The Secrets of Royal Jelly – Roald Dahl’s version.

royal jelly

The wonderful Roald Dahl once wrote a wonderful bee-story: Royal Jelly.

I have always thought this story is an unsettling mix between fact and fiction. Is the crazy beekeeper Albert Taylor for real? Is he serious about feeding his malnourished daughter tons and tons of royal jelly to make her nice and plump?

Eccentric character Albert Tayler refers to beekeeping magazines and scientific research discussing the great benefits of the magical royal substance. He tries to convince his wife with the “scientific facts”. For a long time I have wondered whether these scientific articles were real, or whether the amazing imagination of Roald Dahl had exceeded to the next level. Today, I want to find out.

First a few examples from the text –

In an article called “The Latest on Royal Jelly” Albert reads: “Royal jelly is fed in concentrated form to all bee larvae for the first three days after hatching from the egg; but beyond that point, for all those who are destined to become drones or workers, this precious food is greatly diluted with honey and pollen. On the other hand, the larvae which are destined to become queens are fed throughout the whole of their larval period on a concentrated diet of pure royal jelly. Hence the name.”

He explains in quite a blunt way to his wife where it comes from: “They get this stuff out of a gland in their heads and they start pumping it into the cell to feed the larva” (…)  “The nurse bees simply pour it into the cell, so much so in fact that the little larva is literally floating in it”

All right. That sounds all pretty true to me.

And then this: “Royal jelly must be a substance of tremendous nourishing power, for on this diet alone, the honey-bee larva increases in weight fifteen hundred times in five days. (…) This is as if a seven-and-half pound baby should increase in that time to five tons”

This is the sentence that basically drives him to a hysterical rage about the miracle of royal jelly.

And then some concrete names fly over the pages. The British Bee Journal, the American Bee Journal, and a few scientists: Frederick A. Banting,  Heyl, Still and Burdett. Real scientists or not? I put the names through the google filter and I found interesting results: Roald Dahl has ever so slightly changed their names. They are fictional characters, yet based on real scientists. Frederick A. Banting is in fact Frederick G. Banting, and Still and Burdett are actually Hill and Burdett.

Also, even though it was true that many of these scientist experimented with royal jelly on rats; it is not clear that they discovered exactly the stuff Dahl writes about. From what I have been able to find, it seems that Hill and Burdett’s research made claims about rat fertility and royal jelly (in relation to vitamin E) but later research has shown that their experiments weren’t set up in a proper way to obtain reliable data, so their conclusions were misrepresentations.

It seems ironical that Albert Taylor’s gets so excited about these scientists specifically. The cool thing is that it actually supports the story: it makes Albert even more of a crazy, ranting beekeeper (that  furiously believes in “dodgy science”.)

The most impressive story he puts forward about the fertility powers of royal jelly is that a ninety-year old guy sired a healthy boy after taking minute doses of royal jelly in capsule form.

Whether this is all true or not, the big question of the story remains:  Is it a good idea to feed royal jelly to malnourished human babies?

And this is one remarkable answer I found:

According to research conducted by R. Krell at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, royal jelly will help underfed children to gain in weight, more hemoglobin and red blood cells . (

So, besides from being a crazy beekeeper, perhaps Albert Taylor had a good point after all?


Image: Wikimedia Commons


Comments on Green “Queen” Porn

I would like to give a few comments on the  great “Green Porno” short educational film about the queen bee. Even though most aspects in this film are spot on, other ones may be a bit misleading.

First of all, the film starts off a bit dubious. Isabella Rossellini’s first line is: “If a were a bee, a queen bee, I would be very fat”. Then you see her dressed up as an enormously fat queen bee laying on the ground.

I remember thinking exactly the same thing before I became a beekeeper: I thought that queen bees were big and fat. I almost imagined a kind of bumble bee. I remember when a beekeeper pointed out an actual queen to me for the first time. I was so surprised – she wasn’t fat at all! She also wasn’t that big. Yes, she was slightly bigger than the workers, but you have to have a good eye to recognise her among the crowd. She is certainly not the big conspicuous blop that Rossellini embodies. Frankly, her visual representation of the queen -if anything- looks like a massive bumble-bee to me. I think her film re-enforces a misleading stereotypical thought about queen bees, and that is unnecessary. If only her outfit was a bit more “queen-shaped” I would have been a lot happier. In my eyes, the most outstanding aspect of the queen’s body are her wings that seem short in relation to her long abdomen.

Rossellini then explains the queen’s role in the bee society, and the roles of the workers and drones. She explains that when workers feed royal jelly to a larva, it will turn the larva into a fertile queen. Then she describes the journey of the queen’s mating flight. And this is where an other misrepresentation occurs.

She describes the mating flight from the point of view of one single male. First, you see “the brothers” hanging out together, completely bored and waiting to have sex; then one single male stands up, beats up his brothers to prove he is the strongest and flies up to the queen to mate with her.

Then, after sex, Lo and behold! When the drone tries to pull out his penis it gets stuck in the vagina and breaks off! “But it would prevent other males from mating with her”.

It seems like Rossellini says that only one strong drone has the privilege to mate with the queen, and after sex other males can’t mate with her anymore.  This one and only drone dies and the queen is fulfilled to give birth to his babies and start a new colony. It is a quick wrap up.

This film overlooks the fact that the mating flight of the queen takes place over a few days, and each day she mates with many different drones.

I think Rossilini has realised this misrepresentation. Perhaps this is why she made a second film about the queen bee. This one is called “Burt Talks to the Bees: Queen Bee”.

She corrects her simplified story in this second film. Here, she elaborates more thoroughly on what happens during the mating flight. She tells that the queen has “many husbands”. She flies out in spring, and the males are attracted by her perfume (in other words: her pheromones). The mating flight lasts for a few days, and each day the queen mates with about 16 or 17 males. “We bees don’t waste sperm like you humans do”, she says. She emphasises that the queen saves the sperm from all the males – and uses it throughout her lifetime to give birth to her daughters.

So, not just sperm from one male as the first film suggested. It is great that this second film was made, but it almost becomes a requirement to watch it in order to not be mislead by the first film. And that’s a shame: each film is an individual entity and they should be complete and correct in themselves.

I realise it is a dilemma for people like Rossellini who want to deliver science in a clever, accessible way. It is a battle between two evils: What do you prefer for your audience – ignorance or error? Is walking around with a simplified (mis)representation in your head, better than knowing nothing at all? Simple generalisations like these are a good way to attract an audience, but it is a challenge to depict the “simple” as accurate as possible.

However, I don’t want to bee too negative. I really love both of these films and I think Rossillini is amazingly convincing! It is great films like these are out there. Emphasising family relationships like husbands, fathers, grandfathers sons and daughters is a great way of creating a feeling of connectedness to bees. Looking at animals from a human point of view makes it so much easier to relate and to care about the animals- and that is exactly the goal.

What do you think?


Dance Lessons! How to Dance Like a Bee?

How To Dance Like A Bee? 

According to the German naturalist and Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch, who published his first work on honey bee communication  in 1920, bees perform two types of dances to communicate the location of food sources. They are called the round dance and the wag-tail dance. His descriptions of the dances are quite detailed, which allows you, if you feel like it, to give it a go yourself.

Instructions for the Round Dance.
This is a dance that scout bees dance when they have found food within 100 metres distance from the hive. It goes like this:

*Run in small circles
*Rush clockwise and anti-clockwise with quick, short steps.
*Make sure you dance on one spot for at least a few seconds or minutes
*Then, move to another spot and dance again.
*Take a break every now and then, and share a sweet gift with your audience. Then continue to dance.

It is a very enticing dance; don’t be surprised if others decide to join you!

This is exactly what the other bees do. Some of them become so excited that they decide to join the dance before leaving the hive in search for the food source. Unfortunately, this dance doesn’t provide the bees with very detailed information of the exact location. The only thing they know is that it is close – but they don’t know the direction. Therefore, they will start to fly out in all directions looking for this amazing source of deliciousness. (This is also a reason why robbing in urban areas is serious, and can cause a nuisance to neighbours, see my previous post)

Instructions for the Wag-Tail Dance.
This is a dance that bees dance when they found food more than 100 metres away.  It goes like this:

*Run straight and waggle your abdomen
*Turn a half-circle and begin the straight run again, but:
*This time, start the path on which you will return on the opposite side so that your dance will become a figure-of-eight pattern.
*Take a break every now and then, and share a sweet gift with your audience. Then continue to dance.

The more dances, the better! It is an indicator of how many food sources have been found.

This dance is more specific. It communicates distance and direction of the food source.
*The longer your straight run is, the further away the food source;
*Remember that the bees dance on a vertical ground – their comb. This is handy to them, because it means that they can indicate the direction of the food source in relation to the position of the sun in the sky. If the food source is directly towards the sun, the bee will run directly upwards on the comb, and if the food is directly away from the sun, the bee will run straight down the comb. All other directions can be determined in a similar way.

The dance communicates a few other things. The dancers share a bit of nectar, which isn’t just a deed of generosity, but it communicates information of the scent and sugar content of this food source, that will aid the other bees in finding it. Also, the bees communicate the best time to go and find it: some plants don’t provide pollen or nectar all day long. The bees need to know when they can go, and this is communicated through the particular time the dance itself is performed. Finally, bees don’t just dance to tell the other where food is (nectar & pollen) but also where water is, as well as the directions to a new home in the swarming season.

But there are two problems: They have to take in consideration that as time ticks, the sun “moves” through the sky. Also, the sun is not always clearly visible.Where the dance so far has been quite understandable for humans, here comes the point of difference. We can’t quite grasp it: how do the bees overcome these issues?

  • Apparently, bees have an inbuilt “sun-compass” system that takes the movement of the sun in consideration as the dance is communicated to them. Also, their eyes are built to be able to see ultra violet light, even on cloudy days, so they can always decide where the sun is.

There are still a lot of mysterious around the dances of the bees. Not everyone agrees on these theories…

How do they do it? How do you do it? Come on and Wiggle Dance for me!


Information from Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand, p.56-57

Defecating Insects Make Angry Neighbours!


I have been talking about good locations for beehives, and how you can successfully move hives to these locations. Between nose and lips I have mentioned that you should always consider your neighbours when choosing a site.

But actually, the latter isn’t something we should just quickly skim over. This is a serious issue that needs some more emphasis: Respect Your Neighbours! Consider them. Keep up good “public relations”. Neighbours don’t just include the people that live next to you, but also the passing pedestrians in your street, cyclists or motorists. If your hive is on somebody’s farm – “neighbour” translates into farmer and farm-workers. Make sure you and your bees don’t get in the way of them.

This is not just to make your own life friendlier and more pleasant, but it is also on behalf of beekeepers as a group: we don’t want beekeepers to be seen in a bad light – they deserve a good name.

Besides people being scared of getting stung, there are a variety of other complaints when bees get in the way. To understand these complaints better and to understand how we can avoid them, we need to look at a few aspects of bee biology.

  1. Bees poo. And their toilet is outside. Defecating insects is not something we are usually bothered by (I know that I’ve personally never gave it a blink of a thought before I became a beekeeper). We are bothered by dog poo and cat poo, because we can clearly see and smell it if owners don’t clean up after their pets – on the beach, on the street and in the garden. This is especially frustrating in public places.  Insect poo on the other hand, is so tiny it is simply not part of our daily lives. That is, unless your washing line is on the route from a bee colony to their hive. As they come and go, they drop their dropping while flying. Now that explains those weird orange blobs on your clean white sheets! This is especially an issue in spring. Other common places where people have found patches of bee poo are on houses and cars. To avoid this, you need to consider the bees flight pattern. For example, if the current “bee line” – the route that they fly –  is a nuisance, but moving them to a completely new location is too much of a big deal, you could rotate the hives 180 degrees one night, and block the entrances loosely with grass. This could force the bees to establish new flight routes.
  2. Bees swarm – and they might settle down in your backyard. Or your neighbours one. Be quick to remove them and especially tell children to be careful. For more information about swarming (and prevention), see my post Where Are You Going, You Flying Black Cloud?
  3. Bees get thirsty. They need to drink. If you don’t provide them with anything (like a container of regularly-changed water) when there’s no natural sources  they will inspect your neighbour’s property, on the hunt for dripping water taps, wet washing or swimming pools.
  4. Bees can be temperamental – and some bees are worse then others. You can control the bees’ temperaments to a certain extent. This depends on the strain of bees you choose to have. Italian bees are known to be gentle bees, and they are well suited for the New Zealand climate. Also, to keep the temper down don’t disturb the hive too often, especially not in rainy cold weather. If your bees are moody anyway, it might be time to re-queen: a new queen means a new spirit.
  5. One sting means many more stings! It sounds perhaps counterintuitive, but it might be an idea to stop wearing gloves once your comfortable enough. Stings on your hands will only hurt briefly and you can remove the stings quickly to continue your work. If the bees sting your gloves however, you won’t feel it and the smell lingers on, attracting other bees to sting. It may not hurt you, but it might very well hurt the neighbours…
  6. Bees are robbers. When they get the chance to munch on honey or syrup sources from other hives, they will take it, especially when nectar sources are hard to find in the environment. When scout bees find a honey source – they will quickly communicate it to the forager bees. The bees will gather and sometimes they will fly out in a big group to start the invasion. You may see a mass of bees that eagerly flies back and forth to find a way in; into the treasures of the Other Hive. And they will fight! You can tell by how they fly that something is up. Their flight seems nervous and less straight forward than normally. You don’t want this nervous flying to be happening close to your neighbours! They might complain about getting stung or being “buzzed” by the bees. One way to prevent this, is to make sure you don’t spill any syrup around the hive when you feed the bees, and don’t leave any honey exposed when you put a sticky honey box on top of your hive. Conduct these activities only in the late evening.

Finally, these are some other tips&tricks beekeepers could keep in mind, with respect to neighbours:

Out of sight, out of mind. It may sound dubious, but it works. If your neighbour -who is not familiar with bees-, sees that beehive every time they hang out washing or work in the veggie garden, they are bound to get a bit of an unnerving feeling at some point. If they can’t see the hive however, at least they won’t ponder about it on a daily basis.

…Unless one of the above things is happening. Even more so, some bees will fly exactly at human head height. It might freak people out when they hear loud buzzing close to their ears. There is a trick to avoid the latter: you can force your bees to fly at least two metres high from the moment they leave their hives. It sounds silly, but the only thing you need to do is placing the hive entrance close to a screen (a fence or hedge for example) which makes them go up.

If the neighbours are still not convinced, you could always bring up the point that your bees will help pollinating the crops and fruit trees in the area, and who knows, you might be kind enough to share your honey

cabbage tree and honey


Information from Practical Beekeeping for Beginners, p. 24-25-26

Bee-poop photo from

Hives Are Heavy

Hives Are Heavy.


They are ridiculous. Who knew that something that contains a substance so golden, shiny and smooth could be so, so heavy? And yes, that is an issue. You already notice it when you open op your hive to inspect the different layers. But even more so: Lifting and Shifting hives is an essential part of beekeeping. We move them around for several reasons:

  • To take advantage of pollen and nectar sources
  • To avoid exposed windy areas
  • To protect new hives and nuc’s from robbing (can especially be problematic in urban areas)
  • To position hives where we can easily access them and give the bees regular attention
  • To coordinate with farming (or other agricultural operations)

Firstly I will talk about moving hives to a completely new location; then I will articulate moving hives over small distances (within your backyard, for example)

Things to consider BEFORE you move your hive to a new location.
Before you drive your hives to a completely new location you always need to check your hives for diseases first. Also, check the condition of the actual hive, especially old ones: are they falling apart? Replace components if needed. Then, make sure your hives are strapped with a solid hive strap. If you don’t strap your hive you risk the hives will open up during transport. Driving can be a wobbly business, after all. Don’t be tempted to be lazy by leaving the straps off!

You should also make sure that you close off the entrances. You don’t want any bees escaping or attacking you when you move them. Shifting hives is a stressful event for bees and if you don’t stop them they will definitely come out to check what is going on. Fill up the “hive-holes” with grass and/or place an entrance reducer in front of the entrance.

How to move those heavy hives?

Firstly, the best time for moving your bees is early in the morning or at night: they will all be at home in the hive, and these are the coolest times of day (to prevent overheated bees stuck in their hive). When you can, use a ramp and a barrow to carry and lift the hives onto the back of a truck or trailer. Otherwise make sure you are with at least two people to manually lift them, especially when your hives consist of two boxes or more. Load your hives carefully, evenly and balanced on the truck/trailer and most importantly: don’t overload!

overloaded truck

Overloaded or not? I found this impressive photo on

All ready? Go!

Now that you’re driving – this is the scariest part. The bees “locked up” in their hives are at risk of suffocating or overheating if you don’t provide optimal ventilation: in the open air.

Try to drive carefully (for things that can go wrong – see my previous post: the Hazardous Beekeeper)

Complete your mission as fast as you can. This means you need to prepare yourself: enough fuel, enough food and drink and go to the toilet before you go. Try to not make any stops on the way. Of course, when driving long distances you might have to stop at some stage, but try not to stop in public spaces especially when there are still some bees clinging on to the outside of the hive (and that’s likely).

Making your move as smooth as possible, also means that the new site has to be prepared: a safe, accessible sunny and sheltered location with plenty of food and drink for the bees, where they won’t annoy any neighbours. Unload your hives carefully and, very important: make sure you open the hives up again! You will regret it very much if you forget to do this…

Interesting fact: according to the book Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand, there are minimum and a maximum limits for shifting hives. If you want to shift a hive on a small scale (for example to a different spot in your backyard) you should always move it two metres at a time (unless you are moving a group of hives; then you could move them, say,  four metres at a time). If you move them more than this, the bees will get confused about where their home is. They will pile up on the empty spot of the old location. If you really want to move hives a bit further, there is the option of leaving one hive in the original spot to catch the lost bees…

Again, the same principles apply for when you move your hive on a small scale: close the hive, using a hive strap, and choose the best time of day (early or late) to do it.

On the other hand, if you move your hives over bigger distances, make sure that you move them at least three to five kilometres – these are the distances that bees can fly on a daily basis. If you  move them less than this, they will get confused again and try to find their home on the old location.


Bruegel’s Beekeepers carry their hives as if they weigh nothing.

(Wikimedia Commons)


The Hazardous Beekeeper– Silly?

I don’t think that many people will think about beekeeping as a hazardous job or hobby – besides from the obvious bee stings of course. From a distance, it seems like a pretty peaceful occupation.

 What an illusion!

After attending a health and safety class for beekeepers I was amazed to find out how many things can go wrong. After the class I really felt that every further footstep I was going to take could lead me into a potential trap, shock, cut, amputation or other unforeseen hazard.

I would like to show you a list of Things That Can Go Wrong. Most of the things on the list are just common sense considerations, but when you see them all added up like this they form a pretty impressive overview. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to scare anyone, but I do think it is sensible to show “beginners” what they are getting themselves into. The extravagant sillyness of some of my photos are an attempt to articulate the point even better: just don’t even go there.

  1. Stock. If cows or bulls can access your hive, they can easily knock them over. (or hurt you!) Knocked over hives make angry bees. If you have your hive on your (or someone else’s) farm, make sure the hives are well fenced off. If somehow the hives do fall over, make sure you can get there quickly, especially if you don’t want to get the farmer in trouble (unless he/she is comfortable with bees). Also, think about deer, horses and sheep you can find on farms: if you come past them, they could kick you too. This can cause broken bones and serious bruising.


  1. Sun. Don’t underestimate the sun. Time flies by when you’re among bees, and on a clear summers day this can mean that you are exposed to prolonged sunshine –yes, even with a bee suit on this can be hazardous – sunburn, head stroke and dehydration are all realistic risks. Make sure you have plenty of water and sunblock.
  2.  Machinery. Especially for weed-control. It is crucial to keep vegetation down closely around the hives for optimal sunshine and reducing dampness. This could mean you need some heavy-handed tools like weed-eaters and chainsaws. Make sure you don’t use a metal blade (triblade) close to fixed objects…
  3. Vehicle. Keeping hives on rural locations often means off-road driving. Fun, but can be quite wobbly in hilly or rough landscapes. Risky when you’re transporting hives. You might get stuck in a gap or roll your vehicle. Another question you should ask yourself when you are transporting hives is: can my vehicle carry the weight? Hives are heavy, heavy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA4. Lifting. Continued on that line of thought – always ask yourself the question if YOU can handle the weight of the hive. No hive is worth breaking a back for, no matter how good the honey. The hive boxes can be a bit awkward. Make sure that when you lift it you bend your knees (not your back) and hold your hands under the box, close to you. And remember: one box at a time…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA5. Re-queening hives: precise work. Hazards include physical stress on hands, joints and back.
6. Electric fences. No comment…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA7. Terrain. As I mentioned before: when the area is rough, steep, slippery or has unexpected gaps – be careful not to slip, stumble or fall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA8. Weather. Cold and rain. Leave bees alone in these kinds of weathers. Check before you place your hive that it is not close to a river that could potentially flood…


9. Chemicals. Varroa strips or sprays: avoid skin contact or inhalation…
10. Fire. Make sure your smoker is out properly. Keep an eye on your vehicle… and then, beyond your control, there is the risk of a fire outbreak in the country…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA11. Honey extractors. They are actually pretty scary things when they rotate so fast. Imagine getting your hand stuck in there…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA12. Bee stings suddenly don’t seem that bad anymore, do they?

And the list is not even complete…. If anyone has stories: all welcome!

The Powers of Perfume, Candy and a Cage

She is the living motor that keeps everyone together; she is the only one that drives her family towards a successful existence. She is the one and only breeding Mother. She is the Queen Bee. Yet some are not afraid to kill her…

queen bee

Bees are loyal to their queen. They know how important she is, and they know she isn’t easily replaceable. This is is why it can be quite tricky for beekeepers to introduce a new queen to a hive to replace the old one.  You can’t just randomly drop a queen in and expect everything to be alright. If you do this – you will quickly find out why. The bees will mercilessly slaughter her. Yet when the old queen is failing or has gone missing (!) it is an absolute must to replace her as soon as possible. No Queen, No Hive.

So, how to overcome queen murder? How to get a queen accepted in an existing beehive?  I know a few tricks.

The first one is a quirky yet simple method that only works for virgin queens. Take off the lid and mat of the hive (the two top layers). Spray a few dashes of air freshener into the hive. Be quick. You will overwhelm the bees with this scented cloud, and this is your occasion to let the queen walk in. The perfume masks their regular smells that influences their behaviour and moods (the pheromones that the queen communicates).  The bees are unable to recognise any new intruding pheromones. Meanwhile, the queen has the time to happily walk about and get to know her new home and family. After a while the vapour vanishes. The bees can smell her now, but their memory is confused. Sniff sniff, hmm… I guess she was here before. And they live on. Mission completed.

It’s another story for the mated queen (a queen that has had sex with drones). If you want to introduce her, she and a few workers need to be isolated in a little cage. The queen always needs company. She is so royal; she can’t even look after herself – she needs to be fed and looked after by her workers. Make sure one entrance in the cage is blocked with bee candy. This is a mix of honey, icing sugar and water. The worker bees feed the candy to the queen during the time they spend stuck in a cage. Then, its time to introduce the cage into the hive. The queen’s pheromones aren’t masked this time and her smell will make the bees inside the hive aggressive. They will try to attack herAll in vain, as she is safely locked inside her cage. This situation can’t last. The trick for the beekeeper is to open the door of the cage behind the candy. This makes the candy the one and only barrier between the queen and the angry bees. Despite their anger, the angry bees can’t resist the delicious sweetness of the candy. They start munching, just as the queen with her attendants are munching on the other side. Slowly, they are working their way towards each other. You expect the worst when the candy is gone. However, during this munching-process the bees are getting used to the smell of the queen: her smell has slowly but surely spread throughout the hive. They don’t mind her anymore. When the barrier is gone, they decide she is OK and she can stay. Mission completed.

queen cells

Queen cell cups

There is a third way of introducing a queen into a hive. It could be argued that this is the most natural way of them all. Introduce a queen cell into the centre of the brood chamber and let her emerge from it. There is a disadvantage of this method. After hatching, the queen still needs to mate and mature which can take up to 2-3 weeks. Only then she can start breeding and be of any use to the colony. This is a significant delay compared to the other methods where the queen is pretty much ready to go. Meanwhile the hive needs a breeding mother. If you already had a queen in the hive, its no big deal. You can choose to keep her until the new queen is old enough to fight her. And they will fight. It is a vicious battle. The new queen is young and vigorous, full with the lust of a new life of ruling and breeding: she is likely to beat the old queen. Nine times out of ten she comes as the glorious winner out of this battle.

A Final Curiosity:  Many years of research, investigation and true passion have enabled these methods. Ironically, it used to be a true gentleman’s club whose members pondered upon queen issues; a club in which females didn’t have a say. After establishing the first theories, the gentlemen spent long, long years perfecting their ideas. Their knowledge was bound to be found out and, yes, it was quickly picked up by women. I think this history is something worth giggling about; how could these men think it was sensible to exclude females for studying a world inherently dominated by queens?


An example of a respectable depiction of a gentleman’s club  (not bee-specific) – painted by Marike Bok


Photo’s: Creative Commons, Wikipedia

The Cycle Of the Beekeeping Season – Nuc’s!

Time for a quick re-cap: so far I’ve introduced you to some basic beekeeping issues like “what do beekeepers do?” pest and disease, bee-ethics, and an understanding of the bee’s role in ecosystems. At the same time I have followed a loose chronological time line, following the beekeeping season from the moment I started this blog in late summer/begin autumn until now (the onset of winter): from extracting honey to preparing the hive for winter.

Winter is a time to rest and breathe. There is not much to do for beekeepers once the hives are prepared for winter – except for perhaps feeding the hives if they need it.

This is why I would like to take a leap and jump to the next season: Spring!

Spring is time for renewal. This isn’t only true for beekeepers, but for most living things in nature.

For bees, spring means time for swarming (see my last post). Catching a swarm is one way for beekeepers to acquire new bees, but since the varroa invasion they are getting harder to find. So how else can we get them when we start from scratch?

We buy them.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It gives bees almost the same status as any other pet we acquire for our own enjoyment. Bees are different of course. We can’t “pet” them as individuals: we need them as a whole colony. However, we usually don’t buy them as a complete colony.  A great way of acquiring a new hive is to buy a nucleus colony (a nuc) in spring. You can get them from a local beekeeper or from a queen bee producer.


A nuc before entering a bigger hive box (photo from

A nucleus is a small colony. The bees occupy about four frames in the brood box (out of 9 or 10). You put them them in the middle of the box, next to the remaining empty frames. Then you introduce a queen. You can either choose to introduce a queen from a litte cage, or introduce a queen cell that will develop and emerge as a queen inside the hive (see my next post). From here on, your nuc is ready to go. You will find that the colony quickly expands and soon the bees will occupy all the frames, asking you for more space in more boxes.

For a successful introduction, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you introduce the nuc to their new home in the late afternoon or early evening. Otherwise they will  fly all over the place!
  • It’s best to feed them every week until the main honey flow starts in summer. Commonly beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their bees, but if you want to be organic you could feed them organic honey.
  • Reduce the entrance until the bee population has expanded more (for more about entrance reducers see my post Robbers! Slime!)
  • Be wise and get at least two hives. Seriously. When I started beekeeping I made the mistake of being modest, and I started small with only one hive. It turned out my hive wasn’t that doing that well because the queen was failing. If this happens when you have two hives, you can use your other hive as a back up. You could unite the colonies together, or you could swap brood frames between them, so your weak hive has some extra brood coming up which boosts the population growth. Because I didn’t have a back up-hive, I needed to look for another solution. Luckily, I found another beekeeper to swap brood frames with. But definitely not an ideal situation. Another benefit of having at least two hives is that you can make comparisons between colonies. Valuable experience for beginners!

A last important point is location of the hives.

Make sure its sunny, sheltered from winds, the ground is flat, it doesn’t annoy the neighbours, and that there are enough food sources around. Even though bees can fly between 3 and 5 kilometres if they have to, it’s best if they can find their flowers close to home. Make sure you weed the site. The hives shouldn’t be surrounded by long grass. If it rains the grass catches the wet drops and this makes the close surroundings of the hive damp. The bees hate it!

The hive doesn’t have to be in your backyard. Many places are possible, as long as you ask for permission and the site is  easily accessible. A trend in New Zealand is to ask farmers permission to locate hives on their farm properties.

A wise beekeeper once predicted the future for me. While we have to ask farmers for permission now, in the future it might be the opposite: they will ask us to please put hives on their land and they might even pay us for it!

I hope he is right. What do you think?



Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Ps. There are alternative ways of starting up hives, like buying established hives or buying package bees. If you would like to know more about these options, please let me know!

Where Are You Going, You Flying Black Cloud?



I can see them coming! The flying black cloud has arrived. It’s getting closer and closer. In rapid tempo it flies through the streets, past the bushes, over the fields.

Please, come here in my arms!

O, those good old days. The days in which beekeepers used fixed-comb hives. They are combs that cannot be removed. Almost any hollow structure has potential to become a comb: a clay pot, an upside down basket, or even a hollow in a tree.

These were the days where the swarming season was the highlight of the year. Beekeepers couldn’t move their hives around, so how else could they obtain new colonies? The only option was to try to spot that black cloud formed by a mass of flying bees – bees that are looking for a new home. “You need a new home? I got a fine house just here for ya!”  If the beekeeper needed new bees, he basically had to catch them with his own (metaphorical) bare hands.


Fixed-comb hives in the Lithuania Honeymaking museum

….It might sound charming and romantic, but I imagine this dependence on the swarming season might have been quite a nuisance. And I don’t even want to start imagining how difficult it must have been to maintain a colony in a clay pot or a tree….(mind you: in many developing countries this is still common practice)

Today, most beekeepers use “flexible” beehives that you can easily move around. Today, we hate the swarming season. It is a bloody nuisance! It distracts the bees from being their productive selves: rather than collecting pollen and nectar, they are mostly occupied with preparing their “Great Escape”. Also, there is a risk that diseased or varroa-infected colonies will swarm and spread their demons.

So, why do they do it?

Swarming is caused by a combination of factors. First of all, it is a natural instinct that occurs in spring/early summer. In most cases only part of the hive takes off, leaving the others behind. The leaving bees start up a new colony in a new location. By reproducing and dispersing themselves, they remain flexible, finding better environments to live in, and increase their survival chances. However, when the bees are under threat they may decide to move away all together. This can happen under the threat of the varroa mite or “natural disasters” like climatic changes.

When the workers start to prepare themselves for swarming, the first thing they do is starting to construct “swarm cells”. One factor that makes them do this, are the pheromones (the messages) that the queen sends out to them. Usually, the queen will send out messages that the bees should not built swarm cells. However, when the queen gets older or when she is failing, her messages can’t reach her bees that well anymore. It is as if her voice loses strength. A poor queen is another important reason for bees to swarm.

A few things look different inside your hive when the bees are preparing for take off.

  • The queen starts laying eggs in the swarm cells that the workers have built. You can recognise them easily since they are big cells shaped like acorns. Swarm cells are cells in which new queens are raised. When a new queen is about to emerge, the bees stop doing what they were doing and immediately start to stuff themselves with honey. After their meal, usually in the middle of the day, they are ready to leave. Together with the old queen they fly away to never to return again. They may rest on a tree branch first and cluster up. Then, they send special scout bees to explore the area. They are responsible for finding the best new nest site.
  • a few days before they are ready, you may notice thay your hive becomes suddenly way quieter
  • a few hours before they are ready the quietness has turned into chaos for the fnal preparations

After they have left, the bees back in the original hive are at the mercy of the new virgin queen. The first thing she does is tearing open the other swarm cells. Workers bees come help her and conduct the final destruction of these cells. After all, there can only be one queen in a hive. If two queens happen to emerge at the same time, they have to fight it out. Literally.

As soon as you notice swarm cells (often on the edges of a frame) you should crush them. But preventing is always better than curing – good beekeepers should make sure they provide optimal conditions for the bee, to minimize their tendency to swarm. Make sure you re-queen your hive every other year, make sure they have enough space (for population, honey, pollen) and make sure the hive is well ventilated.

It’s a lot of things to consider, but it’s still more comfortable than keeping bees inside a tree…


Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons

Ouch, A Stinger in My Skin

Beekeeping means getting stung. 


No matter how much you are in tune with your bees, even the most understanding guru will receive a vicious reminder from time to time – the bees letting us know how they feel.

I can’t help but sometimes feeling that I am a troublesome invader to my beehive. I wish I could tell the bees that I mean well, and that everything I do is for their own good. But while I’m thinking this, I can quite clearly visualise what I must look like from a bee-point of view.

A giant white monster with a shaded face. I attack their house with a metal weapon. I tear off their roof, smoke out their house, and one by one I pick up their chambers and give them a good shake – a massive earthquake that causes them to fall down into the abyss. My giant eyeball inspects closely what their babies look like, where their food is stored. Their most precious goods are supposed to be hidden from the daylight, but now they are suddenly painfully exposed to enemies and weather. My giant eyeball doesn’t rest until I have found their leader, the queen, who brings order in the seemingly chaos of the hive. Sometimes I notice that my bees protect their queen by clustering up and around her: she must stay invisible for my crushing powers.

No wonder beekeepers get stung! I would do the same if I was a bee.

Getting stung is not that funny. When I was attacked for the first time – four decent pricks into my ankle, I had a good cry. I actually had to stop doing what I was doing, walk away from the hive, sit down and breathe.  It wasn’t because I was scared, but because it actually REALLY FREAKIN HURTS.

For some reason, when I get stung now it is not that painful anymore. It’s just a bit of an ‘ouchy’ feeling, and I carry on. Unfortunately, I still swell and itch for days afterwards…

When you want to become a beekeeper, you really need to consider bee stings.Bees will only sting you when they feel threatened, so if you see a bee buzzing around the fields, don’t worry too much. If you invade their house though, especially when it’s cold and wet outside, it doesn’t matter how good your protective gear is, the bees will find a way. For most people it’s no big problem, others get Severe Allergic Reactions that may even lead to Death.

So what actually happens when you get stung?

Worker bees have a barbed stinger in their bum. When they sting, the stinger lodges into the victim’s skin. It tears loose from the bee’s abdomen, digestive tract, muscles and nerves. This is what kills the bee – a few minutes later she is death. However, this only happens when bees sting enemies with a thick skin, like mammals. If they sting other insects, they can do so several times without harming themselves.

The sting consists of three parts: a stylus and two barbed slides on either side of the stylus. Instead of pushing the sting in, the sting is drawn by these barbed slides. They move up and down the stylus, gradually sliding the sting into the wound, quickly further and further. This mechanism even continues after the sting is ripped off from the bee’s body.

The sting releases a venom: apitoxin. At the same time it releases pheromones. The other bees can smell that one of their fellows is fatally injured. This will attract them to come to the “place of crime” and help out their buddy by stinging the victim even more. In most cases they will only stop stinging when the threat has gone: the victim has fled or died.

Interesting fact: Male bees can’t sting, and the Queen bee won’t sting – she has a stinger that she could use multiple times, but only in very rare cases she will use it on humans. Humans are generally not worth dying for – she will rather use it to fight another queen!


The first step you need to undertake when you get stung is to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Even when you only give it a few seconds in your skin, it will continue to release more venom. A few odd traditional “remedies” are  toothpaste, garlic, salt, baking soda or onion on your wound, but these remedies have probably mostly a psychological effect. In rare occasions people can develop hypersensitivity after being stung, which can become worse each time when stung again. They may suffer anaphylactic shock caused by certain proteins in the venom. They need an immediate treatment of adrenaline (epinephrine), otherwise it might be fatal.

Pretty scary.

Yet for most people, getting stung is no reason to not keep bees. And even after getting stung, I still always hope that at the end of the day, after I have fed my bees a big bucket full of sweet syrup, maybe they say to each other that I wasn’t so bad after all…


Photo’s: Wikimedia Commons