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Bees & Beekeeping: From simple bee-ginnings

A photograph of a worker honeybee (_Apis mellifera_)

A photograph of a worker honeybee (Apis mellifera)
Photograph by Ken Thomas.

On a Summer's day it's not unusual to see bees going about their daily activities, buzzing from flower to flower collecting pollen and nectar. Man has always had a very important relationship with bees, especially the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) as it pollinates 1/3 of all the food we eat. It also pollinates the plants needed to feed farm animals which give us meat and dairy products, so it is vital to our food chain.

A history of beekeeping

Man has always taken advantage of bees, and we've even discovered cave paintings which show cavemen stealing honey from wild hives. Over the years bees have been used to guard valuables in caves and we've even used beehives as weapons to throw at our enemies! The main problem honey gatherers faced in the past was trying to steal the honey from hives without getting stung too badly. People would usually kill the colony with poison before smashing the hive open, but this meant the queen died too, so every year the amount of beehives decreased. Beekeepers today have found a solution.

Beekeeping today

Today beekeepers use hives made of simple wooden boxes containing framed sheets of man-made wax. These sheets allow the bees to build their hexagonal honeycomb very quickly and the beekeepers can easily slide out the wooden frames and remove the honey without harming bees or larvae.

Bees have a violent defensive reaction when their hives are broken into, so beekeepers wear a protective suit and a veil to protect their faces and necks. The suits worn by beekeepers are usually lightly coloured and made of a smooth material, which stops the bees from mistaking them for dark and furry predators like skunks and bears. Beekeepers also use smoke to calm the bees down and make them less likely to sting. The smoke works in two ways. Firstly, it masks the pheromones (scents) released by the guard bees to alert the rest of the hive to a break in. Secondly, the smoke tricks the bees into thinking the hive is on fire, and because of this the bees begin eating the stored honey so it isn't wasted when they have to leave their burning home.

A beekeeper wearing a protective veil inspects hives.  The wooden frames supporting the honecombs can also be seen.

A beekeeper wearing a protective veil inspects hives. The wooden frames supporting the honecombs can also be seen. Photograph by Migco.

America is so large that bees cannot pollinate all of the food crops unless they're moved around by their beekeepers. They are transported in lorries and watered if it's hot on the journey. The bees cope well with all the moving around, and when they've settled in they begin foraging (and pollinating) right away. This is a huge business in America and there's even an almond grove there that is so large it needs a million hives, that's 80% of all the hives in the USA, to pollinate it!

What bees do for us

Each bee spends just three weeks foraging for the water, nectar and other materials the hive needs. Today, we have found uses for almost all of the materials that can be found inside a beehive.

Beeswax

Beeswax is the material that hives are made of and it comes from young worker bees who produce wax scales from glands under their abdomen. We use the wax from beehives to make things like soap and beeswax candles, which are loved for their sweet smell.

Honey

A photograph of a worker honeybees (_Apis mellifera_) on a honeycomb

A photograph of a worker honeybees (Apis mellifera) on a pollen comb. Honeybees store honey and pollen on separate combs.
Photograph by Migco.

Honey is the main source of energy for bees. Worker bees collect nectar from plants and carry it back to the hive in a special pouch on their gut, called a crop, before passing it to the house bees. These bees add enzymes and place the nectar near the entrance of the hive, fanning it with air to dry it out, creating sticky sweet honey.

The bees then store the honey in cells of the honeycomb and cover it over with wax to keep it fresh for the winter. The strongest colonies can store up to four times as much honey as they actually need, and it is this spare honey that beekeepers collect and sell to us.

You may have seen two different types of honey in shops - runny and set. All honey is runny when first collected but usually it sets within a few weeks, so the only real difference is the texture. As well as a food source we also use honey as a medicine. In the World Wars we used honey to treat the wounds of soldiers and to fight infection before penicillin was discovered. Today it has even been used to preserve parts of human eyes for transplants. This is all thanks to honey's antiseptic properties.

Propolis

Bees also forage for a substance called propolis, which is found in certain trees. It is a powerful antiseptic and bees coat all of the surfaces in the hive with it, helping to keep it free from bacteria, fungus and disease. Bees also use propolis to block small gaps in the hive and sometimes even to embalm animals! If an animal too large for the bees to carry, such as a mouse or lizard, breaks into the hive and is stung to death, the bees will cover it with propolis to stop it from rotting indoors. We collect propolis from hives and use it in medicine, for example as a lotion to treat skin problems.

Royal Jelly (Bee milk)

Honey provides bees with energy but it is also important for bees to have a source of protein to feed to growing larvae. Pollen contains protein so young nurse bees eat it to produce bee milk, often called royal jelly. This is secreted from glands in their heads and fed to the larvae to help them grow. It is called royal jelly because it is also the only thing that is fed to the precious queen bee. When a larva is chosen to be a queen it is fed huge amounts of royal jelly and this causes it to develop into a queen rather than a worker, increasing its lifespan from 6 weeks to an average of 3-4 years, so it's not surprising some people believe it can benefit our health! We harvest the large amounts of royal jelly that can be found in the queen's chamber and use it in various cosmetic products such as hand cream and shampoo. The effect that royal jelly has on us is not fully understood but some studies have shown evidence for it doing all kinds of things, from giving us more energy and getting rid of wrinkles to helping fight cancer.

Threats to bees and beekeeping

European honeybees are very important to our economy because of all the food they pollinate. These top pollinators are responsible for 80% of all our fruit, nuts and vegetables, and a single hive of 50,000 honeybees can pollinate half a million plants in just one day! It is thought that man makes a billion pounds every year in the UK by selling crops or honey that has been produced by bees. Since we rely on bees for 1/3 of our food, it's very worrying that some experts think the European honeybee could be extinct in less than 30 years because of a parasite, the varroa mite, and a new and mysterious disease called Colony Collapse Disorder. These threats are making it much more difficult for beekeepers to do their jobs so many of them are no longer keeping bees today.

Varroa mite

A photograph of a varroa mite (_Varroa jacobsoni_)

A photograph of a varroa mite (Varroa jacobsoni)
Photograph by Scott Bauer, USDA.

There are several bee parasites, but the biggest problem for colonies is the varroa mite (Varroa destructor). The small crab-shaped mite will attach to a foraging worker bee and catch a ride into the hive. Once there, it will burrow into a cell containing a larva and lay its eggs on it. When the larva pupates the eggs will hatch and the bee will leave the cell, taking the parasites with it. The mites feed on the bee's blood, weakening its immune system and transmitting diseases such as Deformed Wing Virus which leaves the bee with short and useless wings. The bees bitten by varroa mites are often weak and don't usually live for more than a couple of days.

Varroa mites have spread to most of the world, and only Australia and areas near it seem to be free of them. Australia has even sent some of its healthy bees over to the USA by plane to try and boost its honeybee population. Once a varroa mite enters a hive the whole colony can be destroyed in 2 to 4 years, and most wild bee colonies have died out because of them.

Colony Collapse Disorder

The other big threat to beekeeping is fairly new. A disease called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has wiped out nearly 1/3 of the UK's bees in the last few years - and scientists are baffled. Beekeepers all over the world have been opening up their beehives at the end of winter to find that nearly all of the bees have disappeared and left their larvae and queen to starve to death. Bees have a brilliant sense of direction so if they are getting lost there has to be something seriously wrong, and some people believe that pesticides used on farms are confusing the bees and causing them to get lost. Scientists have dissected bees killed by the mystery disease, but the pesticides and diseases they found were very common, even in bees that aren't affected by CCD.

Usually when a hive of bees dies another colony will come and steal the honey from it, but bees have been avoiding the hives that CCD has killed, which is very strange. It is also odd that CCD started killing bees all over the world at the same time, as this means it probably wasn't caused by changes in the local environment or spread by bee-to-bee contact.

Most scientists believe that Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by a range of different things, such as:

Some researchers are trying to make bees more hygienic to stop the spread of diseases and hopefully stop CCD too. They do this by killing a small section of larvae in each hive and watching to see how good the bees are at removing the dead larvae from the cells. The hives that are the best at removing the larvae are then bred together to produce more hygienic bees that should be better at keeping away diseases. This is called selective breeding.

How can I help?

A photograph of a honey bee drinking nectar from a flower

A photograph of a honey bee drinking nectar from a flower.

Today, bees have lost a lot of their natural environment to farms. Very large areas of land are being used to grow just one crop, so there are only flowers there during the crop's flowering season, which means the bees have nothing to eat for the rest of the year. Because of this, people's gardens have become an important place for bees to forage. Most gardens have many different plants which will flower at different times of the year, so there is always nectar for bees to collect. You can help the European honeybee by planting flowers that are attractive to them, just a few plants that bees love are daffodils, geraniums and lavender. Lavender is a particular favourite, and if you can plant some in your garden you'll have lots of bees visiting in no time.

Happy bee watching!

By Natalie Moran

Related links: Beekeeping