Virgil and the Bees

Ancient BeesVirgilFirst find a site and base for your bees…Principio sedes apibus statioque petenda…

Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC) is generally regarded as the greatest Latin poet of the classical period.

One of his three famous poems is “The Georgics” (published 29 BC) which take the form of an agricultural treatise in verse, in four books.  However, it is really a hymn to nature and farming, celebrating the beauty of the Italian countryside, and praising the traditional Roman values of rural piety, simplicity, hard work, and hardiness.

The first three books of the Georgics deal each in turn with:-

(1) Land and Crops

(2) Trees and Vines

(3) Farm Livestock.

(4) This last, Book (4), is devoted to bees.

So Virgil’s choice of final topic shows that he regarded beekeeping as a vital part of agriculture.  It also indicates that he had studied the subject before he wrote about it.

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Two Castes & the cast-out Honeybees of a Colony

There are two castes of female honeybee and one male honeybee, although not all three are present all the time:

The three different Honeybees

The three different Honeybees

The two castes of female Honeybee are:

  • The Queen (1): She is the only completely sexually developed female in the colony and her primary role is to lay eggs. She also emits a pheromone called “queen substance” which is the essential social glue within the colony. The “Court” bees lick the pheromone from the Queen Bee & this is passed around the colony as a signal that the colony still has a vital queen.
  • Workers (30-80,000) to nurse/feed young, draw out comb, build stores, forage for nectar/pollen/propolis/water. They live for 6 weeks in summer and literally work themselves to death. However, in their winter state they can survive up to 6 months. In summer, in a stable colony, the worker bees spend 21 days as “house bee”, working exclusively in the hive and 21 days as forager.

And the male honeybees are:

  • Drones (300 – 2,000). The only purpose of drones in the colony is to mate with a new queen “on the wing”. The rest of the time they lounge about the hive & are fed by the worker bees. However they serve the ultimate penance for their chosen lifestyle when the worker bees evict them from the hive in early Autumn, to preserve winter stores.

Stages in the Life Cycle of a Honeybee

Lifecycles for the Three Different Honeybees

Lifecycles for the Three Different Honeybees

Wax Production & Comb Building

Wax GlandsFrom about 12 days old honey bees can produce wax in 4 pairs of glands on the underside of their abdomen. Each gland secretes soft wax which is poured into a pocket beneath the gland where it solidifies. The discs of wax are then removed from the pocket and passed to the mouth where it is manipulated by the mandibles to form it into comb.

New Honey Comb Cells

New Honey Comb Cells

The combs hang vertically and are double sided. They are made up of hexagonal cells. The cell bases on opposite sides are offset so that the point of contact of three cells on one side is in the centre of the one on the other. Cell sizes can vary to accommodate drone or worker brood.
A gap of 9 mm is the usual space the bees will leave between adjacent areas of capped brood this allows two layers of bees to work back to back. In the part of the comb where honey is stored, the cells are extended so that the space is only sufficient for one layer of bees to work in it easily.
Workers will hang in tight chains forming clusters in order to maintain the temperature at 35°C, the optimum temperature for manipulating the wax. A good nectar flow is required for wax production and comb building, it takes 10 times more energy to produce wax than honey.

Natural Wax Comb

Natural Wax Comb

Importance of Pollination by Honeybees

Honeybee Collecting Pollen

Honeybee Collecting Pollen

Pollination refers to the transfer of pollen from flower to flower which certain plants rely on to reproduce. Some crops such as corn are wind-pollinated but, an estimated one third of the food humans consume relies on pollinating insects These foods include top fruits, berries and many vegetable crops.

Pollen Covered Bee

As Honeybees Pollinate They Attract Pollen Granules on Their Body

Pollen at the Hive Entrance

Honeybees Groom Themselves & Push the Pollen on Their Bodies into Pollen Baskets on Their Rear Legs

Plant growth and reproduction has several limiting factors such as water and nutrient availability, but pollination also plays a vital role. Pollination can limit the quality, quantity or even entirely deny a crop yield. For instance a poorly pollinated watermelon will not become sweet, and pollination failure in apples will cause blossoms and un-ripened fruits to drop and any fruits reaching maturity will be smaller, misshapen and contain fewer seeds. Some vegetables such as brassicas may produce a crop but, without pollination, would be unable to produce fertile seeds for the next generation. Pollinating insects are also responsible for cotton yields, and anyone who remembers the nylon era will fully comprehend the desirability of this crop.
Other food production is indirectly affected by insect pollination. Cattle rely on high protein crops such as alfalfa, clover and legumes for about a third of their diet. Wind pollinated crops such as grasses do not contain sufficient protein to sustain healthy productive herds. Therefore our beef and dairy production is greatly influenced.
Although not the only pollinating insect, bees are responsible for pollinating up to 80% of flowering crops. The honey bee is available for pollination duties in great numbers early in the season unlike other insects which do not overwinter in bulk. Honeybees are estimated to contribute £165 million to the UK economy through pollination alone each year (ADAS report for DEFRA 2001). This equates to a generous £600 donation per hive.

Pollen is Collected by Honeybees to Feed Their Young

Pollen is Collected by Honeybees to Feed Their Young

Most flowering plants would not survive without pollinating insects and even a decline in numbers would greatly affect crop yields, hitting farmer’s profits and consequently market prices.
What makes honey bees good pollinators is that they are systematic and will focus upon a single crop/plant variety and if good quantity and quality recruit more foragers to that nectar source.

Common Sources of Pollen & Nectar in Surrey

3.6 able to name the main local flora from which honeybees gather pollen and nectar.

Surrey bees have a wide variety of plants from which to gather nectar and pollen, found in a variety of places such as gardens, hedgerows and farms. The following table shows the main plants they use, the months they are available and what they offer to the bees.

Natural Sources of Pollen & Nectar in Surrey

Natural Sources of Pollen & Nectar in Surrey

Collecting Pollen, Water & Propolis

Pollen is the main source of food for the developing brood. It is the source of protein, vitamins and trace elements which is stored around the brood.
Expansion of the colony depends upon the availability of an adequate supply of nectar, but possibly even more so on the availability of pollen.
A rapid spring expansion of the colony requires a continuous supply of early spring pollen, without it bees cannot rear brood. So it is a very welcomed sight to the beekeeper to see bees bringing in this colourful ingredient.
Pollen is collected by the pollen foragers. Particles attach themselves to the bee, which it scrapes together into “pollen baskets” on the back legs. The colour can vary from a bright orange to yellow according to the flower (there are also reds, greens, greys & blues). A bye-product of this process is the pollination of crops and fruit trees etc.

Water is needed to dilute honey so that it can be used in the colony, but the cells are not capped until the water content is less than 20%, otherwise the honey ferments in the comb.
Water is also used to cool the hive in very high temperatures. Tiny droplets are fan around the hive by the bees.
Water is also used to maintain the humidity within the hive at 40-50%.
70% of initial worker brood food is water.

Propolis is a hard resinous substance that bees use to “glue” the hive together i.e. small holes, joints and gaps etc. Bees also use it to varnish and so sanitize & strengthen the wax comb. This “glue” is obtained by the bees from flower buds in the same manner as when the bee collects pollen. It is also believed to have healing properties as consequently is used in alternative medicines. Propolis uses in the hive:

  • Fills holes and gaps
  • Strengthen base of comb where it attaches to hive frames
  • Mummify dead creatures too big to be removed from hive
  • Polish cells before queen lays in them… it is antiseptic

What is Swarming?

Swarming is the natural manifestation of a colony having reached the summit of affluence, it is also the bees natural form of reproduction. Overcrowding and congestion in the nest are factors which predispose colonies to swarm.

Swarming 3When a colony prepares to swarm, it has reached a stage in its development where a division of one colony into two is possible. In a swarm, the old queen and up to half of the colonies inhabitants leave their home together and go in search of new quarters. They leave their old home well provisioned and ready for the emergence of a new virgin queen who at the point of swarming will still be developing in her cell.

This normally happens in late Spring / early Summer and it’s possible for hives to swarm several times a year.

Scout bees are the workers who search out the best place to successfully relocate the colony. They take into account various factors such as location, draughts, accessibility and size. Often they have to find a temporary place to stay. Swarm 2This could be in the branches of a tree and within arm‟s reach if you are lucky!

Signs of swarming include seeing lots of bees clinging to the outside of the hive either hanging from the bottom in a conical fashion or covering the front in a scattered fashion, facing downwards and appearing to be overly active.

Bees normally swarm in the morning. They depart the hive at a great rate of knots and follow the scout bees towards their new or, temporary location. Some of the workers followed by the queen will land and over a 7 or 8 minute period the rest will follow.

During swarming bees will not normally exhibit defensive behaviour as they have neither young or food stores.

Swarm 1

Sometimes a swarm can come to rest in the most bizarre places

The Winter Colony

Winter Hive(Ensure entrance is never blocked)

Winter Hive
(Ensure entrance is never blocked)

Honey bees over winter as a strong colony clustered together, using their bodies to generate heat, by contracting wing muscles against each other, rather than using their wings.

The cluster is approximately the size of a football, expanding and contacting with the outside temperature, with bees taking it in turn to be in the cold, on the outside of the cluster.

Honey bees are cold-blooded. They are active throughout the winter eating honey (approx. 40lb needed to survive average winter) or,  fondant to survive. The winter bee is produced at the end of the summer and is fatter than the summer bee, relying on nourishment from the hive stores, during the non-foraging months.

A winter bee will live much longer than the summer bee, between 4-6 months rather than 45 days.

The sole purpose of the winter bee is to get the colony through until spring. The population will drop off as summer bees die and are replaced by the smaller winter cluster.

Brood production stops when the outside temperature falls below flying temperature, the bees do however take occasional cleansing flights on warmer winter days.

If the temperature drops too low, for a prolonged period, the bees will not move. This can result in the colony becoming isolated from adjacent frames of stores and the bees may die of starvation, even if stores are available on adjacent frames. Good ventilation is vital to control humidity and avoid the inside of the hive becoming mouldy.

How to Interpret Bee Dancing

Bees Dancing!

Bees use a form of communication within the colony to convey information about sources of food.

Individual bees perform excited “dance routines”  on the face of a frame of comb to communicate the approximate location of food in relation to the sun.

The bees perform two different forms of “dance”.

The Round Dance

This communicates to other foragers in the colony that there is nectar and/or pollen within 100 metres of the hive. An individual bee dances excitedly on the comb in a small circle. She alternates direction after completing each circle. The dancing bee stops occasionally to pass information (smell & taste) about the food source by sharing some of the food she has collected with adjacent bees. No information appears to be conveyed about direction when performing the round dance, only that the food “is close to the hive and tastes and smells like this”.

The Waggle Dance


When individual foragers wish to communicate information about a food source more than 100 metres away they perform a the “waggle dance”.

 The bee runs excitedly & energetically on the vertical comb to indicate a direction relative to the sun’s current position. The bee uses the force of gravity (vertically downwards) as a proxy for the position of the sun. In the example, assuming the frames is held vertically the “dance” on the left would indicate a food source located over 100 meteres away in the opposite direction to the sun. if the food  can be found 90 ° to the left of the sun. As the bee indicates direction she waggles her body from side to side to indicate distance to the food source. The more waggles the closer the food source is to the hive. The waggle dance gives both direction and distance to the food source and by tasting the food the bees know what sort of flower source to locate/