Jon and his back garden bees

Jon and his back garden bees

There can't be many people who aren't aware of the alarming decline in the worldwide bee population. Pesticides, the increase in industrial agriculture, colony collapse disorder, the Asian Hornet and the varroa mite have all been cited as factors. It has been estimated that one in every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinating insects, particularly bees, and a drastic collapse in their numbers could trigger a worldwide food shortage. In addition, pollination of commercial crops is estimated  to contribute over €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy. Responsible bee-keeping has therefore never been so important, and one of our welders is doing his bit to keep bee numbers up.

Jon Tyers has worked at Torqueleader for ten years. He has also been a beekeeper since 2011, when he signed up for a local introductory course on bee-keeping which he found on the internet, and was hooked within ten minutes of arriving. He was given a starter colony by a friend, and he reckons he currently has approaching a quarter of a million bees in his back garden at the moment, in three colonies.

The bee year starts in April, when numbers begin to build up after the winter. Jon estimates that during the winter his bee population dips to around seven to ten thousand bees per colony, but when the spring warmth arrives the queen lays around two thousand eggs a day so numbers rise rapidly. This is when bees start to swarm.

The existing queen heads off with half the colony of worker bees. They have no idea where they are going, so this is when problems can occur if they decide to settle temporarily on a chimney or on an innocently parked car!  Scout bees then fly off on daring solo missions to find a permanent home.

Meanwhile, as in political circles, the bees left behind in the old hive have a leadership issue. A 'princess' bee emerges from a series of special queen cells, and her first act, this time largely unlike political circles, is usually to kill all the other princess candidates, before mating with a dozen or more drones and, by that act, becoming queen.

During the summer, the worker bees collect nectar, pollen, water and also propolis, the sticky resin-like substance found on new buds.  The life span of a worker bee in the summer is a mere six weeks as they die from exhaustion. Life in the office or factory may sometimes be somewhat exhausting but being a summer bee does tend to trump that in the stress stakes!

Beeswax is produced to build the hexagonal honeycomb cells to store the honey. Bees need to produce 50lbs of honey to live off in order to survive the winter. Some bee keepers feed them in order to harvest more honey for themselves, but Jon prefers to let his bees feed naturally.

When bees collect water they deposit it around the hive to keep the temperature ambient and cool, and in hot weather they will act as an insect air conditioner and furiously flap their wings to fan the air round the hive and keep it cool.

Propolis, which has mildly antiseptic qualities, is used by the bees to line the cells of the hive in order to keep help disease out.

Jon has a bee keeping friend who has had a tonne of honey from 44 colonies, but he is happy with 80lb from a colony. He says that extracting the honey is the worst part of bee keeping. It has to be done in August in a hot room in order for the honey to flow when it is placed in a centrifugal extractor, with windows and doors shut and even keyholes taped up so no bees can get in. It's therefore the same sort of effect as a sauna but considerably stickier. Jon cunningly manages to avoid turning his kitchen into a gelatinous mess by taking his honey to a friend's house and using an extractor installed in his friend's utility room, presumably between washes . . . .

Jon has been stung on various occasions in spite of wearing all the protective clothing. Apparently bees tend to travel upwards, so it's important to make sure that your trouser legs are well tucked in! He is sanguine about being stung, however, and subscribes to the traditional view that bee stings are good for his arthritis!

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