As surely everyone knows, honeybees are vital to the pollination of many crops. The fact that they are under threat worldwide makes them important to study, apart from pure interest in how bees behave.
I remember being interested in honeybees and then slowly realising why they were the focus of so much attention in the USA. It is, if you were not already aware, because many fruit and nut trees are originally from the Old World. Therefore, they have not had millennia and more to develop along with their own pollinators. So honeybees from the Old World are imported to do the job. That is, they continue to be imported because they still have to be to replenish losses due to colony collapse disorder and the stress of being pollinators on an industrial scale.
I Wanted to Photograph Inside A Beehive
Yes, I wanted to take some photographs of bees. So when we were living in Leeds we went to see a demonstration of beekeeping. I saw the beekeeper lifting the frames from inside a beehive and examine them. But I didn’t understand the ‘why’ of what I was looking at.
Then a couple of weeks later I saw a display at the apiary of the Leeds Beekeepers Association. From seeing the display, the reason for the design of modern beehives became clear.
A traditional straw beehive was known as a skep. It is the kind of beehive that was used for centuries in England. And it continued in use until well into the 1800s. You probably recognise the shape, which is found on the labels of jars of honey. It is also used as the design for little pottery honey pots. An actual skep is made of a rope of straw. It is tied into a shape to mimic the shape of a natural hive. That’s the kind of hive than bees might look for in a hollow in a tree or between rocks.
The design varies a little. Some skeps have the entrance at the top while others have them at the bottom. But they all share one characteristic. That characteristic is that the beekeeper has to destroy the hive to get the honey out.
The Bee Space Inside A Beehive
Then, as I mentioned in an earlier article on Bumblebees and Honeybees, in the 1850s the Reverend L. L. Langstroth noticed that bees will not bring the surfaces of two combs closer together than a ‘bee space’. That’s about the width of a finger. And that piece of knowledge is what determines the interior arrangement of modern hives. They use sheets of beeswax stretched on wooden frames. The frames are hung inside the outer case of the hive with a bee space between them. A bee space is also left around the edges of the frames. That’s so that the bees can move freely inside the hive.
To encourage the bees to start building combs as quickly as possible, the sheets are impressed with a honeycomb shape. The bees could bridge the space between the frames if they wanted to. But they generally don’t want to because they want access to the cells. So the design suits the bees and the beekeeper alike.
Accessing The Frames Inside A Beehive
Beekeepers use a hive tool, which is a flat bar of metal with a hook at one end. They use it to lever out the frames from the hive so they can inspect them. If it is time to collect the honey, then the beekeeper will use the tool to scrape honey off the combs. That includes scraping honey off the edges of the frame. That’s because even with the bee space design, the bees may still extend the combs beyond the end of the frame. And the beekeeper then has to scrape that off.
If the beekeepers didn’t scrape off the excess, they wouldn’t be able to fit the frame back in the hive.
Here is a bee sitting on a piece of comb that the beekeeper had scraped off a frame.
One other fact of honeybee behaviour is that honeybees like the dark. So when a beekeeper lifts out a frame to examine it, the bees tend to migrate to the darkest part on the frame. And the darkest part is at the bottom. And they may hang on and form what is known as a bee chain.
I actually missed the point when the chain was at its longest, which was about twice the length in this photograph. Photographing honeybees proved more difficult than I imagined.
The reason is that bees move constantly inside a hive. They have four wings, with each pair on either side hooked together when the bee is at rest. And when they are out foraging for nectar and pollen, their wings are buzz constantly, and very fast. In the hive they are constantly fanning the honey to drive off moisture before they cap the cells with wax. They are also part of the ecosystem inside a beehive that keeps the temperature at an optimum level.
With the advances in digital cameras that allow us to photograph at very high sensor sensitivities, I would find it much easier to photograph them today than ten years ago when I took these photos.