Beekeeping is interesting work. In addition to keeping an eye on the well-being of the bees, beekeepers keep an eye on the surrounding natural conditions, and in return for this demanding work they get delicious honey! The behaviour of bees and the size of the honey harvest are always determined by the prevailing climate, temperature and rains, and the nectar production of plants.
As hives, honey bees are given beehives that are constructed of a base, compartments and a ceiling and roof. In order to facilitate the handling of the bees and the honey, ready-made, wooden-framed wax frames where the bees can build the combs are placed inside the compartments. These wax frames are made from wax that the bees themselves have produced. Beehives are placed in a natural environment forming apiaries of 5 to 10 beehives.
From a beekeeper’s viewpoint, the bee year can be considered to begin in late summer after the harvest, once the queen’s egg laying is over for that summer, and the bees begin to prepare for their winter rest. The honey that has been collected is replaced with a sugar solution, which the bees then use to prepare and to store a honey-like solution for their food. The sugar must be placed in the hive early enough for the bees to still have time during the summer weather to cover the food cells with a wax lid, which ensures that the food will keep. During the winter season, the beekeeper ensures that mice and other small animals do not get into the beehive. Furthermore, the well-being of the bees is ensured by fending off the varroa destructor, a parasite. During the hibernation of the bees, the beekeeper cleans and updates the hive equipment, and makes purchases and plans for the next spring and summer.
DID YOU KNOW: Bees hibernate in a so-called winter cluster in which they keep themselves warm and eat the winter feed that was stored in the cells in late summer to early autumn. There are approximately 20 000 bees in such a winter cluster. This cluster moves around in the beehive compartment depending on the location of the food. The bees that are on the outer circle of the cluster stay tightly together and produce warmth. Even with freezing sub-zero temperatures outside, the temperature inside the winter cluster remains at approximately 20°C.
The new beekeeping season begins in spring once the temperatures are warm enough for the bees to start flying outdoors. Once the temperature in spring rises to 8-10oC, the flight entrances are opened and the bees are let out on a cleansing flight, in other words to defecate, after the break that has lasted all winter. Normally, bees do not defecate in their hive in the winter and since, however, they eat a lot, their need for relief is considerable in the spring.
When spring begins, the winter bees are nearing the end of their life cycle and, indeed, normally there are more of them dying than there are new ones being born. Therefore, the population of the hive can decrease up until May. When beekeepers make their first inspection at the beginning of May, they clean the base of the hive, they ensure that the temperature is high enough for the larvae to grow, they place the additional feeding frame and, if needed, they change the order of the compartments. At this stage, it is also necessary to start monitoring the number of varroa destructors, in other words, mites. This is best done with a mite-monitoring plate that is placed under the hive, and the number of mites that are found there will indicate the need for preventative measures.
DID YOU KNOW: The varroa destructor lives as a parasite in a beehive infecting the bees with various viruses. The larvae, in particular, are very sensitive to the damage that this parasite causes. The beekeeper ensures that the parasite population does not become too big by using organic pesticides. These pesticides do not harm the bees or nature.
In the summer, the situation in the hives is checked once a week and the sufficient supply of food is ensured. Once the number of bees increases considerably in June, new compartments must be added to the beehives for the maturing and the storage of the honey. Moving and lifting the compartments requires physical strength, since a full box may weigh up to 35kg. All work near the beehive must be done calmly and steadily, since any abrupt and sudden moves aggravate the bees.
The swarming season begins at the end of May and normally lasts until mid July. Swarming is the natural way for bees to reproduce and to expand their habitat, as the old queen and the old bees move from the hive to a new place and the young bees stay in the old hive and grow themselves a new queen. For beekeepers, swarming means a decrease in honey producers. Therefore, they have to aim to keep the hives in such condition that will make the bees stay and feel comfortable in them.
DID YOU KNOW: Beekeepers use a bee smoker as a tool with which they calm the bees down whilst they tend to the beehives. For the bees, smoke is a sign of a forest fire, and it makes them rush into the hive to move their food supplies to safety. Whilst busy with the honeycombs, the bees do not have time to pay attention to the beekeeper, and with their bellies full of nectar they remain calm.
The harvest season in Finland lasts approximately 3 to 4 weeks, and towards the end of that it is possible to check whether there is already enough covered honey ready for collection. By mid August, all of the honey is collected and the hives are prepared for autumn feeding. Once the weather begins to get cold again, the worker bees drive the drones out of the hive, and preparations for the next winter begin – another bee year is over.
During the harvest season, even otherwise peaceful bees can be agitated. The beekeeper is, after all, taking away the honey that they have worked hard for to collect. The beekeeper should, indeed, wear protective clothing that prevents the bees from getting underneath clothes and stinging when panicking. The protective clothing is normally white, since light colours do not trigger the bees’ attacking instincts as dark colours do. When the honeycombs are not being touched and the bees are not being disturbed otherwise, they do not attack and there is hardly any need for protection against them.
DID YOU KNOW: A bee only stings in order to protect its colony when it feels that it is under threat. When a bee stings, its sting produces apitoxin, honey-bee venom. The majority of beekeepers get hardly any symptoms. However, a genuine allergy may be even lethal. After stinging, the sting of the bee falls out and the bee dies.