Keeping bees has been in my family for generations – not as specialist apiarists, but in the same way people used to keep poultry and have a couple of fruit trees and a vegetable patch. We had all of those, and also bees. My great-grandparents were farmers and kept bees as a matter of course, but even after suburbanization, we continued with the bees. And although my parents and grandparents and various relatives had at least one or two hives in the back yard, and a normal sized hive (if there is such a thing) contains around 20,000 bees, I was hardly ever stung.
So for many years I took bees for granted, and I stuck mainly to the eating honey side of things (which I'm pretty good at.) I'd never eaten bought honey in my life. However, eventually I found myself in a situation where my grandfather was long dead, my dad was too sick to handle the bees any more and I was running out of honey. I wanted to learn how to keep bees… but being busy, I put it off.
Then the universe gave me a nudge when a swarm of bees landed in a tree in my garden. That's when I realized that despite my heritage, I knew nothing about keeping bees. My learning curve began. (The story of how I collected that swarm is here. It involves a smoking dog food can, safety lace and I malign an innocent neighbor.)
People who know about me and my bees have asked me, "When are you going to put a beekeeper in a book?" And until recently, I've muttered something vague and changed the subject, but now my current heroine has declared she keeps bees and so the time has come…
The thing is, people are remarkably romantic about the good old days of beekeeping, and they wax lyrical about the beautiful straw or willow skeps, shaped like "a proper beehive" instead of square modern wooden boxes. And the skeps are beautiful. But the old ways weren't exactly the good old days for bees.
In the wild, bees will nest in hollow logs and other cavities. They build honey comb from wax they make themselves, building it in long twisty sheets and lines, curving it into whatever shape will fit, leaving just enough space between the sheets for a bee to move. This is called "bee-space' and it's the same sized space, no matter where the bees build or how large or small the hive is. Wild honey comb is twisty and irregular shaped. Here are some examples.
Before the invention of moveable framed hives in 1851, bees were kept in a variety of containers including clay pots, hollow logs, and wooden boxes. However, one of the most common was a straw skep.
Skeps are domed baskets woven from willow or straw or some similar material.They sometimes have sticks or frames for the bees to build the honeycomb from. In this picture of an upturned skep, (from this excellent site) you can see the sticks and the new-made white beeswax. The fresher the beeswax, the paler the color.
When their home gets crowded, bees will fix the problem by splitting the hive. First the worker bees start to breed up a few new queens by feeding the chosen brood on royal jelly. The old queen and a bunch of her workers leave the hive and go in search of a new home, leaving the hatching brood with the rest of the workers along with plenty of food. This happens on fine, warm days in late spring and summer.
In the olden days, part of the beekeeper's usual routine was to catch new swarms from the forest or wherever, and transfer them to their own hive. In a straw skep the bees will make the combs in a wild fashion that's still beautifully ordered to bees needs, but will be folded and twisted and all joined up and where brood, pollen, honey and bees are all mixed up. Like the picture below. Eggs, larvae, young bees, pollen and honey all in together, and the queen will be in the middle. The only way to get the honey is to destroy the hive.
Many did this by simply killing the bees, with sulphur or by other methods. Of course many beekeepers tried not to kill the bees — they tried to drive them away with smoke, but it's not easy to do this — bees will not abandon their queen. Some beekeepers robbed the hive by cutting off some of the comb and hoping the queen was not caught in that section of the hive and others tried to minimize the destruction with various ingenious hive designs. But it wasn't until the invention of the modern removable framed hive that honey could be harvested without damage to the hive.
Everything bees produce is valuable — wax, honey, pollen, propolis (which they use to seal holes or fill gaps in the hive) and royal jelly, so for many beekeepers in the past, the entire hive was the harvest, not just the honey, so hive destruction was inevitable. The wax was almost as valuable as the honey, and besides, more swarms could always be caught in the forest.
They used to break up the honeycomb and let the honey drain through fine linen. This was the best quality honey. Then they'd squeeze the honey from the comb — this was lesser quality honey, and finally they'd press it for the lowest quality honey. Then they'd melt the wax, and the sediments — dust, brood, pollen etc would sink to the bottom, while the purest wax would float to the top. Beeswax has multiple uses — in cosmetic preparations, medicine, furniture making, candles — the most expensive candles were of beeswax— and much more.
Beehives weren't just valued for the honey and wax, though. Bees pollenate the flowers and while in the past they might not understand how it all worked, they did know that when there were plenty of bees, good harvests followed. So people kept bees on small farms and even on grand estates, and because (I'm talking about the UK here) winters were cold they built bee houses and bee shelters to keep the hives in. Here are some examples. They range from small rustic shelters like that on the left, to grand, purpose-built constructions like the one on the right.
Beekeeping has moved a long way since those days. It's a lot more scientific and humane. In modern hives, the bees make honey comb on straight, flat removable frames, and the beekeeper manipulates the frames to his own purpose, excluding the queen from the areas where honey is stored so the brood is laid in the lower frames while the honey is stored in the higher ones. The beekeeper takes away the honey filled frames, replacing them with empty frames. They slice the top of the wax comb off — the caps — and spin the honey out. The frames are left intact and put back in the hive, the bees clean up the honey and reuse the comb. The wax from the sliced-off caps is processed and sold, or recycled to make new bases for comb. There's less waste and the disturbance to bees is minimal.
I could go on forever, but I won't 😉 So let's chat. Do you have a bee story? Are you scared of bees? Allergic? Have friends or relatives who keep them? Do you tell the bees your news? Do you like honey? Or if you have any questions, ask and I'll do my best to answer them.