A question of the morality of beekeeping is something that comes to the forefront of many prospective beekeeper’s minds. If you keep honeybees to harvest honey from them, how can that be ethical? In this post we explore the ethics of keeping honeybees for the purpose of producing honey.
There are a wide range of reasons that beekeepers like to keep honeybees. Most popular is that the beekeeper wants to start a new, challenging hobby. Some want to help the environment, some are aiming to be bee farmers themselves. Unsurprisingly, another popular motivation is to be able to harvest your own honey and give the fruits of your hive’s labour to friends and family. But how can this remain an ethical process?
Honey Bees Produce a Surplus
Honey bees are dedicated to producing a surplus of honey stores. They don’t have a ‘thought process’ of wanting or not wanting to produce honey, this is their instinct to survive. Simply put, they want to have as much food as possible in the winter. Many other species of bees such as the bumblebee usually only go into winter with just their queen, and she will be ready to start laying in spring to make a brand new colony. This is reflected in the fact that they do not produce much honey at all. In fact, bumble bees only store enough food for their immediate needs.
This is not the same for honeybees, the queen and a significant amount of workers will cluster over winter and therefore they need to have enough food to sustain them throughout the winter and for them to produce heat in their hive when the temperature falls.
This raises another ethical question then, are we making our bees expend more energy than they have to?
They’re No Longer Living in the Wild
We must keep in mind that our honeybees are now kept in favourable conditions by their beekeepers. We’ve provided an artificial home that is more sheltered and insulated than their natural habitat, we place them in sites with very abundant sources of nectar and pollen (and if not, we feed them in their own home – a very beneficial arrangement).
We also do our best to protect them from diseases and pests which would otherwise ravage the colony.
It’s All About Management
The beekeeper has the job of managing the colony to enhance the honey bee’s (already fantasic) ability to gather nectar and produce honey. If there is a nectar flow on, then the bees can draw and fill a super within a week (and a drawn super within a couple of days).
The capable beekeeper will be able to spot when there is a flow on and will provide plenty of prepared drawn supers so that the bees do not have to produce wax (it is said that it takes 6-7lbs of honey to produce 1lb of wax – therefore it is costly process for the bees). The hobbyist may not have a huge amount of equipment so will have to extract their supers during the flow.
‘Removing All of Their Honey’
I’ve heard this statement thrown around by people who believe that this is actually what beekeepers do. Of course, this is a choice that a beekeeper can make, but it is certainly not the action taken by most beekeepers. Aside from the fact that honey will most likely still remain in the brood chamber, the beekeeper will be risking the colony’s survival over the winter.
There is a tendency to anthropomorphise honey bees. But they do not have the same complicated thought process that humans do. They do not ‘want’ or ‘desire’ they have the instinct to survive and to do that they need to produce honey. Breeding programmes have also brought a rise of much more productive strains of honey bees, this means that an individual colony is bringing in much more honey than previously observed.
Beekeepers facilitate and take advantage of the survival instinct by providing their bees conditions that allow for an incredible surplus of honey to be produced, an efficient and beneficial arrangement for both parties involved.
As the 2020 queen season has to come to an end for us we thought this may be good time to discuss all things queens. There are many differing opinions on the ‘best queen strain’ and this can often be quite a contentious debate between beekeepers that are even the best of friends. So through our collective experience of working with the various queen strains that we sell, we are able to give you our opinion on the differences between the strainsand what may appeal to you as a beginner.
Mellifera Mellifera (AMM)
Also known as the Western Black Bee or the European Black Bee, the Apis Mellifera Mellifera is believed to be the native bee species to the United Kingdom. They are generally quite dark in colour and have stocky bodies. The colonies can build up quite big and despite this they do extraordinarily well in the smaller national hive. Mellifera bees are known to be quiet on the comb during inspections, but their temperament is heavily reliant on the conditions outside of the hive, they will certainly let you know if a storm is on its way.
One of the most impressive qualities of the Mellifera strain is that they are noticeably frugal with their stores. Don’t expect an endless production of eggs throughout the year, the Mellifera are particularly sensitive to the season and will cut down egg production according to nectar availability in order to conserve their stores. The weather has been more and more unpredictable in recent years and this quality is extremely beneficial to the colony strength and longevity. Despite being quite conservative with their stores they don’t store much of an excess of honey even if given drawn frames.
Due to their ‘hardiness’ and affinity to the UK weather, brood rearing tends to start earlier than other strains as they can be the first to bear the brunt of the weather in the approach of spring. But this does not mean that they will be bursting at the seams once it is warm enough for you to inspect your hives, Melliferas are not known to be incredibly prolific. The upside to this is that the queen appears to have a longer life span as well as having a lower swarming tendency.
Melliferas also bring in masses of pollen, the idea behind this is that they are evolved to bear with adverse weather and therefore long periods of confinement in the hive. They may also have more pollen stores in comparison to other colonies in harsher seasons as they have a greater wing strength and will still be flying when other strains will choose to stay at home.
These are the qualities that make up the Mellifera strain, but the availability of a ‘pure’ strain is quite contentious, as most breeders open mate and therefore there is a huge variation in genetics as with all of the strains (aside from the Slovenian Carniolan which has protected breeding sites and strict guidelines to adhere to).
The mellifera is a perfect strain for those beekeepers who want to do minimal interventions and don’t mind getting a sting here or there. With that in mind we tend to not recommend Mellifera to beginners as sometimes it’s hard to detect the more subtle environmental changes that the Mellifera are sensitive to. It’s the cutting back of brood rearing that often trip up beginners who aren’t sure if their queen is off lay and panic buy a new queen.
Most customers who purchase Mellifera are dedicated life long fans, so don’t be scared away by their often misrepresented reputation of being ‘aggressive’ – they’re not, they just have the bee equivalent of ‘seasonal affective disorder’!
The Buckfast bee, often referred to as the renowned Brother Adam bee is a hybrid bee of many strains of honeybee from Brother Adam’s search for the most ideal bee with the development of the Buckfast breeding programme in the 50s following the devastating effects of Acarine disease on the mellifera native bee populations. It makes for fascinating reading if you want to read his book ‘In Search of the Best Strains of Bees’ which reads like a work of adventure fiction. He found that the only surviving colonies on the Abbey were of Ligurian lineage, spurring on a life’s work in crossing strains in order to harvest the best traits in one little bee.
The colour of the queen can vary from very light with a black bottom to stripy to very dark, not to mention a great range of colour variation between their workers, this is no doubt as a result of the wide genetic pool used to keep the variability of the Buckfast strain. Regardless of their colour, the spring build up and over wintering abilities are the same.
The Buckfast are bred in many countries, notably Greece, Romania, France, Germany, Denmark as well as the UK and may not be what was the original Buckfast developed by Brother Adam as some may mistakenly believe. Many of these breeders have developed their own ‘crosses’ breeding for many years to suit the modern beekeeper. Although not identical, most Buckfast breeders are looking for the same 4 primary characteristics of the original breeding programme:
Fecundity – the queen at a certain point (relative to the nectar flow) must be able to fill at least eight or nine Dadant combs with brood.
Industry – a boundless capacity for (foraging) work is doubtless the foremost requirement.
Resistance to disease – is absolutely indispensable and essential to successful beekeeping.
Disinclination to swarm – an indispensable prerequisite in modern beekeeping.
Following this are the numerous secondary characteristics which complement honey gathering ability:
Longevity – prolongation of the lifespan of the bee will denote a corresponding increase in the effective foraging force and capacity of a colony.
Wing-power – the ability to forage further can prove a material factor in the performance of a colony.
Keen sense of smell – without this a colony would not forage further, so it is closely linked with wing-power.
Instinct of defence – this is the most effective remedy against robbing (it is not to be confused with aggression against the beekeeper).
Hardiness and wintering ability – the ability to winter on stores of inferior quality for long periods without a cleansing flight.
Spring development – must not occur prematurely and without the need for artificial stimulation.
Thrift or frugality – a quality closely connected with the seasonal development of colonies.
Instinct of self provisioning – seasonally appropriate brood chamber storage for overwintering.
Comb building – a keenness to build comb seems to increase the zest for every form of activity of economic value.
Gathering of pollen – not to be confused with the collecting of nectar; good quality pollen positively affects longevity
This is why we usually refer to the Buckfast strain as a great all-rounder for the beginner. They respond well to being manipulated with most breeders focusing on temperament, fecundity (prolificness), low swarming tendency and industriousness. We import queens from both Greece (referred to as Buckfast Cross on our website – crossed with Apis Mellifera Cecropia) and Romania, and in our experience they have taken to our winter relatively well when going into winter strong. They tend to produce a good amount of honey when the conditions are ideal but there are indeed downsides to the Buckfast.
A common issue with the Buckfast strain is the problem of ‘F2 aggression’. This is the observation made by beekeepers whose second generation of queen lays particularly aggressive workers. There is always a chance that a virgin from a perfectly gentle and prolific queen can mate and lay some nasty workers. There isn’t a concrete explanation for this phenomenon, but it can be dependent on the drones in your area as well as the original queen’s genetics. This is why a lot of beekeepers tend to replace their queen in favour of letting them create their own queen cells.
Another colloquial complaint of Buckfast strains especially amongst the commercial beekeeping community is the absence of the supercedure impulse. When a queen comes to the end of their laying prime the colony will ordinarily attempt to supercede the queen, but some have observed that Buckfasts can sometimes suddenly become queenless after only a couple of years – this may be due to their prolific laying, but it certainly isn’t very handy for the colony to lose their ability to detect a dip in fecundity in their queen.
The main takeaway I’d like beginners to take from this is that in the very nature of Buckfast is the incredible variation of characteristics and appearance. This is why you must be reliant on the breeder’s reputation as well as your own experience once handling their Buckfasts.
The Apis Mellifera Carnica is native to Slovenia and Austria as well as many pockets across Central and Eastern Europe. There are many brilliant qualities that Carniolans bring to the table that make her quite a good choice for a beginner. Possessing great fecundity the Carniolans can burst out of your brood box in spring providing you have a good spring flow. This is incredibly advantageous as they are exceptionally industrious and in our experience bring in a huge excess of honey as long as you are providing them with the supers ready to fill.
Carniolan’s actually have a great self-provisioning instinct, though some have observed that their productiveness completely stops rather than chugging along as most other strains. However we do find that they respond well to ‘false flows’ – this is when you feed syrup in order to mimic a nectar flow and therefore stimulate the queen to lay. Therefore it is relatively simple to promote colony build up in spring if your site does not have great forage until the summer months.
Carniolans great reputation for prolificness is clearly a double edged sword as you will have to be on your toes to prevent the Carniolans from swarming. This is their most considerable disadvantage, which is why we don’t usually recommend that Carniolans are run in British Standard unless you were planning to double brood that colony which may be too much to go through for a beginner. They are better suited to Dadant, Langstroth, 14×12 or Commercial kit as this gives them far more laying space.
One of the most wonderful traits of the Carniolan is their sweet disposition and ease of handling making them a very good choice for those who have their bees where there are non-beekeepers around such as gardens or allotments. Carniolans are also well adapted to harsh weather and therefore overwinter quite well in the British climate often taking quite a small cluster through and not needing a huge amount of stores.
We import Carniolans from the mountains of Slovenia where breeding sites are protected in order to keep the strain pure. Appearance wise the pure Carniolan workers are relatively dark with no orange, they appear grey.
The wonderful Carpathian is considered as a subspecies of Carniolan by Brother Adam and they indeed share many of the positive characteristics including quick spring buildup, strong honey gathering and beautifully calm temperament. There is not much literature about the Carpathian but they continue to be quite popular in Eastern Europe but they lack the promotion of a strict breeding programme therefore it is getting harder to get a good pool of genetics to breed from.
In addition to being a good all rounder, the Carpathian is less likely to swarm than the Carniolan making them a good alternative if you want a prolific queen but are more apprehensive about your bees swarming.
The Ligustica is widely known for their gentleness on the frame, some beekeepers in warmer climates than the UK even favouring to work them without a beesuit or smoke (not recommended for beginners)! She is so popular that it is believed she’s the most widely distributed strain of bee, being exported to North America, Europe as well as Australasia. It is a common misconception that the Ligustica is simply a ‘golden bee’, there is actually also a huge variance in colouration but some breeders indeed have colour in the forefront of their breeding programmes though we find that this is more typical of American or New Zealand breeders of Ligustica.
Due to their wonderful temperament Ligustica is another wonderful choice for beginners as they will tolerate you keeping them open for longer inspections as well as moving calmly across their frames. Their ease and calmness makes them a firm favourite for beekeepers who share their hobby with children or have a school hive.
Ligustica are also renowned for their good hygienic behaviour, but this doesn’t mean that you can let them run riot, a good knowledge of disease and pests is essential for all beekeepers. However they are less likely to allow brood diseases to run out of control so you may not even see any issues despite some disease being present.
Aside from their wonderful temperament and hygiene the Ligustica is decidedly average in most other capacities. They bring in lots of honey but also consume a lot of it themselves throughout the season and certainly need a lot to overwinter on which is always a difficult aspect of bee management for beginners. They are quite slow to build up due to our uncertain weather patterns and need a good stretch of warm weather to bolster their numbers before being strong enough to bring in lots of nectar.
But if you are looking for gentle bees that you are not expecting lots of honey from then the Ligustica are for you.
These strains and their subsequent traits are all generically speaking and you must understand that all queens are open mated. This means that any number of traits and appearance can change throughout a queen’s lifespan as they go through their sperm stores. It is also important to gain your own experience working with different strains which can be difficult when beginners do not have access to the same sheer numbers that commercial beekeepers are used to, but soon you start noticing that you cannot work the different strains identically, for example, you may be able to go through a Carniolan colony in the pouring rain without a sting, but opening a Mellifera colony in drizzle may leave you with multiple stingers!
Take a look your own circumstances and reasons for having bees, do you want to harvest honey? Do you want them to help pollinate your garden? Do you want to share this hobby with your family? Do you just want to enjoy their presence during the summer? This will give you a much better idea of which strain to choose before you get going next season.
The time has come for an amazing demand for mated queens, it happens every year and we’re always put under a tremendous amount of pressure when our wonderful queens come to be checked before going out to our customers all over the nation.
Now, in our own time as beekeepers and selling queens to fellow beekeepers we’ve gathered some interesting stories of how some inexperienced beekeepers have attempted to introduce their queens, therefore we’re going to show you (with photos!). Honestly, if you don’t laugh about these tales you might just burst into tears.
Second thing you need to know is that queen introduction methods are NOT GUARANTEED. There are many ways that you can increase the chance of acceptance, but sometimes the colony just want to make a new queen, so a broodless colony may even let the new queen lay only to cull her and raise a new one of their own.
When you receive your queen she always comes in some sort of cage. We have had a number of calls before about how the queen is sent, she is caged and then sent to you in an envelope with holes punched into it. Yes, we have had customers ask us not to put the queen loose in the envelope!!!
The cages you can see are common amongst our breeders, and all are sealed with plastic aside from what we colloquially call the lollipop cage (far left) which has the fondant exposed. Use your hive tool to snap open the seal, but be careful as you could accidentally remove the cover. Always check to remove the seal if you are not intending to do a delayed release so that the queen can be let out of the cage without your intervention.
The rectangular cages have a little hook that you are able to thread through a toothpick and hang the cage between the frames. HOWEVER we do not recommend that you do this because there is the possibility that the attendants in the cage could die and block the access to the fondant within the cage.
You may look at your caged queen and remark at how small she may be, this often happens when queens are removed from a colony and begin slimming down as they are not fed at the constant rate as when she is in a hive. The same occurs prior to swarming and therefore you must realise that your mated queen may well have regained the ability to fly! We once had a customer in tears who tried to introduce the queen outside and had opened to cage to take her out only to watch her fly away. All queens are harvested when they are on sealed brood and therefore demonstrated their laying ability.
Some beekeepers like to remove the attendant workers prior to introducing their queen to their hive, the theory behind this is that the attendants will clash with the other workers and will cause the hive to reject the queen. If you do want to do this, make sure you are in a closed room, by a window and carefully remove the attendants. All the bees should attempt the escape through the window, and this is just a precaution in case your queen happens to get out too, just carefully pick her up by the thorax and reintroduce her to the empty cage.
If you’re scared to pick the queen up, then partially remove the cover and place over your queen when she is crawling on the window, then carefully slide the cover back into place.
Now that you are ready to introduce your queen, go through the hive and ensure that you remove all queen cells and cups. When we introduce a queen, we tend to put her where the majority of your brood is (and therefore your nurse bees). Nestle the cage sideways between the frames tightly.
The queenless colony should rush towards her and show a healthy interest in her presence. You may see the workers attempting to feed her and in turn spread her pheromones. If your bees start balling the cage you may have another queen present in the colony and you must give your colony another thorough check.
If you’re really stumped about the difference because a lot of bees can get interested in the queen, then the most definitive test for me is how easily you can remove the bees from the cage by running your finger over the cage to move the bees. If they’re really difficult to remove they are probably attempting to sting the queen through the cage very similarly to how it is a little difficult to remove a bee trying to sting you through your veil! We took a photo of the cage balling to demonstrate but it can often look a lot worse, we just chose to remove the queen before she could actually be harmed.
It is a very sensitive time when introducing the queen, therefore we do like to wait around 10 days before checking the colony again to see if your queen is successfully taken. Also, when you do your next check it is best to just look for evidence of her existence, such as eggs instead of disturbing the colony too much. If you can’t see eggs then you may attempt to spot your new queen before leaving the bees to it.
If you are buying a queen for a split or for a requeening you must wait to receive the queen prior to doing any manipulations. In very rare circumstances your queen may get lost in the post or is dead upon arrival, therefore it is always safer to wait for your queen.
When you store your waiting queen you can keep her sealed in the envelope that she arrives in, firstly check there is enough fondant too. It is best to keep her in the dark and an ambient temperature, away from the sun or any other heat sources.
Another two weeks and spring is definitely kicking off, at times it has even felt like summer. This sudden rush of warmth has done our colonies a world of good, and we were able to get through all of our nucs and hives to treat them and assess their strength for upcoming nuc production and the oilseed rape.
After doing the first proper inspection we found that the strength of our colonies greatly varied, some colonies had very little bees making an environment that was not conducive for the queen to lay and expand as optimally as we were hoping for this time of the year.
However, within the first week of the warm weather the weakest colonies have already shown some progression to be seen as a viable colony, instead of needing to unite the colony with a stronger one. So it’s looking very positive for us having got through so many nucs over the winter, things are however a little slower though with our restrictions in place meaning that a lot of the nuc production is going to be handled by Sian alone but she’s working all the warm hours that she can.
Not only is she working 24 hours a day, she is also finding all sorts of mysteries! Worryingly, she found a bullet in one of our poly nucs, lucky she wasn’t shot at and that the bees were not harmed!
Last year we tentatively started our own queen rearing production, we only managed to get a few queens, but one of which has been incredibly prolific since the start of the season. So we’re hoping to get a good rearing schedule going this year.
Talking of queens, our breeders abroad have been able to send us some overwintered queens and spring queens much to our relief!
Everything seems to be happening all at once, and I have been confined in the office drowning in work! Sometimes we forget over the winter just how busy it gets during the season. We’re looking forward to our customers receiving their queens, as well as nucs, we are a few weeks behind but we’re hoping the next two weeks will enable us to get out our overwintered nucs.
Pollen is an extremely important source of nutrition for honeybees and beekeepers will often talk about pollen sources throughout the season. So we’re going to talk about how our wondrous bees gather pollen and why it is hugely important to the development of the brood.
Honeybees have a specific pollen collecting apparatus called corbiculae, which is why you see bees carrying big patties of pollen on their legs. The corbicula is slightly concave and located on their hairy hind legs. After the honeybee visits a flower she is often speckled with little pollen granules, honeybees being a very hygienic insect, groom themselves and as the rub their legs, the pollen is brushed down into this section where it ends up being gathered tightly into a big perfect pellet of pollen!
In the process of collecting nectar and pollen, they also freely pollinate the flowers they visit, a beautiful example of nature at its finest. Honeybees with their incredible work ethic and engineered body are often known to be put to work in pollination contracts.
So why do bees store the pollen? This is because pollen is an extremely important source of nutrition for bees. Nurse worker bees consume pollen in order to develop their hypopharyngeal glands, the gland that eventually produces royal jelly to feed to larvae and a future queen. Nurse bees communicate the demand for pollen, not only the quantity but the quality to the foragers, as you all know, bees work very closely to a common goal.
This is why you will see copious amounts of pollen being brought in as the brood nest expands. A rule of thumb is that if you see your bees bringing in pollen, brood is definitely being raised! Fresh pollen is sometimes consumed as you see it on their legs, usually through grooming , however stored pollen is often mixed with nectar, digestive fluids and all that goodness, and once it has time to ferment it becomes what is known as bee bread, and this is a source of food for all worker bees and larvae.
The importance of pollen to raising brood is also evident when you see the classic band of pollen surrounding the patch of brood, it gives easy access for the nurse bees to nourish themselves and to feed the larvae.
Therefore when you’re checking your bees, you will know that it is essential to check if they have enough food to sustain them until their next check, some beginners make the mistake of only really checking for honey stores – however a colony not bringing in pollen is not a great sign for brood development and in consequence, the health of your colony as a whole.
So the next time you go through your colony, marvel at the amazing variety of pollen that your bees are bringing in, from purple, forest green to bright yellow pollen, our girls never fail to amaze us!