When we inherited an empty beehive and my husband Jeremy seized on the idea of making our own honey, I felt we were under prepared. I knew bees made honey and sting people, but beyond that I’d never considered them further. I’d previously sniggered when reading about some school children who’d thought honey came from ‘milking’ bees; now I realised I had no idea how honey DOES come from bees. (FYI, in case you’re as clueless as I was, bees regurgitate nectar into honeycomb cells, which they then fan with their wings to remove excess moisture. The final result is honey.) And where do you put a hive full of bees? Wasn’t it a significant commitment that carried responsibilities (to the bees) and dangers (to the keepers – thinking of that bit in ‘My Girl’)? Surely we were too young to do this by a generation?
From here on in, bees were on my radar. Having never noticed any beehives (I’d assumed they’d be stowed well away from human habitation given their lethal occupants), I realised we are surrounded. Social media seemed suddenly packed with advice on what to do should you find a tired bee (a tea-spoonful of sugar water will pep her up), and the importance of bees in the ecosystem (incredibly, every 3rd mouthful of food is produced thanks to bees pollinating and fertilising crops: without their pollination powers, we’d struggle to feed the world).
The more I learned, the more incredible bees and honey became. Jeremy started attending weekly bee school. He learned that our strategy of leaving the hive under a tree and crossing our fingers, hoping that a colony would just ‘fall into it’, wasn’t a good one. Apparently bees, and consequently hives, have different personalities – busy, aggressive or chilled-out – depending on where they come from, gene-wise. It’s advisable for beekeepers to invest time in deciding what kind of colony suits them best. Given our novice status, we decided to look for chilled-out, hippy-style bees, who’d hopefully be tolerant of interruptions and cack-handed hive manipulations.
And happily we found them! After this year’s wet spring, there was a surplus of queens (bees can’t fly in rain and when they are stuck inside they get restless so start making new queens), and we re-housed one. Our little colony is very zen and we can visit them en famille: my five year old (on his best behaviour) takes responsibility for smoking the hive to keep the bees chilled, while my husband checks the frames inside the hive for signs of illness and indications of too much / little work being done before administers any necessary remedies. Good bee husbandry demands that a hive should have enough honey to maintain itself through the winter months, and so we haven’t harvested any yet. We did sneak a taste though and honestly, to my totally inexperienced taste buds, it tasted just like honey you get in the supermarket. I’ll admit I was disappointed for a moment (I thought honey straight from the hive would be life-changing-amazing), but because it’s packed with its own preservatives, it doesn’t need to be processed or modified to make it edible (apart from extracting it from the hive, obviously). So it’s not surprising our honey tastes like other honey – the only thing that changes its flavour is the flowers the bees visit. My disappointment didn’t last long either: now I know how honey comes from bees, it tastes a million times better than it ever did.
So far, beekeeping has demanded little to no effort from us beyond borrowing a bit of a neighbour’s field and investing in the cool suits. I’m proud to say that none of us have been stung, so there have been no fatalities in our colony due to us. These days a pot of honey is no longer a mundane larder essential; now it’s a little monument to one of the most remarkable processes I’ve spent 38 years being totally ignorant of.
- There is 1 queen per hive, who’ll lay around 1500-2500 eggs a day during busy season (spring)
- All worker bees are female. Initially they are House Bees, responsible for cleaning, feeding baby bees, looking after the queen’s every need, packing pollen and nectar into cells, building and repairing honeycomb and fanning to cool the hive, as well as general hive protection. They grow up into Field Bees, responsible for nectar, pollen and water collecting, as well as gathering propolis, a sticky substance for waterproofing the hive.
- If a worker bee stings you, she’ll die.
- Drone bees (the males, who’s only purpose is to pass on their genes – they do nothing else) don’t have stingers.
- There are between 20,000 and 50,000 bees in a hive.
- Bees live 4-6 weeks during spring (busy time) and around 3 months in winter (quiet time)
- Worker bees have to gather nectar from two million flowers to make 500g of honey.
- She has to fly about 90,000miles (three times around the globe) to make 500g of honey.
- She’ll make only about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
- She’ll visit 50-100 flowers during a collection trip.
- She can fly for up to 6 miles at a time, at a speed of 15mph. Her wings beat 200 times per second.
- A single beehive can make more than 45kgs of extra honey (extra honey is what the beekeeper can take without risking his/her hive’s wellbeing).
- Bees are the only insect in the world that make food humans can eat.
- They have been producing honey in the same way for 150 million years.
- They produce 5 substances used by humans: honey, beeswax, propolis, pollen and royal jelly.
- Pots of honey found in the pyramids were still good to eat.
Any factual errors about bees, beekeeping and/or hives are entirely mine, thank you to matteroftrust.org for their 20 Amazing Honey Bee Facts.
This summer, and every summer, you’ll find Natalie and her husband Jeremy running the show at Frog’s Rafting.