The idea was that once the nuc was functional and healthy, we would use it to populate a spare hive in Passfield Hall.

The nuc was to be housed in a nuc box – the small box in between the white hive and the cedar hive (pictured below).

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The nuc queen was imported from Greece and she arrived – believe it or not – by post! She came in a ‘queen introduction cage’ (pictured below). The cage has a plug of sugar candy, which takes the bees a few days to eat through. This delays the release of the queen into the new colony, giving the other bees enough time to get used to her scent and reducing the likelihood that the bees will attack and kill the alien queen.

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Of course a queen needs subjects, and to that end we took a couple of healthy frames from the white hive and placed them in the nuc box. And then, with our fingers firmly crossed, we walked away.

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We came back a week later to check on the nuc, but the inspection was inconclusive. The nuc seemed active, but we could not see any eggs. The week after, the nuc box was abandoned.

With many bee-related calamities, the causes are unknown, and so it was with the failure of our nuc. Having a fraction of the workforce of a regular colony, nucs are extremely vulnerable. Ours may have been enfeebled by the unseasonable rain in the week after we set it up. Luke, our professional beekeeper, said some of the other Greek queens from the same batch had also not assimilated well, and a strong queen bee is crucial for the health of a hive. Whatever the causes, we have to move on and recommence our efforts to breed a new nuc.


A personal note from Sroyon, the author of this blogpost
The events described here actually unfolded back in April. I dragged my feet over writing about it because reporting more pleasant news is so much easier. This was my first time building a nuc; like the rest of us, I had high hopes for it, and I was really quite sorry to lose it. But eventually I got down to writing this post, in the interests of documenting not just our successes but also our failures.

Free beekeeping course

LSE Beekeepers get hands-on experience on our weekly hive visits. But if you’re interested in building up your theoretical knowledge, Ohio State University has created a new, free online beekeeping course and is looking for beta testers. The course has 138 (!) segments covering topics such as swarming, queen rearing and Varroa mites. Go check it out and… bee educated!

Two Recent Outreach Events

Introducing people to the amazing world of beekeeping is almost as much fun as beekeeping itself, so we’re always grateful for an opportunity to tell people more about what we do.

Grosvenor House, one of the LSE halls of residence, gave us such an opportunity recently. But at last month’s LSE Celebration of Sustainability 2016, we even had our beekeeping paraphernalia on display! (For more photos from the event, check out Sustainable LSE’s Facebook album.)

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And yesterday we set up shop at the LSE Library’s Speed Updating event. The event is loosely based on the concept of speed dating: library staff went round the room in groups, spending 10 minutes at each table learning about different projects such as Green Impact, recycling, and of course, beekeeping!

We tried to make the 10-minute sessions interactive and fun. Here is Dan in full beekeeping regalia, asking unwary staff members to guess what different items (like the smoker or the fondant pack) are used for.

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How to Decrystallise your LSE Honey

The weather’s getting warmer, so if your LSE Honey crystallised during winter (like ours did), now is a good time to decrystallise it.

If you’re one of those people who don’t have the patience to read long blogposts, here are the short answers to the two main things you might want to know:

Q1: How can I decrystallise my LSE Honey?
A: Immerse the jar in hot water for 30 minutes.
Q2: Will this ruin the nice label on the jar?
A: No.

If you want to know more (and see photos), read on…

What is crystallisation?

Crystallisation is a natural phenomenon whereby honey turns from a liquid, runny state to a semi-solid, granulated state. Crystallised honey looks cloudy, not clear and golden like uncrystallised honey.

That’s what’s happened to my honey! Can I still eat it?

Yes! Properly stored, honey has an almost infinite shelf life. Honey found in ancient Egyptian tombs is believed to still be edible. Crystallised honey is totally safe to eat. But if you prefer, you can decrystallise it in a few simple steps (described below) and it will be as good as new.

Why did it crystallise in the first place? Is LSE Honey of inferior quality?

Quite the opposite! Honey is a supersaturated solution, which means the water in honey contains way more sugar than it can naturally dissolve. That’s why most pure raw or unheated honey has a natural tendency to crystallise over time. In fact, if it didn’t crystallise, that might suggest it’s adulterated or diluted.

Honey has two main types of sugar: fructose and glucose. Their ratio determines how quickly the honey crystallises. Glucose is less soluble than fructose, so honey which has a high glucose-fructose ratio (like brassica honey) crystallises almost immediately after harvesting. On the other hand, chestnut or acacia honey have a low glucose percentage, so they crystallise very slowly or not at all.

Er, that’s enough chemistry, just tell me how to decrystallise it!

  1. Boil some water in a pan (enough to cover the jar up to the neck).
  2. When it starts to boil, take the pan off the heat and immerse your honey jar in the hot water.
  3. After 15 minutes, take out the jar, stir the honey to ensure even heating and put it back in the hot water.
  4. After another 15 minutes, the honey should be decrystallised and runny once again.

How do I know it will work? And won’t putting the jar in hot water ruin the nice LSE Honey label?

To set your doubts at rest (and because we have too much time on our hands) we tried it out and documented the process!

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Crystallised, cloudy-looking honey

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Crystallised honey on a teaspoon

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Immersed in hot water for decrystallisation

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30 minutes later… voilà! As you can see, the label is intact.

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Delicious, golden, flowing honey

Nice. But will it crystallise again?

The optimum temperature for storing honey is 21–27°C. Crystal formation increases at lower temperatures, so your honey may recrystallise when the weather gets colder later in the year. But you can always decrystallise it again in the same way. It may not be a good idea to do this more than four or five times though, because honey which has been decrystallised too often starts to lose some of its aroma.