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August 17, 2010


(Justin = Julian btw!! I'm Mrs Julian and looking forward to being his +1 very much!)

So when you say 'For the rest of Tim's answers', you really mean 'To see all the many, many questions asked of Tim with no answers supplied, click here'.

Uhh...little help? Some of those questions look really interesting! I want to know the answers!

Ohh, and you got the name of the competition winner wrong?! Can I work for you as a website content editor please? Thanks. :)

I couldn't find any answers to the bee questions either - are they in a separate link?

Q: How do prolonged periods of rain affect bees?
A: In wet weather the bees don’t go out foraging (just think of the size of a raindrop compared with a bee … it would be like dodging cannonballs) so they sit at home in the hive, eating the honey that they have stored for times when they can’t get out. If the bad weather goes on for ages, then the beekeeper has to feed the bees with sugar syrup, so they don’t starve.

Q: Dear Tim the Beekeeper, have you ever encountered an incident when your own bees have caused you to sweat a little more than usual?

A:Oh yes, lots. One incident I remember was when was collecting a swarm of bees. I put them into a skep (a thing like a straw waste paper basket) and wrapped it in a sheet. I then put the whole thing in the boot of my car and drove off towards Hanbury Hall, to put the bees in a new hive. The sheet wrapping the skep must have come undone, because I looked in the rear view mirror and noticed a bee walking up the back windscreen, then another, then really quite a lot. I opened the front windows and drove a lot faster, in the hope that any bees would be blown backwards, not forwards towards me. Funnily enough, there didn’t seem to be as many bees left when I got to my destination.

The winning question from Juilan.
Q: I'd like to have a small bee hive (as soon as I get a garden) but will soon have 2 small children. Any advice on bee keeping with children?

A: If you want to keep a colony of honey bees, you cannot really have a ‘small’ hive, because the bees need a certain volume to live in. However, two options. Firstly, have a full sized hive. My children have been helping me with the bees since they were toddlers. Young children (well, my children anyway!) don’t have any concept of a ‘fear of being stung’ so they were very calm around the bees … which means they were not stung (they also had child sized bee-suits on). A second option is to buy or make a home for solitary bees. Some species like to live in little tunnels, so cutting up lots of pieces of bamboo makes a sort of ‘apartment block’ for them. You don’t have to do anything, they just turn up and you can watch them coming and going … you won’t get any honey from them though! Have a look at

Q: Please can you explain the difference between a honey bee, worker bee and queen bee - diagrams are appreciated!

A: Honey bee is the common name for the whole species, with a scientific name of Apis mellifera. Honey bees have three castes, or types; Worker, Drone and Queen.

The Queen bee is the only bee who can lay eggs. She lives in the hive all the time and lays two types of egg, depending on the size of the wax cell prepared for her. If the cell is the ‘standard’ size, she lays a fertilized egg, which becomes a worker bee. If the cell is a little larger, she lays an unfertilized egg, which becomes a drone bee.

Worker bees are all female and do all the work in the hive, cleaning, processing the honey, guarding etc. They are also the bees that you are most likely to see because they do all the collecting of nectar from outside the hive.

Drone bees are male, and do nothing inside the hive, they even have to be fed, because they cannot feed themselves! They exist to hang around and try and mate with any unmated queen that they can find. They have big eyes to spot the queens and they fly about in ‘drone congregation areas’ waiting for a chance! Unfortunately for them, if they do get to mate with a queen, their entire reproductive kit gets ripped off as part of the process and they die!

Q: What's your theory on the decline of the UK bee population?
Q: What are the causes in the decline of bee populations and what is being done about it?
A: There are many theories, and I would not claim to be an expert in bee disease. I suspect that there is no one cause for any decline in the bee population. There may not even be a decline, because there are not even any accurate figures about the number of beekeepers or bee colonies in the country!

One popular theory is that honey bee colonies could be suffering from exposure to non-lethal doses of agro-chemicals, where the dose is not enough to kill the bees, but might affect their life expectancy or they way that they forage, or their ability to resist other illnesses. One piece of good news is that the Government has put up £10m for research into Insect Pollinators. This money is being spent on research to look at a number of areas, including research into the effect of sub-lethal exposure to chemicals.

Q: What are the best things we can do to support the bee population?

A: Bees need a wide range of flowers to feed from, flowering throughout the year. I have a problem with my bees that they have a fantastic time with the fields of Oilseed Rape (that bright yellow stuff that you can see from miles away!). The trouble is, it all flowers at the same time, and when it is finished, there are lots of bees with nothing to do, because there is not another crop to feed on. So a succession of flowers in your garden would be greatly appreciated by the bees ... and it looks nicer! As a rough rule of thumb, flowers with nice big ‘open’ flowers tend to be pollinated by bees. Red flowers are usually not bee pollinated as bees cannot see red. They think it is black!

Q: What happens to all the bees in Winter?

A: In the winter, the bees all huddle together in the hive, shivering to keep warm. The queen is kept warm in the middle, and the other bees take it in turns to be on the outside of the ‘ball’ of bees. They eat the honey they stored during the summer to give them energy to generate warmth. The only time you might see a bee in the winter is on a very warm day when they sometimes go on a short flight to go to the toilet!

Q: Are wasps also dying off?

A: Good question, I don’t really know. However, I suspect not, because wasps live for most of the year on live food (caterpillars etc) . They tend to try and rob sweet things in the later summer. I guess this behavior makes them less susceptible to agrochemicals. And of course, they don’t suffer man trying to make things better for them, and in the process introducing foreign diseases through man’s stupidity.

Q: Is it true that if you stay still they will leave you alone?

A: Bees don’t really want to sting you as it results in them dying. They will only sting if they are trying to defend their hive, or they get in a panic. Assuming you are not very close to their hive, they probably found you by mistake and so they will generally just ‘bounce off’ and go away. However, if you wave your arms around and try to hit them, or they get caught in your hair, then they may panic and sting you. So yes, keep still and they will probably leave you alone ... or they may just stop for a rest on you before flying away. Wasps don’t work the same way, because they are probably after something sweet near you.

Q: What's the worst bee-related pun you have encountered on the job?

A: My favourite comment, which I use regularly when collecting swarms, is to wait until the swarm is all safely wrapped up and then ask children if they want to listen to the bees. If you listen carefully you can hear them all buzzing quite loudly at this point. Then with a straight face you ask them if they know why the bees are humming which generally gets a serious look from the child and ‘I don’t know’ (often a snigger from the parents as they know) and then of course the reply ‘because they don’t know the words’

Q: Why do I now see many huge bees in the garden and few 'normal' size ones?
A: There are lots of different types of bees. The big ones are probably bumble bees, which live in small, looser groups. The smaller ‘normal’ ones are more likely to be honey bees, although again, there are lots of different bees. Have a look at where you can try to identify your bumble bees and then impress your friends with your new found knowledge.

Q: If I'm allowed another question I'd also like to know more about the importance of bees in our eco-system. I heard that if all the bees die right now, then the human race would survive no more than 3 years. Long live the Bee!
A: I think that this is really an ‘urban myth’ which as beekeepers we have done little to discourage. Certainly our food would be much less exciting, because most of the things that taste nice are insect pollinated. We would still have the boring staple foods like wheat and rice.

Q: When somethings great it said to be 'the bees knees' do bees really have knees?
A: Well, not really. They do have legs with joints in them, but nothing like a kneecap, so not really a knee. I think that the expression arose as one of those things that you send apprentices to go and get from the stores, like a ‘sky hook’, or a ‘bucket load of sparks’, or my particular favourite ‘a long stand’ (where the apprentice would just be told to wait … until eventually they asked about the long stand … when they would be told that they had just had one)

Q: What kind of relationship do bees in a hive have with each other? and how do they have rules?

A: Despite all the literature, an individual bee is not very clever (it’s alright - they won’t get to read this!). However a honeybee colony is very clever. It does this by using simple ‘rules’ which are controlled in part by ‘pheromones’ which are smelly chemicals used to transmit messages. For example, if a bee is threatened, or needs to sting, then they give off the ‘alarm’ pheromone. This puts all the other bees on alert, and they will head towards the smell, and the threat. They are then ready to help out in the defense of the hive. So if you were to look at the hive, it gives the impression that the bees have ‘told each other’ that there is a threat, actually it is just a reaction to the smell of a chemical.

Q: Why does the wax and comb turn yellow, when it is originally white?
A: Bees create wax from the ‘wax glands’ on their abdomen and then ‘manipulate’ it with their mouth to make the honeycomb. This wax is off white (sort of ivory colour). Then they walk all over it and bring in pollen, nectar, and particularly propolis. Propolis is the name for tree resins that the bees collect as a sort of ‘glue’ to block up holes in the hive. It is incredibly sticky and glues everything together in the hive. I suspect that the bees have a problem with it being very sticky and that is what causes the comb to become yellow over time.

Q: Are bees tougher than wasps?

A: In a fight, the bees usually win! In the late summer when the wasps are out bothering us at picnics, they also try to get into the beehives to steal the honey. You quite often see a wasp fly up to the hive and then nonchalantly try to wander in with a sort of ‘hey … I’m stripy too!’ walk. You then see the same wasp being manhandled (‘beehandled?’) out of the hive by a couple of ‘guard bees’ a few seconds later. Usually the wasp flies off, but sometimes they get stung and killed.

Q: Is every bee different in appearance and is it possible to determine certain characters when working with them like you do?
A: I can’t tell the difference between individual bees, however, you can see the different castes (worker, drone and queen) quite easily. Also different hives have different characteristics, so one hive might be really docile, whereas the hive next door might be really aggressive, and will behave completely differently when you open it up (and not in a nice way)

Q: Do bees have a favourite part of the UK?
A: If they had a choice then I imagine that their favourite place would be somewhere where there is a steady succession of flowers throughout the season, starting off nice and early with things like crocuses and finishing nice and late with things like ivy. Actually, thinking about it, that would be my favourite place for bees, so that they could collect the most honey … they may think about it in a different way!
Q: I would like to ask Tim if he could show me an example of the "waggle dance"

A: I have occasionally seen a bee doing the waggle dance, but, funnily enough, filling their home with smoke, then taking the roof and top floors of their house, seems to take the bees mind off telling their friends where to find the best flowers!
Q: Are there any bees that just can't do their jobs properly?

A: I don’t know about not doing their jobs properly, but apparently the ‘early riser’ bees who go out and get nectar early in the morning, will come back to the hive and shake the sleepy bees to wake them up so that they can tell them about the nectar they have just found.
Q: What happens to the bees and the honey if the hive is not emptied?

A: The bees look after the honey in the hive over the winter and they use it as food during the months when it is too cold for them to fly, and anyway there are no flowers. That is why they collect honey, it isn’t for us, it is to keep them going through the winter. So if the beekeeper takes away all the honey, then he needs to feed the bees with sugar syrup so that they can survive the winter. The queen bee spends the winter in the hive surrounded by a ‘ball’ of bees, who keep her warm.
Q: How closely related are honey bees to the little wild bees I have in my garden?

A: Cousins. Slightly less flippantly, there are hundreds of different bees, which are all related, ultimately in the order Hymenoptera which means that they have wings made out of a membrane, as opposed to birds, which have wings made out of feathers, and are not related to bees.

Q:Poor Tim is going to be bombarded with questions on this amazing subject. Can you help me to find out what type of bee hovers round holes in my garden when I am digging (I have a photo)? How do the bees who keep the hive warm get enough energy?...and can you feel how warm they are in your hand? How have apiarists deciphered the waggle dance? I would love to get really close to the hives, but can I please have a full body costume? (these were the first questions that came to mind)

If it is a bumble bee, then have a look at where you can try to identify your bees.
They keep warm by shivering! They have a mechanism where they can ‘disconnect’ the big muscles that power their wings from the wing itself so they can ‘vibrate’ the muscle without beating the wing. Just like us, working muscles generate heat by ‘burning’ food, so they turn honey into heat. If you put your bare finger into a swarm of bees (sad to say, but it is the sort of things beekeepers do as a ‘party trick’, which is probably why we don’t get invited to many parties!), you can feel that the swarm is noticeably warm inside.
A man called Karl von Frisch discovered lots of things about bees (colour vision, waggle dance, sense of smell etc) see for a brief synopsis. Also, if you did any kind of science subject at school, his books are a really good read about how to design an experiment so as to prove a hypothesis.
I agree about wearing a protective suit ... it would not be funny to get stung in the mouth or eye ... so I always wear a mesh veil if I am going to muck around with the beehives. Doesn’t always stop you getting stung ‘cos they can sting through the material, but it improves your chances!
Q: Which flowers or mix of flowers is best to encourage bees?
There are a number of packets of ‘bee friendly’ flower mixes, but the key thing is to plant a mixture of plants so something is in flower all through the season. June is always a bad time for the bees, because the early plants have finished flowering, and the later ones havn’t started yet. This is an American website, so the plant lists are not correct for the UK, but the ideas are good

Q: Could we pollinate flowers without bees/wasps?

A: Some flowers are already pollinated in other ways. Lots of our main staple foods (rice, wheat etc) are pollinated by the wind. Beetles, butterflies and moths pollinate some flowers. However, for the majority of bee pollinated flowers, the only alternative would be to sit down with a small paint brush and move the pollen from flower to flower. This is done for apples in one region of China (see ) but I guess you need a lot of manpower!
Q: Have any of your hives ever been infested with verroa mites and what do you do about it?

A: Unfortunately, probably every beehive in the UK is infected with Varroa mites, so we all have to try to control them. The best way to keep the mite population down is with Integrated Pest Management (IPM). In other words, we don’t rely on simply blasting the hives with chemicals, but we monitor the level of infestation and use a variety of treatments so that the mites cannot become resistant to any one approach.

One quite neat trick which I use is to dust the bees with icing sugar when I open up the hive. Bees are clean animals, so when they are covered with the icing sugar dust they groom themselves and each other to get rid of it. The grooming knocks off some of the mites, which fall to the bottom of the hive. Instead of having a solid floor, new beehives now have a wire mesh floor, so these mites fall off the bee and then fall though the mesh, out of the hive. The mites cannot get back into the hive so the number of mites in the colony is reduced by using a simple physical method. This is just one of the methods that we use.

Why do bees always end up sleeping on cycle paths where they're likely to get run over?
Maybe you didn’t spot all the other bees sleeping in the grass! I don’t know about the statistics for bees on cycle paths, but I do know that sheep like sleeping on the road because the black tarmac warms up quicker in the morning sun than the green grass. Could be the same?
What would happen to the world if we didn’t have bees?

I’d have to find a new hobby .. any ideas? Also, our food would be a lot more boring, because although most of our staples (wheat, maize, rice etc) are wind pollinated, most of the stuff that tastes nice (apples, tomatoes etc) are bee pollinated.
What do you need to do to look after the bees and the hives over the winter?
Very little really, the bees are all huddled up in a ball keeping warm, so all you need to do is make sure that the hive hasn’t blown over in the weather. Also, every couple of weeks just lift the hive up slightly to make sure that it is still nice and heavy with food. If it starts to feel a bit light towards the end of the winter then you need to feed the bees again with sugar fondant (looks a bit like cake icing).
What made you decide to become a beekeeper?
It was a mistake really! I was talking to a friend about how it would be interesting to see inside a beehive. He said that he knew someone who kept bees who he was sure would oblige. Unfortunately, ‘Chinese Whispers’ got in the communication, and when I turned up at the ‘friend of a friend’ he greeted me with ‘so you are the chap who wants to take over my bees!’ Well, it seemed a shame to turn him down, and ten years later I am still doing it!

Q: My question would bee "what happens if the queen bee falls ill and is unable to reproduce? is it the decline of the colony or does another bee become the queen?"

A: If the queen has laid fertilized eggs in the last 3 days, then the bees rapidly convert the cell the egg is lying in to the right size and shape to rear a queen. The difference between an egg growing into a queen or a worker is purely down to the way the bees feed the grub, so if they can get an egg, or a very young grub then they can ‘make’ it into a queen. However, what sometimes happens is that the queen carries on laying eggs, but she has run out of sperm (saved from her one mating flight just after she emerged from the cell). Unfertilised eggs can only grow into Drones (boy bees) so then the colony is knackered! If a beekeeper spots that this has happened then you can put some fertilized eggs from another colony into the queenless colony, and the bees will create a new ‘emergency queen’ using these eggs.

Q: Tim, do you have the orchestral piece 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on your iPod? Have you ever been caught listening to it full blast whilst dancing around in your beekeeping suit?

A: Rather than ‘Flight of the bumblebee’ I tend to think more in terms of the music played in ‘Apocalypse Now’ when they are flying in the helicopters destroying everything (‘Ride of the Valkyries’ I think). After all, from the bees’ point of view, you have just filled their house with smoke and ripped off the roof and top floors!

Joking apart, I don’t wear an iPod because you can tell the temper of the colony by the noise it is making. You get an element of warning before they have a go at you because the buzzing gets louder!

Q: How do the bees visiting different flowers affect the flavour of honey they produce? (Or are the flavours added by the beekeepers later??)

A: The flavour is very definitely affected by the flowers the bees have been working. It is difficult in the UK to have a honey that comes from just one flower because the bees can fly a radius of 1.5 miles from the hive and there are very few areas where only one type of flower would be in that sort of area.

The only way we have of separating flowers is by the time of year, so for example, I have one batch of honey this year that was definitely from the oilseed rape, and another batch later in the season that was mixed flowers.

The only way that the beekeeper should change the flavour is to mix different honeys to create a blend, but then you tend to create something a bit like the supermarket stuff which is always described as a ‘mixture of honeys from more than one country’

Q: Is there any correlation between Colony Collapse Disorder and the type of hive the bee is living in?

A: I don’t know, because most beekeepers tend to only have one type of hive. This makes it easier because all the parts are interchangeable. However, it would make it difficult to compare CCD vs hive types because there are so many other variables between different sites and different beekeepers.

Q: My question is can more than one queen live in a normal sized hive, or do arguements ensue?

A: Normally there is only one Queen at a time. If there were two then a fight would start, ending with only one Queen! The only time this does not happen is when the new queen is being reared and is not yet mated. Sometimes the old queen will tolerate the new queen for a while, before the new queen takes over and either kills the old queen, or the old queen leaves with a swarm of bees.

Incidentally, when a colony of bees decides to swarm, the swarm takes the old queen with them, leaving the new queen in the old beehive. This means that the new queen has stores of honey, and baby bees in various stages from egg through to just emerged as a worker bee. She therefore has a couple of weeks during which she can get mated and start laying. The old queen is a known quantity, so the swarm don’t mind leaving with her because they know she can start laying almost as soon as they can build some cells for her to put the eggs into.

Q: My question - what is life like in a hive if man doesn't take the honey?

A: The bees collect nectar to store it as honey for the winter when there are no flowers. If man does not take the honey then they will have plenty of stores to see them through the winter. If a beekeeper takes the honey then they have to feed the bees on sugar syrup for winter food. A good beekeeper will also feed any colonies that did not collect enough honey to see them through the winter, so it is not an entirely one-sided transaction!

Q: How do I make the bees form faces and shapes, like the water alien in The Abyss?

A: Gonna be tricky. Rather than The Abyss, I would like to train them to be like the shoal of fish in Finding Nemo so that instead of that waggle dance thing, they could just form into a huge arrow.

Q: Do bees have a preference for the pollen of any particular flower or do they go for the brightest flowers?

A: For an insect with a tiny brain, it is actually really complicated. They have to decide based on how sugary the nectar is. If it is really sweet then it is worthwhile flying further for it, but if it is very watery, then it isn’t worth flying far ... unless it is a really hot day and the hive needs water anyway to cool down the colony.

Farmers will sometimes pay for a beekeeper to put hives in his orchards to pollinate, for example, his apples. Apple nectar is very watery, so, if there is a field of rape nearby, which has a very sugary nectar, then the bees will ignore the orchard and fly to the field!

Q: Why is our honey so pale and interesting?

A: All honey is made from whatever nectar the bees were collecting at the time. If there is a lot of one type of nectar available then the honey will taste of that nectar and have the characteristics of that nectar. If your honey is English, then it is probably made early in the season and contains mostly Oilseed Rape nectar. The bees love rape, which produces a lot of sweet nectar. The honey it makes is very light coloured, and it sets rock solid very quickly.

Q: How far do bees fly from the hive, for how long are they gone, and do they have some sort of in-built homing device ? (I've cheated a bit on the 1 question rule, but technically it's one sentence!)

A: Beekeepers work on a ‘rule of thumb’ that bees will fly up to one and a half miles from their hive to search for nectar. When the worker bee is ready to start foraging, they leave the hive and fly around it in larger and larger circles, facing the hive. They are learning where the hive is and how to find it in the landscape. When they fly off to search for nectar, they navigate by the sun, which they can use even on cloudy days because they can see polarized light. They also have an internal clock to compensate for the fact that the sun is moving. Clever little things!

Q: I read that some nicotine-based pesticides are responsible for the decline of the bee population, because although they don't kill the bees (and therefore are not banned) they do disorientate and weaken them. Have you heard this, and can we start a petition to have these pesticides banned?

A: This might be true. However, one pesticide ‘Gaucho’ was banned in France in 1999 because the French beekeepers blamed it for colony collapses. In 2007 the French minister of Agriculture admitted that bee deaths are still occurring and there are no correlations between bee losses and Imidacloprid residues. I think the best approach is research into sub-lethal exposure to pesticides. Surprisingly, the Government was persuaded to put some money into the ‘Insect Pollinator Initiative’ which is going to carry out a number of projects, one of which is to look at this. In total the Insect Pollinator Initiative have £10m to spend on research, so we may get some answers!

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