Blog

Beginner’s FAQ: Honey 101

It’s what many beekeepers are looking for, the exciting feeling to crack open your hive to see your supers filled to the brim with honey. Your bees have brought in the liquid gold – Honey. But what is honey exactly and how is it even made by the bees? This is Honey 101.

A queen looking for more space amongst the stores

80% to 18%

As a beginner you may have already come across the distinction between nectar and honey, one is starkly more desirable than the other if you are thinking of beekeeping to harvest the fruits of your bee’s labour (and your own labour too).

But all honey starts off as nectar, a sweet watery solution produced by flowers surrounding your apiary. Nectar is usually colourless and contains approximately 80% water and 20% of the complex sugar, sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose with a glycosidic bond.

A single worker bee travels from flower to flower, pausing momentarily just to gather nectar through their proboscis, their naturally engineered straw-like tongue. The nectar is then stored in the ‘honey gut’ or the crop, where it is safe from being directly ingested by the foraging bee itself. Unsurprisingly, it is in the honey gut that the nectar starts it’s journey to becoming honey, the viscose solution we all know that contains around only 18% water.

A good view of the proboscis

Nature’s Chemists

The forager bee comes back to the hive once their honey gut is full of nectar, ready to be processed by their sisters. The nectar gets regurgitated over and over between the house bees. You may hear beekeepers exclaiming that honey is ‘bee vomit’ which although is quite true, it is also the essential process to chemically break down the nectar. Each time the nectar is passed between one bee to another, they add an enzyme called ‘invertase’ that is produced by the salivary glands to facilitate the break down of sucrose into the two simple monosaccharide sugars that it is molecularly composed of, fructose and glucose. This process is called ‘hydrolysis’.

Why would bees go through the process of hydrolysis? Well, by breaking down the sucrose into a blend of fructose and glucose makes it much easier to consume, it contains much more sugar than nectar therefore giving more energy to the bees (but taking up vastly less space in a cell) and of course, the reduction of water content allows the resulting honey to be stored without being spoiled, indefinitely if left undisturbed.

When the nectar has reached about 20% water content, the house bee will deposit the ‘almost honey’ into the cells. The bees will then fan their wings around the cells in order to evaporate more water from the nectar. Once the honey has ripened (at around 18% water content), the bees will put an air tight wax seal on the cell, stored for future use or to be extracted by the beekeeper.

Due to the lack of water in honey, no bacteria, fungi or even microbes could contaminate it. However, honey left out in the open, unsealed will draw in moisture from the air, making it susceptible to unwanted contaminants!

A brood frame with ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cappings – both perfectly normal

Crytallized Honey

Now that we understand the molecular structure of honey (a mix of fructose, glucose and water) we can better understand why the crystallization process occurs. Natural honey in its simplest description is over saturated sugar water. This means it contains far more sugar than the water can hold, making it an ‘unstable’ solution. The crystallization process is actually a great indicator that your honey is a natural product that hasn’t been adulterated. 

The exact percentages of fructose and glucose will differ according to nectar source. It is the glucose in honey that causes crystallization due to its lower solubility, it separates from the water in honey and forms tiny crystals that sets off a kind of domino effect of slow crystallization. If you have more glucose in your honey then it will set faster than if you have a higher percentage of fructose. Crystallization occurs even on the comb, making it almost impossible to extract without melting down the whole frame.

Beekeepers have incredibly learnt to harness the crystallization process to produce ‘soft set’ honey. A process that uses a honey with a high glucose content (such as oilseed rape honey) as a seed which is then mixed with another honey for a long duration, resulting in a smooth, creamy honey (the presence of the fine crystals is practically undetectable). This also means that the larger crystals will not form in the honey, because the process of controlled crystallization has already occurred.

Honey in the process of being creamed

In Summary

Just like how the crystallization process varies because of the foraged nectar, so does the the taste, colour and even texture. It is amazing to see your honey side by side, it gives you such an amazing insight into the variation out there. Being a beekeeper gives us many delights and being able to harvest honey is just one aspect of this amazing hobby.

We hope that you have started to feel excited about what this year will bring to you, hopefully a few jars of honey will be on the cards.

Beginner’s FAQ: What Books Should I Read?

It’s not imperative to read all the beekeeping books out there (and believe me, there’s a lot!) but it’s always nice to read different ways of doing things and learning more about the complexity of the honeybee. This will give you a better understanding of why and how bees produce honey and how you can attempt to maximise your haul.

We’ve broken down the books into some subtopics that you may want to explore further.

Practical Beekeeping

BBKA Guide to Beekeeping – Ivor Davis and Roger Cullum-Kenyon

Guide To Bees and Honey – Ted Hooper

Collins Beekeeper’s Bible

Beekeeping A Seasonal Guide – Ron Brown

Beekeeping A Practical Guide – Roger Patterson

The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver – James E. Tew

Honey, Beeswax and Propolis

Bees and Honey – David Cramp & Jenni Fleetwood

Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey – Cliff Van Eaton

Heather Honey, An Anthology of Works – Ian Copinger

Beeswax Alchemy – Petra Ahnert

Queen Rearing

In Search of the Perfect Bee – Brother Adam

Queen Bee: Biology, Rearing and Breeding – David Richard Woodward

Microscopy

Practical Microscopy – Bob Maurer

Pollen Microscopy – Norman John Chapman

Bee Diseases

Honeybee Veterinary Medicine – Nicolas Vidal-Naquet

Honey Bee Pests, Predators and Diseases Book – Kim Flottum and Roger Morse

Managing Bee Health: A Practical Guide for Beekeepers – John Carr

Planting for Pollinators

Plants for Bees – W.D.J Kirk and F.N Howes

Planting for Honeybees: The Grower’s Guide to Creating a Buzz – Sarah Wyndham Lewis

The Bee Bible: 50 Ways to Keep Bees Buzzing – Sally Coulthard

The Bee-Friendly Garden –  Gretchen LeBuhn & Kate Frey

Natural Beekeeping

Natural Beekeeping with the Warre Hive – David Heaf

Top Bar Beekeeping – Les Crowder

The Idle Beekeeper – Bill Anderson

Just for Fun

A Sting in the Tale – Dave Goulson

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

Honeybee Democracy – Thomas D.Seeley

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees – Thor Hanson

The Honey Factory: Inside the Ingenious World of Bees –  Diedrich Steen & Jürgen Tautz

For Little Beekeepers

The Honeybee – Kirsten Hall

The Beeman –  Laurie Krebs

Little Honey Bee – Katie Haworth

Little Yellow Bee – Ginger Swift

UnBEElieveables – Douglas Florian


Well what do you think? Have we missed out any beekeeping books that you think should be on the list, just let us know! Just remember, beekeeping is a hobby that should be fun so enjoy reading up about it.

Beginner’s FAQ: Do I Need to Join an Association?

We are often asked if it’s mandatory to join your local beekeeping association, the short answer is – No. However there are many reasons that you may want to think about joining up with your association, and we’re going to explore that today.

There is a long list of things to do before receiving your bees and starting your life as a beekeeper. Joining your association just seems like another tick box, but do you really need to join? You can choose to not be affiliated with the British Beekeeping Association, but there are so many benefits to joining that it is hard to pass it up. Let’s take a look.

Community & Support

This will vary depending on which association you have joined but by and large the community of beekeepers are friendly and supporting of new members. You will likely meet people who will have a range of beekeeping experience and will find many people to learn from (or even become your mentor).

Most associations run a beginner beekeeping course that run throughout the winter and the season, classes will be conducted in their chosen meeting place and at their association apiary (or maybe even online these days). It is a great way to get to grips with beekeeping as you have a wealth of knowledge supporting you.

You will be able to take advantage of possible ‘isolation apiaries’ for example if one of your colonies re-queens itself and shows bad temperament then you may be able to access a site away from the public.

Will you find yourself a mentor in your association?

Liability Insurance

Membership with the BBKA will cover you for third party public and product liability insurance for up to £10,000,000 (with an excess of £250 for third party property damages, paid for by the member). So what does that mean? It means that any damages caused due to your beekeeping activities will be covered. Whether that be collecting a swarm, conducting an experience day or selling your honey at a market.

However, if beekeeping activities become a significant part of your income then you will need commercial insurance and have to look beyond the BBKA.

The liability insurance does not cover any losses you suffer personally due to bee diseases, adverse weather or equipment theft. These are optional add-ons though at a very reasonable rate.

Moving bees can be a little hazardous!

Exclusive Discounts

Receive a 5% discount off National Bee Supplies to start your beekeeping journey for all members of BBKA. Individual associations may have also negotiated with suppliers to gain an exclusive discount for their members but you will have to enquire with them personally!

Informative

As a member of the BBKA you will receive a copy of the BBKA News, an extremely informative and up to date magazine to keep you in touch with the latest developments of research. In particular, their monthly section ‘in The Apiary’ is very helpful for the beekeeper that is starting out, it will give you a pretty in depth look into what you should be looking out for in the month and how to tackle common problems that usually occur.

In fact, February’s edition has a piece written by none other than Master Beekeeper Celia Davis on how to get started with beekeeping. In addition there are some very wise words from David Williamson on ‘Becoming a Beekeeper’.

Who knows, maybe you will be the next one writing an article for the magazine!

In Conclusion

For such a reasonable membership subscription the benefits are definitely extensive. Mind you, we haven’t covered all of them, but the reasons that may be important to those of a beginner. The BBKA has usually at least one association per county, and represent thousands of beekeepers throughout the nation. They have an unceasing amount of resources to take advantage of and a wonderful community surrounding them.

Learn more on BBKA’s Official Website: https://www.bbka.org.uk/

Beginner’s FAQ: Honey and Ethics

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?

Feeding a tired bumblebee

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.

Hives placed right onto the ling heather

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.

What happens if you don’t give them a super in time!

‘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.

In Conclusion

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.

Beginner’s FAQ: What is the Best Queen Strain?

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 strains and 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’!

Buckfast

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.

Carniolan

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.

Carpathian

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.

Ligustica

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.

In Conclusion

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.