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Restoring Old Skeps For Beekeeping (using WHAT?!) – Watch on Youtube

I like beekeeping. And even more so traditional and historic beekeeping. But my interest isn’t just theoretical. I like to try things out and experience first-hand, what it is like to use these old techniques and customs in real life. Where I live– northern Germany that is – the traditional way of keeping bees is using Skeps made of straw. Straw is a versatile material, it’s cheap and can be found in abundance, wherever there is agriculture.

But there is also a downside to using straw as a building material. It is not very resistant to rain, and humidity. If it isn’t kept dry it will soon start to rot. No problem in warmer climates, where it doesn’t rain a lot.  But where I live, we get quite a bit of Rainfall all year round.

When using skeps made of straw in such conditions, the skeps need to be protected from the weather. And that can be done in many ways. You can build a shelter, or you can put on a protective layer of let’s say clay or adobe. People used whatever worked, was cheap, and could be acquired easily. And where I live, well, here this happened to be poop.

Yeah, sounds gross right. But it is not as bad as you might expect.  People didn’t use just any poop though. They only used a very specific kind of poop. And turns out, that acquiring this specific kind of poop wasn’t that easy at all in our modern world. Agriculture has changed a lot over the past generations and with this change, plenty was lost on the way. And so was the perfect poop.

So, it took me a while to get the right kind of poop for my Skep project. Actually, it took several years. Who would’ve known that I would spend this much time of my adult life in the search for the perfect poop…?

I’ve been already using skeps in my apiary for a while now. But up until today I only used old skeps that were already in working conditions when I bought them. Old skeps can last a very long time. It wasn’t uncommon for a skep to be used for many generations of a beekeeping family. When protected right, even skeps made of straw can last for centuries. But from time to time these skeps need a little maintenance. Over time the protective layer cracks, falls off and has to be replaced.

And this is the project I took on for now. Some of my old skeps were a little bit beat down from years of facing the harsh weather, so it was time for me to restore them. I also had a newly made skep that needed its first protective coat.

After finally finding a source for the right kind of poop, I was very excited.  I mean who doesn’t get excited about getting a huge load of poop for their project?

But what is this perfect poop and what makes it so special? Why is it, that you only can use this sort of poop for your skeps and nothing else? Is it just tradition or are there any practical reasons? In theory, I already knew the answer but once I did the poopwork myself it all started to really make sense. This is the beauty of hands-on projects.

The magic poop for beekeeping comes from cattle. But how is cattle poop any special and rare you might ask? But more on that later

First, let’s get our hands dirty.  before you can apply a new coat of poop one must prepare the skeps by getting rid of cracked and loose parts of the former plaster.

When preparing a used skep for a new swarm of bees you also must extract the old combs. This is easiest with a special dedicated skep beekeeping tool, which is called a skep knife. You can also use this tool when the skep is occupied to check in on your bees. You can use it to bend the combs to get a better look or to cut off combs for harvesting honey.

In the skeps, the combs are supported by little dowels made of rosewood, which are pierced through the skep from one side to the other. When removing combs all the way up to the top of the skep you must extract those as well to loosen the combs.

When the skeps are empty and prepared, you can start applying the poop plaster. Gloves are optional. I was told, that using your bare hands is better, for the cattle poop is very good for your skin. But for now, I didn’t want to go too crazy and put on at least a little protective layer.

Now the fun begins. Working with cattle poop is actually quite fun. I tried different techniques to smear it on until I figured out a way that worked. You want to get a good and even coverage all over the skep.

So, back to our poop problem: What makes this poop so special and hard to come by? There are tons of farms all around the world. And on these farms, there is even more cattle poop.

But here is the thing: the poop from cattle that are fed with any kind of processed feed doesn’t work for your skeps. You need to have poop from cattle, that are pasture-raised with no artificial extras or additives to their diet.  Their poop must have the exact right consistency.

So, it all comes down to the right diet of the cattle.  And you don’t get that in modern conventional agriculture. You can only find such conditions on organic cattle farms. But there is even more to that. Even the poop from organic cattle farms isn’t always right. The consistency of the poop changes over the year. And there is only one time in the whole year where the poop is just right. And that is at the beginning of spring typically around may. It is the time when the pasture grows in its full juicy glory, and the cattle are eating a big load of fresh nutritious grass for the first time after the long winter. This seasonal diet change gives the cattle a very runny kind of poop with plant fibers that are digested and broken down just the right amount so that they are neither too big nor too small. The perfect mix for your skeps.

And this poop also trumps materials like clay or adobe. Those materials, once dry tend to crack and fall off very easily. The poop on the other hand remains a little flexible even when dried up.

Fresh poop is the best, as it already comes in the right viscosity. But you can also use poop that has dried up a little by just mixing it with the right amount of water. Again, you must get the consistency just right. Too much or too little water and the poop mixture will not stick to your skeps. It took me a while to figure out the perfect mix. But once you hit the sweet spot, your plastering material becomes magical, and you can easily forget what kind of substance you are working with. Such poop from happy and healthy cattle has a surprisingly low odor.

After applying the poop, you let the skeps sit in the sun for several hours until the plaster is all dried up. Once dried up, the poop has absolutely no smell to it anymore.  Now you put back the dowels and reopen the entrance hole.

 

Finally, you rub-down the inside walls of the freshly pooped on skep with a brush of fresh meadowsweet. This gives the skep a nice smell which is believed to lure in wild swarms and to keep swarms you put in yourself from venturing out again. This old tradition might seem a little bit superstitious at first, but modern research has shown, that the essential oil of meadowsweet contains the same chemical compounds, that are produced by swarming bees themselves when they mark a potential new home for their colony.

 

And just like this, the once beat-down skep is looking great again and is ready for its new tenants.

The bees seem to enjoy their new home. It Isn’t a shitty place after all, is it?

Her Majesty the Queen Bee presents the royal recipe for cooked hornets. What you need: a fresh live hornet, 20-25 strong worker bees, and a few minutes time. Cover the hornet with the worker bees, set the wings to vibrate, and cook the hornets at around 43 ° C for several minutes.

A yet to bee cooked hornet in its hive.

These instructions are by no means fun. Admittedly, the bees are of course not interested in preparing a delicious meal. But the honey bees are actually able to cook hornets. How exactly and why they do it is an exciting story.

The bees defend their beehive very vigilantly against all kinds of predators and enemies. Nobody who does not belong to the beehive is allowed to enter the inside. Regardless of whether it is a wasp, mouse, badger, or bear: anyone who dares to approach the entrance hole or wants to steal the precious honey will be put to flight by the watchful guardian bees with painful stings. In the case of large mammals, it is the pain that is supposed to keep the animals from the planned robbery. For smaller insects, the stings are deadly. The Venom kills the predators and the hive is saved. For the hornets, this method doesn’t work though. The tough hornets are unimpressed by stings and immune to the bee venom. The hornets just don’t give a fuck. They carry on with their mission.

The Entrance of the beehive: Well protected by several guardian bees.

Especially in late summer, many hornets are looking for some sweet treats. The scent of honey from the entrance hole attracts some daring hornets to the bees. Brave and without considering the danger of this action, many a hornet ventures past the stinging guards at the entrance hole into the interior of the bee colony. The bee venom doesn’t bother the hornets. No matter how many stings they get, the bee venom cannot stop the large insects from plundering the precious honey supply. A hopeless situation for the bees? Not at all. The clever honeybees have developed a very special defense method especially for the hornets: They cook the hornets.

The basis for this strange action is that hornets are more sensitive to heat than bees. The hornets die at temperatures above 42 ° C. Bees, on the other hand, can withstand temperatures of up to 44 ° C for a short time. This tiny difference in heat tolerance enables the bees to use heat to kill the hornets without harming themselves. To do this, numerous bees surround the hornet and begin to vibrate their wings to generate heat. The ball of hornet and bees is heated to a  temperature of just over 42 ° C within a few minutes. So the poor hornet is slowly being cooked to death. The brave worker bees, on the other hand, survive this brief temperature rise unscathed.

With this method, the bees manage to defeat the robust intruders without their sting. Of course, the hornets are not eaten by the bees. They didn’t cook them for Food. It was purely a defense. But the dead hornets are then too heavy for the little workers to carry out. So that the lifeless hornet does not rot inside the beehive and spreads germs and diseases, the dead hornet is mummified by the bees. Yes, you read that right. The bees mummify the dead hornets. In fact, bees invented mummification. The Egyptians copied this technique from bees and refined it. And the bees don’t just mummify hornets, but every animal that perishes within the beehive and is too heavy to carry out. The lifeless bodies are prepared by the bees and then embalmed with propolis. But that’s a story for another day.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Pictures: www.pixabay.com

The merry month of May, the time of sunny days, summer mood, and outdoor activities. This year, however, the weather turned the merry much more into a dreary … Rain, the cold, wind, and even more rain shaped the appearance of the normally bright and warm spring month. The few days on which it has not rained once this month can be counted on one hand. And you don’t even need your thumb… After the dreary winter, a rainy spring anyway and all the madness of our time, I was definitely not the only one looking forward to May. Finally be able to soak up the sun again, be outside and enjoy nature. Unfortunately, nature saw things differently this year. That gnaws at the mind. And not just with us humans. The displeasure with this weather situation is also clearly noticeable among the bees.

For the bees, May and June are usually the high points in their annual development. The number of worker bees, the number of honeycombs built and the size of the brood nest reach their maximum at the summer solstice. As early as May, the colonies were literally bursting at the seams. Spring blossoms in an ocean of ​​thousands of different colors and the hard-working insects find nectar and pollen everywhere. Now is also the time for swarms of bees. The hives split and form young colonies. It is the time of pure joie de vivre for both bees and beekeepers.

But this year the bees could hardly participate in nature’s rich table. The innumerable flowers of spring, such as apple blossom, dandelion, and rapeseed, were not visited on many days due to the heavy rain. As a beekeeper, you can tell that the bees were not in a very good mood about this situation either. The otherwise peaceable ladies greeted everyone who dared to go too close to the flight hole, stinging and grumbling.

But what exactly do the bees do when it rains? Why can’t they fly out when it rains and pollinate the flowers and collect nectar? What actually happens to a bee that is surprised by the rain during its excursion?

There is a baffling answer to the last of these questions: Bees cannot get wet when it rains. When the raindrops rain down from the sky, they really pick up speed. The heavy drops of water race towards the ground. In doing so, they displace the air that is below them and create A pressure wave: This pressure wave may seem insignificant and minimal to us humans. For the light bees, however, the world looks very different. The pressure wave that a falling drop of water pushes under it is sufficient to displace a flying bee. So if a drop of water approaches a flying bee, the pressure wave will throw it away before the drop of water can touch it. A flying bee cannot get wet in the rain. Isn’t that amazing? Since the bees are surrounded by countless raindrops in a rain shower, they are thrown around from one pressure wave to another pressure wave. A coordinated flight is not possible under these conditions. The bees use a large amount of energy to keep their trajectory halfway upright. Therefore, flying bees that are surprised by the rain shower usually look for a safe place to hang out until the weather gets better again.

But with the non-flying bees, those that sit on a flower, on a leaf, or on the ground, the natural rain protection unfortunately no longer works. These bees have a firm hold and feel the full power of the water drop. The unfortunate specimens that get a raindrop directly are bathed fully in the cold water. In this state, they are initially unable to fly. They will have to wait for the sun to dry them up completely before they can continue their onward flight.

Still, light rain is nothing to keep the bees from flying out and visiting blossoms. In fact, you can still see them in the rain on their collective flights, at least when there is only light rain. The bees at the entrance hole fly in and out regardless of the wet weather. The bees can therefore continue to fly out even in light rain and complete their collecting flights. However, air traffic is significantly reduced. This is more due to the flowers themselves. Most flowers do not like rain either and close again when it rains heavily or for long periods of time to protect the precious pollen. And if there are no open flowers, then there is nothing to collect. Therefore, the bees do not fly out at all in heavy rain. At such times, the worker bees sit idly inside the colony and wait impatiently for drier times. It can get really tight in the beehive in such times. And the female workers who continue to work their inside work have more difficult working conditions in the bee colony due to the now very tight conditions, while the foraging bees just hang around lazily. No wonder that there is discontent and the bees are more irritable than normal.

For this reason, you should be particularly careful in rainy weather not to go too close to the bees‘ entrance hole. As a beekeeper, you should also avoid looking into the skeps and beehives in such weather. Not only because the bees will then clearly show you that this is the wrong time. We would certainly not find it funny ourselves if someone took the roof off our house and let the rain into our rooms.

Bumblebee in the rain on a tansy flower

Text: Fabian Kalis

Photo credits: Roman Grac from pixabay.com, Steve Buissinne from pixabay.com, Krzystof Niewolny from pixabay.com

In fact, it is amazing enough that bees have populated the entire world with the exception of Antarctica (and the parts of China where they were successfully exterminated). No matter how warm or cold it is, wherever there are flowers, there are specialized bee species that ensure the local pollination of the plants. There are even bees in areas in the icy Arctic and the hostile Sahara.

But a place where you would definitely not expect the bees is space. And yet the little insects made it there too. Not on their own, of course, they owe their space voyages to curious scientists. But in purely quantitative terms, the bees are superior to man when it comes to space travel: 6815 of them have made it into space (or rather, into orbit). So far there have been more bees in space than people.

But what reason is there to send the hard-working little pollinators so far away from their natural environment with all the blooming plants? And what do the bees actually say about it?

So far there have been 3 space missions in which bees have been sent into space. The first of them was in 1982. On this first mission, 14 individual bees were put into orbit to study how weightlessness affects their ability to fly and their behavior. Such experiments have already been tested with other insects. The result: After a few uncontrolled flights due to the weightlessness, the insects gave up their flight attempts completely and from then on only moved crawling through their dwellings. With the very intelligent bees, one hoped for a different result. Unfortunately, the 14 individual bees, detached from their natural way of life as a colony, were not really capable of surviving and the experiment did not produce any new results.

As a result, two new bee experiments were brought to the space station in 1984 with the Challenger. Here, two special space-suitable beehives (bee enclosure modules, BEM for short) including honeycombs, and each with 3400 bees (including a queen bee) were sent into space. These were actually viable mini bee colonies. The planned experiments could now be carried out with real bee colonies. In addition to the flight behavior in weightlessness, one wanted to study the honeycomb construction behavior in weightlessness.

A „BEM“ (Bee enclosure module) onboard the ISS.
Photo: NASA

These bees, too, initially only made very uncontrolled flights in weightlessness and at the beginning constantly bumped against the walls of their bee space travel modules. However, because honey bees are extremely adaptive, they quickly developed new strategies for locomotion in the new environment. After just seven days, the bees were able to fly without problems even in weightlessness. This distinguishes them from all other insects that were tested in weightlessness. The queen bee also normally laid eggs in the cells of the comb. What is even more astonishing: The bees were even able to build their honeycomb structure without any problems despite the lack of gravity. This is a particularly astonishing result since the common doctrine is that the bees orient the alignment of their honeycomb structure on the basis of gravity. The honeycombs always hang vertically facing the ground. Even in zero gravity, all honeycombs were built in a uniform “downwards” direction.

An astronaut observes the bees in zewro gravity.
Photo: NASA

Overall, this research shows that bees hold many more secrets than we previously believed and that they are extraordinarily adaptable.

I wonder what the astronauts thought of these experiments. I can imagine that floating through space in a confined space together with possibly  6,800 bees in an isolated capsule is not pleasant for everyone. But I’m sure NASA has done everything possible here to develop escape-proof space beehives. After all, this was the most expensive bee experiment in history to date.

Anyone who has now done the math in their head will say: “But that was only 6814 bees. There’s still one missing.” And that’s exactly right. The last bee was a lone fighter and was recently sent into space. However, it is not an involuntary passenger who accidentally sat in the space capsule when taking off, but an art project of the Federal Art Hall in Germany. There are bess living in several beehives on the roof of the Federal Art Hall. For a special exhibition called “Outerspace”, one of these bees was enclosed in synthetic resin and shot into space on May 28, 2014, together with the astronaut Alexander Gerst. After this poor bee, degraded to an art object, had completed its excursion into space, it was brought back to earth again and has since been admired in the exhibition. So you could say that she is the most famous of the space bees, although, unlike the other 6814 bees, she was not even there alive.

Did the bees also produce cosmic honey?

Of course, the space bees had no way of collecting nectar, and therefore producing a special space honey on the space station was not a possible outcome. They instead were fed with regular sugar solution. However, there is an interesting anecdote to report from the episode “The Sting”, Episode 12, Season 4 of the animated series “Futurama”. In this fictional story, the crew of the space courier Planet Express is supposed to collect space honey from gigantic bees living in space. As appropriate for such extraordinary honey, this honey has very special properties: 1 spoon has a calming effect, 2 spoons cause deep sleep. However, a warning is given against consuming more than 2 spoons. 3 spoons are supposed to induce sleep that is so deep that you never wake up from it again. So it is clearly a psychoactive honey. Fittingly, the whole plot revolves around experiences that the protagonist Leela experiences in a delirium induced by the space bees. The whole thing may be a purely fictional story, but when it comes to cool psychoactive honey, an intoxicating space honey clearly takes the forefront.

 

Astrobees: The autonomous bee robots on the ISS

Astronaut Anne McLain with the Astrobee robot „Bumble“ on the ISS.
Photo: NASA

But the futuristic story continues in a no less exciting way in our real world: under the name Astrobees, 3 autonomous, intelligent, flying robots have been operating on the ISS for some time. These square cubes are intended to support the astronauts in their daily tasks. They owe their name to the humming noise they make when they float through weightlessness. To prevent collisions between humans and machines in tight spaces, the small robots are equipped with flashing lights that indicate their destination during flight. Since intelligent, humming space bee robots that fly independently through the space station seems a bit spooky not only to me, the models were later equipped with an animated pair of eyes, which is shown on the display on the front. A facial expression is now simulated in a comic manner, which is intended to loosen up the situation between humans and robots. Since another task of these little robots is to research the interactions between humans and robots in space, this is a suitable feature. The three small boxes look like flying construction site radios, but they are state-of-the-art, super expensive devices that could also come straight from a science fiction film. By the way, they go by the names Bumble, Honey, and Queen. After the docking station, which the robots fly to independently for charging purposes, was brought to the space station and installed there, the first two robots Bumble & Honey reached their place of use on April 17, 2019. On July 25, 2019, the third robot, which goes by the name of Queen, followed with another cargo mission.

These three futuristic space robots are now also available for free research. Anyone with the necessary amounts of cash can now book a research slot directly from NASA and carry out their own research with the space bee robots on the ISS. The future is now. I think it’s great that the first autonomous space robots, which are in no way inferior to the models from science fiction films, are named after the bees.

Construction site radio or state-of-the-art robot? The three Astrobees Queen, Honey and Bumble (from left)
Photo: NASA

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: all images from the NASA image archive, http://www.nasa.gov

With the first warm spring days, thoughts of the beautiful things of the warm seasons come to mind: summer sun, beach, and outdoor fun. What of course should not be missing in such weather is cool ice cream. The classic ice cream in the ice cream cone made from dairy is particularly popular here. A sweet and delicious treat for young and old. What hardly anyone thinks about, however, is the long chain of production steps that precede this summer fun. And it doesn’t start with the cows that provide the milk for cream production, it is the bees. They ensure the pollination of the plants that serve the cows as a source of food and thus form the basis of all dairy products. And here the bees sometimes have a really bad job. The flowering meadows with buzzing bees in bright sunshine may give a romantic picture, but hidden from view, exciting processes take place here. And it’s not always fun and games for the bees.

One of the most important plants in the diet of dairy cows is alfalfa (Medicago sativa). This protein-rich plant is the basis for almost all feed for the dairy farm. The ingredients of the plant ensure an increased milk production and thus improve the milk yield. The cows love this plant both directly from the pasture and processed in the feed. The bees are also happy about the many purple flowers that keep their nectar ready in the alfalfa fields.

Honeybee on an alfalfa flower

But what exactly is the problem with the whole thing? The flowers of the alfalfa have a very special property: In order to ensure reproduction, they don’t rely on pollen getting stuck in the bees‘ bristle dress by chance. These flowers make sure that every bee that nibbles on the precious nectar also carries a large load of pollen to the next flower. For this purpose, the plant has developed a mechanism that hurls a concentrated load of pollen at the head of the bees with great momentum. The bees are literally hit in the face by the flower.

The Landing of a pollinating insect on the keel of the flower releases the stamens which are normally hidden under the wings of the flowers. They fold down and slap a load of pollen on the pollinator’s heads before they fold back again to their normal protected position, where they remain hidden until the next victim flies around.

The honeybees don’t seem to be particularly thrilled about this spectacle. They learn very quickly that there are other ways to get the nectar here. After a few painful learning experiences, they collect the nectar sideways from the inside of the flower and thus avoid triggering the mechanism. For the flowers, however, there is no successful pollination. As a result, only 1% of the flowers are pollinated by bees.

Different species of bumblebee seem to have fewer problems with this spectacle. They are the main pollinators of alfalfa and are not impressed by the punch on their heads. Solitary leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) are also effective pollinators. This type of bee is the most actively used solitary bee in the world in agriculture. In order to ensure successful pollination of the large alfalfa cultivation areas, areas are deliberately chosen in which a large number of wild bumblebee species occur or a large number of leafcutter bees are artificially settled.

So the next time you enjoy ice cream, think about how many bees had to take a slap in the face.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Ivar Leidus, CC-BY-SA 4.0, <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.de>, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes were made to the image.

In this new addition, I`ll share some of the interesting traditional and ancient tales, fables, and stories about bees that different cultures have to offer. Also, I’ll post bee poetry by myself and others.  

Within the tribe of the Melliponini, there are three species of stingless, state-forming bees in the genus Triguna, which have discovered a food source very special for bees. They are the species Trigona necrophaga, T. crassipes and T. hypogea. The species name necrophaga is made up of the Greek words “nekros” (death) and “phagein” (to eat). Like all other types of bees, these bees collect plant nectar in order to produce honey from them, but they do not cover their protein requirements by bringing in pollen. These bees collect the flesh of the decaying remains of dead animals. They are scavengers. They are also called Vulture Bees. These special species are found exclusively in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The bees usually penetrate the carcass through the eyes and then collect the meat that is best for them inside. This is first salivated so that the bee’s own enzymes pre-digest the meat before it is gnawed, chewed, and chopped up, and stored in the special honey stomach that all bees have, which is normally used to transport large amounts of nectar. The meat is then brought home to the beehive. There the fleshy pulp, which has meanwhile been enriched with the body’s own enzymes from the collecting bee and traces of sweet plant nectars, which are always found in the honey stomachs, is passed on to the workers in the bee colony. Exactly as with the nectar, this pulp is now passed from bee to bee and in the process more and more thickened and more and more enriched with enzymes. In this process, nectar slowly turns into honey. The meat pulp, together with the small amounts of nectar from the honey stomachs, turns into a honey-like, sugar-rich, high-protein pulp. Like the finished honey, this meat honey pulp is now stored in storage containers made of wax. You could say that honey is produced here, which consists largely of rotten meat. This special pulp is the food for the young bees. The larvae need a high protein diet in order to grow up quickly and to build up enough reserves for their metamorphosis into adult bees.

Different insects feeding on a dead animal body

The finished meat honey has a dark gray-brown color and a sour taste with a slight sweetness. Some native residents of neotropical regions where these bees live also use this special meat honey for food purposes. It contains far less sugar than conventional honey, but the high content of animal protein still makes it a valuable source of food.

This honey is truly a curiosity among the special types of honey. I would love to have a taste. Unfortunately, this pleasure has so far been denied to me. With regard to the already difficult legal status of honey from alien (honey)bee species (see my article Honey Discrimination), this honey presents a particular difficulty.

The nests of the genus Trigona are usually built within burrows in the ground or hollow trunks. They build their nests out of beeswax, propolis, and plant resins. The honey and meat pulp are stored in large egg-shaped wax pots, around which the small brood combs are arranged. Pure honey made from plant nectar and honeydew and the special meat honey are not necessarily stored separately from each other. Mixtures of these two are therefore often created.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Luis Fernández García, CC BY-SA 2.5 ES <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the warm months of spring and summer, when nature buzzes and flourishes, when thousands of bees can be seen on the flowers and when there is a wonderful smell of summer and vitality, it is easy to imagine how a beekeeper with his own Bees works, how he catches swarms, how he equips beehives and baskets with new colonies, how he inspects the bee colonies, looks for full honeycombs and then looks for the precious honey to be ripe at the right time. And when the time comes and the baskets and boxes almost burst with full honeycombs, then it is harvested, hurled, pressed, sifted, and bottled. Yes, these are really busy times for a beekeeper.

Towards autumn the bees have to be fed with winter food and the last inspections are made before the cold season. And the last honey harvest of late summer is still stored in the shed, waiting to be stirred, filled, weighed, and labeled. The apiaries need to be winterized, tools and empty beehives and skeps stowed away, and the year brought to a good ending. Many people can still imagine that too.

A snow-covered modern beehive made of wood

But what about actual winter? In this cold and quiet time of the bee year, there is not much to see of the industrious insects. The snow-covered boxes and baskets appear calm and lifeless in the icy winter world. No flower lures the honey collectors out, no humming sounds are made at the entrance holes, and it is far too cold to look inside the beehive. It is very clear that the beekeeper does not have much to do with his bees themselves during this time. For many, the question arises: What does a beekeeper actually do in winter? The assumptions are mostly in the direction of lazing around in the warm home on long-term winter holidays. In short: the beekeeper must be unemployed in winter.

Of course, that’s not true. The bee year offers enough to do in the cold season to keep the beekeeper busy. In the traditional heather beekeeping, in which the bees were held in the typical skeps, called Lüneburger Stülper, winter was the time to repair old empty skeps so that they were ready for use again for the many swarms and young colonies in the next spring. The skeps, woven from rye straw, were tied together with ribbons made from blackberry tendrils or hazel bark and coated with a layer of Maibutter (the cattle’s first droppings when they come to pasture in spring), and many of these natural materials become brittle and loosen over time. It had to be repaired and renewed. Remnants of old combs and prpolis residues had to be scraped out of old skeps and the outer layer, which protects the straw baskets from the weather, was scrubbed off so that it could be freshly applied in spring. It was also necessary to replace the number of baskets that can no longer be repaired with new skeps that were woven from scratch. This monotonous work was carried out in the warm home by the blazing fireplace in winter meditation. In the warm bee months, there was no free hour for such very time-consuming work.

Braiding beehives (skeps) from long straw. Typical work in autumn and winter. Great Britain 1893

Winter was also the time when the beeswax, which was pressed into raw wax blocks with large wooden wax presses after the honey was harvested, was cleaned and melted down for further processing. The stoves and fireplaces, which were already burning in winter, were used for this purpose. Only a fool would have come up with the idea to light a fire that burns for hours on warm summer days to slowly melt down wax and thus waste the precious firewood. So winter was also the time to pour and draw candles. Drawing candles, like skep weaving, is a monotonous and meditative work that could be wonderfully carried out in the warm rooms of the home in the glow of candlelight.

Beehive with empty, old honeycombs

So the beekeepers, like the bees themselves, sat in the warm home in the winter months, well-protected from the winter temperatures until spring lures work outside again. And just like in the hives and skeps, which look lifeless from the outside, but which are full of busy bees inside the winter cluster,  which are already starting to incubate the new young bees for spring, the beekeepers themselves were not lazy in their solitude but busy preparing for the next bee year so that on the first warm sunny days in spring, life was full of strength again and ready to burst back into the world.

The times of traditional heather beekeeping are of course long gone and even if there are still a few idealists (e.g. myself) who continue to use old skeps, at least a lot has changed in people’s living conditions. Nevertheless, even for the modern beekeeper, winter is not so dissimilar to the old days. In modern beekeeping, too, it is now important to repair the old beehives and skeps, to build new beehives and skeps, and to free old empty hives from wax residues. In conventional beekeeping, which works with movable wooden frames into which panels made of beeswax are embedded, making these frames and soldering the honeycomb panels is a popular (or unpopular for many, because it is very time-consuming and monotonous) works. Even today, the beeswax that has accumulated over the year is often prepared in winter and then processed into beeswax candles, which are particularly popular during Christmas. Many beekeepers now produce almost all their candle supplies for the next year. And often there are still many full honey buckets in the warehouses, which now have to be filled and labeled after the first glasses of the last harvest have been sold and there is new space on the shelves for more.

And then of course there is also the marketing, which ideally does not rest all year round.

So there is enough for the beekeeper to do even in winter.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Fabian Kalis / Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons / Simon Speed, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Honey is a popular food and not only here in Germany, but worldwide. It is a delicacy and the many varieties from around the world are all popular. As a beekeeper, bee researcher, and honey lover, I am of course always looking for rare and special honey that I don’t know yet. In the meantime, it is often the western honeybee Apis mellifera that has become globalized livestock through humans, to which we owe the precious honey. Originally native to Europe, Apis mellifera has meanwhile largely displaced the honey bee species (Apis spp.) Originally native to other parts of the world from agriculture. Most honey, no matter where it comes from, now comes from this one western honey bee species. However, since each species has its own properties that are adapted to the respective region, the honey also differs slightly from species to species, even if it comes from the same region. Different species have different abilities to visit certain flowers or not. As a result of this globalization, a large part of the honey diversity is lost. So if you are looking for special honey, you should fall back on beekeepers who keep the original bees of their region.

Hive box containing a colony of Heterotrigona itama

But this is exactly where things get difficult. By that, I mean less the problems of locating such contacts and more the legal obstacles. What honey is and can be marketed as honey is clearly defined by law. In many (European) countries, only honey from the western honey bee Apis mellifera is allowed to be labeled and marketed as honey. This completely rules out the honey of all other honey bee species native to other parts of the world. In Germany, the wording is a little more revealing: According to the German Honey Ordinance, only honey from honey bees, i.e. bees of the Apis genus, may be referred to and marketed as honey. That includes at least the other honey bee species, but that’s not enough for real honey lovers either. There are other bees that produce honey: the meliponini. This tribe within the Apidea family (real bees) includes various genera of small, stingless bees that also form states and produce honey. They are prevalent pantropically in South and Central America as well as Australia. But there are also a few of these stingless bee species in Asia and Africa. Of course, the honey from these bee colonies has been traditionally used by local people for a long time. In modern times, stingless bees are even more and more used in small-scale farming. The small colonies can be kept in simple hives and therefore require little further equipment. As native species, they are much more robust and disease-resistant than the introduced honeybee species. Therefore, the Meliponini colonies are much more affordable for the often poor rural population than the expensive modern beehives with the western honeybees, which are overbred and often susceptible to diseases outside their endemic home. But in many countries, especially in the EU, this honey is not honey within the meaning of the respective honey regulations. It may not be marketed or put on the market as honey. So there is clearly enough of honey discrimination here. After all, it is honey that is also produced by bees and there is no reason to deny them their right to honey production just because they belong to a different species or genus. We should refrain from such ideas very quickly …

Trogina spinipes, a stingless bee native to South America

The question arises, of course, how broadly one can grasp the term honey. Some bumblebee species (Bombus spp.) that form the state also produce honey and even some wasp species (Vespidae or Masarinae), and this too has a long tradition of human use. In general, honey in biology is a sugar-containing substance made by insects from sugar-containing plant nectar or honeydew, the sugar-containing excretions of plant sap-sucking insects, by adding endogenous enzymes and then strongly thickened by removing the water content. At least according to this view, the stingless bees, the state-forming bumblebees, and honey wasps also produce honey. The restriction in food law means that these original and endemic honey producers (regardless of whether they are bees, honeybees, bumblebees, or wasps) are increasingly being displaced by globalized agriculture with uniform livestock species around the world. Some of these already endangered species have a high risk of dying out due to this exclusion and could soon be completely vanished from the earth. In terms of biodiversity and environmental protection, this is of course a disaster. Innovation in food law should therefore urgently be considered.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Mohamad Izham M.A, Ma Hzi Wong at Malay Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons unten: José Reynaldo da Fonseca, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered how the bees reproduce? If you are not a beekeeper probably not. But let me tell you, it is one heck of a story.

It all starts in the swarm season, which here in Germany is in the spring, mostly in May, when the bee colonies start to produce a lot of male bees, the drones. These cute little creatures are much bigger than the female worker bees, even bigger than the queen herself, and are easily recognized by their huge eyes.

Unlike the female worker bees, the drones don’t have a stinger. And they also won’t work as the females do. They can’t even feed themselves and have to be fed by the worker bees. Their only use inside the hive is for heating purposes when it is really cold at night. Since they are bigger, they can produce a lot more heat than the smaller females by vibrating with their wings. The drones live as vagabonds and fly out to different hives in the area, enjoying their bachelor’s life.

A hatching drone

But this lazy lifestyle comes to an end when the young queens hatch and the swarming begins. When a bee colony wants to split, the worker bees start to build special cells, where new queens are produced. The larvae inside these cells are fed with the special gelee royale, which makes them become fertile females: queens. The worker bees are infertile females. These special cells are also bigger thane the ones for the worker bees since the queens are much bigger. Right before the new queens hatch, they make a loud noise inside their cell. This is the signal for the old queen to fly out with a big chunk of the worker bees to start a new colony. These bees are the beeswarms.

A male bee

The reaming bees greet their freshly hatched queen and continue their everyday business. The first queen that hatches in a hive immediately starts killing the queens in the other cells before they are able to hatch. There can only be one queen to reign.

In this stage, the young queen can’t lay eggs yet. She has to be impregnated by the male bees. And this is where it gets really interesting. The young queen of course isn’t impregnated by the drones inside the hive, these are her own brothers. In order to mate with drones from other hives, she has to meet up with them in a special place: the mating spot.

A drone resting on a leaf

Until now, we have no idea how the bees choose this location, because it changes every year. But all young queens and all the drones know instantly where to go at this moment. And the spot can be up to 20 km away from a single hive. Yet all the bees now exactly when and where to go, even although they never have been there themselves nor has there been another bee from the previous year mating, which could have told them where to go. How they know this is one of the many mysteries, the bees still have left until now.

When the queens enter the mating spot, they are immediately greeted by hundreds of drones. Now the mating begins. Males and females come together on the mating flight. The drone attaches himself to the queen and right when he finishes his penis explodes (you can even hear a little „bang“ if you are close enough, so know you know where the word „banging“ comes from…) and the male dies and falls off onto the ground. But the queen isn’t satisfied yet. She mates with up to 20 different drones. But the drones after the first one have a slightly more difficult job. In order to be able to mate with the queen, they have to pull out the remaining penis from the previous drone, which is still inside the queen.

When the queen has acquired enough semen to last her whole life (she stores them in a special organ and uses one sperm at a time to fertilize each egg), she flies back home to her own bee colony. During the mating flight, she is accompanied by a small number of worker bees, which protect her during the process. Back home one of those bees has to pull out the last drone’s penis. Now her ovaries evolve fully and she becomes unable to fly (remember the old queen wich flies out while swarming? She has to be put on a special diet a few days prior in order to be able to fly again). After a few days, the queen starts laying eggs and the cycle of life continues.

Fabian Kalis