This article is from the archives, but I thought it gave a really great summary of what goes on in the hive and of harvesting honey. The article is written by John Cooper and is from GOL magazine.
You can read a transcript of the article below, or click on the link at the bottom of the article to see a pdf of the actual article.
These busy insects bring benefits to plants and humans
Story & photography John Cooper
Honey has been valued for its dietary and therapeutic benefits for thousands of years, dating back at least to ancient Egyptian times. In 1822, the early settlers aboard the ‘Isabella’ introduced the European honey bee into Australia. This bee adapted so well to our warmer climate and native flora that Australia has now become the world’s ninth biggest honey producer.
Eucalypts are mainly responsible for the distinctive flavour and density of most Australian honey, a major factor in its popularity with honey connoisseurs around the world. Honey from the yellow box (Eucalpytus melliodora) is the most popular, while river red gum (E. camaldulensis), Napunyah, and abundant grey ironbark (E. paniculata) all yield excellent honey. Tasmania’s major source of honey is the leatherwood tree, producing a pale, scented honey.
Because eucalypts have no regular flowering seasons, it’s often an educated guess to have the hives in the right place at the right time to reap the benefits of flowering gums. But a patchwork of yellow and purple heralds the spring as vast crops of canola and fields of Patersons’s curse extend through rural Australia. Such an explosion of blossoms is a boon to the beekeeper, ensuring a stead flow of nectar through till early summer.
Varietal honeys (coming from a single floral source) make up about 20 per cent of production. The remaining honey is blended by mixing different varieties to achieve a flavour and colour demanded by the consumer.
On warm, sunny days we have become accustomed to the buzz of busy honey bees as they visit our garden blossoms to sip sweet nectar. The way the bees come to know the whereabouts of these flowering plants is a marvel of nature: bee scouts are sent out to survey an area, usually within a 200m radius of the hive. When they have located their floral bounty they return to the hive and perform an amazing dance that indicates to the worker bees just where to go. Dancing in a circle, the scout indicates the source is within 100m. If she dances in two linked semicircles resembling a figure eight then the source is farther away. In the latter case, the speed of the wing movements and the directions in which she moves in the centre of the section indicates how far the workers must fly and in which direction.
Once the workers have found the source, they set about gathering nectar and pollen, visiting thousands of blossoms from sunrise to sunset on expeditions that are incredible feats of aviation and stamina, carrying as much as their own weight.
The nectar enters the bee’s honey stomach where it’s mixed with digestive enzymes. When the stomach is full the bee returns to the hive where the nectar-enzyme moisture is disgorged for other bees to transfer to a cell in the honeycomb. Other bees now fan the cell with their wings to evaporate excess moisture, dropping the water content from about 70 per cent to 18 per cent. When the cell is full the bees seal it with a beeswax cap that remains in place until the honey is needed as food for the hive.
Bees are extraordinary engineers and housekeepers, working as a team to build and maintain the intricate structure of the honeycomb. Included in their daily maintenance is the regulation of the hive temperature at around 34 degrees. This is no mean feat, considering the variability of the outside temperature, ranging from below freezing to temperatures in excess of 40 degrees.
On hot summer days, bees fetch water from puddles, streams, garden ponds and even swimming pools and, using their wings, fan moisture off the honeycomb to reduce the temperature. During cooler periods, the bees cluster close together and eat more honey to provide energy and warmth.
Like many of Australia’s 1000 or so full-time apiarists, Charlie Browne leads a nomadic life travelling thousands of kilometers each year in search of the nectar and pollen that keep bees healthy and producing honey. Charlie’s beekeeping business is located in the southwest slopes of New South Wales. He recalls capturing his first swarm of bees and using the swarm to set up his first beehive in the back yard. This part time interest soon grew into a full-time commercial venture. Charlie finds about 350 hives are enough to keep him busy, moving the hives occasionally to chase the nectar.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Donning protective headgear and shirtsleeves rolled down almost to the fingertips, Charlie lifts the lid off the first hive. Suddenly, thousands of hostile bees take to the air like a squadron of spitfires.
“They’re pretty cranky today,” Charlie declares. A few quick puffs of smoke around the hive helps to quell them.
Holding up one of the frames of honeycomb, Charlie points out that almost the entire cellular structure is capped with the white beeswax, indicating that the honeycomb is almost full of honey. Such frames are removed from the hive ready for extraction.
Using a hot knife, the wax capping is sliced from the comb exposing the honey underneath before placing the racks into a stainless steel extractor that spins the honey out of the cells at about 150 rpm. The extracted honey is strained, and the beeswax is moulded into cakes or blocks, all of which are sold to the Honey Corporation of Australia, the nation’s largest packer and marketer of honey.
The hive is governed by the queen, the largest bee, whose sole purpose is to lay eggs. She may produce more than a million in her lifetime. Drones, stingless males whose only role is to fertilise the queen, mate with her in midair in the first 10 days of the queen’s life. She returns to the hive with enough sperm stored in her body to fertilise eggs for three years.
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