Getting really up close

“There’s places available and it’s free, would anyone like to attend the microscopy workshop?” The Bee-health officer announced to the beekeepers gathered for one of the weekly winter lectures. It’s funny how the mind works, I thought wouldn’t it be nice to see the magnificence of a bee’s wings up close and to study the variety of shapes and colours of pollen. Up shot my hand. I was in!  I must have forgotten how squeamish I was the first day I was exposed to a full box of bees and what examining bees up close meant didn’t really register. “Right!” We were given orders like school children. “You’ll need to collect 30 flying bees.” A vision of prancing around with a butterfly net in front of a hive popped into my head.  What does 30 bees look like? My thoughts were read. “You’ll get 30 bees into a small matchbox.” I listened to the rest of the instructions, but I must have missed it, I didn’t hear just how I was to gather said 30 flying bees.  I did hear the part about putting them in a freezer though. What! Kill my bees! It’s for the sake of science and learning, how are you going to learn to use a microscope to detect Trachea Mites and Nosema without bees?  Yup, the mind is a funny thing, it didn’t quite think it through.

I like a challenge and I didn’t like to renege on the promise to attend and I definitely didn’t want to look squeamish and foolish in front of the gathering of 50 of my beekeeping peers and lecturers. There was nothing for it but to dive right in and embrace the experience.

So, what’s the difference between the bees you see walking around the comb inside the hive and flying bees? Age (I had to be told). Foragers, the flying bees, are older.  A few days later, on a sunny day when the hive was very active, I put together a makeshift butterfly net to try to catch the bees. I am so glad the neighbours did not see me. The bees flew rings around me darting up, down and sideways to get into the hive. I didn’t catch a single one.  Plan B was so simple and effective I had to laugh. The hive entrance was narrow, I held a jam jar in front of it and lo and behold it took less than a minute to gather the bees I needed.  Sorry bees.

A week later I feel very much back to school as I looked at the line-up of benches and microscopes; I am soon allocated a seat, a microscope and a partner. I am so grateful for partners. It’s great to have someone with whom I can muddle through and ask the really dumb questions which I mutter quietly out of the side of my mouth in case the whole class might hear.  I’m not going through the gruesome details of what we needed to do but seeing bee’s wings and legs in such detail was amazing.  It is a wonder how they fly using such delicate attachments and how they gather so much pollen in their pollen baskets on those tiny hind legs and then fly with that relatively heavy weight back to their hive.  The study I had done for the Intermediate Scientific Beekeeping exam came to life. We moved from the more pleasant to the main purpose of the class, learning about bee diseases. I saw the horrible Tracheal Mite which can live in the tiny breathing tubes of bees and found out how to test for the oval shaped Nosema, the spores of which germinate inside the gut of an infected bee. 

Image and more details about Trachea Mites from BeeAware

Find plenty about Nosema from Dave Cushman Nosema Apis a Parasite of Honey Bees

Also find images and information from ScientificBeekeeping.com  The “Nosema Twins” Part 1

Finally, and thankfully, we were given more cheerful things to examine as samples of pollen from a variety of flowers were circulated. These were another amazing revelation. Such shapes and colours and so tiny! Pollen is the protein that bees cannot live without and the variety is extraordinary.  Bees dine better than we think.

This image is from a fabulous collecting of images of pollen from a 2011 blog post called Pollen under a microscope

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