The Role of Honey Bee
Before we jump ahead to that point, let’s just take a look at the types of bees that make up a colony so that you know exactly who does what. You probably already have an idea of the three main types of bees. The workers are the guys who do all of the days to day stuff.
The drones are the male sperm carriers who don’t do very much at all, other than providing sperm, and the queen is the top of the pyramid. She is fed, cleaned, and massaged by her workers so that she can focus on her primary role in life, which is simply to lay eggs. We all learned that in junior school, so we have a basic idea of how things work.
Actually, things are more complex than that, and that is what makes the inner working so of your hive so fascinating. We have been studying bees for hundreds of years, so we have a pretty good idea of what is going on. Despite all this academic and scientific attention, there are still things about bees that we just don’t understand.
One of the most important things to get into your head is that bees are not individual units. They are more like a highly complex organism. No part of the hive can survive for any length of time without the other.
Lose the workers, and the queen will die. Lose the queen, and the whole thing just falls apart. The drones are just men and, as such, are pretty dispensable, but they do play an important role, nonetheless.
An average healthy hive will contain approximately 80,000 bees at the height of summer. The vast majority will be female worker bees. There will only be a single queen who is the mother of every one of the worker bees and is also the only fully sexually developed female in the hive.
The queen is longer than the workers with a thinner abdomen. In theory, this makes her easy to spot, but the difference is not that great, and finding her amongst 80 000 other bees is a bit of an acquired knack. To make things a little easier, the beekeeper will often mark the queen with a tiny dot of the special waterproof marker.
For a newbie, spotting even a marked queen is not always simple when you are standing amidst a cloud of flying bees wondering if you really haven’t got any allergies that your mother didn’t warn you about. Don’t worry; things will get easier.
Marking the queen is another trick that takes a bit of practice. This is where having an old hand to guide you starts to really pay off. For starters, you need to spot her; then, you trap her with a special clip. She is then gently coaxed (prodded) into a marking tube, and the marking pen is applied to the back of her abdomen, leaving a dot.
A few seconds are needed for it to dry before she can be placed back in the hive, where she will be none the worse for her adventure. Your hands will be shaking, and you will be sweating lightly, but don’t worry about that. The next time will be a cinch.
To make life easier down the road, there is a color code for the dots. Blue is for years ending in 0 and 5, white for years ending in 1 and 6, yellow for years ending in 2 and 7, red for 3 and 8 and finally green for years ending in 4 and 9. This universal system is used so that you know the age of your queen.
When looking for the queen, start by looking at where new eggs are being laid. As this is her primary purpose in life, it is the most likely place for her to be. Another clue as to her whereabouts is the behavior of the worker bees. They constantly attend to her, so there is often movement in her direction, and she always has a small crowd of servants in her immediate vicinity. As far as marking her is concerned, you can practice your technique by doing some test runs on the drones.
Drones are also a different shape to the mass of workers. Like the queen, they are larger, but the back of their abdomen is more rounded. This is because they don’t have a sting, which is another reason they are good subjects to practice on. A working hive will produce about two hundred drones per year.
The workers build larger cells for drone eggs, and the drone will only have half the chromosomes of a worker bee. They contribute nothing to the hive. Instead, when the world warms up enough for their liking each day, the drones will fly out and sit around together, often in a high tree. There they will shoot the breeze, discuss the latest sporting events, and keep an eye out for any passing virgin queen.
These are rare events. When one is spotted flying past the drone assembly area, feigning nonchalance, she is immediately pursued by all the drones. The swiftest will reach her first, and they will mate on the wing. In the process, the drone’s genitals will be torn out, and he will quickly die.
Even if the drone does not get to mate and therefore does not die in a blaze of short-lived glory, his future is bleak. The workers won’t tolerate a non-producing member over the winter, and so the drones are pushed out of the hive, where they will quickly die.
The queen collects the semen in an internal sack. She may mate with up to twenty drones on a flight and can make two or three flights before the sperm holding sack is full. Once that happens, she will be carrying enough sperm to last her the remainder of her life. A queen can lay up to 2000 eggs per day, which are more than her own body weight in eggs, so it becomes more obvious why she needs to be so heavily pampered by her workers.
On her return from each of these flights, she will immediately be pampered and fed by the worker bees. Her value to the colony is becoming critical. If they lose a queen late in the year, they will not be likely to create another one before winter sets in, and the whole hive might die out.
Mating flights require a minimum temperature of 16 degrees Celsius. For the beekeeper, the queen is equally important, and after she has completed her mating, some will clip one of her wings to prevent her from flying off again and possibly becoming lost.
It is the workers who decide when to start preparing a new queen. They do this when the older queen starts giving off fewer pheromones, and they become aware that she is about to become less productive. The queen to be can be created from any of the newly laid eggs, but once the workers decide that a queen is required, they will start feeding what is known as royal jelly to the newly hatched larva.
If the original queen is lost for any reason, the bees will immediately start trying to produce a new queen. The diet of royal jelly is what turns an ordinary bee into a queen. It is produced from a glad in the head of the worker bee and is much richer than the food that normal eggs get given.
Understanding the role and life of the queen is one of the most important jobs for any beekeeper. The bee dictates the life of the hive, and so the beekeeper may decide to replace her for any number of reasons. It may be that the colony is very aggressive, in which case just introducing a gentler queen will have a calming effect on all of the bees in the hive.
He may want to introduce some other trait by crossbreeding with bees from different sub-species, or she may simply be getting too old. Queens normally live for two or three years.
All of these are reasons the beekeeper may have, but the worker bees themselves are also able to decide to change queens. The queen produces pheromones, which are known as substance. It is these pheromones that give a signal to all of the bees of the colony as to the queens well being.
They are constantly licking her and passing it from bee to bee in a sort of messaging system. If the colony becomes too big, this dilutes the amount of substance being passed around. Likewise, if the queen gets too old, she will produce less. Once there is less substance in the colony, for whatever reason, it stimulates the workers to start producing the next queen.
They will make some bigger cells, and the queen will either lay eggs into these or, the workers will place fresh eggs in them themselves. When the new queen hatches after her diet of royal jelly, she will be paid little undue attention. It is only after she has mated with the drones that she suddenly gains their respect.
Under natural conditions, it is now that one of two things can happen. The new queen might leave-taking a substantial number of the colony with her in what is called a swarm, or she can take command of the colony. If it is the latter, the workers will stop feeding the old queen, and she will either starve, or they will execute her. A hive cannot allow to queens to peacefully co-exist.
In the controlled environment of your hive, this process is managed by you, the beekeeper. If you time things right, you may be able to capture the bees before they swarm and place them in a new hive. Alternatively, you may want to replace the older queen with the new one, and then you will need to kill her so that half your colony does not leave.
Other than the queen and a handful of drones, all the bees in your colony are workers. They are smaller than the queen and drones, and though their individual roles are less obvious, they still play a crucial role collectively. The eggs hatch and are fed for the first nine days.
They are fed a different diet to queens called brood food, which is just pollen and nectar brought in by the foraging workers. At nine days, the cell is capped, and the bee continues to develop for a further twelve days before hatching and starting to take up its role in the colony.
It is interesting to note that the queen bee takes only sixteen days from eggs until hatching. This probably relates to the high-intensity diet and the fact that a queen is so important to a colony that they have evolved to reach adulthood more rapidly.
The worker does a number of different jobs over the course of its short lifespan of anywhere between five weeks and six months. The length of a worker’s life is dictated by how much work he is required to do, and that, in turn, is dictated by the size of the colony and the pressures that it is under.
For the first few days, the newbie is given a variety of newbie tasks such as cleaning empty cells or sitting on brood to keep it warm. If it is hot, it might be detailed to stand at the entrance to the hive and use its wings to act as a fan. Temperature control is one thing that is crucial to any hive.
It will be six days before the bee actually does any flying, and even then, it will start off with a series of short training flights rather than any big operational missions.
Throughout their lives, the workers will keep progressing up the careers ladder and performing different roles. These include gathering pollen and nectar from incoming bees, transporting it to the brood chamber, making wax for capping, and throwing out dead bees or larvae.
At eighteen days, they graduate and then move onto the important role of foraging for food and water. Quite how this career ladder works is still uncertain.
We have some ideas, but the bees seem to also have a fairly relaxed attitude toward job titles and designation. A bee may forage for a few hours and then return to the hive and perform another task that would normally have been left to a newbie bee. If it feels like a bit of downtime, it might wander about the hive grooming the queen or passing nectar to other bees as they go about their work.
From long-term observation, we have a reasonable idea of the way the bee progress through the different work stages. The reason that it has been difficult to pin this process down more accurately is twofold. Firstly there is an element of flexibility in this progression which and it is impossible to put exact parameters on what is an inexact procedure.
The second is that activities within the hive will vary according to the circumstance in which the colony finds itself. If a hive is thriving, then the steps above are more likely to be followed. If, on the other hand, the colony is struggling, then things will be changed by force of circumstance, and nurse bees may be forced to start foraging much earlier, for example.
You’ve chosen your hive, assembled and positioned it, in what you hope is going to be the perfect position for happy, productive bees, but how do you go about getting the actual bees. This is the part you have really been waiting for. In fact, if you have skipped ahead to get to this section, please go back and read the previous chapters. There is stuff there you really need to know.
Obviously, you can’t be a beekeeper without any bees, but acquiring a hive is not something you can do by just popping down to the local supermarket. In fact, there are ways to acquire bee colonies that aren’t that different, but that is only one of several options. To start your colony, all you need is a queen and some workers.
Believe it or not, you can purchase a colony (package) of bees that will be delivered to you through the post. What you get is a box with two sides of the screen mesh. Inside will be three pounds of bees, another small box called a queen cage, and a tin can feeder containing sugar water.
There are between 10 000 and 11 000 bees in a package. This is an easy way to purchase bees, but there are some problems you need to be aware of. Firstly the bees may have come from some distance and are not familiar with the local conditions, so you are not sure how well they will adapt.
Secondly, that journey through the postal system might not be too pleased for them, so before you even go through the process of introducing them to their new home, they are already stressed.
The second method is to approach a local beekeeper and ask if he will sell you a nucleus. Nucs, as they are referred to, are almost miniature hives with three or four frames and a small colony inside.
The third method is to capture a swarm. This is easier than you might think, but you have no idea when one will become available.
There is an old saying that says:
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly
As you become known as a beekeeper, you will often be approached by wide-eyed people telling you that there is a swarm of bees that have just moved into their garden or roof.
Introducing your Bees to their
New Home To get the bees from the package box, place it near the new hive and remove three or four frames from that hive. Gently open the package and remove the food in and the queen cage. The queen cage is a small box about the size of a matchbox with two sides of the mesh. It is sealed with bee candy at one end.
Check that the queen is alive and well. You can now hang the queen cage from one of the center frames in the gap you created by removing those three or four frames. The mesh must be facing the back or the front of the hive so that the workers can access the queen and are not blocked by the frames. Replace one frame on the other side of the queen cage so that it has a frame on either side of the queen.
You now have two options. You can turn the package upside down and place it over the brood box containing the new queen. You then place another of you hive boxes over that and put the lid on.
Over a period of about twelve hours, the worker will gradually make their way from the package box into the hive to be near the queen. They will slowly eat through the bee candy, and the queen will be released to carry out her duties. The following day you remove the lid, take out the package box and slide back the remaining frames into what is now an occupied hive.
A quicker way is to hang the queen cage as above, then turn the package over and firmly shake or tap it until the bees literally fall into the hive. In terms of time, there is a convenience element here, but if you don’t need to bounce your bees about so violently, then why bother them.
They have, after all, already had a fairly traumatic journey. About three days after you install your colony to their new hive, it is a good idea to do an inspection to see how they are settling in. The main thing you are doing on this quick inspection is checking that the workers have managed to eat through the bee candy and release the queen.
You will easily be able to see because if she is still in the cage, it will be covered in workers. If not, there will probably only be six to a dozen bees on the cage. Pick up the cage slowly and look inside. If it is empty, then all is well. Shake off any workers and take the cage out of the hive. If she is still inside, then you can carefully pierce the candy and make sure she is able to get out before either shaking her gently into the hive.
Transferring your new bees from the nuc to the hive is even easier. Remember that it is effectively a miniature hive. Open the empty hive and remove one more frame than the number of frames in the nuc. Next, you open the nuc and gently remove the first frame bees and all.
You will probably need a beekeeping tool to lever the frame from the nuc because the bee will have stuck it down with propolis. Propolis is a dark sticky glue-like substance that the bees make and then use to seal all the little cracks and crannies to keep their homes’ weather tight.
Because the nuc frames are the same size as the frames of your hive, you now simply slot the first one into the first empty position in the hive. You continue the process until all the frames from the nuc are in the hive.
There are a couple of important factors to bear in mind here. Place the nuc frames in the same order in the hive as they were in the nuc. This way, the bees are familiar with the layout, and this will cause them the least possible disruption. Also, on one of the frames, you will find hanging the queen cage. This should now be empty as the workers will have released her, and she will hopefully be laying eggs into one of the frames already. You can remove the empty queen cage.
Once you have installed the nuc frames to your hive, you will still have many bees in the nuc. Turn it over and shake those bees into the hive. You don’t want to simply sit it on top of the hive and cover it with the next box as with the package because if the queen is still in the nuc, the bees won’t move down into the hive.
Don’t worry if not all of the bees fall out of the nuc. There will always be some that cling to the edges. Put the lid on the hive and then place the open nuc right in front of the entrance. The bees that have been left behind will smell the pheromones from the queen and gradually make their way into the hive of their own accord.
Finally, we come to introducing a swarm that you may have been lucky enough to capture. Very often, the swarm will have clustered on a branch, and you will have been able to cut it off and place it, bees and all, into a box or some other container. A pillowcase is quite a commonly used method.
Take an ordinary bed sheet and lay it from the entrance to the hive to the ground in front to form a sort of ramp or welcome carpet, if you prefer. You then simply place the swarm on the sheet, and the bees, now anxious to find a home, will make their own way into the hive.
An interesting thing to look out for as this happens is bees leaning forward and waving their abdomens in the air. What they are doing is secreting a hormone from the Nasonov gland, which acts as a guide to the rest of the swarm as to where they should be heading where the queen is.
Bees will swarm from April right through to August. Bees swarm when they feel that they have reached a stage where the colony is so healthy that it can split. There is a recognition that with such a large colony, resources will become scared, and so a percentage of the colony moves on in search of a new home.
For the novice, the sight of a fast-flying cloud of bees can be quite intimidating. The bees are not normally aggressive at this stage, however. Prior to swarming, they will have gorged themselves, and they will not have a hive that they are protecting. The problems normally occur when they come to rest, which can be in the most awkward of places.
They may stay in one place for as long as two or three days after that, and if it is somewhere that is close to pedestrian traffic, the risk of people getting stung does increase, especially as the bees use up their food reserves and start to get hungrier.
The place that the bees gather is just a staging post while scouts go out and look for a suitable place that they can turn into a permanent home. Beekeepers often leave an empty hive in the hope that this will attract scouts, and they will then guide in a homeless swarm. Bees that swarm often tend to repeat swarm because it is part of the queen’s character. To overcome this, when you capture a swarm, you should replace the queen as soon as possible.
Whichever method you opted for, well done, you are now a beekeeper with all the pleasures and responsibilities that accompany the position.