Bees and Beekeeping

Speaker: John Perry
Date: 27th April
Year: 2022

John Perry introduced himself as Vice-Chair and Education Secretary of Portsmouth and District Beekeeping Association. He delivered an interesting and fact filled talk, summarized below.

Bees – believed to have evolved from meat eating wasps which developed a taste for nectar/pollen, existed 100 – 140 million years ago, in the time of the dinosaurs. Insects were flourishing at this time even though plant life was limited to ferns, mosses, cycads and mare’s tails. Plants then evolved to produce wind blown pollen, the drawback being the large failure rate for the pollen to fall in the right place.

The nutritious pollen being rich in protein attracted insects and as it adheres to their bodies was carried to other plants to enable pollination. Small size pollen grains can be windblown. Plants rapidly evolved to recognize that brightly coloured or patterned flowers attracted insects. Night flying insects are attracted by scent.

Nectar developed because of competition between plants to attract insects. It is found at the base of flowers, the other produces pollen. As the insect head dips forward to get at the nectar, it collects pollen which it then spreads to other plants. With self-fertile trees, flowers fertilize other flowers on the same tree.

Bees need a strategy to cope in winter:

  1. Solitary bees; work hard in summer gathering nectar/pollen mixture which they make into little parcels containing one egg. The egg survives the winter emerging in the spring.  The bee has died.
  2. Bumble bees; (six common species) are the first to come out in the spring. There are 200/300 bees in the nest. At the end of summer queen bees and drones are produced. The fertilized queens fly up and look for somewhere to hibernate. The rest die. The queens look for a well insulated nest (bird’s nest/mouse hole or under a shed)
  3. Honey bees; work hard all summer collecting nectar and pollen to store for winter. They survive the cold of winter by gathering in large colonies. The majority will survive. They have combs on their legs to collect the nectar and pollen. They have five eyes, two compound and three single on top of their heads.
  4. Worker bees; survive all through the year, 10/15,000 in winter and 40/60,000 in summer in the hive, they live 6 weeks in summer as summer bees and six months in winter as winter bees. They produce enzymes which convert nectar into honey and pollen and nectar into feed for larvae.
  5. Drone bees; 300/400 per hive, they live for six weeks for mating purposes only. They have large eyes, no sting and are ejected from the hive in autumn to starve.

The Hive – there are three castes of bees in the hive, the Queen, workers and drones.

In Summer:

  1. The Queen is the only fully functioning female, she lives three to five years and lays up to 2000 eggs per day in cells. She produces pheromones to maintain hive stability and is marked with a dot by the beekeeper. When the larvae reach full size the cells are capped over with wax
  2. Workers are suppressed females
  3. Drones only live in summer

If the queen gets too old or cannot lay fast enough, other bees get rid of her. Newly hatched bees are very hairy but lose the hair as they get older.

Beekeeping – In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth invented a better beehive and changed beekeeping forever. He deduced the concept of bee space, minimum space for ease of beekeeping. Most beekeepers were clergy, the main reason was the beeswax, used for making candles.

When the bees can no longer smell the pheromones in the old queen, who is confined to the bottom tray in the hive, several groups of bees set about making new queens. If this is not managed, a group may make a swarm.

Swarm collecting – Swarms may be collected in a skep (woven basket open at one end) or cardboard box. Place the skep on a sheet on the ground and provided the queen is there, other bees will gather round her to keep her warm and call other bees in. Then wrap the sheet around the skep into a ball and transfer to the new hive. Make sure there is a ramp upwards for the bees to crawl up into the hive.

Honey – Saturated sugar solution which crystallises and becomes cloudy in time.

Wax – Collected by melting over hot water so debris floats to the surface and can be removed.

Bee sting – Loosely attached to the bee so the sting sticks in the victim.


Thanks to Michele West for taking notes

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