Beginner’s FAQ: What Are the Castes? (In Brief)

There are three different castes of bees in the hive. It is important to distinguish and understand the purpose of each of the castes as it will help you indicate issues in the hive whilst doing your hive inspections. In this post we will explore the different castes, their brood and life cycle and their importance in the colony. I’m going to try to be brief and avoid going into too much detail about the anatomy, we might have to do an advanced caste class later on!

The Queen

Bee-utiful and Dreamy Queen

The queen is the largest bee in the colony and her purpose is to lay eggs to increase population size and consequently productivity and strength. A queen is produced using initially the same egg as a worker bee but during the larval stage the workers start to be fed bee bread, whilst the future queen is fed royal jelly until her cell is capped over at 9 days.

Once the virgin queen hatches and establishes herself in the colony she is encouraged by the workers to swiftly get mated. A queen can fly out multiple times to mate, but she should mate with about 8-10 drones before settling in the hive and ‘plumping’ up.

When a queen starts laying eggs, the brood pattern can look a little erratic. She can also sometimes lay multiple eggs in a cell before she gets into the rhythm of her work. The queen does not feed herself and instead relies on nurse bees to feed and care for her in a process called trophallaxis – the interchange of food between the bees which in turn stimulates the spread of her pheromones (mandibular pheromones) throughout the hive.

The queen is extremely important to the colony, as she is the one who ultimately controls the population. You may have as many as 60,000 workers and perhaps 700 drones. In response to the amount of forage, stores and nurse bees within the colony she will slow down or increase her laying, though that being said modern queens bred for prolificness can sometimes ignore these natural instincts. Without the queen, the workers can change behaviourally, becoming a little more irritable (roaring) and putting honey into what would usually be a space reserved for brood.

Queens however are not seen as irreplaceable in the eyes of the workers. When the queen gets older her laying becomes slower, or she starts laying more drone (indicating that she is running out of sperm stores) then the workers will supersede her by making a queen cup for the queen to lay in. In supersedure cases the queens can live side by side for a while until the new queen becomes more established in the colony and eventually the workers will kill the old queen.

The Worker

Isn’t she lovely?

The worker bee is just that, a bee that works. And depending on her age, she has many different roles in the hive. When she first hatches out of her cell, which she does by biting around the capping, she is lighter in colour and more hairy (a ball of fuzzy cuteness) than her older sisters.  Initially workers cannot sting and her glands are not working so the only job she can do is the cleaning up and this will be her first job for the first 3 to 4 days of her life.

During this time she is fed by the other bees and her body develops fully. Her exoskeleton hardens and her hypopharyngeal glands begin secreting a substance that is important to the composition of royal jelly fed to the young larvae. Around day 5 she will take her first flights outside of the hive to orientate herself. Once the worker is mature she will then do a variety of duties within the colony; cleaning, feeding larvae, processing incoming nectar, wax building and guard duty. She can do any of these jobs at any time and simply responds to the demands of the colony.  When the worker bee carries out these indoor duties for the first 3 weeks of her life, we refer to her as a nurse bee or house bee during this period.

Beyond the first 3 weeks of her life she becomes what we call a forager or flying bee.  She will leave the hive to collect the necessary resources that the colony needs to survive. They have a dangerous and tiring job and work from the time the sun is up until sunset.  The forager will collect nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Most adult bees at the end of their life will die whilst out foraging rather than in the hive.

The Drone

Drones and workers

Drones are the larger and rounded bees hanging around hives. You see them from spring through to summer and they hang out at Drone Congregation Areas hoping to catch a queen on her mating flight.

A primary focus for a drone is to mate with a queen. He waits high above the ground in a drone congregating area waiting for a queen.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of male bees all hanging around ready to compete to mate with a queen. They don’t fight to compete, they don’t even have stingers, they simply see who can fly closest to successfully mate.

The mating is carried out high up the air and once complete the drone will do a rather spectacular back flip off the queen.  The drone leaves part of himself in the queen and therefore this is the end of the drones life.

Drone brood is normally laid at the bottom frames, where there is slightly more space for bigger cells and is often domed making it very different from the flat worker brood.

Drones are often referred to as lazy when it comes to work around the hive. However, if temperatures rise really high inside the hive all bees, including drones, may help with the cooling effort by flapping their wings.

At the end of the summer months any drones left in the colony will be kicked out by the workers and not allowed to return.  They do this so that the drones don’t eat their winter stores instead of the more important worker bees. You may find that the drones will sneak into weaker colonies at this time of the year. Drones also serve another purpose us beekeepers.  When we start seeing them in the early spring we know the swarm season has begun. Some also uncap the drones as a varroa check.

Brood Cycle

From left to right, worker, queen and drone
source: blogs.evergreen.edu

One of the essential reasons beekeepers know the brood cycle is because of the three day rule. This refers to the ‘egg’ stage of the brood cycle, as you can see above all three castes remain in the egg stage for three days. The implication is that if you see eggs (that are laid properly) you can guarantee that your queen was alive and laying at least three days ago. It is therefore not a necessity to actually see your queen (as long as she is not on the frame you’ve left outside the hive whilst doing your inspections). In the same vein, it can also help you determine how long your colony has been queenless for, have you only got sealed worker brood in the hive? You’ve been queenless for at least 9 days but can be a up to 20 days!

Knowing the brood cycle also allows you to have a good picture in your mind how close your worker brood is to hatching and expanding your colony by the thousands. Queens tend to lay in a regular pattern, from the middle of the hive, the middle of the frame outwards in circles. There are some incredible photos out there that help identify the age of capped larvae/pupae, namely the colouring of the eyes and the body if you’re really curious how close your brood is to hatching.

If you’re into your queen rearing some only think about the relevance of the queen’s brood cycle because of their grafting schedule, but really it is also helpful to know and observe the drone’s cycle, as you can coincide your rearing by calculating the time it takes for your drones to mature after your drone cells have been laid in. This will help to ensure the Virgin’s mating flights when there is a good proportion of mature drones in the area. This is definitely a bit more of an advanced beekeeping practice though!

In Summary

That’s only scratching the surface of the amazing differences and roles of the honeybee castes. There is an incredible amount of literature regarding the more technical and anatomical aspects of castes but I certainly don’t think they are that relevant to beginner beekeepers. This should give you a good basis of knowledge to build upon, and you should be able to confidently identify the castes when you are going through your colonies.

Most beginners and non-beekeepers mistake drones for queens quite often, this is pretty normal and once you have been beekeeping for a while you do wonder how you ever made that mistake to begin with since they look so incredibly different!!

Beginner’s FAQ: Do I Need to Do A Beekeeping Course?

Are you wondering if it is essential to do a beekeeping course before starting beekeeping? Our short answer is – YES. In this post we’re going to explore why it is essential for anyone who wants to go into beekeeping the do a course and then also what to look for in a beekeeping course.

Why Should I Do A Beekeeping Course?

You may think that you are fully invested in taking up beekeeping as a hobby, however until you properly get your hands into a hive you will not know what it is like to have bees. Some of our course attendees even believe that they already understand what it is like to have bees flying around you, crawling on your hands and stinging you, but once they get to the practical session of our course, they just freeze up (or they run away).

Reading all the materials and books that you can on beekeeping can be extremely useful, but you really have to get hands on experience to understand your capabilities, sometimes frames, supers or brood boxes are heavier than you think.

All hail the mentor (don’t mimic that manual handling)!

What to Look For in A Beekeeping Course

We’ve personally been running beginner beekeeping courses and tasters for quite a few years. They’ve developed, regressed and changed dramatically because we are always trying to give our customers what they want. We take feedback very seriously and it’s helped us time and time again to try and create a good value and unforgettable experience.

Practical Handling & Group Size

I couldn’t stress enough the importance of the beekeeping course to allow you to handle the bees yourself. Obviously not without the teacher initially, but we all need to build up the confidence to adequately handle bees eventually independent of others. A good course should not have a huge group (depending on how many teachers there are). For example, on our course we have two teachers with a maximum of 5 students in each group for the practical handling session. This allows for each person to have a good amount of time looking through the bees themselves with a chance to discuss with the teacher.

Rob being surrounded by the students because Becky is taking the photo!

Handling Different Frame Sizes

If a course specifically allows you try out different equipment sizes then that will give you an excellent idea of what will suit you as a beekeeper. You may find that you need the smallest/lightest kit, i.e. the national, obviously this comes with downsides such as less space to lay for the queen and therefore you have to be on your toes to prevent swarming. The commercial and langstroth have shorter lugs which may be more difficult for some people to handle, so it is advantageous to be able to handle them when they have been fully pulled and filled to give you a realistic idea of using them practically in the future.

Different sizes of frames

Handling Different Breeds

It is quite rare to find a course that explicitly states that it attempts to show you different strains of bees. There are a lot of different strains on the market and the information given to you can be a little overwhelming to say the least. Therefore, being able to practically handle different strains will allow you to see subtle differences in temperament and prolificness.

Colour variation of the worker bees in a single nuc

We do our best to keep our colonies showing a different variation of the strains, however colour is not always the best indication of the strain! For example the Buckfast has been crossed with so many different strains that the colour variation is not always predictable. Needless to say that most of the queens that we use are open mated, meaning the queen is free to mate with any drone, this means that there can be a mix of genetic material within each queen’s lifespan.

Little Extras

Some beekeeping courses add a little something special for your day. for example River Cottage and The London Honey Company provide lunch. For us, we always try to make a honey cake to eat during our tea break, a honey tasting and we also give everyone a 12oz jar of honey to take back home with them.

Our range of honey

Alternatives to a Beekeeping Course

The only reason to not do a standard one or two day beekeeping course is going through some different avenues. However the principle is the same, that you have some practical experience before getting your own bees.

Go to the Local Association

A lot of beekeeping associations run introductory beekeeping courses throughout the winter, this leads up to a handling session in spring. This can often be very good value of money, bear in mind you will also have to pay the fee to join the association to begin with. This varies greatly between the associations so it is best to contact them directly. Either way, it is a great way to grow as a beekeeper as you have many experienced beekeepers guiding and supporting you on your journey.

Shadowing a Mentor

Does your neighbour have bees? Maybe they’ve had bees for years! Having a mentor is a great way to learn with very little time pressure as well as building a lifelong friendship. One on one training is an incredible opportunity to learn but one thing we may say is that don’t take everything they say as ‘gospel truth’ there are many different approaches to beekeeping and it is always great to incorporate new methods as you learn.

Volunteer at a Beefarm

If you live near a bee farming business maybe they would be willing to take a volunteer. That way you can learn on the job as well as having the added benefit of seeing many different colonies in a short space of time. Actually our very own Sian learnt this way from a bee farmer in London!

Here’s to all the new beekeepers of 2020 ready to bloom!

In Summary

It’s clear to see that we are extremely pro-course! Not just because we are selling a beekeeping course ourselves but because we have had a lot of experience giving advice to new, hobbyist beekeepers. We just despair when we get a phone call for advice and they are oblivious to even the basics of beekeeping (like not knowing what eggs look like!) and yet here they are with a struggling colony of bees and it is almost impossible to give accurate advice when the caller cannot even explain what appears to be wrong with the colony.

Beekeeping is a huge responsibility, not just to the health and wellbeing of your bees, but to your fellow neighbours and other beekeepers in your proximity. Beekeeping has a lot to it, and there’s no way that you can learn all of that from a book, likewise you can’t learn everything just by handling bees! It is most certainly a combination of both, but if you’ve had zero experience looking after bees (or getting stung) then it is essential to do a course or gaining some practical experience before investing in this new hobby. Remember, bees are not just for a season, they are hopefully for life!

Beginner’s FAQ: What Should I Do During a Hive Inspection?

There are a number of things you need to keep in mind when doing a hive inspection. This can appear a little overwhelming at first, but once you are inspecting your hives regularly this becomes second nature. Each of these elements on the list are equally important as if there is anything out of sorts with even one, then your hive will become less productive and healthy.

Queenright

It is essential to ensure that your hive is what we refer to as ‘Queenright’ meaning that your colony has a normally laying queen. At certain times of the year your queen may go off lay and you won’t see any eggs. This would usually happen during periods of dearth when no nectar is flowing, or as the weather gets colder. Most times when we inspect a colony it is not essential to physically see your queen, if we have eggs this will usually be enough to confirm our colony is queen right. Once a honeybee egg is laid it stays in this stage for 3 days, therefore if you see eggs then you can be assured that your queen was present a minimum of 3 days ago. 

Always check for the presence of queen cells too, these could be swarm cells which may be related to the ‘space’ element within your colony, or they could be supersedure cells. (See our separate post about what to do if you have queen cells).

So how can you tell if your colony is not queen right? Well, of course if there is no presence of eggs… But its not always quite that simple! Workers are also capable of laying eggs, but they are unfertilized, meaning they will only produce drones, you may also have a queen that has turned into a drone layer, this is a mated queen that has run out of her sperm stores.

The topic of identifying queenlessness in your colony is far too extensive to discuss here but we will soon be going into that in another post!

Can you see the Queen?

Stores

No matter how frequent your checks are, you should be looking at what stores your colony has.  Do they have enough stores to sustain them until you visit them again? Take a look at the young larvae, do they have a good amount of royal jelly in the cells, or are they looking dry?  If your colony is struggling for food the larvae may look dry.

When checking your colony for stores you do of course need to think about which point in the season you are in. Is there a strong nectar flow on? Is there going to be poor weather? Is there a lot of brood in the colony and therefore more mouths to feed? These are all questions you need to ask yourself to ensure that you can estimate if they have enough stores. Also remember that the stores don’t just refer to the honey, but also to the pollen present in the colony. Without adequate stores of the pollen the nurse bees will not be able to produce food for the growing brood. You may find that in a queenless colony your bees do not gather pollen, for this reason we always stop for a moment and watch the returning foragers as this gives us good idea if our colony is queen right with brood.

So how much stores should you need for a full-sized colony? This question is not quite so simple, and the answer will depend on where we are in the beekeeping season.  As a rule of thumb, you may say that your colony should never have less than the equivalent of two full brood frames of stores in your colony. However, if we are in June or July and have big colonies 2 frames of stores with no new stores coming in is clearly not going to be enough for your bees. We would hope that in June/July we have a nectar flow on and our hives have supers on that the bees are packing nectar into so there will definitely not be food shortage problem. However, there is usually a break in the nectar flow during the season, this is called “The June Gap” (which is not always in June, it can be a lot earlier).  Usually when the June gap hits, your colonies are nice and strong and therefore depending on how long the gap is your bees can eat their way through those supers full of honey very quickly! If this happens the amount of stores may be an issue, it is not unheard of for bees to die of starvation mid season due to a dearth in nectar flowing.

More stores are obviously needed to get your bees through the winter months, so the rule of the equivalent of 2 full brood frames of stores when we are in late September is also not going to be enough.  Check out our post about winter preparations for your bees. 

Commercial brood frame, note the stores at the top of the frame

Disease & Pests

The topic of disease and pests is so vast that it needs an entire blog post dedicated to it as well. We will just briefly discuss the importance of detecting disease early on.

During your hive inspection it is important to inspect larvae carefully, they should be well formed (clearly see their segmentation) and pearly white. Anything out of the ordinary is worth having a closer look at. Check all frames and see if you have similar larvae that is causing concern elsewhere in the colony. If you do see something that does not look right take good clear photos and show a fellow experienced beekeeper.  If you want to revisit the same frame later use a queen marker or even your hive tool to mark the top bar of the frame so you can locate the frame again. There are some relatively common brood diseases that show now and then like chalk brood, sac brood, stone brood and bald brood. These are usually not much of a concern and you do not need to notify anyone. If however you do have larvae that looks like EFB (European Foul Brood) or AFB (American Foul Brood) you need to get in touch with your local bee inspector as these are notifiable diseases; contact details can be found on BeeBase.

How does the pattern of your sealed brood look? Is it a good and consistent pattern or is it pepper-pot-ish? If the pattern is pepper-pot, by this we mean that the pattern has empty cells. This can be a sign of high brood mortality, the bees will have uncapped and removed any dead larvae thus leaving empty cells, or it could be diploid drones which do not survive to full development and again the bees will remove them leaving a poor laying pattern. A pepper-pot pattern can also be a result of a queen who is having difficulty laying.

Also have a look at the floor, are there a lot of dead bees that the colony are struggling to clear away or are there lots of dead bees outside in front of the hive? It is worth mentioning that you will most likely always see dead bees outside the hive after winter. Depending on how strong the colony is you may also find that you have lots of dead bees on the hive floor. A stronger hive will have plenty of workers who will keep a clean house and they may have removed them but a colony that is struggling will not have the man power to house clean.  If however you are mid season and you see lots of dead bees there may be a problem.  Also look at the adult bees, do they look healthy overall? Are their wings deformed or do your bees look hairless and shiny? 

In the case of varroa infestation, any damage can be averted as long as you treat before your mite levels are growing beyond your colony’s control.  If you do see signs of varroa damage in the colony treat straight away.  All colonies will have varroa however some bees will be better at tolerating / dealing with varroa then others.  You can manage your varroa by proactively doing a mite count.  We have a separate FAQ’s page covering varroa. 

Shiny hairless bees may be chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). If you’re not well versed in the various diseases and pest damage, I would seek help and advice from an experienced beekeeper. You can also find lots of advice on BeeBase.

Space

Whenever you are doing a hive inspection you should always be considering the available space for the bees. From the moment you take your crown board off you should be able to see if there is a suitable amount of space in either the brood box, or if you have supers on, space in the supers. As a rule of thumb, when you supers are full of bees, that means all frames covered in bees, you are ready for a new super.  If you don’t have supers on your bees yet, then see how many frames your bees are covering in the brood box. If they are really congested, you may have seen evidence that they have started to build wax up through the holes in the crown board and into the roof!  Be wary if they have done this as they may be so congested that they are pulling queen cells with a view to swarming – see our separate post on swarming! 

It’s not only about giving the bees enough space to expand, it is also imperative to not be giving the bees too much space before they are ready. A smaller colony may not have enough strength in numbers to keep a constant temperature throughout the hive and as a result they may struggle to stop any brood from chilling. 

On the other end of the spectrum, as mentioned above the lack of space pushes the bees to start thinking about swarming! All beekeepers want to avoid their colony from swarming because it takes a lot longer for a colony to become productive again.  There is also the risk that the new virgin queen may not come back from their mating flight. Rule of thumb is that 1 frame of capped brood will become 3 frames of bees so as you’re going through your hive consider whether you may need to add supers.  It seems obvious but do consider the time of the year, don’t be adding supers too late in the season as your colony will be reducing not expanding.

In Summary

I hope that gives you a good idea of the four main elements to keep in your mind when going through a colony. It may seem that there is a lot to remember, but as your experinece builds up these will become second nature and in time things that don’t quite look right will stick out like a sore thumb.

When first starting out it is always best to have a good mentor who can assist you when you’re going through your colonies, they may be able to spot things that you miss. Before you know it, you’ll probably become a mentor to a beginner beekeeper yourself!

Rob was initially my mentor before becoming my business partner!