Beekeeping 5

March 31, 2011

Ok – so it’s been a while, and I missed Beekeeping 4 which was the fun one about all the products from bees, but anyway, here are my notes from beekeeping 5, which was all about apiary health and hygiene.

Andy Wattam, the National Bee Inspector from the National Bee Unit presented the session.

Bees are livestock – hence the need for inspection

Role of bee inspector: Train, research, inspect

Inspections are mandatory but it is not compulsory to register. Beekeepers got extra sugar rations in the war so the number of registered keepers went up!

There are now 4000 registered bee keepers in the UK.

Bee inspectors are a free service and are good people to contact for advice

Bees are  not covered by welfare legislation

What’s normal?

The most important thing with bees is to know what normal looks like, and then it is possible to spot when something is wrong. When you look in the hive, as long as you can see eggs it doesn’t matter whether or not you can find the queen – she must be there. The open brood must be lying in aC shape.


  • Varroa You have to control it or bees die, many bee keepers struggle with it
  • European Foulbreed
  • Acarine – tracheal mites
  • Nosema


All keepers have varroa. You need to monitor, count and treat. The motes are big enough to see so look out for them. Images of what to look for can be found by searching the BeeBase site. Varroa like to breed in the drone cells as the drones have the longest incubation period. Varroa mits carry most of the viruses that bees can suffer from, e.g. deformed wing virus.  Open mesh floors help.

There are lots of treatments available, some are dependent on the time of year that you are using them.

If you can master varroa management beekeeping is easy!


This can be spread by beekeepers, but its also spread when bees rob a diseased hive. Also called open brood disease. Not C shaped, discoloured, and open brood. Books will tell you that you can smell it – you can, but not until disease is very advanced. You really want to be able to identify it before it gets to that stage.


A minor disease – bees can often deal with it themselves. Larvae harden and beed pull them out. You will see chalk like mummified bits outside the hive. You need to get a new Queen that is not susceptible.

Bald brood

Brood not capped over. This disease had increased since varroa. It is also seen if  there has been a wax moth in the hive. Bees deal with this and it is of no concern to bee keepers.

Drone brood in worker cells

There is a problem with trying to raise drone bees in worker cells – the drones are too big! This situation could be a sign of no queen.

Preventable issues

  • Waxmoth damage
  • Wasp robbing
  • Mice

Apiary hygiene

You need

  • all in one suit
  • disposable gloves or washing up gloves
  • smokers
  • hive tools
  • soda crystals for cleaning hive tools
  • blow lamp
  • new comb

Plants Bees Like

  • Field beans
  • Borage
  • Phacelia

Beebase is the National Bee Unit website


Biomimicry from TED

February 10, 2011

This guy seems to know what I mean!!!!

October 5, 2010

… and can explain it a whole lot better!

Beekeeping – Lesson 3

August 14, 2010

Our lesson today was mainly practical which was great – and not so many notes to write up either which is a definite bonus. We looked at different types of hives, making frames, replacing foundation comb and smokers.

Types of Hives

The most common is the Langstroth hive

image from www.dave-cushman.netThis is the most popular box worldwide. The brood box is 20″ x 16 1/4″ and the brood frame depth is 9 7/16″. The specific dimensions are very important due to ‘bee space’. The brood area is 2750 inches square and contains 61400 cells.

Also popular is the National hive, which is similar but has slightly smaller dimensions

The WBC is the ‘classic’ looking beehive. It has 2 layers and is therefore more complex to deal with and has less space for bees (PDBKA don’t recommend these).

You can also get Commercial size hives, and Smith hives.

For more info on different hives go to (the website that the above image came from).

Whichever type of hive you choose it is recommended that if you have multiple hives they are all of the same type so that your components fit all hives.

Recently plastic hives have become available. Apparently there are no problems with these all though I personally find them hard to accept. Cleaning traditionally is done with a butane gas flame – you can’t do this to plastic. Also, in an earlier lesson, we were warned not to paint the hive with gloss paint as it would not be able to breathe so surely this would be a problem with plastic too. In general amongst the experienced beekeepers there was a preference for wooden hives as they are more natural. They also recommend you steer clear of plywood hives.

The layers of the hive

Most hives now have a mesh floor as this makes the control of Varroa easier. On top of this goes the brood box, then the ‘Queen excluder’ and then the super boxes which you will collect honey from. You then have a top which is ventilated and a waterproof roof that fits above this. Although before Oil Seed Rape came along beekeepers would put all their supers on at once, now it is best to add the extras after you have harvested the honey from OSR.


Frames are bought as flat pack components which you self assemble. We were shown how to do this and then each made our own frame complete with foundation comb.

Tools needed

You definitely need hive tools so that you can pull out the frames to inspect the bees. You also need a smoker. Smokers can use anything that burns eg corrugated cardboard, bits of wood, wood shavings, hessian (dont use sawdust as it send sparks into hive). Light the smoker using shredded paper and then add the fuel. If you need to cool the smoke put some green grass in the top. To smoke the hive, first send a little smoke in the entrance at the bottom and then wait a minute or two for it to take effect. Then open the hive. Add more smoke as needed.

For all things beekeeping, Thornes are great suppliers, though not necessarily the cheapest they have the most comprehensive catalogue.

Chicken Keeping 101

August 10, 2010

Yesterday I caught up with an old school friend that I hadn’t seen for 22 years. Perhaps uniquely in the history of reunions, we went on a chicken keeping course together! Rachel, her 3 children and myself all went along to Jessie’s Hens in Fen Ditton for a sunny afternoon training course with Tom. These are my notes from the day.

4 different types of chicken

  • Large Fowl  eg. the Rhode Island red
  • Broilers
  • Bantams (small hens) Although the term is often used to describe any small hen, Bantam originally refers to a particular type of hen from Indonesia – there are few ‘true Bantams’ left
  • Hybrids ( a mixture of 2 or more hens in an attempt to create the perfect chicken)

Tom prefers the hybrids. As they are smaller than the large fowl they cost less, eat less and they also lay more. Whereas the large fowl will live for up to 10 years, the hybrids will only live for 3 or 4. This could make you think you are better off buying a hen that will last longer, but the reality is that the large fowl will only lay for the first few years. The hybrids will lay for most of their life. Hybrids also lay more – the large fowl will produce between 120 and 250 eggs per year when they’re laying – the hybrids all lay somewhere between 260 and 350 eggs per year.

There is more about the hens that Tom stocks on his website.

Although I had been thinking of getting 2 chooks, apparently this is a bad idea as hens naturally like to be in groups of 3. If I had 2 – one would be dominant and one would be picked on and sad – so 3 it is!  Definitely  a Speckledy for it’s yummy eggs, probably an Amber for its calm nature, and most likely a Nera, purely for its good looks!


Hens don’t need much in terms of their housing, what is more important is the size of the space they have to move around in during the day.

Within the house they need a perching area which allows 6-7 inches per bird. The large hybrids, such as the Sussex will need 9 inches and when buying a house and coop advertised as appropriate for a certain number of birds, you should count these larger hens as one and half birds.

Hens need to be protected from the rain and winds, and to be predator proof. To keep out foxes it is good to put chicken wire about 6 inches underground under the coop – that way, if a fox digs under the sides he still wont be able to get in.


Hens need a water and a food supply both inside the house and in the run. Hens have no teeth – the food they eat goes straight into the crop (you can feel it and tell what they have been eating!) and at night when they are on the perch their crop pulses and the food is then digested overnight, hence the reason that they often lay in the morning.

The birds should be fed layers pellets plus a handful of corn per bird per day (you don’t need to give them grit if you feed them corn). If you do want to provide grit, sea shells are great – boil first to clean and remove salt and then crush as small as you can. You can also feed the hens their own shells. To prepare, wash them and place open side down on a kitchen towel to drain, then heat in an oven for 10 mins and crush them as much as possible.

3 things you shouldn’t give chickens

  • soft bread – stale is ok as is toasted bread
  • raw potatoes – cooked is ok, they like mash!
  • cut grass

Hen health checks

Check beak comb wattle and lobes. If there are any sore patches (eg if has been hen-pecked!) treat with cold tea.

Check for mites and lice – look in the bald patch on the back of the neck and under the wings. Treatment for the red mite is a powder – puff on the neck. Lice look similar to human head lice and they darken with age so you have some idea of when the problem began.

Check their feet and legs – rub your finger along the leg and it should feel textured but smooth. If any scales have lifted up this could be scaly mite. Treat by applying vaseline onto the mite using a cotton bud. Surgical spirit could also be used. With both treatments make sure the bird is not in the sun.

Check for swollen feet – look under their feet for swellings. Hens can get wasp and bee stings here as they try to catch them by holding them with their feet. If you can see a barb pull it out and then just clean it with cold tea.

Check the vent area – when hens first start laying they can get a little tear. Is usually not serious, even if it goes a little pussy for a couple of days, but you can treat it with cold tea – leave it on for a little while and then wash it off.

The comb as a signal of what is going on with your hen

The comb signals when the hen is going to lay. The closer the hen is to laying the darker red the comb, wattle and lobes become. The lobe is the last part to go red. After laying, you may some little white spots on the lobe.

The comb is also an indicator of your hens health. If it goes blue it is not a good sign. It could mean that the bird has an illness, such as a cold or is not breathing properly for some reason. In the worst case, but unlikely scenario, it could be avian flu.

What do with a sick hen

It is very rare that a you see a young chicken ill. If a chicken dies, be prepared for the fact that the others will peck at it. In nature, when a chicken gets ill it is picked on by the rest of the flock and driven away.

Keep an eye on your hens by doing a regular health check.

Apple cider vinegar is widely regarded as a chicken health tonic. Although some people will recommend giving it to your hen all the time, Tom says this is not necessary – just use as and when required. Give them 5-10 mls in a litre of water.

Battles poultry spice is also recommended (there is also a tonic in liquid form but it has a shorter shelf life). If use the powdered version, just give the hens one tsp full per litre of water. Don’t give at the same time as cider vinegar. Although people selling you this product will tell you to give it to your hens every day this is not necessary – only give it to your hens when they seem down in the dumps

Worming and lice can be dealt with in two ways. Either as a regular event on certain dates, or as and when needed. Each hen keeper should choose the way that is best for them. If using straw from a local farmer you are more at risk of mites.

Keeping the hen house clean is also very important. Jeyes fluid ‘freshbin’ is good for this – just sprinkle in the hen house, leave for a couple of hours and then sweep up. This is also available in a premixed liquid form in a spray which is even better for getting in corners. With either keep chickens out of the house whilst the spray dries or until you have swept away the powder

Heat stroke is a major killer of chickens. Make sure they have plenty of water, in the house and in the run. There are 3 stages of heat stroke:

  1. They look woosy and stagger a bit
  2. They have gungy eyes or are blowing bubble
  3. Death

To treat heat stroke you need to get 50-60 mls water into the chicken. Tom showed us how to do this with a syringe into the side of the mouth. For chickens in stage 2, a grain of salt in the first syringe will help to make the chick thirsty so that it drinks more of its own accord. Likewise, a very small amount of salt in the drinking water will encourage them to drink more.

A good thing to feed a chicken that is ill is cat food, but specific cat food. The jelly packs of fish are best but they will cope with other meats if they are in jelly (don’t feed them chicken!!!!). Don’t use any eggs laid for 72 hours after feeding them cat food.

Clipping the wings

Not really needed with the hybrids, especially when in a coop, but even free range ones don’t need it if they are happy. If you do it, you only need to do one side.

Protecting from predators and pests

The biggest predators are foxes, badgers and mink. Always put your hens to bed at night. They should be away by dusk and not up before dawn. Hanging some human hair in the hen house is a good idea too. Collect hair from lots of different ladies from a hairdressers and put them in a stocking, hung in a place that chickens can’t reach. The fox will smell the scent of each woman and think there are lots of people there.

Grass snakes and adders can also be a problem. They are interested in the eggs and not the chickens,  but the adders venom can kill a chicken if it is provoked into biting (eg by the chicken pecking at it).

Rats are the biggest problem. they will be attracted to the food you have down for your chickens. It is best to use traps and not poison due to secondary poisoning (Eradibait is an exception to this and wont cause secondary poisoning, but is only sold in industrial quantities). Tom recommends T-Rex traps and suggests that you put them in an old piece of drain pipe so that your hens (and your children) are safe. Alternatively, you can just place a trap in the run at night when your chickens are in the house, and remove it in the morning before you let them out.

Final remarks

The course was good and I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of keeping hens. Tom was great with the kids whilst ensuring we all had the info we needed. We got practical experience too, in catching, handling and performing a health check.  We also left with some eggs – all you need to finally convince you that your own eggs will taste so much better than the supermarket ones – the best scrambled eggs ever!

Tom’s prices also seem very competitive. There is a great after sale service and you can call Tom with any questions. They’ll even take the hens back if for some reason you can’t keep them anymore. To make it even better, there is a 10% discount on everything (hens, houses, food, rat traps etc) when you have done a course. I’ll be going back to see him – once I’ve harvested the potatoes currently occupying the site of the new chook pen that is!

Beekeeping: Lesson 2

August 8, 2010

Yesterday I went along to beekeeping lesson 2, and as I was told in the first session every beekeeper has their own way; today we had a different teacher with a different style, different ideas, who even spells some things differently to the one we had last week.

The focus of the session was on the Honey Bee itself. How a bee functions and how a colony functions as you need to understand how they behave to be able to manage them effectively.

Castes and their Lifecycles

The queen comes from an egg which is just the same as any other egg, but the larva is fed entirely on royal jelly. The queen cell is always vertical ( though it may start horizontal)

3 days as an egg

5 days as a larva

8 days as a pupa

Total development time for a Queen is therefore 16 days.

The pupa goes through a series of malts.

The queen mates within 2-3 weeks of hatching. Flies away from the colony to do this. She spends time getting to know the colony before she does this so that she can be sure to find her way back. It is best not to disturb the colony whilst this is taking place. She mates on the wing with 10-20 drones, most likely from a different hive to herself.

The queen will go on one or 3 mating flights and will hold the sperm from the drones for 3-5 years. The main purpose of the queen is to lay eggs. During April and May she lays eggs night and day, each talking about 20 seconds – she can lay around 2000 eggs per day, which is more than her body weight. Her egg laying is controlled by the workers and is dependent on how much they feed the queen. If they are going to swarm they will cut down the amount they feed her so that she is not too fat to fly.

A healthy queen also emits a pheromone which only bees from that hive can smell.

The workers are sterile females – though in the absence of a queen their ovaries can develop and they can lay eggs to create unfertilised drones.

3 days as an egg

6 days as a larva (open cell)

12 days as a pupa (cell is capped)

The workers therefore take a total of 21 days to develop. This is longer than the queen, but their food is not so rich. Instead of being fed entirely on royal jelly like the queen, workers are fed ‘bee bread’ which is essentially pollen.

Division of labour by age (Ian Harley’s version)

1-2 days     House keeping; cleans out cells and keeps brood warm

3-5 days     Feed older larvae

6-11 days   Feed younger larvae. During this time they may also be seen just outside the hive – they are not going to swarm, they are just hovering in front of the hive looking closely at it and the surrounding area so that they learn to recognise their own hive. this behaviour usually happens between about 12 noon and 2pm. Research has shown that they can distinguish between some shapes too. In apiaries with a lot of hives researchers have marked the tops to help the bees to identify their own hive. They have found that the bees can distinguish between a cross and a circle, but they cannot distinguish between a circle and an ellipse, or between a cross and a square.

12-17 days   Produce wax and build comb (do together – makes more heat to melt wax), carries food and carries out undertaker duties. They also get rid of other debris and challenge invaders, for example if a wasp gets in they will kill it and carry its body out in pieces. As most bees die outside of the hive the undertaker duties should not be too strenuous but is behaviour worth looking out for. Sit and watch your hive for a while – if main activity if of bees flying back to the hive with pollen this is a good sign, if there are a lot of dead bodies being turfed out there is likely something wrong.

18-21 days   Guard hive entrance. makes sure that approaching bees are from their own colony and not robbers – though if unknown bees turn up laden with goods they may well be let in to the colony (this is known as drifting).

22 + days   Flying from the hive begins. They pollinate plants, collect nectar, resin, pollen and water. They don’t fly unless conditions are good. If it is too hot, or there is no nectar available they wont bother. The phrase “busy as a bee” describes the workers, though they actually rest quite a bit – they will just park themselves in an empty cell and rest up for a while, though they are still contributing to the colony by providing warmth for the brood.

The Drones develop in cells that are slightly larger (7mm) than those that the workers develop in. They are created from unfertilised eggs and take a total of 24 days to develop. Genetically, the drone reflect the genes of the drone that was the queen’s father. Implications for breeding are that as long as you have a good queen you can guarantee that all drones within a hive will have good genes (unfortunately you can’t control the genes of the diploid offspring so easily – they could have been fathered by any old drone).

When mating the drones will fly up to 30 metres above the ground. Drones will often move between hives and guard bees don’t often challenge them.

Occasionally you get a situation where you have drone laying queen – colony dies!


There are 2 types of communication – physical and chemical

Chemical communication takes place by means of pheromones. There are a number of them:

1. Queen Pheromone is the most potent of all. The workers respond to it, feed her, groom her and will pick up pheromone from the queen and transport it around the hive. It tells the hive that all is well. The queen pheromone also suppresses any instinct to lay eggs in the workers, determines when swarming will take place, holds a swarm together, attracts drones during a mating flight (this is a different pheromone – the queen has several) tells workers about queen quality so they know when to raise new queens (sometimes they raise new queens which take over within the hive – called superseding – and they do not swarm), and attracts a retinue of workers to attend the queen.

2. Nassenov Pheromone is the ‘we are here’ pheromone which signals to the colony where they should be. It is also used to collect stragglers when the colony gets disturbed and when a swarm finds a new home. Some workers sit on the outside of the hive (or skep or box if you are collecting a swarm) and fan their wings to spread this pheromone so that the other bees know where to go.

3. The alarm pheromone (1) is found in the mandibular glands of the workers and develops as the worker becomes a forager or guard bee. It can be triggered by smoke. If they smell smoke, bees will get into the cells within the hive and start to gather their stores and they are preparing to move home. Beekeepers can use this  – if you smoke bees, they will get busy in the cells rather than attacking the keeper.

4. The alarm pheromone (2) or the sting pheromone is emitted when a bee stings. It can also be emitted without stinging. This pheromone signals a threat to the colony and provides a target for further stings. An implication from this is that you need to wash you bee suit regularly. The pheromone will hang around in the suit from use to use, so if you get stung one time you are likely to get stung the next if you haven’t washed your suit. Another implication is that most bee keepers have given up on the idea of using leather gloves as they are impossible to clean. They also make handling things quite different. Thin rubber gloves can be washed more easily or disposed of after use and make it easier to manipulate things – you can get stung through them though!

Physical Communication

The waggle dance (click for video). Although researchers are fairly sure that the dance describes where honey is as described in this video, recent research suggests that not all honey bees are smart enough to understand the dance as several fly off in the wrong direction. As bees are able to perceive polarised light this communication method can be used on cloudy days.

Bees also tell their hive mates about the food source they have found by proffering their wares to the other bees in the hive. Bees are able to differentiate the amount of sugar in the nectar that each bee brings back and will always aim to go to the nectar source with the highest sugar content possible. Rape has the highest sugar content of all (is this why it crystallises so quickly???) and bees will fly up to 3 miles to get some of that.


The colony of bees acts more like a single organism than as a collection of single organisms (bees can’t exist as individuals). To reproduce, bees must produce a new colony – they do this by swarming. Swarming is a natural activity and if bees didn’t do this they would have died out long ago. When managing bees though, you don’t want them to swarm too frequently – often when this happens you lose your bees!

The causes of swarming are:

  • Lack of space
  • failing queen
  • genetic disposition
  • weather conditions may trigger swarming

The more modern strains of bee are more productive than older strains and so they will fill a brood box quickly. You can have more than one swarm leaving a colony (if it has more than one virgin queen). There have been attempts to breed bees that don’t swarm. The Buckfast strain of bee was bred for this characteristic – however, there are colonies of Buckfast bees that have been known to swarm every year. This is because it very difficult to control which drone the queen mates with. Good breeder queens can cost up to £85 – they will be artificially inseminated so that all their genes are known.

The Bee Improvement and Bee breeders Association (BIBBA) are enthusiastic about working with a native strain of bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). This subspecies has been around in the UK for at least 3000 years, as wings have been found when excavating bronze age settlements. This bee (known as AMM) has the largest body volume of all the subspecies and is the best adapted to our variable climate. There are also different ecotypes within the strain that are oriented to different crops – for example there is one that builds up its numbers in time to pollinate heather, and another that times its activity around  farm crops. The general consensus of BIBBA is that our bees should contain as many AMM genes as possible. There is also a view that the purer bred the bees are the gentler they are. Ian intends to breed for a high % of genes from the dark European bee and also for calm and quiet nature.

Swarm management

There are two sides to swarm management: Prevention and control

Swarm Prevention Techniques

  • Use a hive of sufficient size
  • Use a strain of bee that is less inclined to swarm
  • Destroy all queen cells when found (carry out hive inspections weekly during swarming months). If the hive continue to raise queens you can assume they are in the mood to swarm.
  • Clip the wings  of the queen
  • Create an ‘artificial swarm’ at a time that suits you – move a queen into a second hive. This is usually done by taking a frame with a queen on from one hive to another. At the end of the season when numbers drop you can get rid of the old queen and reunite the colony.
  • Have a ‘bait hive’ for them to swarm into close to your other hives. A bait hive can simply be a box that is similar to a hive containing some brood comb. Swarms will find it!

It is worth remembering that a bee is a wild animal, and it seems that there are wild colonies returning  in the Peterborough region.

How far can bees swarm?

It is not known exactly how far they can go, but bees can move several miles if they need to. As the queen is not used to flying this could take several days and the swarm will rest overnight.

Swarm Control – Collecting a swarm

  • Don’t attempt it if the swarm is difficult to access
  • Wait until the bees have settled in one place
  • Get the queen and as many bees as possible into a skep, hive or box and the rest will follow of their own accord
  • remove the swarm to its final position

If happens in early days contact your bee buddy for support.

It is always good to know of places where bees are wanted as swarms often need new home. If you are looking for some bees let PDBKA know.

The Beekeeping Year (Ian’s version)


The start of the season. Bees have put away their stores to get them through the winter. If harvesting the honey make sure tat you leave enough for the bees, or be prepared to feed them during the winter. The workers produced in Autumn will live for 6 months and will govern the spring build up. Autumn is also the time to treat the hive for Varroa.


Don’t disturb your bees after they have settled down for autumn. During the winter months the bees will cluster in the hive to keep warm. The colder it is the closer they get. They may fly in the occasional warm day (Ivy provides pollen quite late in the year). The bees will consume minimal stores, and may move within the hive and recluster around a new food supply.


The queen starts to lay a small number of eggs in January and February which will be raised by bees that hatched last autumn. The rate of increase of numbers within the hive is dependent on the availability of nectar and pollen or honey and is also influenced by the strain of bee.


The colony reaches its peak in May/June/July and the main nectar flows are in May and July (there can be a ‘June Gap’ so make sure you don’t take all of their honey!

The mood of the hive

This can be influenced by

  • The state of the hive
  • The queen
  • The strain of bee
  • The weather
  • The time of year
  • What they are foraging on (eg when on linseed with flowers only open in the morning they are not happy in the afternoon)

When you open a hive and see that the bees are in a bad mood just close it again and come back another time>

Further Resources

Plan Bee Anglia is a short film about bees created by two girls from Peterborough through ITV fixers.

Northern Bee Books was the recommended place to buy bee books, and Ted Hooper’s “Guide to Bees and Honey”, Donald Sims’ “Sixty years with Bees”  and R.O.B. Manley’s “Honey Farming” all came highly recommended.

Beekeeping: Lesson 1

August 1, 2010

Yesterday I attended the first of 5 sessions on learning how to be a beekeeper with the Peterborough and District Beekeepers Association. The first thing we were told was to be wary of what you find on the internet about beekeeping – apparently there are lots of so called ‘experts’ out there but really the only site you can trust is that of the British Beekeeping Society. This is the point then that I feel I must add a disclaimer:

I KNOW NOTHING! These are just my notes, for my personal use, though you are welcome to read them and you may find some of the links that I have added to be useful, but I can’t accept responsibilty for their content either!

There are many different ways of beekeeping. The right way is the way that works for you. Due to this fact, the course leader recommended that if you are going to read about beekeeping choose one book and stick with that. But how do you choose that one book I wonder – I am hoping for some recommendations next week!

About the bees

The bee we are talking about is Apis mellifera, the European Honey Bee.

The nasonov gland of the bee produces a scent which enables bees to find their way back to the hive – each hive will have its own scent that the bees will recognise. You will see worker bees fanning themselves on the hive to spread this scent. The bees antennae have many scent glands to detect this pheromone among other things.

The Varroa mite (which has the apt scientific name of Varroa destructor) is a parasite which is a big threat to the honey bee. It attaches itself to the body of the bee, weakening the bee and releasing viruses. It is capable of wiping out a whole colony. Varroa produces a scent similar to bees.

In nature bees create honeycomb which hangs in lines


The manmade hive designed by L.L Langstroth and known as the Langstroth hive mimics this. A typical hive costs around £150.

A typical hive contains 1 queen, about 200 drones and approximately 60,000 workers in the summer months, though in September/October the drones will be kicked out as they are no longer needed for mating and the worker numbers will dwindle to approximately 10,000.

The workers sting, the drones don’t, and the queen wont!

The cell distribution arrangement within the hive is that the brood are in the centre, with pollen cells surrounding them, and honey cells surrounding the pollen cells.

As an aside, it was mentioned that you should ensure that you don’t paint your hive with gloss paint – it needs to breathe! If the wood can’t breathe condensation will cause problems within the hive.

Before the modern day Langstroth hive, bees were kept in skeps. The whole thing would be destroyed in winter to ensure that disease was controlled and beekeepers would simply recolonise their skeps the following spring. The demise of British woodland has meant that finding bees in nature is less easy than it used to be, so the majority of keepers now use the Langstroth hive which can be cleaned.

Where to keep bees

Bees can be kept in a multitude of places, from a small back garden, to an orchard, and from an arable field to a London roof top. Bees can also be moved around with relative ease -simply close off the hive and transport them. Growers with orchards will actually pay bee keepers (around £40 per hive) to place their hives in their orchard for pollinating. Almost all flowers make for good honey, though oilseed rape can be problematic to the beekeeper as the honey granulates within a week and is not easy to extract.

Keeping bees near horses is apparently not a good idea as the pheromones in horse sweat can attract the bees. How near is too near though? A question I need to ask next time. Web searches that I have done suggest a distance of at least 40 feet which doesn’t seem all that far to me!

Who does what in a beehive?

The queen lays 2000 eggs per day and is mother to all in the hive. She also produces a pheromone which is essential for the well-being for the whole colony. As she gets old (around 2 years) her scent weakens and a new queen is produced and the old queen is kicked out.

The drones mate with the queen. The drones penis actually breaks off and stays inside the queen and the drone dies once his mating duty is over. The sperm are stored in layers within the queen and she uses them a layer at a time. As she goes through the layers, the genetics of each particular drone are present in the young. As a result, the temperament of the hive changes over time.

The workers have a system where their labours are dependent on their age

3- 15 days            feeding the brood and attending the queen

8-16 days             honey processing (evaporating the water from the nectar)

12-18 days           wax production and comb building

15-25 days           hive ventilation

14-35 days           guard the hive (they begin to be able to sting at around 2 weeks)

20 days – death  pollen and nectar collection

25 days – death  water and propolis collection

The workers live for about 6 weeks.

The eggs are laid at the bottom of the cells in the centre of the hive. To develop they need royal jelly. Future queens are fed only royal jelly, workers and drones get royal jelly for the first three days and then bee bread. Once the pupae have been given enough food for their development, the cell is capped over by the workers so that the bee can develop. It is always oriented so that the head faces outwards. The worker and drone cells are horizontal and in the centre of the hive, but the queen cell is vertical, and often found in a corner.

It is the job of the workers to feed the young and to clean out the cells once the young have left them, ready for the queen to lay in them again.

A year in the life of a beekeeper

Bees continue to fly throughout the year, though there is obviously less nectar to be had in the winter months so you need to feed your bees. Never feed them shop bought honey. They need pollen to produce the brood.

August – remove honey and treat for varroa

Sept/Oct – feed the colony

Nov/Dec/Jan – protect from mice and woodpeckers

Feb/Mar – feed again

Mar/Apr – remove mouse guard, clean, remove old comb, mark the queen

May/June – swarm control

Beekeepers use smoke when opening the hive. This blocks out the alarm pheromone that is released when the hive is opened and keeps the bees calm while you do whatever you need to in the hive. If you get stung a pheromone is produced that attracts other bees – so it’s best to not get stung!

Beekeepers also need to change some of the frames in the hive – usually 3 or 4 will be replaced each year.

What use is beekeeping?

As well as being an obsessive hobby, beekeeping is a valuable industry with  approximately 30,000 beekeepers in the UK alone. Beekeeping is a valuable national industry and the pollination that results is huge economic asset for the country.

The product from bees are honey, wax, royal jelly and other medicinal compounds such as propolis.

As a beekeeper you may also be asked get swarms in people’s gardens. If you get the queen, the rest will follow. The bees naturally form clumps where the queen pheromone is, though a clump may not necessarily mean the queen is still in that position. Bees also naturally go up, which can be used when collecting a swarm if you are able to get something over them, and is also worth knowing when you are trying to get them back into the hive.

When starting out as a beekeeper:

Don’t get your bees from a swarm! Get gentle bees from a reputable beekeeper.

Plan to have at least 2 hives.

You need to be able to drive to the location so that you can move the bees if needed. You should be at least 1/4 mile from other beekeepers to prevent robbing.

The hives should be hidden from paths and roads and should have water nearby (though this can be from an artificial source).

Ideally they should be placed where they get early sun to wake them up, but are shaded from the midday sun.

Place a fence and/or some vegetation around the hives (between 6ft and 15ft high).

Ensure that you can access the hive from behind so that you are not in the bees flight path when working.

Join a beekeepers association so that you have support and liability insurance.

Membership to the Peterborough and District Beekeepers Association is £26 per year. The association is also the place to buy all your beekeeping equipment at reduced prices.