Frequently Asked Questions

Honey bees will only sting if their life or their home is threatened. Honey bee stings are barbed so the bee cannot remove it once she has stung. A honey bee dies when she stings because part of her abdominal contents are ripped out along with her sting, and so she dies of dehydration. Male bees, drones, have no sting. Queen bees have a straight, unbarbed sting. It is only used for killing other queens.

In the summer time a worker bee will live for only 6 weeks. The first 4 weeks are spent doing jobs in the hive: feeding brood; storing nectar, honey, propolis; making wax; and acting as security keeping out strangers. She only forages for the last 2 weeks of her life, which is how long her wings last before they wear out.

The bees that have to survive the winter are born in the autumn and they have larger 'fat bodies' which help to store energy. Winter bees fly much less than summer bees so their wings last longer. A bee born in the autumn can live for 6 months.

A queen bee can live for 5 years. Normally she produces fewer eggs the older she gets and beekeepers like to have large strong colonies to gather a surplus of honey that can be harvested, so queens are normally replaced when they are at most 2 years old.

Drones, male bees, have a very short lifespan. Drones die in the act of mating with a queen. If a drone does not mate he may live for up to 50 days but in the autumn time he will be ejected from the hive. Drones cannot feed themselves and have to rely on their sisters to feed them. The bees make honey to be a food source to sustain them through winter, the colony cannot support unnecessary mouths to feed and as drones do not bring in nectar or pollen or help to care for the young, they are dispensible when the time for mating has passed. So, in the autumn the worker bees stop feeding the drones and will eject them from the hive. Bees are NOT sentimental!.

Beekeeping may seem like an expensive hobby when you start out, but most of the equipment you need to buy will last for at least 20 years, so overall it isn’t too bad. At 2015 prices, you can expect to pay £150 for one hive, it is recommended that you have enough woodwork for 2 colonies as this allows you much more flexibility should one colony need a bit of help from the other. A beesuit will cost around £45 and the other paraphernalia, like a smoker and a hive tool, will cost approximately another £50. The main annual cost is for frames and wax which will cost around £30-£50. Then of course there are the bees. A nucleus of bees (4-5 frames with bees, a queen, brood and some stores) will cost about £150. So to get started you are looking at around £500-£600.

It is estimated that half an hour a week per colony is needed in the busy season ie the summer. From the end of September until the end of March you may only need to look in on your bees once or twice, taking about 5-10minutes per hive. In the winter you have time to clean up old frames and build new ones, as well as build and paint boxes. In the autumn you need some time to extract the honey surplus that you take from your bees. It is not a very time draining hobby, but be warned, it is absorbing and you will find lots of other bee-related things to do, be it reading books, going to lectures, building equipment, browsing catalogues and visiting other people’s apiaries!

Bees are kept for many reasons. Personal interest; an interest in ecology; to produce honey, nectar, propolis and wax; to improve pollination of crops and so increase the harvest.

Bees are insects, a member of the hymenoptera – winged insects with a waist. They have a head a thorax and an abdomen. They have 6 legs, 5 eyes, 4 wings and 2 antennae. They are vegetarian, unlike wasps which are partly carnivorous.

No, bees cannot see in the dark, so they do not fly at night. They use the sun to navigate during the day. In the hive they use their feet and their antennae to detect vibrations to find their way around in the dark.

Honey bees use the sun to navigate. They have 3 small eyes (ocelli) on the top of their heads which ‘see’ polarised light which allows them to triangulate their position.

Propolis is the sticky substance that is produced by some plants around their buds or damaged areas of their stalks. Bees collect it and use it for a number of things; predominantly it is used to fill up gaps and holes as bees do not like draughts. It is also used to polish the inside of cells that the queen lays egg in. It is thought that bees do this because propolis has antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties. There is quite a lot of research looking at the potential benefits of propolis to mankind, this is increasingly important as various types of infections are becoming resistant to existing antibiotics.

Bees use water to dilute honey so they can eat it. Although they will reduce nectar from 80% water content to only 17% water content to prevent it from fermenting and so they can store it in less space, they need to dilute it to eat it. They also use water to cool the hive on hot days by fanning their wings to circulate cooler air throughout the hive.

Bees bring only 4 things into the hive: Nectar to make honey, Pollen, Propolis and Water.

Bees drink water.

Very young bees (larvae) all eat Royal Jelly for their first 3 days. Queen Bee larvae only ever eat Royal Jelly. After their first 3 days the other larvae (worker and drone) are fed a mixture of pollen and honey called bee bread. Bees make honey as a food source that they use all year round. It provides them with carbohydrate for energy. They make it from the sugary nectar of the flowers that they visit. Bees use pollen, also collected from flowers, as their protein source. Adult worker bees eat a mixture of honey and pollen, the younger adults eating more pollen and the older adults, who need energy to go flying, eat much more honey. The queen is fed by worker bees for all her life and even as an adult she eats only Royal Jelly. Royal Jelly is a protein rich substance that worker bees make in their Hypopharangeal glands. The worker bees eat large quantities of pollen to produce this Royal Jelly which is white in colour. It is estimated that each colony requires 30kg of pollen each year.

Royal Jelly is a highly protein rich substance, made in the hypopharangeal glands of nurse bees, to feed to newly hatched larvae and to the queen. It is all a queen bee will ever eat, from when she is a newly hatched larva until the day she dies. The worker bees who make this jelly eat a huge amount of pollen to make it. There is no evidence of any benefit to humans in consuming or applying Royal Jelly.

Adult bees will generally die when their wings wear out while out foraging and so they cannot make it back to the hive. This saves the house bees having to expend energy on clearing out dead bodies. Bees that do die in the hive will fall to the bottom of the hive and the house bees have to drag them outside.

Honey bees are unique among insects in that they don’t die out over winter, neither do they hibernate. They cluster together within the hive, using their wing muscles to produce heat. They eat their stored honey to give them the energy to keep the hive warm enough to allow them to survive the winter.

It is the differing proportions of sugars which dictate the runniness of honey. Honeys rich in glucose will tend to crystallise and become set honey. Honeys rich in fructose tend to say runny for much longer. Garden flowers and clover produce Fructose rich runny honeys. All honey will crystallise with time. A jar of crystallised honey can be made liquid by sitting the jar in warm water for an hour or so. Beekeepers can ‘seed’ a runny honey with some crystallised honey to make the runny honey become crystallised, or set. Many beekeepers use the fine grained honey made by bees working Oilseed Rape as the seed honey to ensure that their set honey has a pleasant texture that isn't too grainy.

Pollen is produced by flowers to pollinate other flowers to make seeds. Bees transfer pollen from one flower to another as they collect nectar to make honey. Bees will also deliberately fly to collect only pollen. Pollen is the bees’ protein source. It is eaten by nurse worker bees to make Royal Jelly to feed to larvae and to the queen. A single colony is estimated to require 30kg of pollen each year!

Honey is a super-saturated solution of sugars (80%), mainly glucose and fructose.

It also contains water (17%) and minerals, vitamins and a little pollen or protein (3%).

Honey bees collect nectar from flowers. Nectar is a weak sugary solution which can contain as much as 60% water (usually nearer 20%). The sugar is mainly sucrose. Bees’ saliva contains enzymes which mix with this sucrose solution and, through a process called inversion, it becomes a mixture of fructose and glucose sugars. This process also drives out a little of the water making the solution a little more concentrated. The bee who collects the nectar passes it onto a house bee when she arrives back at the hive and the passing from bee to bee further reduces the water content. House bees will fan cells filled with this sugary solution until it is reduced to only 17%  water, at which point they cap it with a wax capping to prevent the moisture in the air from making the solution weaker again as this would allow it to ferment. Bees cannot use fermenting sugars.

Honey bees do have jaws (mandibles) which they use to bite enemies that are too small to sting, eg wax moths and varroa mites. They also use their mandibles to manipulate propolis. They do not bite people.

Bees communicate by three methods: pheromones, touch and sound.

Pheromones are chemicals that the bees produce that other bees can smell. Pheromones tell them if there is a queen in the hive; guide them to the entrance to the hive when they are coming back from a flight; direct other bees to sting where one bee has already stung to chase away large predators (this includes humans!).

They use their feet and antennae to feel the movements of other bees to tell them a whole host of things. The most famous movement is the waggle dance which can tell other bees how far away a worker has been, and in which direction, to gather pollen or nectar. They also use this dancing technique to describe to other bees a potential spot for a new home if the bees are swarming to reproduce. The waggle dance for nectar and pollen is performed inside the dark hive. The 'new home' dance is performed on the outside of the swarm cluster. Either way, the bees use the vibrations they receive through their antennae and their feet to interpret the dances.

Bees also make sounds to communicate. The queen makes a high pitched piping sound, when she does this inside her queen cell before she emerges it is called quacking, and the piping of a queen outside the queen cell is called tooting.

In the summer time, when the queen is laying as many as 2,500 eggs a day, the colony can grow to include as many as 50-60,000 bees. In the winter, when they have to live off the honey they have stored, they cannot afford to feed such large numbers and a typical colony will have only about 10,000 bees.

There are 250 kinds of bees in Britain. Bumblebees are the ones that are most commonly seen, there are 25 types in Britain. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website is an excellent source of information about the fascinating life of the bumblebee.  The majority of the 250 types of bees in Britain are Solitary bees, these bees may live together in large numbers but do not rely on each other like the social bees (bumblebees and honey bees). Like the bumblebees, solitary bees make queens in the summer and it is only the queens that survive by hibernating through the winter, all the other castes die in the autumn. Solitary bees include the Carder Bees and the Mason bees. There is only one type of Honey bee native to Britain, Apis Mellifera. The Honey bee is exceptional in that it is the only bee to make sufficient stores of honey to keep the bees alive through the cold months of winter when there are no flowers to feed on. This means that the colony is able to fly on good days, even mild winter days, when temperatures are warm enough.

In her short life span, which can be as little as 6 weeks of which only the last 2 weeks are spent foraging for nectar, a single bee is responsible for making as little as 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey.

The distance that a honey bee will fly to forage depends on the availability of desirable food sources and the competition from other colonies. Bees commonly fly about 4 miles. However, bringing items back from so far to the hive is very energy expensive so most flights are shorter. In her short flying life of about 2 weeks, a honey bee will visit up to 2,000 flowers per day, make up to 50 trips a day, and cover a total of around 500 miles. No wonder her wings wear out!