May 4 2016

The secret lives of the LSE bees

Lucy Woods joins LSE Beekeeping society on one of their weekly visits to the LSE Bees bees picand reports back on what she learnt. 

In London’s rare afternoon sun, urban beekeeper Claire Ratinon leads a small group of curious visitors, covered head-to-toe in protective gear, around three bee hives on the roof of LSE’s Connaught house.

First, Claire warns not to stand in front of the hives. Bees can travel over 20 miles per hour, making 3,000 trips pollen foraging trips and nectar a day. With each hive home to 50 – 100,000 bees, it’s best not to get in their way.

Travelling up to 3 miles from home, bees navigate with an internal GPS. Bees use the position of the sun and the earth’s magnetic field bees to know where they are in relation to their hive.

Safe from whizzing bees, Claire then passes the ‘bee smoker’ to a volunteer. Bees communicate by releasing lots of different pheromones. The ‘bee smoker’ is a hand operated, steam punk-looking, funnel and pump machine for wafting smoke into hives, which prevents bees from smelling an alarm pheromone, keeping the hive calm.

Almost every member of the hive is female. The queen bee controls the sex of each baby bee, making a handful of male ‘drone’ bees from unfertilised eggs, with all fertilised eggs becoming female ‘worker’ bees. The worker bees receive 75% of their genes from the queen bee, making the hive a family of super-sisters.

To find out more, volunteers study the hive’s bottom board; a wood chip board, pulled out from under the hive like a crumb tray from under a toaster. The bottom board is the hive’s dustbin for larvae shells, dirt and unwanted pollen.

From this board, different types of pollen the hive are collecting can be identified. Bees pollinate numerous fruits, vegetables, nuts and crops, with a third of the UK diet dependent on bee pollination. LSE’s hives themselves produce roughly 130 jars of delicious home-made honey, every year.

But one of the most important things to watch out for on the bottom board are varroa mites. A few mites are fine in a big hive, says Claire, but a lot of mites means it’s icing sugar time. If a fatal mite infestation is suspected, bees are sprinkled with icing sugar; bees like to be clean and the sugar encourages them to clean each other, knocking any pesky mites off in the process.

Mite infestations is just one hypothesis for why bees in the West are mysteriously disappearing. Native UK bees have declined since 1950, from 50 species to 25. In the US, the bee decline has even led to a national government strategy.

Former LSE student and LSE Ideas staff, Alexander Soderholm said after meeting the LSE bees, that bees are “related to air pollution and climate change, the whole ecosystem is dependent on bees, [volunteering at the beekeeping society] is such a good cause.”

There are lots of sustainability issues connected to bee populations. Non-native bee species, increased use of insecticides and pesticides, genetically modified crops, loss of habitat, monoculture and bees not adapting to climate change are all reasons speculated to be causing the rise of ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. But scientists are not quite sure yet why numbers of bees are falling at such a rapid pace.

One way Claire says climate change affected the LSE bees this year, is they foraged earlier than usual due to the unseasonably warm winter in London this December.

Bees only forage for a few weeks at a time before being replaced with a new cycle of younger bees, and only when the temperature is right (spring and summer). If bees go out to forage too early in the year it can be disastrous. The lack of available pollen in winter makes it harder to feed the hive and replenish forage-cycles. Without enough foragers and food, the hive is unlikely to survive long.

As well as pollen, bees collect toxins from plants and flowers sprayed with insecticides when they forage. Large amounts of toxins collected and stored in hives can be fatal. Over the last few years, the European Commission has put different moratoriums, regulations and bans on suspected bee-killers, the class of insecticides called: ‘neonicotinoids’.

beespic2As if changing climates and humans weren’t enough, Claire explains to the volunteers that bees themselves secretly plot to kill each other. When a queen bee is failing, getting old or weak, worker bees conspire to commit regicide. Worker bees hide, and feed, five secret larvae, feeding them larger amounts of royal jelly than is given to normal worker bee larvae. The excess royal jelly creates five rival queen bee-larvae.

The gruesome plot culminates when the first queen bee larvae hatches, stings and kills the other four larvae, and then seeks out the current queen bee for a fight to the death.

“It’s very hard not to anthropomorphize bees!” Claire adds.

Things aren’t much easier for drone bees. The queen bee will fly out of the hive only once to mate with drones. In mid-air, drones compete to mount the queen. But as drone bees exist solely to mate, once the drone’s mission is complete, they die. The queen bee moves onto the next drone, leaving a trail of corpses and storing genetic material to take back to her hive for making baby bees later.

Any drones that don’t give up their lives and genetic codes are banished. With no stings and no foraging abilities like their sister worker bees, drones are shoved out of the hive and left to die so as not to waste honey, says Claire.

The secret hive-lives of conspiracy, toxins, mites, exclusion and sexual suicide takes place on many rooftops in London, with ten urban hives per square kilometre. As well as at LSE, there are hives at the British and Natural History Museums and London Fashion School, with every honeybee hive producing it’s own, unique-tasting honey.  There’s also bee trail, counting bees for citizen science, in King’s Cross.

Asking former student and LSE Ideas staff, Quynh Le Vo if it’s worth visiting the LSE hives, she said: “You’re saving the planet at lunch time! I will definitely come again.”

LSE student or staff? Want to visit LSE Bees? Contact the LSE Beekeeping Society

lucyejwoodsprofileLucy EJ Woods is a journalist specialising in energy and environment. Check out her blog and follow her on Twitter @lucyejwoods 


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