The complete year of articles for the bi-monthly Inside Marple glossy magazine
JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2022
Welcome to my regular feature on the life of the honeybee. Hopefully it will give you an insight into the world of the amazing honeybee as we progress through the year. In each edition I will be giving a summary of what’s been going on in and around my beehives since the last issue and what I expect to see before the next issue. In each feature I will also give a little bit more information on the life and management of honeybees. I will describe topics such as what makes a honeybee so special, beehive structure and function, the unbelievable properties of honey, all the other products we can get from honeybees, and everybody’s favourite topic – swarming.
So, it’s a common misconception that all bees make honey. When we think of bees most of us think of the big black and yellow bumble bee. Well, as lovely as it is, it doesn’t make honey. The honeybee is a small brown insect with black stripes and like all bees is hairy. To some people it looks just like a fly. Here in the UK, we have about 250 different species of bees and there are over 20,000 globally, but only the honeybee actually produces any harvestable amount of honey. All the honey we use, without exception, comes from honeybees whose scientific classification genus is Apis, which is where we get the name apiary for the place where we keep our honeybees.
So, why do honeybees make honey? The reason is that they are colonial social insects, they don’t die off in the winter and they don’t hibernate, so they need a supply of food to get them through the winter months when they can’t forage for their food sources of pollen and nectar.
It’s now January and all the bees in the hive, probably 15-20,000 of them are tightly grouped together keeping each other warm. They are all workers and sisters except for the queen, their mother, who will continue to be laying a few eggs. Any she has laid will be carefully tended and when the larvae hatch will need to be fed. The honey and pollen they have stored within the hive throughout the year will be used for both the adults and larvae, but they will have to dilute it with a tiny bit of water first. On warm or sunny days some of the workers will take the opportunity to make ‘cleansing’ flights and may even find the odd plant with nectar. It’s a real pleasure to me on a sunny day in the snow to see the bees fussing around the entrance. It’s a great indication that they’ve made it through so far and that they are healthy and active.
Little is expected to change through February, though if the temperature warms up the queen might lay more eggs and more workers may leave the hive for cleansing flights and to check out early flowers. As a beekeeper little actual work needs to be done at the hive. I really don’t want to disturb them, though I might check they have enough food by ‘heftng’ (lifting) the corner of the hive to check there is sufficient weight. If there isn’t I will place a block of sugar fondant above the bee cluster. At home I’ll clean and prepare my bee equipment ready for the spring.
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MARCH – APRIL 2022
The honeybees are staying inside the hive for most of the time keeping warm and feeding off the stores of honey and/or the sugar block I gave them for the winter. On sunny days I’ve had a walk past my hives to make sure I can see some of them flying, and if there’s a group sunning themselves around the entrance it’s a great sign the colony has made it through the winter.
As we move through March more spring flowers will appear and hopefully the bees will start bringing back pollen and nectar. If the weather is particularly good I might take a quick look inside the beehive to check all looks well and to see if there is evidence of the queen laying eggs. If she is I might add a ‘queen excluder’ and a ‘super’.
I’ve now mentioned several of the beehive components, so I think now is a good time to discuss what a beehive actually is and how it works. In the wild honeybees will nest in natural dark cavities where they form ribs of honeycomb from the top of the cavity. Between each of the ribs the worker bees will have left just enough space for them to move around and for newly hatched bees to open and climb out of their cells.
There is no such thing as a natural beehive. The beehives we know today are a relatively new invention from the late 19th century. Before then, here in the UK we tended to use straw skeps which were basically a coiled straw basket placed open end down into which honeybees could nest. These skeps were usually placed within an alcove in a wall known as a bee bole where the bees were protected from wind and rain. The famous Mr Oldknow of Mellor Mill fame was also a visionary farmer, and if you look carefully at the north garden wall of his Bottoms Hall, you can still see several alcoves, facing south, which are believed to be traditional bee boles.
Skeps were difficult to manage and so a modular structure to house a honeybee nest with moveable combs was invented. It not only recognised the concept of the ‘bee space’ but also the need for easy management and with the ability to scale up or down depending on the strength of the colony.
Many different types of beehives now exist, some are horizontal such as the top bar hive, others are vertical. Probably the most familiar, which has a traditional beehive shape, is known as a WBC hive, but by far the most common, and which I use, is known as the British National Beehive. They all have the same concept of a modular design with sufficient size to home a full colony, enclosed to provide darkness, warmth and to protect from the weather and with an entrance which can be protected from marauders.
A further development was with the introduction of ‘foundation’ which is basically thin sheets of beeswax which has been pressed with the hexagonal base of a cell to help the bees get started. These are mounted into a small wooden frame and acts as a mid-rib which the worker bees ‘draw out’ with their own wax on both sides of the frame.
The British National Hive has two main parts. The brood box is for holding eggs, larvae and pupae, and a smaller box known as a super which sits above and holds the honey which can then be collected.
The other components of the hive, starting at the top are:
Above the supers is the crown board which for the bees is the top of the hive. The space above it to helps with air flow and we also use it to hold syrup feeders. The final component is the roof which protects the hive from the elements.
Above the brood box we place a queen excluder. It is very thin with small gaps which only the smaller worker bees can get through. This makes sure that the queen remains in the brood area and can’t lay in supers which are stacked on top. Supers are for honey only and are slightly thinner than the brood box at 150mm. They contain 11 ‘shallow’ frames which when full of honey can weigh about 2Kg each. So, the supers are smaller for a very good reason – they are very heavy when full. I usually get up to three supers in a good year.
The brood box sits on the bottom board and at 460x460x225mm is the largest box in the hive. It holds 11 ‘deep’ frames which when drawn out into cells the queen will lay her eggs. The honeybees will also store some pollen and make honey but most of the cells are left for the young.
the stand which raises beehive off the ground. The front of the stand usually has a landing board for the bees when they return heavy-laden from foraging.
Above the stand is the bottom board, typically with a mesh base to allow parasitic mites to fall out of the hive and recessed at the front to allow for a changeable entrance block with different sized cut outs which can be removed completely at the height of summer. At the moment my entrance block is positioned with the smallest gap available.
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MAY – JUNE 2022
The weather in February was wild. Storms, sleet and snow, and high winds contrived to keep the bees in the hive where they kept warm using the food reserves of honey and the block of icing sugar I’d given them. When it was mild or when the sun shone some of the bees came out to visit the early spring snowdrops and crocuses that had popped up. Thankfully, my colonies had survived the winter and were strong.
The weather warmed up through March, so I rotated the entrance block to a bigger opening to stop congestion as the bees got busier. The days got longer through April, more sources of food were available, and the colony built up its stores of nectar and pollen. Nectar could be seen glistening in open cells and the chunky multi-coloured pollen grains were stored in empty cells around the brood.
During May and into June the queen is frantically laying eggs, there are many plants for the workers to forage on and they can really start producing honey which they will use as a food (though they have to dilute it with a drop of water first) when there is little nectar and through the winter. So, what is honey, and what has nectar and pollen got to do with it?
Nectar is a sweet sugary liquid produced by plants solely to attract pollinating insects so that they will be dusted with pollen which is a fine powder that plants produce as their male reproductive mechanism which needs transporting to a suitable female plant.
Nectar is the primary carbohydrate food for many insects and pollen is one of the bees most important food sources of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and sterols. Pollen is primarily used for feeding young larvae but is used as food for all the other bees too. If there is an excess in the colony, some nectar is added to the pollen stored in the honeycomb and the cell capped with wax to create ‘bee bread’ that can be used later.
Forager worker honeybees use their long tongues to suck nectar from the flowers and collect pollen which they stick to hairs on their back legs with a bit of nectar, we call this their pollen baskets. The small quantity of nectar they might eat is processed in their digestive stomach, but the majority of the nectar collected is stored in a separate and dedicated ‘honey stomach’. Somebody has calculated that honeybees must visit between 1000 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honey stomachs.
Some of the nectar that is taken back to the hive is used to directly feed younger worker bees and if present male drones. Nectar cannot be stored as the high water content causes it to ferment. The majority is passed from forager worker bees to worker house bees who add some digestive enzymes, before regurgitating and passing it on through a number of other bees in the hive until it becomes storage quality when it is deposited into honeycomb cells. The regurgitated nectar is distributed throughout the cells in the honeycomb until the cells are nearly full. The bees then carefully dehydrate the nectar, reducing the water content from around 70-80% down to 17-18% by keeping the temperature in the hive constant at around 35°c and by maintaining an airflow by fanning with their wings. When the nectar is at the right consistency it is known as honey and sealed with a cap of wax. So very simply, honey is dehydrated, or very concentrated, nectar.
It is said that it takes approximately 50,000 honeybee loads of nectar to make one pound of honey. Because of its low water content and high acidity, bacteria, fungi and other harmful organisms cannot live or reproduce in honey so if kept properly (raw) honey can last indefinitely without any form of preservative.
But honey isn’t the only product we can harvest from our honeybees, in the next article I’ll describe what else we can get from the beehive and what bees we have the hive.
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JULY – AUGUST 2022
During May and June most beehives will be a bustling ‘hive of activity’, the colony building up through July and August to its maximum strength and size. I say ‘most’ beehives because in May I found one of my colonies to be queenless. Early season inspections had looked fine, they hadn’t swarmed but suddenly there was no queen and the colony looked weak. Fortunately, I was contacted by a local beekeeper who needed to move a small colony complete with a queen (known as a nuc – an abbreviation of nucleus). I was able to collect it and combine it with my queenless colony. It will be a bit slower in producing honey, but I rarely take an early crop of honey preferring to harvest it all in the autumn by which time it should be in full production.
So what bees do we have in the hive? In an earlier article I mentioned that all UK honeybees were of the genus Apis. More specifically they are Apis mellifera and most of us beekeepers have honeybees that are a cross of several European breeds. There is however an indigenous UK honeybee. It has a black rather than a banded abdomen, it is the subspecies Apis mellifera mellifera, known as AMM, or more commonly the British Black Bee. It is now very rare, and because it will cross breed with any of the European breeds it’s unlikely that it will ever establish itself again. Having said that, there are pure breeding colonies on the isolated western Scottish islands of Colonsay and Oronsay where it is an offence to bring in any other breed of honeybee. Many of you will have no doubt seen the intriguing but forceful signs at the car ferry ports that service these islands.
There are many reasons that the British Black Bee is rare, and most of us beekeepers have mixed colonies with bees descended from breeds such as the Buckfast, Carniolan, or Italian. Bee breeders over the years have selected honeybees with specific traits such as high honey production, early foraging, disease resistance, a low aggression, and a low tendency to swarm. The table gives an indication of the most common types of bees we have here in the UK:
Whatever breed we have, any colony only ever has three types of bee. One queen, up to 50,000 worker bees at the height of summer, and early on and through the height of the season there will be a couple of hundred male bees too. The queen is busy laying eggs. The workers, all are sisters and produced from fertilized eggs all going about their specific jobs which they do without argument or conflict. The males, known as drones, are produced from unfertilized eggs, they hang around the hive waiting for an opportunity to go off and mate with a virgin queen – it’s their only task in life. The genetics of bees is complicated and so I won’t go into it here, but the drones, which can’t sting or feed themselves are only produced when needed.
As a healthy colony grows, it can become too big for its current hive. The bees’ sense this and make several new queens, and just before the first new queen emerges from her cell the old queen departs to find a new home with most of the workers. This is known as a swarm. The first new queen to hatch then finds all the other new queens and kills them before setting off on her nuptial flight. Though most beekeepers don’t want their bee colonies to swarm they are in actual fact a good sign of a successful and growing colony. The drones have only one purpose which is to fertilize queens. They fly from the hive and create drone clouds which newly emerged virgin queens fly through to mate.
Swarms can be alarming, even frightening to some people that experience them, they are in fact a miracle of nature and spectacular to witness. The sky goes black with thousands of airborne bees that sound like a load of helicopters flying around. They will eventually land on a tree or some other temporary spot and send scouts to look for a new home.
Beekeepers love swarms, it’s a source of a ready-made colony, but for those that have lost a swarm more than half their honey production has just disappeared. Collecting swarms is great, providing they are not in a too difficult place, they eventually cluster in a big mass of bees, and are good tempered. The method is to get as many as possible into a carrying box. If it’s on a convenient branch, simply by gently knocking the branch, so as much of the swarm as possible falls into the box. Providing the queen is in, by the evening all the other bees follow her, and you simply take them to wherever you need them.
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SEPTEMBER – OCTOBER 2022
The frantic activity of the bees over summer has subsided slightly as the colony prepares for winter. When honey production has been good, I remove most of the honey (which I’ll describe in the next article) always ensuring I leave enough for the needs of the bees to get through the winter.
Most of the summer plants have finished flowering but Ivy is a useful late food source and around where I live there is lots of Himalayan Balsam! It’s fair to say it’s not a plant appreciated by everybody, but for beekeepers it’s very important. It’s not an indigenous plant and is highly invasive, but it produces copious amounts of both nectar and pollen late into the autumn and as a consequence, it is very very popular with insects. At times its flowers are awash with a huge array of insects busily flitting around as they indulge themselves in the abundance of its sweet sticky goodness. Varieties of moths, butterflies, hoverflies, and in particular many species of bees can all be found at this natural ‘Super store’. For honeybees it provides a late season crop and those that forage on it can do so at lower temperatures and until much later in the year than in areas where it’s not present.
So even as we move into autumn there is still a ‘hive of activity’. But what have we got inside the hive? I’ve previously mentioned that a beehive will have three different types of bees. Well, we’re now down to two. The drones (males), which were fortunate enough to have mated with a queen died following their brief union (and I won’t go into the gory details) but those that remained have all been unceremoniously ejected from the hive and left to die. This leaves the sole queen who continues laying eggs, though at a reduced rate, and all her daughters – the workers.
All bees have four stages of life. Egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The queen lays a single egg, about the size of a grain of rice, at the bottom of each wax cell. Those destined to be new queens are laid in special large queen cells. The eggs hatch after three days into a blind and legless larvae looking much like maggots and are fed and cleaned by the house bees. All larvae are initially fed with Royal Jelly, but after three days workers and drones are fed a combination of nectar and pollen, but queens are continued to be fed a special Royal Jelly which is produced from special glands in the head of worker bees.
As the larvae grow, they shed their skins several times until about day nine when the cell is capped with a thin layer of wax. Inside the juvenile bees, now called pupae, transform into adults. New queens take 16, workers 21, and drones 24 days before they eat the capping on their cell and emerge as adults. Queens, which at the height of the summer can lay between 2000-3000 eggs a day can live for up to five years, drones that don’t get the chance to mate with a queen, up to 60 days, and the workers – well the workers are incredible little things and deserve a paragraph all to themselves.
Workers as I have said before are all sisters and they have to undertake a series of roles before they graduate to their ultimate role as foragers. Each role is completed with dedication and without any conflict with their sisters. After hatching they spend the first couple of days cleaning any empty cells. The next 10 days they move onto feeding larvae and drones, attending to the queen, and capping any larvae that are ready to pupate. This is followed by a further 10 days of removing debris from and ventilating the hive, creating honeycomb from their wax glands, receiving and storing nectar, packing pollen, and guarding the hive. After about 20 days as a ‘house bee’, they finally graduate, get their wings to become a forager and fly from the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
Honeybees prefer to forage on large stands of the same plant within a two miles radius of their hive. They have developed an amazing method of communicating to their sisters the location of a suitable nectar source. It’s called the ‘Waggle Dance’ and takes place inside the hive on a vertical face in the brood box. The dance is performed by a successful forager and provides information on the direction, distance, and quality of the source, so enabling its sisters to find the same stand of plants. The dance consists of two phases, 1) the figure of eight-shaped ‘return phase’ in which the bee circles back, alternately clockwise and anticlockwise, to the start of 2) the ‘waggle phase’, which is a short straight run in which the dancer vigorously waggles her body from side to side. The direction of the food source relative to the sun is indicated by the angle of the waggle phase from the vertical. The distance is conveyed by the duration of the waggle phase, the longer this run is, the further away the source. The quality of the food source is indicated by the vigour of the waggling during the waggle phase and the speed with which the return phase is conducted.
Somebody has calculated that honeybees must visit over 100 flowers on each foraging mission and that it takes more than 50,000 honeybee loads of nectar to make one pound of honey. When weather permits the forager bees work continuously without breaks, and sadly after about six weeks they die of exhaustion. During the winter, as I’ve previously mentioned, the workers are not so active, they don’t die off or hibernate, and will live up to six months.
So, it seems that the little industrious worker honeybees literally work themselves to death during the summer months. It’s not surprising then that an image of a worker bee is the internationally recognised symbol of industry and activity, a symbol which I’m sure most of us will have seen all over the city of Manchester which was the home of the Industrial Revolution. Images of worker bees proudly adorn the globe at the top of the official Manchester Coat of Arms and many of us will have marvelled at the beautiful Manchester Town Hall Bee Mosaic Floor.
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NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2022
The honeybee season has wound down. The frantic activities of the bees through spring, summer, and autumn are complete. On mild or sunny days some of the workers will venture out to look for food (and/or go to the toilet), but there is very little to do for us beekeepers other than clean and maintain our equipment.
In poor weather the bee colony will use the stores of honey and pollen that they have so industriously collected through the summer months. I’ve described honey and what it is in previous articles, but now is the time that I take any excess honey for my use. In a good year, and this has been a good year, I get two or three full ‘supers’ of honey. I always leave half the honey for the bees and the rest is mine, and getting it from hive to jar is long, messy, and sticky job!
Each of my supers have 11 frames and when full of capped honey it’s a beautiful and pleasing sight. I first have to remove the supers carefully brushing off the workers with a feather. Some beekeepers use an extraction board overnight below the supers of honey with one way bee escapes, so that once the bees have left the super, they can’t get back in.
To harvest the honey I use a stainless-steel honey extractor. Mine is a manual type that takes four honey frames. First, I scrape the honey cappings off with a comb-like uncapping tool then secure the frames in the extractor. Again, there are many methods of removing the cappings such as a large knife or even a device like a hair dryer to gently melt the wax cappings. I then wind the handle to spin the frames and the liquid honey is flung to the inside of the extractor. It then flows down and collects at the bottom, with bits of wax. Periodically I’ll open the tap and pour the honey through successively finer sieves into a storage bucket. I only use a double strainer as I like to ensure a tiny little bit of wax remains. From a full super I expect to get about 20lbs of honey.
From the storage buckets it’s then decanted into glass jars. At first the honey is full of little bubbles, but they soon float to the top with any tiny bits of wax to leave the fabulous pure amber honey. I don’t take my hives to moorland heather in the autumn, but beekeepers that do have to use a press to extract the honey as it is too thick and sticky for a normal centrifugal extractor.
The wax after cleaning is re-used to make candles. Although it can be eaten, it doesn’t have any real medicinal properties, but can be beneficial for both hair and skin. It’s also used as furniture polish, and in food preparation. It is also used more and more in the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries where it is the basis of lip balms, hand creams, and some make-up products.
Honey is amazing stuff and I’ve only touched on some of the properties, but honey and wax isn’t’ all we get from our domesticated bees. Although, I don’t, it’s also possible to harvest:
Royal Jelly which is a thick syrup-like liquid high in proteins and sugars. It’s considered to be a superfood, a healthy delicacy which is also used as an alternative medicine. It can only be harvested from queen cells when the larvae are about four days old and can only be collected in small quantities even if colonies are stimulated to produce more queens for the sole use of producing Royal Jelly. Unlike honey it is perishable and must be preserved in a fridge until used.
Propolis is a glue bees make by collecting resins or sap from trees or flower buds and mixing it with saliva and beeswax. It is used in the hive as an antibiotic sealant to plug small gaps, but it also prevents diseases, parasites, and bacterial growth. It has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It can be collected in several ways, but usually by inserting a perforated sheet into the hive which the bees fill with propolis. This can then be removed and the propolis scraped off.
Bee venom is believed to help rheumatic diseases, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, neuralgia and other conditions including high blood pressure (though I have to say it raises my blood pressure every time I get stung). There are documented cases where sufferers with arthritis in their wrists put their hands into beehives in order to get stung.
This form of alternative treatment is known as apitherapy and as a trend is increasing gradually. There are several commercial methods of extracting bee venom. One method is to electrically stimulate bees to sting a dedicated glass bee venom plate within a hive. The venom is carefully dried, scratched off, and processed. Other methods involve carefully holding a bee and manipulating the sting which induces the secretion of venom onto a glass plate, which sounds like a slow laborious job to me. Others simply hold a bee in tweezers and place it on the part of the body that requires attention so that the bee stings naturally. Sadly, the bee will die in this process.
As some people have a severe allergic reaction to bee stings and venom the practice of apitherapy must only be administered with utmost caution.
I mentioned pollen previously and how important it is for bees and the production of honey. Well, it’s not only nature’s most nourishing insect food it’s also considered also a super food for us too. Pollen is collected by temporarily putting a special pollen trap on the hive entrance with gaps just big enough for the bee to get through but scrapes the pollen off their hind legs into a collector. Pollen can be used as an ingredient for many products but is best used as pure pollen, cleaned and dried, just as it was when being carried on the legs of the worker bee. It can be bought commercially as granules or ground into a powder and can be added to smoothies, yogurt or any cooking that takes your fancy. It has powerful antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. It can, reduce inflammation, stimulate the immune system and lower cholesterol levels naturally. In addition, some research indicates it is beneficial for the digestive and respiratory systems, and can help with prostate issues.
My last point about bees, made with the bad pun intended, is about bee stings. These are the bees defence mechanism, and as beekeeper who is essentially robbing them of the fruits of their labour stings are an occupational hazard. I’ve been stung many times and it’s not pleasant, but what’s worse is that as the honeybee stinger has a barb which remains in the skin it means the bee will die after stinging. I used to be blasé in my approach to bee keeping and not getting fully covered – but not anymore.
Hope you have enjoyed the year of the beekeeping diary.
Any comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
My other honebee related blogs:
What is Honey?
In consideration of the dreaded Himalayan Balsam