THE RAMBLINGS OF A BEEKEEPER by Chris Slade
I walked from Worth Matravers down the gwyle to Winspit the other day. The purpose of the stroll was to show the caves to a friend, to explore them more thoroughly and to bag a nearby geocache. We were amazed at the quantity and variety of the wild flowers along the route and even more surprised that there wasn't a single honeybee to be seen working them. I remarked to my friend, who is also a beekeeper, that I would love to have a hive or two thereabouts. When we got back to Worth and strolled around we noticed that there was local honey for sale so there must be somebody keeping bees nearby, but where were they foraging? There are about 40 members of the Dorset Beekeepers' Association who are Purbeck-based, plus a large scale Bee Farmer. People from outside Purbeck also have hives inside and recently I helped an apprentice who lives in the Piddle Valley with a bee adventure within earshot of the Purbeck Shooting School. Her husband was taking photographs at the time and, if you're interested, you can see them and read the story on: www.chrissladesbeeblog.wordpress.com
under the heading: 'The Things I'll Do For Cake'. She bribed me to help her!
We also visited Tyneham and strolled around the village and gwyle down to the sea. Again there was a wide range of flowers, but different ones to Winspit, possibly a result of different grazing regimes, but, again, no bees to be seen. I noticed that, although the geology is calcareous (limestone), there was plenty of bracken (which likes acid soils) to be seen, so the soil must be suitable for many types of flora.
What's a 'gwyle'? There's another one at Egliston. If you go diagonally across Dorset to the north - west, Halstock way, you will see the same land form, a small, steep sided, wooded valley, called a 'goyle' and this spelling is also applied in Devon, Sidmouth, for example, sitting astride one. I guess the word has the same meaning as 'gulley'. More recently I rode my bike from Wareham down to Arne. I noticed that, as happens every year, when the heather comes into bloom, nearly all the gorse goes out of bloom. Both species are visited by bees and occupy the same territory and so I wonder whether they have evolved the timing of their flowering to avoid competition. I paused at a roadside patch where there were two types of heather and (despite what I have just written) dwarf gorse, all flowering juxtaposed. Bees were working but refused to pose for my camera. The flowers they were working were bell heather and they were ignoring the ling and the gorse. It must be a better nectar source either by strength or volume. Bees are great economists and try to get best value from each foraging flight, so they might fly over flowers with nectar giving a weak sugar solution to work on others giving a greater reward. That might be the reason they weren't to be seen on my earlier visit, to Worth: they had found some juicy heather within range.
How far is 'within range'? Some years ago, a beekeeper in the Parkstone area of Poole noticed his bees were flying in an unexpected direction in the heather season (you can smell the heather honey at the hive entrance) so he marked a lot of his bees and found that they were flying about 6 miles across the harbour to the Arne area. That is by no means a record. Professor Francis Ratnieks, then of Sheffield University, with the aid of his students who marked bees on the heather moors (the usual method is a blob of paint on the thorax), found that they went for up to 9 miles! Generally, of course, they forage much closer to home, a couple of miles being the usual range.
Continuing my cycle ride down to Arne, I ended up at the bird reserve where they have set aside fenced off areas for plants to attract insects. That reminds me that I once gave a talk on 'The Birds and the Bees', the nub of which was that birds eat bees and therefore must be stamped out! I was amused that, among the other plants in the deer-proof areas, there were a number that I had better just refer to as 'weed', that are not entirely legal! I don't myself grow this 'weed' but it is becoming increasingly common and generally people turn a blind eye or don't recognise it as being illegal. I know of a secluded garden on Portland where it is the dominant plant! But, of course they make their own rules on that Island! I happen to know that bees do visit this plant and the honey from it is recognisable. A judge at a honey show would doubtless raise an eyebrow and not award a prize, but I have never had a customer complain!
I called in at the lovely, peaceful, Arne Church and, whilst wandering around the area, noticed that the surrounding trees were abuzz with a familiar hum although there were no bees in sight and no obvious bee-forage. On an earlier visit a year or two ago I had noticed the same phenomenon. The 19th century Wiltshire writer, Richard Jefferies, refers to it as the 'midsummer hum' in 'Bevis, the Story of a Boy'. My guess is that there is a drone congregation area above the trees, which are on the highest ground for quite a distance around. Drones, the male bees, tend to fly from miles around to certain places, known as Drone Congregation Areas, year after year. Generally DCAs are visually distinctive and frequently are likely to produce thermal up-draughts, an aid to flight. Virgin queens head for the drone congregation areas on mating flights and return laden with the sperm from up to 20 drones which will serve them for up to 5 years' work as egg laying machines. The drones lose their 'wedding tackle' as they mate and very rapidly die.
Here's a double sonnet I have written on the subject.
Shortly it will appear with other of my bee related poems in 'Bee People' when I get around to completing the illustrations:
I have an onomatopoeic name
That sounds a little like the noise I make.
I have no sting and I am very tame.
My sisters feed me for the family's sake,
As with my sperm I may pass on their genes.
Each afternoon I fly to congregate
In places where we might meet virgin queens
And maybe have a chance to copulate.
I'm told that's where the greatest danger lies:
I guess that swallows try to snap us up.
I see their movements with my compound eyes
And don't give them a chance on me to sup.
A queen is here! I get her lovely scent!
I wonder what that danger warning meant?
I sense that virgin queen is in the mood;
A thousand other drones here think the same.
It's likely that a score will score. I'm crude:
To mount while she's a virgin is my aim!
I know that after me there will be more,
She needs her spermatheca brimming full,
But once deflowered by me she'll be a whore!
If I'm first, she's in luck; I'm the prize bull!
She's just upwind - I think I'm getting close.
That's her! I have her in my sight.
I'm nearest, what is there to lose?
Got her! I'll mate with all my might.
Note: Chris is Dorset born and bred, Wool being his first school. He has been keeping bees since 1978 and currently has about 15 hives scattered around the county in small apiaries. Together with Dave MacFawn of South Carolina in the USA, he is the joint author of 'Getting the Best from Your Bees'. He is also a poet and a collection of his poems relating to bees and the people who keep them is in the pipeline. He is a member of the Dorset Beekeepers' Association and currently represents them as their delegate to the British Beekeepers' Association. Chris is also a blogger, adding to the site: www.chrissladesbeeblog.wordpress.com every few days so, if you have enjoyed the ramblings you have read here, you might like to visit it and dip in occasionally.