About Bees & Beekeeping
Some Frequently asked questions
1. Beekeeping – Introduction
Man has worked with bees since at least the Stone Age. There are pictures of cavemen taking honey from bees. Perfectly
edible honeycomb more than three thousand years old was found in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharoes – so much for best before dates. In fact pure honey is one of the few food products in the UK that is not required to have a best before or sell-by date on the packaging, (although it does have to have a batch number so that it can be traced). There are many reasons why people keep bees; for some it is a way to make a living, for many it is a fascinating hobby that enables you to study the behaviour of this community dwelling insect that is able to live without councils or committees but sustains a thriving population that swings from perhaps 5,000 in the winter to 50 or 60,000 in the late spring or early summer. For some it is the harvesting and exhibiting of honey and wax products and for others it is a combination of all of them and
As a master of beekeeping, Ted Hooper, said in his book "Guide to Bees and Honey":
"It is possible to keep bees anywhere. Some places will be more difficult than others and some will be more rewarding than others
in terms of the return of honey to be harvested. But the only real objection to keeping bees anywhere is that other humans may be inconvenienced by them, and in truth this is rarely the case – the concern people feel is usually not founded on fact but on ignorance."
Current practice of beekeeping has not changed significantly since the mid-nineteenth century when hives with moveable frames for honey and brood were developed in the form they now in use. Francis Huber, from Geneva, invented moveable frame hives in 1789 but it was not until L. L. Langstroth's development about 60 years later along with his excellent "Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee" that a complete revolution took place in beekeeping. Before the modern hive, beekeepers kept their bees in straw skeps but these were very inefficient as most colonies had to be destroyed each year to recover the honey and wax.. Then in the spring the few over wintered colonies would be encouraged to swarm creating as many new colonies as possible. In modern hives the bees all over winter and are ready
much earlier to produce surplus honey for the beekeeper.
One of the best ways to learn about beekeeping is to join a local association. If you live within striking distance of Petersfield in Hampshire then the best place to start is with us at the "Petersfield & District Beekeepers Association" . For other associations look at the links page.
2. BEES AND PEOPLE
WHAT DO I DO IF I GET STUNG
Bees will not generally sting if unprovoked, usually the bee has been trapped in hair or crushed. When close to a bee hive avoid flapping your arms and moving rapidly, if the bees are antagonised walk away through undergrowth or trees if possible. If stung scrape the sting out with your finger nail as the sting still pumps venom for some time after the bee has left.
IS IT TRUE THAT A BEE STING CAN BE GOOD
WHAT DO I DO IF I SEE A SWARM OF BEES
Don't Panic, bees in a swarm are universally in a good mood. They can not easily sting even if antagonised as they have gorged themselves with honey and can not get their bodies into the best position to sting. If the swarm is not causing a nuisance then leave it, gradually the bees will cluster in a bush or tree and remain there for up to 3 days. During that time scouts will be sent out to look for a new home, the only problem may be they will choose your chimney so put your fire/ heating on low and enjoy their visit.
If the swarm is a nuisance then the police in some areas or the local council keep a list of local beekeepers who can help.
If the swarm is in the East Hampshire District Council area or just accross the West Sussex border (Rogate Harting area) ring our swarm co-ordinator Greg Gumming on : 07531 901767
But before you call anyone about the bees look at this BBKA page . If it is not a nuisance, perhaps they have already settled high in the eaves of your house or in a hollow in a tree at the end of the garden then why not just enjoy them. Try watching to see if they are bringing pollen on their back legs; this is an indication that they are well established with developing larvae.
HOW DO BEEKEEPERS CATCH A SWARM
A swarm is actively looking for a home, so if the beekeeper puts a nice hive with perhaps some old honey comb in it close to where the swarm has settled, then it is easy to persuade them to take up residence. Normally a few bees are dropped into the hive and they then 'fan' their scent to the other bees once it has been 'approved'. It is a dramatic sight to see a swarm 'marching' into a new hive. Bees already in residence perhaps in an chimney or old tree must be removed with their honey comb containing the young grubs and the queen. If the bees cannot be reached then the beekeeper is helpless and the council pest control in some areas or if not, a commercial pest control firm will destroy the colony.
APART FROM HONEY ARE BEES USEFUL
Yes very, the pollination benefit of bees is calculated to help the economy by millions of pounds per annum. Certain crops yield up to 25-40% more if efficiently pollinated and farmers in some areas of the world pay beekeepers to put hives into their fields and orchards. In addition to pollination bees produce wax for candles and Royal Jelly. During the middle ages one of the most important jobs in an Abbey was the Beekeeper, as a huge quantity of wax was constantly required for the ceremonial candles.
IS BEEKEEPING HARD WORK
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST ME TO KEEP BEES
WILL I GET STUNG IF I KEEP BEES
A BEEKEEPER USES SMOKE TO 'CALM' THE BEES, HOW DOES THIS WORK
Bees are woodland insects and evolution has taught them to fear fire more than anything else. When smoke enters a hive the bees are immediately diverted to eat as much honey as possible as there may be a need to abandon the hive at a moments notice. This diverts them whilst the beekeeper takes their home apart.
MODERN BEE HIVES LOOK BORING. WHY DON'T MANY BEEKEEPERS USE THE TRADITIONAL LOOKING WHITE TERRACED HIVE
Skeps, being inspected by Dutch Swarm
specialists at the Bee-Market in Holland around 1900
©The A I Root Company, Medina, Ohio,
USA from "The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture" (1910)
Pictures courtesy E H Thorne (Beehives) Ltd.
British National (standard) Hive
There are many different type of hive used in the world. The most common is the Langstroth, the first of the modern fully developed hives, that came into production in the USA in the 1850's. In the UK the most popular standard 'hobby' hive is the 'National' hive, this is sometimes used with the commercial brood-box. The Commercial is probably the most popular with bee-farmers as is more efficient especially if you don't have to worry about the weight of supers too much because of mechanical handling. The 'old' style or 'Traditional" hive is called a WBC after it's inventor William Broughton Carr. This hive is often painted white and does look pleasant at the bottom of the garden, but it has nearly twice as many components as the other types and therefore is more expensive and takes more time and effort to use. However it does have some edeeming features, it is more resistant to woodpecker invasion, and it keeps warmer in winter , they appear to be less prone to losses in winter.
3. Honey & Other Products
WHY DO BEES MAKE HONEY
Honey bees are special in that they over winter as a colony unlike wasps and bumble bees (see Biology). The colony does not hibernate but stays active and clusters together to stay warm. This requires a lot of food stored from the summer before …honey. Although a hive only needs 20-30 lb. of honey to survive an average winter, the bees are capable, if given the space of collecting much more. This is what the beekeeper wants them to do.
HOW MUCH HONEY CAN ONE BEE HIVE PRODUCE
HOW DOES THE BEEKEEPER GET THE HONEY
FROM THE BEES
The queen bee is kept below the upper boxes in the hive (called 'Supers') by a wire or plastic grid which the queen is to large to fit through (called a 'Queen excluder'). As the bees cannot raise brood above this queen excluder only honey is stored in the supers. As the season progresses the beekeeper adds more supers until the time to harvest the honey. A special one way valve is then fitted in place of the queen
excluder and gradually all the bees are forced into the lowest part of the hive, the beekeeper can simply lift off the 'super' boxes containing the honey comb. The honey is extracted from the comb using centrifugal force in a machine called a spinner looking much like an old fashioned upright spin dryer.
DO THE BEES MISS THE HONEY THAT IS TAKEN
WHY ARE SOME TYPES OF HONEY CLEAR AND
RUNNY AND OTHER TYPES OPAQUE AND HARD
The type of honey made by the bees is dependant on the types of foliage and flowers available to the bees. Crops such as oil seed rape (the bright yellow fields in the spring) produce large quantifies of honey that sets very hard, so hard even the bees could not use it in the winter, garden flowers tend to give a clear liquid honey. If the beekeeper wants to produce a mono honey i.e. clover, orange blossom etc. the bee hive is put out of range from other sources. This can be difficult for the small hobbyist and a blend of the seasons honey is usually the result. In the autumn some beekeepers move their hives onto the moors to harvest only the nectar from wild heather. Heather honey is thought to be the king of honeys and has a clear jelly consistency.
HOW DO BEES MAKE HONEY
Bees take nectar which is a sweet sticky substance exuded by most flowers and some insects (Honey dew) and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. This nectar/enzyme mix is stored in hexagonal wax honeycomb until the water content has been reduced to around 17%. When this level is reached the cell is capped over with a thin layer of wax to seal it until the bees need it. This capping indicates to the beekeeper that the honey can be harvested. Capped honey can keep almost indefinitely. Perfectly edible honey comb was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, over three thousand years old. How's that for Best Before Dates.
DOES HONEY CONTAIN ADDITIVES
HOW DO BEES MAKE WAX
The youngest bees cluster in large numbers to raise their body temperature. Wax producing glands under their abdomen slowly excrete slivers of wax about the size of a pin head. Other worker bees 'harvest' these wax scales and take them to the part of the hive requiring the new wax. Bees use about 6 lb. of honey to produce 1 lb. of wax.
WHAT IS ROYAL JELLY
Royal jelly is the food fed to queen bee larvae. It is a creamy white colour and is very rich in proteins and fatty acids. It is produced by mouth glands in young bees. Each queen needs only a teaspoon of royal jelly, so as health product it is very expensive. Many magical properties are claimed of royal jelly however a sceptical view is probably the healthiest, especially as products sold in health shops can contain as little as 2% of the real thing.
4. Biology & Behaviour
HOW MANY LEGS, WINGS AND EYES DO BEES
The rear pair are specially designed with stiff hairs to store pollen when in flying from flower to flower and the front pair have slots for cleaning their antenna.
The front and rear wings hook together to form one big pair of wings and unhook for easy folding when not flying.
WHAT'S 'THE BEES KNEES'?
A popular expression is 'It's the bees knees' meaning its ideal, or the best. However although bees have legs with joints like any insect their joint have nothing like a knee cap therefore bees do not have knees as such.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN
HONEYBEES, WASPS (Yellow Jackets) AND BUMBLEBEES?
Honeybees are the highest form of insect life, they live in a well organized colony that does not need to hibernate. They produce honey and store it in wax comb and use the same hive from one year to the next.
Typical max population 35,000-50,000.
Wasps start in the spring with a single queen wasp that has hibernated under leaves or in cracks. The queen wasp builds a new hive constructed from paper and about the size of a golf ball. This hive (bice) builds up through the summer, however no honey is stored. In the autumn the colony organisation breaks down, with homeless wasps becoming an increasing nuisance around bins and rubbish.
Typical max. population 2,000.
Bumblebees or as the Victorians called them ‘Humble bees’ like wasps, only the queen hibernates and survives the winter. In the spring the queen bumblebee seeks an old mouse or vole hole and builds within it a nest of leaves and moss. She constructs nodular wax cells and incubates her young as a bird would. As her first offspring hatch and begin to fly the queen increasingly stays within the hive to produce young. Bumblebees do make a small amount of honey and store it in one special cup like cell. There is no more than a tablespoon at any time.
If you have a bumble bee nest, cherish it. They are excellent pollinators of fruit etc. They are not aggressive and very seldom use their stings, which inflict little more than a sharp pin-prick. Even at the peak of development in mid to late summer the nest contains only a hundred or so bees and thereafter the numbers dwindle to zero as drones and workers die and the new queens leave to mate and hibernate elsewhere.
Nests are never reused. Wherever located, it is most unlikely to cause serious inconvenience. If its presence cannot be tolerated, the colony can be destroyed by puffing insecticide powder in and around the entrance hole at dusk on several successive evenings. A beekeeper may be prepared to move the nest for you, but often the colony does not survive the move for long. Live and let live if you can.
HOW MANY TYPES OF BEES ARE IN A HONEYBEE
Three types, a single queen, thousands of female workers and in the summer hundreds of male drones. The drone bee does no
work however in the early autumn they are evicted by the workers and die.
WHAT DOES THE QUEEN BEE DO
The major purpose of the queen is to lay eggs. During April and May she lays day and night, each egg taking about 20 seconds. That’s over 2000 eggs a day, more than her own body weight. The queen mates only once and holds sufficient sperm from the male drones to lay
eggs for 3-5 years, incidentally the drone bee dies in the process which must come as a major disappointment for him.There are 3 types of wax cell used for eggs. In the smallest cells (5mm diameter) she lays fertilised eggs, which in 21 days produce the female worker bees. In larger cells (7mm diameter) unfertilized eggs are laid which in 24 days become the male drone bees, production of offspring not requiring mating is known as parthenogenesis. A very special cell that hangs vertically downwards is used to produce new queens. A colony producing queen type cells warns the beekeeper of an impending swarm. See ‘ How Do Bees Make a Queen '. A male drone bee has no father but does have a grandfather! A healthy queen bee is continually emitting pheromones (a bee perfume) that only the bees in the hive can smell.
These pheromone odours tell the bees in the colony that the queen is still with them and all is well in the hive. This chemical pheromone communication is quite sophisticated and the ‘personality’ of a beehive will change if the beekeeper changes an old queen for a young one. Just as the personality of the beekeeper might change if he swaps his old wife for a young one. In this way a beekeeper has some control over the temper and enthusiasm of a colony.
DOES THE QUEEN ‘RULE’ THE
QUEEN MAKING & SWARMING
Bees construct up to 20 wax queen cells, which are acorn like and point downwards. The queen lays fertilised eggs in each queen cell.
The young (nurse) bees feed the young queen larvae with a rich creamy food called Royal Jelly, and extend the cell downwards until it is about 25mm in length.
Nine days after laying, the first queen cell is sealed with a layer of wax capping.
This is the time for a large swarm (called a prime swarm) of bees leaves the hive led by the older bees. The old queen has been starved of food to make her lighter and able to fly. The older bees cajole the old queen to join the swarm.
Eight days later first virgin queen leaves her cell. Two things can now occur, either the first virgin queen leads a smaller swarm from the hive
(called a cast) or she locates the other queen cells and kills her sisters by stinging through the wax wall of their cells.
About one week later the young queen takes her first flight to orientate her to her new surroundings.
The queen will shortly take several matting flights in which she will mate with up to 20 male bees called drones.
Three days later the mated queen will begin to lay fertilised eggs.
This queen will stay with the colony until at least the following year when she too may lead a prime swarm.
HOW DO BEES MAKE A QUEEN?
The making of a queen is triggered usually by a combination of conditions such as congestion in the hive and lack of egg
laying space this culminates in a swarm. see Queen Making & Swarming above.
WHY IS THERE ONLY ONE QUEEN?
It is not understood (by man) why bees will only tolerate one queen but any attempt to introduce a second queen results in her death. If a queen dies unexpectedly during the summer the bees are able to make an emergency queen from eggs younger than 3 days old.
HOW LONG DOES A BEE LIVE?
In the summer a worker bee only lives for about 40 days. As no young are raised over the winter months, the workers born in the autumn will live until the following spring. A queen can live up to 5 years however for the beekeeper a queen is passed her prime in her third year.
HOW DO THE BEES SHARE OUT ALL THE
DIFFERENT JOBS IN A HIVE?
When a bee is born it’s first job is to clean out the cell in which she was born. Jobs are then allocated on the basis of age.
|Duties of Worker
|1-2||Cleans cells and keeps the brood warm|
|3-5||Feeds older larvae|
|6-11||Feeds youngest larvae|
|12-17||Produces wax, Builds comb, Carries
food, Undertaker duties
|18-21||Guards the hive entrance|
|22-on||Flying from hive begins, Pollinates
plants, Collects pollen, nectar and water.
HOW MANY BEES ARE IN A BEEHIVE?
WHAT CAUSES BEES TO SWARM?
A swarm is the natural way for bees to multiply and produce new colonies. It is normally the culmination of queen rearing. Explained above.
WHAT IS BEE ‘DANCING’? (video)
Bees need to communicate with each other to pass on the location of food sources. To do this bees have evolved a unique dance language that can be understood by us. A worker bee returning from a rich source of food will ‘dance’ on the vertical comb surface by running in a circle, on each revolution the bee will bisect the circle at an angle. The angle with respect to 12 O’clock represents the angle to fly with respect to the sun. If the bee ran from 6 to 12 O‘clock i.e. straight up, this would say fly directly towards the sun.
And 7 to 1 O’clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun, 12 to 6 O’clock ‘Fly directly away from the sun’. In other words the bees translate
the angle to the sun as an angle to the vertical.To represent distance the bee ‘wiggles’ its abdomen whist crossing the circle, the more wiggles the greater the distance.
So a bee will ‘say’ to it’s friends ‘Fly over there for about a 1 mile and you will find something that tastes like this’. Pretty Smart!
To see a QuickTime video of this click here…
Bee Dancing Video Clip
(Takes about 45 seconds to download at 28kbps)
(If you don't have QuickTime you can download it free from Apple click here)
See OTHER AMAZING DANCES for more surprises.
HOW DOES A BEE NAVIGATE?
As mentioned above the bees use the position of the sun and there is evidence of sensitivity to the earth's magnetic field. Also bees eyes are sensitive to polarized light whichpenetrates through even thick cloud so they are able to ‘see’ the sun in poor weather.
CAN A BEE SEE COLOUR?
Yes, their eyes are sensitive more to the blue end of the spectrum and into ultra violet. Flowers reflect large amounts of ultra violet light and to a bee will be very bright. Bees are totally red blind. See the world through the eyes of a honey bee Bee Eye and learn more about bees vision and navigation at Centre for Visual Sciences at Australia National University Insect Vision .
DO BEES SLEEP?
HOW FAR CAN BEES FLY?
It is possible for bees to fly as far as 5 miles for food, however an average distance would be less than a mile from the hive. A strong colony flies the equivalent distance of to the moon every day !
HOW HIGH CAN BEES FLY?
A honey bee will not fly much higher than the height of any obstacle in it's path. The bee will learn to fly straight out from its colony at high speed and be most surprised if it strikes an new obstacle such as you standing in the way. It may lash out and you will receive a sting so be careful when walking close to the front of a busy beehive. Mating drones will fly up to 30mtrs above ground to find a queen and can go much higher if warm rising thermal air carries them so.
HOW FAST CAN BEES FLY?
DO BEES CATCH ANY DISEASES?
Yes, there are several diseases, some more serious than others. They are not infectious to humans but dangerous for the bee. Some of the most serious AFB (American Foul Brood) and EFB (European Foul Brood) ape normally treated by destroying the colony (UK). If left they can
spread throughout out the whole apiary and affect surrounding beekeepers. Spores from AFB can remain dormant for over 50 years in old beekeeping equipment and cause problems decades later.
WHY DO BEES COLLECT POLLEN?
Pollen is mixed with water and to form a type of bread that is fed to the growing larvae. It provides rich source of proteins and fat whilst honey provides energy (carbohydrate). Bees collect about 20kg of pollen every year that’s 1 million pollen loads at 20mg a go.
DO BEES HIBERNATE DURING WINTER?
WHY DOES A BEE STING?
A bee only stings under two conditions.
To protect the colony.
WHY DOES A BEE DIE WHEN IT STINGS?
When a bee stings, barbs in the lance of the sting cause it to firmly stick into the victim pulling out the venom sacs and glands when the bee is shaken off. The venom sac muscles continue to pump after these organs have been torn from the dying bee. Only the female workers and the queen can sting, the queen having a smooth sting which she uses to kill other queens. See 'Queen Making' above.
WHAT ARE ‘KILLER BEES’?
This over dramatic description hit the headlines due to events in America. Research work carried out by the Brazilian government in the 1950’s, trying to improve the local strain of honeybee by cross breeding with African bees went wrong. The African bee was known to be a good producer of honey, however had a reputation for over defensive behaviour when protecting it’s colony. The experiment was supposed to contain the African bees and prevent them from spreading however some swarms did escape and thrived in the forests of Brazil. The resultant cross strain produced an aggressive bee compared with the native bee and has gradually spread outside of Brazil and through other South American countries. This ‘Africanised’ strain can now be found in southern states of the USA producing the media hype of ‘Killer Bees’. Although an individual bee has the same sting and venom as a British bee, they are much more easily induced to sting and chase people.
WHAT IS VARROA?
Varroa is parasite that lives only on honeybees. It is a small crab like insect with eight legs and about 1.2mm across and used to live only on the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana). Due to man moving bees around the world this parasite transferred to the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) which cannot tolerate this pest. There is no effect on honey but it has been a huge problem for beekeepers throughout most of the world. Due to Varroa, wild feral colonies of bees will die out and only well managed colonies will survive.
The most common method to treat Varroa is towards the end of the season once the honey has been removed, slow release chemicals are introduced into the colony. Other more natural methods are being tried with varying degrees of success, research is on going with the ultimate
goal of breeding a resistant strain of honey bee.
BEES KNOW THE WORLD IS ROUND.
During swarming dancing (see Bee Dancing above ) occurs to pass on information about a possible new home. This can go through the night, so without the sun what do the bees use?. The answer is they dance at angles calibrated to the sun on the other side of the world!. Bees knew the world was round about 25 million years before man!.
THE SCHAFBERG EXPERIMENT.
An interesting experiment known as the SCHAFBERG experiment (named after the mountain) demonstrates the sophistication of bee navigation. The only source of food for a colony of bees was put on the far side of a mountain, the bees could not fly over the mountain only around it. What direction would the bees indicate in their dancing?. The answer was surprising, the bees indicated the direction exactly across the mountain at an angle they had never flown but had calculated in their head. The distance indication however, was for the long flight around the hill.