Humans have been inspired by the honey bee since 8000-2000 BC. From prehistoric times to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance & Early Christian art, honey bees have been in the art world for a long time which is just one reason why I’ve always been enamored by them. It’s beautiful to watch the honey hunters of Nepal collect honey from steep Himalayan cliffs the exact same way they have been for centuries, using nothing more than handmade rope ladders and long sticks known as tangos.
Jay & I dove right into this year one. Bees are a lot of work. Thank a beekeeper next time you see one:) Every week we check on the 13 hives & it usually takes a few hours. We’re looking out for: easy entrance for the bees, evidence of the queen, finding enough worker brood vs. drone brood, is that pollen, nectar or honey storage?, natural ways to care for pest control (we use cinnamon), what to do if your hive swarms. All of this is done on a pretty hot/sunny day while we wear overalls, boots, bandanas & bee suits.. it gets pretty toasty.
In October we harvest the honey & wax which is a sticky mess as you have to spin each super frame, filter the honey, render the beeswax & then clean it all.. if you think honey is sticky, wax is worse, and propolis.. forget about it. In November we winterize the hive which entails feeding them simple syrup or sugar bricks, switching out their entrance to a smaller door, making sure there’s enough ventilation, adding insulation, wrapping the hive and bringing them out of the wind. Unfortunately, in the last 2 seasons about 60% of our colonies perished. We go into December really healthy and full of honey but Chicago winters are harsh.
“Beekeeping is both an art and a science. Science is the knowledge but art is the application of all of this information” -Steve Repasky
-Water: a summer colony needs at least 1 quart of water every day & up to 1 gallon when it is very warm
-Check-ins: examine your bees on a sunny, wind free day between 65-98 degrees so as many bees are out foraging, rather than waiting for you;)
-Hives: should have winter and summer wind breaks along with great summer sun exposure facing SE. There are many different types of hives; Bee Skeps, Sun Hives, Top Bars, Mason Towers & the list goes on and on. Some of these types are very destructive to the nest in order to harvest the honey, forcing the bees to rebuild much of it every year. We have 2 different types: the Langstroth Hive & our Flow Hives. In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth invented a better beehive and changed beekeeping forever. He suffered from a nervous disorder, and became a beekeeper to ease his discomfort. The Flow Hive system was invented in Australia by Cedar Anderson and his father Stuart Anderson in 2015. Cedar felt bad about bees being crushed during the honey harvest. He was sick of being stung and having to spend a whole week harvesting the honey.
-Hexagon: The most efficient shape because there’s no wasted space, it is not less than ¼” and not more than ⅜”. The bees will fill the beeswax comb to raise brood, store honey or pollen.
-Varroa Mites: Honey bee’s worst nightmare, it attaches to the body of the bee and weakens it by sucking fat. They were discovered for the first time in the US in 1987 at a Wisconsin apiary. Mites prefer drone broods over worker broods. They are not harmful to humans or livestock.
-Smoke: the primary form of communication inside a dark hive is odor; queen-to-worker pheromones, worker-to-worker pheromones, & brood-to-worker pheromones. When you mask those odors with smoke, it causes confusion & most bees begin eating the stored honey as fast as they can in case they need to abandon the nest.
-Getting Stung: when a bee stings, the barbed stinger stays when she pulls away. Attached to this are the venom and acid sacks along with her muscles which work the sting into your skin and pumping venom into the wound. Her alarm pheromone continues to emit odor, leading new attackers right to the spot you were stung! Remove the stinger immediately at an angle and smoke the spot to cover remaining pheromone. Wash your bee suit and gloves regularly.
Inside the Hive:
The Queen: Mating Flight, she mates for only a short time but with many drones from 30 minutes to several days depending on how quickly she encounters drones and on the weather. She stores sperm in her spermatheca. As a developing egg passes through her system, sperm can be released. New queens are produced by the colony for many reasons: to replace a queen lost through injury, in preparation for swarming, or to replace a failing queen. There is 1 queen per hive and her lifespan is usually 2-5 years.
Egg: The queen lays one egg per cell. Knowing what the colony needs to survive, the worker bees have built appropriate cells for the queen. In most of the cells, she lays a FERTILIZED egg that will develop into a worker bee. In cells that are slightly larger than the worker cells, she lays UNFERTILIZED eggs that will grow into drones.
Larva: After three days, the egg hatches into a worm-like larva. The worker bees feed the larva royal jelly for the first few days, making 1,000 or more visits each day, and then switch to honey and pollen. An exception to this is a future queen: this larva continues its diet of royal jelly produced from protein-rich pollen, carbohydrate-laden honey & special enzymes they produce in their food gland. The larval stage lasts longest for the drones.
Pupa: In the pupa stage, the tiny organism hidden under the capping is starting to look like an adult bee. Its legs, eyes and wings develop and, finally, the little hairs that cover its body grow until the adult bee chews its way out of the cell & will live for approx. 50 days.
Drones: each hive has hundreds of these male bees, these bees die after mating, which is their sole purpose. They don’t work, they don’t make honey and they can’t sting. Yep, read that again! Since a queen only needs to mate once, most of the drones won’t even get the chance to fulfill their role but worker bees keep them around just in case a new queen needs mating.
Workers: each hive has thousands of these female bees, these bees die upon stinging a potential threat. They are essential as they forage for pollen and nectar, tend to queens and drones, feed larvae, ventilate the hive by “fanning”, and defend the nest.
Honey: bee food, they start making honey by visiting flowers. They collect nectar from the blossom by sucking it out with their tongues. They store it in what's called their honey stomach, which is different from their food stomach. When they have a full load, they fly back to the hive. There, they pass it on through their mouths to other chewing worker bees, passed from bee to bee, until it gradually turns into honey. The honey is still a bit wet when it’s finally stored in the comb, so they fan it with their wings to make it dry and become sticky. When it's ready, they seal the cell with a wax lid to keep it clean. It takes at least eight bees all their life to make one single tsp. Fortunately for us, they usually make more than they need.
Pollen: protein, fats/lipids, minerals, and vitamins for the bee. The protein that pollen provides is vital to brood production and the bee development.
Types of Honey Bees:
Currently there are 7 species & 44 subspecies of honey bees around the world. The Apis Mellifera (The European/Western honey bee) is the most common species around the world and it’s typically what you’ll find in the US. Researchers often cross-breed two or more different races of honey bees to develop a better bee, they hope to combine the gentle temperament of one with the productivity of another. Pure strains are hard to come by and are very expensive, which can be a blessing because in nature, the most purebred a creature is, generally means the least healthy.
We LOVE our bees and pre-order Italian Honey Bees by winter’s end for the hives that haven’t made it. Ours come in live bee packages in the spring from MannLake which contain a queen in a separate little cage, workers & a feeder filled with simple syrup. We release the bees with a hard shake into the top of the hive and set the queen's cage inside so they can smell her pheromones until it’s time to release her. That way it’s more of a guarantee the hive wont swarm. Anyone who keeps bees must register with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, 2022 was the last year we’ll keep bees in 60448. We're moving the locations of our hives moving forward, still providing you with our delicious honey.. but I'll talk about that in our next blog.
For the love:
The work of honey bees help their local ecosystems flourish. Some of my favorite bee documentaries are listed below. Watching them is easily accessible so please check some of these out:
‘Bees, Tales from the Hive’ a PBS Nova production
‘Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? by Taggart Siegel
‘Wonder of Bees’ a BBC series by Martha Kearney
and of course, the kid in me, my favorite movie of all time, DreamWorks ‘Bee Movie:)’
You can start your own apiary by purchasing a starter kit and learning everything there is to know about these fascinating creatures & see for yourself why our favorite pollinators are so valuable. Until then, here's how you can help SAVE THE BEES: don't use harmful chemicals (synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides & neonicotinoids), call for free swarm removal for any unwanted bees (800-456-2789), provide trees for bees - they get most of their nectar from them, plant bee-friendly gardens (savethebees.com/garden), put a bird bath in your backyard as it doubles as a bee water source & buy local-made honey;)