Our First Harvest From Honey Bees
Becoming a novice beekeeper has been a challenge, an unexpected expense, an adrenaline rush and more than anything, a privilege as we’ve been able to see these precious pollinators working in our garden. After the initial pleasure of finding the Honey Bees in our hive back in June 2014 and the fear that I hadn’t a clue how to look after them (years of looking after themselves didn’t cross my mind) I signed up for South Kildare Beekeepers excellent beginners course and followed all the instructions they and my experienced, neighbouring mentor John shared with me.
We recently harvested our first, fourteen precious jars of locally foraged, pure Irish honey and the following article explains how the honey was made. But to begin, a short explanation about the honey bees, whose colony is made up of the Queen (who can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day in the summer), the male Drones (whose primary function is to mate with the queen) and the hardworking female Worker bees.
There are approx 2,000 worker bees in a hive during the winter months but as soon as temperatures begin to warm, the Queen Bee lays eggs at a rapid rate, resulting in the colony that can grow up to 50,000 in one hive by the height of summer.
Just like the story of Barry B. Benson, a new bee in the magical Disney film The Bee Movie, who finds out that each bee has their place in the colony, so it is in real life. Worker bees start life as Nurse bees for nine days looking after the new brood, then spend 12 days as House bees tidying and cleaning before become Guard Bees, who mind the entrance and keep intruders out. They in turn become foragers for about four weeks and usually die out in the field.
While the bees are out and about they do several things, which include scouting for new food sources and foraging, they collect water as well as nectar (sugars), pollen (protein and vitamins) and propolis which is a kind of bee glue, that comes from sticky trees such as lime.
Nectar is the bees fuel. As the forager bee visits the various flowers, she sucks it up and it’s stored in her honey stomach. Different crops contain different elements that include fructose, glucose, sucrose, mixed with water and enzymes.
Nectar to honey
Nectar contains 60 – 80% water and the bees have to remove the water to make honey.
When the Forager bees return back to the hive, they pass the nectar they’ve collected to Receiver bees who drop it into storage cells on the frames. Honey has everything that was in the nectar but only 17% water. To remove the water, the Receiver bees roll the nectar up and down their proboscis until the water begins to evaporate. Bees fan their wings which removes moisture too until eventually, enough water is removed, the honey is ripe and the bees cap the honey in the cells with wax.
How the Bees Wax is Made
When honey bees are around 12 to 20 days old they develop a gland in their abdomens that converts sugar from the honey into a waxy substance, flakes of which are deposited and collected by the other bees and chewed up in their mouths. This aids them in the construction of the hexagonal combs. Beekeepers usually provide a wax foundation on frames inside the hive for the bees to assist them with this. In the wild bees have to do it all, hence the combs non uniform shapes.
Harvesting the Honey
Following several weeks of checking each frame in the hive for pests, diseases and extra Queens, for Beekeepers August is honey harvesting month and there is great excitement at the prospect of collecting jars of liquid gold. When we started our beekeeping adventure, we weren’t really interested in the honey side of things, just keen to provide a home for honey bees. As the months have passed, our weekly work checking them increased, the expenses grew and the prospect of selling a few jars became more appealing… If we’d had to buy everything and weren’t given a hive and had a swarm move in, our costs to date would have reached about €700.
Frames Full of Honey
In the popular hives, the bottom section is known as the brood chamber. It’s where the eggs are laid and the young bees are hatched. There are honey stores in there too for them to feed upon. The second and subsequent sections are known as Supers and the Queen is excluded from these as Beekeepers don’t want eggs and young bees mixed up with the honey stores they plan to harvest. The Supers are where the frames of honey are created and it’s these frames we remove at harvesting time.
Collecting the Honey
Once away from the hive, the wax capping is scraped from the frames using warm knives or special combs, then the frames are placed into large honey extractors where the honey is spun off them, collected into buckets, before being strained and poured into sterilised jars.
Pure Honey might seem an expensive purchase compared to jars you find cheaply in supermarkets that have often come from various blends and countries, but just look at the work involved. It took around two months for our one colony of around 30,000 bees to make 14, one pound jars of honey and we know that it’s been foraged within a five-mile radius of our house.
Research suggests that local honey is good for us and I’ve been scouring our local countryside looking for signs of farmers who spray their fields or verges with pesticides, hoping that our bees don’t find them. I’m relieved to find they seem to be very few in our rural location, but still sadly more than we’d like.
The Months Ahead
Our next challenge is to keep the bees alive for another year. We left them some frames with honey on and will be feeding them a sugar syrup so they don’t starve over winter, having had their reserves taken from them. They also have time to forage for the next few weeks and when the sun shines will be out and about collecting nectar from the blackberries and ivy flowers. We’ll be checking them for the deadly varroa mite and then hoping the winter isn’t too harsh and they pull through it for another year.
Our beekeeping journey is just beginning but it’s given us a wonderful appreciation and fascination of these very special, industrious little insects and the world they live in and I’m glad we’ve started out on it.
If you’d like to read more stories about our beekeeping experience, as well as suggested plants for your garden or hedgerows, you can find them here. If you’re interested in keeping bees, the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Association has a list on their website.