Bees and people

Here are some questions that Surrey Beekeepers Guildford Division are frequently asked and we hope that the answers are of some help. If your particular question is not listed then please do email one of the Committee members of the Guildford Division – see “Contacts”.

1. BEES AND PEOPLE

1.1. WHAT DO I DO IF I GET STUNG?

Bees will not generally sting unless provoked, usually by being trapped in hair or crushed. When close to a bee hive avoid flapping your arms and moving rapidly, if the bees are antagonised walk away through undergrowth or trees if possible. If stung scrape the sting out with your finger nail as the sting still pumps venom for some time after the bee has left.

1.2. WHAT DO I DO IF I SEE A SWARM OF BEES?

Don't Panic, bees in a swarm are usually in a good mood. They can not easily sting even if antagonised as they have gorged themselves with honey and can not get their bodies into the best position to sting. If the swarm is not causing a nuisance then leave it, gradually the bees will cluster in a bush or tree and remain there for up to 3 days. During that time scouts will be sent out to look for a new home, the only problem may be they will choose your chimney, so put your fire or heating on low and enjoy their visit. If the swarm is a nuisance then the police keep a list of local beekeepers who can help or call someone on our swarm collectors list.

1.3. APART FROM HONEY ARE BEES USEFUL.

Yes very, the pollination benefit of bees is calculated to help the economy by millions of pounds per annum. Certain crops yield up to 25-40% more if efficiently pollinated and farmers in some areas of the world pay beekeepers to put hives into their fields and orchards. In addition to pollination bees produce wax for candles and Royal Jelly.

1.4. IS BEEKEEPING HARD WORK.

In terms of time... about 1/2 an hour per hive per week from mid April to September. In addition honey is extracted twice a year.

1.5. HOW MUCH WILL IT COST ME TO KEEP BEES.

A beesuit and tools will cost anything from £100.00 to £250.00. Equipment depends where it is purchased. We have supplier links on our website for ideas on the cost of brand new equipment. We only recommend second-hand equipment if the beekeeper is very sure where it has come from and can be thoroughly sterilised. A good second hand hive with bees will cost between £200 and £300.

1.6. WILL I GET STUNG IF I KEEP BEES

Yes. A few people are allergic, but most will swell for a short time and then gradually become more immune.

1.7. A BEEKEEPER USES SMOKE TO 'CALM' THE BEES, HOW DOES THIS WORK.

Bees are woodland insects and evolution has taught them to fear fire more than anything else. When smoke enters a hive the bees are immediately diverted to eat as much honey as possible as there may be a need to abandon the hive at a moments notice. This diverts them whilst the beekeeper takes their home apart.

 

Honey2. HONEY AND OTHER PRODUCTS

2.1. WHY DO BEES MAKE HONEY

Honey bees are special in that they over winter as a colony unlike wasps and bumble bees (see Biology). The colony does not hibernate but stays active and clusters together to stay warm. This requires a lot of food stored from the summer before ...honey. Although a hive only needs 20-30 lb. of honey to survive an average winter, the bees are capable, if given the space of collecting much more. This is what the beekeeper wants them to do.

2.2. HOW MUCH HONEY CAN ONE BEE HIVE PRODUCE.

One hive can produce over 100 lb. of honey in a good season, however an average hive would be around 20-30 lb. surplus.

2.3. HOW DOES THE BEEKEEPER GET THE HONEY FROM THE BEES.

The queen bee is kept below the upper boxes (Supers) in the hive by a wire or plastic grid which the queen is too large to fit through ( a 'Queen excluder'). As the bees cannot raise brood above this queen excluder only honey is stored in the supers. As the season progresses the beekeeper adds more supers until the time to harvest the honey. A special one way passage is then fitted in place of the queen excluder and gradually all the bees move into the lowest part of the hive. Then the beekeeper can simply lift off the 'super' boxes containing the honey comb. The honey is extracted from the comb using centrifugal force in a machine called a spinner looking much like an old fashioned upright spin dryer.

2.4. DO THE BEES MISS THE HONEY THAT IS TAKEN.

No. A strong colony can produce 2-3 times more honey than it needs. If necessary the beekeeper can feed a sugar syrup in the autumn to supplement the remaining stores.

2.5. WHY ARE SOME TYPES OF HONEY CLEAR AND RUNNY AND OTHER TYPES OPAQUE AND HARD.

The type of honey made by the bees is dependant on the types blossom available to the bees. Crops such as oil seed rape (the bright yellow fields in the spring) produce large quantifies of honey that sets very hard in a few days, so hard even the bees could not use it in the winter. Garden flowers tend to give a clear liquid honey. Almost all honeys will set in time, but can be re-liquified by gentle warming. If the beekeeper wants to produce a mono honey i.e. clover, orange blossom etc. the bee hive is put out of range of other sources; bees can fly over 2 miles for forage. This can be difficult for the small hobbyist and a blend of the season's honey is usually the result. In the autumn some beekeepers move their hives onto the moors to harvest the nectar from wild heather. Heather honey is thought to be the king of honeys and has a clear jelly consistency.

2.6. HOW DO BEES MAKE HONEY.

Bees take nectar which is a sweet sticky substance exuded by most flowers and some insects (Honey dew) and mix it with enzymes from glands in their mouths. This nectar/enzyme mix is stored in hexagonal wax honeycomb until the water content has been reduced to around 17%. When this level is reached the cell is capped over with a thin layer of wax to seal it until the bees need it. This capping indicates to the beekeeper that the honey can be harvested. Capped honey can keep almost indefinitely.

Perfectly edible honey comb was found in the tombs of the Pharaohs, over three thousand years old. How's that for Best Before Dates.

2.7. DOES HONEY CONTAIN ADDITIVES.

Not honey produced in the UK. The only treatment is to filter to remove any wax debris produced during the extraction process.

2.8. HOW DO BEES MAKE WAX.

The young bees cluster in large numbers to raise their body temperature. Wax producing glands under their abdomen slowly excrete thin flakes of wax about a mm. across. Other worker bees 'harvest' these wax scales and take them to the part of the hive requiring the new wax. Bees use about 6 lb. of honey to produce 1 lb. of wax.

2.9. WHAT IS ROYAL JELLY.

Royal jelly is the food fed to queen bee larvae. It is a creamy white colour and is very rich in proteins and fatty acids. It is produced by mouth glands in young bees. Each queen needs only a teaspoon of royal jelly, so as health product it is very expensive. Many magical properties are claimed of royal jelly however a sceptical view is probably the wisest, especially as products sold in health shops can contain as little as 2% of the real thing.

 

3. BIOLOGY/ BEHAVIOUR

3.1. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HONEY BEES, WASPS AND BUMBLE BEES.

Honey Bees are the highest form of insect life, they live in a well organised colony that does not need to hibernate. They produce honey and store it in wax comb and use the same hive from one year to the next. Typical Max population 35,000-80,000. Wasps start in the spring with a single queen wasp that has hibernated under leaves or in cracks. The queen wasp builds a new hive constructed from paper and about the size of a golf ball. This hive (bice) builds up through the summer, however no honey is stored. In the autumn the colony organisation breaks down, with homeless wasps becoming an increasing nuisance around bins and rubbish. Typical max. population 10,000.

Bumble Bees or as the Victorian's called them 'Humble bees' live like wasps,as only the queen hibernates and survives the winter. In the spring the queen bumble bee seeks an old mouse or vole hole and builds within it a nest of leaves and moss. She construct nodular wax cells and incubates her young as a bird would. As her first offspring hatch and begin to fly the queen increasingly stays within the hive to produce young. Bumble bees do make a small amount of honey and store it in one special cup like cell. There is no more than a tablespoon at any time. Typical max.population only 40-60.

There are about 20 species of bumble bees in the UK, as well as many species of solitary bee.

3.2. HOW MANY TYPES OF BEES ARE IN A HONEY BEE COLONY.

Three types, a single queen, thousands of workers (females) and in the summer hundreds of drones (males). In the early autumn the male drone bees are evicted by the workers and die.

Bee types

3.3. WHAT DOES THE QUEEN BEE DO.

The major purpose of the queen is to lay eggs. During April and May she lays day and night, each egg taking about 20 seconds. That's over 2000 eggs a day, more than the body weight of the queen. The queen mates over 2 or 3 days with perhaps 10-20 drones andthen holds sufficient sperm from the male drones to lay eggs for 3-5 years; incidentally the drone bee dies in the process.

Queen BeeThere are 3 types of wax cell used for eggs. In the smallest cells (5mm diameter) she lays fertilised eggs which in 21 days produce the female worker bees. In larger cells (7mm diameter) unfertilised eggs are laid which in 24 days become the male drone bees. Production of offspring not requiring mating is known as parthenogenesis. A very special cell which hangs vertically downwards is used to produce new queens. A colony producing queen type cells warns the beekeeper of an impending swarm. See 'QUEEN MAKING' below... A healthy queen bee is continually emitting pheromones (a bee perfume) that only the bees in the hive can smell. These pheromone odours tell the bees in the colony that the queen is still with them and all is well in the hive. This chemical pheromone communication is quite sophisticated and the personality of a bee hive will change if the beekeeper changes an old queen for a young one. In this way a beekeeper has some control over the temper and enthusiasm of a colony.

3.4. DOES THE QUEEN 'RULE' THE COLONY.

No, the queen is simply an egg laying machine. The workers make all the decisions.

The queen bee has a smaller brain than a worker bee.

3.5. WHY IS THERE ONLY ONE QUEEN.

It is not understood (by man) why bees will only tolerate one queen but any attempt to introduce a second queen results in her death. If a queen dies unexpectedly the bees are able to make an emergency queen from eggs or larvae younger than 3 days old.

3.6. HOW DO BEES MAKE A QUEEN.

The making of a queen is usually triggered either by a combination of conditions such as congestion in the hive and lack of egg laying space, which culminates in a swarm (see below) or when the queen loses her attraction as she ages (a process called supercedure.)

  1. Bees construct up to 20 wax queen cells which are acorn like and point downwards
  2. The queen lays fertilised eggs in each queen cell.
  3. The young (nurse) bees feed the young queen larvae with a rich creamy food called Royal Jelly, and extend the cell downwards until it is about 25mm in length.
  4. Nine days after laying, the first queen cell is sealed with a layer of wax capping.
  5. This is the time for a large swarm (called a prime swarm) of bees to leaves the hive, led by the older bees. The old queen has been starved of food to make her lighter and able to fly. The older bees cajole the old queen to join the swarm.
  6. Eight days later the first virgin queen leaves her cell. Two things can now occur, either the first virgin queen leads a smaller swarm from the hive (called a cast) or she locates the other queen cells and kills her sisters by stinging through the wax wall of their cells.
  7. About a week later provided the weather permits the young queen takes her first flight to orient her to her new surroundings.
  8. The queen will shortly take several mating flights in which she will mate with up to 20 male bees (drones.)
  9. Three days later the mated queen will begin to lay fertilised eggs.
  10. This queen will stay with the colony until at least the next year when she too may lead a prime swarm.

3.7. HOW LONG DOES A BEE LIVE.

In the summer a worker bee only lives for about 40 days. As no young are raised over the winter months, the workers born in the autumn will live until the following spring. A queen can live up to 5 years however for the beekeeper a queen is past her prime in her third year.

3.8. HOW DO THE BEES SHARE OUT ALL THE DIFFERENT JOBS IN A HIVE.

When a bee is born her first job is to clean out the cell in which she was born. Jobs are then allocated on the basis of age. See table below

Days Old Duties of Worker Bees
1-2 Cleans cells and keeps the brood warm
3-5 Feeds older larvae
6-11 Feeds youngest larvae
12-17 Produces wax, Builds comb, Carries food. Undertaker duties
18-21 Guards the hive entrance
22-on Flying from hive begins,Pollinates plants,Collects pollen, nectar and water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.9. HOW MANY BEES ARE IN A BEE HIVE.

High summer about 40-80,000 dropping to around 5-10,000 in the winter.

3.10. WHAT CAUSES BEES TO SWARM.

A swarm is the natural way for bees to multiply and produce new colonies. It is normally the culmination of queen rearing. explained above see 3.6

3.11. WHAT IS BEE 'DANCING'.

Bees need to communicate with each other to pass on the location of food sources. To do this bees have evolved a unique dance language that can be understood by us. A worker bee returning from a rich source of food will 'dance' on the vertical comb surface by running in a circle, on each revolution the bee will bisect the circle at an angle. The angle with respect to 12 O'clock represents the angle to fly with respect to the sun. If the bee ran from 6 to 12 O 'clock i.e. straight up, this would say fly directly towards the sun '. And 7 to 1 O'clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun, 12 to 6 O'clock 'Fly directly away from the sun'. In other words the bees translate the angle to the sun as an angle to the vertical.

To represent distance the bee 'wiggles' its abdomen whist crossing the circle, the more wiggles the greater the distance. So a bee will 'say' to it's friends 'Fly over there for about a 1 mile and you will find something that tastes like this'. Pretty smart!

BEES KNOW THE WORLD IS ROUND.
During swarming similar dancing occurs to pass on information about a possible new home. This can go through the night, so without the sun what do the bees use? The answer is they dance at angles calibrated to the sun on the other side of the world! Bees knew the world was round about 25 million years before man!
THE SCHAFBERG EXPERIMENT
An interesting experiment known as the Schafberg experiment (named after the mountain) demonstrates the sophistication of bee navigation. The only source of food for a colony of bees was put on the far side of a mountain, the bees could not fly over the mountain only around it. What direction would the bees indicate in their dancing?. The answer was surprising, the bees indicated the direction exactly across the mountain an angle they had never flown but had calculated in their head. The distance indication however, was for the long flight around the hill.

 

3.12. HOW DOES A BEE NAVIGATE.

As mentioned above the bees use the position of the sun and there is evidence of sensitivity to the earths magnetic field. Also bees eyes are sensitive to polarised light which penetrates through even thick cloud so they are able to 'see' the sun in poor weather.

3.13. CAN A BEE SEE COLOURS.

Yes, their eyes are sensitive more to the blue end of the spectrum and into ultra violet. Flowers reflect large amounts of ultra violet light and to a bee will be very bright. Bees are totally red blind.

3.14. DO BEES SLEEP

No, but during the night most bees remain motionless reserving their energies for the next day.

3.15. HOW FAR CAN BEES FLY.

It is possible for bees to fly as far as 5 miles or more for food, however an average distance would be less than a mile from the hive.

3.16. WHY DO BEES COLLECT POLLEN.

Pollen is essential as the only source of protein, processed and fed to the growing larvae.

3.17. DO BEES HIBERNATE DURING WINTER.

No, bees overwinter as a strong colony clustered together, using their bodies to generate heat. This cluster is about the size of a football, the bees taking turns on the cold outside.

3.18. WHY DOES A BEE STING.

A bee only stings under two conditions.

  1. To protect the colony.
  2. When frightened.

3.19. WHY DOES A BEE DIE WHEN IT STINGS.

When a bee stings, barbs in the lance of the anchor it firmly in the victim, pulling out the venom sacs and glands when the bee is shaken off. The venom sac muscles continue to pump after these organs have been torn from the dying bee.