May 28, 2020

Bees of all varieties live on pollen and nectar. Without them, pollination would be difficult and very time consuming. Did you know that roughly one-third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination?

Honeybee hives consist of 20,000 – 30,000 bees in the winter months, and over 60,000 – 80,000 bees in the summer months. A hive of honeybees will fly 145,000 KM (equivalent of three orbits around earth), to collect 2.2 lbs of nectar to produce honey! Worker bees live for 4-9 months during the winter season, but only 6 weeks during the busy summer months and are all female. The average worker will produce one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime – making up to 400 lbs of honey per year – WOW!

What about honey? What is this delicious sticky mixture?

Mature honeybees collect nectar from plant blossoms. Nectar is 80 to 95 percent water and 5 to 20 percent sucrose (table sugar). As the bee transports the nectar back to the hive, a protein enzyme in her honey stomach, called invertase, breaks the sucrose down into the two simple sugars, fructose and glucose.

Young bees remove water from the sugar solution using two methods. They pass the nectar from bee to bee and 'drink' the water out of the nectar by absorbing it through their stomach wall. They also create heat and air flow in the hive by vibrating their wings and flight muscles, thus evaporating water out of the nectar which has been stored in open cells. When most of the sucrose has been converted to fructose and glucose AND enough water has been dehydrated out of the mixture to bring it approximately 17.8% water content, we have honey! After honey is made, bees cap it with beeswax to maintain the low moisture content.

Did you know that pollinators in Canada have been said to contribute over 1 billion dollars to our economy through agriculture?

Canada has over 1000 different species of pollinators from hummingbirds to bats and of course, bees. There are over 800 species of native bees in Canada and although the domesticated honeybee that you may find in hives are not native to Canada, there are many found in nature having escaped or “swarmed” from a beekeeper hive to relocate in the wild.

Bee numbers may have dropped a little over the past couple years but a study in 2017 showed 80 to 100 million domesticated hives worldwide (not including unregistered hives) that house between 10,000 – 60,000 bees per hive. That’s up to a 6 trillion bees! That is a lot of bees but that doesn’t mean they are not being threatened. As cities grow, natural flowers and plants are diminished, and hives are under attack by a variety of mites and the heavy use of pesticides which can be devastating to a hive.

That’s where you come in!

You don’t have to be a beekeeper to have a positive and healthy impact on bee populations both domesticated and native. Growing flowers, plants, fruit trees, etc. in your yard can provide an incredible amount of opportunity for a growing bee colony or hive.

Below is a short list of things to consider when taking care of your yard from spring to fall.

  • Let’s start with your lawn. You could create a section in your yard that can be developed into growing plants or flowers for bees and other pollinators? This can create a beautiful section for you and your family and friends to enjoy as well as provide pollinating plants or flowers (and less yard to mow!).
  • Perhaps you could let your dandelions grow in the spring. These are often the first plants to flower and can be crucial for some pollinators after a long winter. If you are not interested in letting them grow, please consider removing them in a safe manner. Pesticides that kill dandelions are not only bad for bees, but they are taken back to the colony where they could potential wipe out a healthy colony.
  • Plant your flower beds with single head flowers. They produce more pollen.
  • Plan to have bloomers until the fall. Here is a link to a great resource regarding plant and flower options to grow. Please keep in mind that you should double check a plant variety is not invasive in your area. Here is a link to Invasive Species Council of BC.
  • Bee bath. Bees need a fresh clean water. Use a small container and put some rocks or twigs inside, so they have a place to stand and rest while they take a drink of fresh water.

A quick google search would likely reveal local beekeeping club near your location. We encourage you to reach out and see if there is any information available that you can take advantage of. You may even find someone that would love to have you out to tour their hives and show you, hands-on, what a healthy environment looks like.

Who knows, maybe you will want to start a hive of your own! Read further to learn more about beekeeping (apiculture) and how can one be successful in this new journey!

Apiculture is the practice of managing honeybee colonies to achieve desired objectives. A healthy and large adult honeybee population coincide with substantial nectar flows is the primary goal for managing colonies. Thus, maximizing the collection of nectar (honey production) and/or providing pollination services for nearby food crops. At Cheakamus Centre, our main purpose for beekeeping is pollination; as well as using it as a teaching tool for visiting students to learn about the important aspects of food systems.

In order to attain the desired results, be it honey production, pollination services, or other goals, the beekeeper needs to have a solid and sustainable plan.

Knowledge of local nectar flows is critical - it tells the beekeeper which crops provide nectar and pollen for the honeybees. This knowledge provides the timing for maximizing colony strength in order to take advantage of nectar flows, and it also identifies instances when food shortages may occur for the colony. Additional knowledge such as: honeybee biology, the life cycle of the honeybee, seasonal cycles, the roles of the different types of bees, honeybee diseases, the food requirements of the colony, how the bees collect and process food, and the natural instincts of the honeybee colony, are all critical aspects that the beekeeper must understand. These aid in facilitating an environment that enhances the productivity of the colony.

What is required in terms of equipment to begin beekeeping?

Modern honeybee colonies are designed to mimic the dimensions and environment of a bee’s nest built naturally by feral honeybees, with the added ability to remove individual frames of honeycomb for inspection and manipulation. The dimensions of the removable frames are similar in dimension to honeycomb built in the wild. One notable feature is that the space between each frame, known as the "bee space", is approx. 8 mm. This space is enough for the bees to move around but not big enough so that the bees will build additional honeycomb in the space, thus facilitating easy removal of the frames.

A standard beehive consists of:

  • One queen excluder (to prevent the queen from moving from the brood chamber to the honey supers)
  • One or two brood chambers (each containing 9 or 10 removable frames)
  • One inner cover
  • One telescoping hive cover
  • One bottom board
  • One or more honey supers (boxes each containing 9 or 10 removable frames)

Required beekeeper tools, consist of:

  • Bee veil
  • Hive tool
  • Smoker
  • Some beekeepers additionally may use a full bee suit with gloves, and a bee brush.

What is required from beekeepers in maintaining bee colonies?

  • Beekeepers need to check their colonies approximately once every 10 days from spring until fall to ensure the colonies have good nutrition, strong health, and enough space. The best time to check the hive is on a warm sunny day with little wind to prevent chilling the brood and to take advantage of having most of the field bees away from the hive.

What is a beekeeper looking for when administering a hive inspection?

  • Is the brood pattern good? A spotty appearance to the brood pattern may indicate a poorly performing queen or disease issues.
  • Are there any signs of disease? If so, appropriate disease treatment protocols may need to be initiated.
  • Are there fresh eggs present? This signifies that a queen is present, even if she is not seen during the inspection.
  • Does the colony have enough honey and pollen? If there are not enough food stores, and there is little external food present, the colony may need supplemental feeding.
  • Is there enough space? If the colony is strong and there is an abundant food source, a lack of space will cause the colony to swarm.

In February and March:

Beekeepers are checking to ensure that the bees have enough food and are strong and healthy.

  • If a colony becomes weak, it is combined with a strong one.
  • If a colony becomes too strong, it may be divided in half by the beekeeper, thus creating two colonies.
  • Poor queen bees may be replaced with new ones, and beekeeping equipment is removed from colonies that did not survive the winter. In the world today, this unfortunately occurs 35% of the time.

In April and May:

Beekeepers are checking to ensure that the bees have enough room to expand the colony.

  • If the bees outgrow their physical space, they will swarm.
  • During swarming, a little over half of the population of bees leaves the hive to start another colony.
  • If this happens, the beekeeper will lose the year’s honey crop from the colony that swarms.

In June and July:

Most of the honey and pollen for the year is gathered.

  • During this critical time, the beekeeper might need to visit the hives every day.
  • Full boxes of honey are removed for extracting, and empty boxes returned to the hives for refilling.
  • Pollen traps are emptied into freezers for storage, and no one gets a day off.

By August and September:

The last of the honey crop is gathered and the bees are prepped for winter.

  • Beekeepers ensure that brood is redistributed to make all colonies of equal strength.
  • Colonies are fed if needed, and weak colonies are combined to make strong ones.
  • In colder climates, all the colonies are wrapped in an insulated blanket by October.

What is honeybee ‘Swarming’?

When a colony swarms, about half of the population leaves to make a new hive in another location. The mother hive retains enough worker bees to continue the work of the original colony and to make a new queen bee. This is a natural part of bee colony growth. Colonies that swarm are generally healthy bees just doing their “bee thing”.

Why do honeybees swarm? Are swarms dangerous?

Honeybee colonies swarm, in order to reproduce on the colony level. Where there was one large colony, now there are two smaller colonies. By traveling a distance away from the mother hive, the bees can spread out over a larger region. This allows for less competition for food and other resources. In general, honeybee swarms are very docile. The bees do not have any stored food or baby bees to guard. They are in a transition phase with all their thoughts focused on getting to their new home. That does not mean that a honeybee swarm will fail to protect itself. However, if you see a swarm, observe them from a respectful distance. Do not allow children to play too close or throw rocks or sticks at the bees. In most cases, the swarm will leave for their new home by the next day.

When do honeybees swarm?

Honeybees can swarm during any of the warmer months. Typically, you will see the most swarms during spring. Spring is a time of growth for the honeybee colony. Their focus is on building a large work force that will be able to make and store a lot of honey for winter.

During this time of plentiful food, the colony may decide to divide and create a new hive.

Collaboratively Contributed by Cheakamus Centre staff: Facilities and Operations Manager, Jason Fullerton & Sales and Communications Manager, Sepideh Tazzman

Source: Honeybee Centre