Rothamsted, the Bee and Me

Photo:Honey bee pollinating

Honey bee pollinating

By Maciej A. Czyzewski - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Notes on my talk on 28 May 2019

By Peter Tomkins

This article first appeared in Newsletter 139, December 2019

The only record referring to the keeping of bees at Rothamsted before the 20th century comes from the diary of Jacob Wittewronge the Younger. It reads as follows:

“……this summer Anno 1725 has been the wettest that any man can remember. My wife was forced to feed her bees in June or they would have been starved, the weather being so wett (sic) every day they could not get to gather any honey…”

It was to be nearly 200 years before beekeeping activity was again recorded at Rothamsted, when the following appeared in the Station’s Annual Report for 1921-22:

“…the Ministry of Agriculture suggested that the Entomological Department should undertake the study of bees as honey producers, leaving bee diseases to be studied at Aberdeen as at present. D.M.T. Morland was appointed to be in charge of the work.”

During his seventeen years, Major Denys Max Thomson Morland investigated many beekeeping problems and established bee research disciplines, some of which continued at Rothamsted for over ninety years. In 1939 Morland left Rothamsted and was later replaced by Dr. Colin Butler. Whilst at Cambridge, Butler’s interest in honeybees had been stimulated by Dr. A.D. Imms, the original founder of Rothamsted’s Entomological Department. His appointment marked the commencement of a long period of growth and development in bee research. In 1994 the Bee Department had over twenty members with Butler as its first and only head.

My part in the story begins

In August 1946 as a short, skinny, fourteen-year old with no qualifications whatsoever, but prompted by my father, I applied for the post as Apiary Assistant at Rothamsted Experimental Station (now Rothamsted Research). I had always been fascinated by bees visiting the flowers in my Grandfather’s garden but had no idea what an apiary was or what beekeeping involved. So I was rather taken aback to be offered the job on the spot and asked if I could start the following Monday! I do not know what Colin Butler saw in me that day, but I have been forever grateful to him for giving me a start on an incredible lifelong journey of discovery working with bees. I was hooked on beekeeping from the very first day. I learnt so much working with Norman Ellement, the Head Apiarist, a greatly experienced beekeeper and highly competent carpenter.

I left Rothamsted in 1948 for a spell of commercial beekeeping in Cornwall and then, after two years National Service, wrote to Rothamsted to enquire if there was a vacancy for an apiarist. There was not, but Butler, who had just embarked on his research into the queen bee pheromone or “queen substance” as he called it, was in need of another assistant. He offered me the job. It was the start of one of the most interesting and exciting periods of my working life. The first four years or so were dedicated to establishing where in the queen the pheromone was produced and then identifying its component parts, and how it was distributed throughout the honeybee colony, its effect on worker bees and queen cell building, and the part it played as a sex attractant to drones. Although the results of many experiments were published in scientific papers there was a great deal of exciting unrecorded work studying how drones reacted to the pheromone, how far they would fly, at what height and in what weather conditions. The reaction of drones at a pheromone lure as they circle and form huge “comets” * is one of the most exciting things I have ever seen!

The significance of electron microscopy

The 25 years from the early 1950s was a highly productive period in the Bee Department. The acquisition of an electron microscope at Rothamsted enabled Dr. Leslie Bailey to turn his attention to honeybee viruses and, with Brenda Ball, succeeded in identifying eleven different viruses. These, along with the Varroa Mite, have caused many problems for beekeepers in recent years.

For more on electron microscopy at Rothamsted see ‘Life in Another World’ 

Dr. James Simpson’s work on queen bee, colony behaviour and swarming advanced our knowledge considerably. Dr. John Free established the study of pollination as a major scientific discipline. He demonstrated the importance of pollination in seed production in some 40-50 different crops before turning his attention to the importance of pheromone within the honeybee colony.

Many others contributed to the work of the department during this period but, sadly, the economic restraints of the eighties brought about a downturn in the fortunes of the Bee Department and its amalgamation with the Entomology Department in the early 1970’s. The eventual retirement of several of the “bee” scientists added to the decline in bee research until at one point I was the only person working full time on bees!

I had been appointed Head Apiarist on the retirement of Norman Ellement in 1972 and retired from this post in 1992. However, I returned several times on a casual basis to assist with various projects, including establishing a private company aiming to develop the use of honeybees as scent detectors, the so called “sniffer bee” project.

Dr. (now Prof) Juliet Osborne arrived in 1995 and assumed responsibility for bee research, developing the use of harmonic radar for tracking bee flight. Under her leadership there was a short period of expansion but when Juliet left to take up a post at Exeter University, bee research once again went into remission.

At the end of my talk to the Society I wrongly implied there were no longer any bee research projects taking place at Rothamsted. I am pleased to say this is not the case! Currently two projects are in progress using the harmonic radar; one looking at bumble bee flight behaviour, the other studying flight patterns of virgin queen honeybees, something that would have greatly interested Colin Butler. Nevertheless, these two projects are being carried out by visiting workers and not by permanent Rothamsted staff.


* Unfortunately no clear photographs of a ‘Drone Comet’ have been located, Editor.

For a modern report on radar tracking see:'life-stories'-bumble-bees



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