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Frequently Asked Questions

There are many questions which are raised time and time again by people interested in beekeeping. These include: -

    * Do you get stung?

    * How much honey will a hive produce?

    * What is the cost of setting up?

    * How much time is involved?

    * How much space is required?

    * What is the life expectancy of the queen?

    * How do bees communicate?

Do you get stung?

The honeybee's sting is it's only defence against a number of pests and predators, which could otherwise wreak havoc on their hives. It has no use for it when foraging, but when called upon to defend its home, it will use the weapon with unerring accuracy. If you are going to keep bees, sooner or later you are going to get stung, just as the avid gardener is going to get stung by a nettle, scratched by a briar, or pricked by a thistle. The thing to bear in mind however, is that just as a thistle can be left embedded in your finger, so can a sting from a honeybee. The honeybee's sting is, unfortunately, barbed, so once it has been inserted into your skin, it cannot be withdrawn, and the bee will die, as it tears part of its body away, in its efforts to escape. It is important to remove this sting, as it is left with the attaching venom sac and a muscle which will continue to pump the venom into the wound long after the bee has gone. The method of removing the sting is not to pinch it out, as this will squeeze the entire contents of the venom sac into the wound, but to scratch it out with a fingernail, in a backward stroke. The frequency and severity of bee stings should not be over emphasized, as beekeepers tend to take precautions. After all, who wants to get stung every time they look at their bees. You will find very few masochists among beekeepers. The sensible precautions that are taken as a matter of course, is sound protective clothing, and bees bred from docile strains. (top)

How much honey will a hive produce?

This is almost a 'how long is a piece of string?' question. There are so many factors involved. Honey production depends upon firstly, the strength of the colony, i.e. the number of foraging bees available, then the forage available (e.g. is the hive on the edge of a field of oilseed rape, or is it surrounded by acres of corn, akin to a floral desert). The weather must be conducive to flight. Even temperature and humidity play a part, as some flowers will only secrete nectar when these factors are right. So there is no simple answer. But in general terms, a hive will produce from 0 (if all the factors are against it), to over 100lbs if circumstances are favorable. The usual average is between 40-50lbs. (top)

What is the cost of setting up?

The cost is obviously dependent upon the choice of new or secondhand equipment. There are certain essentials which must be purchased in the first year. These include a hive, bees, protective clothing, a smoker and a hive tool (as explained in the section on Getting Started). If some of these items can be obtained second hand, then the initial cost can be spread and new equipment purchased in subsequent years. Of course all of these costs can be offset by the sale of honey in subsequent years, but the initial investment has to be made, and this is usually in the region of £200 if the second hand route is taken, rising to probably £300 for new equipment. Ultimately, it is a hobby that will more than pay for itself, but this might take a few years. (top)

How much time is involved?

The busiest time is clearly in the active season, when the swarming risk is at its greatest. Then the colony should be inspected every 8 or 9 days, checking for the appearance of queen cells. Each inspection will take about an hour for a beginner to the craft. At the end of the season, time will be spent in extracting the harvest, and during the Winter, although no beekeeping can be done, there will be spare equipment to clean up and preserve, and frames to be cleaned and filled with new foundation, ready for the following Spring. (top)

How much space is required?

The physical space required for a hive is very little, a square meter will accommodate most types of hives. But then it must be remembered that the beekeeper needs to stand somewhere, and there should be room to put down spare equipment during manipulations. The front of the hive is not a good place for the beekeeper to stand, as this will impede the bees coming and going. Space should be available at the side or back of the hive without catching ones' veil in overhanging trees or getting snagged on brambles from a nearby hedge. Care should be taken not to site hives where they will be a nuisance. A high hedge or fence in front of the hive will make the bees fly high to get over it, encouraging them to fly above head height and thereby reducing the risk of collision with people. When siting hives, vandalism should also be borne in mind. A beehive is an ideal target for stone throwers. 'Out of sight, out of mind', is a good axiom to follow. If your garden is unsuitable to house an apiary, this alone should not deter you. Many beekeepers keep their hives in 'out apiaries', perhaps in the corner of a friendly farmer's field, or in a disused quarry. Usually bees are welcomed in an orchard, where the owner's fruit trees can receive valuable pollination. (top)

What is the life expectancy of the queen?

If left alone, the queen can last up to 5 years. However, she is not usually left alone. She is often replaced by the beekeeper or the bees themselves. As the only individual in the hive that lays eggs, the size of the population is clearly dictated by her maternal powers. She is at her prime from 2-3 years, after which her powers begin to decline, and it is at this time, that many beekeepers will replace her with a young mated queen which has been specially bred.

If the bees are not happy with their queen, they will replace her by a process called supersedure. A small number of queen cells will be produced, and a new queen raised. This queen will then get mated and take up laying duties, sometimes alongside her mother. This is the only time when two queens are tolerated in the same hive, but it doesn't usually last long, eventually the old queen will be discarded. (top)

How do bees communicate?

Most of the honey bees life is dominated by pheromones. Their actions are led by chemical signals to which they respond. Pheromones, such as queen substance, a pheromone produced by the queen which suppresses the urge to produce queen cells. The alarm pheromone that is left when the sting is used on a pest or predator. It has the effect of high-lighting the danger area and often leads to other bees attacking it. There are a number of these Pheromones, or smells to which the bees respond, but there is also physical means of communication. To pass on details of direction and distance they use dances. This is particularly important when, for instance, a valuable source of nectar has been located. The bee that has found this bounty, will carry some back to the hive, and dance on the face of the combs. If the source is close to the hive, she will dance in a circle, first one way then the other, pausing to pass samples of the nectar to the other bees. She is saying "this is what you are looking for, it is close to the hive, go out there and find it".

If the source is some distance from the hive then the dance is more complex. To convey these details she will dance in a straight line waggling her abdomen, then circle to the left back to where she started. She will then traverse the same straight line, with the same waggles, and this time circle to the right back to where she started, and then repeat the whole thing again. This is known as the 'figure of eight' or 'waggle' dance, and it communicates with some precision the source of the load she is carrying. Once again, while doing the dance she passes out samples so that the other bees know what they are looking for. The direction of the straight line part of the dance denotes the direction of the source, the angle to the perpendicular is the angle which the bees must take from the sun (e.g. 45' right of perpendicular, means that the bees, on leaving the hive, must fly 45' to the right of the sun). The number of waggles of the abdomen denotes the distance. (top)

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