Bee Positive!

Charlotte and Shaun Prescott from the Bath Beekeeping Association are seriously enamoured with bees.
They tell us the story of bees, particularly the honey bee, and how much both we and the environment rely on them…

We simply would not be able to survive without bees. They are crucial to our physical health and the health of the wider environment. Without bees (and thousands of other insect species), it wouldn’t be long before our ecosystem collapsed. Bees pollinate our wild trees and wild flowers, which then support other insects, which then support birds, bats, mammals and everything up the food chain with food and shelter.

Almost 90% of wild plants and 75% of leading global crops depend on animal pollination. One out of every three mouthfuls of our food depends on pollinators such as bees and crops that depend on pollination are five times more valuable than those that do not. While there are other methods of pollination – including by other animals and the wind – wild bees can pollinate on a much bigger and more efficient scale. Estimates suggest it would cost UK farmers an astounding £1.8 billion a year to pollinate their crops manually.

Species of bee
Incredibly, there are over 20,000 known species of bees in seven recognised biological families around the world. Some species including honey bees, bumblebees, and stingless bees live socially in colonies while most species, including mason bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and sweat bees, are solitary.
There are more than 250 species of bee in the UK and 24 of these are bumblebees. One species, the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), lives in the UK. These farmed bees have been introduced by beekeepers and housed in hives, rather than being native to our shores.
Honey bees are the highest form of insect life; they live in a well-organised colony that does not need to hibernate. They produce honey and store it in wax comb and use the same hive every year.
The three types of honey bees in a hive are a single queen (egg-producers), thousands of worker bees (non-reproducing females), and drones (males whose duty is to find and mate with a queen; they do no work, and in the early autumn they are evicted by the female workers and die). Unlike the worker bees, drones do not sting.
Honey bee larvae hatch from eggs in three to four days. They are then fed by worker bees and develop through stages in hexagonal beeswax cells. Cells are capped by worker bees when the larva pupates. Queens and drones are larger than workers, so require larger cells to develop.

Annual lifecycle of a honey bee colony
The typical population of a bee colony is a whopping 35,000–50,000 honey bees. The colony typically follows a recurring annual cycle over the four seasons:
• Spring (March to May) – with the days growing longer, the queen steadily increases her rate of egg laying, the population is growing fast and the drones begin to appear. As the weather improves, the early blossoms are around and the worker bees begin to bring pollen into the hive. Towards the end of spring, the colony is increasingly active. Nectar and pollen begin to come into the hive thick and fast and the queen will be reaching her greatest rate of egg laying.
• Summer (June to August) – the colony will be teeming with bees and this is when bees will be most likely to swarm if not managed correctly. The queen’s rate of egg laying will drop as the season progresses and the main honey flow will be under way. Towards the end of the summer the colony’s growth will be diminishing. Drones are still around, but activity outside the hive begins to slow down as the nectar flow slows.
• Autumn (September to November) – the drones may begin to disappear in September as the hive population begins to drop. The queen’s egg-laying rate is dramatically reduced as the colony is hunkering down for the forthcoming winter. In November, the cold weather will send the honey bees into a cluster inside the hive.
• Winter (December to February) – the queen is surrounded by thousands of her workers. She is in the midst of their winter cluster and there is little activity, except on a warm day when the workers will make cleansing flights. There are no drones in the hive, but some worker broods will begin to appear. The bees will consume a considerable amount of stored honey. As the daylight hours begin to get longer again towards the end of December, the queen (still cosy in the cluster) will begin to lay a few more eggs each day. It is still ‘females only’ in the hive until the drones begin to appear again around March.

Threats to the honey bee
There are a number of threats affecting bees, some more serious than others. These include habitat loss, pests and diseases, extreme weather, competition from invasive species, climate change and the use of some pesticides. The most alarming threat to honey bees in the UK right now is the potential arrival to mainland Britain of the Asian Hornet. We can all help beekeepers by being aware of them, keeping an eye out and reporting them using the app

The art of beekeeping

Beekeeping can be a meditative and calming activity – the gentle hum of bees and the rhythmic motions of tending to the hive can be a relaxing way to unwind. Beekeeping can also be a social activity, and many beekeepers join local associations and branches.
The British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) was founded in 1874. The BBKA represents around 30,000 beekeepers and works to support education around honey bees, while actively campaigning to raise awareness of threats to pollinators.

If you are interested in taking up beekeeping contact either the BBKA Avon Association or the Bath branch for advice and consider becoming a member. The Bath branch near Newton St Loe has over 130 members ranging from novice beekeepers to master beekeepers. It caters for all ages holding informal and relaxed gatherings at its training apiary for those either interested or new to beekeeping. Taster Days are ideal for obtaining a basic understanding of bees and what is involved in beekeeping.
You do not need to be a beekeeper to support honey bees. We can all do our bit to help bees, whether that is in our gardens, balconies, window sills or allotments. Plant a range of flowers so bees have access to nectar from March to October. Bees love traditional cottage garden flowers and native wildflowers, like primrose, foxglove and marigolds.;