Article and photos by Geoff Brown
There are an estimated 250 species of wild bee in Britain, but the bees we are talking about in this article are the ‘domesticated’ honey bees. There are several beekeepers in Crich parish; including John Wilcock from Robin Hood, Whatstandwell who has kept bees for the last six years and shares his knowledge here.
Honeybees, although managed, are essentially wild insects working together in colonies. They are kept in hives which typically contain tiers of wooden frames where the bees construct perfectly hexagonal cells from waxes gathered from their surroundings. The cells in the lower frames (the nursery area) are used for egglaying and the brooding of young bees and those in the upper frames for the storage of honey which provides a food source for the bees themselves when they cannot gather plant nectar. Extra layers of frames may be added during the summer months when honey production is at its highest.
The bees start to become active in the spring after the hives have over-wintered with reduced numbers of female worker bees (typically 2000-3000) surrounding the queen, whose role is to lay eggs to produce the next generations. The queen will have been laying since mid-winter to increase the colony numbers for the spring period. During this time, the hives will be regularly checked and the bees provided with supplementary food (sugar solution), particularly during cold spells. The bees can survive low winter temperatures, but dislike damp conditions.
The first significant flights in the spring are known as defaecating flights – ever wondered what those ‘spots’ were on your window-sills etc?
As the spring flowers bloom, nectar collection starts in earnest and the bees begin to build honey stocks for the following winter. Meanwhile the queen keeps laying in the nursery, to build up numbers of female worker bees and the male drones .In the summer, the hive may expand to 30,000+ bees!
Around June, egg laying may slow a little during the lull between the peak spring and later summer flowering seasons. At this time, some surplus honey may be harvested from the hive and the bees fed with sugar solution if needed. After the main summer and autumn flowering season, more honey will be removed and as winter approaches the bees may again be fed with sugar to see them through the winter.
During their life female worker bees have very specific roles, including nurse bees (to look after the developing young), guard bees (to resist unwanted intruders), undertakers (to remove dead bees) and finally the flying, foraging bees you see in your garden.
They can communicate the location of food supplies extremely accurately to the rest of the colony by the famous ‘waggle dance’ which can direct other bees to a specific flower patch three or more miles away. Worker bees hatched in winter may live for four-six months; those hatched in the summer only about six weeks.
The male drones are present in lower numbers and have only one function – to mate with the queen (see below). The rest of the time they do very little. If that sounds an attractive lifestyle, the downside is that they die immediately after mating, or they get ejected from the hive to die in the autumn if ‘unsuccessful’. So, either way it ends badly!
The colony decides what is best for its survival. In the spring workers may start to create larger queen cells into which some of the eggs are placed. When they hatch, they are fed on a richer ‘royal jelly’ to produce a new queen. At this point, queen cells or a new queen can be moved to a new hive to start a new colony, or they can be removed and destroyed. As a hive will only support one queen, the other option is that one queen leaves, taking many of the worker bees with her as a swarm, to start a new colony elsewhere.
The quality of the honey produced by the bees depends on many factors, not least the food plants on which they have foraged. The type and diversity of flowers can influence the colour, viscosity, flavour and aroma of the honey which may vary from year to year and hive to hive depending on where the bees have been feeding. A favourite nectar source for John’s bees are the lime trees in Alderwasley. In this area there are no significant flowering agricultural crops, so the bees will be dependent on the flowers and trees in surrounding gardens, fields and wild areas. Bees are essential pollinators of many
food crops and it is estimated that at least a third of the human food supply chain is dependent on insect pollinators.
Honey yields also depend on many factors. Bees fly less in cold and wet conditions and some years are better than others for flower crops. In 2020, reduced air pollution and less cutting of roadside verges contributed to a good year for John. Locally produced honey is subject to strict quality standards and is 100% pure. In some parts of the world, mass produced honey is often adulterated with man-made sugar solutions.
There are a number of threats to the wellbeing of bees. These include the parasitic varroa mite (which weaken their immunity to other diseases), pesticides, and Asian hornets which can invade hives and destroy the native bee colonies.
Being a beekeeper is a full-on hobby. There is much to be done throughout the year to keep the bees healthy and productive and it is recommended that aspiring new keepers consider training courses run by their local beekeeper association. The reward is liquid gold!