It’s December, eight degrees C and the bees are very busy – quite a loud hum out there. The ivy is still flowering and there is the usual horrible smell if you stand anywhere near it so we have to assume the bees are still working it. And they have the car windscreen well spattered with bee dung – fortunately I didn’t have any washing out but then who does in December?
Mating nucs, or ‘mini nucs’ are a great way of getting a new queen laying using the minimum of resources. Should she fail, little is lost but if she does get laying – a spare queen is a great thing to have!
Apideas are far and away the best mating nuc on the market – they cost a little more but are worth every penny for the elegance of the design and the quality of the product.
This is how to assemble a frame properly but don’t do this too early or your wax will go off:
Remove the wedge cleanly or it won’t sit properly when you put the wax in. It doesn’t matter too much with wired wax, but if you’re using unwired wax the wedge won’t grip it properly. If necessary shave the area clean with a nice sharp chisel.Continue reading Frame Assembly – Good→
Rather a murky late winter’s day, 8 degrees C and misty with it. Despite that, the bees were flying quite strongly at around noon when I took this photo.
This is Mahonia, a very tough flowering shrub which the bees love. Some Mahonias are scented but this one isn’t – I think its full name is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Mahonias like this one come from North America originally but are now well established in parks and gardens everywhere – which is good for the bees. It is sometimes known as Oregon grape as the fruits look like grapes, being dark blue with an attractive bloom like sloes, or grapes – not edible though I think.
The bees don’t get a crop from it – obviously – but it really seems to cheer them up in the winter. It cheers me up too. It flowers from mid-November though to mid-January and whenever the temperature climbs sufficiently they will venture out and forage for a little fresh pollen or nectar.
Mahonias need to be cut back regularly in the spring after flowering to keep them from getting too leggy. You can be quite savage with them as they are very tough but aim to take about 25-30% of the stems down per year. The bits you cut off can be stuck in the ground and about 30% of them will root.
Propolis is a word with Greek roots. Pro means before and polis means city. The reason propolis is called propolis is that the bees will use it to narrow the entrances to their cities (hives). The bees also use propolis to waterproof their hives from the inside or to glue down anything that is loose.
While they do tend to rely on the sticky exudations of plants they can and will bring home anything sticky such as wet paint, tar or even bubblegum. Fortunately, though they tend to prefer the natural gums that coat the buds of some trees for example the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) or poplars (Populus spp). If you want to know what propolis smells like – stand beneath some poplars in March or April on a sunny day and that wonderful resinous smell is propoplis. If it is a warm day listen carefully and you may hear the bees at work.
They will also gather the resins that ooze from softwoods. Amber is a fossilised resin and samples have been found with bees trapped inside. Those ancient must have gone out one sunny day millions of years ago to get some propolis and got stuck there they are for us to marvel at today. A neighbour of mine once cut down a line of cypress trees in the middle of summer – the stumps continued to ooze sap and that year my hives were absolutely gummed to the gills with it.
Bees gathering propolis are bees on a mission – they have detected a draught or something loose and they head out for something to fix that with. When they find something sticky – and they’re not over fussy – they pack it into their pollen baskets (corbiculae) and head for home.
Depending on what they are up to they will either mix it with beeswax or use it neat.
In its pure form it is a reddish gum with a wonderful resinous aroma. In the summer it has a gluey consistency and it is a nuisance to beekeepers and bee breeders – in this part of the world anyway – will select against propolis gathering.
In winter when it is cold, propolis is quite brittle and is easily chipped or scraped off hive parts. If you want to harvest some nice pure propolis, spread a sheet of gauze across the top bars of the hive under the crown board, when the bees have it packed with propolis, peel it off, fold it up and put it in the freezer. Next day remove the gauze from the freezer and crumple it up over a sheet of newspaper – all the little squares of propolis will fall out onto it.
Apart from its stickiness, propolis has other properties. It is an anaesthetic which used to be used by dentists and it has antibacterial and antifungal activity so when they line the hive with it they are applying a protective shield around it – it even hinders the beekeeper.
If you want to test the anaesthetic properties – chew a small piece and you will feel a numbness in the lining of your mouth. Don’t try too big a piece or you may find your teeth all glued together.
Beeswax has been described as the most recalcitrant substance known to man which means it makes great, long lasting polish but is not so great to splash it on your clothes.
Beeswax is produced by the bees from wax glands on the undersides of the abdomen;
Bees will only produce wax when there is a nectar flow;
To produce wax the bees cling together in clumps and consume a lot of honey to bring up the temperature, then wax is extruded in little white lens shaped scales that can sometimes be discovered amongst the debris on the hive floor;
Approximately 4lbs of honey is consumed to produce 1lb of wax.
Beeswax begins to melt at 64 degrees centigrade;
Beeswax begins to discolour at temperatures above 85 degrees centigrade;
Beeswax will spontaneously combust if it is heated to above 200 degrees centigrade;
The natural colour of beeswax is yellow – all shades of yellow depending on forage but if it is brownish or olive it has been overheated. If it is pure white it has been bleached.
If you haven’t already done so – read Ted Hooper’s book this winter: Guide to Bees and Honey. It’s the first and the finest bee book I ever read. I sat down in the conservatory one winter’s day and read it from cover to cover like a novel. By the time I had it finished I was hooked and come spring I had bees – swarmy bees from Old Tom. That was 12 years ago now and Poor Tom is long gone – only his swarmy bees live on in the trees and woods hereabouts and of course in my apiary.
But back to Hooper. Well illustrated chapters cover everything the beeginner needs to know about bees and beekeeping including biology and life cycle, hives and equipment, forage, honey harvest and lets never forget pests and diseases. As a reference book it will always be there to guide you through seasonal management including swarm control and queen rearing.
Nectar is the raw material for honey and is what the bees collect from flowers. It consists mainly of an aqueous solution of sugars, nitrogen compounds, minerals, organic acids, vitamins and aromatic substances. Sugars and water make up the bulk, with 1% or 2% containing the remaining ingredients.
The three main sugars present in nectars are:
Nectars from different flower species vary both in the concentrations of total sugars, which may be anywhere in the range of 5-80%, and in the proportions of the different sugars present. The total sugar content of a nectar can be analysed and the amounts, types and proportions of the different sugars present can be quantified; together they are known as the sugar spectrum of a nectar. Plant species and sometimes plant families can be characterised by their sugar spectra. Honeybees are quite fussy about the nectars they will gather and it is thought that they are not only influenced by the concentration of total sugar, but are also interested in aspects of the sugar spectrum of a nectar. It is thought that they prefer a mixture of sugars rather than a single type.
Nitrogen compounds including: amino acids e.g. proline, glutamic acid and lysine; proteins (including some enzymes and hormones of plant origin) and amides.
Minerals include: potassium, sulphur, calcium, chlorine and iron.
Honey tends to be slightly acidic. Organic acids include: acetic, butyric, gluconic, malic, succinic.
Vitamins include: thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, nicotinic acid, pantothenic acid, folic acid, biotin, meso-inositol and ascorbic acid or ‘vitamin C’.
Nectar also contains some pollen and more is added and ingested by the bees who are of course covered in the stuff. There may also be spores and microorganisms some of which are harmless and some of which are not.
Some nectars also contain substances that stop pollen from germinating and may also contain things that are harmful to bees or humans or both.
Nectar to Honey
J.W.White in The Hive and the HoneyBee says “to know the composition of nectar we need only to examine the contents of honey the only difference being the water content and the inversion of sucrose” if so, the converse must also apply and honey contains what nectar contains but without the water.
Honey is what bees make from nectar to store in honeycomb for use as food. Before it can be stored, the water content must be reduced to 20% or less to prevent fermentation. However, dehydration is not the only process involved in the production of honey. In addition the bees make chemical changes via the use of several interesting enzymes and here things get complicated…