Before I go into the actual beekeeping, let’s talk about the bees for a moment. Bees are insects that live in a complex structure called hive, comprised of a couple of thousand individuals. There are three different types – workers, drones, and queens. In nature, these hives would be set up in dead trees or other small holes or openings. When beekeeping, we build boxes for the bees to live in and do their thing.
As I am writing this, I realize that there is so much I could put into this about bees, their behavior and all that surrounds them that it would go well beyond the scope of this post. I will try to give you the gist, maybe with a little additional fluff. Just keep in mind that there is always more to learn when it comes to bees.
A Quick Aside: Ethics
Like many other kinds of animal husbandry, beekeeping is not replicating how things are in nature. On the one hand, we need bees, and the techniques and methods we use today have proven to help the bees survive and, hopefully, thrive, in an age where monocultures, chemical agents and pests like the varroa mite make it increasingly hard for them.
If you think it unethical or otherwise wrong to keep bees the way I (and many other beekeepers) do, then that is fine by me. Learning is a big part of beekeeping, and if there are better ways I am open to them. Also, not all beekeepers are alike, and there will always be “black sheep”, not to mention comercialisation and cheap mass-production. Keep an open mind, and if you are interested in the subject please do read on. If not, I hope you find another hobby that interests and engages you in a positive fashion.
What do Bees do?
There are two major aspects to what bees do, literally “for a living”. On the one hand, they gather nectar and honeydew and turn it into honey, which is not just tasty but also healthy. On the other hand, in doing so they pollinate a large number of plants and trees, some of them relying solely on bees for that. If you enjoy fruit, chances are that you are benefiting from bees.
There are other pollinators, but bees are “flower consistent”, meaning that once they have hit an apple flower, they will stick with apple flowers for the remainder of their forraging trip, thus maximizing the pollination effort as opposed to going scattershot across the field.
They also produce other substances that can be harvested to a degree. First among them is beeswax, which they use to build the combs they store honey and raise brood in. There is also propolis, a kind of resin mix that is said to have health benefits, and gelee royal, which is supposed to be even healthier, but I have not bothered with those yet.
This is the most common type of bee and the one you will find visiting flowers. They are the females, and their task within the hive changes as they mature. Every worker bee only lives for a couple of weeks during summer (longer through the winter).
They start out cleaning the combs and preparing them for new eggs to be laid in them. Then they develop the glands necessary to turn pollen into food for larvae and the queen herself. Then they start secreting wax and work as builders, making new combs and repairing old ones. After that, they are tasked with guarding the inlet of the hive and protect, before they themselves start foraging. They spend their last days carrying water back to the hive – because by then, their sensory organs have deteriorated to the point where they cannot “smell” their way to nectar anymore.
Drones are male bees, and literally, their only job is to mate with a queen during her wedding flight. A queen will mate with up to two dozens of drones, storing their sperm to fertilize her eggs for years to come, as well as to ensure genetic diversity. To that end, it was also discovered that drones from different hives gather at certain places and move into other hives, mixing things up further.
Other than that, drones are useless – sorry! They need to be fed by workers and do not contribute to foraging or hive defense – they do not even have a sting. And at some point during July, the worker bees just kick them out or outright kill them (the drone slaying, or so I heard it called).
With only one of those in each hive, the queen is the most important bee of the lot. Their main job is to lay eggs. A queen can lay more than a thousand eggs per day – potentially more than her own weight in eggs. She is also responsible for order in the hive using pheromones.
Interestingly, queens have the shortest maturation cycle of all three types (16 days as opposed to 21 days for workers and 24 for drones). Also, the only difference between a worker bee egg and a queen bee egg is the food it is given – it is literally the same egg, and if something happens to their queen, bees can take a freshly laid egg intended to be a worker bee and grow a new queen from it.
Excourse: Bee Family Structure
If you are a bee, your biological family is a little weird compared to what we are used to. As a worker bee, you have a mother – the queen – and a father – the drone that she used the semen from. But drones grow from unfertilized eggs, so a drone has a mother, but no father. Which in turn means that every worker bee has two grandmothers but only one grandfather.
Kind of an honorary mention, this tiny pest is in every hive where I am beekeeping, which is central Europe. Since I do not know where you are from I cannot really tell you whether this will be an issue, but I might write a dedicated post on them later in this series. Just know that there are some critters and diseases that you should know about. There are even some that need to be reported to the authorities.
Next I will go into beekeeping gear, that is all the tools and protection equipment you need to get started with beekeeping before we dive into the actual hives. Most of what comes next you will probably have to buy, but there are other ways, which I will go into as well!
Thanks for checking out the series! Please share it if you found it helpful and interesting, and as always, remember to be(e) Inspired!