Beekeeping - The Basics

Safety First - Conducting your beekeeping practices in a safe manner should always be your first priority. Please read the Health and Safety pages before you proceed to keep bees.

There are a few things to know about honey bees before you get started keeping them, learning the basics will save you time, money, disappointment, failure, injury, and of being put off! Fortunately for us our native honey bees are creatures of habit, with a range of very predictable behaviours, and once you know and recognise those behaviours its much easier to keep them, and keep them healthy and productive. Their health will be the main focus of your beekeeping, and if they are healthy then they will thrive and repay your efforts tenfold. It follows then that health and safety (theirs and yours) is always at the front of what ever you are going to do in beekeeping. Humans have recognised the potential of honeybee products since Neolithic Times, with the early farmers keeping and exploiting them for their honey stores. Today the attractions are the products the bees create and store in the hive namely: honey; pollen; wax; royal jelly; and propolis, and their main uses are for food, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.


Honeybee Products

Honey - has been used for centuries as a natural sweetener, having been found in archaeological artifacts from ancient civilisations such the Egyptian tombs. Containing virtually no fats, protein or fibre, it is increasingly popular as a natural and largely organic sweetener in today's health conscious society. Due to its viscosity and low moisture content honey has some very interesting and useful properties as an antibiotic, dressing wounds in honey makes it impossible for bacteria to survive, and the bioactive plant compounds and antioxidants it contains further enhances its medicinal benefits.

Beeswax - has similarly been prized over the centuries as a useful material, ancient Egyptians using it in the embalming process, for creating air-tight seals, as an early preserve on wall writings, and in the lost wax casting technique for making jewellery. It also makes a very clean burning source of light, and makes excellent candles. It was widely used in this respect and was often reserved almost exclusively for the Christian Church. This tradition continues today with a high percentage of beeswax used in Church candles. Today bees wax is used extensively used in cosmetics, medicines and in furniture and leather care products.

Pollen - has in recent years become important in the health care market because it’s loaded with nutrients, amino acids, vitamins, lipids and a wealth of active substances, making it a highly valued for use as a health food supplement.

Propolis - is a mixture of natural plant / tree resins which bees collect essentially to stick things together, strengthening the hive, stopping up small holes and cracks in their nests, and acting as an antiseptic. These strong antiseptic properties make it medicinally useful for creating tinctures, and has been used in medicine since the Ancient Greeks discovered its beneficial effect in treating abscesses, tumours and wounds.

Royal Jelly - is the special food fed to young bees and young queen bees in particular. It is a highly concentrated mixture of proteins, sugars and free amino acids which is produced by worker bees using their hypopharyngeal gland. It is used as a health food and cosmetic, although most benefits to humans are conjecture and not scientifically proven.

Bee Venom - continues to be studied in detail for various medicinal purposes. It is a highly complex mixture of chemicals, containing anti-inflammatory and inflammatory compounds, enzymes, sugars, minerals, and amino acids. It is used in venom immunotherapy and in treating a number of medical conditions including arthritis, neuralgia, multiple Sclerosis, tendonitis, fibromyositis and enthesitis


Honeybee Biology

The Honeybee (Apis mellifera mellifera) has been native to our islands since the last ice age. They belong to the phylum - Arthropods, a large group of invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton, segmented body and paired appendages. They are further Classed - Insects, having a chitinous exoskeleton, three segments to their body: head; thorax; and abdomen, three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes, and a pair of antennae, and are closely related to sawflies, wasps and ants, all belonging to the Order - Hymenoptera. The native species is sometimes referred to as the black bee on account of its dark colouring and are much favoured by beekeepers who have them. It is thought there may still be feral populations of the native bee still around, however it is only through microscopic examination of wing structure that their identity can be reliably ascertained. There are other commonly found variants of this bee in the UK today which come from cross breeding with other mellifera species (e.g. Italian bees which have a yellowness about them). They are all good, and are immensely important across the world as pollinators helping sustain nature and benefiting food production. What follows is common to all our mellifera species.

Castes - there are three castes of the honeybee – worker, drone, and queen.

Image copyright Encyclopedia Britannica ©

Castes showing relative size: left - Worker (infertile female 10-15mm); center - Queen (fertile female 18-20mm); right - Drone (fertile male 15-17mm).

Workers – these are sterile female bees that do not posses the ability to produce fertile eggs (although they can in certain circumstances lay infertile eggs which hatch into drones, more on that later). They make up the majority of bees in the colony and are the workforce. They perform all the different duties within the hive at different stages of their lives; nursing; feeding; cleaning; guarding; building; heating; foraging etc. Their lifespan is relatively short during the summer when they are flying and working vigorously (about 6 weeks), but can survive for up to 5 months during the winter. They will forage up to two miles and more away from the hive to exploit abundant pollen and nectar sources. The workers can sting and will do if necessary, but when they do the stinging apparatus tears away from their bodies and they die shortly afterwords.

Drones – these are the male bees and are visibly larger than the workers. They make a distinctive droning buzz when flying, which may give them their name. Their main purpose is to fertilise virgin queens, they perform this function in 'Drone Zones' of many hundreds of individuals, then die immediately after copulation. Their other functions in the colony are limited to heating or cooling brood, and maintaining colony moral when there is a possibility of swarming or supersedure. Their appearance in the hive is a clear indication that the swarm season has begun. They do not have the ability to sting and their lifespan is short. They are produced mid spring by the colony to enable fertilisation of young queens when required e.g. at swarm time, or supersedure (more on that later!). Towards the end of the summer they will be booted out of the hive by the workers as they are then an unwelcome drain on resources, their job is done. The importance of drones in a colony however can never be overstated. Drones take the longest to become sexually mature, at about day 38 from egg.

Queen – a colony will have one queen bee, a fully fertile female that can lay anything up to 1500 eggs per day! She will lay eggs, one per cell, as the colony requires even during the winter months as long as there are the necessary resources available. She only flies once or twice in her life and that is during her mating flight when she will mate with up to 15 -20 different drones, and if she leaves with a swarm. A queen is not sexually mature until day 23+ from egg, only then she will make her mating flight. She is tended in the hive by the worker bees who feed and clean her, and keep her warm during the winter. Unlike the workers and drones, a queen will live for 2 or 3 years, and will be replaced by the colony when she weakens. The queen uses pheromones to signal her presence to the colony and to convey different messages and instructions to the workforce. She also has the ability to sting.


Life Cycle - Its important to know the bee life cycle and to recognise the different castes at the different stages. The smallest and most numerous cells in the hive are for workers and stores; the slightly larger cells found in the lower areas of the brood nest are for drones; while single elongated cells are for queens. Eggs are laid by the queen in the bottom of cells that have been prepared by the workers. The queen can determine if an egg is male or female. Freshly laid eggs stand up straight in the cell, then lean on their side when ready to hatch. The eggs whether male or female hatch into larvae after 3 days. The workers feed the larvae in the open cells until full grown, they are then sealed over to allow pupation, before hatching as fully formed bees. Queen larvae are fed super food (royal jelly) to help fully develop their reproductive organs and make them into queens. The length of time it takes from fresh egg to hatched bee is as follows:

Caste Egg Days Open Cell Days Sealed Cell Days Total Days
Queen 3 5 8 16
Worker 3 5 13 21
Drone 3 6 15 24

The Colony - A honeybee colony has a mind of its own and works as a single entity responding collectively to changes in conditions. It knows when increase or slow down brood production, where and when to forage, when to re-queen, when to swarm, and so on. This collective and often predictable behaviour can work for the beekeeper, and against him if he is not vigilant! The mood of the colony is all-telling. A queen-right colony (one with a healthy laying queen) that has everything it needs in the way of stores, space and general health will be a productive one and easy to work with. When things are not right the bees will be unproductive, and may be coming down the lane to greet you and escorting you back out while stinging you - a sign of an unhappy colony that clearly needs attention!

A healthy colony of honeybees during the summer will contain workers, drones and a queen and will number up to 50 -70 thousand bees. In the winter, the colony does not hibernate but will stay in the hive feeding off available stores and keeping warm. During the colder winter months colony numbers drop off considerably as the older bees die off and queen's egg laying slows down to maintaining just a small amount of brood and young bees in the hive to ensure a viable workforce for the spring. The success of this largely depends on the strength of the colony at the onset of winter and their access to stores of honey and pollen in the brood chamber through the winter. As spring arrives and the temperatures start to rise, spring flowers begin producing much needed pollen and nectar. The colony responds quickly to the change and gets to work foraging, feeding increasing numbers of brood, and building up strength again. By the time the spring is over the colony will be up to full strength, will have a good stock of spring honey, and will be ready to swarm - their way of proliferating and something the beekeeper must be ready for!


Learning To Keep Bees

There are many many publications on beekeeping by all sorts of experts, and there are many organisations and associations that exist for beekeepers from one end of the country to the other. Having a good reference book is invaluable, there are many to chose from. ‘Beekeeping, A Seasonal Guide, by Ron Brown’ is a good example, slightly dated but an easy to read guide and reference to beekeeping that you can dip in and out of as required. There are others a plenty. Beekeeping Associations and communities exist in most areas and normally provide beginners classes and some sort of mentoring provision. However you learn, it is best to have access to a seasoned beekeeper for quick advice and an expert eye.

Beekeeping Classes

The late Bob Simpson demonstrating how it can be done after years of experience.

If you prefer digital information rather than hard copy, there are countless websites all over the internet offering everything you need, and everything you have never thought of needing! Rather than listing the good and the bad, it's enough to say that while beekeeping is practised the world over, the advice most useful to you is the advice that comes from and refers to beekeeping in your locality. I provide only a couple of links on this site to widely respected sources of UK beekeeping information, but really the best info and advice will come from your local beekeeping community. A quick internet search will provide a list of local beekeeping associations in Scotland.

It is very easy to become completely baffled and bamboozled by the great technical and scientific detail and range of techniques and advice offered by all manner of 'experts'. In truth, honeybees have existed quite happily over the millennia without man’s interference, they have evolved to be perfectly capable of looking after themselves in their own native environment. The difficulties arise generally with man's intervention, especially when we decide to import non native species, and keep colonies of honeybees inside man-made hives, in locations that we have chosen, and in a manner that suits us, rather than some cosy nuke that the bees have chosen and will manage themselves. Which brings us to the first consideration for starting an apiary – location, location, location!

Once you have learned the basics, organised a mentor, and somewhere to keep bees, and hives to house them in, its time to get bees. They are normally purchased from suppliers as packages of queen and attendant workers, or as a nuc, or as a full hive, and you will pay accordingly. Alternatively if you are patient you'll be able to get a swarm or nuc from a fellow beekeeper as the season permits, and is often a favour that can be returned at a later date.

Note - Honeybees basic needs are relatively simple, two things: somewhere suitable to stay; and something suitable to eat. However these two things need quite a bit of forethought to ensure healthy and productive colonies.


Somewhere To Stay

We keep our bees in a hive, an artificial home made from wood or high density polystyrene, and designed to replicate the natural bee nest conditions found in a hollow tree. Hives come in a great variety of shapes and sizes, use the Bee Hives page for more info on hives.

Navigation - by nature honeybees geo-locate on the geographical position of the hive entrance, very accurately. When they emerge from the hive for the very first time they will fly round and round in ever increasing circles upwards until they have a fix on the exact position of the hive entrance. Should you move the hive a meter from its original site, next time they come out to fly they may never find it again even if it is right beside them, and you will lose them all. Moving a colony of bees a short distance has to be done slowly in small stages over days, or at night when they are all inside the hive, and then the minimum distance you should move them is 3 miles so they are forced to re-orientate and not return to their original site.

Rule - Moving hives, no more than 3 feet (about a meter), and no less than 3 miles!

Keeping that in mind, once you have sited your hive and put bees into it, it is not so simple to move it to a new location, so some thought has to be given to where your hives are going to be sited beforehand. Considering the forage potential of the area is the first step in locating your apiary, along with the varying extremes of weather conditions we experience in Scotland. To give the bees the best chance, chose a location that has easy access, is secure (hive thefts are not uncommon), an aspect that enjoys full sun (this is especially important in winter months), is sheltered from prevailing winds especially winter gales, is not prone to drifting snow, is dry and well drained, is well away from public areas, is not under the of shade trees, and is not going to be knocked over by livestock.

Hives are best raised up off the ground to avoid dampness and to discourage pests and vermin. Stands can be easily made to support one or more hives, but don’t forget that once there are bees and honey in the hive it will weigh a significant amount and you will have to lift and carry at least some of it (a super full of honey weighs 30lbs +). Leave enough room between hives to enable manipulations and to discourage bees drifting from one hive to another.


Something To Eat

Honeybees need a wide range of pollen, nectar, water, and resin all year round (more on what these are used for later) to ensure their health. Gardens, scrub land, mature woodlands, wild flower areas and heather moorland will provide this, whereas intensively farmed land may lack mature hedgerows or significant woodlands and may not provide year round sustenance. Urban honeybees can fare just as well and possible better than those in the countryside due to the wide variety of garden shrubs and flowers available.

You may also have thought that honeybees would hibernate, but no they don’t. They will become quite torpid during the worst of the winter weather but on a sunny day in the middle of winter they will be seen coming out to defecate and to collect from winter flowering plants like ivy (Hedera helix spp.) or gorse (Ulex europaeus spp.), and snowdrops (Galanthius spp.) and crocus (Crocus spp.) in the early spring.

Some forethought to what grows where and when in the area will go a long way towards keeping healthy colonies. Beware of intensely farmed areas where there are vast fields of just one plant type (oil seed rape, beans, peas for instance) and where pesticides are used directly on fields or in seed treatments, they can produce masses of nectar for a short period but may have drastic effects on your colonies. Remember that your bees will fly two miles or more to forage. Check the area out for foraging potential throughout the year.

Of course food becomes scarce in winter months but honeybees have that covered by storing honey and pollen in the nest to sustain them during these times. Feeding up for winter to ensure sufficient stores to see them through even the worst weather can be also done artificially during the autumn (more on that later).


Equipment

please refer to the Management pages for full details on what equipment you will need. Beyond the hives, you'll need a bee suit - get a decent one, it will last you for years and years, and gloves, and welly boots. Tools - you don’t need a lot of tools, a carry box for basics, screens, a smoker, a hive tool for prizing the hive apart and for removing frames, a small hammer and nails for repairing hive boxes and frames.


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