Bees have been around longer than human beings and yet their future has never been more critical owing to the fact that their ability to pollinate plants is fundamental to our survival.
Generally speaking, bees are responsible for pollinating 70% of our food, so they are one of the most important species that must be conserved.
In Scotland there are currently about 1,400 hobby beekeepers who are also members of the Scottish Beekeepers’ Association, with an estimated further 1,000 hobbyists who are not.
In addition, there are around 25 commercial bee farmers who are members of the Bee Farmers’ Association and whose businesses depend on the management of healthy honey bees.
South of the Border more than 29,000 beekeepers managing around 126,000 colonies were registered on the National Bee Unit’s BeeBase database in 2013, compared with 15,000 beekeepers managing just under 80,000 colonies in 2008.
Although honey bees have been ‘domesticated’ for thousands of years they remain wild insects. They have been bred to be more docile, but they still retain natural instincts such as swarming when a hive becomes over-populated and there is always a desire to create new colonies.
Until the early 1990s, the UK had a very healthy wild bee population outside those contained in hives. Unfortunately with increasing temperatures and the introduction of imported bees to the UK, the native wild bee population was pretty much wiped out. A large part of this was due to the Varroa mite which is a notifiable pest which originally only occurred in Asia but reached the UK in 1992.
The Varroa mite possibly has the most pronounced economic impact on the beekeeping industry and is considered to be one of multiple stress factors contributing to the higher levels of bee losses around the world. Thankfully colonies can be treated with a variety of products so hands-on management is essential for the welfare of a hive.
Bees are an incredible species. They live socially in colonies and are adapted for feeding on nectar and pollen with the former primarily as an energy source and the latter for protein and other nutrients. Most of their pollen is used as food for the larvae.
Beekeeping or apiculture has been practised for millennia, since at least the times of Ancient Egypt and Greece. Depictions of humans collecting honey from bees date to 15,000 years ago and efforts to domesticate them are shown in Egyptian art from 4,500 years ago. Jars of honey have even been found in the tombs of pharaohs, showing how important it was to people of that time.
Apart from honey and pollination, honey bees produce beeswax, royal jelly and propolis. They have appeared in mythology and folklore, through all phases of art and literature, from ancient times to the present day, though primarily focused in the northern hemisphere where beekeeping is far more common.
The life cycle of a hive of bees is utterly fascinating. A queen is required to lay eggs and create the colony and when a virgin queen takes her initial flight out of the hive she is inseminated by a drone – a male bee who dies during the process – and the queen returns to the hive never to leave again. She will remain in the hive for one or two years laying eggs and that is her sole job.
In the early part of the season all of the bees within the hive are female. They have a variety of roles such as worker bees, who gather pollen and nectar, guard bees to nursery bees. The sex of a bee is determined whether or not the egg is fertilised. After mating, a female stores sperm and determines which sex is required at the time each individual egg is laid so therefore it is up to the queen bee as to how many males are in the colony.
The number of colonies kept by beekeepers has declined but there is now more interest in amateur beekeeping. Urbanisation, systemic pesticides and Varroa mites have reduced bees substantially over the last 50 years. In 2018 the EU decided to ban field use of all three major neonicotinoids. However, they remain permitted in veterinary, greenhouse and transport use. Farmers have focused on alternative solutions to mitigate problems.
Honey has recognised health benefits and there is evidence that honey heals burns four to five days faster than conventional dressings and there is moderate evidence suggesting that honey heals post-operative infections faster and with fewer adverse events than antiseptic and gauze.
The only negative aspect associated with bees is of course their sting. Some people are allergic to stings of any kind and this can induce anaphylactic shock. Bees only sting when they are protecting their colony and stores and in normal circumstances you can stand fairly close to a beehive without getting stung so long as you are not interfering with their day-to-day activity. Unlike wasps, the poor honey bee dies after it stings and therefore doesn’t do it out of spite. I have been stung many times and never get used to it but the joy and pleasure of keeping bees far outweighs the pain of a sting.
Knowing that you are helping the environment and pollination of gardens and crops makes it all worthwhile. The honey is a bonus!