Beehive Yourself!
by Ruth D'Alessandro

Over the August Bank Holiday Weekend just gone, I had an opportunity to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition - to see inside a working beehive. We were spending the weekend in the depths of Suffolk with some friends, Donna and Anthony who run an organic smallholding complete with goats, chickens, a cow and a large tank-like black dog called Ob. This time of year, Donna opens her beehives weekly to check that all is well in her bee kingdoms, and sort them out if all is not. Our visits to this organic Eden have usually taken place in the winter when beehives are left unopened, but now was the chance to see socialism in its most extreme at work. Paul suddenly found something utterly fascinating and urgent to discuss with Anthony on the far side of the farm, and it was with a certain excitement, and not a little raw fear, that I followed Donna out to the bee-shed to be togged up in protective clothing.

Honey beeFirstly, long green wellies. OK-Ya you may say, but if it’s the choice of looking like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and not being stung, or wearing sandals to meet 25,000 furious honey-bees, well, let’s do lunch at Le Caprice, darling. Then, white reinforced overalls, with a few stings from previous encounters sticking ominously out of the fabric. The bee veil next, which goes on your head and then comes down over the body like a stretchy string vest. Modern bee-veils are no longer like the romantic swathes of black muslin draped over the large artistic straw hat of yesteryear. They and the overalls leave the wearer looking like a cross between an Olympic fencer and a crash-test dummy; I was half expecting to find yellow and black segmented circles on my front and back. Gloves next, and the sleeves have to be tucked well into these and the boots. Any square millimetre of exposed flesh will be found by bees bent on committing suicide for the common good, and soundly stung.

Donna produced a smoker, (a tin jug with bellows attached), lit some corrugated cardboard, and stuffed it in the jug together with some dried grasses and leaves. My job was to puff the bellows occasionally to keep the dry material alight and smoking while Donna picked up her hive tools and other bits and pieces for ‘doing her bees'.

Donna and Anthony’s farm is not far from Sizewell B nuclear plant. As we walked down the garden to the beehives, clad in veils, protective overalls and shrouded in a curious white smoke, a cyclist in the lane did a worried open-mouthed double-take, obviously convinced that there had been some sort of radiation fall-out. The Women of Sizewell were on their way to put it right. In fact, what I was about to see was every bit as complex as nuclear fission, and perhaps even less understood. I was about to enter the world of the honey-bee, and be completely transfixed by the sheer fascination of it all.

Donna has four beehives, and the most remarkable thing about them is that each hive has its own personality. Now how can 25,000 bees have a collective personality? Consider this:

Many beekeepers tend their bees barehanded and seem to come away unstung. Whether this is due to the immunity from bee venom that keepers develop over the years, or the fact that he/she is calm and gentle and ‘has a way with animals’ so that the bees are not upset, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Donna’s Hive No.3 bees seemed hardly bothered when she prised apart the layers, took out the combs and inspected them. They wandered around a bit, flew up a bit, sat on my gloves wiping their antennae, but their sound, a gentle hum, and more peculiarly, the vibe they gave off was not menacing in the slightest. Donna put the hive back together again, and they amiably buzzed back in.

I fancied that I could feel sharp things coming through my bee-suit. Then we opened Hive No.4. Donna has a love/hate relationship with 4. One summer, before she had her super-protective Sizewell B-suit, she opened this hive and the occupants rose in an angry cloud and attacked her so badly that Anthony had to turn the hose on her to disperse the attackers.

As we approached this hive, I could sense it thrumming deeply before we even took the top off it. As the top came off, the thrumming turned to a Stukeresque whine and the guard bees flew straight out, ‘arse-first’ as Donna put it. I could feel them bumping savagely against my gloves, trying to sting, each with the power of a fingernail flick against the leather. Considering the size of these insects, that is a tremendous amount of power.

I fancied that I could feel sharp things coming through my bee-suit, but this was probably psychological, part of the menacing, angry vibe that these bees were giving off. After a while, I trusted the protective clothing, but that did not stop me nervously adjusting my gloves to cover any bare skin. As Donna put the hive back together, the bees hung around moodily outside the hive to make sure that we’d really gone.

Thus fuelled by fury, they made short work of some invading wasps, which were taking advantage of the hive being open to try to launch a raid, and some quite dramatic wasp/bee sting-to-sting combat was taking place on the ground in front of the hive. If numerous enough, wasps can overtake a bee colony, so Donna put some gates at the entrance to the beehive, which makes it smaller and easier for the bees to defend their home against the marauders.

Hive no.2 was a wild colony that had found its way into an empty beehive, and Donna left them to their own devices to see what they would do. Instead of the wooden combs that beekeepers usually slot inside the box, the box was left empty. The bees built up their wax chambers in beautiful, irregular but interlocking combs filling the whole box. A work of art, which will have to be eaten as honeycomb because the combs are too irregular to spin the honey out.

Hive no.1 was also a gentle hive, which had recently swarmed, so half of its former occupants had flown off with the old queen to find another home. The remaining bees were not quite so laid back as no. 2, but not as angrily volatile as 4.

So, we’ve established (and I’ve seen with my own eyes, and sensed with my own intuition) that hives have different personalities. Beekeepers call this ‘the hive mind’ and this must be so, otherwise how could 25 000+ insects organise themselves into the diverse tasks of a self-sustaining community seemingly without a central leader to direct them?

So what do you see when you open up a hive?
The first thing you notice is that all the boxes making up a hive are stuck together with a reddish-brown glue. This is called propolis, and it is made from plant resins collected by foraging bees. It’s a type of insect Artex, and wild bees coat the insides of hollow trees with it when they found a colony, to make it clean and weatherproof. If a marauding (and rather stupid) mouse invades a bee colony and is stung to death, the bees, even with their highly developed ‘hive mind’ are unable to dispose of the corpse, and so will coat the dead creature completely with propolis to stop it decomposing and smelling dreadful. Bees are very sensitive to smells. This bee glue is security for the bees, but a damn nuisance for the beekeeper who has to unstick everything each time he/she makes an inspection.

Slovenian bee house
Slovenian bee house

The hive is a simple piece of carpentry by man, not bee. It is placed on a stand to keep it off the bare earth, and on top of that, an alighting board and entrance. As before with the wasps, this entrance can be narrowed so that the guard bees can defend their hive against predatory insects and small mammals.

On top of this is the brood chamber consisting of thousands of hexagonal wax cells where the queen lays her eggs and the young bees are tended. On top of the brood chamber is a queen excluder, which stops the queen bee, who is quite a lot larger than the workers, getting up into the honey chamber and laying eggs there. Then, honey chambers or ‘supers’ are added, which contain frames placed there by the beekeeper and wax hexagonal cells made by the bees, where the nectar is stored. The bees then evaporate off the nectar’s excess liquid by fanning their wings very fast, to leave a thickened liquid - honey. A waterproof roof and ventilation hole complete a most suitable home for a colony of bees. The bees built up their wax chambers in beautiful, irregular but interlocking combs filling the whole box.

The queen bee deposits an egg deep in each cell, which hatches and turns into a hungry grub. These grubs are fed by the worker bees with a little royal jelly for the first few days, and then with bee bread which is a mixture of pollen and nectar until they grow large enough to pupate. Then the workers place a wax cap on the cell and the pupa goes into a chrysalis-like state for several days before chewing through the cap and emerging.

But what about the Queen Bee? Surely she’s the boss?
The queen is as much a slave to the hive mind as is the worker bee collecting nectar and doing housekeeping duties. Indeed, she is nothing more than an egg-laying machine, given special treatment within the hive because the colony depends on her fertility. When her egg-laying slows down, worker bees may form a cluster round her, kill her and raise a new queen.

No bee can exist alone; for the continuation of the species, new colonies have to be created, and it is precisely for that reason that the most awesome, if fascinating and frustrating phenomenon for the beekeeper occurs – The Swarm.

Early summer and the bees are having a warm and fruitful, if busy time of it. The Reigning Queen has been laying eggs for most of the year, and the colony may now number up to 60 000 individuals. Young queen larvae begin to appear in the hive – they pupate in larger vertically-hanging cells called queen cups (a vigilant beekeeper such as Donna inspects her combs and picks off the queen cups to try and prevent swarming) If these are left to hatch, the hive becomes agitated and resounds like the klaxon of The Queen Mary – a lower bass A. As the new queens hatch out, the Reigning Queen makes a sudden exodus from the hive, together with up to half the adult population of workers. The remaining half stays with the Emergent Queen, the brood and the honey, waiting for their new monarch to make her mating flight, return and start to populate the colony anew.

The Old Queen rises up in a massive ball of bees, still emitting the lower bass A, and the mass settles on a nearby branch or fence, seething, while scout bees are sent away. They find a suitable hollow tree or empty hive to daub with propolis, prepare for habitation, and give the nod for the colony to move in.

Human beings respond in one of three ways to a swarm:

1. They run away very fast.
2. Some Very Silly People think it’s a good wheeze to fish out the queen from the middle of the swarm and place her either on their faces or in their mouths to make a hilarious bee beard. Putting a bee beard on is very easy, but I’ve never heard anyone giving instructions about how to remove it….
3. They put on a bee suit, shovel the squiggling mass into a cardboard box, shove the lot into an empty hive and leave nature to do the rest.

If you’re intending to do option 3, I would suggest that you get in touch with your local bee club who’ll be able to tell you far more about bee-keeping than I can. As for me, I just like eating the honey. See you all next month!

September 1998