I am so happy that I have the opportunity to be a part of a beekeeping class offered by the beekeeping club of Konstanz. Yesterday afternoon was my second class so I have a lot to catch you up on. But first, a little bit of Greek Mythology which our instructor shared during our first class. Did you know that Zeus, the god of the sky and the ruler of the gods, was raised on honey? The story goes that Cronus, the father of Zeus, ate each of his children after they were born as he feared that they would overthrow him (just as he overthrew his own father, Ouranus). Rhea, his wife (also his sister, hmmm) finally got smart and hid her sixth child from Cronus. She lovingly presented her husband with a swaddled stone instead and ... he ate it! She brought her baby, Zeus, to the island of Crete and hid him a cave where he was raised on honey by the daughters of the King, Melitta (the bee) and Amalthea. Zeus became very strong and later dethroned his father. The moral of the story? What goes around comes around. And of course, honey is good for you.
During my second class, we learned that all honey bees are not created equal. First, we have the lady herself, the queen. A queen is only fed with royal jelly and hatches just 16 days after being laid. But a queen without her kingdom (or in this case her hive) is worthless. The queen cannot collect nectar or pollen and she cannot produce wax. But she is in charge of ensuring that the sperm she collects on her mating flight lasts her entire life-time of 3 to 5 years. She also decides if she wants to have a boy or a girl. She measures the size of the cell opening with her front legs and lays an unfertilized egg if the opening is large, thus a male drone. If the cell opening is small, she'll add a little sperm and a female worker bee will later hatch. The power!
Photo: The queen in the middle is significantly larger than the other bees.
Continuing on with powerful females, we also learned about the female worker bee, appropriately named as you shall see. The worker bees hatch after 21 days. A hive often contains approximately 60,000 female worker bees. A female begins her short life with cleaning (we're getting to the powerful female part) her honeycomb cell and herself. All cleaned up and ready to go, her next task is to warm up the brood. On days 3 to 5 of her life, she becomes nurse bee and feeds the older larvae. On days 6 to 12, she starts multi-tasking and feeds the younger larvae, takes nectar from the older female worker bees, packs the pollen and again must clean. On days 12 to 18, she begins building honeycomb with her wax secreting glands. We all knew that honey is basically bee vomit but did you know that beeswax is basically bee sweat? She guards the hive on days 17 to 19, allowing only family members to pass. Finally, she is permitted to venture out into the world (as far as approximately 3 kilometers from the hive) and gather nectar. But she's just so exhausted that her life ends after just 35 days.
Photo: Female working bee gathering pollen and nectar
And of course, we need the boys, otherwise known as drones. The drones cannot sting. They need the longest to hatch, 24 days and are larger than the worker bees. A drone's soul function is to find a virgin queen and mate with her. During his lazy lifetime, he is permitted entrance to the hive and is provided with food. In order to find his virgin queen, a drone has extra large eyes and an enhanced sense of smell. His moment of glory takes place mid-air. He must compete with several other drones for the chance to commit sexual suicide. If he meets with success, the explosive force from the ejaculation of sperm causes him to fall to the ground and die. Meanwhile, the queen continues to mate with another dozen or so drones in the same flight. The drones not "lucky" enough to end their lives so dramatically are then killed off come winter when they are only interested in getting at the precious and limited food supply of the hive. But the working girls simply don't let the boys near the honey anymore and they die off.
Photo: Male drone just hatching from honeycomb cell
Fascinating, isn't it? Well, after learning a bit about the goings-on in the hive, we got to actually open up the hive for the first time of the season and add the honey box to the top. It's important that the bees have enough room, otherwise they are likely to swarm. They don't like to be overcrowded.
Photo on left: Beehive frame, Photo on right: Beehive smoker
But before opening the hive, our instructor first got his smoker going. You can use anything in your smoker that causes smoke. The bees don't care but a nice mix of herbs from the garden gives the beekeeper a bit of aromatherapy while working. The smoke triggers a primitive reflex in the bees which makes them think that a forest fire is nearby. Rather than lose their honey to this impending threat, they eat it (a portion of it). This sugar fix makes the bees drowsy and not nearly as aggressive as they would usually be if someone came along and took the roof off of their house. It's important to work quickly and efficiently, especially in the cooler months. The hive is kept warm for the brood and as soon as the hive is opened, it can cool off rather quickly. Oh, and you shouldn't open the hive at all if the temperature is under 15 degrees Celsius.
Enough information for today. I look forward to the next chapter in this most fascinating world of bees. I hope you do too! Have any of you experience with beekeeping? I'd love to hear your stories.