Updated: Feb 6
Bees are essential to life and are frankly fascinating. They come in a range of colours and sizes but all do something very fundamental ‘Pollination’, which is the transfer of pollen to a stigma, ovule flower or plant allowing it to fertilise. Fertilisation turns the ovules to seeds allowing more wondrous plants to grow. Additionally, to this vital process they propagate, they also produce honey, which as I am sure you know is a delicious, sweet food with many uses. Finally, they are an incredible species that work together in huge colonies for their survival. So if you don’t think bees are vital for our planet survival, form incredible interesting organisation, produce your favourite substance (honey) and are fascinating in many other ways I am not quite sure what your still doing here. However, if you do find bees as fascinating as me and want learn more, here is what I learnt and my experience from a bee keeping taster day.
What is a bee keeping taster day?
A bee keeping taster day is essentially just that. It is a day you can learn about bees in general and the most iconic of which is the honey bee and what it is like to be a beekeeper for a day.
What to expect from a typical taster day?
Now, this is my experience of a beekeeper taster day and the things I learnt. My taster day took part in the back garden of a beekeeper. The garden was a good size but by no means huge and as we sat and had a cup of tea for our introduction there was no bee in sight. I learnt this was because of the way the entrances of the bee hives were oriented away from the house and large hedges acted as barriers that meant bees would be unlikely to fly towards the house. After the briefing and an introduction to bees we got to try on the stereotypical bee gear with our own pair of latex washing up gloves. Yes, latex gloves are an easy way to protect your hands and stop them getting sticky. We then went down to the hives to look at the massive colonies the bees have formed, used the tools (Hive tool) to open up the hive and find the queen bee. It was a great and unique experience, where I did not get stung at all. Throughout the day we were taught lots of fact and information about bees and there care. Here is what I learnt about bees:
What I learnt about bees!
Bees have survived for a long time without the intervention of human help, so surely we don’t need to do anything correct? Wrong, largely due to industrial agricultural, parasites/pathogens and climate change bee’s population are in decline. Due to us contributing to their decline we should be responsible to mitigate and stop this. Through bee keeping bees numbers can increase, as it gives them safe and secure place to live, their colonies to grow and a better chance of survival.
Additionally, I learnt the rough structure of a typical hive, which consists of a elevated platform, the bottom board with entrance, two hive bodies one typically for brood and another for food, a honey super (another body section for the bees to create more honey, the frames to create the cells for honey and brood on to, an inner cover (crown board) and a outer cover (roof). Additionally, a queen excluder can be used to prevent the queen traveling through to the supers and laying brood there.
Usually, a hive will have one queen, which is identified by its longer abdomen but commercially is often highlighted with a non-toxic marker. The queen is raised from larvae selected by the worker bees and only fed royal jelly until sexually mature. The queen larvae will be identified by a queen cup, which is a larger abnormal cell. If queen cups (cells) begin to form it is a sign that the bees might be swarming.
The hive and colony can have as many as 20,000 to 80,000 bees. The majority of these will be worker bees, which are all females. These come from the brood, which means bees larvae. The remaining bees that are male are called drones. The drones don’t have stinger or gather nectar or pollen. Their whole role is to mate with an unfertile queen. If there is no unfertile queen the drone is essentially pointless.
Taking their honey is bad, right? Wrong again, sort of. Bees eat the honey to survive and during the winter when they hibernate they use the honey as a reserve to get them through the colder months. An experienced beekeeper should be able to take the surplus honey they produce and leave enough honey for them to survive over the winter. Additionally, beekeepers can add other sources to the hive to help them, such as a sugar water solution. The amount of honey a beekeeper can obtain from a single hive does differ depending on its size and age but approximately 20 to 60 pounds could be gathered over a year.
What’s the typical hive?
I have mentioned the typical hive layout (structure) above but there are multiple different types that can be used. Here are just a few different types of hives:
British National Hive is one of the most commonly used hives in the UK;
Langstroth Hive is one of the most popular hives around the world named after its designer;
Top-bar hives is a simple hive to make yourself and are relatively affordable. However, It cannot hold as many bees and is not expandable.;
Skep Hives are historical hives that are typically made from wicker and still in use today.
They all have their own advantages and disadvantages that may make them appropriate for you but you should do your research before purchasing one. For many it depends on what hive you used when learning bee keeping.
The Flow Hive is a hive that was made popular through a crowd funding website. Its unique structure allows the beekeeper to break the plastic cells and tap off the honey without opening up the hive. However, this is not good for the bees, as it will ruin the brood and doesn't allow for properly checking the hive. This can be overcome by not breaking all the cells but may require you to open the hive and take out the frames to see what ones have brood and honey. There is ongoing debates to whether the newest ‘revolutionary’ Flow Hive is good for bee keeping and for bees but this is down to personal preference and experience.
What is swarming?
Swarming is when a queen bee and the majority of bees will go to a different location. There are a number of reasons why bees swarm but it mainly comes down to not having enough space and the bee colony thinking the current queen is not good enough.
Common signs of swarming are:
The colony will have a large number of adult bees ready for the swarm;
The hive will have large amounts of brood (usually, 8+ frames);
The hive will be over populated;
Queen cells will emerge.
Ways to help preventing swarming are:
Give additional brood boxes and hive space to the colony;
Take out queen cells (cups) before additional queens hatch.
There are also three in-depth methods that can be used to control swarming which are:
The Pagden Method
The Snelgrove Method
The Horsely Method
But my introduction course did not go into depth with these. However, it was noted that swarming leads to a weaker colony that may not survive. Additionally, for commercial beekeepers it means that the honey harvest will be poor.
Is bee keeping good?
Well in my opinion yes and this comes down to the threat we pose to bees today. Bee keeping increases the population of bees and gives them a better chance in the winter, controls them swarming and gives them a safe place to grow and thrive. Additionally to this, the increase in population of bees helps the local plant life and agriculture. Having said this, it is dependent on the bee keeper and how the bees are kept and treated through their life to whether this is achieved ethically. For example on my experience no smoker was used when handling the hives, frames and bees.
Overall, beekeeping is a fascinating and unique hobby with a great community with even better benefits if you love honey. If you have an interest in bees and bee keeping I would recommend a beekeeper tasting day to learn and experience what it’s really like keeping bees. Even if you don’t want to become a beekeeper you can still learn a ton about how they are cared for. Additionally, you can still help hundreds of solitary bees in your back garden, so check out my other posts on that.
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