keeping bees in the city – sage advice from a local expert

January 29, 2010 at 10:17 am 24 comments

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

Entry filed under: away from the plot, great people. Tags: , .

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24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom Hayward  |  January 29, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Not sure I would want to do it, but it was sure fun reading about it.
    Love honey, hate stings!
    All the best.

  • 2. miss m  |  January 29, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    What a happy looking bee keeper ! 😀

    I’ve been contemplating bee keeping for about a year now. I don’t know if this is ‘the’ year but I definitely will have a go at it in my lifetime. Great post !

  • 3. Lucy  |  January 29, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Oh no don’t let my Dad see… he’s itching for the chance to give it a go!

  • 4. Ann  |  January 30, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Very interesting post. I don’t like honey myself but Graham loves it. Also, the last time I was stung by a bee (at Wisley) my foot swelled up so I’m scared of them now!!! We encourage bees in our garden and have bumble bee nests in a few areas, a fox dug one up recently.

  • 5. Nip it in the bud  |  January 30, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Tom – ‘love honey, hate stings‘… I’m sure you’re not alone there!

    Miss M – the talk from The Global Bee Project post film was a refreshing reminder that keeping honey bees is not the only way to help the environment. There are 255 other species of bee in the UK and many of those don’t have stings because they’ve nothing to protect. So keep growing those gorgeous nectar filled flowers and you’ll be doing your bit :o)

    Lucy – but think of all that gorgeous free honey! He might be interested in this then for 2011 (fully booked for this year)
    Free Bees Scheme – an easy, risk free way to try out beekeeping. New starters, who sign up for two years membership of the club and our beginners training programme, can join the free bees scheme which provides the loan of hive equipment and a starter pack of bees. The bees are kept in the branch apiary and members receive regular instruction on the care and management of the hive. Once you’ve successfully completed the training – at the end of the two years, or earlier, you can buy your own hives and transfer the bees. If you decide bee keeping is not for you, simply return the bees and the equipment to the GBKA-CG.

    Ann – ouch that sounds painful. I’ve only been stung once and that was on the foot too when I stood on a dead bee as a child.
    I feel a bit more informed now and less likely to assume anything that buzzes is going to spike me! Hugely reassured that many bees in the garden won’t sting and glad to hear you’re giving them a welcome home

  • 6. miss m  |  January 31, 2010 at 12:35 am

    My point exactly ! (and the one I ‘didn’t’ make the other day). I’m really happy to learn the film covered that very VERY important angle as well. (Too many docs focus on the honey bee as if it was the only darn pollinator in the world !) My beautiful bumble bees do most of the work in my garden.

    In all honesty, my interest in bee keeping lies purely in that liquid gold. 😉

  • 7. Nip it in the bud  |  January 31, 2010 at 10:26 am

    sadly the film didn’t!. It was all about the honey bee. The commercial bee keepers in the US featured in the film make most of their income now from shipping the bees from coast to coast as pollinators not for honey making. So I don’t quite understand why they don’t choose a different species of bee. A man named Carlo from the Global Bee Project did a talk about other types of bees (friendly ones without stings and very helpful explained the difference between wasps and bees). Perhaps they’ll make a film of their own one day ;o)

  • 8. Bilbo  |  January 31, 2010 at 11:43 am

    If you’re really getting interested in keeping bees, you might like to have a look at Phil Chandler’s site

    There are a lot of people, and I am one of them, who feel that the “accepted” methods of bee keeping are not in the best interests of the bees themselves and that cramming so many insects into artificial hives is no better treatment than battery caged hens receive. It is also suggested that this unnatural way of bee-keeping may be contributing towards reduced resistance towards infections and pesticides.

  • 9. Hazel  |  January 31, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Interesting stuff, Nic (did anyone else get a word in? {grin}) – thank you for taking the time to post.

    We should all be trying to attract all pollinators (and all types of bees), of course – the honey is a bonus! And at the Hill we are encouraged to have a flower ‘front of plot’ – an annual prize is awarded for the best.

  • 10. Nip it in the bud  |  January 31, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Bilbo – thanks for the link, there are so many things I wanted to write about bees but this post was long enough already! Feedback on the ‘Vanishing of the bees’ film and info from The Global Bee Project to follow…. I’d love to keep honey bees one day but I have to move to a house with a garden first!

    Hazel – I agree and it’s good to know it’s a win:win to have more bees in the garden. I have heaps of flower seeds which I’ve never been organised enough to get sowing in Feb before. I put up the greenhouse in the yard this afternoon and have my compost at the ready. How fab to be awarded a prize for flowers out front – what will you be hoping to win with this year?

    • 11. Hazel  |  February 1, 2010 at 10:29 pm

      Flower seeds are less organised than veg seeds, Nic – it’s likely to be ‘whatever’s in the seed box’! It’s bound to be a rather informal display – the honours tend to go to Julie who has a ‘cutting garden’ at the front of her plot (about 5 up from us) consisting of in-your-face dahlias, scented lilies heavy in the evening air and gladioli that dame Edna would be proud of!

  • 12. Anita  |  February 1, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    This is completely fascinating, thanks. I’ve often had questions like these but been afraid to ask (well actually, not had anyone I could ask!) … great timing too with the release of the documentary

  • 13. Nip it in the bud  |  February 2, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Hazel – Julie’s cutting garden sounds lush. Perhaps I’ll come to the Hill one day – like being back at school doing an exchange visit!

    Anita – thanks, it’s amazing what you can find out when you start nattering to people at allotments ;o) Who needs Wikipedia?

  • 14. mykidscanblog  |  February 16, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Are the bee numbers decreasing? As that is something we have noticed here in Yorkshire –

    • 15. Nip it in the bud  |  February 16, 2010 at 4:27 pm

      so it would seem. The lavender in my garden (and yours) is certainly a favourite among our buzzy friends though. Your fields look beautiful and if I lived in Yorkshire I’d be there like a shot to take some snaps and sample your wares :o)

  • 16. Brian  |  May 29, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    That honey looks great. I love fresh raw honey…

    Did you design the logo yourself?

    • 17. Nip it in the bud  |  May 30, 2010 at 11:02 am

      people always say ‘It’s the best I’ve ever tasted’ about foodstuffs produced by a friend… but it really is the tastiest honey I’ve had the pleasure to try :o)

      The label was created by Jon’s friend Cedric (click the link under the photo – he’s also featured on my blog picking damsons to make jam)

  • 18. Aanne @ Flower Delivery  |  July 24, 2010 at 10:18 am

    I love eating honey,
    and I have to say that I am really impressed with Jon.
    Seems like an all round good guy.

    Thanks for posting this,
    Dublin Florist

  • 19. Nancy  |  January 22, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Great Q and A. There is some really useful information here. Keeping Bees in an urban environment just astounds me.

    Love the honey labels BTW – are you still selling?

    • 20. Nip it in the bud  |  January 28, 2011 at 11:39 am

      It’s surprising how many flowers there are in city gardens and such variety. The bees obviously like it :o)
      Jon always gets a good yield. He doesn’t sell it – just donates it to family and friends and uses it himself.

  • […] If You’re Not Sure What It Means, It Must Be an Idiom Posted on July 24, 2011 by gellors ..hit two birds with one stone.. means you have achieved two goals with one task or you have done two things at the same time. WHY? It’s like launching a stone from a slingshot and hitting two birds at the same time. …a very busy bee… means you work very hard (and it’s like you almost never stop working. It is all you do.) WHY? Bees never stop working. (source: keeping bees in the city) […]

  • 22. bee hive keeping  |  March 23, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Good article! We will be linking to this particularly great content on our site. Keep up the good writing.

  • 23. Vince  |  June 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I live in Nottingham UK. It is 28th June 2012 @ 14:00 and we have had on and off ‘Heavy’ rain and thunder & lightning.
    Yet there are bee’s collecting pollen from my next door neighbours very flouring bushy plant that covers my a vast part of my garden fence.

    In your description it (also lots of other places I have researched) it states that bee’s do not come out of the hive in heavy rain.

    Why is there lots and I mean a lot of bees (about 20 at any given time) on this plant with constant flights in and out even in heavy rain and thunder & lightning?

    Thanks for your time in advance.

    • 24. nic@nipitinthebud  |  June 29, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      Hi Vince, thanks for sharing observations and thoughts about bee activity in your area. Jon gave this answer to your question….

      Hi Nic

      What I said in the post was
      ‘Bees can carry on working in the rain although they stay in the hive if it’s torrential’.

      Bees don’t particularly like rain but will leave the hive to collect stores in rainy weather, although they will avoid flying if the rain if it is so heavy that they are likely to be hit by a rain drop, which can knock them to the ground or collect on their wings and body making them too heavy to fly . If they are in the hive when rain gets this heavy they will not leave, if they are out foraging they will usually land to take shelter which may explain why there seem to be lots of them on the bush in particularly heavy spells.

      Although the weather we have been having recently in Gloucester (and I presume its about the same in Nottingham) is perceived by us as ‘ heavy rain’ its actually made up of a whole spectrum of varying degrees of torrentiality (if that’s a word) including intervals (often all too brief) where there is no rain at all. I notice that Vince describes the weather in Nottingham as on and off ‘Heavy’ rain

      I suspect that the bees awareness of how heavy rain actually is, is more acute than ours which means that when we see bees flying in heavy rain, what we are actually seeing is bees maximizing their opportunities for foraging by flying when they are able in the gaps between rain which is so torrential that they cant.

      Are they definitely honey bees and not bumble bees? – I don’t know this for a fact but as bumble bees are bigger they might be able to cope with heavier rain than honey bees – although I would have thought they would be just as susceptible to being weighed down by water on their wings

      Another factor may be how desperate the bees are for nectar or pollen – if they are short of stores they may be more likely to risk heavier rain than if they have lots of stores

      If they are definitely honey bees and are definitely flying throughout torrential rainstorms then they obviously haven’t read the books



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About Nip it in the bud

Welcome to my blog about growing and cooking allotment veg since 2009 and growing sweet boys since 2012. Take a walk with us through our life in Gloucester with a boy, a baby and 3 cats.

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