Category Archives: Honey bees

More on historical honey bee numbers in Britain

Bees hives with earlier data points - 18th Nov

Following on from my post last week on historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain, I decided to add the two extra, earlier data points to the graph just to illustrate what they mean for our understanding in how honey bee numbers may (or may not) have changed over the last 100 years.

The first data point is the Bailey & Perry (1982) estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s (which I’ve placed at 1929) that, as I mentioned, I think is wrong in terms of how they did the calculation.

The second data point is of 32,500 hives in 1919.  It’s from the article that Andrew Hubbard drew my attention to, which seems to be a fairly solid government statistic, or at least no less solid that much of the other government stats (unless anyone knows any better).

If we accept the 800,000 figure at face value then we see a massive increase in number of hives of over 76,000 new hives per year between 1919 and 1929.  And remember that’s being conservative as to what “the 1920s” meant to Bailey & Perry; if we peg the date at 1925 then we’re talking more than 127,000 hives being added to the British stock every year.  In my opinion that’s not a feasible proposition.

A much more likely scenario is that the number of hives grew during the second quarter of the 20th century and reached a peak in numbers at some point between the 1940s and 1950s.  That’s an increase of around 13,000 hives per year.  It’s still a lot, but is not unreasonable in light of post-World War 1, and subsequently World War 2, agricultural reforms that I highlighted in my post about British bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions.   I’ve termed that “Jeff’s speculation” in the figure above because, in the absence of hard data, that’s all it can be.

As always, I welcome your comments.

 

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Historical changes in honey bee numbers in Britain – how much do we know? UPDATED

Bee hives figure - 12 November

UPDATE:  On Twitter, Andrew Hubbard kindly drew my attention to the short article from 1919 at the bottom of this post in which it was estimated that British bee stocks at the time were as low as 32,500 hives.  As Andrew pointed out, this means that the estimate by Bailey and Perry of 800,000 hives in the 1920s cannot be correct.

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In one of the chapters of the book that I’m currently completing I deal with the question of the evidence for changes in the abundance and diversity of pollinators over time, both in Britain and globally.  Are we really in danger of losing most of our pollinator species?  Have honey bee numbers plummeted?  Has pollination of wild and crop plants been affected?  The evidence is mixed and too complex to deal with in a short blog post: you’ll have to read the book 🙂  However I want to present some data that I’ve collated on changes in honey bee hives in Britain to gauge opinions on what has gone on.  I’m not a specialist in bee keeping by any means, others are far more knowledgeable, so as always I’d be interested in peoples’ thoughts on this.

The graph above has been pieced together from data presented in various sources – see below.  From a post-WW2 peak of about 450,000 hives, numbers dropped to about 150,000 hives in the 1970s.  That seems very clear.  Numbers remained fairly stable until the early 1990s and then….what?  There are two possibilities: either numbers of hives crashed to fewer than 100,000 by 2008; or they increased hugely to more than 250,000.  Both scenarios cannot be correct!

There are huge uncertainties about the data during this period, however the most recent data from Defra is fairly solid, though it does require beekeepers to register their hives on BeeBase.   Given the wide range of the low and high estimates, the fact that bee keeping has become more popular over the past decade, and that the recent data sit more-or-less within this range (at least initially), I wonder whether honey bee numbers have actually remained quite stable over the past 25 years or so, and indeed have hovered around the 150,000 hives or so since the 1970s.

Of course an alternative scenario is that the varroa mite (which arrived in Britain in 1992) led to that huge collapse in bee numbers.  But I wonder if there’s really any evidence for that?  Were whole apiaries wiped out by varroa?  It’s notable that the decline in this period started much earlier than the arrival of varroa, in 1985.  Why was that?

Data sources:

The earliest data available are those in Bailey & Perry (1982 – Bulletin of Entomological Research 72: 655-662) that span 1946-1982. This should be fairly accurate for England and Wales, though their estimate of 800,000 hives in the 1920s needs to be treated with caution as they make a number of assumptions in their regression-based analysis that may be incorrect; I’ve therefore not included that data point on the graph. Unfortunately the UK stopped returning official numbers of hives to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (UN-FAO) in 1977, and their data up to 1987 is an unofficial estimate (http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#home). From 2003 the UK had to report bee hive numbers to the European Union to claim money for the National Apiculture Programme (https://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/sites/agriculture/files/honey/programmes/programmes_en.pdf), but the figures were rather suspiciously constant between years. More recently beekeepers have been encouraged to register their hives with BeeBase (http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/) and hopefully these estimates are more realistic.

Data for part of this period were also presented in Potts, S.G. et al. (2010) Declines of managed honeybees and beekeepers in Europe? J. Apic. Res. 49, 15–22  Thanks to Prof. Simon Potts for sharing the data from that study.

Britsh Bee Journal 1919 - from Andrew Hubbard

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Bees and beer in London: an urban beekeeping experience

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One of our Christmas presents from Karin’s son (my stepson) Oli and his girlfriend Kate was an “experience” – a chance to spend half a day with an urban beekeeping collective in London called Bee Urban.  The group has a partnership with Hiver Beer which uses its honey in its brewing, and we were promised a tasting session.  Bees, beer, London – what’s not to like?  Karin and I finally made the trip down to Kennington yesterday and it was a really enjoyable experience, highly recommended.  I know a little bit about beekeeping but it was great to see a small professional apiary at work and to take part in a hive examination.  It certainly deepened my appreciation of these remarkable insects.  It also made me think about having a hive or two when I retire and have the time to devote to the hobby – beekeeping is not to be entered into lightly!  However there’s a time and a place for honeybees: in the wrong setting they can be a conservation problem by negatively affecting plant reproduction, out-competing native bees and passing on their diseases to bumblebees.

Bee Urban, however, is also doing its bit for wild bees in London by providing opportunities, such as drilled logs, for cavity nesting species.  We saw lots of evidence that leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.) and those that seal their nests with mud (various genera) were taking advantage of these nesting sites.

Interestingly, one of the other attendees said at the outset that she was very scared of bees.  I asked her afterwards if seeing beekeeping up close had helped and she said it had.  Perhaps this is something that you could do with any insectophobes in your life?

The beer was great, by the way, also highly recommended!

Below are some pictures from the day.  Thanks to Lena and Barnaby for hosting us and making it such an enjoyable experience.

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When she saw this picture, Karin likened it to cult devotees attending a ritual – “All Hail the Bee Goddess!”:

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Karin and I get up close and personal with the bees:

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A real highlight of the day – seeing the queen of this hive (marked in red):

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Yum! – :

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Drilled logs being used by leaf-cutting bees (Megachile spp.):

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Beekeeping at 7000 ft: Nepal field work part 4

On the last day of field work, while we were waiting for a bus to take us back down to Kathmandu, I spotted some small bee hives next to one of the houses belonging to the local Tamang peoples:

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With a few minutes to spare before the bus left, I quickly investigated and discovered that only one of the hives was actually in use:

But interestingly, the bees inside where the native Asiatic or eastern honeybee (Apis cerana) rather than the European or western honeybee (A. mellifera) that is more familiar in Europe.  The bees are a bit smaller and more distinctively striped than their western counterpart:

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There didn’t seem to be much around for the bees to forage on, just a few flowering mustard plants, so I suspect that they were travelling some distance to find nectar and pollen:

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At this altitude of 2092 masl, or about 7000 feet, the winters are long and cold and the summers dry and hot, so the bees must be tough if they are kept there all year round.  I wonder if A. mellifera would survive these conditions?

All too soon the bus driver sounded his horn and it was time to go; an interesting encounter with a bee species I’d not previously seen.

 

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Recent reviews in pollination biology: an annotated list: UPDATED x 3

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As it’s my birthday today, I thought I’d reward myself by completing a blog post that I started just after Christmas and never got round to finishing.  Review articles that summarise recent developments in a field are an important contribution to the scientific literature that allow us to pause and reflect on where a topic has been and where it is headed.  Having recently (co)authored a couple of reviews I can attest that they are useful in this respect for both the writers and for the readers.

In the past couple of years quite a number of critical and timely reviews have been published which are proving very useful to me: I’m currently writing a book and these reviews have been invaluable in summarising aspects of a field that is currently publishing in excess of 1000 research papers per year. So I thought I’d bring them together into a single listing with a short commentary on each.  No doubt I have missed many other reviews so please feel free to point out any gaps and I will update the list as I go along.

Each review is hot linked to the source; a good proportion of the reviews are open access, notably those from the recent special issue of Annals of Botany devoted to the ecology and evolution of plant reproduction.  Some reviews are very focused, but most are quite broad.  Several of these complement one another.  I hope you find them interesting and useful.

Barrett, S. & Harder, L. (2017) The ecology of mating and its evolutionary consequences in seed plants. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 48: 135-157

Mating systems, i.e. who breeds with whom, are just as complex in plants as they are in animals.  However some features of seed plants, such as the fact that they don’t move, that most species have both male and female functions, and that their growth is modular and often indeterminate, represent significant challenges that have been overcome in a bewildering variety of ways.

 

Braun, J. & Lortie, C.J. (2018)  Finding the bees knees: A conceptual framework and systematic review of the mechanisms of pollinator-mediated facilitation.  Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 36: 33-40

In a community, if one plant species positively affects another, we term this “facilitation”.  It can occur at a variety of life stages, including reproduction whereby the presence of one species increase the likelihood of another species being pollinated.  This review shows that it occurs fairly frequently at a variety of spatial scales, but there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the phenomenon.

 

Fuster, F., Kaiser‐Bunbury, C., Olesen, J.M. & Traveset, A. (2018) Global patterns of the double mutualism phenomenon. Ecography https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.04008

When species provide benefits to one another in two different ways, for example an animal is both a pollinator and a seed disperser of a plant species, we refer to it as a “double mutualism”.  As this fascinating review shows, double mutualisms are very uncommon, but they are widespread, and probably under-recorded.

 

Minnaar, C., Anderson, B., de Jager, M.L. & Karron, J.D. (2019) Plant–pollinator interactions along the pathway to paternity. Annals of Botany 123: 225-245 

The male aspect of plant reproduction, i.e. pollen donation, is often neglected when we consider how pollination systems evolve.  This review provides as up to date account of where we are in understanding how paternity influences floral characters such as shape and colour.

 

Ollerton, J. (2017) Pollinator diversity: distribution, ecological function, and conservation. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 48: 353-376

A very broad over view of our current understanding of the biodiversity of pollinators, taking a deep time and a wide spatial perspective to put current concerns about loss of pollinators into a wider perspective.

 

Parachnowitsch, A.L., Manson, J.S. & Sletvold, N. (2019) Evolutionary ecology of nectar. Annals of Botany 123: 247–261 

We often take nectar for granted – it’s just sugar and water, isn’t it?  As this review shows, nectar is dynamic and complex, and affects a range of ecological functions beyond just providing pollinators with a reward.  However there’s still a huge amount we don’t understand about how nectar traits evolve.

 

Toledo-Hernández, M., Wangera, T.C. & Tscharntke, T. (2017) Neglected pollinators: Can enhanced pollination services improve cocoa yields? A review.  Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 247: 137-148

Chocolate is most people’s favourite confectionery and is famously pollinated only by small midges.  Or is it? As this review shows, lots of other insects visit cocoa flowers, but their role as pollinators has not been well studied.

 

Vizentin-Bugoni J, PKM Maruyama, CS Souza, J Ollerton, AR Rech, M Sazima. (2018) Plant-pollinator networks in the tropics: a review. pp 73-91 In Dáttilo W & V. Rico-Gray. Ecological networks in the Tropics. Springer.

This book chapter that I co-authored with some very energetic and creative young Brazilian researchers summarises what’s currently known about plant-pollinator interaction networks in tropical communities.  One of the conclusions is that they are really not so different to those in temperate and subtropical biomes.

 

Wright, G.A., Nicolson, S.W. & Shafir, S. (2018) Nutritional Physiology and Ecology of Honey Bees. Annual Review Entomology 63:327-344

A review of how bees use nectar and pollen at the level of both the individual and the colony, focused on the most widespread of pollinator species.

UPDATE 1:

As expected, several people have told me about reviews I’d missed, and in some cases ones that I had read but forgotten about!  I’ll list them below, though without annotations:

Bennett, J. et al. (2018) A review of European studies on pollination networks and pollen limitation, and a case study designed to fill in a gap, AoB Plants 10:  https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/ply068

Knight, T. et al. (2018) Reflections on, and visions for, the changing field of pollination ecology. Ecology Letters 21: 1282-1295

Vallejo-Marin, M. (2018) Buzz pollination: studying bee vibrations on flowers. New Phytologist https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.15666

 

UPDATE: 2

I had deliberately restricted the reviews to 2017 onwards, but via email David Inouye kindly sent a few older ones through which are equally useful:

Brosi, B. J. (2016) Pollinator specialization: from the individual to the community. New Phytologist: 210: 1190–1194

Hahn, M. and C. A. Brühl (2016) The secret pollinators: an overview of moth pollination with a focus on Europe and North America. Arthropod-Plant Interactions: 1-8

Inouye, D. W., et al. (2015) Flies and flowers III: Ecology of foraging and pollination. Journal of Pollination Ecology 16

 

UPDATE 3:

A more recent addition to this set of reviews was sent to me by Anne-Laure Jacquemart.  Although it’s focused just on one (rather variable) crop, I think it will be really useful for anyone interested in the pollination biology of crop plants:

Ouvrard, P. & Jacquemart, A.-L. (2019) Review of methods to investigate pollinator dependency in oilseed rape (Brassica napus).  Field Crops Research 231: 18-29

 

 

 

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There ain’t no b(ee) in Starbucks

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I do love a road trip.  Karin and I are just back from a drive too and from her homeland of Denmark, via ferry from Harwich to Hook of Holland, in order to pick up a porcelain dinner service that belonged to her grandparents.  It was a great trip and I hope to put up some photos from that shortly.  But before then I thought I’d write a short post about a key element of any good road trip:  coffee.

If I drive for two hours or so I have to take a break and top up with at least a coffee, possibly also a snack, certainly lunch at the appropriate time.  Last Friday, en route to Harwich, we stopped off at a motorway service station that had a Starbucks.  Whilst waiting for my coffee (Americano, no milk, thank you very much) I noticed that there was quite a lot of text on the walls all about where and how coffee grows, its cultivation and harvesting, and so forth.  Being the sort of ecologist who is interested in how plants flower and set fruit I focused on the relevant text (see the photo above).  It’s a little indistinct but, in essence, this is what it says:

“Coffee plants flower once a year…..the flowers are jasmine scented….and then some magic happens….and nine months later you get coffee fruit”

Okay, I made up the bit about “magic” but, seriously, that’s what is implied by this text: that by some hocus pocus, coffee flowers turn into the coffee fruit that contain the beans.  No mention made of the fact that pollinators (mainly wild and managed bees) are important in this process.  Although coffee can self pollinate (which is fairly magical I suppose) without the pollinators we would have much less coffee of poorer quality.

In my recent review of pollinator diversity and conservation I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations of coffee production to illustrate the dependence of modern human society on animal pollination. Here’s what I wrote:

“Coffee is pollinated by a range of wild insects (mainly bees) and managed honeybees (Ngo et al. 2011), is second only to oil in terms of its value as a commodity [turns out this is not true – see below*], and supports millions of subsistence farmers. Global coffee production in 2016 amounted to 151.624 million bags, each weighing 60kg (International Coffee Organisation 2017). One coffee bean is the product of a single fertilisation event following the deposition of at least one pollen grain on a flower’s stigma. The mean weight of a single coffee bean is about 0.1g which means there are approximately 600,000 beans in a 60kg bag. The total number of coffee beans produced in 2016 is therefore 151.624 million bags multiplied by 600,000 beans per bag, which equals 90,974,400,000,000, or >90 trillion coffee beans. However coffee is on average 50% self pollinating (Klein et al. 2003) and a single bee visit may pollinate both ovules in each coffee flower, so we can divide that figure by four: nonetheless global coffee production requires at least 22 trillion pollinator visits to flowers. Clearly the global coffee market is supported by many billions of bees that require semi-natural habitat as well as coffee plantations in order to survive”.

I don’t want to pick on Starbucks, it just so happens that that’s where we stopped, and I have certainly seen similar displays in Costa, for instance, with again no mention of bees.  Apparently Starbucks et al. don’t want to acknowledge the role of these bees in supporting their (very lucrative) industry, at least not in the cafes themselves.  If you Google “Starbucks pollinators” then you find some information online about how the company values bees, etc. etc.  But come on coffee sellers, you’re better than this, let the public know in the places where the public goes!  If you need advice from an expert, someone to write some text for you, I’m more than happy to act as a consultant.

 

*Even careful scientists get things wrong sometimes – this is a myth as you can read if you follow this link.

 

References

International Coffee Organisation. 2017. Coffee production statistics for 2016. http://www.ico.org/prices/po-production.pdf Accessed 20th June 2017

Klein AM, Steffan-Dewenter I, Tscharntke T. 2003. Fruit set of highland coffee increases with the diversity of pollinating bees. Proc. R. Soc. B. 270: 955–961

Ngo HT, Mojica AC, Packer L. 2007. Coffee plant – pollinator interactions: a review. Can. J. Zool. 89:647–660

 

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XI International Symposium on Pollination, Berlin, April 16th -20th, 2018

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From the organisers:

Dear Pollination Biologists,

The International Commission for Pollinator-Plant Relationships (ICPPR) invites you to attend, and possibly submit abstracts for. the XI International Symposium on Pollination TO BE HELD IN BERLIN, GERMANY, APRIL 16-20 2018.

Please take advantage of the early-bird registration opportunity.

The deadline for Abstract submissions is MARCH 1ST, 2018

MORE DETAILS AT:

http://www.icppr.com/xi-international-symposium-on-pollination.html

I HOPE TO SEE YOU IN BERLIN!

Carlos H. Vergara

CHAIR OF THE ORGANIZING COMMITTEE

 

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Pollinators, flowers, natural selection and speciation: a virtual conference

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It’s been a couple of years since I posted my previous “virtual conferences” on Pollinators, Pollination and Flowers and Ecology and Climate Change, a lapse that has largely been due to lack of time (my default excuse for most things these days….).  However Judith Trunschke at Uppsala University in Sweden has risen to the challenge of guest-curating her own virtual conference*.  The theme here is how pollinators impose (or sometimes don’t impose) natural selection on flowers that results in the formation of new plant species:

Timo van der Niet (IIASA 2010): Plant-diversification through pollinator shifts

Timo van der Niet (Congresos UCA 2014): Disentangling the contribution of pollinators in shaping angiosperm orchid genus Satyrium

Anne Royer (Evolution 2016): Plant-pollinator association doesn’t explain disruptive selection & reproductive isolation

Brandon Campitelli (Evolution 2016): Pollinator-mediated selection and quantitative genetics

Yuval Sapir (Evolution 2016): Rethinking flower evolution in irises: are pollinators the agents of selection?

Ruth Rivken (Evolution 2014): The mechanisms of frequency-dependent selection in gynodiocious Lobelia siphilitica

Gonzalo Bilbao (Botany 2017): Pollinator-mediated convergent shape evolution in tropical legumes

My grateful thanks to Judith for curating this great set of talks; if anyone else would like to do the same, please get in touch.

Feel free to discuss the talks in the comments section and to post links to other talks on the same topic.

 

*I’m assuming that, as all of these videos are in the public domain, none of the presenters or copyright owners objects to them being presented here.  If you do, please get in touch and I’ll remove it.

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Pollinator biodiversity and why it’s important: a new review just published – download it for free

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In a new review paper that’s just been published in the Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics I have looked at the question of just how diverse the pollinators are, and why pollinator biodiversity is ecologically important and therefore worthy of conservation.  I’ve taken a deep time and wide space approach to this, starting with what the fossil record tells us about when animal pollination evolved and the types of organisms that acted as pollinators in the past (the answer may surprise you if you’re unfamiliar with the recent paleontological literature on this topic).  Some of the most prominent biogeographical patterns have been highlighted, and I have tried to estimate the global diversity of currently known pollinators.  A conclusion is that as many as 1 in 10 described animal species may act as pollen vectors.

As well as this descriptive part of the review I’ve summarised some recent literature on why pollinator diversity matters, and how losing that diversity can affect fruit and seed set in natural and agricultural contexts.  Extinction of pollinator species locally, regionally, and globally should concern us all.

Although I was initially a little worried that the review was too broad and unfocused, having re-read it I’m pleased that I decided to approach the topic in this way.  The research literature, public policy, and conservation efforts are currently moving at such a fast pace that I think it’s a good time to pause and look at the bigger picture of what “Saving the Pollinators” actually means and why it’s so important.  I hope you agree and I’d be happy to receive feedback.

You can download a PDF of the review entitled Pollinator Diversity: Distribution, Ecological Function, and Conservation by following that link.

Pollination ecologists should also note that in this same volume of Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics there’s a review by Spencer Barrett and Lawrence Harder called The Ecology of Mating and Its Evolutionary Consequences in Seed Plants.  If you contact those authors I’m sure they’d let you have a copy.

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6000 scientists can’t be wrong: the International Botanical Congress 2017

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A late afternoon flight from Heathrow got me to Beijing International Airport just in time for me to enjoy a nine hour delay in my connecting flight to Shenzhen in southern China.  I finally arrived at my hotel at 2:15am, exhausted and sweaty in the 30 degree night time heat.  The one consolation is the the hotel was short of rooms so upgraded me to a suite the size of a small city, with a shower like a tropical rainstorm.  Perfect to wash off the dirt of travelling before collapsing into bed.

Why am I here and why is the hotel short of rooms?  Because 6000 scientists have descended on Shenzhen for the 19th International Botanical Congress (IBC).  The IBC is a six-yearly event that rotates around the world; I attended in 1999 in St Louis and 2005 in Vienna, but missed Melbourne in 2011.  At this IBC I’m giving two talks, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.  More on that later in the week.

Six thousand botanists need a big conference venue and this morning, after a late breakfast, I strolled up to the convention centre where it’s being held.  It’s enormous, the scale of the thing is overwhelming.  I wandered around whilst they were getting ready for registration opening this afternoon and took some images on my phone.

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There are some fabulous displays of living plants, including this one at the main entrance:

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These are attracting pollinators: in 10 minutes I counted lots of honey bees, one butterfly, at least two species of wasps, and a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting flowers.  I only managed to photograph the first two though:

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On the way back to my hotel I gatecrashed an international turtle expo.  Who knew turtles were such a big thing in China….?

OK, that’s all for now: I have to head back to the convention centre to register, so I’ll leave you with the view I’m seeing from where I’m writing this.  Shenzhen is quite a place and I’ll write more about it later in the week:

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