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Beekeeping is extremely popular worldwide. There are commercial businesses which maintain over a thousand hives, but most beekeeping is practised by amateurs with just a few hives in the back garden. These do not demand a great deal of space, and rich rewards are reaped not only from the honey, but from the pleasurable hours spent in the garden.
The most successful beekeepers are those who understand the nature of bees, particularly how a colony organizes itself and the annual cycle of a hive.
The more you learn about bees, the easier it is to look after them with a minimum of interference.
The bees diet consists of honey and pollen. Bees make honey by breaking down sugary solutions - mainly nectar, honeydew and small amounts of pollen - using body fluids known as enzymes. The solution is passed from bee mouth to bee mouth and it is finally deposited in a wax cell. Here it ferments and most of the water content evaporates. When the honey is ripe, the cell is capped with pale yellow wax.
The honey stores are used to feed the colony; the queen, drones (fertilizing males), young brood, and workers. The excess is harvested by the beekeeper. Enough honey must be left in the hive to feed the colony. This is particularly important over winter. Well kept hives can be extremely productive. Besides honey, wax from the combs, and royal jelly are gathered from the bees. They also help to pollinate the flowers.
The most important member of a hive is the queen. She is the focus of all the other bees in the hive and dictates the character and strength of the colony.
A queen bee usually leaves the hive only once in her life. The virgin queen flies out in spring or summer to be fertilized by a drone, and then returns to the hive. The next three years of her life are spent laying eggs. She starts laying as winter recedes and continues to do so through to mid summer. At the height of spring she can lay up to 1500 eggs a day. Each egg is laid in an individual wax cell.
Drones begin to emerge in May, and are the courtiers of a hive. Groomed and fed by the workers, their only task in life is to fertilize a queen. The catch to this playboy life is that as soon as a queen is fertilized, the drone drops dead. At the end of summer, when the drone should have done his deed, the workers will no longer look after him, and he will either starve or be stung to death.
These are the bees which make the honey, build the wax cells and produce royal jelly. Their short lives (usually six weeks) are a gradual progression from duties in the heart of the hive, moving towards the hive entrance over the first three weeks, then three weeks spent foraging outside. In winter, when the work load is less, their life expectancy is a little longer.
The two most important things the beekeeper has to buy are the bees and a hive. Buy from a good, recognized dealer. They will give you reliable advice and are familiar with the problems beginners in particular often face. You also have the insurance of being able to go back to them if anything goes wrong.
Bee colonies vary in nature from the extremely docile to the highly active, aggressive type. It takes experience to be able to handle the very productive, active colonies, a beginner should therefore get hold of a docile colony.
Swarming bees, contrary to popular belief, are quite docile and can be collected and put into the hive. The drawback to this free colony is that it will contain an old queen, and the older workers from the hive it has left.
Don't go rushing out to buy the cheapest or best looking hive either. This is the other major items which will make the beekeepers life heaven or hell. The hive needs to provide the bees with a happy home - contented bees won't fly away - and be easy for the beekeeper to handle.
Modern hives are made up of chambers stacked one on top of the other. These wooden chambers consist of a square wooden box with no top or bottom. Around the inner edge of the box is a shelf. The middle of the chamber is filled with rows of narrow, rectangular wooden frames each holding a sheet of foundation wax. The ends of the frame rest on the ledge allowing the wax sheet to hang down into the box. The bees build their honeycombs onto the wax frames which can then be easily lifted out by the bee keeper.
The queen is confined to the large bottom or 'brood' chamber. A queen excluder is laid over the top of the brood chamber to prevent her moving into the honey store chambers or 'supers' above. Slats in the excluder are only big enough to allow the workers to pass through. In this way, the honey stores are kept separate from the mess of the nursery.
Over the spring and summer the colony will be intensely busy looking after the brood chamber and gathering nectar and pollen. As a super fills with stored honey, another is placed on top for the bees to fill. A big hive can have as many as four supers stacked up.
The other important bee fact to know about when choosing a hive is bee space. Like us, bees need to have freeways, or beeways, so they can move with speed through the hive. They are specific about the space used for this. A space of 6mm is seen as a road. A space smaller or larger than this will either be sealed or built over. If a hive is badly made, and the gaps are the wrong size, the beekeeper will break combs or seals every time he opens the hive. This will anger the bees and they will become difficult to control.
The beekeepers year starts around springtime, with a spring clean of the supers and a check on the brood chamber. After this, the hives should be checked on a ten day cycle - though most people make this fourteen days - until early autumn.
The keeper is looking to make sure that the queen is laying well, and the comb is being built and filled in a regular pattern. The size of the colony is monitored in case it needs expanding or reducing. And their must be enough food. Plenty of pollen going into the hive is a good indication that all is well.
In late summer, the messy task of extracting the honey can begin. This is best done in a kitchen which has been cleared of any unnecessary items as even the most experienced beekeepers have difficulty containing the honey.
Frames containing the capped, ripe honey are collected. Enough honey is left in the hive to see the bees through winter - approximately 20kg
The honey comb has to be warmed to make the honey liquid. The combs are then uncapped by cutting off the wax sealing the cells. The frames are then loaded into a metal drum called an extractor. The extractor spins the frames to release the honey from the combs. Sometimes the frames have to be taken out, turned round and put back into the extractor.
The golden gooey mass gathers at the bottom of the extractor from where it can be run off from a tap and strained into a storage bucket. Honey is corrosive, so containers used here should be either polythene or stainless steel.
Once it has settled and the air bubbles have cleared, it can be put into jars.
Beehive - Once you have settled on a hive you like to use, buy all future hives in this style. All your equipment will then have the same measurements and the parts will be interchangeable
Only experienced beekeepers will approach a hive unprotected. At the very least you will need a protective hood with veil and gloves. A white boiler suit with hood and veil attached is ideal. Make sure these are washed regularly to remove any bee stings.
Smoker - Used to gently puff smoke about the hive entrance before the top is removed. Bees main predator is the forest fire. The smoke alerts the bees to impending danger and they immediately start to consume the honey in store. Once full of honey they become docile and easier to handle.
A small metal implement with many uses; it mainly helps in opening up the hive and scraping down the sides of the frames and chambers.
Goose feather or soft brush to gently brush bees off the comb.
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