Things You Didn't Know About Bees and Beekeeping

We sat down with our beekeepers and asked them some questions about what their job as beekeepers entails as well as the role of bees! We got some very interesting answers that we wanted to share with you!


What makes a good beekeeper?

Anyone can keep bees, however, some people understand how bees think. They think like a bee and they understand what the bees are going to do next. A good beekeeper is able to plan what to do for the hive and anticipate how it will operate over the coming weeks and months.


Can you tell us about the factors and processes involved in achieving the optimal Manuka Honey yield?

Having young queens is one of the key factors of producing optimal yields. The Queen is the engine room of the hive, she lays all the young worker bees (worker bees are all females) and this helps maintain a high morel in the hive and is less likely to swarm. The younger the queen the better honey production in the hive.


Do you raise your own Queen bees? 

Yes, we raise our own Queen bees which is a complex process and requires a careful hand.


What does the Queen eat?

The Queen eats Royal Jelly, which is a super nutritious complex protein that is produced in glands situated in the head of a nurse bee. The royal jelly itself is made up of very complex amino acids that modern science struggles to replicate. The thing that makes royal jelly such an expensive and sought after product is that it enables the Queen to live 10 times longer than a normal honey bee and is thought to slow the ageing process. Not only that but it also enables the Queen bee to lay more than her own body weight in eggs each day. This would be the equivalent of a chicken laying 5 dozen eggs a day! Eggs are mainly protein so she derives all that protein from the royal jelly that she is fed.


Why do you re-Queen the hives?

Younger queens produce higher levels of pheromone (natural hormones that induce high morale in a hive) and when morale is high, the bees produce more honey. They generally don’t swarm in their first year but if you re-queen every year, you reduce the amount of swarming within the hives. We produce 1000 queens in the spring and 4000-5000 in the autumn. In this region, the weather is a lot more settled in the autumn, which is when mature drones (male bees) are out. The calm weather conditions make it easier for the Queen to perform her mating flight and she will mate with approximately 14 drones over 4 or 5 hours. She releases pheromones transmitted by smell and the drones smell her. They can smell 10,000 times better than humans can.

What is the Queen’s first flight after hatching?

She will not go on a mating flight until she gets the perfect weather. She flies out of the hive and releases the mating pheromone and the drones will chase. Only the fastest drones can catch her and they have to be sexually mature. In the mating process, he locks onto the Queen. The intensity of her pheromone causes the drone to impregnate the queen. This is so intense that his abdomen explodes in the process and he dies.


How often does a Queen leave the hive?

The queen leaves the hive once when she completes her mating flight and after that only too swarm.


What is roaring?

When a hive goes queen-less, all the worker bees quite quickly recognise that they no longer have a Queen. It’s about 2 hours before the hive realises that the Queen is missing and they start to get very anxious. They’ll quickly pass the message throughout the hive by their distressed pheromone and all the bees start fanning their wings in unison, rigorously, which creates a roaring sound within the hive. This alerts the beekeeper that a new Queen needs to be added.


What is a virgin Queen?

A Queen that hasn’t been on her mating flight. If for instance there is no weather suitable for a Queen to fly within the first 4 weeks of her life, the virgin Queen will remain a spinster for life. Unlike most of the animal kingdom, she can still lay young, but they will only be drone bees. The Queen will always lay some drones (males). This is usually approximately 2-3% of her egg population and worker bees (females) make up the rest. Drones are unfertilised worker bees and don’t sting or collect nectar. The females are the workers and defenders of the hive.


Is it only the female bees who make honey?

Yes, the female worker bees collect the nectar and the drones do not.


How is the wax hexagon structure made?

Bees create the wax frame (hexagon structure) by rubbing their wings up against their bodies where they have sweat glands.  The rubbing movement stimulates these glands, which in turn releases wax. This wax is essentially the bees sweat. They then use this wax to form the hexagon structure in which they store the honey.


Is a bee’s hexagon just theirs?

No, together they build this hexagon structure for the purpose of storing honey. The bees themselves have figured out that the hexagon frame is the strongest format known to mankind. The upright structure of the hexagon shape is a lot stronger than the side of the hexagon shape. It needs to be strong to hold all the honey they collect. Each frame can weigh well over 2kg in weight when it is full of honey.


What is the brood box?

A brood box is where the Queen lives with the nurse bees (young worker bees), and is usually positioned at the bottom of the stack of boxes (supers) that construct the hive.


What is a super?

A super is the part of the hive in which the frames are placed. The bees construct the honey comb here and store the honey in that comb. 


Does a bee ever go into another bee’s super?

Yes, there are so many bees in one hive location that they all go into different hives to drop honey into the wax hexagon structures.


How many super boxes are put on top of the brood box?

Usually 2 or 3 supers above the brood box.


What is a Queen Excluder?

A Queen Excluder is a wire grating that is positioned between the brood and super box to prevent the Queen from going into the super to lay brood. The Queen is a little bit bigger than all the other bees, a bit fatter and a bit longer. When the honey collecting bees come back from collecting honey they will fly in through the base (entrance) and up through the hive past the queen and the nurse bees. The bees can fit through the queen excluder, but the Queen cannot.


How do bees get in and out of the hive?

At the opening of the base of the hive.


When do the bees come out and when do they remain in the hive?

The bees will start to collect honey when the temperature is about 14 – 15 degrees Celsius, 57 -59 degrees Fahrenheit. They will leave the hive at approximately 7 in the morning and work until 10 pm at night. They will remain in the hive ripening the nectar into honey at night time while its dark.


What is a split hive and parent hive?

Split hives or nucleus hives are the smaller hives and the parent hives are the larger hives. Split hives are younger hives which is why they are smaller while the parent hives are older, which is why they are larger.


What are nurse bees?

The Queen lays eggs, which hatch into nurse bees. These bees do all the jobs around the hive, feed the Queen, keep the hive tidy etc. Once the nurse bees grow older they become honey collecting bees.


What is a blower?

The blower blows all of the bees out of the super and they fall gently onto the ground and crawl back into the hive. The purpose of this is to ensure there are minimal bees left in the super boxes before loading them onto the trucks to take back to the extracting shed. The full honey supers will be taken back to the extracting shed and empty supers will replace the full ones out in the field. If the weather is good, we come back three or so weeks later and do it all again. Usually, the supers fill up in two to three weeks depending on the weather.


What is the best honey collecting weather?

Hot sunny days is the best honey collecting weather.


How do you clean your beehives?

The hives are left out for the bees to lick clean before storing them away for the winter period, and the brood box will stay out in the field where the bees hibernate for the winter.


What is Propolis?

The term propolis originates from ancient Greece, where beekeepers observed that bees use propolis to close down and protect their hive entrances. (pro = in front and polis = the city).

Bees forage to collect nectar, pollen and propolis. Propolis is a resin that is part of the immune system which trees and shrubs secrete. This property is highly antibacterial and bees use it as a form of self-medication and material to fill gaps, close holes and cover-up intruders among the hive, like bumblebees or mice.


What is robbing?

Robbing is where honey bees invade another hive and steal the stored honey from that hive. This will occur toward the end of the honey flow (nectar sources in bloom), when honey becomes sparse. The robbing bees will tear open capped cells in the honey frames, fill their honey stomachs and transport the honey back to their home hive.


What is nectar?

Nectar is produced by plants and secreted into the nectaries of flowers. Thus it is almost entirely sucrose, a disaccharide with two sugar molecules held together by a chemical bond. There is also a substantial amount of moisture in the nectar but the amount depends on the plant itself and the humidity in the atmosphere.


What is the process of bees turning nectar into honey?

Foraging bees, (worker bees) gather nectar from flowers, sucking it down using the proboscis, a similar anatomical part to that of an elephants trunk. The nectar itself is held inside the bee in a sac just in front of the bee’s stomach. The sac can expand greatly in size, allowing the bee to bring back large amounts of nectar. The bee then returns back to the hive and regurgitates the nectar over to the younger nurse bees, those that are not foraging. The nurse bees pass the nectar between them until the water content of the nectar is reduced to approximately 20%. At this point the nectar is then regurgitated into a cell of the honeycomb. Next, the bees transform the hive into a dehumidifier to evaporate excess moisture. They will fan their wings until the hive is approximately 34 degrees Celsius, 93 degrees Fahrenheit. This works best at night when the temperature outside the hive is lower and therefore can’t hold as much moisture. This process is very important as the remaining water content needs to evaporate from the nectar in order for it to change state into a thicker substance recognisable as honey. When an individual cell (hexagon shape) in the honey frame is full of honey the nurse bees will cap it, sealing the honey into the honeycomb.


What would be the reason for relocating hives?

Hives will be relocated to a new hive site if the honey flow has finished in the area or if the hives aren’t performing well in that area due to lack of flowers caused by fluctuating weather conditions.


What is cross-pollination?

As well as collecting nectar from plants, bees also collect pollen. Through this process, they pass pollen between flowers of the trees which is called cross-pollination.


What is capping?

The wax capping is put over the honeycomb once it has been filled with honey. An uncapping machine will remove all of the capping from the outside of the honeycomb so the honey can be extracted from the wax structure. Bees rebuild the honey frame and refill it with honey without having to reconstruct the wax after it has been extracted. Because the extracting machine is extremely gentle on the frames, it doesn’t destroy the wax. It takes 10kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.


How do bees add enzymes into the honey?

Once the bees have collected the nectar from the flower and are on their way back to the hive, they are already adding enzymes into the nectar, which is held in the honey sac of the bee’s body. The enzymes help convert the nectar into the single sugar component, which is natural honey.


Do you use a smoker?

We sometimes use a smoker when we are working the hives. We breed our bees to be very gentle and quiet and therefore do not need to use a smoker very much. The purpose of the smoker is to first mask the pheromones that bees use to communicate with one another. Secondly, it simulates a forest fire. The bee will go into the hive when they smell the smoke and eat lots of honey. With full stomachs they will flee the hive, well prepared to build a new comb elsewhere, should the need arise. After a meal bees are calm, which allows the beekeepers to do their job without being stung too many times.

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1 Comment

Thank you for this interesting and informative description of honey making by these extraordinary little creature, the bees. Your honey is delicious and I appreciate each spoonful even more after reading this article. Thank you!

Evelyn Ulvilden

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