Today was day one of the National Honey Show here in Southeast England and it definitely delivered. I arrived early, found a seat in the lecture theatre and pretty much camped out all day. There were some good talks, but for me the highlights were the lectures by experts from the US and Canada.

The day began with a lecture by Tom Seeley. This was the first time that I had heard him speak in person. I should say that he is a hero of mine, not just because he is a truly great ‘bee scientist’, but because he clearly loves bees for the amazing and fascinating creatures that they are and he is brilliant at communicating this to ordinary beekeepers like me – whether through his books or in person. He is inspiring.

The title of his talk was ‘The Bee Colony as a Honey Factory’. This was not a talk about how to harvest more honey! Instead the emphasis was, as it always is with Tom Seeley, about the bees and their behaviour, in this case how they divide and regulate labour for efficient honey production, mobilising more foragers and also more bees to process and store food when there is a nectar flow.

Using video clips he showed us how the bees use dances to recruit help where needed: the waggle dance to recruit more foragers, shaking signals to wake up sleeping bees (yes, bees do sleep!) and tremble dances to recruit more bees to process incoming nectar.

And there are also the beep signals (like head butting with a buzzing squeak!) which bees inflict on waggle dancers to get them to stop, at times when the colony is already working at full capacity and doesn’t need more nectar.

His lecture gave us layer upon layer of insight and no doubt left many of us pondering yet again how a small creatures with tiny brains can gather and manage information within the hive to organise and direct a workforce of thousands.

I feel like I was given a glimpse into the incredible wonders and possibilities of the ‘bee universe’! I know that my bees are capable of mysterious and wonderful things, but to be shown the depth of possibilities was awe-inspiring!

In short, listening to Tom Seeley today was an absolute pleasure. He gave his talk with excellent awareness of his audience and talked about the bees in such a happy and affectionate way that it’s impossible not to feel good just by being there.

(Blissful sigh.)

There were some other great speakers too:

Ohio-based Kim Flottum gave a light-hearted but very interesting talk about drones, a subject to which we should all pay more attention (and I include myself in that!).  He showed us why drones are ‘special in so many ways’.

So often overlooked, they are of course central to the survival of our bees. As well as being a ‘gene transfer mechanism’, they are an important indicator of colony health and nutritional status.

He spoke about the need to make sure that queens mate with drones that are good genetic stock and how he has moved his bee yard close to particular drone congregation areas in order to facilitate this. He advised us to look for a combination of horizon, tree line and open area when seeking to locate our local drone congregation area.

When it comes to managing varroa, he recommended drone brood removal as an effective method of keeping the varroa population down. He has a weekly cycle of adding empty drone combs/foundation and removing sealed drone combs but warned that this must be done on a fastidious timetable before the brood hatches, or else we are just creating ‘varroa incubators’ (this is how he manages honey production hives; drone brood isn’t removed from mating hives obviously).

The last lecture of the day was given by Heather Mattila from Wellesley College. The title was “Hard Working Bees Need Pollen”. Heather’s research has shown how ‘pollen stress’ on larvae affects the performance of adult bees.

When pollen is in short supply, colonies respond by decreasing brood rearing at first, then, as the shortage progresses, by reducing the number of feeding visits that nurse bees make to larvae and by early capping of larvae.  When the shortage becomes severe, bees will cannibalise larvae rather than try to feed them.

Bees that have been deprived of pollen as larvae are smaller, lighter and have a shorter life span. Interestingly, they do less foraging and are twice as likely to disappear while foraging. They also have limited hypopharyngeal gland development, and feed larvae less food, less frequently.  And their dances are less precise.

A good supply of pollen is vital for the health of our bees, given that it provides almost all of a colony’s nutrients.  Pollen that is stored properly in cells in the hive (processed, packed into a cell and sealed with honey) has a relatively stable nutritive value. We should make sure our colonies have plenty of it for overwintering, as pollen substitutes aren’t as good as the real thing.

Each of these speakers is giving further talks at the Honey Show over the next two days, including Tom Seeley, so head on down to Esher for some inspiration.