Lessons, lectures on beekeeping are just what I’ve been longing for, since admiring natural beekeeping in Sussex last spring and observing my dear friend’s hive in Vancouver last autumn. Lucky us, to hear of a talk on keeping bees, from our local beekeeper, at our local ecology center! Our tall girl accompanied me, and is equally enthralled and eager to host a hive. I’ve just got to tell you everything.
We had a look at the ubiquitous Langstroth hive, a beehive built with removable frames and ‘bee-space’ between each frame. The worker bees have ‘drawn out’ honeycomb on this frame, and capped off the cells with more wax. This frame was extraordinarily heavy, it was so laden with honey. The scent is entirely intoxicating.
I was amazed to hear that a honeybee queen begins life no differently from a worker bee (80-90% of the hive, and female) or a drone (male), but is placed in a larger cell and fed royal jelly, a high-protein superfood that enables her to develop ovaries. She goes out to find where the local drones are hanging out, mates with them, and is ready to lay 1500 eggs a day for the rest of her life. Her life should be about 5 years, but our ecologically stressed state has shortened most queen’s lives to about 2.
I’m not sure how I’ve lived so long without knowing the lifecycle of a bee. The babies are born, tucked into cells and fed jelly by nurse bees, and cocoon there for just over a week. They emerge, clean their cells for the next generation, and begin to work as nurse bees. They’ve not yet developed stingers or enzymes for creating all the amazing beeproducts they’ll make later. They might get promoted to be an attendant to the queen, to feed her, care for her complete toilette; or become a fanner bee, whose wings fan the nectar til it is less than 18% moisture, and ready to be capped off and stored as honey. As the bees develop they might become a water carrier or a guard bee at the entrance to the hive. From there the bees take little practice flights, have you seen them doing this? Circling back to the hive til they are ready to begin foraging, which they might do for two weeks of their little two-month lives.
You can see a bit of the nursery, which would surround the queen, and the cells where the young are capped off. Around it the bees store pollen, fermenting with an enzyme they mix with it - their high protein food, preserved in honey; around bee pollen they store more honey. In a wild hive, this is formed in that familiar winnie-the-pooh egg shape; in the framed hive a similar structure can be encouraged. The hive is built with a cover and a roof, with ventilation, and the frames can be built with a ‘comb’ already on it, or the bees can form their own from scratch. This takes a lot of work, particularly if a hive is started from scratch rather than from a nucleas colony. The honey may even provide some of the insulation needed for winter, and I was pleased to hear our master beekeeper’s opinion that in the first year, no honey ought to be removed from the hive, to help the bees overwinter in their best possible health and nutrition; and in future years, to take outer frames cautiously. The idea of giving bees sugar water seems counterintuitive on so many levels, particularly given the crisis bees currently face.
The propolis, those reddish markings on the frame, is an amazing bee substance, anti-bacterial, medicinal, another superfood. Bees use propolis to seal off any gaps, and will even surround and mummify an intruder with it, to protect themselves from disease. This frame of honeycomb is naturally built - and you can see that a couple of nectar flows are present, probably a darker plant like blackberry, and a lighter plant might have produced the lighter honey. Honeycombs shaped like this always put me in mind of Aganetha Dyck’s amazing sculptural, environmental work with bees.
Liane told us fascinating things about bee communication. The openings in this natural comb are communication holes, built by the bees to allow them to move between frames. Bees dance to create vibrations that echo through the hive, and describe a source of nectar. If a couple of flows appear, the bees will send out scouts to check each source nectar, and listen to scout’s descriptions when they return - then ‘vote’ on which nectar source to pursue! In this way you’ll get dandelion honey, blackberry honey… the bees agree upon where to forage! What’s more, the flight path determines much of what the bees will choose - if there are great flowers behind the hive, the bees might ignore it. They’re more likely to pursue flowers in a u-shape in front of the hive. Liane spoke about positioning the hive so that the flight path isn’t careening right into a busy area; placing the hive to receive strong morning sun to warm the hive; raising the hive to keep creatures from easily getting at the bees - there are good reasons that we think of hives in trees!
Can you see the way a knife sliced the caps off, to extract the honey? I only dream of this. I’m delighted with how much we’ve learned - there’s much more to tell you, but I will save it for our next adventure in beekeeping. We’d like to visit Liane and her hives, and it would be very sweet to daydream over her wonderful supplies over at Homesteader’s Emporium. We’ll be watching for more workshops, too. Look out for your own local beekeeping club, mentors, suppliers and workshops. Post them in the comments if you like! I shall go daydream about beehives now.
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