The Life of Honey Bees
Honey was well known in ancient times and was even found in Egyptian tombs still preserved after so many thousands of years. Honey is the only food that will not spoil under any environmental conditions if maintained pure. No wonder that people and animals love honey, it is not just a sweetener but it contains minerals, vitamins and enzymes. Bees also produce pollen and royal jelly that have positive effects on human health.
Getting interested in beekeeping
In the ‘70s there was a great movement towards whole and natural foods. People grew their own vegetables, bought health foods including honey as a sweetener instead of sugar. When I lived in Silicon Valley during that time, we had a community plot in Palo Alto hills where everybody had a small plot where they grew food using French intensive method of cultivation. We grew strawberries and tomatoes. However, when we moved more into a rural area of Sonoma, then we decided to get a couple of hives to produce enough honey for our consumption. My wife Barbara was born in Brooklyn and went to NYU to study biology. She wanted to buy the hives more than me. So one windy day we went to meet a beekeeper in Cotati about 10 miles from Petaluma where we lived, to buy two hives. As I said it was very windy and bees do not like visitors when they are unhappy. Wind interferes with their flight when collecting nectar and pollen and the wind chill factor makes it also too cold for them.
Needless to say they attacked us with gusto and since we did not have the bee suits and head gear, we got stung a lot. Barbara got stung 15 times and I about 6 times. They like to attack dark anything but especially hair and they don’t stop until they deposit the stinger into your skin. I thought to my self “our beekeeping was short lived”, but Barbara recovered and decided that we will still buy the hives for $20 each consisting of two tears each (two 12” boxes, called supers, on top of each other). We brought them into our back yard in the city of Petaluma, which did not work too well since the neighbors did not like seeing bees flying over their heads all day long foraging for honey.
Finding a suitable location
To get a reasonable amount of honey you must find good locations where bees can forage through most of the spring, summer and fall. I had two location; ranch and Petaluma area.
After a month we decided to take the bees to the ranch in our VW van (I already had a smaller ranch and about 10 cows). In the fall we would put them back into the VW van and took them back to Petaluma, only this time we found a place in a small eucalyptus grove on Camozzi’s property in Cotati. The scene was set to start expanding and producing more and more honey. This becomes inevitable when you give your name and phone number to police and fireman to call you when swarms are reported. So I started collecting swarms all over Sonoma and Marin counties.
A swarm usually lands on a branch of a tree or bush and sends scouts out to find a place to start a new home, which is most often a barn or a house. To take a swarm you have to have one of the supers with the top and the bottom covers with you with at least one frame with cone and some honey or pollen. First you smoke the big ball of bees on the branch, and then you place the super with removed top cover under the ball of bees as close as possible. With one good shake of the branch you shake the bees into the super. Most of the bees will fall into the super and spread around in the super looking to protect the queen while the others will form a big cloud of bees all around you. You have to put the top on the hive and wait for about 30 minutes to give the flying bees a chance to go into the hive. Then you put a screen mash over the beehive entrance to prevent them from coming out. When you bring them home you add an additional super on top and more built out frames for the bees to start their home and start collecting nectar and pollen. Once the queen starts laying eggs you know that they decided to make this there home.
To be a beekeeper you must have the bee suit (white overalls), bee helmet with the netting that extends around the helmet over your face and all around the collar of you suit., a pair of leather gloves with extended sleeves, a smoker, a brush similar to the draftsman’s long and narrow with long soft bristles, and a hive tool (a flat 2”-wide metal plate 10” long with sharp edges) to pry off the hive lid and to dislodge the frames inside the hive, which are stocked together and to the super with propolis. Any cracks or whole in the hive, bees patch up with propolis.
Various plants produce different nectars and therefore bees make different type of honey. The honey varies in taste, consistency, and color. Honey should not be heat treated to prevent crystallization. Excessive heating kills the enzymes in honey. Raw honey will crystallize after a few months but is you immerse the honey far into look warm water it will become liquid again and it never spoils.
The sole purpose of honey production in bees’ mind is to make enough food to survive year around especially to have enough food through the winter. Man has exploited this propensity that bees have for his own advantage by robbing them of their food and forcing them to continue foraging as long as there is something to collect.
Bees will start collecting nectar and pollen as soon as the outside temperature is above 600 F and there is something to collect. For example, right now here in central California the eucalyptus is blooming and it is a great source of nectar and pollen. Later on in the spring we will have various wild flowers and some clover, however, in the summer when everything is dry, a good source of one of the best honeys is star-thistle, a weed with yellow flowers and sharp needles around the flowers. When it dries up it has a woody stem. Both eucalyptus and star thistle honeys are very good. However, most commercial honey is from clover flowers.
Orientation and communication of bees is very fascinating. The first bee that finds a source of nectar or pollen communicates the distance and direction of the source by performing a type of dance while other bees around it form a circle taking in the information. Then they all go to that location to collect and bring home the food.
When the season starts and the nectar is available in abundance, the bees will need lots of room to store the honey, so the beekeeper must add supers with empty frames on top of the existing supers. Normally a hive winters with two supers where the bees store pollen and honey for the winter. This is also the space where the queen lays eggs and new brood is started as soon as the bees detect any nectar in their vicinity. The population of the bees explodes in a matter of weeks from about 5 to 10 thousand bees to 50 to 80 thousand. During good honey period the queen lays 2000 eggs per day. A strong hive during good eucalyptus blooming can produce 60 lb or more of honey a week When the honey super is full of honey and the honey is capped, you can remove the super and add an empty in its place. To make sure that they will have enough room to store honey you may want to add two and sometime three honey supers on top of the brood supers if you are not going to check them for two or three weeks.
Keeping the hive under constant temperature summer and winter is an amazing phenomenon. Even though bees are cold blooded insects, they can keep the internal beehive temperature at about 800 F summer and winter. In the summer when is very hot the bees disperse water in the hive and create air circulation with their wings forming a sort of air conditioning. In the winter by using the same method without water but by eating honey they are able to generate heat.
To rob honey from the bees you have to smoke the hive by first smocking the entrance and then as you are taking the top cover off you must smoke under the cover. The smoke mellows the bees and you can than open the supers, take out frames, brush bees of the frames etc. After you removed the frames with honey you add empty frames in their place. Each super contains 10 frames and if some are missing bees will build out that area with wild cone and store honey. After the honey is removed, cover the top super with the top cover and you can then leave with robbed honey.
To extract honey you need a honey extractor, an electric honey knife and buckets or glass jars to store the honey. The first step is to uncap the honey on the frames with the electric knife. This is done by shaving of the wax capping to expose the honey on both sides of the frame, and then you place the frame (usually 4 to 20 frames at the time) into the extractor, which is a centrifuge that spins and forces the honey out of the wax cells on the frame. The extractor may be hand cranked or electrically powered (I had a 20-frame electric). The honey runs out through a gate at the bottom and from there through a cheesecloth filter into a bucket or glass jars for storage. The empty frames are then reused by the bees to store honey again and again. By having existing built out frames in the hive the bees do not have to build the hexagonal wax cells before storing honey, they just clean and repair the existing cells and immediately start storing honey, thus obtaining higher production of honey.
After the season is over and the bees are preparing for wintering, the queen will stop laying eggs so that the total population will drop down to around 10,000 bees. The beekeeper must store the supers used to collect honey during the honey season for the next year. This is done by using mothballs or powder in each super. Supers are stacked with newspapers between supers and stored in a dry place. This is to prevent the wax moth of destroying the wax on the frames and to preserve them for next year.
Beehive organization and division of labor
A beehive is comprised of three types of bees; the queen, worker bees (females), and drones (male bees). This is a true socialistic society where workers control the destiny of the hive. Workers decide the destiny of a queen and the destiny of the drones (the male bees). A harmonious and prosperous hive has a good queen that lays 2000 eggs a day and at least 90% of these eggs should produce worker bees (females), the worker bees are finding all kinds of nectar and pollen and are working like crazy all day long, the drones, however, sit around playing video games and demand service from the worker bees continuously. They are basically on vacation. Even though they are bigger than the queen or the worker bees, they are pretty helpless because they do not possess the stinger. The stinger evolved into their genital organ, not very useful in a life or death struggle. Since females cannot live without males around them they tolerate these good for nothing bums. But wait they have to eventually pay the piper. Actually they have a useful role for a few seconds. This moment comes when a young virgin queen takes a flight outside the hive in order to get fertilized. She flies straight up in the air and the whole swarm of drones fly after her to get lucky, actually unlucky because the one that succeed to get to her looses his genitals by imbedding them into the queen but she does not let go so the drone dies shortly after and the rest of them go beck and continue their vacation until late fall when the bees decide to get ready for the winter. At that time reduction of hive members is merciless and is targeted only towards the male population. All the drones are kicked out of the hive and prevented of coming back. Not knowing how to gather food or keep warm, they all die in a day or two.
To protect the hive, each beehive has guards posted at the entrance. Every bee that lands on the landing before the entrance is examined by the guard. When a bee from a different hive lands on the hive landing, the guards attack it and a big battle ensues until the intruder leaves or until the guards kill it. This is established to protect the hive from lazy bees that prefer to rob the honey from the neighboring hive rather than go and find a nectar source of their own. This is prevalent when there in not much nectar to be found and then bees from a stronger hive attempt to rob the weaker hive. These guards also attack humans and animals when they are too close to the hive.
Keeping an eye on the queen
A queen is the life of the hive. Without a queen to produce new worker bees at an alarming rate, the hive would die in a few months. Worker bee’s life span during the honey making season is about 4 weeks. Their life starts with cleaning the hive the day they are born to feeding the queen, feeding the brood, to gather pollen, and the last phase of life is gathering nectar. They do that until one day on their way home they cannot make it back in the hive before night-fall when the temperature is too cold for them to continue. The reason is that their wings are so tattered that they cannot fly any more and die in the field during the night.
If the worker bees noticed that the queen is not producing to their liking they start plotting to replace her. The criteria are; production of eggs is too slow and/or if the queen produces too many drones. The workers comity decides to replace the queen. They start building three to four queen cells and from a regular worker larva by feeding them royal jelly they produce queens. The first new queen that emerges from the cocoon attacks and destroys the other queens in their cocoons. After this morbid did was completed, the new queen goes and starts looking for the old queen. A to death battle occurs where the new queen being more agile kills the old queen by stinging her. Note that queen, unlike worker bees, is the only one that can sting without loosing the stinger. After killing the old queen the new queen consolidates her power in the hive before taking the famous maiden flight. Most queens get fertilized only once in their lives and towards the end of their life (2 to 3 years) they start producing too many drones and the bees decide to replace her.
A beekeeper may decide to change the characteristics of the bees and get a mail order bride to take over the hive. This is done by killing the existing queen and placing the new queen in the box that it came in by mail into the hive. This container has the queen and a dozen worker bees to take care of her during shipping. There is an entrance to this container plugged with a sugar candy plug. The external to container bees eat the plug slowly in a day or two while the queen exudes its feramon into the hive, which bees will accept after a few days and let the new queen take over the hive. If introduced by placing it directly with the bees, the bees would kill her is short order.
Preparation for swarming
To prepare for swarming the bees make new queen cells fed by royal jelly even though the old queen is good. In this case the young queen will not seek to kill the old queen but the hive will divide its population into two equal numbers and the new or the old queen will take one half and fly out of the hive to find a new home. This phenomenon is triggered when the bees do not have enough space to expand and store honey during the honey season.
Starting again in the spring
In the spring the queen starts laying eggs and initially produces about ¾ female worker bees and ¼ male drone bees just in case a queen has to be fertilized. Then the cycle starts all over again with hive expansion and production of honey during honey season and then contraction of the hive and expulsion of drones for preparation for the winter. The beekeeper must make sure that bees have enough honey for the winter or the beekeeper must feed them with sugar water through out the winter.
After 10 years of working with bees and honey, I learned to respect and appreciate them. Humans could learn a lot about work ethics from the bees, although, humans would not be able to stomach the cruel law of survival in its rawest form that they adopted to propagate the species. When I see a bee on the ground not able to make it home before sundown, I take it into the house and give it honey to eat hopping that next day it will be able to resume the trip home.
This page compliments of Pino Golja