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!
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.
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>
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.