Brood Food

fullsizeoutput_cdeAs I write, it’s early spring – just on the cusp. The nights are still cold and although there are plenty of pollen bearing plants and shrubs, there is very little nectar. The hives still have fondant over their brood boxes.

In beekeeping there are so many questions, not only for a relatively new beekeeper, like myself, but for more experienced beekeepers too. That’s why I find beekeeping so fulfilling – it’s the hobby that keeps on giving – a continuous adventure.

The question that has been floating in my mind and only half answered is – ‘What do bees eat?’

OK , simplistically I can say ‘pollen’, ‘bee bread’, ‘honey’, ‘nectar’ and ‘royal jelly’, plus I know they need water. But it’s more interesting than that and it’s right ‘on trend’ – being a case of ‘you are what you eat’.  With the same ingredients, bees can grow a queen, a worker or a drone – it’s the proportion and quantity of each that makes the difference.

First of all, Royal Jelly; this is produced by the hypopharangeal and mandibular glands. The hypopharangeal glands provide a clear fluid rich in enzymes, lipids, vitamins and proteins. When young bees emerge from their cells, the hypopharangeal glands are still developing. The young bees need a pollen rich diet for 7 – 10 days to complete the development of the hypopharangeal glands and produce their component of royal jelly. The mandibular glands also develop in the young bee and then produce the milky component of royal jelly, rich in lipids including the fatty acid 10-hydroxy-2-decanoic acid. Together, the secretions from each gland produce royal jelly. The average moisture content of royal jelly is 60-70%, crude protein 12-15%, total sugar 10-16%, lipids 3-6%, vitamins, salts and free amino acids.

Nectar is a dilute sugar solution produced by the nectaries of plants, containing the disaccharide, sucrose, and two monosaccharies, glucose and fructose. The water content of nectar can vary from 90% to 50% approximately. It can also contain small quantities of phytochemicals; amino acids and volatiles.

Honey; Foragers collect nectar and store it in their honey stomachs. Some may be digested by the individual bee to provide energy and to the rest they add enzymes (invertase, glucose oxidase) which begins the process of making honey. Invertase converts sucrose into glucose and fructose. A small amount of the glucose is attacked by the enzyme, glucose oxidase, and is converted into gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Gluconic acid makes honey acidic, and hydrogen peroxide has germ-killing properties.
Hive bees recieve nectar from foragers and pass it between many individuals to reduce the water content of the nectar. To do this they either form a large drop between the proboscis and the mandibles to allow evaporation, or deposit it into cells and fan over it. The moisture has to be reduced to 17-18% before bees consider the honey “ripe” and then seal the cells. Some of the nectar is used immediately in feeding the brood.

Pollen contains proteins, amino acids, vitamins, fats and sterols. Pollens vary from 10 – 36% in protein content. Bees also require 10 amino acids from pollen sources. Not all pollens contain all 10 amino acids, so collection from a range of pollen sources is beneficial to bees. Rape/Canolla pollen, for instance, does contain all 10 amino acids, but the quantity of some of these does not reach the bees nutritional requirement. Dandelion pollen does not contain all 10 amino acids. The amino acids are the building blocks for proteins.

The 10 essential amino acids for bees are; Threonine, Valine, Methionine, Leucine, Iso-Leucine, Phenylalanine, Lysine, Histidine, Arginine and Tryptophan.

Bee Bread – Bees prefer to feed on fresh pollen, but they also preserve this important protein resource as ‘bee bread’. This is the pickle in their larder. A bee backs into a cell, kicks off it’s pollen load, then other bees ram it in with their heads and add small amounts of honey or nectar and glandular secretions. When it’s 2/3rds full they place  honey on top and leave it to ferment. Bees digestive systems contain beneficial bacteria, notably Lactobacillus Kunkeei.  Bees practise ‘zymurgy’- the art of biochemical fermentation; Lactobacillus Kunkeei seemingly thrive in fructose rich aerobic and anaerobic conditions, so packed in with a mix of pollen grains and honey, they happily reproduce, eliminating lactic acid as a waste product. This is the vinegar in the pickle and acts as a preservative. Like any pickle in the larder, its quality deteriorates with time.

Bees, like some humans, could be said to have a ‘sweet tooth’. Larvae destined to be queens will be supplied with Royal Jelly that has a 34% sugar content – mainly glucose. This stimulates the larvae to eat more (40% more than worker larvae 6 days after hatching). In the first 3 days, the milky looking Royal Jelly is mostly supplied by the mandibular glands. From day 4-5 it is mostly provided by the hypopharangeal gland. The queen larvae have an excess of royal jelly supplied, even up to capping, but strictly no pollen.  Larvae destined to be workers are progressively fed a changing diet. The Royal Jelly has a 2:9:3 ratio of mandibular secretion; hypopharangel secretion; pollen. It contains approximately 12% sugars. Since it differs from the constitution of Royal Jelly given to queen larvae, it is often called Worker Jelly. However, Worker Jelly is only fed to larvae for the first 3 days and then the protein and lipid content goes up while the glucose content goes down (moving to predominantely fructose). It is modified by additions of honey and pollen. Drone larvae hatch from unfertilized eggs so are identified by nurses as male, occupying lager cells on the comb. Drones have different protein and sugar requirements than workers.  The investment of nurses to raise an individual drone larva far exceeds that for a worker larva. There is less known about Drone larval food, but It starts the same, with secretions from the hypopharangeal and mandibular glands. There are significant amounts of sugars fed in the first 3 days which drop by 50% over this time. High quantities of low grade pollen are then fed to drones. There is roughly X4 by weight of food fed to drones compared to workers

So finally, summing up; the effect of different feeding regimes and their outcomes in fertilised larvae (potential queen or worker from the same type of larvae) is a type of epigenetics called ‘phenotypic polymorphism’ – you are what you eat – especially if you are a bee!



Slatted Bottom Boards

I’m in the process of mulling over the addition of a slatted bottom board to my Maisemore Poly hive. Woodworking is not a skill that I have honed over the years, nor did I learn it at my father’s knee, so bodging is the route I usually take. I’m quite good at it and it allows for a certain freedom, since one doesn’t know the rules, so can’t be bound by them. Here is a mock up that I am playing with at the moment.


My motivation to make one of these is influenced by a number of things;

  • I want to create more room in the hive for when I’m attempting to stuff the bees into a single brood body in Autumn, so that I can give them the varroa treatment without any supers on. So far I have failed in this and my three production hives have overwintered with a super on below the brood box and I will have to melt down the wax as the Apivar treatment went on with these supers in place – annoying!
  • I like the Kewel (underfloor) entrances to hives that can be kept in place all year and which reduce wasp and mouse nuisance without need for excluders and entrance reducers.
  • If there is a fast Spring build up, it will reduce the impulse to swarm as there will be space for bees to hang out (theoretically).
  • And finally, Rusty at Honeybeesuite has them on her hives and says the queens lay brood right to the bottom of the brood frames and that she wouldn’t be without them.

Of course, there are designs and measurements available on the internet but these are mainly for Langstroth hives (which they seem to use in the USA) and anyhow, would I follow some else’s design when I can try to reinvent the wheel? Why no! That’s what being retired/ creative/ independent/pig-headed is all about 🙂 There’d be no fun otherwise!

At the moment there are three things that I have discovered, having made the bare bones of a prototype;

  • My slats are not big enough. When we talk about creating space for bees to hang out (rather than space for air movement), I need surface area. So I’m thinking of beefing up my slats and using, what is technically called door stop. I think these will be placed with the narrow side uppermost. It will increase the surface area available for hanging out below the frames.
  • A Kewel entrance usually comes up from underneath and then the bees arrive at hive floor level. In my case bees would enter at an eke height above the mesh floor, at the level of the slats. This is all fine, but in Winter, if I have some dead bees falling onto the wire mesh below the slats, it will be the devil of a job for the poor undertaker bees to hoik the dead bees up to the top of the slats and then down the Kewel exit. So I think I’ll need an entrance at mesh floor level. This essentially will compromise the Kewel floor idea. I do have a plan – when buying some frames and wax at the local bee store (National Bee Supplies, no less), I noticed some castellated metal spacers for frames. I might cut these down to make make smaller entrances at mesh floor level and if I juxtapose them on either side of the wooden bar I’m using, they will disguise the lower entrance and make it difficult for wasps amd mice to get in, but perfectly fiine for bees. The problem I see is that if I go with the Kewel floor and mesh level entrance, the bees will have two entrances to defend. Hmmmm!
  • Finally, there will be an obvious bodge. I would like to make rabbit joints at the corners of my slatted bottom board eke, but I don’t have the skill set. I’m going to have to go for butt edges and use glue and screw, then hope for the best wrt weather proofing.

It all makes for a challenging and rewarding project and an interesting experiment with the bees, when the season starts. Some people have reported that occasionally, but unusually, colonies build drone comb attached to the bottom of the slats, hanging down into the eke space. I don’t see that as a problem since it would make for easy removal of drone comb as part of an integrated approach to varroa management.

Meanwhile….. my son had a 3D printer for Christmas and is eager to make something that would be useful. I suggested hive entrances might benefit from a makeover. I always get into trouble fitting mouse guards – fingers and thumbs, thinking it will be quick and not getting fully suited up, not lighting my smoker, not having stong enough fingers to push the pins in to hold it and, there is no universal entrance/reducer, never mind mouse guard fitting unless you buy/build just one type of hive every time. I think he was a bit disappointed and thought I’d want him to print a whole hive, but I don’t know what you think, but the hive entrance and the security it provides to the colony is a really critical design issue.

For now, I’m happy putting the slatted bottom board together and trying it out in due course. I hope all of you find the time and have the pleasure of preparing for, and looking ahead to, the beekeeping season in Spring.

Rusty Burlew’s blog on slatted bottom boards

Beekeeper and vlogger Adam – ‘sqeptick’ – gives his reasons for using slatted bottom boards


Spring Pollen Sources

I was excited when my local beekeeping association organised a microscopy evening.

Hazel 1Someone brought in a hazel twig. I knew what catkins were but had never really looked closely at the tree (except later in the year when searching out the nuts to harvest). It was a surprise when they pointed out the flowers. Under a low powered microscope, the tiny red alien-looking filaments poked out from the top of a bud. This twig came from a tree in full bloom, yet walking casually by you’d never know it!

The pollen was stored in the male catkin and the stigma located in the female flowers. I later found out that a plant with male and female parts was known as monoecious.

In my locality hazel is probably the most significant source of pollen in Spring. We have some crocuses and snowdrops out in the garden and a few lesser celandine and primroses in the woodland areas. In the hedgerows gorse is still in flower.

In other areas of the UK there is willow, alder and other early garden plants in bloom. Hawthorn  and dandelion are not yet out as it is still early March as I write this.

The bees have been bringing in pollen, when the weather allows, so luckily my 4 colonies seem to have come through the winter and are preparing for brood. It’s too early (and cold) to attempt any inspection other than check fondant supplies at the top of the hives.

Back to the microscopy evening, one member of the association saw hazel pollen under the microscope, described them as looking like ladies undergarments and labelled them Hazel’s knickers! Decide for yourself (link below)

Hazel Pollen Photograph from America Fine Arts Website

A lovely interactive pollen chart, with their colours, has been posted by the Sheffield Beekeepers Association (link below).

Pollen Chart from Sheffield Beekeepers Association

Eat, Drink and Bee Merry!

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_aaf A whole beekeeping season has gone by and I’ve found that moving back home after building an extension and major renovations, have taken the toll on my writing life. However, the beekeeping season was amazing this year. The long spell of warm weather saw Spring merging into Summer with no stop in nectar and pollen flow. My three production hives cleared 60lbs each. This is a good yield as I live in a farming region with no flowering crops – mainly pasture- so nectar comes from hedgerows, small orchard’s blossom and a little Oilseed Rape. Starting with 3 viable hives (one having been lost to laying workers) I ended the season with 8 colonies made up from 1 swarm capture, 4 splits and the original 3 hives.

Talking of moving home, I was invited to enter the local church Christmas Tree Festival and decided to fashion a ‘tree’ from a skep. These days skeps are mainly used to catch swarms and take them to a new home by the beekeeper. Skeps have a long and interesting history in Britain and were brought over with the Saxons, once the Romans had vacated, around 410AD. It was only in the 18th century that modern hives were developed and then widely used.  The name skep is thought to be derived from the Norse word for grain basket – skeppa.

If you fancy making your own skep, try here;  skep making


On a visit to the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’, Cornwall, I came across this apiary wall which would have formed an ideal home for the bees. What strikes me is that a skep has a relatively small volume.

Some of my colonies get quite large and there has been much debate about some bee genetics producing prolific bee strains. The perceived wisdom seems to be to allow crosses with local bees to produce a strain that not only suits our locality, but which also suits our weather and forage availability. These crosses can produce bees that are equal to their prolific counterparts in gathering nectar, but who maintain a smaller colony. Certainly it would be easier at the end of the season to pack them down into one brood box, whereas currently I struggle to do that and therefore 3 of my colonies are overwintering on a deep brood box and super (underneath).

However, I have two colonies that I caught as swarms from the same area in Egloskerry. Each of these are more compact colonies and fit into a standard National brood box without getting cramped. I think next year, it might be prudent to breed some queens from these colonies and see what happens.

When I mention queens, I guess there are other relatively new beekeepers who, like me, don’t like to ‘finish off’ their old queens. I’m sure that my original colony has a queen that is 4 years old. I probably should have replaced her with one of my younger queens and I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t have another colony of laying workers in the New Year. It’s a part of colony management that I will have to come to terms with.

However, in the meantime, I’m enjoying a hiatus in beekeeping duties (although there is a bit of painting of boxes and repairs to do) and am putting my efforts into preparing for Christmas festivities.

santa claus beside brown bauble decor

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on

I wish everyone a very ‘Ha Bee Christmas’


The Beekeeping Bug

Well, yes…

I caught the beekeeping bug a little while ago..,

Although I picked up my first nuc in June 2016, I have had a longstanding interest in beekeeping. It started when my Chemistry teacher asked me for help to extract honey from the bees in her garden apiary. That was in Oxfordshire. Later, a Chemistry teacher myself in Wiltshire, I found a local beek and helped him when commitments to preparing lessons and marking books allowed. I took an evening class in basic beekeeping to supplement my knowledge. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to set up my own garden apiary so some fallow beekeeping years followed (and a lot of life) until early retirement loomed and the prospect of having a large garden in the countryside presented an opportunity. It was three years before we were able to move in and in anticipation, like most people these days, I mugged up by watching as many bee videos on You Tube and reading as many Google pages as possible. I was not quite, but almost, an armchair expert I thought. My retirement present was a flat packed national beehive.

Real beekeeping soon burst my bubble as I’m sure you’ve all guessed. Hands on experience and responsibility for my own colonies was more challenging on every level than I had imagined and all my research counted for nothing compared to the actual experience of managing bees.

And the questions that arose! Read more