Bees or honey?

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“I wonder what our bees are doing today?” asked Emily as we watched the rain trickle down the windows of her wedding at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. It had been a beautifully mixed day of sunshine and showers – perfect for rainbows but not for bees. We both reflected that we hadn’t missed a good Saturday’s beekeeping.

Fast forward to Sunday evening and getting home from duties of chief bridesmaid to messages waiting from Jonesy and Thomas. They had found queen cells in two of our hives and had carried out artificial swarms. This is what our bees were doing.

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Queen cells look like peanut-shell structures. Can you see the three magnificent queen cells, and perhaps a fourth to the left, more than an heir and a spare. Image © Thomas Bickerdike

It is the swarming season, particularly in May to July, and swarming is a natural part of the honeybee life cycle. The worker bees build queen cells and before a new queen emerges, the old queen flies off with half the bees, and honey, to find a new home. It’s how the species reproduces itself. Honeybees might build queen cells to replace a queen that is old or sick (called supersedure) but it’s often tricky to predict their intent. We were lucky that Jonesy and Thomas had been around to catch our swarmy bees, and fortunate that there was hive equipment standing by at the apiary.

So we had three hives and now we have five.

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The following Saturday as I stood looking at our five hives and listening to Thomas explain what had been done (Chili’s and Chamomile’s hives had been artificially swarmed), I heard the words of my first-year mentor Ian ringing in my ears: “It’s bees or honey”.

Flashback to April 2010 to finding queen cells in my first hive and carrying out an artificial swarm, which Ian had said was making ‘an increase’. I had two hives from one and, I thought, twice the honey, not realising that swarming sets back honey production by a few weeks and that two smaller colonies might be less likely to produce as much honey as one larger colony. As it turned out, the bees were trying to supersede the old queen and I recombined the colonies with a new queen, Jasmine. I got a strong-sized hive with four supers of honey (I took two and left two for the bees) which paid for the following year’s beekeeping. Sadly, Jasmine’s bees didn’t survive the winter as nosema swept through the apiary and there were heavy losses, but I like to think that she left me a parting gift of a hive partner, Emily.

Four years on, we’ve had a pattern of small swarmy colonies and no honey. ‘Five hives can easily become ten,’ Thomas said. He was right, and Myrtle’s hive would be next to try and swarm. I could see the new hive equipment bought to last this year and several more would quickly disappear if it wasn’t managed. The bees don’t pay for themselves and getting honey does help, or it’s just a very expensive hobby. Also, I really want to get honey this year. I love keeping bees for the bees, but I am a beekeeper – a centuries-old craft of keeping bees for honey and wax as well as bees. To put so much money, time and effort into a hobby and to fail to achieve one of the major goals every year is demotivating.

What to do? I felt like Emily and I look after our bees well and do all the things we’re supposed to do, while learning new things on the way. Other beekeepers at our apiary get a fair crop of honey even after seasons of prolonged rain and poor mating. I was puzzled why we didn’t – time to gather expert opinions, I asked Pat and Thomas what they thought. Pat agreed that each year we had too many splits, small colonies and not enough honey. “You could requeen,” he suggested as a way to change the swarmy nature of our bees. I didn’t like that idea as we have very nice queens. We could, of course, sell the extra hives, but we’d still have small-sized colonies. Fortunately, there were other options: “You could wait and see which queens are the best layers, then combine the colonies.” I liked this suggestion best as it meant we’d have stronger-sized colonies with more bees and stores, while the spare queens would go to beekeepers who need queens. We’d be spreading the gene pool of our nice-natured bees to other colonies and giving ourselves a better chance of honey!

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This laid-back drone doesn’t make much fuss as Pat gently tries to remove a male varroa mite from hitching a ride on his back.

For now all talk of plans would have to wait. Pat and Thomas helped to inspect the artificially swarmed hives from Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies for extra queen cells. We found and took down a couple, leaving the strongest-looking queen cells in the hives and hoping to prevent further cast-off swarms. These two colonies must now be left undisturbed for a few weeks while the best candidates emerge to fly out and mate, and become the new queens. Fingers crossed for good weather in late May/early June.

Then onto our three original hives – Chili’s and Chamomile’s were checked for further queen cells that needed to be taken down, “It’s about managing your queen cell situation now,” said Pat. We then inspected Myrtle’s hive (nothing to report there).

I’m used to inspecting hives and teaching beginners at the same time, but it seems this had taught me some bad habits. “You need to be quicker than that,” said Pat. “Know what you’re looking for. Right, you’ve done that – now put back the frame and move on.” This might have been the most useful advice of the day. Pat felt our colonies were small and unproductive (from a honey-producing point-of-view) because they were opened too frequently and for too long. Emily and I are good at using our hives to teach about bees, and we enjoy that, but perhaps we needed to be more disciplined on doing beekeeping. I reflected that we often spent more than 10 minutes per inspection and forgot or ran out of time to do hive management: cleaning up wax around frames or working the frames for better honey production, checking whether the varroa monitoring board should be in or out, properly cleaning up and updating hive records.

With that thought, a beginner walked up as I closed Myrtle’s hive. It was with a pang of guilt that I said we couldn’t reopen the hives, but there are plenty of other things for the beginners to see at the apiary and perhaps the colonies should be on a rotation for teaching beginners. Andy had brought along an observation hive because their session that week was on swarming. Very topical.

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A curious crowd was gathering round an experiment in African beekeeping – I was admiring of the beautiful natural honeycomb in this top bar hive (below).

You’ll notice that many photos on my bee posts are being taken by iPhone and Instagram – there is a deliberate reason for this. I’d started leaving my camera at home more often when going to the apiary to make myself focus on doing beekeeping rather than photography. Perhaps, unconsciously, I had already begun to suspect what Pat had said was true and I was dallying too much on other things during hive inspections.

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The afternoon was already getting late – inspecting five hives even with the help of two experienced beekeepers doesn’t leave much time for tea and cake – so I left our expanding bee empire feeling more hopeful that dreams of honey might not crumble.

Yesterday on my way home from work, I saw this lovely buff-tailed bumblebee slowly working a flower in the chilly evening air. Her wings were slightly frayed at the edges and I wondered if she was a worker approaching the end of her short summer cycle. A reminder of the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of summer, and a year in beekeeping that is fast flying past.

beesorhoney6Edit: I’ve started using beetight online hive records, also available as an iPhone app and leaving no excuse for not updating hive records during each visit or afterwards on the tube home. Our hive records are archived weekly on my blog here as future updates will include more data on weather, temperature, hive progress, behaviour and temperament, which may prove useful in future.

Let them eat cake

It felt like old times at the apiary today. An overcast, grey Saturday afternoon found a group of old and new beekeepers huddled at the apiary table and waiting for Elsa and Clare to pour tea. Emily had baked delicious chocolate-and-nut muffins and I had to be quick to take a photo before they disappeared.

So this week, back by popular demand of fellow blogger Rolling Harbour, we have cake…

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A new visitor asked: ‘So is this what you do every Saturday?’ Yes – before we had four hives. Emily and I reflected that a better summer for the bees meant less tea and cake for beekeepers.

This year’s long warm summer has seen our bees boom and we’ve been very lucky with our windows of sunshine at weekends. However, as if on cue, it started to rain today as we walked the group of beginner beekeepers to the hives. We were only able to show workers crawling over the crownboard before big wet drops of rain forced us to close up.

A usual day at Ealing apiary then – tea, cake, rain and bee talk…

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Next week: Apiguard and honey.

Autumn is coming

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Last post Emily and I were in the thick of it. We had to abandon combining two hives as angry bees got the better of us.

So the following Tuesday evening we met at the apiary and pulled on bee suits over smart work dresses and heeled shoes. Emily was wearing a beekeeping jacket that left her legs perilously bare – but it was the mosquitoes, not the bees, who feasted.

Rose’s colony was more bad tempered than ever and, although we couldn’t find the queen, we were almost certain the colony was queenless. The bees have been trying to supercede Rose since spring and our artificial swarms only delayed their efforts to overthrow the reigning monarchy.

We laid a sheet of newspaper over the brood box of Chamomile’s colony and moved over Rose’s colony, then left the apiary hoping for the best. Emily revisited the following week and removed the newspaper, which was mostly chewed away by the bees. All seemed well. In the time the bees had eaten through the newspaper they had gotten used to each others’ smell and were one happy colony. This was also an indication that Rose had gone as the two colonies were more likely to fight if two queens had been present.

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A Saturday went by as we shopped for wedding and bridesmaid dresses for Emily. Today was the second Saturday of the August and the apiary was lovely and peaceful as the association held its monthly scout hut meeting. However, we had both forgotten to bring a smoker and the noise of irritated bees soon filled the air.

Myrtle’s colony was well behaved and, as we’ve never smoked these bees, we were able to check both brood boxes and spot our shy queen. I’m rather proud of Myrtle. She is in her second year of being a queen and is still making nice, well-behaved bees.

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Chili’s and Chamomile’s colonies were much feistier. They are the daughters of Rose, the queen of the colony we bought from Charles. We managed to check a few frames before they let us know that we should have brought a smoker. All seemed well inside the colonies though. We have three strong hives and apparently enough honey stores for winter. Myrtle, Chili and Chamomile are our autumn queens – an interesting blend of essential oils, I might try it!

At this time of year the bees start to prepare for winter. The queen lays less and the workers bring home propolis to insulate the hive. They are more protective of their honey and on guard for robber bees, wasps and other pests who might want to steal their precious stores. This can make them less tolerant of beekeepers too.

Emily spotted drones being pushed out of the entrance by workers and a few wasps were buzzing around the roofs and floors.

Autumn is coming.

Useful links

A useful strategy for dealing with autumn wasps entering hives via @DrBeekeeper on Twitter: The Battle of Wasps attacking Bees http://bit.ly/15k9a9r 

What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?

photo_4‘What is a swarm cell and what is a supersedure cell?’ is a question I am often asked by beginner beekeepers at the apiary. Simply put: they are both queen cells but they can be built by the bees for different reasons – to swarm away from the colony or to supersede (replace) the queen.

There are general guidelines to help identify swarm cells from supersedure cells, including:

  • As a general rule swarm cells usually hang from the bottom of the frame and supersedure cells appear nearer the top or on the sides; although sometimes queen cells are found top, bottom and sides which isn’t much help.
  • If the queen cannot be found, and there is no sign of eggs or larvae, it might mean the bees are building supersedure cells to replace her; although you need to be very sure that the queen isn’t present.
  • If only drone is being laid, you may have a drone-laying queen that the bees are trying to supersede.
  • If a colony is bursting at the seams and the queen is present and appears to be laying well then it seems likely the colony is trying to swarm.

This is not an exhaustive list and the bees don’t always follow the books. Last week Emily and I found queen cells in Rose’s hive that we took down because, after carrying out checks, we couldn’t determine whether these were swarm or supersedure cells.The colony is small, with plenty of room for the queen to lay, so there was no need to swarm; that said, small colonies are known to swarm and when it isn’t advantageous for them to do so.

photo_5This week we found ‘emergency’ queen cells built in the middle of a frame (above), which made it clearer that the bees were trying to supersede the current queen, Rose.

We found the queen too, and young larvae (no eggs), but the workers were moving quickly across the frame and were restless, which can be signs that the queen is failing to hold the colony together as a ‘cohesive whole’ and that the workers are not happy with her. Sometimes workers will try to replace what seems like a perfectly good well-laying queen, but this is because the bees know, or sense, something about her that beekeepers don’t.

With four colonies at Perivale apiary – one strong colony, two weaker colonies and a nuc that needs a hive – the way forward seemed clear. Her workers were trying to overthrow her so we should combine our two weaker colonies – Rose’s hive and, the newly named, Queen Chamomile’s hive – which would give us a second strong hive and provide a spare hive for Chili’s colony.

However, the way did not go to plan.

We had successfully checked Queen Chamomile’s hive, and found and marked the queen (a bright yellow dot as I didn’t have this year’s red pen), and had inspected Rose’s colony and caged the queen (you can just see her inside the cage below) so we knew where she was and could remove her when we needed to. When combining hives there should be only one queen to unite the two colonies.

We were going to give Rose, and the frame with the emergency queen cells, to another beekeeper at the apiary who has a queenless colony. Rose may not be a very good queen and the queens who emerge from the emergency cells may also not be very good, but we could at least give them a second chance to prove themselves with another colony.

photo_8Unfortunately as we moved Rose’s brood box over the queen somehow escaped from her cage and the operation had to be abandoned; it was unlikely we would find her again after having been caged once that day and we couldn’t risk combining the hives while both queens were present. The hives had been open a while and the bees were irritated from the manipulations, so we put everything back as it was with the help of Jonesy and a beginner beekeeper. For now queens Rose, Chamomile and Chili would have to wait. At least we had reached a decision about what to do.

Emily went for a well-deserved cup of tea and I had to scoot off, but we are revisiting the bees on Monday evening to try it all again. In some ways this is better; I am finding that with four colonies and a lot of beekeepers, and beginners, at the apiary each week that it is a challenge to make our own decisions about our hives (when, being beekeepers, everyone else has a different opinion about what to do) and to carry them out. It is my fourth year as a beekeeper and it may be that next year I will be ready to spread my wings and leave the apiary completely.

Any bee-loving vicars or gardeners in Northolt who have a spare patch of earth to share with a beekeeper and her bees?

Do visit Emily’s blog to find out how good was the tea and cake, and if anything happened next.

When it doesn’t rain

When it doesn’t rain this is what a Saturday afternoon’s beekeeping looks like.

Emily and I now have four colonies at Perivale apiary: Queen Myrtle’s hive has almost completed the Bailey comb change after a late start in spring; Rose’s colony has been successfully transferred from a nuc into a hive; the second nuc is building up nicely; and we saw a new virgin queen in our hive from Charles. We closed up and left her to fly free.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s short snapshot – much more next week.

Happy beekeeping!

This could get out of hand…

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Our bees are feeling swarmy.

Last Saturday afternoon Emily and I found three queen cells in the hive we bought from Charles recently. And in a surprising display of competent beekeeping, we demonstrated how to do an artificial swarm to an audience of three beginner beekeepers.

We found the queen and put her in a nuc (baby hive box) with four frames of brood and stores (honey and pollen), a frame of foundation (so the small colony can grow) and I had the (unenviable) task of shaking in two frames of flying bees. We then ‘took down’ (polite beekeeping term for ‘destroyed’) one queen cell in the original hive and left two queen cells inside.

As usual, beekeepers have different ideas about how many queen cells to leave inside a hive: too few might risk the colony becoming queenless if the new queen(s) fail, and too many might risk the colony trying to swarm again. But it seemed for now we had stopped the bees from swarming and had (potentially) a third hive.

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Emily and Drew returned to the apiary on Sunday to move the nuc to the location of the original hive so that the foraging bees would return to the nuc and boost its numbers.

So far so good.

Today we returned to see how our swarmy bees were getting on.

And discovered they are still feeling swarmy.

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Five new queen cells!

We decided not to destroy the new queen cells and ask if another beekeeper at our apiary needed queens.

We then inspected the nuc and found that the small colony will soon need to be moved into a grown-up hive. And we named the queen Rose, because she seems rather nice.

Luckily nothing as exciting was happening in Myrtle’s hive. Our well-behaved bees are doing the Bailey comb change exactly as the books say. We found and put Myrtle in the top brood box to encourage the colony to move upstairs into their new home.

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Later that day Emily returned to the apiary and sent a text to say the elder beekeepers had advised making another nuc from the extra queen cells. So we now have four colonies at Perivale apiary and one at Hanwell which is also bursting at the seams. This could all get out of hand.

Snowmageddon

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As temperatures in Sydney, Australia soared to a record-breaking 45.7˚C this week, my ex-pat friends complained that they were missing the snow in England. Holly Galt tweeted: ‘Ah London, you are making me so homesick! Love a good snow day. #Snowmageddon’ @hollygalt

The snow hadn’t yet arrived, but as Holly is from 12 hours in the future it was possible she knew something that I didn’t. And on Friday the snow arrived.

My work’s Medicinal Garden looked very pretty in the snow.

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However, as nice as it looked around Regent’s Park, I didn’t want to sleep at my desk overnight, so we all left early while the trains and buses were still running. I enjoyed a snowy walk home through Northolt Village.

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On Saturday morning I awoke to find Narnia outside my window and temperatures around 0°C. Positively balmy! Being one of the few beekeepers insane enough to prove that we can still have our tea and cake on a Saturday afternoon – even in snow, I arrived at the apiary not surprised to find a small crowd.

I found Emily, Stan and Albert doing some detective work having found evidence of bird footprints in the snow on hive roofs and a suspicious dent in the wood of John’s hive. Could it be that an Ealing woodpecker has discovered the tasty treats inside our hives?

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Emily and I checked on our bees next. The hive is still quite heavy with stores, although they have eaten a large hole in the fondant. This allows us to observe the colony in winter and see that the bees look healthy and are active. A few workers were light coloured and fuzzy, they might be new bees if the queen started laying again in late December.

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By now my body temperature was around -1°C, so we went to join John and the boys huddled around the kettle and Emily’s delicious jam cake.

Snow is forecast to return on Sunday, while the sun continues to shine in Sydney. As Holly would say, I know where I’d rather be. #London #snow

Winter watch for bees

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‘Do they ever do any beekeeping at this cafe?’ asked someone while we sat around the apiary table on Saturday afternoon. The first weekend after new year and Ealing’s beekeepers had made no resolutions to give up tea and cake.

Luckily, Pat had brought something to show why bees need keeping in winter – a feeder tray with a hole bored in the side of the wood by a woodpecker. Woodpecker damage to bee hives is not common in West London, but this case of break-and-entry shows why we should keep watch. The woodpecker had attacked Pat’s hive at Osterley first by boring a hole into the top of the feeder tray, where it wouldn’t have found anything interesting, next drilling the wood below before getting fed up or disturbed and flying off. ‘It must have been very disappointed,’ said Pat.

Bee larvae can make tasty treats for hungry woodpeckers in cold weather, and maybe bees too, while causing considerable damage to the brood nest. However, Ted Hooper says that woodpecker damage to bee hives is a learned behaviour:

‘Woodpeckers learn that they can find a good meal in a beehive much in the way that bluetits learn to open milk bottles for the cream. You may keep bees in an apiary for years with lots of green woodpeckers about without any damage and then suddenly they learn the trick and through the hive wall they go, leaving behind a dead colony and several 3 inch holes. Whether all the damage is done by the woodpeckers or whether rats finish the job off I am not sure, but I have seen brood chambers in which the frames have been turned into a pile of wooden splinters, no piece being larger than a match. Covering the hive with wire netting or fish netting before the first frosts is the usual remedy.’
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey.

The chicken wire is on order for the Osterley hives.

EDIT: Pat kindly let me use this photo of his hive at Osterley now safely protected by wire netting. He advises using chicken wire wrapped around the whole hive to keep woodpeckers off and to ‘make sure there’s a good clearance all the way round so they can’t peck through it’.

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Image © Pat Turner

A walk around our apiary showed that the woodpeckers haven’t learned about the delicious morsels inside our hives – yet.

I carried out a few other winter checks including:

  • hefting the hive to check the weight of stores – it’s heavy
  • lifting the roof to look at the fondant – the bees are tucking in greedily and the hole in the fondant (a ‘window’ into the winter hive) suggests the cluster inside is loose
  • observing the entrance – foragers are flying home with bright yellow pollen suggesting that the queen has started laying.

Overall, the signs indicate that our bees are well and active, perhaps because of the mild weather, although in January they should be conserving energy. All that flying means eating a lot of honey, but at this time of year there won’t be much nectar about to replace it. We’ll need to keep a close eye on the hive’s weight and amount of fondant between now and spring.

I went back to the apiary table to report my findings. John agreed: ‘It’s much easier to get a hive through a very cold winter than a mild one, because they don’t fly about as much.’ I asked where the bees might be finding the yellow pollen and Pat thought it was from mahonia. There wasn’t much else to be done except have another cup of tea and try Cliff’s culinary invention – the ‘pake’.

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It’s a mix between a cake and a pie, explained Cliff. ‘The top half is a raspberry muffin and the bottom half is a mince pie.’ I wasn’t entirely convinced but the men beekeepers were thrilled to find the mince pie half-way inside. A pake was left on the table for the apiary’s family of robins who swooped down as we left. Hopefully, it will satisfy any peckish woodpeckers too.

Merry Christmas Queen Myrtle and her bees!

tinsel for our hive

Not to be outdone by the elder beekeepers reading books to bees, this afternoon Emily and I made sure our hive was the most festive at the apiary. A Christmas card to ‘Queen Myrtle and bees’ was also slipped under the roof.

However, if it sounds like we were having too much fun, there was some proper beekeeping to be done: giving the bees oxalic acid.

Pat giving his bees oxalic acid

Oxalic acid is a winter treatment for bees. Above, you can see Pat treating his hive with Emily looking on.

Oxalic acid burns the feet and tongues of varroa mites so they fall off bees. The treatment is particularly effective in winter when the mites are living on adult bees, because there is little or no capped brood for them to hide inside.

Our apiary uses a pre-mixed solution of 3% oxalic acid in sugar syrup and about 5ml is dribbled on each ‘seam of bees’, that is the gap between each frame which has bees. It is important to get the dosage right as over-dosing may be harmful. Last year I took this video of Giving the bees oxalic acid.

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) has a good advisory leaflet on oxalic acid. Not all beekeepers like to use this treatment for a number of reasons, such as: it is not ‘natural’ (although oxalic acid is a naturally occurring substance; although cyanide is naturally occurring too, so this might not say much!); accumulative effects of annual treatments may harm the queen (I haven’t read enough to know if this is a risk); it may harm the bees (the winter workers will die in spring to be replaced by new bees so its effects on the colony may not be long-lasting). I think it is advisable to treat hives in an apiary environment in a city, because disease may spread more easily.

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After a challenging year for our bees, it was great to see them alive and well for their midwinter oxalic acid ‘gift’. When we lifted the roof they were happily tucking into the bag of sugar fondant, although the hive is quite heavy with honey stores. They should be tightly clustered inside the hive, but today was quite mild and the cluster had become loose.

Above, Emily treats our bees with oxalic acid. They were much better behaved than last year and didn’t make much fuss. Myrtle must be a gentle-natured queen.

There was a small crowd led by Pat and John to treat all the hives at the apiary and after all that hard work it was time for tea with homemade mince pies and a generous-sized apple pie! There was also honey mead so the banter was quite lively. Yet another exposé on what Ealing beekeepers really get up to!

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Soon it will be January and we will be looking for the first signs of spring when we can see our bees again. Merry Christmas everyone from Queen Myrtle and her bees!

BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee

What is a beekeeper to do when there are no bees to keep? Study for beekeeping exams, of course!

After passing my basic assessment with the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) earlier this year, I was eager to start the BBKA examinations. The BBKA examinations and practical assessments provide a framework to become a qualified beekeeper and then a Master Beekeeper! The exams are sat as seven modules and can be taken in any order.

I planned to take my first beekeeping exam this month. However, I recently walked through the ninth circle of hell went through a stressful period, so it seemed sensible to ease off pressure and postpone the exam until March next year. For me, it is not about passing exams but acquiring knowledge and I want to fully understand the syllabus.

So my journey of discovery starts with the first revision post for the BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour syllabus: item 6.1. I hope that you will enjoy taking it with me.

6.1 The function and behaviour of the worker honeybee throughout its life including the types of work done, duration of work periods under normal circumstances and the variations in behaviour due to seasonal changes in the state of the colony.

Days 1–3
A worker bee is ready to hatch. She is one of thousands of honeybees who will hatch that day and emerge to see the hive for the first time. She chews away the wax capping of her cell and struggles to push herself out as her older sisters trample over her head. She is lighter and fuzzier than the adult workers, but her soft hairs will soon get worn off working in the hive.

Her first job is to clean the cell she was born in. That done, she is hungry for protein-rich pollen, which she must eat to develop her hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands (to produce brood food and royal jelly) and her wax glands (to build comb).

She’ll spend her early days eating lots of pollen, cleaning cells, and sitting on brood to keep it warm.

The worker bee spends her first two to three days eating pollen and cleaning cells, and sometimes sitting on brood to keep it warm. By day four she is sent to work in the food-processing factory and builds comb, turns nectar into honey and head butts pollen into cells.

Days 4–6
Our young worker has become a nurse bee with fully developed hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. Her brood-rearing duties include feeding brood food to young larvae and honey and pollen to older larvae. If the colony should decide to make a new queen (to supercede the old queen or to swarm) then she will feed royal jelly to the larvae specially chosen to become queens.

Days 10–12
Her wax glands have started to produce wax, so she moves from the nursery to the food-processing factory. She builds waxy honeycomb, turns nectar into honey and packs pollen into cells, and helps maintain the temperature of the hive by fanning her wings. She will even undertake removing dead bodies, and other waste or debris, from the hive.

But it is not all work and no play. The worker often spends a lot of her time resting or walking (patrolling) around the hive. A pool of resting bees is necessary should the circumstances of the colony suddenly change and a number of bees become needed for a particular task.

Worker bees often spend a lot of time doing nothing at all! They rest or walk (patrol) around the hive, or just try to out-stare their keepers.

While many of her duties depend on glandular development – building wax comb (wax glands) and guard duty (sting gland) – she is a flexible worker and can change jobs when needed. For example, if the colony has recently swarmed she may revert to a nurse bee to help rear new brood. The worker’s life is only loosely structured by the roles accorded by her chronological age, in reality she will work according to the needs of the colony.

Days 16–20
Her hypopharyngeal gland is now shrinking and starting to produce the enzymes needed for honey production: invertase and glucose oxidase. Soon she will become a forager and her world will become much bigger. As a young house (indoor) bee, she will have taken short flights to orientate herself with the environment outside the hive.

Days 19–21
Our worker is living on the edges of the brood nest. Her sting gland is fully developed around 21 days old and produces venom as well as sting pheromones (isopentyl acetate) and alarm pheromones (2-heptanone). She is now able to guard the colony. She also fans at the entrance to help ventilate the hive and occasionally stretches her wings on longer orientation flights.

Worker bees are sometimes found clustered at the entrance and fanning, like these bees that we found at the entrance of the hive on a cold, rainy day. Fanning their wings helps to ventilate and maintain the temperature of the hive.

Days 20+
Our worker is now a forager. She spends her days flying to trees and flowers collecting nectar, pollen, propolis and water for the hive. When she returns home, she dances for her sisters to tell them the best places to go.

In spring and summer workers live between 6–7 weeks: her life is cut short by her foraging activities as she works herself to death collecting food and water for the colony. Her flight muscles are fuelled by the glycogen reserves that she built up as a young worker, but as an adult worker she cannot replenish these stores. Her wings have limited flight miles of around 800km and once she has flown this mileage (whether over 5 or 20 days) she will fall to the ground and die.

The worker bee will grow weary on her last foraging flight. Her tired wings will fail her and she will rest and become cold. One evening I saw this bee stumbling on the echinacea in the Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians, and by morning she was frozen on the ground.

It happens one day in late summer while foraging in a plentiful bed of echinacea. Her baskets of pollen are too heavy for her worn and tattered wings. She tries to lift herself but she is too tired, so she rests. Night falls as the weary forager sits patiently on the echinacea and away from the warmth of her sisters huddling in the hive. By morning she is cold and slow but the rising sun encourages her to try again. She has precious loads of nectar and pollen to return to the hive and her dances will tell her sisters where to find this abundant crop. She weakly staggers forward and tumbles off the echinacea on to the ground.

Day 0
Our worker dies far away from the hive and, unlike her birth, entirely alone. By clever design of nature, she serves the colony even in death by dying on a foraging flight. Her sisters will not need to expend time and energy dragging her body out of the hive.

Inside the hive another worker has chewed away the wax capping of her cell and caught the first glance of her sisters. She pushes herself out and starts to clean her cell. Her life as an autumn and winter bee will be very different to the summer worker.

Autumn and winter worker honeybees
The colony is preparing for winter: the drones are being evicted and the queen is laying fewer eggs. The young worker will produce little or no brood food and the pollen that she eats will make her body stronger and extend her life. She may take a few short orientation flights or the occasional ‘cleansing flight’, but she will not need to forage. She will live for around four to six months eating the honey and pollen collected by her summer sisters. In winter she will join the workers in a cluster around the queen, shivering her wings to help the colony to stay warm until spring returns.

That’s item 6.1 ticked off the syllabus, only items 6.2–21 to go… My next revision post will be all about the queen…

Related links

BBKA examination path and BBKA modules application forms and syllabus to download

Before sitting for BBKA examinations, beekeepers must pass the basic assessment. Here’s my post of Taking the BBKA basic assessment on a rainy Sunday afternoon

A great revision post from Emily Heath of Adventures in Beeland: 1st Honeybee behaviour revision post: bee jobs

Mid Buck Beekeepers Association Blog’s excellent revision notes for BBKA module 6

Recommended reading

Celia F Davis. The Honey Bee Inside Out. Bee Craft Ltd, ISBN-10: 0900147075

Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey. Northern Bee Books, ISBN-10: 1904846513