On warm, dry spring days, our honey bees can be seen and heard hard at work all over the garden. Foraging from the flowerbeds and orchard, collecting fresh water from the spring-fed pond, and flying further afield to explore the flora on the surrounding hills. At this time of year we try and go through the hives at least every ten days, as long as the weather is good. The main purpose of the beekeeping inspection is to keep an eye on the health and productivity of the hive, but we also like to use it as an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the inner workings of the colonies. We love watching them buzzing about on their busy schedules. In particular we find the variety of jobs undertaken by the bees, in order to keep the hive successfully ticking over, fascinating.
The female bees fill all but one of the jobs. For around the first three weeks of their lives, they will mostly cover hive based jobs. After that they will progress to flying jobs. However, they will all (with the exception of the queen), swap between roles and tasks regularly in accordance with the needs of the colony:
- At the hive entrance are the guards. They appear in response to any disturbances by patrolling the front door and nearby air space; investigating, challenging and, if need be, fighting off any unwelcome guests. Many times in the summer months we have seen intruding wasps attempting to steal honey from the hive, only to be dragged out and shooed off by a handful of the brave bees stationed on duty.
- Deep inside the hive are the nurses, who care for the developing baby bees. They ensure the brood is well-fed with the right mix of royal jelly and pollen, and cap their cells with wax at the correct time, so that they can grow into fully-fledged adults.
- Alongside the nurses, and at the start of the bee career ladder, are the cleaners. These are mostly fluffy newborns in their first few days of life. They swiftly tidy up any mess, repair damage, and generally keep things spick and span. To their credit, the hives are extremely tidy places and the bees are very respectful of that. Even in the deepest, coldest winter when the colony is huddled closely together to keep warm, a bee would rather hold everything in for days until it is sunny enough to nip outside for a quick despatch, than desecrate the hive.
- Occasionally it is possible to spot the undertakers, who helicopter any dead bees out of the hive, dropping them in a final resting place on the grass outside (or human, if we happen to be weeding the nearby veg beds at the time). Bees care not for themselves, but only the colony as a whole, and they will quite literally work themselves to death for the good of the hive. We have spotted bees at the end of their short life span, determinedly using their final breaths to drop off a final nectar delivery in the honeycomb, only to die part way through, leaving only their little sting-end on show, poking out of the half-full cell top.
- Then, of course, there are the foragers, who go out collecting pollen, propolis, water and nectar. Back at the hive they will empty their hoard and use it for food production or hive maintenance.
- Top job is filled by the queen bee. She sets the character of the hive and can be seen scurrying across the frames in search of empty cells to lay eggs, surrounded by an entourage, who keep her safe, well-fed and clean. Luckily for us, our queens have a pleasant temperament, which they have passed onto their worker bee offspring, so hive inspections are generally quite amicable.
- Lastly there are the male bees, known as drones, whose sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen bee. They don’t forage, make honey or clean the hive, but they do merrily make a mess for the other bees to clean up, and liberally consume the food stores. Guard duty is not for them either as they don’t have a sting, just a fluffy stump of a bottom. They spend much of their time in airborne hangouts, with drones from other hives, on the look out for queen bees. Those that manage a successful rendezvous with a queen will die straight afterwards. Most drones, however, will never have to worry about this, as the queens usually only go on a couple of mating flights very early in their lifetime, so the majority of male bees will never fulfil their destiny. Not surprisingly, the female bees only tolerate their presence in the hive for so long and will turf them out into the cold to die as the temperature starts to drop in the lead up to winter.
It is a deeply intricate and compelling operation and, even though we have been beekeeping for many years, we find there is always something new to learn about the amazing little insects.
Our latest beekeeping inspection showed the hives looking in great health. The queens have been laying well and the frames are packed full of brood. The colony have started to fill the hexagonal combs with honey and the outermost frames of the hive have plenty of pollen squirrelled away in them. The bees themselves were as busy as ever. We spotted several waggle dance performances on the frames (a form of bee communication which alerts other bees in the hive to the location of top notch sources of forage), and a multicoloured array of pollen being flown in on the legs of the bees. We gave each hive a new super (a box of smaller frames for storing honey), and left them to it. Fingers-crossed for a hefty honey crop later this year.
We’ll post an update in the summer. In the meantime, in case it is of interest, these are the two beekeeping books we would recommend above all others: The Haynes Bee Manual and Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey. The Haynes manual is really easy to understand and is packed full of handy pictures, and the Ted Hooper is a classic in the beekeeping world; wordy, but really well-written and clear, it’s great for extra details and more in depth info. We consult both regularly.