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Wanderings in Willington Woods

March 20, 2017 – 11:30 am |

By Robin Braithwaite

‘No, we are not talking about brush cutters, little orange tractors or chainsaws: we did wood chopping in a previous edition of Wanderings.  It’s the bees that are buzzing.  That buzzing noise means something.  Now, the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of is because you are… a bee!  And the only reason for being a bee is to make honey.  And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”  Source: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree; Disney Animation; based on the book by AA Milne.

It is that time of year when bees start thinking about adding to their property portfolio!  Now, have you ever seen a swarm of bees?  And I mean a real swarm – when the sky grows dark and that chronic tinnitus (caused by years of exposure to jet engines) is drowned out by a new buzzing that is, well, really loud.  It sounds alien and aggressive!  Standing directly under the airborne swarm, individual bees can be seen but their speed and multiplicity morphs them into tiny black meteoric streaks.  Awesome, if just a little scary!  In a short while, the bees will begin to settle nearby.  Possibly in a bush or tree; but anywhere might be convenient.  Bizarrely, despite the noise and frenzied activity, the bees are in a relatively benign state and are less likely to sting.  That being said, best not to get too close unless you really know what you are doing!

Typically, April to July is honeybee (Apis melliferra) swarming season in the UK.  Over the years, I have seen swarms hanging in trees, on buildings, bicycles, cars and even on missiles (I guess that would have to be a Stinger missile!).  The bees don’t care what they latch on to: all they want is a temporary staging post while they look for somewhere more permanent to live.  Swarming is a natural process and is a form of non-sexual reproduction.  The queen bee (ordinarily, there is only one in each colony) leaves the hive with around half of the colony bees.  The “decision” on who leaves and who stays is simple: the flying bees leave and the non-flying house bees stay.

In the summer, a bee lives for around six weeks.  For the first three weeks a bee’s “career” is confined mostly to hive maintenance activities.  It’s generally known as a “house” bee and, although it can fly as well as any other bee, it spends most of its time tending to the needs of the colony by guarding, cleaning, tending to the queen, producing wax and turning nectar into honey.  After around three weeks of age, house bees become foraging (flying) bees; for the second half of their short lives they will literally work themselves to death collecting nectar and pollen up to two miles from the hive.  This hierarchy conveniently creates two groups (house bees and foraging bees) that are approximately equal in number.

It is important to recognise that the worker bees are all female.  In human terms, it is they who do the cooking, cleaning, feeding the rest of the 50,000 strong family and tending to the household management.  My wife never lets me forget this!  However, there is a sub-group – the male or drone bees – which accounts for around 10% of the hive population during the swarming season.  Drones can’t sting and they don’t feed themselves.  One could say (if we again put this into a human context) that they effectively spend their lives eating, drinking, watching TV and thinking about the queen bee a lot!  Remind you of anything?  But “drone paradise” has a cruel twist: mating is always fatal and in late August all the drones are permanently kicked out of the hive as the rest of the colony prepares for winter – no point in feeding superfluous mouths in lean times.  Because drones can’t feed themselves, they will be dead within a few days of their expulsion.  It’s a cruel world!

When the colony swarms, the queen leaves the hive with all the foraging bees.  Again, putting a human face on the antics of bees, like many households, the boss isn’t actually the man of the house!  However, in this case, the outgoing queen will have made preparations to create a successor for she will have laid an egg in each of a number of queen cells.  These cells are special wax structures specifically constructed to ensure the continuance of the colony.  When fully formed, they look a little like an un-shelled peanut stuck on the side of the honeycomb.  Each queen cell will contain a single embryonic queen and the first one to hatch will reign supreme.  And, in true Shakespearean style, the new queen will make quite sure that she cannot be usurped by any of the un-hatched pretenders.  It’s a vicious world.

Beekeepers must practise effective swarm control, and early detection of queen cell construction is vital.  The beekeeper (whose brain should have around 23 billion neurons) will use the natural swarming process to increase the number of hives and control the bees’ urge to abscond.  However, it’s when the skies go black that we realise that the bees, with just 960,000 neurons, have once again outsmarted a bigger brain.

But we don’t just keep bees so we can make lots more bees.  These clever little insects also produce, amongst other things, honey.  I say clever because the process of making honey involves collecting dilute sugar solution (nectar) and transporting it to the hive for processing.  This “ripening” process is complex and involves storing the nectar in specially constructed honeycomb cells, adding various enzymes and removing excess water.  The water content of nectar is quite high (anything up to 80%) and it is only when the water content falls below 20% that we may call the processed nectar honey.  Above 20%, it is still effectively a sugar solution that could ferment in the jar.  Somehow, the bees know when the honey is ready, after which each honey cell is sealed with more beeswax for long-term storage.

We remove the surplus honey but it is essential that the bees have enough stores to see them through the next winter (honeybees don’t hibernate).  The beekeeper will usually substitute the bees’ winter honey stores for sugar syrup which is fed to the colony, via a special feeder.  To a bee, syrup is just as good as honey and I’ve never heard any of them complain yet.

A beekeeper can tell when the honey water content is below 20% by using a little optical tool which measures the refractive index of the honey.  How does it work?  Honey is full of various sugars and so the refractive index of unset honey (the ability of a clear material to bend light) is higher than that of more dilute nectar.  Here is a simple DIY experiment that can demonstrate that the refractive index of a sugary solution is different to plain water.  You will need two straight half-pint glasses, each filled about three quarters full of water.  You will also need two pencils and a fair amount of sugar.  Fill one glass with water and stand the pencil in it.  Looking down the length of the pencil, you should be able to see that the water bends light and that the pencil appears to bend at a shallow angle as it enters the water.  You now need to make a saturated sugar solution by adding at least two dozen teaspoons of sugar to the other glass.  Stir until completely dissolved.  Stand the second pencil in the sugar solution and compare the angle with the pencil in the plain water.  Look very carefully and note that the angles are slightly different.  A refractometer works in a similar way but the difference is projected on to a water percentage scale viewed, in my case, through an eyepiece.

We all know that bees produce honey and I’m told that my bees, resident in Willington Woods, produce some of the finest around.  I think that the incredible flavour is due to the wide variety of forage (mostly wild and tree flowers) and the bees’ lack of exposure to mono-crops like rape seed.  But, there are other reasons for keeping bees: it’s an environmental thing and local bees assist with local pollination.  There are other pollinators but Albert Einstein is attributed with claiming that, without bees, mankind could be starving within four years.  It’s a sobering thought!

So, whether you are picking fruit in your garden or blackberrying on a walk, spare a thought for the bees.  They deserve our respect: they will have worked hard all summer for you and most don’t live to see the fruits of their labours.  The fruit we might take for granted could easily have been pollinated by one of these incredible insects and they are yet another reason to enjoy the woods.’

Poo-pooing the poo policy

March 15, 2017 – 12:05 pm |

This is just a casual reminder to everyone who walks their dog on our sites across the Forest of Marston Vale – we appreciate that the Forestry Commision’s ‘Stick and Flick’ campaign works for them, …

Your Forest needs you!

February 28, 2017 – 4:33 pm |

Do you live in or near the Forest of Marston Vale? Well if you live anywhere from Milton Keynes to Bedford then the answer is yes, you do and we need your help.
The Forest of …

Knight Prowler – A Saw Point

February 20, 2017 – 3:38 pm |

By Robin Braithwaite
“Around the beginning of 2016, a number of chainsaw carvings started to appear in various parts of the Grange Estate (Willington Woods).  At first, it was a couple of toadstools on the Route …

Famous in the States!

February 8, 2017 – 11:26 am |

Anyone who watches American talk shows (or ever goes near Youtube) may have seen the clip circulating from the recent episode of The Late Show, where Bedford-educated comedian John Oliver playfully goes through some of …

World Wetlands Day!

February 2, 2017 – 10:30 am |

Today, the 2nd February, is World Wetlands Day! A day to celebrate everything that’s great about Wetlands around the world, including our very own Wetland Nature Reserve here at the Forest of Marston Vale Millennium …

Luton Airport Firemen hot-footing it round the Park!

January 20, 2017 – 12:00 pm | 2 Comments

We had a lovely chat recently in the Forest Centre cafe with Martyn, Nick and James from the London Luton Airport Fire department, who popped over for one of their regular runs (not as a …

CEO Appointed as Beds Business Ambassador

January 13, 2017 – 12:00 pm |

We are happy to announce that our Chief Executive Nick Webb is among those who have been selected as a Bedfordshire Business Ambassador for Bedfordshire Chamber of Commerce.
“Being a member of the Chamber is very …

Learning Lunchtime Cancelled

January 8, 2017 – 10:25 am |

Unfortunately, due to illness, our speaker Barrie Mason will not be able to host tomorrow’s Learning Lunchtime talk ‘The Splendour of the Ouse’
Our schedule resumes next week with ‘The Transport Zoo’

Forest Fundraising – Get Involved!

January 6, 2017 – 3:30 pm |

So it’s a new year and here I am pondering what we’re going to be doing to raise money for the Forest in the year ahead. Last year we had some fantastic successes – the …

Path now open!

December 30, 2016 – 10:23 am | One Comment

The newly laid section of path north of Millbrook Station is open! The completion provided a LOT of Christmas cheer to the Ranger team who, along with our regular visitors, have had to contend with …

Christmas Opening Times

December 20, 2016 – 10:05 am |

Here are our Christmas and New Year Opening Times for 2017:
Christmas Eve – 10am – 2pm
Christmas Day – Closed (gate closed)
Boxing Day – Closed (gate open 10am – 4pm)
Tues 27th – Friday 30th Dec – …

Tree Planting 2017

December 14, 2016 – 11:51 am |

I know Christmas isn’t *quite* over yet, but we’re already looking forward to the next chapter in the Forest of Marston Vale’s tree planting – Waypost Wood on Sunday 12th Feb 2017!
Over in Cranfield, on …

Road Re-open!

December 12, 2016 – 3:05 pm |

Everyone will be very pleased to hear that Station Road is now fully open! Works will continue to the entrance to the Forest Centre & Millennium Country Park/ Marston Park, but they are due to …

Community Fund – up to £8k available!

November 25, 2016 – 3:19 pm |

Click above for more details. Are you part of a local school, charity group or project that’s looking for funding for an upcoming project that benefits the communities within the Forest of Marston Vale?
The Community …

Honorary Life President Appointed

November 25, 2016 – 9:53 am | One Comment

To recognise the more than 20 years involvement that Fiona Chapman MBE DL has had with the Forest of Marston Vale, she has been appointed Honorary Life President of the Forest of Marston Vale Trust. …

Farmers’ Market comes to a close

November 17, 2016 – 1:31 pm |

Unfortunately, due to the predicted bad weather this weekend and range of other factors, our last Farmers’ Market is cancelled. But don’t despair – you’ll see our lovely stallholders again at our Christmas Tree Festival …

Pathway works in the Millennium Country Park

November 17, 2016 – 10:21 am |

If you are a regular visitor to the Park, you will be fully aware of the significant flooding near to Millbrook Station which has occurred during the majority of our recent winters. It causes lots …

Closing early on Sat 19th Nov!

November 16, 2016 – 3:34 pm |

This Saturday (19th November) we will be hosting our Enchanted Forest Ball in the evening, and to leave enough time to transform the place into a magical woodland, we will be closing the Forest Centre …

Opening Times Change

October 29, 2016 – 10:36 am |

Somehow it’s already the end of October, and that means we are reverting to our winter opening hours as of tomorrow (Sunday 30th October). There’s been a slight change from our normal winter hours, but …

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