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.
Updated: Feb 5
The importance of bees should be without question and many of you may already know why we should save them. However, even now as it is slowly (too slowly) being brought to our attention the reasons why we need to pay more attention to their numbers and the fact they are depleting shows we need to do more. Before I go on, to clarify, bees are important because through their goal to obtain pollen and nectar for food, they pollinate millions of plants in the process. This is important because this leads to the production of seeds for more plants to grow and even for the fruit to develop for us to eat. If you are still not convinced the reason this is important is because these plants produce the oxygen we breathe and help to combat the large amounts of carbon emissions we produce. Further to this, there are the millions of plants that are gorgeous to look at and should be able to survive in an environment that is theirs as much it is ours, that also gives our wildlife a home. So for this reason we need to help the bees to not just survive but thrive, making the bigger question ‘how can we help the bees?’
Here is how you can help the bees today!
There can many steps to helping bees without invest a lot of time and money in becoming a full time beekeeper or devoting your life to their development. Although there is the famous honey bees there are actually nearly 20,000 different types. In the UK the majorities are solitary bees like the Bumblebee, which do not live in large colonies. There are many easy measures you can take that will contribute to bees success and increasing there numbers but here are a few of them:
Try not to kill them:
Sounds silly I know but a lot of people are afraid of bees and more so getting stung by them. This is completely rational but that doesn’t mean you should swat, hit or squash them or take a hose to their nest because you think they are too close to your house or your space. At the very least the best thing you can do is leave the bees be. If they have intruded too much then get a professional bee keeper who will often be happy to collect the bees to take them to a safer and better place for them to start a colony. Remember bees live everywhere outside, so we are sharing our space with them.
Now, this doesn’t have to be a hive in your back garden but there is more than one type of bee. You may have seen them in shops but you can get small bug huts, which is great for solitary bees. Otherwise, you could take up bee keeping and invest in a bee hive. Before you panic though, investing in a bug hut does not invite a swarm of bees in your back garden but provides a habitat for insect to rest and stay. This includes insect that pollinate your garden, importantly the solitary bees, which make up over 90% of the UK’s bee species. Look for a spot that catches the sun in the morning but remains a shady and cool place all day, which gives cover from predators (birds, snakes, rats). Also, ensure that the bug hut sits in a position it will not receive too much rain and allows for water to drip away and not sit, which could potentially drown the occupants. Many bees will also lay their larva in this, so you are supporting the next generation of bees.
There are many plants that help bees through the amount of pollen and nectar they offer and the longevity of the plant throughout the year. By providing these in your garden you are helping the bees to collect the pollen and nectar they need. Some of my top choices are lavender, Dahlia, Foxgloves, Sweet Williams, bluebells, Sunflowers and Thyme just to name a few. If you want some more information on some of these, please go to my post on “Top Plants for bees”
Food and water:
In the summer bees work incredibly hard. This can lead to them running out of energy and becoming dehydrated. You can help them through providing a pit stop for them to rehydrate and to give them an energy boost. To do this make a sugar water solution (RSPB suggest two tablespoons of white granulated sugar with one tablespoon of water) and put it on a small plate or spoon in your garden. This rehydrates the bee and gives it energy to continue on its task of collecting pollen and thus pollinating your plants. However, be careful not to have the water too deep, as the bees may drown. If you do this, be sure to send me a picture or video of your bees with #feedthebees.
Support your local beekeeper:
If you want to continue and go the extra mile give your support to your local beekeeper. This can be through donations to them, buying their raw and natural honey or buying their other bee products. This will often taste better than mass produced honey, is better for the environment and means the beekeeper can obtain more hives, meaning more bees for the environment in your area. If possible, support a beekeeper who does not use a smoker to be more ethical.
Promote the bee:
Finally, try to promote the bee as much as you can. I don’t think it’s best to go around “preaching” about bees but if it comes up in conversation always try to persuade people to do more. Especially, if you have kids get them to recognise the importance of bees, so the next generation has a better understand of how and why you should take care of them. Even buying products with a bee symbols can increase their prominence and hopefully make people take more notice of these beautiful and amazing creature and all they do for us.
One more thing to note is to be wary of the products you purchase and the impact this may have on bees. For example many fruit and vegetables are sprayed with pesticides that kill bees, so should be avoided if possible. Also, mass produced honey can be unethical and actually more damaging, so be wary of this. I hope I gave you something to think about and some easy and useful ways you can help bees. Always try to remember what bees do for our planet, plants and agriculture and to implement some of the tips above to help them thrive. Anyway, I would love to see what you have done, so make sure to send me pictures and videos of how you have helped bees on my social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) with #supportthebees #Helpthebees #Bee-kind #feedthebees #plantforthebees and any other tags that will get more people’s attention.