There are a few questions people always ask beekeepers;
Do you get stung?
Do bee stings hurt?
Yes. Intensely for about a minute then they calm down and you forget them.
How many bees are in a hive?
A strong hive would have a population of around 50,000
There’s surely something magnetic that draws us to a bee hive. Something stronger than the urge to run away. A step closer and then another. We’re drawn into to the thronging activity at the hive entrance.
What is there to see? Traffic in and out. Arrivals laden with pollen, like brightly coloured bicycle panniers. Momentary greetings between those ready to leave and those with news of rich nectar sources. Bees just inside the entrance fanning to create an air-conditioning air-current. And if you draw closer and breathe in as you glide your nose to the entrance, the magical scent of nectar being cured into honey. The indescribable aroma of sunshine and nectar and a symphony of buzzing in the air. But careful! Breathe out into their midst and the games afoot. The arousing effect of your breath amongst them is instant. Bees sense their world and communicate amongst themselves largely through scent. I can highly recommend sniffing bee hives but I also recommend that you wear some protective kit. So, suitably kitted out with gloves and veil, the next step is to let your curiosity get the better of you and open the lid. Anyone who is prepared to take this step and to observe what lies therein with careful attention, is invited to embark on a journey into the interconnectivity and interdependency of all things. When you dip your fingers into a thriving colony you are really delving into a living organism. Individually the members have no meaning. But together they form a living, breathing, growing, organism. The component parts attend to alimentation, growth, repair, defence and reproduction.
It is correct to think that a colony of bees is as much an organism as a dog a cat or for that matter you or I. As you look at the inside workings of a hive for the first time you may well be very aware of the individual «stingyness» of the many thousands of bees that are buzzing around your head. However, I would encourage you to stay calm and consider that different groups of bees within the colony have been given different roles and activities. The ones that have been assigned the role of guards may be particularly obvious to you as you delve further into the hive. But if you look more carefully still you will see bees whose roles might include, house keeping, nurse bee, wax maker, forager, drone or Queen. These specialisations are essentially the same as the specialisation of cells, into tissues, into organs, into organism. Bees are like cells. The bees are specialised in one task or another in much the same way as some of the cells that make up you are specialised to form an eye, or a liver or a kidney.
A bee colony is therefore like any other living organism only there’s a big difference. It is this difference that makes beekeeping so fascinating. Unlike the cells that make up most other living organisms the bees can dissociate themselves and venture out into the world in a way that few other organisms can do. A strong hive with a population of 50,000 bees will have around 15,000 workers foraging in the field on a warm summer’s day. Foraging bees fly from their hive to penetrate and explore their world flower by flower in search of food in the form of nectar and pollen. They will range up to 5 km (3 miles) from their hive. The fifteen thousand or so worker bees that issue back and forth from a hive every day are interacting with their environment at a fantastically subtle level over vast distances. Through their interaction with the thousands of flowers that each of the fifteen thousand workers might visit in a day, information is gathered. Nectars sampled for quality, quantity and location. And no less importantly, pollination is achieved and fruits begin to form.
The bee is a clear example of how one tiny and essentially rather insignificant creature acting as part of a greater whole can be of so much greater importance. A bee hive is a fountain of transformative life giving energy. Sphere of influence. The foraging range of my hives is around 5km (78km2)
It would be fair to say that beekeepers are always beekeeping. If you keep bees the seasons take on a new importance. On walks you’re always noticing which flowers are in bloom. Which blooms they’re working. A chestnut tree in spring can be thronged with bees and the buzz always draws your attention.
In these parts this summer (2019) has been good. Rapid growth in the spring (April/May) and honey production in July/August. My hives are situated in oak forest. Foraging includes, lime, hawthorn, bramble, thyme, heather and most imprtantly “mielato”. Bees forage pollen, nectar and mielato (honey due). Mielato is any sugary sap or substance exuded by a plant or sometimes other insects. In this region the acorns of the evergreen holm oaks and a broad leafed oak, exude mielato as they mature. We have had a combination of hot summer and torrential rain in September which may have favoured this.
Sticky «mielato» exudes from the acorn of a broad leafed oak
Bees are fickle creatures and beekeepers merely keep them for as long as they are prepared to stick around. Bees are in no way domesticated and they are only encouraged to stay with their keeper because he or she encourages them to do so by giving them food and quarter. In the spring time beekeepers perform clever manipulations with their hives with the intention of building new hives or growing existing ones. But bees actually get on fine without our intervention and they often have different plans to the beekeeper.
Nonetheless, beekeepers are clever and resourceful and have opposable thumbs so sometimes we come out on top.
While walking through some fields I cast a weather eye towards the remnants of an old abandoned hive. I was in the habit of checking this hive to see if there was activity at the entrance. A swarm will often occupy an old hive. The residual aroma of previous occupants attracts them. And on this day at the end of July there was traffic. A quick check revealed that they had occupied four of the original frames forming their own Gaudiesque cathedral of honey comb.
“I’ll be avin’ that”, thought the beekeeper and in no time at all the colony was transferred to a new box which he had prepared earlier.
And so began another beekeeping adventure. I returned that very night to close the door and load the box into the back of the car. The mission to transport them some seven km away. There they would spend two weeks or so before I returned them to my apiary. The apiary is probably only 300 m from where the colony was found but if we were to move a colony such a short distance the flying bees would return to the previous site the next day. We must therefore move them outside their maximum foraging distance of 5 Km
Transporting bees at night in a car with a nervous dog for company is always entertaining. I stapled some fly-screen material over the entrance to stop them getting out. Working at night it’s best to use a red light as they can’t see into the red part of the spectrum. We don’t necessarily see that well into the red spectrum either and the trail back to the car was treacherous in the dim red glow. Once or twice they ZIZZED angrily as I jolted them. The red light illuminated their little heads and jaws working at the fly screen stapled over the entrance. But they couldn’t get out.
Two weeks later saw us repeat the whole process to install them in the apiary. I fed this colony a lot in what was left of that summer and tried to introduce some order in their chaos by providing regular framed foundation. But there was no enticing them from their original labyrinthine home. The queen seemed to love it in there and had no intention of laying in the new frames. In fact the bees were spreading the chaos onto the faces of the new frames.
By autumn I introduced some polystyrene block to fill up unused space and protect against the cold. Over the following summer this hive had grown enormously. Little by little I was able to move the chaotic brood nest around till the queen abandonded it and it filled up with dark honey. All that remained was to reach in and take the reward. Extracting honey from such irregular comb is not so easy and we had to build a press. Although it was a shame to have to destroy their fantastic handy work the reward was an exquisitely sweet distilation of summer sunshine. I gave them the sticky utensils to lick and by the morning they were all clean. Next summer this hive will know the benefits of a little order and hopefully we’ll all get to the end of the year with honey in the larder.