13 May 2013

Basic Assessment notes - Part 3 : Natural History of the Honeybee

I think it's important to remember that this syllabus is for the 'Basic Beekeeping' qualification - the first, and for some the last, beekeeping assessment they will take. The syllabus contains a lot - because beekeeping involves knowing a lot, but the basic care of a few colonies of bees doesn't require a depth of knowledge of every single aspect of beekeeping and bee biology. That knowledge can come later, as confidence and a need or desire to know more, develops.

I've underlined what I think are key words in each part of this section of the syllabus. This is because even the newest of beekeepers will probably have read books containing whole chapters describing any one of the topics listed below (- and as you're reading this blog you will have done a web search, and may have landed on this page long after reading piles of stuff elsewhere -) and there's a risk of wanting to regurgitate pages and pages of details. This is not necessary when preparing for the Basic.

To repeat - there is no expectation of high levels of in-depth knowledge, that expectation comes later with the modules. What is needed for the Basic is 'simple' or 'elementary' levels of understanding of most aspects of bee biology.
  • You do need to know about the development of the three castes.
  • Food plants in your local area, or the area around your apiary, and when.
  • This knowledge can help you plan ahead for equipment and supplementary feeding.
You probably won't be the only one being examined on 'the day', examiners have a schedule and allow about an hour for each candidate, so may have to prioritise, or may have to cut a candidate short if they want to say too much about the less-crucial aspects of being a able to look after a colony of bees. Knowing how wax is made is interesting, but recognising signs of disease is important. See the difference?

There is some overlap between individual items of this part of the syllabus.

The Candidate will be:
3.1 able to give an elementary account of the development of queens, workers and drones in the honeybee colony ;
  • All bees start as an egg.
  • Each egg will hatch into a larva after three days.
  • The larva grows until it is ready to pupate, which is when the cell is capped.
  • Beneath the capping the pupa undergoes metamorphosis into an adult bee.
  • Each caste of bee takes a different, predictable, length of time to develop from larva to adult - queen being the shortest, drone the longest.
Queen and workers are in the colony throughout the year, drones only during the mating (swarming) season.

The queen is the only permanent member of the colony, living from one year to the next for as long as five years (if she's been well mated) but more often for only two or three. Some beekeepers find their queens are superseded after only one year.

Workers live for only about six weeks during the busiest times, they get worn out foraging. Winter worker bees develop during the autumn, with high levels of fat that enable them to overwinter. These bees will look after the first brood of the new season.

Drones appear in Spring, they are evicted when the days get shorter and the nights colder.

The size of the colony changes throughout the year, is at the lowest at the end of February, highest throughout July. Best described by Dave Cushmans' charts.

3.2 able to state the periods spent by the female castes and the drone in the four stages of their life (egg, larva, pupa and adult);
This bit's important because beekeepers can work out if, and when, the colony will be at full strength to take advantage of local foraging opportunities, when a queen cell will emerge etc..

It's important to be able to recognise each caste. The queen doesn't always co-operate by sitting still, on her own, on the comb. This picture is an example of what you might see - but they'll all be moving and going about their usual business on the frame. The queen will probably be trying to get to the darkest corner she can find.

All castes spend 3 days as an egg. The egg develops into a larva, which is then capped whilst the developing insect pupates and then metamorphoses into an adult.

3/5/8 = 16 days from egg to adult
3+5 = 8, add another 8 = 16 total
Mating flights week 1 after emerging; egg laying from 21 days after emerging.
Lives for a number of years.

3/6/12 = 21 from egg to adult
3 doubled = 6, doubled =12. Add together = 21 days total
Hive duties for 3 weeks, then foraging.
Lives for six weeks in the summer, autumn-raised bees overwinter.

3/7/14 = 24 from egg to adult
3; 7; then (3x7)+3 = 24 days total
A week before sexually mature.
Lives from Spring through to early Autumn.

If your mind goes blank when you're at the apiary, there is a pdf  'Honey Bee Lifecycle Reckoner' at Edinburgh Beekeepers that you can laminate and keep with your suit.

3.3 able to give an elementary description of the function of the queen, worker and drone in the life of the colony;
Queen -
  • Lays eggs.
  • Her pheromones control colony's behaviour.
Workers -
  • Do all work within the hive - wax making; cell building; cell cleaning; brood rearing and nursing; queen feeding and grooming; drone feeding, grooming and eviction; mortuary duty; pollen and nectar storage; honey making; propolis spreading; guard duty etc.. 
  • All foraging.
  • Make cells, so decide which type of egg the queen will lay. 
  • Decide when the colony will swarm.
  • Decide when the queen should be superseded.
Drones -
  • not a lot, except for 
  • eating and 
  • a few mating flights - then they die, or return to the hive and are 
  • evicted at the beginning of autumn.
3.4 able to give a simple description of wax production and comb building by the honeybee;
  • Wax is produced by wax secreting glands (picture on Beesource) on the lower surface of the abdomen of young house bees.
  • There are 4 pairs of glands, capable of producing 8 wax plates at a time.
  • The wax is taken, chewed to soften it and then moulded to form cells.
  • Cells are hexagonal - whether they are made as hexagons or start life as cylinder and are pulled into hexagons by natural forces is open to debate.
  • Opposite cells have offset centres - see also housel positioning by Michael Bush.
  • Cells slope slightly upwards towards the top of the hive, so the contents don't fall out before they are capped.
  • Brood is capped with a mixture of wax and pollen, honey is capped with pure wax.
3.5 aware of the importance of pollination to flowering plants and consequently to farmers and growers;
Honey bees pollinate some flowering plants, transferring pollen from stamens to the anthers. Once fertilised the plant produces fruit e.g. raspberry, apple, plum, cherry, almond, ivy.

Hazel, grape vines, grasses and grains are wind-pollinated - bees will only visit the plants if they need pollen.

3.6 able to name the main local flora from which honeybees gather pollen and nectar;
If you want to take this really seriously then it's worth checking the fantastic resource on the Natural History Museum website site called the Postcode Plants Database. This will give a hugely long list of all the native plants growing in your area.

In reality all you need to know, I'm sure, is a rough idea of seasonal plants and maybe whether they are a source of nectar and/or pollen. The Melissa Garden's list here will help a bit, but it's probably best to use the BBKA's excellent pdf Pollen & Nectar rich plants for your garden, by season.

My apiary is in a town, so has the benefit of gardens and a couple of small parks - all 'designed' to look pretty throughout the year, and so having something in flower almost all the time but the native plants that will help bees are :
  • Spring - Hazel catkins (pollen), Alder (pollen), Willow (pollen and nectar).
  • Summer - Flowering trees and shrubs.
  • Autumn - Ivy, heather.
  • Winter - almost nothing except gorse and late flowering ivy.
The 'June Gap' is the time between the end of spring or early summer flowering and the beginning of heather/ling and ivy.

Not all flowering plants provide food for honey bees - buddleia for example, is useless because the individual flowers are too deep for the bees' shortish tongue, but it is visited by butterflies.

Some more examples :
Christmas Box, Winter Cherry, Hazel, Viburnum tinus, Mahonia (Oregon grape), Snowdrop.
Snowdrop, Lenten Rose, Winter Aconite.
Willow, Cherry plum, Apricot, Almond, Lenten Rose.
Apple, Cherry, Pear, Plum, Dandelion, Maple/Sycamore, Currant.
Oil Seed Rape, Hawthorn, Holly, Horse Chestnut, Raspberry.
Raspberry, Strawberry, Broad Beans, Acacia, Lime (Linden).
Blackberry, White Clover, Sweet Chestnut, Rose-bay Willow Herb,
Himalayan Balsam, Purple Loosestrife, Mint, Heather (Ling)
Sunflowers, Golden Rod.
Ivy, gorse.
Mahonia, False Castor Oil Plant, Viburnum tinus

3.7 able to give a simple definition of nectar and a simple description of how it is collected,  brought back to the hive and is converted into honey;
Nectar is a sugary substance produced by plants as a food bribe for pollinators. Some plants produce nectar at very low temperatures, others (such as Lime and Hawthorn) need special conditions - higher temperatures and certain levels of humidity before producing nectar.

Bees suck nectar into their honey stomach, carry it back to the hive where it is transferred to another bee (trophallaxis). The receiving bee takes the nectar to storage cells. When the cells are full the house bees fan above the cells to reduce water levels and ripen the honey. When the mixture contains less than 20% water, the cells are capped with a layer of pure wax. (18% is optimal, but heather honey often contains more water.)

3.8 able to give a simple description of the collection and use of pollen, water and propolis in the honeybee colony;
Bees collect, and carry, pollen and propolis on an area of their rear legs known as pollen baskets. They suck up water into their honey stomach, and carry it back to the hive where the payload is transferred to house bees, to make the most of available foraging time.

The house bees pack pollen into cells, sometimes storing only one type of pollen in each cell. Nectar is stored separately, when the cells are full the bees will remove water (ripen) and then cap the cells to ensure the honey doesn't ferment. Pollen provides the protein  part of the bees' diet. Honey provides the carbohydrate part of the bees' diet.

Water is used to dilute stored honey into usable food.

Propolis is the hive's cleaning agent. Bees cover every internal surface with propolis, sometimes making the inside of the hive very sticky. Gaps less than 4mm will be filled with propolis. They will also cover a dead mouse with propolis, essentially mummifying it.

3.9 able to give an elementary description of swarming in a honeybee colony;
A lot of detail in this post - A swarm ... of honey bees but, basically, a swarm is the bees' only means of reproduction.

The old queen and flying bees leave the hive and start a new colony up to a mile away from the old site, leaving behind a capped queen cell, the non-flying bees and some foragers. The queen cell will hatch within 8 days. The new queen should begin laying 21 days (3 weeks) after the swarm leaves, by which time the existing eggs will have hatched,pupated and metamorphosed, and the previous house bees will be foraging for nectar and pollen.

3.10 able to give an elementary description of the way in which the honeybee colony passes the winter.

Too brief? Probably!

Dave Cushman has an interesting page about clustering and ventilation.

During the coldest of days, when there isn't even the slightest chance of going outside to get rid of waste products, bees will form what looks very much like a swarm - within the hive and, if they get their planning right, directly over some stored food.

The cluster isn't static - outer bees gradually move inwards, the inner ones outwards, sharing the heating duties and always making sure the queen is safe, and warm. The cluster will also move around the hive, making sure there is access to food.

Beekeepers can help their bees overwinter by making sure the hive is well insulated - a good thick layer of insulation beneath the roof will stop warm air leaving the hive, and stop cold air being drawn upwards through the open mesh floor unless the bees want fresh air. If they do they will draw air inwards by fanning.

Some of the parts of this syllabus are covered in parts one and two, it's worth checking those posts too.

There are 'notes' for each section of the 'Basic Assessment' syllabus:
BBKA Basic Assessment : Syllabus 2013
Basic Assessment notes - Part 1 : Manipulation of a Honeybee Colony
Basic Assessment notes - Part 2 : Equipment
Basic Assessment notes - Part 3 : Natural History of the Honeybee
Basic Assessment notes - Part 4 : Beekeeping
Basic Assessment notes - Part 5 : Disease and Pests
BBKA Basic Assessment notes : On the day


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