Honey. The immortal form of our beautiful flowers and the result of the life-long work of honeybees, the sweetener of our dishes. I think many of us use honey for cooking or eating it raw, drizzled on the top of a yummy smoothie bowl. In this episode of the 'Behind The Scenes' post series, I will show you where honey comes from and introduce you to the basics of beekeeping. When you reach the bottom of the post, you will understand bees so much better!
I was pretty much scared to have thousands of bees around me but at the same time, I was always so curious to see beekeeping and hives on my own. Well, 27 years of fear ended with a visit to the apiary of Corbett and Son Honey. Their golden honey comes from the surrounding fields of Barton le Clay, a charming village in the heart of England.
Dave Corbett and his father started beekeeping in 2014 with one colony, and nowadays they have about 100 colonies and additional nucs (small colonies) at 5 locations. They sell honey, trading nucs, and colonies plus take an important part in education about beekeeping.
Dave's bees collect nectar from the following flowers around the year:
- March - April: fruit tree blossoms like apple, pear, plum from cultivated plants and that is even more important Willows and Dandelions.
- May: Oil Seed Rape plus hedgerow plants at the same time
- Late May - June: Field Beans
- June: lime (Linden)
- June-July: wildflowers and blackberry
- August: the main nectar flows have finished although this is when you would see honeydew (forest)
I'd like to show you the journey of honey from flower to the honeypot, I've asked Dave to show me the whole process so prepare yourself for all the interesting facts you will read below.
What is honey exactly?
Bees collect nectar from flowers then enzymes are added to their honey stomach, this is the first step of its transformation, to become honey. The nectar is ripened in the hive while warm air is circulated through it provided by fanning bees. This action removes excess moisture from the nectar. Once the moisture content drops, bees close these cells with a thin wax capping.
The other bees-produced ingredients are the following:
- Bee pollen: is a pollen ball packed by worker bees into pellets called bee bread.
- Royal jelly: is a honey bee secretion used as the nutrition of any larvae in the colony as well as adult queens.
- Propolis: antibacterial material the bees use for sealing the edges of the hive or small cracks and gaps inside the hive.
- Beeswax: is a natural wax produced by honey bees.
Society of bees
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are social insects, which means they live together in large colonies. Each member of the colony has a definite task to perform. There are three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.
To compare the ratio of the roles: there are several thousand worker bees cooperating in hive-building, food collection, and caring about the next generations of the colony. A colony normally has a single queen and several hundred drones.
Each colony has only one queen, except during swarming preparations or supersedure. She is the only sexually developed female so her primary function is reproduction. She produces both fertilized (=workers) and unfertilized (=drones) eggs. It's easy to identify the queen since her body is normally much longer than other bees. According to the international beekeeping rules, she has a colored mark on her body which tells the beekeepers for example in which year she was born. The second major function of the queen is producing pheromones that serve as a social “glue” unifying and helping to give individual identity to a bee colony. This is how it happens that the temper of the bees equals the temper of their queen, so some colonies are super calm and others could be more aggressive.
The lifespan of queens can be up to 5 years. New queens are raised under three different circumstances: emergency, supersedure, or swarming. During my visit, I saw examples for each case. On the left you can see the elongated cells at the edge of the frame: these are queen cells produced in preparation for swarming. On the right, you can see a much larger, elongated cell. Emergency and supersedure queen cells are typically raised on the comb surface, and it happens when the unhappy workers prepare to replace (supersede) her or in case of an emergency like losing the queen.
About one week after emerging from a queen cell, the virgin queen leaves the hive to mate with several drones (male bees) during her mating flight. Drones are the largest bees in the colony, they have no stinger, pollen baskets, or wax glands. Male bee cells have a bumpy surface since they are much bigger than worker bees larvae. When cold weather begins in the fall and nectar resources become short, since drones eat three times more than others, they usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.
Workers are the smallest bees of the colony. They are sexually undeveloped females and have specialized structures, such as brood food glands, scent glands, wax glands, and pollen baskets, which allow them to perform all the labors of the hive. During their initial few weeks as adults, they clean the cells, feed larvae, care for the queen, handle incoming nectar, build beeswax combs, guard the entrance, and ventilate the hive. Later, as field bees, they collect nectar and pollen. The lifespan of the worker during summer is about 6 weeks but the ones reared close to autumn may live longer: allowing the colony to survive the winter and assisting in the rearing of new generations in the spring before they die.
The role of smoke
Probably you already know, beekeepers use smoke to keep the bees calm during their visits to the hives. When bees get upset, they produce 'alarm pheromone' which is a signal that makes other bees upset as well. If they smell smoke around their hive, it makes them think it is going to catch on fire. In this case, bees try to save their honey. When the smoke enters the hive, the bees begin storing up as much honey in their bodies as possible, in preparation to build a new hive if the present one melts. Once they’re full, they’re less likely to sting; stinging you will cause them to die, and the honey won’t make it to their new home. The disruption is temporary, it won’t hurt the long-term health of the colony, the bees recover their pheromone sensitivity within 10-20 minutes.
Structure of hives
Each hive of the apiary has an interesting structure. It's built up of boxes, contains frames the bees are building the honeycombs on and these boxes are stacked. On top levels, the boxes contain smaller frames, worker bees, and most of the honey. These are the frames the beekeeper extracts the honey from.
The bottom box is covered by a metal net to avoid the queen moving and laying eggs to upper levels. Here we can find the drones, larvae and of course, more honey. Beekeepers leave this honey in the hives for wintertime. Every time they visit their apiaries, they check every single frame of this bottom box and add comments to the documents of the colonies. If there is a productive queen that raises a bigger and stronger colony, there are additional boxes for her on the bottom of the stack.
Extraction of honey
The extraction process is very simple. Beekeepers collect the boxes containing frames full of honey. The sealed honeycombs will be uncapped, placed in a centrifuge and the filtered honey will be poured into jars raw.
When a cell is full of honey, bees are sealing it with a thin layer of beeswax, we call caps. To extract the honey the comb needs to be uncapped. On the uncapped frame below, you can see the difference between the color of the cells. It means that the workers visited different types of flowers.
Dave and his father don't waste the small comb particles and honey he removes during uncapping: they return this part to the bees because it provides food for them for a while.
Beekeepers place the uncapped frames into a centrifuge and after spinning it for about a minute all the honey goes from the cells to the bottom of the centrifuge. The empty beeswax cells will be placed back in the hive and the bees will start filling them again while collecting seasonal nectar.