Thursday, June 3, 2010

Honey bees: the hive boxes

Last night at a fundraiser for the Headlands Center for the Arts, I ran into a friend who has been reading my postings on Facebook on my beekeeping. She confessed to knowing almost nothing about bees. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who find it a mystery. So I've decided to go through the basics so that more people can be informed.

First, beekeeping has undergone changes in the centuries up to now, and the traditional round beehive image that most people associate with bees and honey is no longer in widespread use. Instead, most beekeepers, commercial and amateur alike use a system of stacked boxes with frames in them. The frames can be removed for inspection and honey extraction.

The frames have a distance between them that calculates the space bees need to form a single layer of honeycomb on the frame and then ha e enough space to pass through. This is called "bee space" and is typically 3/8 of an inch. Frames are molded to have a preformed honeycomb impression and then dipped in bees wax to give the bees a headstart on making comb. It is part of this boost we humans give the bees that frees up more time for them to make extra honey for us.
This frame in the photo here is a perfect brood frame, with the spacing of baby bees in the center of the frame with honey on the outside.

The boxes for the frames are stacked on top of one another and have different depths depending on what use they will have. Typically the bottom frame and box assembly is what we call a deep hive body, and this is where the heart of the bee colony lives. The queen moves freely throughout the box laying eggs and making new worker bees. The hive body is sometimes all the beekeeper starts out with in the spring, and the bees have lived in just this one box all winter.

As spring begins, the queen starts laying more eggs to ramp up for the summer. Beekeepers begin adding more boxes to the top of the first hive body. Frames that are for honey are shallow to be more lightweight, we call this box and frame assembly a medium super. The queen is excluded from these boxes, and without eggs in the comb the bees fill them with honey.
Honey is basically processed nectar from plants. The bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers and bring it back to the hive. Nectar is gathered into the bee's mouth, where it mixes with enzymes from the bee that start the process of becoming honey. The nectar is then deposited into the cells of the honeycomb and then dehydrated to remove the water. This finished product, honey, is the main source of food for the adult bees.
Pollen is like protein, and this is fed to the growing baby bees. While most Native bees do not make honey, all bees eat pollen, and they have a few different ways of carrying the pollen. If you look at a honey bee, you can see pollen carried in the special pouches on their hind legs. This pollen, like honey, is also stored in cells.
When a beekeeper is extracting honey, they take the frames out and with a hot knife they slice the caps off the honey cells and use an extractor to spin out the honey into buckets before then pouring the honey into jars. The frames are then put back into the hive boxes where the bees repair the edges and fill them with honey again.