A post from Sarah, about honey bees.
Today, me and Ronnie spent the afternoon at The Bluecoat at a ‘show and tell’ event organised by Mr Seel’s Garden about the project they’ve been doing looking at how food has been grown in Liverpool in the past, and how that could inspire current communities in Liverpool who grow food. Ronnie’s written about the event here.
One of the people I met today was a beekeeper, Andrew Hubbard, who has hives across Liverpool and sells his delightful ‘postcode honey’, with the jars beautifully labelled with L25, or L8, depending where the hives are located.
If you look at different jars of honey, you will see that the honey from different places are different colours, especially the L25 honey. That’s because honey varies depending on the different flowers that bees feed on, because pollen colour varies. On Andrew’s table was a small guide to the colour of pollen. A little brochure with squares of colour indicating what flowers produced the different colours. You thought pollen was all the same colour right? Sort of yellow. Well, a lot of it is yellow, or orange, but it can vary tremendously and even be red, green or blue.
This is how I found out this fascinating fact.
Ronnie has always been a good one for interesting birthday presents for me. In September 2007 he presented me with a place at night school to study for my RHS Horticulture certificate. The following year it was a beekeeping course. As bees aren’t very active in the autumn and winter, the next course is in March 2009. In Gloucstershire, at Hartpury College. (The website doesn’t list beekeeping courses there any more).
As it happens we had visited Hartpury before, the churchyard in the village is home to the famous ‘Hartpury bee shelter‘. So I went and had another look at this extremely unusual piece of Victorian stone carving.
Yes, a bee shelter. A carved stone ‘building’ made to hold straw ‘skeps’ (which you see in the lower shelf), which were a traditional way of keeping bees, before hives were developed. Nearly demolished in the 1960s, it was saved and now is thoroughly restored. The only one of its kind.
Anyway, I digress. Back at Hartpury college, I spend five days getting to grips with the honeybee. Mornings were theory classroom work, and afternoons were practical. In the idyllic location of the bee hive field, among the early flowering white blossom of blackthorn (a good food source for bees as it’s one of the first shrubs to flower in spring), we learnt all about honeybees.
We also learn how to move a hive. Bee hives are used to take colonies of bees to places where they are used as pollinators, to increase food crop production. Bees are valuable in this way, because a third of what we eat, and much of what we wear, relies on pollination by honeybees. That’s why it’s important that we look after bees, as they are declining in large numbers. In the book ‘A World without Bees‘, published in 2008 (and partly what sparked my interest in honeybees) authors Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum provide compelling argument for the need to protect our bees.
And when you start to examine bees at close quarters, you begin to see different things.
Bees collect pollen to use as food sources for raising baby bees (brood). The female bees have special ‘pollen baskets’ on their back legs where they collect pollen and transport it back to the hive. The bee on the left has pollen that is yellow, I don’t claim to be an expert, but that could be willow. And the bee on the right has dark blue pollen, and that’s almost certainly from spring squill, a early blue flower. As part of collecting the pollen, it also causes some grains to fall into the female parts of the flower, and hence pollination happens, so the flower will go on to form a viable seed (and also fruits if it produces them, like apples, which are just the fleshy covering of apple seeds).
Whilst getting some books out the library at Hartpury for my homework, I come across this amazing book.
Inside are colour charts of the colour of pollen. All stuck in with little squares of card, like a paint chart.
The book is exquisite. Published in 1952, it’s out of print now, and I wondered if I could get my own copy. But I discover it’s quite rare now and prices are in the £100s. At least I’d thought to take some photos of it. There are some modern guides to pollen load colours, including one by Dorothy Hodges son, William Kirk – here. And also on Wikipedia there is a guide too – here.
The frontspiece in the book is gorgeous.
In the second half of the book, there are Dorothy’s drawings of pollen grains. Under a microscope all pollen grains from different plants are different. The information on the pollen grain allows it to act like a key in a lock when it lands on the female flower parts, to create successful pollination in the same species. Which is why honeybees, in fact all bees (and other pollinators), are important to us.
So next time you see a honeybee, they are the small brown ones, or the larger ‘furrier’ yellow and black bumblebee (who also collect pollen), take at look at the hind legs, and maybe you’ll be able to see different coloured pollen collected there. And just think how amazing that every grain from different plant species varies. Nature shows us so much to inspire us.
The British Beekeepers Association website has lots of information about keeping bees.