Looking out at the soft caressing mizzle, coddling and be-dewing everything in the garden this glum Saturday, it’s difficult to believe that on this same day a week ago it was so bright and clement that I was sweating profusely inside my bee-suit as I re-organised my honeybees and my beehives for the coming cooler days.Daughter Number Two’s husband was on hand to assist as he tricked himself out in my spare half-suit. “Make sure to tuck your trouser-legs into your socks”, I reminded him as he pulled on a pair of spare home-made gauntlets that had been devised from a pair of heavy gardening gloves for a double-act occasion just like this one; their length had been extended by sewing on the “cuffs” from an older pair of gauntlets which I’d inadvisidly put through the washing machine a season or two ago.The”leather” simply melted to nothingless in the heat of the machine, leaving only those long cuffs.One of my sisters-in-law saved them with a deft session on her sewing machine. She’s handy too when it comes to repairing the netting in the veil.
Yes …better to tuck in your trousers because those little flying ladies know just where to find that vulnerable sweet- spot at your ankles. They wouldn’t be too slow at invading your nether regions either , if given the slightest opportunity to board ship. …No …..better to be well zipped and buttoned-up for any eventuality when it comes to my honeybees.
In the event everything went smoothly and there were no injuries. The bees were calm, although that might have had much to do with the copious quantities of cooling smoke that son-in-law was hosing out from the smoker. He was taking no chances! It was good to have a spare pair of hands, which freed me up to get a few changes and manipulations made. .This year I was going into winter with five viable hives but there was a little work yet to do .They had to be fed for the cold days coming , so the feeders had to be topped up with sugar syrup. A few of the honey super -boxes needed some renovation too, which meant taking the frames on which the bees were still very active and placing them in a new replacement box. I would need to replace the sides on at least two of them as they were showing signs of wear. One thing i’ve discovered is that it is a waste of time buying or making any hive boxes constructed from exterior -plywood.Exterior -plywood? It rots just as fast as interior plywood , even when painted and sealed. Those sides would be replaced with good wooden boards. In point of fact I will gradually replace everything with polystyrene boxes eventually .They are the handiest , warmest and lightest I’ve come across and there’s no work with them except for a coat of masonry paint.Poly boxes and pre-moulded plastic frames is really the 21st century way -to -go in keeping bees .
Four of the hives seem to be strong enough to weather winter’s worst, but that nucleus hive that I had to rescue several times over, late in the summer ,is giving some cause for concern. I’ve seen this happen before.It doesn’t appear to be expanding quickly enough, as if content to sit and simply exist in its present state .That’s a recipe for disaster , because if it doesn’t grow sufficiently to generate enough heat , the budding colony will perish. Although I have put a feeder above them ,they are really not clearing the syrup quickly enough.This happens sometimes .You might put food in front of their noses but they seemingly don’t see it or ignore it until it sours. I decided to leave it for another week and maybe spread some sweet bakers’ fondant across the top bars . They can hardly ignore that when it’s right on top of them , eh?
Like I said , the bees were calm and everything was done and dusted within an hour or so, the smoker only having to be re-fuelled and re-lit a couple of times .The son-in-law was very obviously taking no chances, keeping up a constant, pumping issue of white smoky vapour to conceal our clandestine machinations from our winged friends. At finish he was fascinated with the entire process, claiming as he disrobed that people would pay good money to witness something like that.He’s probably right .The honeybees are endlessly fascinating…..
Stephen Hasiotis and his team from the University of Colorado found the evidence of the oldest hive-like bee nests in what is now called the Petrified Forest in Arizona.These are estimated by carbon-dating to be about 207 million years old.It is thought that competition for insect attention was the reason for the rapid growing diversity of the newly flowering plants. The insects developed before the plants unconsciously unfolded this new , reciprocal flowering technique. The insects partnered up with the plants which offered sweet nectar treats in an insentient exchange for the unloading and movement of the sexually -stimulating pollen from plant to plant.In this way a co-evolutionary system of sexual exchange began and we can still see it working around us , just outside the door ,in our own gardens, by simply looking.The oldest actual bee -fossil we have to look at was trapped in amber, that sappy excretion exuded by plants, (from which the bees produce their own gummy propolis , to cement the the small fissures within the hive) . This sap later hardened to amber , and thas specific bee has remained locked in there for some 80 million years. It gives us some idea of just how long the bee has been working its magic on the earth .They had contributed to the very rich and diverse food-chain for every other earth-bound creature , many, long, long millions of years before mankind made an appearance as the ultimate predator at the top of that long food-chain.We literally eat only because of these bees.
The fossilised remnants of something similar to the black- pepper plant , thought to be around 122 million years old ,was found by Ge Sun and David Dilcher in China .This grew in the Cretaceousperiod which lasted some 70 million years and ended 69 million years ago. In this period the flowering plants began to be radiated and started to develop.
The bees , having most likely already developed over many generations, initially from carnivorous hunting wasps , eating meat , eventually acquired a taste for the sweet nectar issued by flowers and gradually became wholly vegetarian, as they remain to the present day. Wasps still flip-flop between eating meat and at certain times in their life-cycle, developing a sweet tooth too. You’ll notice this during the summer when you’re trying to enjoy a beer or a cool, sweet drink. .Bees are members of an order of insects called hymenoptera , which means “membrane wings”. Honeybees, known as “Apis” (which is why beekeepers are called apiarists) are only one of 100,000 species which includes wasps and ants and the majority of bees are solitary creatures which only live for a season.Honeybees are a different animal entirely .They are a social creature and they nest in colonies headed by a single fertile queen who lays eggs.The remaining bees in the colony have a well-demarcated caste of female bees and a handful of male drone bees.The females exude the wax from which the incredibly hexagonal structured cell-sytems are made.These beautiful cell structures are used both for rearing the young from the eggs ,eventual larvae, and finally young bees that the queen produces, but are also used as a larder for the honey which the bees make from the nectar and the various coloured pollen, gathered in little integral baskets on their legs , which is their bread and butter.Throughout the lifetime of a honeybee, which may eventually include four weeks of foraging, she will take on many jobs from cleaning out the cells in readyness for a newer occupant , to feeding the young before they pupate into young fuzzy bees .The queen has to be fed too of course and they keep her clean .She’s too busy laying eggs to do anything else for herself.There’s the clearing out of the dead and the debris of the living to do too.Eventually she might do a spell of guard-duty near the hive entrance to kill invaders or thieves, orshe may be the receiver for packages of pollen from incomers working the fields. Eventually she will be allowed to seek out the sun and get down to the real work. She’ll practice flying outside the hive until she gets the hang of it first.The male drones on the other hand are generally inefficient hangers-on. They have no weaponry .They can’t sting and aren’t required to do any work at all . The females look after them entirely. They’ll get out , of course , to do what young males always want to do, and have mad sex at the treetops with any available young virgin princess with a notion to becoming a queen .. What they don’t realise is that they’ll only get one shot at it because their wedding – tackle and themeselves explode at the moment of highest passion. No matter …It’s probably a grand exit and they’ll have no notion what’s in store. The “lucky” ones who don’t get the chance to enjoy that moment’s pleasure get thrown out as the Autumn draws in and you might see some of these squat little fellows outside the hive -entrance, looking suitably helpless. No …no matter how you look at it , the life of a honeybee is not an easy one.You can see why kings and queens ,in the past ,studied the politics of the beehive.
There are several reasons why the honeybee has had so much success over the millennia . For one thing , they are remarkable communicators and can very efficiently use the sun to plot a course to the best food sources. They can then effectively tell their companions on returning, where that is by making a series of directional “dance-moves” to explain its exact place.This is known as the “waggle-dance” and it has been well-researched. They have also been able to colonise many different climates , from the tropical to the cool and temperate , enabling them to move across the world …even to the very dampest parts of Ireland.They do this by regulating the inner temperature of their hive to suit themselves , no matter the weather outside. This means they can survive for long periods inside , using stored foods they’ve harvested in more clement times. They do this by fanning their wings and “clustering”.This also protects their queen.
Honeybees would have originally appeared in the ancient world of Africa , Asia and Europe.Several sub -groups have developed such as the Giant honeybee and the Little honeybee.There are even stingless honeybees, but don’t be fooled, these guys can still bite in the same way that ants do.Some bees nested right out in the open, but as climate changed and became cooler these types would only have been able to survive by gradually moving to warmer places in tropical areas such as Sothern Asia.It is reckoned that the cavity-dwelling aspect of honeybees developed as they occupied cooler temperate zones.From that they were able to nest virtually anywhere. It was the key to their eventual longevity and success.That’s why it’s quite possible for a swarm to set up home in your chimney.
By the time of the last Ice-Age no bees existed anywhere above Southern France or north of the Mediterranean but about 14,000 years ago as the ice gradually retreated northwards and forests began to grow on the plains, the honeybee moved into this new territory of hazels, pine trees ,elms and stout oaks.They nested in hollows in the trees. They couldn’t advance far in the Russian Steppes because there were few places to set up home there.Colonising such a large span of varying climates meant adapting and dividing into about two dozen sub -species or races of bees, much as humans would later do all across the world with their own various nationalistic physical quirks.All of these sub-species have the ability to interbreed which further developed specific traits.Bees in warmer climates tend to be smaller and lighter in colour while the northern ones tend to be larger and darker.Some are more prone to swarming behaviour than others and some will produce many queens when they do this.Bees in colder regions have greater need to cluster together to maintain heat during colder winters.Usually you couldn’t simply introduce one species to another area it was unused to and expect it to thrive .It is more likely to die off or at best , not produce enough honey to be viable.
On a larger scale ,bees had been kept by beekeepers in Brazil for centuries, but never really escaped into the wilds to establish feral colonies.It wasn’t in their nature.Then some African queens were introduced into the stock and these had a tendency to swarm, eventually spreading and mating with the European bees beyond the Amazon rain forest. Like the larger, more aggressive grey squirrel eliminating the reds in Britain, these Africanised bees completely eliminated all the European ones.
Another bee called the Cape Bee is capable of surviving even when a queen dies.When the queen disappears , within days a worker bee starts laying eggs for a short time and from these eggs a “proper” queen can be raised to re-establish the colony.It’s usual that in ordinary circumstances when a queen is lost that a worker will begin to lay male drone eggs only.You’ll notice this because suddenly there’ll be a nest full of these squat lazy bees which are otherwise completely useless and non-productive in any way. a hive like that will die if another new queen isn’t introduced.
Bee-keeping has a very long history across Europe and Asia but there were no honeybees present in America, Australia or New Zealand before they were introduced by westerners.When they were brought in by homesteaders they began to spead and colonise. . In fact the bees moved ahead of the humans and proceeded to colonise the land far quicker than the settlers who introduced them in the first place.
Right across the world the most popular honeybee has to be the Italian bee. It is the gentlest and most proficient in rearing new brood and its work -rate is by far the greatest , working away until late in the season. It only stops when food becomes unavailable.It is very popular with commercial beekeepers in America , for this reason.They move the beehives across the country en masse ,by the lorryload, and hire them out to farmers for pollination , as they follow the crops northwards.They breed the bees in the warmer southern states , with new young queens in house , and gradually move them northwards This is no back -garden affair .it’s a completely commercial and pragmatically ruthless enterprise . They haven’t time to build-up big enough to swarm and the bees could never survive in their final destination in colder winters of the north anyway ,so are unceremoniusly destroyed at the season’s end , only for the cycle to be repeated again the following year.
These Italian honeybees were introduced into Britain and Ireland during the 19th century.Bees in the early 20th century were already under threat from a disease epidemic ;part of that was due to neglect and the occurence of that little distraction that was World War One which resulted in the loss of many bee -colonies across the land. The other honeybee contender is the larger and darker Austrian Carniolan.This bee was also exported across the world.The native dark bee in Germany had been so inter-bred by foreign bees that the German bee-association decided to somehow purify their bees which had become progressively more aggressive and unproductive.They decided to convert completely to the Cariolan bee by selecting specific strains with desireable traits.There followed similar moves across Northern Europe with this bee but in more recent years there has been a tendency to attempt to re-establish the original , native Dark Bee.Much depends on the climate , though and the more north we go , the hardier the creature, is needed.Bee-keeping has even been practiced in Siberia using a north European bee ,for about one hundred years.
The Carniolan bee is known for its gentle demeanour but that can change if crossbred .My own honeybees began as “Buckfast” bees. Buckfast Abbey is the origin place of the “legendary ” Buckfast Tonic Wine , known for its popularity among a certain type of drinker.Buckfast Abbey’s other claim to fame is that it is where “Brother Adam”(born Karl Kehrle on 3 August 1898 in Germany)developed his new strain of bee. He was in charge of beekeeping at the Abbey and it was noticed that during World War One , that due to disease, bees were failing to the point where the Abbey had only a handful of hives remaining.They were down to their last sixteen hives.These were pure Italian bees or crosses between Italian and Native black bees.From these hives he began to develop what became the “Buckfast Bee”.It has heritage from Italian, French, English ,Turkish and Greek strains .It also has some bloodline connections to a couple of rare African stocks.
In my case , all of that heritage has since mated with the local Irish varieties to produce my own mongrel bees of varied temperament.The Buckfast bee has generally some very stable qualities but sometimes I’ve noticed that some second- generation queens can produce defensive hive behaviour. They were originally all very placid but can sometimes become over-protective.it’s something of a balancing act. The only way to solve a problem like that is to kill the queen and introduce a brand new heir from completely new stock .That means buying new queens on a regular basis .The problem is that usually aggressive queens can be very vital at building a colony and can also produce a lot of honey.So do you pay out more money for a new queen to replace one that might be better? Buckfasts are generally good at honey production and seem well-organised to cope with our generally damp climate.Generally they are tolerant to the usual diseases and are very hygienic in the hive. They keep the hive clean and don’t mess it up too much with that sticky, sappy ,propolis.
These creatures are endlessly fascinating and equally are very important to our own survival as a species . Like my son -in-law says , people would pay money to get a chance to study them. In future times that may well be the case and they might become an even more increasingly valuable asset as bee stocks continue to decrease across the world.At the bottom line the slogan should and will eventually be….. “Bees Mean Food”.