What I Know About Honeybees
Since I acquired a honeybee hive in June 2009, there’s been a lot of interest in the subject both on FDL and from friends. I’ve typed the answers to Qs often, and it finally occurred to me to type them one more time, post it as a diary, and link to the diary when needed.
I am not a bee expert, so nothing I write should be regarded as definitive. I’ll provide some links but little science. I’ve learned from my organic beekeeper, Chris Harp, who’s been doing it for 20 years and maintains 200 hives for clients. He also teaches. He’s done a great job for me, so I trust what he says and does, but I might misinterpret or misremember what he has taught me.
The diary is divided by subjects. Rather than reading the full post, you can either scroll down to find what you are looking for or do a find.
My Hives and Their History
Chris brought me a hive (brood box on the bottom, 10” tall) and one super on top of it (6-7” tall) in early June 2009. The external dimensions are 16” across and 20” deep. The brood box and each super has 10 racks across, just far enough apart for the bees to build the hexagonal storage cell pattern, fill them with brood or honey or pollen, cap them, and still be able to navigate between them. It is dark inside the hive; no windows!
My original hive contained a queen (hives have only one queen and a hive colony is considered to be a kind of single organism because of the complete dependence of the bees on each other) and around 10,000 bees. There are two common varieties of honeybees: Italian (most of them) and Russian (mine and increasing choice of organic beekeepers). There are advantages to Russian; more under that heading.
Hive sits on top of, and is strapped to, big cement blocks, owing to bear problem. More details under Bear heading.
I named my original queen Victoria, as I was looking for an actual queen in history who had a lot of issue.
A mature hive at the end of the season (mid-Hudson region) will contain around 40,000, perhaps more, depending on how many supers they’ve been able to fill. The vast majority are female workers, with only a couple hundred to a couple thousand male drones. Here’s a website with some of the elementary facts.
Despite torrential rains in June 2009, which washed pollen off the flowers and diluted nectar (more about what these are used for under What Bees Do and Eat heading), making it a difficult first summer for the hive to get established, mine did well, one of the more robust ones Chris maintains. He had to treat the hive for varroa mites, and provide some supplemental feeding, but it survived the winter in fine shape and Chris assured me it would swarm in the spring. See Swarm heading.
It did swarm and we missed capturing it. So Victoria was gone with somewhat under half the hive in mid-May 2010 to establish a hive in nature, but her daughter Vicky (see Victoria’s children’s names here) stayed in the hive, went on her marriage flight and started laying her brood.
A week or two later, my yard guy, Roger, was finishing some work in the back, returned to the house around 6p to ask what was wrong with my bees, which were hanging out in a swarm on the lower branch of a Bradford pear tree I had planted a couple of years before. Turns out it was a second swarm from Victoria’s hive. I called Chris, who was at a client’s in Millbrook. He arrived around 9p, we went back, captured the swarm, shook it into a new hive, and thus I now have two hives, with Vicky queen of the first one and Alice, Victoria’s second daughter and third child, queen of the second hive.
Despite another difficult summer, this time a drought, which dried up the nectar in the flowers, both of my hives did well in 2010. Some varroa mite treatments and supplemental feeding, but both ended up with enough honey to get through the winter. Chris was able to harvest 14 pounds (one jar=one pound; a full rack of honey taken from a super weighs 5 pounds, so a full super weighs 50 pounds) from Vicky’s hive, which is the most delicious honey I’ve ever tasted. (Pasteurized store bought honey is a pale shadow of the real thing.) I’ve given much of it as gifts and am gradually finding and trying more recipes using honey. More under Recipes heading.
Alice’s hive, getting a later and smaller start, produced enough honey to get through the winter, but no extra for human consumption.
Despite the very severe past winter, both my hives pulled through. The girls are out gathering pollen for the brood (weeping willows and skunk cabbage are good sources right now), still feeding on last year’s honey. Soon there will be nectar and the girls can start making honey again.
Chris tells me that Vicky’s hive will swarm this year. He will try to divide it before that happens, with a queen. Rather than accumulating more hives, I’ll give the extra to my friends, the Simons. They are the couple who got me into the hobby and have had terrible luck with their hive. It has not survived for three winters in a row. I’m hoping that my seemingly stronger bloodline will give them a better experience in the future.
What Bees Do and Eat
Bees pollenate plants. You all know that, or can look it up, so enough said.
Bees collect pollen and nectar.
Nectar is carried back to the hive inside the worker bee, and made into honey, by addition of some enzymes, but mainly by water content reduction of 80%, which is accomplished by evaporation and by bees fanning. Adult bees eat honey.
Bees make royal jelly, which is fed to worker and drone larvae and to the queen bee for her entire life, which is what makes her a queen.
Bees also make wax for the cell structure and propolis. Propolis is a kind of glue they use to fill in drafty spaces and keep the hive in order. It is a fascinating substance and humans are continuing to learn more about it.
During the winter, bees cluster around the queen. They keep the cluster temperature around mid-40s F., which is maintained by how much they eat and move. The inner bees in the cluster rotate out and vice versa.
The queen, who stopped laying in the autumn, starts laying again in February. At that point onwards, the cluster temperature must be kept in the 90s, which requires that bees eat a lot more. The interval between when the queen starts laying and when nectar becomes available, 2 or more months, is the most critical. If there is not enough honey stored in the hive, the bees will starve and the hive will die. There must also be enough pollen stored to feed the babies until it becomes available outside, a somewhat shorter period than for nectar.
Winter die-off of bees within a hive is substantial, and depends on the climate.
In my climate, normal organic hive failure rates during the winter are around 20-30%. This past winter, Chris guesses that, despite its severity, he lost only 15%, attributing the success to conservative honey harvesting, being overly careful to make sure they had enough to make it through.
Bees do not defecate in the hive. The outside temperature must be around 50 degrees before they can go outside to relieve themselves. This past winter there was not a single day meeting that criterion between December and March, meaning they held it in all winter. Chris thinks some of his hives that did not make it died of dysentery.
During the summer, the bees are busy collecting, making, storing, feeding, cleaning (bees are meticulous). As mentioned, they must have enough honey and bee bread stored to meet their needs for the coming winter. There must also be enough bees to maintain the temps in the cluster around the queen. Humans harvest the extra honey toward the end of the season. Honey lasts forever, kept in nonmetal containers in a cool, darkish place. It is antibacterial and can be used to sterilize cuts.
The queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day when she gets in gear and the conditions are right.
Summer bees work themselves to death in 4-6 weeks. Winter bees, somewhat different anatomically, and less physically active, can live 5 months.
After the queen lays the egg, fertilized for a worker, unfertilized for a drone, which are deposited in different size cells that the queen can feel with her legs so she knows which kind to release, the egg is surrounded with royal jelly for several days, then larvae are fed nectar and bee bread, then the larva spins a cocoon, which workers cap for the pupa stage. Queens, workers and drones emerge from capped cells after slightly different number of days when they are born. The whole process takes 16 days (queen), 21 days (worker), 24 days (drone).
The first thing workers do after emerging from their cells is clean them!
Queen cells are vertical, not horizontal, and as mentioned above, a worker becomes a queen by virtue of being fed nothing but royal jelly while developing.
When Chris opened my hive to inspect last May, we counted around 15 queen cells, which are easy to spot owing not only to vertical orientation but also because they are much larger. And we didn’t try to find them all. That is a very large number and attests to the health of my girls. Many of them were victims of regicide, whereby workers drill into the side and kill the developing queen. An opening on the end indicates the new queen got out alive, but is still vulnerable to regicide.
Swarming and Fertilization of the New Queen
Swarming occurs when a new queen takes over the old hive. The old queen leaves with about 1/3 of the adult bees, some of whom have been scouting around for a new home, like a hollow in a tree. It takes a day or so for them to find a good location for sure, during which time they hang out somewhere, like a tree branch, as a swarm. There is a photo on Chris’s website.
The new queen in the old hive is a virgin. After several days, she is ready for her first emergence from the hive, and one of the few in her life, her marriage flight.
Drones (fertilizers) hang out in a cloud at an altitude of about 500’ during the day. The virgin queen zooms up through them and they chase after her. The fastest male, often more than one, wins, and fertilizers her, which provides enough fertilized eggs for her lifetime, several years. In the process, the drone’s penis breaks off and he dies a few hours later.
Here’s a picture of a “successful” drone. Chris picked him up from a huge pile of dead bees at the base of my hive, cleaned out after the winter die-off. His experience allows him to see things that are invisible to me. I am going to have a graphic artist use the photograph to design a label, and call the honey from my hives Successful Drone Honey.
Lives of Queens, Drones and Workers
As mentioned, the queen lives 3-5 years, is fed nothing but royal jelly, and other than her virgin flight does not emerge from the hive except in a swarm. She lives so long because of her diet and also because she does not do the exhausting work of collecting pollen and nectar. She is the largest bee in the hive.
Drones are larger than workers, all eyes (the better to spot and follow the virgin queen) and do not have a stinger. They are not allowed to overwinter, as they do none of the grueling work, and in October are systematically excluded from the hive. I have seen Katie-Bar-the-Door when the drones try to get back in at evening time, and also their smaller sisters dragging them out and dropping them over the edge, where they starve.
Workers are infertile females. They go through stages during their lives. After they clean their cells, they become nursemaids, then a series of jobs until their bodies are mature enough to forage. After which they work themselves to death. It takes 10,000 worker bees to make a pound of honey. A single worker gathers 1/10 tsp. of honey in her life. Other fun and amazing facts about bees can be found here.
Foragers communicate the location of yummy stuff by the waggle dance, perhaps the only symbolic communication system known to exist in the nonhuman animal world.
One of the few specialized jobs in the hive is funeral director. Workers who do that job do no foraging, just keep the hive clean of bees that die inside.
Honeybees are sometimes referred to as semidomesticated in the sense that they are usually docile. They don’t like to sting, which rips their stinger out resulting in death a few hours later. Chris works with only a hat, no gloves, no netting, and I watch and help him similarly unprepped. I have been stung only once, when I tried to blow a bee out of the way. Nothing unique about my breath but they don’t like being blown on and one bit me in the neck. They also hate the banana smell, so I tell guests who I’m showing the hives not to carry their fancy banana laced cocktails over for the show & tell. The purpose of the hat is that if bees get into your hair, they get confused and tend to sting.
Bears and Other Critters
Pooh Bear notwithstanding, real bears are not primarily after the hunny. Bears are omnivores, but protein is what gets them through the winter. So they are after the larvae and honey is the icing on the cake. Autumn, pre-hibernation, when bears are bulking up, is the most vulnerable time.
I have not experienced a bear attack, nor seen any around, although there are plenty in my neighborhood. Keeping fingers and toes crossed.
Chris sets the hives on two 17” high hollow cement blocks and uses two metal straps around the hives and through the hole in the cement block to keep them attached. That way, hopefully, in the case of a bear attack, the bear might push the whole assemblage over, but won’t be able to get inside. Makes the bees buzzingly pissed, but the hive can be righted, the girls calm down after awhile, and life resumes.
Bears are black, and humans wearing black clothing are warned not to come too close to the hive. Chris’s shepherd dog Maggie is all black and quickly learned the safe distance.
The other reason the hives are set off the ground is that it minimizes attacks by other critters like skunk.
Part of the winterizing process is blocking all but a small part of the slot where the bees come and go and stapling screening with bee opening sizes over the remaining opening so that mice can’t get in. That is removed during the summer as it is too restrictive when thousands of bee trips per day are happening.
Honey and Allergies
Eating a teaspoon full of local raw (unpasteurized) honey per day can, over time, reduce or eliminate allergies to local plants. Here’s a homey website that explains how it works. Note that the “treatment” must not involve heating the honey, so honey used in tea, or other cooking does not count.
Italians vs. Russians; Africanized Bees
Most honeybees in the U.S. are Italians. Russians have been used increasingly since the introduction of varroa mites in 1987 because they are more resistant. Here is a website [pdf] that explains the history and the differences.
Africanized honeybees are much more aggressive. Here’s the wiki, with the history and a cool map with the rate of their northward migration into southern U.S. They are not yet a problem in the mid-Hudson region.
These are one of the biggest threats to organic beehives. The wiki is here. As mentioned, it came into the U.S. in 1987. There is a piece of white foam core board underneath my hives that slides in and out. It needs to be checked for mites (a little bigger than a period at the end of a sentence) periodically. If more than a dozen or so drop out onto the board within a day, the hive needs to be treated. Chris uses a treatment made from thyme oil that sublimates, permeates the hive, kills the mites and has little influence on the bees. They don’t like it (he once opened the hive after putting in the packet, and the girls were congregated near the top), and the queen stops laying for about a week, but as the mites can kill the whole hive, the discomfort and interruption is worth the effort.
There are plenty of other pests that can get into a hive. I haven’t had problems with them, and this post is long, so enough said.
White House Honeybees
Here’s a link with a neat video that shows how honey is harvested.
I haven’t done too much cooking with honey, never having used it before I got my hive, so I don’t have a lot of recipes to offer. My cookbooks do not contain many, perhaps because it’s much more expensive than white sugar or corn syrup.
I have made a pound cake using honey instead of sugar. The flavor was milder and more subtle.
I’ve found that using honey instead of sugar in salad dressing is a vast improvement. Ditto any kind of reduction sauce for meat dishes and sweet sauces for dessert, like fruit purees. Honey adds complexity to the flavor in those applications.
Here’s a website with lots of recipes.
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
From what I’ve been able to learn, information is conflicting and nothing is definitive. I’ll stress what makes most sense to me, but nothing has been demonstrated to scientific satisfaction yet.
First, statistics on honeybee die-offs are all over the place. If one takes the most dire stats and compounds them for the number of years people have been talking about the crisis, there wouldn’t be any honeybees left.
Part of the problem is the normal bee and colony die-off in the winter, as discussed above. Hysterical emails that misuse stats get people who know nothing else all whipped up.
I also have no idea how soon the bee die-off would result in serious interruption of the human food chain, which is highly dependent on commercial (industrial) honeybee pollination. That is a critical consideration to be sure, but the tipping point is not known.
Organically raised honeybees do not seem to suffer from CCD. It seems concentrated in the commercial bee industry, those that are carted around the country by the millions on tractor-trailer trucks, to pollenate industrial orchards and other fruits and vegetables.
CCD involves mysterious emptying of hives, with no dead bodies in sight. Meaning bees go out to forage but can’t find their way home.
Neither author is a scientist but both try, mostly honestly I think, to assess the scientific evidence. Their chief culprit is insecticides, especially the more recently developed neonicotinoids, which are also the active ingredients in the most effective household pet flea and tick repellents like Frontline.
The hypothesis is that chemical is sublethal to bees but affects their navigation system. Thus, they leave the hives to forage, they are sensorily impaired, and can’t find their way back.
The major problems with this approach are twofold. One is the onset of usage in some countries and government regulation/prevention of usage (France) of those insecticides does not coincide easily with the onset/lessening of the CCD problem, though suggestive.
The other, more common and disgusting one, is that the chemical companies, no surprise, vigorously funds opposition research/propaganda, muddying the water to the maximum degree, including buying off scientists (academics too, not just scientists who work for chemical corporations) who might otherwise try to do honest work.
The PBS program linked at the end of this section points out that a virus might play a role.
The stresses of monoculture are an important factor.
To take the most extreme example: almond crop in California (eat almonds with maximum guilt after you read this). Almond trees are the first that must be pollenated in the season, February. Remember that is when the queen starts laying again and stores in the hives must sustain the colony. Almond trees contain pollen but no nectar. For reasons I don’t remember, almond trees are particularly difficult to pollenate so bees work harder than normal.
Bees by the millions arrive, already stressed by the winter, to do a particularly difficult task. Nothing but 300 miles of monoculture almond trees with not even a hedge row to give a poor bee a break. They work their little hearts and wings out, and survive only on corn syrup (think genetically modified too), fed by their owners, which is less nutritious but cheaper than honey.
Meanwhile industrial bees are being born, fed on nothing but monoculture. Chris likens it to a pregnant woman eating only one food for nine months (maybe Cheetos for pregnant bloggers) because the bee gestation period is so short and so much of it is spent in a single monoculture environment. This cannot help but weaken the genetic strain.
On top of that stress come insecticides and herbicides used in endless quantities to treat the crops.
What’s a poor bee girl to do.
In any event, regardless of the scientific reality, the real reality is that the stresses on the commercial/industrial honeybee population are extreme.
While there are a lot of other plant fertilizing insects, none exist in the numbers required to feed humans the variety of vegetable and fruit crops now available. Other crops that are big users of industrial honeybees include but are not limited to, all tree fruits, blueberries, cranberries. All are raised in the U.S. in monoculture settings.
Here’s the link to PBS program on CCD.
Here is the trailer for Queen of the Sun, a recent award winning documentary about honeybees with emphasis on CCD. The reason the bees accumulate (swarm) on the dancer is because there is a queen somewhere in that mass. That the dancer can perform with bees on her and that so many organic bee keepers work without protective clothing attests to their docile nature. Bees’ acute sense of smell also makes them familiar with humans who frequent the hive and are known for being gentle.
Comments and corrections are welcome. They’re open for 2-3 days and I’ll check back regularly to respond.
Please provide links and bona fides when appropriate.
Readers remember that unless the links and bona fides in the comments seem strong, you should regard all the information, both in my post and in comments, as hypotheses, not as conclusions. Also, chemical companies, EPA, might send trolls to disrupt the thread.
I love my bee girls. I never expected such a small hobby with such serendipital beginnings to develop into such an emotionally satisfying experience. As Chris says: It’s not about the honey. It’s about the bees.
He does not allow us to leave a visit to or inspection of the hives without saying “Thank you girls.”