Jun 10 2011
A Beekeeping Primer
What’s All the Buzz About?
A beekeeping primer: urban or backyard beekeeping
Urban beekeeping is an attempt to revert to a less industrialized way of obtaining honey by utilizing small-scale colonies that pollinate urban gardens. Urban apiculture has undergone a renaissance in the 2000s. Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo and Washington, D.C., are among beekeeping cities. Until 2010, beekeeping was banned in New York City and punishable with a $2,000 fine. Urban beekeeping is commonly practiced in areas that have a pesticide ban. This includes Paris, as well as 156 municipalities in Canada and 3 of 10 Canadian provinces. Beekeeping was illegal in Vancouver until 2003, for example, but by 2010 there were bees on the roof of Vancouver City Hall.
A colony of bees consists of three castes of bee:
a Queen bee, which is normally the only breeding female in the colony;
a large number of female worker bees, typically 30,000–50,000 in number;
a number of male drones, ranging from thousands in a strong hive in spring to very few during dearth or cold season.
The queen is the only sexually mature female in the hive and all of the female worker bees and male drones are her offspring. The queen may live for up to three years or more and may be capable of laying half a million eggs or more in her lifetime. At the peak of the breeding season, late spring to summer, a good queen may be capable of laying 3,000 eggs in one day, more than her own body weight. This would be exceptional however; a prolific queen might peak at 2,000 eggs a day, but a more average queen might lay just 1,500 eggs per day. The queen is raised from a normal worker egg, but is fed a larger amount of royal jelly than a normal worker bee, resulting in a radically different growth and metamorphosis. The queen influences the colony by the production and dissemination of a variety of pheromones or “queen substances”. One of these chemicals suppresses the development of ovaries in all the female worker bees in the hive and prevents them from laying eggs.
Mating of queens
The queen emerges from her cell after 15 days of development and she remains in the hive for 3–7 days before venturing out on a mating flight. Mating flight is otherwise known as ‘nuptial flight’. Her first orientation flight may only last a few seconds, just enough to mark the position of the hive. Subsequent mating flights may last from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, and she may mate with a number of male drones on each flight. Over several matings, possibly a dozen or more, the queen will receive and store enough sperm from a succession of drones to fertilize hundreds of thousands of eggs. If she does not manage to leave the hive to mate — possibly due to bad weather or being trapped within part of the hive — she will remain infertile and become a ‘drone layer’, incapable of producing female worker bees, and the hive is doomed.
Mating takes place at some distance from the hive and often several hundred feet up in the air; it is thought that this separates the strongest drones from the weaker ones – ensuring that only the fastest and strongest drones get to pass on their genes.
Female worker bees
Almost all the bees in a hive are female worker bees. At the height of summer when activity in the hive is frantic and work goes on non-stop, the life of a worker bee may be as short as 6 weeks; in late autumn, when no brood is being raised and no nectar is being harvested, a young bee may live for 16 weeks, right through the winter. During its life a worker bee performs different work functions in the hive which are largely dictated by the age of the bee.
Cleaning cells and incubation
Feeding older larvae
Feeding younger larvae
Receiving honey and pollen from field bees
Wax making and cell building
Day 14 onwards
Entrance guards; nectar and pollen foraging
Male bees (drones)
Drones are the largest bees in the hive (except for the queen), at almost twice the size of a worker bee. They do no work, do not forage for pollen or nectar and are only produced in order to mate with new queens and fertilize them on their mating flights. A bee colony will generally start to raise drones a few weeks before building queen cells in order to supersede a failing queen or in preparation for swarming. When queen raising for the season is over, the bees in colder climates will drive the drones out of the hive to die, biting and tearing at their legs and wings.
Structure of a bee colony
A domesticated bee colony is normally housed in a rectangular hive body, within which eight to ten parallel frames house the vertical plates of honeycomb which contain the eggs, larvae, pupae and food for the colony. If one were to cut a vertical cross-section through the hive from side to side, the brood nest would appear as a roughly ovoid ball spanning 5-8 frames of comb. The two outside combs at each side of the hive tend to be exclusively used for long-term storage of honey and pollen.
Within the central brood nest, a single frame of comb will typically have a central disk of eggs, larvae and sealed brood cells which may extend almost to the edges of the frame. Immediately above the brood patch an arch of pollen-filled cells extends from side to side, and above that again a broader arch of honey-filled cells extends to the frame tops. The pollen is protein-rich food for developing larvae, while honey is also food but largely energy rich rather than protein rich. The nurse bees which care for the developing brood secrete a special food called ‘royal jelly’ after feeding themselves on honey and pollen. The amount of royal jelly which is fed to a larva determines whether it will develop into a worker bee or a queen.
Apart from the honey stored within the central brood frames, the bees store surplus honey in combs above the brood nest. In modern hives the beekeeper places separate boxes, called ‘supers’, above the brood box, in which a series of shallower combs is provided for storage of honey. This enables the beekeeper to remove some of the supers in the late summer, and to extract the surplus honey harvest, without damaging the colony of bees and its brood nest below. If all the honey is ‘stolen’, including the amount of honey needed to survive winter, the beekeeper must replace these stores by feeding the bees sugar or corn syrup in autumn.
Annual cycle of a bee colony
The development of a bee colony follows an annual cycle of growth which begins in spring with a rapid expansion of the brood nest, as soon as pollen is available for feeding larvae. Some production of brood may begin as early as January, even in a cold winter, but breeding accelerates towards a peak in May (in the northern hemisphere), producing an abundance of harvesting bees synchronized to the main ‘nectar flow’ in that region. Each race of bees times this build-up slightly differently, depending on how the flora of its original region blooms. Some regions of Europe have two nectar flows: one in late spring and another in late August. Other regions have only a single nectar flow. The skill of the beekeeper lies in predicting when the nectar flow will occur in his area and in trying to ensure that his colonies achieve a maximum population of harvesters at exactly the right time.
The key factor in this is the prevention, or skillful management of the swarming impulse. If a colony swarms unexpectedly and the beekeeper does not manage to capture the resulting swarm, he is likely to harvest significantly less honey from that hive, since he will have lost half his worker bees at a single stroke. If, however, he can use the swarming impulse to breed a new queen but keep all the bees in the colony together, he will maximize his chances of a good harvest. It takes many years of learning and experience to be able to manage all these aspects successfully, though owing to variable circumstances many beginners will often achieve a good honey harvest (Wikipedia 2011).
If you have more questions regarding the keeping of bees, you may contact Thomas Horn at The Kennedy School of Sustainability: