07917 677667 beesatbobs@btinternet.com RJ beekeeping, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands

The honey bee and me

The honey bee (APIS MELLIFERA) belongs to the Hymenoptera group of insects (which have four transparent wings). The honey bee has a head, thorax, and abdomen in three defined segments and shares its’ ancestry with wasps and ants. The modern conception classes a honey bee colony as a super-organism. Within the colony under normal conditions there can be two sexes: the male drone and female with two castes :- a single queen (mated with fully developed ovaries) and the workers ( whose ovaries are not fully developed) whose numbers make up over 95% of the total. A female dominated society!
Taking a closer look:
The queen
Mum to all! She can live for up to 5 years. Contrary to public perception she is not hugely bigger than her daughters (workers). She exudes pheromones which keep the colony stable and together.
Their sole recognized purpose is to mate with a virgin queen (and if successful they will die). They appear to have no active involvement in maintaining the colony on a daily basis (though more recent studies indicate they may do some chores!). Instead they loaf around and hang out at drone congregation areas (local boys social club) waiting for a virgin queen to pass nearby (reflecting badly on the male species).The drone has no sting. They are raised in the spring in a healthy colony and will live until Autumn – unless they mate-when they are kicked out/ killed, being a drain on resources for winter.
These girls are the colony mainstay and do all the work. They will only sting as a last resort, normally in defence of the colony or themselves (and die in the process). As soon as they are born they start work and in a normal colony go through a series of jobs depending on their age. They start cleaning cells, then nursing and feeding the young larvae. They will go on to wax/comb building, then may become guards. The last weeks of their lives are spent foraging for nectar,pollen,propolis and water. In summer the workers live for 6 weeks; in Autumn the workers build up fat reserves and will live for up to 6 months to help the colony survive the winter. The workers can adapt their routines to suit colony needs.
The colony
Colony numbers fluctuate through the year. Autumn is often referred to as the start of the bee keeping year. Through summer the bees build up a reserve/surplus of stores. As autumn and winter progress the queen reduces laying and colony numbers drop from their summer peak. In autumn the drones are expelled/killed to help conserve stores. In the brood area stores are packed in to be easily accessed. By mid winter colony numbers are 10,000 to 15,000. In cold weather the bees don’t fly, they cluster in the hives, vibrating their wing muscles to create heat, eating the stores. They are able to contain waste in ther body and wait for warmer days to go out and defecate on the wing.
The onset of the new year and the queen will start/increase laying to build up colony numbers. The winter bees survival (with their fatty reserves) is vital as they will raise and feed young through winter and forage for early Spring stores.
By Spring the colony numbers should be building and the bees openly foraging; healthy strong colonies will raise drones. As Spring turns to Summer the colonies may prepare and swarm (the prime swarm is the old queen and half the colony numbers who go off to create a new colony) and a new queen is raised to head the colony – this is the way the super-organism procreates.
By the end of June/early July the colony can be 50,000 to 70,000 strong and the queen can be laying around 2,000 eggs a day. An excess of stores (Honey and pollen) will be gathered and stored ready for the coming winter.
My interest started purely by accident. I was totally ignorant of bees and didn’t know the honey bee existed, I thought bees were all like bumble bees! Seeing an observation hive at a local show and finding out how mans’ interference had screwed things up (bringing Varroa mites to European honey bees) I was overwhelmed to try help redress some balance. I spent 2 years attending regularly at my local apiary and learning as much as I could before I got my own bees. I have studied through the BBKA and attained their Intermediate Theory Grade. I have recently, along with my friend Martin Adans applied to Bee Farmers as a result of our growing colony numbers.
I seek the best for the bees. If I am lucky they reward me and I can remove excess goods. I have tried and tested different methods and hives.My desire to do my best for the bees has taken me away from mainstream ideas both in bee keeping and science in general.I am grateful to John Harding and I recommend EVERYONE should find out more about this man and what he has found.I seek to find a habitat that best suits the bees, NOT the bee keeper. If one day bees could survive in a feral state again I would cease my interference, happy in their re establishment: not sure what I would do with all my spare time though!!

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