24 April 2015
We all recognise a bee. We all know they make honey. But why do they do it and what else do they do?
Bees collect four things from the environment that they inhabit. These things bring them into intimate contact with the plants that grow naturally in our environment and also that are planted by humans. Therefore they come into close contact with any chemical which we put into the environment.
In order for plants to produce seeds they need to transfer pollen from one flower to another – that is their form of mating. This is done either by using the wind to blow the pollen around (which causes some of us to suffer from hay fever) or the pollen can be transferred by insects. There are many insects that carry this pollen, including hundreds of species of bees, wasps and beetles. The most commonly recognised of these is the honey bee. In order to persuade the bees to do this work for them the flowers provide them with a reward – nectar. This sweet liquid is kept deep inside the flower. It is used by the bee as an energy source as it flies, but it is also taken back to the hive and concentrated by drying and the addition of some enzymes to make honey. This honey can then be used by the bees as food for the periods during the year when there is no nectar to be had, or the weather is too cold to fly – like winter and early spring.
At the same time as collecting the nectar, the bees will gather pollen. This gets wiped off the plants onto the hairs of the bees, who then collect it in tight little packets attached to their hind limbs as they fly (Left). In this way the pollen is carried from one flower to another ensuring pollination, and some is carried back to the hive and stored as a source of protein for the growing larvae.
Water is also collected, and stored in the hive too. This is used to dilute the honey as it is eaten by the bees and to help regulate temperature. Bees like to collect water from damp ground rather than open water – so they don't fall in as they cannot swim!
Finally the bees collect a wide range of sticky stuff from the sap of plants and trees. This they use as propolis – a bee glue – to seal up gaps in their hive to prevent drafts, and to cover up things they do not want. Mice have been seen dead inside a hive – all covered in propolis.
Using these materials bees will build their home in a suitable space. Natural hives would be in hollow trees or spaces in caves and buildings. (Above) The bees would build sheets of comb to grow their young and to store honey and nectar.
Today we use movable frame hives of many different sizes and designs. These vary from country to country depending on weather conditions and the type of bees. The picture below shows the hives that are at Drovers Way.
In a movable frame hive the bees are encouraged to form rectangles of comb inside a wooden frame (Below). These can then be removed and examined, or taken away for honey extraction.
Bees build their nest of sheets of hexagonal cells from wax. This wax is exuded from special glands behind hard plates which produce small scales of wax. The wax is then moulded into the base and sides of the hexagons. The sizes of the hexagons vary depending on what the bees want to do in the cells. For normal worker bees they will build standard size hexagons. These are the core of the colony – forming a ball in the centre of the hive, around which is a shell of pollen and honey. The picture below shows a slice through this brood nest.
Should the colony feel that their queen is weakening (which could happen when she is about 3 years old, or has got damaged, or stops laying efficiently) then the worker bees will build two new types of cell. They will build slightly larger cells into which the queen will lay unfertilised eggs. These will hatch into male bees – or drones. They will also start to build a few much larger cells which stick out from the normal cells by up to 2 cm. Into these normal worker eggs are laid. These are fed royal jelly and grow into queen bees. Shortly before the queen bees hatch, the old queen – with about half of the hive and plenty of stores – will depart to find a new home. This is a swarm. The first new queen to hatch will then sting the other un-hatched queens to death – and take over the old hive. So the colony can reproduce both itself and the individual bees. One of the jobs of a beekeeper is to allow the hive to swarm and reproduce – but in a way that the bees do not abscond – as collecting 20,000 bees from the top of a tree is not an easy task.
Throughout the spring and summer, when there are plenty of flowers, the worker bees collect nectar, and convert it to honey. This can be removed by the beekeeper and the bees will gather more. The beekeeper then needs to ensure that the hive has enough stores to survive the winter, either by leaving the hive with adequate honey reserves or by feeding the colony with syrup for them to use during the winter.