keeping bees in the city
Jon’s an archeologist and a bit of a digging dynamo by all accounts. I’ve heard he’s rarely happier than when he’s sifting through soil. I’m not sure that’s entirely true these days having seen his face light up when talking about beekeeping. His is a smile of sheer pleasure if ever I saw one.
Jon collected 25-30lb of honey from his hive in the autumn. He averaged 50lb per colony when he kept bees many years ago and once had a bumper yield of over 100lb from a single colony. With an average bee hive containing 50-60,000 bees in the summer space in a city garden is definitely an issue if you want to increase honey production so he just has one hive for now.
I asked Jon a bunch of questions about beekeeping and collecting honey and I thought I’d share his answers with you. Get comfy with a cuppa, it’s along one!
How do bees make honey?
Honey is basically concentrated nectar. Bees collect nectar from plants (they suck it out of the flowers with their tongues and store it in a special stomach) and back at the hive they regurgitate it into one of the cells on the honey comb. Nectar is much more liquid than honey so once the forager bees have made their deposit other bees fan the honey combs with their wings to create an airflow and draw the water out of the nectar making it more storeable and concentrating its food content. When enough water has been removed the bees cap the honey filled cells with wax. In this state the honey will store indefinitely and the bees only remove the wax capping when they want to eat it. The flavour and consistency of the honey is determined by the nature of the plant nectar the bees have collected to create it.
How long does it take the bees to make honey?
Bees will begin foraging for nectar whenever there is any about but they are most active between April and September. The time it takes them to make the honey will depend on the size of the colony and how warm the overall temperature is. If there are lots of bees collecting nectar, lots of bees drying it out and it is warm outside the whole process need only take a couple of days (or even less). Fewer bees and colder climates makes the process slower.
How do you get the honey from the hives and into the jars? How do you do it without annoying the bees?
The honey is ready when the bees have capped the cells with wax. By the end of the season in September when the honeycombs are completely capped you remove them. A bee hive consists of two parts: an upper box where the surplus honey is stored and a lower box which contains the queen, all the eggs and brood and some honey and pollen. The bees like to come into contact with the Queen every day so you contain the Queen bee in the lower box by placing a thin mesh on top. You then place a board between the boxes which allows the worker bees through (they are smaller than the Queen bee) but only one way, from honey box to brood box. The honey box will be clear in about 24 hours.
Once you have taken the honey bombs away from the bees you remove the wax capping with a knife and place the frames containing the honey combs in a honey spinner: a large drum with a handle that turns the central cage When you spin the cage the honey is forced out of the combs and drips down the inside of the drum. There is a wide tap at the bottom of the drum to let the honey out. I pass it through a coarse sieve into another tank and leave it for a couple of days to allow any scum and inclusions float to the top. This tank also has a tap on the bottom and once the honey has settled you can let it pour directly into the jars.
What does the Queen bee do? How is she chosen? What happens if she dies?
Pretty much all the queen does is lay eggs (up to 5,000 a day in the height of the season). All other decisions within the hive seem to be made by the worker bees on a sort of collective action basis. The queen isn’t chosen on an individual basis; if they need a new queen the bees can raise one. All worker bees are immature females and queens are just ordinary bees who have been reared in a way which enables them to reach full maturity (from an ordinary fertilised egg that is given more space, more protein and more oxygen). The bees don’t just wait for the old queen to die: if she is failing in any way they will raise a new queen and then just kill the old one or divide the colony into two by swarming. If the queen dies unexpectedly they can always raise a new one as long as there are fertilised eggs in the colony. As queens tend to lay eggs in the spring and summer the death of the queen in winter is very serious as the colony would have no eggs to make a new queen from.
How do the worker bees find their way back to the hive?
They find their way back by remembering where the hive was in relation to the sun’s position in the sky when they left. Pretty clever when you think how much the sun moves around the sky and isn’t always visible on cloudy days.
Do bees ever stop working or is the phrase ‘busy bee‘ entirely true?
Bees never stop working. The jobs they do in the hive depends partly on circumstance but is also determined by age. When they first emerge from the cells as adult bees they start to look after the brood (the immature eggs and grubs) and keep the hive tidy. When they get older they go out and collect nectar and pollen and the older bees tend to act as guards (which makes sense as bees die if they sting you). The male drone bees don’t really do any work around the hive as there only job is to mate with a queen (not the one in the hive who is their mother) and they die once that task is completed. The queen mates with a number of drones in the brief period at the beginning of her life when she leaves the hive. When she returns to the hive and she spends most of the rest of her life laying eggs
What do bees do when it rains and do they ever sleep?
Bees can carry on working in the rain although they stay in the hive if it’s torrential. There are plenty of jobs to be done and they don’t ever sleep.
How can I identify a honeybee? (I don’t usually hang around long enough to get a visual on the buzz just in case it’s a wasp!)
Honey bees are about the same size as a worker wasp and a similar shape. But a honey bees body is less pointy and more furry (for collecting pollen). They tend to be black and orange rather than black and yellow and they also have black heads. They are not as round or as large as bumble bees. Individual honey bees are usually too busy to bother people so if an insect is buzzing around your head in an annoying manner it’s unlikely to be a honey bee.
How long have you been beekeeping and where did you get your bees from?
I first started keeping bees about 20 years ago. I’ve always liked insects but don’t particularly like gardening so bee keeping seemed a good way of masquerading as a self-sufficient son of the soil without having to grow things! I had a break of several years but couldn’t bring myself to part with my equipment. So when Pat and Robin asked me to remove a swarm of bees from their garden I fell happily back into it. The laws governing ownership of swarms are medieval: if you lose sight of your bees and someone else collects them then the rule of ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’ applies.
How did you learn about bee-keeping? Where did you buy your equipment?
I went on a short course at Hartpury College and read a lot of books. I used to be a member of Newent Beekeepers Association and and attended their meetings.
I bought my first stock of bees from Maisemore Apiaries, and then reared new colonies from those over time. I’ve collected swarms on occasion and the bees I have currently started are third generation bees now. I’ve tended to make most of the equipment.
Were you scared initially?
The first time I ever saw inside a bee hive I was on my own and had only read about what to expect (I did my evening class in winter so it wasn’t particularly hands on). I don’t think I was scared but I was certainly a little anxious. I’m not sure I’ve ever been scared of the bees but there have been times when I have been bee keeping and would rather have been doing something else! I always treat bees with healthy caution and wear all the kit if I going to open a hive up.
How many times have you been stung and what was your worst sting?
I don’t honestly know. I used to get stung a lot more often with the bees I had in the early days. The bees I have now are very gentle or perhaps I’m better at it. You are less likely to be stung if you make calm deliberate movements and don’t just crash about with the hive. Top tip: never combine beekeeping and alcohol!
If you keep bees you tend to build up an immunity to the stings so although it still feels like a pin prick you don’t get any of the swelling. My worst stings were probably the early ones before I’d got used to it. You can still get stung through protective clothing but the stings don’t penetrate as deep and are likely to fall out. It’s important to remove the sting as soon as you can because the poison sack continues to pump poison into you after the initial sting. Stings on exposed skin can penetrate quite deeply making them harder to remove and increasing the painful effects of the sting.
Where is the most likely place a bee will sting you?
If you open up a hive without protective clothing the bees will go for your face. Very nasty and why you should always wear a veil. I’ve been around bad tempered bees in the past and even though you know they can’t get past your veil it’s a bit disconcerting knowing they’re trying.
The most likely place you’ll pick up a sting as a beekeeper is on your hands. A bee sting can penetrate through leather gloves and many beekeepers don’t even wear any. I used to go bare handed too but tend to wear gloves now to keep my hands clean and to stop the bees crawling up my sleeves.
‘Westgate Honey’ label designed by Cedric