All of the beekeepers I’ve met so far in Scotland are optimistic and enthusiastic people. But when it comes to bees, they make a point of highlighting that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows (this was made especially clear in the first beekeeping class). This rationality is purely for the beginner beekeeper’s benefit as we learn sharp enough that beekeeping is expensive, complex and often dangerous. But I’m not put-off yet!
Ok, so I don’t think I’ve ever been truly stung. There was an incident with a bumblebee on a bus once, but I can’t remember it hurting that badly, so I’m not sure if it was a proper sting or not.
So it was a tad alarming when one of the Association members started talking seriously about anaphylactic shock, how lethal stings are and what to do in an emergency.
However, before the scary stuff, we learnt how bees actually sting, why they do it, and what’s in their venom (apitoxin) which makes stings hurt so badly. It’s the combination of peptides, enzymes and neurotransmitters which make up bee venom.
The long and short of it is that bees sting only if provoked. The sting itself is worked by a system of articulated plates in the ‘sting chamber’ which dig barbs into the victim (and subsequently pump venom).
We were encouraged just to get the sting out as soon as possible, and not to worry too much about the best way to do this.
What was most interesting was the Association’s encouragement of not tolerating angry bees. What they were saying was that some colonies can just be aggressive, and so are more likely to sting you.
The beekeeping year
So, after worrying slightly about developing an allergy to bees (frequent in beekeepers, apparently), we moved on to looking at the beekeeping year. This information is key to understanding bees and managing colonies effectively.
From about September to March, there is almost no interaction with the colonies. This is mainly because:
- The number of bees in the hive is greatly reduced compared with the summer months.
- It is cold, and bees do not like the cold.
However, there are still jobs to do in winter (usually in December). It’s the time to apply oxalic acid to hives, which can kill Varroa, a mite from the arachnid family which infests hives. As well as this, like gardening, it is a time of planning and preparation for spring.
I always think of spring as nature waking up – and this is definitely the case with bees. In March, they start to venture out the hive to forage (mainly on spring bulbs and blossom) and it’s usually warm enough to quickly check on the bees without making them too uncomfortable. The next few months leading up to summer a variety of tasks including:
- feeding bees with fondant
- inspecting bees
- inspections for queen raising
- watching for swarms and swarming
- raising new queens, if necessary
- replacing outer empty combs with foundation.
Summer to autumn
Summer is all about honey. You’ll be able to get the first honey harvest, and also any beeswax for candles etc. It’s also a time to check for swarming and for varroa counting and treatment.
After August, the bees are usually fed in September and the hive is made mouse-proof. You may also get one last crop at the start of September.
Like the first beekeeping class, it was a lot to take in, but it’s still fascinating. In the next lesson, we’re going to learn about swarms, moving bees and year one as a beekeeper. But I’m not thinking that far forward, after all, I just got my chickens!
What has been your experience with stings? I’d be really interested to hear if you were a beekeeper who had developed an allergy through keeping bees, as morbid as that sounds…