Bees have been flying around for something like 30 million years. Through evolutionary development they have become one of the most finely tuned and organised insects on the planet. Exquisitely adapted to their environment and perfectly in tune with their surroundings. The end product of all their labour and one that mankind has utilised for thousands of years is of course honey.
A third of the food on your plate relies on bee pollination, from vegetables such as carrots and cucumbers, to the grains used to feed the animals we eat.
But the changing weather in the UK, alongside increased land use, imported pests and the chemicals used in farming have decimated the population of British honey bees and all is not well in the bee world. A century ago, there were one million hives in the UK. Today, there are fewer than 300,000 and wild honey bees have almost disappeared from the UK.
Adding to this decline is a recent Europe-wide suspension on a ban on using certain pesticides which has been lifted following pressure from farming groups. The ban was an essential element in the protection of pollinating insects. But now two neonicotinoid pesticides can be used for up to 120 days on about 5% of England’s oil seed rape crop.
Opponents called the decision “scandalous” and have criticised the government’s secrecy surrounding the lifting of the ban that prime minister David Cameron has defended. Ever more scientific evidence shows just how dangerous these chemicals are to bees and other pollinators and over 500,000 people have since signed a petition to keep the ban in place.
The EU neonicotinoid ban originally began in December 2013, after the European Food Safety Authority judged them to pose an unacceptable – and in some cases acute – risk to bees. Further scientific research has linked the pesticides to huge losses in the number of queen bees produced and has shown big rises in “disappeared” bees – those that fail to return from feeding trips.
So only time will tell if the ban is re-introduced and British beekeeper’s can continue to promote the successful development of bees around the country.
The importance of bees and their impact on the environment continues to be demonstrated by larger scale commercial beekeeping operations around the country but equally there are hundreds more smaller beekeeping practices in place where keepers tend to hives and ensure that their bees have access to ample supplies of pollen and nectar that are the essential ingredient in honey production.
Beekeeper Dave Whyman tends to a couple of small apiaries on the North Yorkshire – Cleveland border. The excess honey that his bees produce is collected and processed before being sold to local shops and as his reputation for natural top quality honey builds so does demand for this most amazing of products.
Modern hives enable beekeepers to manage their bees more effectively. It also allows them to transport their bees between different locations. This ensures that the bees have access to heather, crops and flowers as they need pollinating and which in turn ensures a healthy flow into the hives and ultimately helps with the production of quality honey.
But before we get into that…here’s some cool stuff about bees you might not know:
Each colony of honey bees is essentially a superorganism. All the bees have to work together for the colony to survive as no one bee can survive by itself.
Bees are highly adapted to the environment in which they live. They are the only insect in the world that makes food that people can eat. The honey they produce contains ALL the substances that are needed to sustain life such as enzymes, water, minerals and vitamins. It also contains pinocembrin, an antioxidant that improves brain function and has natural preservatives so that it doesn’t go bad.
During its short life one bee will only produce 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey. Its wings beat 190 times a second (11,400 times each minute). It will take around 1,100 bees to make 1kg of honey and to do this they would need to visit 4 million flowers. They have 2 stomachs. One for nectar and one for food. They can fly up to 6 miles and can reach a speed of 15 mph. Each hive has its own distinctive smell which the bees use to find the correct one when they return with pollen.
They communicate by using smells or pheromones and also by dancing! But more on this later. The bee sees in ultraviolet and polarised light and their brains only contain 900 cells and yet it has such a finely tuned internal clock that it can keep track of the sun, even inside the dark hive, and they use a highly complex solar compass to navigate.
At the peak of summer each hive has one Queen – seen below she is the largest bee to the left of the picture. This queen, who can live up to 6 years, is basically the brains of the operation and ensures everything gets done and has the responsibility of ensuring that the hive is re-stocked with eggs – she will lay around 1,500 eggs each day – that keeps the hive flourishing. The queen also brings stability to the hive and helps to keep the bees calm by releasing pheromones so they don’t swarm.
Alongside her there are approximately 3,000 drones that are male and 50-60,000 female worker bees.
These male bees – the drones – are basically there to mate with a fertile queen (although after mating they die as their reproductive organs are torn away as they separate from the queen! That’s gotta hurt!). They are the product of an unfertilised egg. They don’t do any work within the hive although they may help incubate the brood and they don’t have the ability to sting. At the end of the season the drones will either die off or are ejected from the hive by the worker bees.
The worker bees are all female. These are the ones that fly out to bring back the pollen and nectar to the hive. They also protect the hive and attack when they feel threatened. However after they sting they die. They also carry out nursing and hive construction. They remove the bodies of dead bees and carry them away from the hive. They nurse younger worker bees and can check on a single larva up to 1,300 times a day. Worker bees also take a turn at controlling the temperature and humidity of the hive by fanning it with their wings. They live for around 6 weeks.
The dance of the honeybee:
When the female worker bees fly off and find pollen or nectar they will return to the hive to report on the quality and location of this new source of food to the surrounding bees by performing a dance. On the honeycomb inside the hive it ‘wiggles’ its body and dances in a figure of 8 shape. It is thought the release of pheromones also takes place which provides further information to the bees.
The direction of the dance or ‘wiggle’ indicates to the other bees the direction, from the hive and relative to the sun’s position, the direction of the food source. It also takes into account the sun’s changing position in the sky – using that internal clock I mentioned – and compensates for this as it performs the dance.
The duration of the ‘wiggle’ and the number of vibrations indicates how far from the hive they need to fly to find it. After determining the shortest route to minimise flying time it will then store just enough honey from the food supply in the hive to find it before individually each bee then leaves the hive and searches for the food supply alone.
Studies have shown that the bee, with a brain that is smaller than a sesame seed and with only those 900 cells calculates the most efficient route faster than computers.
In these pictures I followed Dave (helped later by his son Leigh) as he tends to his hives before moving some of them to another location on the North Yorkshire Moors so that his bees can take advantage of the heather that is now flowering on the moor. The journey is a delicate one as the bees need to be secured and transported to the new location carefully to avoid damaging them or causing them undue stress or agitation. Once arriving at the new location the hives are unstrapped and the bees are then able to re-orientate themselves to the new surroundings and the process of finding and reporting on new sources of food, as described earlier, begins once again and ultimately a new batch of honey is produced.
The ‘Smoker’ is lit – the smoker allows the keeper to work on the hives with the minimum of disruption. The short blast of smoke reminds the bees of their greatest natural threat, fire, and the temporary smoke causes them to duck back inside their hive to stock up on food before they would normally abandon their hive. Secondly it interferes with their chemical communication system by affecting the pheromones they use to communicate.
The lids of the hives are removed and each wooden frame that contains the honeycomb is checked for unwanted queen larvae and to see how much food the bees have and how much is being produced. On the evening before the move to the new location and after the bees stop flying the hives are strapped. This prevents the lids coming off as they are transported and also keeps the bees within the hive until they are set up at the new site.
The bees arrive at the new location on the North Yorkshire Moors. The location has been chosen because it is in a sheltered spot that will help to prevent damage from the elements and which is close to the heather on the moors that produces excellent quality honey.
Once the hives are in location and have been unstrapped the foam inserts that are used to block the hive entrances are removed. This then allows the bees to fly out of the hive, orientate themselves to the new location and once again start the process of finding and retrieving the pollen and nectar.
When the honey is ready to be harvested the honeycomb frames are removed and then transported back home where they are then scraped to remove the wax cap that bees make to seal off honey in each cell of the honeycomb. This process is called un-capping.
Once the caps are removed the frames are then placed in an extractor and spun. The centrifugal force generated then forces the liquid honey out of the comb allowing gravity to pull it to the bottom where it can then be collected into buckets.
After the honey is extracted from the combs it is poured into a ‘Melitherm’ strainer where it is heated and then strained to remove any remaining pieces of wax or other particles. This results in a clearer honey that is ready for bottling or jarring up.
Many beekeepers and bottlers heat the honey this way to make it easier to strain, but this does nothing to alter the liquid’s natural composition. It only makes the straining process easier and more effective.
Even the caps that are removed from the honeycomb at the start of this process aren’t wasted. They are sent off to a firm that turns them into beeswax candles.
After straining it’s time to bottle, label and distribute the honey to retail outlets. Supplied is glass jars to grocery shops, farmers markets or in this case a health food shop in Saltburn and you can rest assured that nothing was added during the process of making it – from flower to bee to hive to bottle.
‘LOCAL HONEY’ is produced by Dave Whyman and can be ordered by giving Dave a call on 07890 537156
For more information on beekeeping take a look at the British Beekeepers Association
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Images copyright Ian Forsyth 2015. All rights reserved.
No usage without arrangement.