And Is There Honey?

3rd August 2012

Jacqui Gray gets the bee-keeping buzz

On a Sunday morning in June, when the weather can’t decide whether to smile or frown, in a snug wooden building tucked away down a quiet lane in Ruislip, all is hustle and bustle. It’s the weekly meeting of the Pinner and Ruislip Beekeepers’ Association and as members catch up on news about hives and colonies, club courses and events, the newer members zip themselves into crisp white beekeeping suits, and await a chink in the weather to inspect the hives, home to the club’s colonies of honeybees.

Bees don’t like rain, so at the first sign of a blue sky, education officer Alan Husbands wastes no time in leading the new recruits out to the hives, puffing out smoke to calm the bees, and allowing an array of eager eyes to examine the world of this fascinating little insect. A beekeeper needs to check regularly for a healthy hive and there’s just time for Alan to make his assessment and answer some questions before the mercurial weather does its worst, and the beekeepers must make a dash indoors.

The Pinner and Ruislip Beekeepers’ Association (PRBKA) was formed in 1954 from an amalgamation of the Pinner BKA and the Ruislip BKA. Christopher Beale, who has been keeping bees for 40 years, is chairman. “The club is thriving; we have around 80 members at the moment,” he tells me. “Beekeeping became very popular in the 1970s – around the time of the tele-vision series The Good Life – and I think today’s renaissance probably represents a similar nostalgia for the past, going back to basics and the good life.”

However, in recent years, explains Christopher, this halcyon hobby has been battered by a foreign invader, which strikes fear into beekeepers up and down the land: the varroa mite. The mites attach themselves to bee larvae and pass devastating viruses to the bees. ‘Everyone has the mite,’ he says. “If you do not keep them down, the colony will collapse because of the amount of virus they transmit. The mite comes from the Asian bee, which can co-exist with it, but our bees have no immunity. In the ’70s it had not reached Britain, so you did not have to worry; but beekeeping now is hard work because of it.”

Varroa mite notwithstanding, the more you learn about the honeybee, the more you understand the beekeepers’ undoubted passion for their protégés. As one club member succinctly put it, you become ‘hooked’.

There are three types of honeybee in a colony, the collective name for the bee community which lives within a hive: the queen, the workers, and the drones.

The queen is mother of the entire colony. She leaves the hive only once (unless she swarms) to mate on the wing and she can lay up to 3,000 eggs a day. During her life she is able to lay both fertilised eggs, which become worker bees, and unfertilised eggs, which become drones. Through close bodily contact, worker bees receive from the queen chemical substances called pheromones, which help to control the behaviour of the colony.

After three or four years, the queen begins to ‘fail’ – ie to become less efficient at egg-laying – and at this time the hive will start to produce new queen cells in order to yield another young queen. If the colony then becomes too crowded, the old queen will fly off with half the workers to form a new colony, a process called swarming, leaving a new queen in the old hive.

The workers are undeveloped females. As their name suggests, they attend to all the work that needs to be done to maintain the hive.

Finally, there are the large eyed, fast-flying drones, of which there are relatively few, and all of which are male. Their only purpose in life is to mate with the queen.

It might appear that the males have the better deal in the honeybee kingdom, yet the devil is in the detail. Drones which succeed in mating with the queen meet with an unfortunate end when their genitalia explode straight after copulation, while those who don’t manage to mate are viewed as a drain on honey reserves and are forced to beg for food before being pushed to the outside of the hive by the workers, where they die of cold.

In fact, there exists a perfect balance, not only between the sexes, but in every aspect of colony life, based upon the individual being subjugated to the greater needs of the whole: the survival of the hive. Worker bees, for example, receive no pay, remain celibate and often literally work themselves to death. Yet they do it all without complaint.

Each worker bee, from the moment it emerges from its cell, will undertake the same sequence of tasks throughout its life. For the first few days, it is a ‘house’ or ‘nurse’ bee, and spends its time cleaning the hive and feeding the bee larvae. After this, it receives nectar brought into the hive and turns it into honey by adding an enzyme called invertase, before storing it in cells as a food source. Its next role is to groom and feed the queen, and then it becomes a guard, protecting the entrance of the hive from intruders such as wasps, or bees from other colonies. Each colony has its own distinctive scent and guard bees can recognise when a bee is not one of its own.

In the final stage of its life, a worker bee will leave the hive to forage for food, seeking flowers with a source of nectar within a radius of a few miles. Bees home in on ultra-violet markings on flower petals, invisible to the human eye, but which appear to them like the landing lights of a runway. Bees can also see polarised light, which helps them navigate even in overcast conditions.
Once a food source is found, they return to the hive and do a ‘waggle dance’ (yes, really…), the speed and pattern of which, quite incredibly, communicates a precise message about the quality, abundance and even the location of the food source to the other bees.

“In summer, a hive will typically contain 40 to 50,000 bees,” says Christopher. “A keeper will check the hive once a week and ask him/herself: have the bees got enough room? Are there any queen cells? Has the colony got enough to eat? Is there a laying queen?” (Beekeepers generally mark the queen, who has a long body, with a coloured paint spot for identification). The big question is: is the brood healthy?

“Joining an association such as ours helps anyone thinking of keeping bees; we run beginners’ courses and there is always advice and support available.”

In their lifetime each bee will produce the equivalent of about half a teaspoon of honey. “Bees will generally look for the sources of nectar which contain the highest sugar count,’ Christopher explains. “Apples, for example, have about 25 per cent sugar, but dandelions have over twice as much, so the orchard owner needs to keep his dandelions down or the bees won’t pollinate the trees! People have become divorced from nature, but the main thing to bear in mind is that bees are all about the pollination of fruit crops… Different crops give different honey; the horse chestnut tree, for example, produces a dark honey. The club is hoping this year to have lime honey from lime trees, which has a nice minty flavour.”

It’s not really about the produce, though, as Christopher confides. “Very few people keep bees for the honey; most are simply fascinated by the bees’ lifecycle.’

See www.prbka.co.uk for more info about
Pinner & Ruislip Beekeepers’ Association

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