Scurry on the honeycomb.

Beekeeping – God Save The Queen, Or: One For All And All For The Hive

Beekeeping suit, gloves and off to the hive. During my Wwoof stay in Alberta, I was part of a bee inspection and was able to get close to the beehives. A very educational experience.

Drones only have one purpose in life: to have sex with the queen and die. If they don’t get to hook up with her – she’s picky – they fly back to their hive. But at the latest at the end of the season when the bees get their home ready for winter, drones get kicked out of the hive. There is honey for workers and the queen only. Nothing left for lazy drones.

Guy Fletcher, my host at my third farm stay as a wwoofer in Canada, was never really interested in bees. His son Paul asked to get a hive. He’s a bug lover. Today, the four hives are Guy’s babies. And this year he’s especially proud: One of his colonies managed to produce its own queen as we found out during a bee inspection we did together.

“Without a queen there is no hive.”
– Guy Fletcher

“Without a queen there is no hive”, says Guy. A young queen first goes out of the hive for her mating flight. It takes her ten to 14 days and she mates with around 20 different drones, the male bees. This assures genetic variety. After this she never leaves the hive again. The workers do everything to satisfy their queen. Feed her, collect honey, guard the hive, take care of the young bees, bring water into the hive, and carry dead bees out. The queen stays until she dies. She gets up to five years old. But usually queens don‘t lay well when they get older, Guy explains. That’s when beekeepers replace the queen by buying a new one from another beekeeper.

Well packed in protective suits Guy and Paul are looking for the queen. Without a queen, a colony can not survive.
Well packed in protective suits Guy and Paul are looking for the queen. Without a queen, a colony can not survive.

Guy and Paul check on the hives around every ten to 14 days to make sure the hives are okay. „I just put a new queen in this hive“, guy said about their largest stack of wooden bee boxes. „It didn‘t work out“, he said. The queen died for some reason or wasn’t accepted by the hive. But they are smart. The queen has a special pheromone. „If the level goes down, the hive knows that there is no more queen“, explained guy. This is when the workers come into action. They build longer cells, the queen cells. „We counted seven of them“, Guy said about their last inspection. The workers feed these new bees royal jelly only. This gives them the potential to become a queen. If the little ones get nectar and pollen only, the become workers.

Bees save our lifes

Wild scurry on the honeycomb.
Wild scurry on the honeycomb.

This is a quite complex procedure and I don’t want to go too much into detail. However, Guy almost freaked out when he figured during our inspection that there is a new queen. Paul discovered her right away after Guy took one of the wooden frames out of the box. She’s a little longer and bigger than regular bees.

While we were standing there in our bee suits, all covered up and trying to not get stung, I learned and figured the following.

  1. Ever since Guy and Paul have their own bees their fruit trees carry more fruits. „We get more raspberries since we have the bees. I used to pollinate the squash plants. The bees take care of that now.“ Also, Guy tried to grow plants bees like so they can get stronger and produce more honey. What he explains here can be transferred to our whole system. Bees suffer from pesticides, parasites and an unbalanced diet. If they don’t get a great variety of plants they get weak and eventually die. No bees, no blossoms, no plants, and – in the long term – less food. Bees not only produce honey, they keep our ecosystem running. There are whole essays and scientific research about that and I honestly don’t feel like going into detail too much. It’s just too complex. But to put it in a nutshell: bees save our lifes.
  2. What I found most interesting is how the bees perceive living together. Guy explained: „It’s not about the single bee. It’s about the colony. They die when they sting. They sting to protect the colony.“ I wish we humans would take over this attitude a bit. Away from ego thinking, more to a sense of community. We are all somehow connected. Whatever the individual does always has an impact on others – in both, a positive and negative sense. Together we are strong in protecting what is important to us – like the bees protecting their colony.

Beekeeping is a task of great responsibility

Quite a lot of air traffic. After the inspection Guy puts the wooden boxes with the honeycomb frames back on top of each other.
Quite a lot of air traffic. After the inspection Guy puts the wooden boxes with the honeycomb frames back on top of each other.

And there is another thing I learned: Being a beekeeper is a task of great responsibility. It’s not only about putting some wooden boxes in the garden and harvesting honey when the time has come. “I have bees to pollinate plants. Honey is bee food in the first place“, Guy explained. He always keeps enough in the hive for winter. In winter he wraps up his hives. Bees need more energy in winter to keep the hive warm. They keep the temperature in the hive at around 30 °C by moving their wings. It gets up to 40 °C below zero during Alberta winters. „Our bees made it“, Guy said and is definitely proud.

But it’s not only about keeping them warm in winter. „When the hive gets too full, the queen decides to swarm.“ She allows queen cells to be built. Before the new queen hatches, the old one leaves with half of the workers to grow a new colony. If a hive gets too full, the beekeeper has to split it.“I have to be mindful about it and check for the right point in time. I don’t want to miss the honey flow.“

Winter bees never meet summer bees

At the entrance to the hive there is high activity during the season.
At the entrance to the hive there is high activity during the season.

Beekeeping in Alberta is different from other parts in the world – because of the winter.
The season is short. Guy recalls: „Per year we produce more honey than in California but in a shorter period of time – because the season is so short but days are longer.”

And one last interesting thing: Winter bees never meet summer bees. Summer bees live five up to six weeks, winter bees live almost half a year. They first leave their hive after winter in February when they notice it’s getting warmer. Then, the queen will start laying eggs. Dandelions are the bees‘ first food. And sometimes Paul has to save bees when they come out with the first sun. Because otherwies they die when touching the snow.

That's me on the left in the bee suit. Together with Guy and Paul I'm looking for the queen. Photo: Nadine Fletcher
That’s me on the left in the bee suit. Together with Guy and Paul I’m looking for the queen. Photo: Nadine Fletcher

Fun fact: Before we started our inspection guy smoked the bees. That makes them calmer so they don’t sting. Well, apparently, he didn’t smoke them enough. For the next days there was an immensly aggressive humming noise coming out of the hive and spreading across the garden. And whenever we came too close to their wooden boxes while weeding the bees would come right after us. They just didn’t like to be disturbed. Luckily, noone got stung – except for Guy. One bee managed to find her way into the bee suit.

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