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Words: Mike Webster
Featured in the January 2016 issue

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Making honey fit for a queen.

When I went to see John Brewer, the publicity officer for the Lincolnshire Beekeepers’ Association and a member of the Market Rasen Beekeepers’ Association, I was immediately brought up to date with the situation when he informed me that he hadn’t got any!

Not at his home at any rate as at present, he told me, they were all in Yorkshire. The bees are moved there at the beginning of August and remain there until the beginning of September. The reason for the removal, John told me, was for the bees to benefit from the flora on the Yorkshire Moors with the heather in full flower. Whereabouts on the Yorkshire moors exactly I do not know – John could not tell me. Quite understandable though, because to apiarists, it can be something of a highly secretive world, for with heather honey being much sought after, these out-of-the-way sites for hives on the moors are closely guarded.

I must confess that I know precious little of the art of beekeeping and when I told John of this he smiled as he went into the basics of what is undeniably a very involved, intensive and certainly at times precarious hobby. He got ‘hooked’ on beekeeping about eight years ago after he had experimented with the idea of other forms of livestock. For various reasons, these never worked and bees became the way forward. Starting with one hive, with one queen and umpteen thousand worker bees, he progressed into this new world of wonder and amazement.

A colony of bees is made up of three individual castes. There is only one queen – usually the only breeding female the colony has. The vast majority of bees in the colony are female workers and can number in excess of 50,000 during the summer months. The remainder are the male drones which can vary in number from several hundreds in spring to none at all during the winter months. Facts and figures came through fast and furious as John went on to tell me how a hive requires at least 40lb of honey to get it through the winter. Bees as insects never sleep and stay in a cluster around the queen throughout the winter months.

Do not be fooled by the placid buzzing around the summer garden blooms, my host assured me, as he emphasised that whilst they are very social insects and operate to a very strict hierarchy they do have another side to their nature. Contrary to their reputation as being gentle pollen gatherers wishing to do nothing more than work hard making honey, they operate in a world of sex and violence on an industrial scale. The queen, as the only sexually mature female in the colony fulfils the sole purpose of laying eggs, both unfertilised (male) and fertilised (female). During April and May the queen lays eggs at the rate of about one every twenty seconds day and night – over 2,000 eggs per day and equal to more than her own body weight. She may live to more than three or four years and in that time she will be capable of laying in excess of half a million eggs. Egg laying ceases during the winter months and this is when the colony lives on the stored food in the hive.

It is not fully understood why a colony will only tolerate one queen but if another is introduced it will inevitably result in her death. A queen bee is raised from a normal worker egg but whilst both worker (female) and drone (male) larvae are fed royal jelly for just the first three days of life, prospective queens, in specially constructed queen cells will be fed for longer periods. This results in a different growth and metamorphosis. Royal jelly is a substance secreted by the ‘nurse bees’ as part of their duties when six to ten days old.

Having a great influence over the whole colony, the queen emerges from her own cell after fifteen days developing and she then stays within the hive for a further three to seven days prior to her first venture outside on what is her ‘mating flight’. She may mate with a number of drones on several flights lasting up to half an hour and this will suffice to ensure her egg laying capacity for the next few years. Incidentally, the drones die during the mating process!

If the queen cannot make her mating flight for any reason, bad weather or being trapped in part of the hive for instance, then she will remain infertile. She then becomes a ‘drone layer’ and incapable of producing female worker bees. John’s statement about rough justice in the hive certainly rang true as he informed me that, as a non-performing queen, she is then killed by the worker bees who then produce another queen. A hive is doomed without a proficient and capable queen.

The queen bee continually emits a perfume called a pheromone which is unique to her own colony. Only the bees in that particular hive can detect it and it serves to assure the colony that their queen is alive and still with them. Pheromones, or ‘queen substances’ are of a very sophisticated and complex chemical make-up and one of its actions is to suppress the development of ovaries in all of the female worker bees in the hive and thus prevent them from laying eggs.

As the only egg layer in the hive, the queen actually chooses whether or not to fertilise an egg as she lays it; a female worker bee if she decides to do so, and a male drone if she does not. Quite amazingly, she uses the size of the open brood cell she finds on its place on the comb. If it is a small worker cell she lays a fertilised egg, if it’s a larger drone cell she lays an unfertilised drone egg. The wax cells used for egg storage are of three types. The smallest ones (5mm diameter) are for fertilised eggs which produce the female worker bees in twenty-one days. Larger cells (7mm diameter) are for the unfertilised eggs producing male drone bees after twenty-four days. There is also a special cell which hangs down vertically and is used to produce new queens. If the colony is producing queen type cells it could be a warning to the beekeeper that swarming is imminent.

John had me scratching my head as he informed me that it is interesting to note that the male drone bee has no father but a grandfather! Apart from the queen, they are the largest bees in the hive and contrary to the reputation of busy bees they do not work, they cannot sting, they do not forage for pollen or nectar and their only known function is to mate with the queen on her mating flight. The impression I had harboured all my life of peaceful honey bees was now immediately consigned to the scrapheap as John went on to explain what happens then to the hapless drones. After the queen raising is over for the season, the drones are all driven away by the other bees from the hive to die, being bitten and with legs and wings torn in the process.

During the summer months, the pace of life and work in the hive is nothing less than frantic with work going on non-stop. During this time the life of a worker bee can be as short as six weeks but later in the season with no brood being raised and no nectar harvested, a young worker may live for sixteen weeks, right through the winter.

Throughout its whole life cycle, a worker bee operates to a set pattern of work schedules which is automatically dictated by the bee’s age. Days 1–3 involve the cleaning of cells and incubation. Feeding older larvae takes place between days 3–6 and younger larvae between days 6–10. Between days 8–16, the worker bee receives pollen and nectar from the field foraging bees but at a period between days 12–18 it is then involved in the process of beeswax making and cell building. Quite interestingly, from day 14 onwards duties involve guarding the entrance, together with nectar and pollen foraging. If the queen runs out of space for egg laying or the hive becomes too congested, then much of the colony will ‘swarm’ and move on to form a new colony.

Honey production, of course, is the main reason that domestic beekeeping has such a large following and this product can take many different forms and consistencies. Colour and flavour vary enormously with the different pollens and nectars foraged by the worker bees. John demonstrated this to me by showing me a collection of several different honeys that his bees had produced. This in itself is an intriguing aspect of this enthralling hobby. The beekeeper really is privileged in being able to look upon perhaps one of the most fascinating worlds that our planet has to offer. It is a world that is of ultra importance too, for we as a species are inclined to take for granted that the ecosystem will carry on regardless – not necessarily so.

What we have to remember is that bees, in addition to the manufacture of delicious honey, are also the prime movers in the pollination programme of over eighty per cent of plant life consumed by humans. As such they dictate the growth of our crops and livestock feeds. Simply put, without bees our own lifestyle would be on the brink of existence.

There is, however, a downside to beekeeping that has arrived with the threat from climate change, together with the loss of large swathes of honey bees’ habitat and the use of chemicals and pesticides. Viruses and parasites have also reared their ugly heads and created their own problems which are ongoing. The Lincolnshire Beekeepers’ Association is the county’s umbrella organisation for the hobby and is there essentially to offer valuable advice and expertise to both the new hobbyist and seasoned professional. It is a welcoming group which aims to encourage, improve and advance apiculture within the county and new members will be made especially welcome. Full details are available on the LBKA website at www.bbka.org.uk/local/lincolnshire

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