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Back to Basics: The Bees!

So in this post I’m going to cover probably the most important aspect of beekeeping… the bees! Now bees are very complex so I’m not going to go into full detail because otherwise you would be sat here reading this for an extremely long time! My plan is to cover a bit about the roles within a hive and try and give you some informative, fascinating and downright extraordinary facts about bees.

Her Majesty, The Queen

The queen marked with red to show she was born in 2018, queens born in 2019 will be marked green

So I’m going to start this section off by expelling a beekeeping myth. The queen has no more control over the hive than the workers, she can’t tell them what to do and in many cases it’s the workers telling the queen what to do!

The queen is the only bee in a ‘normal’ hive capable of laying eggs and reproducing. The reason I say normal hive is because if a hive is without a queen for too long for any reason the workers can attempt to lay eggs, it doesn’t work but its a last ditch attempt to save the colony. The queen lays around 2000 eggs per day during the summer months, to give that some perspective the queen is laying her own body weight in eggs, every single day!

To make sure the queen is able to lay at that rate the workers look after her, feeding, grooming and even guiding the queen around the hive to areas on comb they need her to lay in. Amazingly the queen can choose to lay an egg that becomes a male (drone) which is unfertilised or a female (worker) which is fertilised depending on the needs of the colony.

When the queen runs out of space to lay eggs it signals the on set of swarming, this is where the workers start to produce a second queen so that the hive can split in two. When this happens the old queen stops laying and the workers restrict food and keep her moving to lose weight, she loses 1/3rd of her weight which allows her to fly with the assistance of the workers to their new hive!

Did you know that in the first few days of hatching a worker bee larvae can be changed into a queen bee by feeding it large amounts of royal jelly a natural substance made by the bees, amazingly just the change in food during the first few days of its life means that unlike a worker who’s lifespan is about 6 weeks a queen can live up to 7 years!!

Drones

A good overview of the different castes on honey bee (Apis Melifera)

Drones are male bees, they’re bigger than workers but despite that don’t actually have a stinger which is part of the female bees reproductive system. Films like ‘Bee Movie’ show all of the males working as worker bees, in reality the males are solely there for reproduction after which they die. The drones are looked after by the workers and fly out to drone congregation areas… scientists still don’t really understand how they pick these spots but all the drones from hives in the area somehow know where to go.

Bees are notoriously hard working and as the saying goes there’s no such thing as a free meal. In late September when the bees know the winter is coming the drones are kicked out of the hive because it gets too cold for them to go out on mating flights and they eat food without providing anything in return, bees really are very efficient! In the spring when the weather starts to warm up the bees start to rear drones which then reproduce with queens from other hives.

Time For The Real Work To Begin, Workers

Worker bees with larvae (white) and bright pollen probably from Snowdrops or Crocus

So there’s an awful lot I could write about workers as they make up over 95% of hive population but I’ll try and keep it short and sweet. So, as you will know from the section on drones and the queen, workers are all female but unlike the queen can’t lay fertile eggs that become other workers.

The role of a worker changes throughout its life depending on it’s age and the needs of a colony. Below you can see what jobs they do throughout their usual 6 week lives, notice there is some overlap and that is just them responding to needs of the hive.

Days OldJob In The Hive
1-3 Housekeeping – These bees clean the wax cells ready for the queen to lay in.
3-16 Rubbish Disposal – These bees remove rubbish including bees and larvae that have died in the hive.
4-12 Nurse Bees – They check on  and feed the larvae, on average a single larvae is checked 1,300 times per day.
7-12 Attending to the Queen – Feeding and cleaning the queen.
12-18 Fanning the hive, controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive
12-35 Building the hive – Bees from 12 days old can start producing wax.
18-21 Guarding the hive – Standing a the hive entrance stopping intruder bees, wasps or other predators.
22 -42 Collecting resources – Collecting honey, water and propolis (tree resin) for the hive

Workers hatched in late September onward are ‘winter bees’ their bodies are actually subtly different from the workers hatched in the summer. The winter bees have slightly higher fat bodies in their abdomen that allows them to reserve more energy. This small difference means the workers born just before winter live for several month until the next spring, that’s necessary because during the winter it gets too cold for brood to be reared in the hive.

This Week’s Update

So the weather this week has been unseasonably good, it’s given me a chance to go around my hives and have a little look inside, I’m pleased to report that all of them are looking healthy and growing fast! This could be good or bad news depending on the weather to come, but we will keep a close eye on them and make sure everything goes alright no matter what the weather!

I hope you have found this post interesting and now know a little more about life inside a hive, as I said this is a very quick look at honey bees. If you want to learn even more about bees and get hands on why not take a look at our beekeeping experiences.

Thank you for reading our blog and supporting our business. If you have any questions about this or beekeeping in general ‘id love to know, leave a comment below and I will look at doing a post answering some of your questions.

Matthew Ingram


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Back to basics: The seasons of beekeeping

Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby, or for some of us lucky enough even a job, but for those that haven’t had any beekeeping experience it can seem like a mystical and confusing world. I noticed during my first few posts that I just dove right with the beekeeping but perhaps didn’t go over the basics first. This fairly long post (Sorry I got carried away!) is going to go over the year of a beekeeper, so you can understand a little more about how bees and beekeepers work together throughout the year.

April – The start of our beekeeping year

It may seem odd starting a year off in April but for a beekeeper that’s when things really start to get interesting. April is a time when the bees become more active and the longer spring days have prompted the queen to increase the amount of eggs she lays. Did you know, at the height of summer the queen can lay 1,500 eggs per day! As well as the growing bee population, spring flowers are starting to come out and the bees start producing the first honey of the year.

A small section of comb with laid in by the queen

May – The joy of Oilseed Rape

May, the temperatures are warming up now and the bees are out flying every day. Oilseed Rape, the yellow flower seen all over the countryside is in full flower and it provides a massive boost and first crop for our bees. We move our bees as close to the Rape Seed as possible to cut down on how far they have to fly, the bees do the rest of the work! It’s not uncommon for a hive to produce upwards of 20kgs of honey in just a few weeks!

Oilseed Rape honey is deliciously sweet and fairly mild tasting, but it has one quality that can stop even the best beekeeper in their tracks. We all know honey granulates over time, it’s fair to say we have all found that jar of honey at the back of the cupboard we had forgotten about, now rock solid. Well Oil Seed Rape honey does this in a matter of weeks or even days if it isn’t extracted from the comb quick enough.

To get around this we produce soft set honey, a smooth creamy texture created by grinding down the sugar crystals until they’re no longer bitty and unpleasant to eat. It’s one of our most popular types of honey and you can find it here – Creamed Honey

The sea of yellow Oilseed Rape

June – Mind the gap!

The June gap – sounds funny I know but it can be a really serious time for bees and their keepers . Towards the end of May the spring flowers, like the Oil Seed Rape and many of our native flowering trees have gone over and no longer produce pollen or nectar. The problem is many of our summer flowers aren’t yet ready which means our bees can go hungry.

The hive is nearing it’s peak capacity over summer, around 60,000 bees but the food sources become scarce and as many beekeepers extract spring honey in May/June we need to be extra attentive making sure our hives have enough food or supplement in their food.

Thirsty work! A worker collecting water

July – Summer is finally here.. hopefully!

This is the month the bees really expand, the queen is laying roughly 2,000 eggs per day and the workers are busy collecting pollen and nectar from an abundance of flowers.

The hive, reaching maximum capacity can also cause the bees to swarm, which is a natural way of a hive reproducing. In a swarm the old queen leaves with about one third of the workers to make a new hive, while the old hive produces a new queen to take over. As a beekeeper we want to avoid swarms as much as possible, not only can they be a nuisance to members of the public they also greatly reduce the workforce of the hive, and the stores of honey the colony has amassed throughout the year.

This colourful picture always reminds me of summer!

August – Too dry?

While most years are fine and the bees continue well with the queen only laying slightly less than the peak of July, 2018 was slightly different. The long hot dry spell caused many flowers to stop producing nectar which in turn had a strain on the bees. With such a large population and limited access to forage bees in some areas started consuming more honey than they could produce.

Despite the dry spell, the summer of 2018 was record breaking for many beekeepers, as the hot but damp start to the year gave our bees the an abundance of flowers producing nectar and pollen.

Grass around two of our hives dried up, it got much drier than this too!

September – The Start Of Winter…Already!

September is the first month in which we as beekeepers start to really think about preparing for winter, the main honey flow (plants in flower) is over and the bees population has started to reduce. Our first job is to remove the supers of honey (Not sure what a super is? Check out our post on parts of the beehive – Here) This is our main crop of honey and may be as much as 50kg per hive!

Varroa, so if you have been reading our blog i’m sure you will have heard me mention Varroa Mites, they are a small parasitic mite that live on bees and can cause the spread of disease and eventually the colony death. In September we treat our bees with a sort of medicine that kills the exposed mites without harming the bees, by doing this we know that our bees are as healthy as possible ready winter.

Varroa Mites seen on the bee to the right.
Photo Credit: beeaware.org.au

October – Time For Food

While when we take the honey crop we do leave plenty for the bees over the winter some of the bigger hives go through their stores very quickly, while the weather is still relatively mild feed our bees with a concentrated sugar solution which bulks the hive up for the rest of the winter.

We also add mouse guards, a perforated metal sheet that stops mice from entering the hive to seek food and shelter but allows the bees to come and go freely.

Feeders on the top of a hive.
Photo Credit: Blue Line Honey

November – The Clustering Begins

As the night and now days become colder the bees begin to cluster, many people believe honey bees hibernate which isn’t true. In fact honey bees huddle together to keep warm, the lack of brood allows the bees to keep the hive at a slightly lower temperature than the rest of the year as it isn’t acting as an incubator.

Thermal Image of bees in cluster! Photo Credit: Honey Bee Suite

December – The Dark Days Of Winter

With the days now as short as they are going to be the queen has almost entirely stopped laying eggs. The bees in cluster are slowly moving over the comb in a circular pattern consuming their stores as they go. There isn’t much a beekeeper can do now besides getting ready for next year!

Our Bees During Winter

January – Time For A Quick Peak!

One of the first jobs of the new year is treating our bees for Varroa mite, again! In January we can use a naturally occurring chemical, Oxilic acid to kill mites. The acid is put into a mild solution and gently trickled over the bees. It doesn’t hurt the bees but the exposed mites are killed. This means our bees should be going into spring as healthy as possible!

The other great thing about this is that it gives you a quick chance to take a look at your bees, but we have to be quick and can’t remove the frames as the bees will have to work hard to get the hive back up to temperature.

Bees in cluster but looking very strong!

February – Are they flying?

The days are now getting longer and spring is in the air (hopefully!) on warm days the hives are busy with activity with bees venturing out for the first time in months, there are some flowers producing pollen, particularly Snowdrops, Hellebores and Crocus.

The queen is now laying much more, they will be flying in about a months time. With greater numbers of bees comes a greater demand for food, there still isn’t much in the way of nectar producing flowers but a hive will go through around 10kg of honey this month.

Bees enjoying the Crocus Pollen

March – Not Out Of The Woods Yet!

Spring is nearly here and depending on the weather we may be starting to check our bees a bit more often. It can be easy to feel like the hard work is done and they’ve made it through winter but in fact March is probably the riskiest time for bees.

The bees have grown in number to get ready for the spring flowers but they haven’t arrived yet. If beekeepers aren’t carefully monitoring the amount of a food a hive has it can be very easy for them to run out and die out before the spring flowers arrive! We check them based on weight and add sugar syrup or bakers fondant is the weather is still cold.

Pollen being collected by this worker bee

Well Done, You Made It Through A Year Of Beekeeping!

Thank you for reading our post, I know this weeks was a bit longer than usual but if you’re really interested in bees then this gives you a good overview of what our bees and us will be up to throughout the year.

Update from our bees: We have had a few sunny days recently and the bees have been taking full advantage of this, all of the hives are alive and by the activity at the entrances all look very strong too! Of course there is still a long way to go before Spring properly arrives!

Again thank you for taking the time to ready our blog!

Matthew Ingram


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Back To Basics Beekeeping – The Bee Hive

It came to my attention while writing my last post that there are many technical terms used it beekeeping that many of you won’t actually know. This quick post will go through the parts of a beehive as well as a few pictures showing how I make certain parts of the hives. Hopefully you’ll learn something new about the fascinating world of beekeeping!

The Hive Itself

All modern beehives are essentially a stack of hollow boxes with removable frames in them that the bees live on. Our beehives are called British Nationals or Standard British Nationals, which is the most common type in the UK. The height of each box differs depending on its use, although with everything in beekeeping each beekeeper does things slightly differently, so everything that follows in this post is just my opinion.

Parts Of A Hive

  • The floor and entrance block – The floor is raised to keep the bees and the hive away from the damp, it’s also made of a fine wire mesh, that allows debris and the Varroa mite fall through but because it’s fine the bees and pests can’t get through. The entrance block is simply a way for us to protect weaker colonies at certain times, we reduce the entrance size so it is easier to defend from pests like wasps.
  • The brood box – This is where the queen is, or at least should be. This deep box has plenty of room for the queen to lay her eggs as well as storage space for pollen and a little honey.
  • The queen excluder – Well if you read the above and wondered how I knew the queen would be in the brood box then this is how. This perforated sheet has holes big enough for the workers to get through but small enough that the much larger queen can’t.
  • Supers – The supers are where the nectar is stored and turned into honey, the queen can’t lay here so when we extract we don’t have to worry about contamination. While the diagram only shows one super we add them on top as needed. Some strong hives can have up to 7 or 8 supers!
  • Crown Board – This board is simply a way to reduce the space between the hive and the raised roof. Without it the bees would stick the roof down with rouge comb!
  • The roof – A pretty simple one, simply there to keep the hive dry and over the summer give it some shade.

Building Hives

As I said we build all of our own hives more or less from scratch. We use Pine and Plywood to build our hives as it works well and is very economical. All of the wood comes from our local sawmill who do a lot of the cutting for us so it means we can make our hives much quicker!

It is quite a simple process, the pine lengths have a small rebate cut into them and then we simply screw them to the plywood ends and attach the sides… you don’t have to be a master of DIY! So long as its solid and will hold up to the Great British weather it’s ready to go! To make sure they are going to last we coat all of the boxes in a bee friendly outdoor paint too.

Frames… explained

So I’ve mentioned making frames quite a few times over the past few posts without explaining what they are. It’s much easier to show you, please see a few pictures of them below. Basically the bees don’t just have free rein inside the hive, it would end up in a mess of wax that we just couldn’t check so we prompt the bees to build their comb on wooden frames that we can lift out and check.

The size of the frame depends on the size of the box and how many frames you want in each box. I personally have 12 frames in a brood box and 11 in a super, it’s just what works for me, no scientific reason at all. We buy the frames in Ikea style, flat pack! They’re easy to assemble with the help of a nail gun but the amount of frames we need to build makes it a big job!

Hopefully you’ve learnt something new!

One of the things that is really important to me and is helping to guide Holt Hall Apiary is teaching the general public about beekeeping. Although most of you will probably never become beekeepers I personally think that having an understanding of one of the most important pollinators in the world is always a good thing!

If you’ve not seen our previous posts you can find them here – The Beginning of our beekeeping story | Getting our bees through winter.

Thank you for reading and supporting our business.

Matthew Ingram


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