On 26th January, members of both Huddersfield and Halifax branches of the BBKA got together in Sowerby Bridge for a series of hands-on workshops and informative talks on the applications of microscopy to beekeeping. The workshops ran simultaneously three times throughout the day enabling small group tuition and covered pollen identification, bee anatomy, and bee dissection. These sessions were complemented with fascinating presentations on photomicroscopy and wing morphometry.
The pollen identification workshop was led by Master Beekeeper Jim Pearson from the Wakefield and Pontefract BKA. Pollen is nitrogen rich and represents the bees source of protein. Each year, a colony requires around 45kg of pollen, and pollen identification enables a beekeeper to understand bees’ foraging behaviour locally. However, like humans trying to live exclusively off a diet of carrots, no single type pollen delivers the protein range bees require, and would inevitably lead to malnutrition. This is why a summer hive inspection often reveals a variety of different colours in the comb, representing the different pollen sources the bees have been foraging from.
However, when it comes to identifying exactly what your bees are foraging on, a microscope is a doorway into a completely different world. At 400 times magnification, the different shapes and sizes of pollen grains can be clearly seen, along with distinguishing features such as furrows and pores unique to different flora. Jim discussed how pollen is stained with a red dye to make it visible under the microscope, and how to use conversion scales to calculate the size of a pollen in micrometres. The session led to an interesting discussion around honey labelling and why it isn’t possible to produce organic honey in the UK.
Jim's session was followed by a bee anatomy workshop led by Roger Pool, currently the Chair of the Halifax branch. Roger gave us an insight into the treatment preparation of bees for study under the microscope, necessary to remove muscle and tissue, before providing a demonstration of how to mount various bee parts on a slide for inspection.
Mounting samples onto slides is something I’ve done lots of in the past, albeit a long time ago. The trick is to place the coverslip over the sample without trapping air bubbles between the slide and the coverslip itself. The great thing about these kinds of workshops though is being able to pick up lots of tips, hints and tricks from the experts to be able to do just that. In this case, lowering the inverted slide onto the coverslip rather than the other way round was the key to clean samples, and after a few goes participants had the hang of it. The picture above of a honey press was taken with just a mobile phone camera pointing down the eyepiece of a microscope, and clearly shows the spectacular detail and complexity even at just 40 times magnification.
As pleased as I was with my i-Phone efforts, Christine Balshaw’s pictures (the last four in the sequence above - obviously!) blew me away. An award winning photographer from Halifax BKA, Christine outlined her ambition to take great photographs through the microscope. She discussed the problems she encountered and her attempts to overcome them, and shared some stunning images along the way. Extremely modest about her photography skills and willing to share her knowledge, Christine gave us all a breakdown of the techniques, equipment, software required to take such spectacular photographs of bee anatomy and pollen grains. I’m fairly certain there were a few participants, myself included, who with the benefit of Christine’s advice, are planning to up their games and have a go at replicating her success.
Following Christine’s presentation, Phil Khorassandjian, a Master beekeeper and Seasonal Bee Inspector from Sheffield BKA provided some experienced insight into the technicalities, challenges and limitations associated with the science of wing morphometry. The western honey bee (Apis mellifera) has a wide geographical range, covering most of Europe, Africa, the Near East and central Asia. Within this distribution, diverse environment conditions isolation of subpopulations has given rise to a variety of morphological differences, including within forewing vein patterns. In theory, being able to use this knowledge to identify and discriminate between subspecies and their evolutionary lineages has implications for honey bee biodiversity, conservation and can help to maintain purity in breeding lines by avoiding and eliminating colonies representing other subspecies. Measurement of the cubital index - the ratio of two of the wing vein segments of honeybees – is a relatively imprecise method of identification. As Phil pointed out, wing morphometry is based on a small number of measurements and is limited to a fraction of subspecies, something which is reflected in freely available identification software such as DrawWing. Nevertheless, the session sparked an interesting and lively debate on breeding and the protecting of desirable breeding traits.
The bee dissection workshop run by Huddersfield’s Yvonne Kilvington was a great end what had already been a hugely informative and enjoyable day. For me, it provided an opportunity to develop the type of skillset necessary to raise my beekeeping skills and knowledge to the next level. Despite running low on subjects to dissect in the last session, Yvonne provided an expert view on how to conduct an Acarine dissection. Acarine is an infestation of the honey bees’ tracheae caused by a mite, Acarapis woodi. Acarine limits an infested bee’s lifespan, and although not often detected in the UK today due to regular treatments associated with combating Varroa, it was very interesting to hear of a relatively recent Acarine infestation of a large healthy colony in the apiary of a Huddersfield member, and the devastating effects it can have.
Yvonne led with a demonstration of the preparation and presentation of a bee for dissection, and how to expose the subject’s tracheae, and an explanation of what beekeepers are looking for in a healthy specimen compared to an unhealthy one. Following the demonstration, participants had a go at preparing and dissecting their own specimen. Working with a scalpel and dissecting needle at 40 times magnification was something I found akin to cutting my own hair in the mirror (if you’ve ever tried this you’ll know what I mean!), but after a few attempts, I got the hang of it. For those interested, Yvonne plans to run an abdominal dissection workshop in the spring, which, based on this experience, I would highly recommend members sign up for.
Beekeeping is a practical endeavour and the workshop echoed this through expert tuition and plenty of opportunity to get hands on with the techniques. Having the depth and breadth of experience across microscopy as our presenters collectively possessed in one room was an opportunity not to be missed. It was a chance for beekeepers to get deeper into the science of beekeeping and understand how microscopy can contribute to identifying and treating diseases and infestations, help maintain desirable breeding stocks, and tell us a great deal about where our honey crops originate. All in all, the session was a real success and a great opportunity to meet, ask questions and share ideas and insight with beekeepers locally from different branches of the BBKA.
*Photocredit: many thanks to Christine Balshaw for kindly permitting the use of her work in this article.