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Beekeeping Class Notes – Introduction To Apis mellifera

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Its believed that bees have existed on this earth for 120 million years – we have fossil evidence from 100 million years ago.

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And lets think about that for a minute. Compared to how long the conventional story says modern humans have been around (40,000 years). Bees have had a LOT of time to work things out and come up with strategies for survival. They survived the asteroid impact that conventional history says wiped out the dinosaurs!

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Bees are thought to have evolved from wasps. Wasps are predatory and eat flesh (often of bees) whereas bees are vegetarians mainly existing on pollen and nectar.

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There are more than 20,000 different kinds of bees.

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This poster shows a selection of some of the most common native bees in Victoria. There are hundreds of others.

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This image shows some of the most common bee species that live in the US.

Around 1700 different species of bee live in Australia.

New bee species are still being “discovered”.

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The European Bee, as its name would suggest is an introduced species in Australia. It is sometimes called an invasive species. This means that it is not native and spreads to the point where it’s causing damage to the environment, the economy and/or human health.

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This is a grey area for the honeybee as, though it might spread and cause some problems, it is also responsible our honey supply and for much of our commercial crop pollination. It is the only insect that our culture farms for food and the least impactful type of any livestock farmed.

If done well bee farming has zero or even negative environmental impact – mention study about native & Euro bees.

European bees certainly do displace native animals from their habitat – holes in trees. I’ve seen that with my own eyes. So in that way it causes damage. (but the underlying issue there is that there are not habitat). As beekeepers, prevention of swarming bees is something we should consider carefully. But again its not black and white and we’ll cover this more later.

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The scientific name for the Euro Honeybee is Apis Mellifera. It comes from two sources. Apis is the Latin word for “bee” and mellifera is Greek for “honey-bearing”. .

A Swedish botanist and medical doctor named Karl von Linne in the early 1700’s (later changing his name to the Latinised version of his name Carolus Linnaeus), came up with the scheme for classifying all known and yet to be discovered organisms according to their similarities – the same system we still use today. And using this system he named the honeybee. But he made a mistake. He realised that honey bees do not actually carry honey – they carry nectar and later turn it into honey. So he tried to change the name to Apis Mellifica, the name for a honey-making bee. But he was too late. The older name stuck.

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The European honeybee collects nectar from flowers and makes it into honey for other bees in the hive to eat when no nectar is available. Most honey is made in the warmer months when there are plenty of blooming flowers, although here in Castlemaine we are lucky in that there is pretty much always something flowering. My bees fly all year round.

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Honey bees also collect, amongst many other things, pollen from flowers. Bees cannot digest pollen. They turn the pollen into bee bread using an ezymatic fermentation process. Bee bread provides a bio-available source of protein in the bees diet and also preserves the pollen so that it can last longer.

At least that’s the conventional story. But I did see some research a little while ago that suggests bees do actually eat fresh pollen and even usually prefer it. The bee bread is mostly for times when fresh pollen is not available. Just like they prefer fresh nectar and eat honey when there isn’t any. Stupidly I didnt make a note this research and can’t point you towards it.

There are lots of known facts in beekeeping that have been shown untrue yet the untruths are repeated. (different bee jobs/heater bees, varroa feed on bee blood)

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The honeybee has lived in a symbiotic relationship with humans since the beginning of human time. This photo shows one of our earliest recorded images of humans harvesting wild honey. Its called “Man of Bicor” but it looks like a woman to me.

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We know that humans have been harvesting honey from bees from the wild for at least 15,000 years and keeping bees in human made hives for at least 4,500 years.

This image shows the remains of an ancient 3000 year old apiary found in the Jordan Valley, Isreal.

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There are many examples showing this in art throughout time… for example Spanish cave paintings, Egyptian art and hieroglyphics, through to medieval art.

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Bees are insects related to ants and wasps. They often live together in communities and different members perform different tasks. This is known as “eusocial” behavior.

The community of bees is often called the hive, but the hive is actually the structure that houses the bees, not the bees themselves.

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Honeybee colonies can be very large. A strong colony can house up to 100,000 plus bees separated into different casts – motherbee (queen) , workerbees and drones. Each caste plays a specific role, and within the worker caste, the workers have many different jobs – security guards, builders, repairers, cleaners, nurses, undertakers, heating and cooling technicians, scouts, honey makers, pollen stampers, store workers, collectors of nectar, collectors of pollen, collectors of fungus, collectors of water and collectors of resin… and many more roles I haven’t included here, and probably more still that we don’t understand or other roles that we can’t even perceive.

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One of the roles that we have only relatively recently discovered and are just beginning to understand is the “heater bee”. Jurgen Tautz in his 2008 book The Buzz About Bees talks about how it has recently been discovered using thermal technology that bees control the temperature of the hive by literally turning their bodies into heaters. Individual bees can raise their body temperatures up to 10 degrees warmer than their surroundings. They do this to maintain the brood nest (baby bees) temperature (holes in brood patterns and honeycomb). The heater bees can subtly change the temperature of individual developing pupaes which can determine which role the bee will perform for the colony.

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This is interesting as it goes against what all the books teach. Which there is a predefined order of jobs that bees perform and move through as they get older, as shown in these slides.

Tautz research exists. I dont think anyone is disputing it. Yet just about every beekeeping book there is out there still talks about how the bees have a predefined order. Does not compute. Another example of how untrue facts are repeated in beekeeping?

Any questions or comments?

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As a bee-centred beekeeper, one of the most important aspects to understand about bees is that a beehive is a superorganism. Has everyone heard the term superorganism? Can anyone tell me what it means?

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The term Superorganism was coined by the American biologist William Morton Wheeler in 1911 after studying bees. A superorganism is an entity, a single integrated living organism made up of many individuals that act together to achieve specific goals.

A single European honeybee can’t survive on it’s own. It can only survive as part of a colony. And the colony together can achieve more than the sum of it’s parts combined could.

When we look at the colony as a whole single superorganism, it’s characteristics as an entity then look very different to what you might expect.

A bee colony as a superorganism starts to look more like a mammal than a group of insects.

The temperature inside a bee colony (approx 35 degrees) is very close to that of most mammals body temperature (37 degrees). The amount of oxygen consumed is similar to that of a small mammal. Aspects of honeybee colony reproduction are more mammalian than insect – few offspring, process food and transform it into a kind of milk (royal jelly), brood nest likened to a uterus. Mammals with their large brains are seen as having the highest cognitive abilities of all vertebrates – honeybees have a highly developed capacity for learning beyond that of some vertibrates.

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Again this comes from  ‘The Buzz About Bees: The Biology of a Superorganism’ by Jurgen Tautz.

And I think it’s really helpful to see a bee colony in this way as we seem to be able to relate to creatures that are more similar to ourselves. It can mean the difference between seeing a bee colony as box of insects and seeing them as a coherent living organism.

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Looking at a bee colony in this way also enables us to see how it might not be helpful to reduce this superorganism into parts and study them individually, as Western science seems to have a penchant for doing.

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Not only is a honeybee colony a superorganism, it is also a biome in and of itself. What is a biome? A biome is a community of organisms. There aren’t just bees a bee hive. Much like the human body, there’s a whole ecology from microscopic to relatively large living inside a beehive. All of these organisms play a role – some symbiotic , some pathogenic and some benign. A unimaginably delicate balance.

There are mites, beetles, waxworms, ants, roaches, earwigs, moths, lice, fungi, bacteria and yeasts to name just a few. I’ve heard of lizards and mice living happily in beehives and who knows how that affects the bees.

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My favourite (so far) organism living inside a beehive is a little dude called a pseudoscropion or book scorpion. Its an arachnid but looks just like a tiny (2-8mm) little scorpion. And it eats some of the nasty mites… as well as moths, beetles, lice, ants and small flies.

20 minutes of pseudoscorpions eating varroa mites

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Many of the fungi, bacteria and yeasts are necessary for the digestion of pollen or the maintenance of a healthy digestive tract because they crowd out pathogens that would otherwise take over. It has been said that there are up to 8,000 microorganisms living in the bee bread alone. Even the seemingly harmless organisms and sometimes even mildly harmful ones often serve a beneficial purpose by supplanting otherwise deadly ones.

A delicate balance easily upset by the use of insecticides, anti-biotics, anti-fungals, essential oil and organic acids which are all used in commercial beekeeping.

Much like a human taking antibiotics, (which are also given to bees), it can cause big problems.

Antibiotics may kill the offending microbe but in the process wipes out many of the beneficial microbes which are essential for good health. The dearth left behind by a antibiotic treatment and the frantic recolonisation of the now gaping hole in the microbial ecology often causes far more problems than the original offending microbe could ever have caused in the first place.

It’s such complex system that it’s virtually impossible to know the effects of any treatment we give the bees. And so, in virtually all situations, I think it’s best not to treat them. Let the balance sort itself out.

Any questions?

Micheal Bush on Treatment-Free Beekeeping 8 minutes

recommended watching in your own time – The Outer Banks BeeKeepers’ Guild hosts Michael Bush on Saturday March 18th 2017.

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Bee behaviour – Dancing

There are so many different interesting bee behaviours that I could talk about but that is an entire workshop in itself. But I will mention a couple of the most interesting and relevant ones. I can’t go past mentioning one particularly amazing bee behaviour in that sets the bees apart from all other insects and most other animals apart from primates…

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and that’s dancing.

Bee dancing is the only symbolic language we know of apart from humans and primates.

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The dance of the honey bee foragers communicates to nest mates the location of a profitable food source.

There are 2 main types of dance – the ’round’ dance and the more commonly known ‘waggle’ dance.

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The round dance is performed by the scouts when the food source is within a couple of hundred metres of the hive. The bee runs one way in the circle, stops and then runs the other way. During the dance the scout passes a sample of the nectar to the other workers so they know the taste and smell of the source.

The waggle dance is for food sources greater than a couple of hundred metres. The scout waggles her body from side to side running in a semicircle restarting her dance where she began from. The angle on the honey comb relates to the direction from the hive and sun that the bees should fly.

During these dances, behaviourally active chemicals are released by the dancer which spur the onlookers into action. Well, I say onlookers, but lets remember that all of this complex information is being conveyed in pitch darkness!

These youtube video I’d like to play at this point which explains this much better than I ever could. One thing I would say though is that these videos make it seem as though all this stuff is fact. It’s not. It’s just best guesses (new David Attenborough version)
mentions bees produce up to 90 kilos of honey – this is 90 kilos of STORED honey – some estimate the amount they produce all together (stored AND consumed) would be closer to a ton (long and in depth analysis stop at 6.40)

any questions or comments?

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A peremone is a chemical used for communication. The most used definition is… a chemical substance produced and released into the environment by an animal which affects the beheviour or physiology of other animals of it’s species.
… though I’m not sure about the last part. I’d say that pheremones can definitely be effective across species. One pheremone I’d have thought every beekeeper would be familiar with is the “alarm” or “defend” pheremone which smells a bit like bananas. And when I smell that in an inspection it definitely affects my behaviour.

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Pheremones are incredibly important to bees. Its one of the main ways that they communicate. Glands throughout the body secrete pheremones which are then spread through the colony by air or as liquid transferred via food, grooming, and contact of antennae and feet on the hive surfaces.

I’ll just mention what I see as a couple of the most important ways that bees communicate with pheremones.

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The Mother bee produces pheremones which are transferred to workers during grooming and feeding of the Mother. She also produces tarsal or footprint pheremones which are deposited on to the comb surfaces when she walks around the comb. It’s often said that these pheremones inhibit worker ovary development and queen rearing although the research shows its chemicals released by the brood that actually does this. When there is no Mother, and therefor no brood, workers may lay eggs or raise another Mother. This is often quoted as a good reason not use a queen excluder, but I’ll talk about this in much more depth later.

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The worker Nasanov gland can be seen as the worker bee exposes the gland as it raises its abdomen and fans its wings. It smells a bit like lemon and attracts the bees. You will see this when you catch a swarm.

How Honey Bees Communicate (Pheremones) – 6.30 probably for watching in your own time.

Questions or comments?

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In Australia, commercial beekeepers almost always keep European honeybees. The first one was an English race of honeybee brought in 1822 on a ship called Isabella to produce honey and pollinate the settlers crops.

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These days there are three main sub-species (sometimes called races) of European honeybees used by commercial beekeepers in Asutralia. The Italian, Caucasian and Carniolan bees. There are many other subspecies of honey bees but these particular three were chosen because they make lots of honey, are easy to manage and suit Australia’s climate.

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Each subspecies is said to have different characteristics. My bees, and I hope your bees will be too when you get them, are crosses of all the different bees that have escaped this area. My bees were all caught as swarms or removed as unwanted colonies. Ferals (though I prefer wild). These is a strong prejudice against wild bees in conventional beekeeping – they are said to be aggressive, non-productive, diseased and swarmy. Untrue in my experience. Queen breeding big business which affects this attitude. I suspect it also has to do with weird colonial pure bred dont mix with locals mindset.

Wild bees are much more likely to be locally/regionally adapted. Over time, without constantly bringing in new stock, each area would produce its own ecotype of bee (a genetically distinct geographic variety, population or race within a species, which is adapted to specific environmental conditions). I think this is what we should be working towards.

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As well as there being different races of honeybees, within each race there are castes.

To understand the castes, it’s helpful to first know about how bees and the castes are created.

I find way that honeybees reproduce absolutely fascinating. Bees have long confused and intrigued evolutionary biologists. It took me quite a while to get my head around how bee genetics work and I’m still not convinced by the best explanation by those evolutionary biologists which is “kin selection”.

– questions or comments?

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In every colony there are three castes – a mother (or queen – usually only one but not always), the workers (make up the majority of the colony) and the drones (usually about 10% of the colony). The Mother or queen and the Workers are usually seen as female and the Drone is seen as male.

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A Mother bee has one mating period in her life where she makes one or more mating flight. She is polyandrous which means she mates with more than one male/drone. It can be up to 20. Most books will usually say somewhere between 3 and 10 though. The more drones she mates with, the more diverse her offspring will be which probably contributes to the success of the colony. These drones are usually from other colonies. She stores this sperm in her abdomen. (fluffy) (gritty)

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The mother bee can then use that sperm at will to either fertilise or not fertilise her eggs. She has an on/off switch to her sperm tank! (Some say she can even choose which sperm from each of the Drones she mated with will fertilise the egg). If an egg is fertilised, it turns into a Worker (which can then be turned into a Mother). If it is not fertilised, it turns into a Drone.

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Mother and Worker bees are genetically identical and both start out life as exactly the same kind of egg. The reason a Mother be is a Mother bee as result how the egg was treated and the larvae fed. An egg chosen to become a Mother bee is placed in a special large cell (queen cell) and fed special food secreted from glands in the worker bees head – usually called Royal Jelly.

For all three castes of honeybees, eggs hatch in three days and then develop into larvae that are known as grubs. All grubs are fed royal jelly at first, but only the future mother bees are continued on the diet. When fully grown, the grubs transform into pupae. Mother bees emerge in 16 days, worker in about 21 days and drones in about 24 days.

See bee math page.

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A Drone can be called male in that it produces gamate cells (a sex cell with half the chromosomes needed to reproduce) in the form of sperm which it uses to inseminate and produce offspring. But the Drone itself, compared to the Mother/Worker is a kind of half bee. A drone is the result of an unfertilised egg so it only carries half the chromosomes compared a Mother or Worker bee. It carries an identical set of genes to the Mother bee it was born of.

The drone is not male in the way we usually see a male as it has no father and only carries the genes of its Mother. We could say it’s really half a female. So when a drone mates with a virgin mother the drone is really just a genetic copy of the Mother it came from. So its really a Mother mating with another Mother using the drone as a carrier.

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Mother (Queen)

Longer than drones and workers, longer legs and a long tapered abdomen.
The mother’s job is to lay eggs. She is the only bee in the colony that can lay eggs to produce female bee (the workers).

However. It depends. Workers can lay eggs under certain circumstances but they are usually unfertilised and so -almost always- only produce drones. Although thelytoky does occur commonly in one mellifera species – capensis – and can occur rarely in other species too.

As discussed, the mother has one mating period in her life where she makes one or more mating flight. A few days after her return to the hive she begins to lay eggs.
The mother is fed and cleaned by a particular small group of worker bees so that she can spend all her time laying eggs.
It is usually said that mothers live for about 2 to 4 years, in managed hives. This I’d say is a reflection of how bees are treated. With bees, they do not repair their bodies throughout life. They are born almost fully formed and basically just wear out until they die. The harder they work, the shorter time they live (summer bees 6 weeks, winter bees because they dont fly so much up to 6 months). Mother bees can live up to 15 years in feral colonies I suspect live much shorter lives in “domesticated” colonies because they are constantly pushed to lay the maximum number of eggs via constant colony expansion.

No book I’ve ever read says a mother bee lives 15 years but Ken Walker (Senior Curator of Entomology and Arachnology at Museum Victoria) told me this is the case. Standard practice for commercial beefarmers is to replace Mother bees every year as they believe that young queens produce more eggs. More eggs = more bees. More bees = more honey/pollination. More honey/pollination = more money.

Also, as you can imagine, if commercial beekeepers who keep many thousands of bee colonies are routinely replacing their Mother bees every year, and each Mother bee costs between $10 and $20, there is also quite a big industry surrounding Queen breeding. This industry is part of Conventional/Commercial beekeeping and so the industry has a vested interest in keeping this practice going whether it makes sense or not. Please don’t rock that boat.

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Drones are stingless male bees.
Drones are shorter than the queen but about twice the size of a worker.
The conventional view is that the drone’s only job is to mate with new queens (at which point their penises are ripped from their bodies with an audible explosion and they die). I don’t believe this is their only job. In fact I know it’s not. I know from personal experience that they also defend the hive. You may see later on when you open a hive that its often the drones that buzz us. They have no sting but most people, even if they know this won’t remember when they have a big and loud and quite intimidating bee flying in their face.

Drone brood is usually on the outside of the brood nest so when a colony is attacked, drone brood is the first to get destroyed. I suspect they fulfil many other roles too but it’s just that humans are not aware of them.
I often find them in the brood nest. They are big and hairy with a particularly hairy bum that I could imagine fits inside a cell and would be very good at keeping the brood warm.
Drones are unable to collect food for themselves and are often physically removed from the colony during harder times (winter). Poor drones.

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Workers are female but do not normally lay eggs. However, when a colony is motherless, a worker may start to lay, but the eggs are unfertilised and only drones will develop from them. (there is an exception to this) The colony will ultimately die but this seems to be a sort of last ditched attempt to get their genes out there. Pretty clever.

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The books will say that the worker bees live from 15 – 42 days during busy times and up to 6 months during winter. This is highly variable and depends on many things (pollen consumption, intensity of brood rearing, weather/temperature, but mostly activity)

Workers have different jobs and they tend to graduate from one to another in a particular order. Many books talk about this as though its set in stone, but it turns out that the jobs can be reassigned and altered according to the needs of the colony. For example, if the field bees or nurse bees are lost, other bees will quickly take their place.

As we’ve mentioned, the books will talk about a general order of tasks during the first three weeks of a bee’s life but this is called into question with Tautz work. The books usually state as fact that an adult worker will start this long line of predestined roles by cleaning cells, starting immediately with the one they were born in. I have an observation hive at home and have watched many bees hatch and I’m yet to see one clean its own cell. They always just stumble off into the crowd.

It is said that workers are the only caste that forage. They generally only fly as far as they need to but 2-3 kilometers is common. They can comfortably fly up to 6 kilos and when pushed even further. Some books I’ve read have said up to 7 miles (11 kilometers) which would make (by my calculations which may not be correct) an area of almost 100,000 acres! Thats a lot of potential flowers! But of course the further they fly the more fuel they use and at some point a long flight is not economical.