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Beekeeping, Honey Bees

Remember to notify your bees when you’re dead…..

Beehives, watercolour, 1924 By Stanisław Masłowski (1853-1926) (Silesian Museum in Katowice) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bees are regarded with respect,and the general custom of telling them of a death in the family of their owner is not yet extinct; it is believed in the Golden Valley that they would leave their hives if not told. There was a large apiary at the Moor, near Hay, and when the owner died, in 1873, no one told the bees. It was noticed shortly afterwards they all disappeared. In Weobley, it was thought they would die if not told, or that another death would follow the omission. I have heard of one case of which the bees in twelve hives died after the death, a loss attributed to neglect of the custom of announcing it to them.  There is at all times a fear of offending bees; they must not be bought or sold, or even given or received as a gift. “If any neighbour wants bees, I may give her a hive, and in course a present finds its way to me…” When bees swarm they are “tanged” with a clatter of frying pans and tin cans. Some say this is to make them settle, others that the practice gives the owner a right to follow the bees into his neighbour’s garden, or anywhere they may chance to be. Bees are lovers of peace, and will not stay with a quarrelsome family. A bee coming into the house is a sign of the coming of a stranger. 

From The Folk-lore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather.  1912

Folklore 615nwBFgi6L._SL500_

I have been reading through this book, on the recommendation of Phil Rickman,  who leans upon it quite heavily in his crime/mystery/supernatural Merrily Watkins series (she’s an Anglican vicar/exorcist–3-part series to start in the UK this evening. See preview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6XxgjzvaQM). Bees feature quite prominently in folklore everywhere in the world and at any given point in history. What interested me about this quote was firstly how it echoed Roman law, which I had mentioned in a previous post. But what really caught my eye was how important it was for the bees to be notified of the keeper’s death. You wonder how these beliefs evolve–was it just a very practical reminder to relatives and friends that the bees will now need someone else ‘to keep’ them, so in notifying the bees everyone one else was on notice as well? A way of ensuring the continuation of the colonies?

Honey by any other name?

It’s that time of year again when beekeepers really need to care for their bees by means of bulking them up for the winter months. Yes, it’s sugar syrup time when the beekeepers have another opportunity to get sticky and the bees race around on a free sugar high. It’s a way of giving them a labor-free treat and, boy, do they appreciate it. The timing of the feeding is important: it should be done before winter sets in for the bees’ sake. But, it also needs to be done after the beekeeper extracts the last honey crop, especially if the honey is destined for commercial sale. I had never appreciated this particular aspect of timing until a recent exchange over at the Honey Bee Suite. But before that a very brief summary on bee feeding for the uninitiated.

There are a few ways of feeding bees, but unless you buy the sugar syrup already pre-mixed, you have to do some heating and stirring yourself, of sugar and water to the appropriate consistency so as to be easily processed by the bees.

Mixing in a bucket By C.hahn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Usually, you can pour the mixture into a custom built feeder that fits onto the hive (see below) or into smaller buckets or tubs that can be placed into the hive. There are other methods as well, which involve jars etc fixed outside the hive.

Pouring a sugar syrup mixture into a custom feeder that fits onto the hive  By Kevin Pauba (Kevin Pauba) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pouring a sugar syrup mixture into a custom feeder that fits onto the hive
By Kevin Pauba (Kevin Pauba) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But what do the bees do with the sugar syrup? Most likely, bees will process it in the same way as they do nectar: if not to be ingested immediately then stored in comb for some future use.

However, if you have fed your bees with sugar syrup before final honey extraction, isn’t there a danger that what you sell in your jars is not honey in its purest sense? This consideration is the basis for a Honey Bee Suite post, Is your honey cut with sugar syrup?

We define honey as the product of bees processing nectar from flowers. So, honey cut with sugar syrup is not really honey, right?

However, the C4 plants maize (corn) and sugar cane do not have nectaries and are not known for producing honeydew. Sweet liquids pressed from the leaves, stems, or other herbaceous parts of a plant are not considered nectar for the purposes of honey, especially after they are refined by industry.

Well, Rusty got a bit of opposition on her definition of honey among other things:

We (as well as many beekeepers the world over) feed our bees sweetened water throughout the year, particularly during the early spring and autumn months, for the VERY simple reason that the BEES (not the beekeepers) need this sweetened water to LIVE.

The bees are well able to convert this PLANT sweetened water into HONEY, regardless the pedantic arguments, and the hive utilizes this honey throughout the winter months, to survive and live.

Honeycomb that we have harvested in fall (we have top bar, not Langstroth hives) shows all shades of color, from pale and almost water clear, to deep amber, almost brown. This is not due to the chemical make up of the honey, be it nectar or sugar produced. This is due to the aging of the bee product itself, and uncapped honey cells that contain a higher water content. Please stop over-thinking the color situation. Pure nectar honey would display the same thing.

I, along with [deleted], would love to see the chemical breakdown of the supposed “bee product,” in comparison with “nectar honey,” as I suspect little to no difference, beyond the aforementioned minerals and protein content.

Rusty held steadfast to her opinion on the definition of honey, but is there a right answer here?

All I can think of is how the bees would laugh as it’s just all food to them. The only thing that might make a difference to them is if their beekeeper were dead, and no one gave them their free sugar treats before winter…


25 thoughts on “Remember to notify your bees when you’re dead…..

  1. I love the idea of telling your bees that you’ve had a death in the family. Of course, I think it is nonsensical, but at the same time the bees don’t care if it is or not! I’ve enjoyed your blog!

    Posted by gowansperspective | September 23, 2015, 7:57 pm
  2. I won’t need to feed my bees as we head into winter (such that it is…), but I will once spring arrives as a “just in case”. I thought of you yesterday when I heard a local news story about a building in south Austin where 3 giant bee hives were discovered. The beekeeper who removed each of them to his land thinks there were one million-plus bees! I think the report said more than 50 gallons of honey was extracted. The bees now have a new home outside of Austin.

    Posted by Tina | September 24, 2015, 2:42 pm
    • Do the bees in Texas have nectar and pollen year round for nourishment–excuse my ignorance, being a New England girl where humans can barely get out of the house sometimes during the winter! Now, how many cardboard boxes would I need to round up a million bees? Hmmm….

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 24, 2015, 3:57 pm
      • Yes-ish. Depending upon the winter, there might or might not be flowers blooming. But even if it’s a “hard” winter here in Central Texas, our spring usually returns quite early and lushly. Last winter was the first for me as a beekeeper and the bees were active, though not on the coldest of days. I imagine in South Texas, where it’s fairly tropical, they forage year-round and in the northern part of the state, they’re holed up for most of the winter. Texas is a big place with a wide range of weather patterns. I have no clue what a beekeeper does out in West Texas–high desert (beautiful!!), but arid. Feed lots of sugar water, I guess.

        Posted by Tina | September 25, 2015, 2:42 am
      • You know, one can excuse foreigners for failing to appreciate the size of American states like Texas, but when a US citizen, such as myself, fails to grasp it, it’s downright embarrassing! I think winter feeding here is associated with colonies entering harsher seasons light on stores. It’s a way of hedging bets, I guess.

        Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 26, 2015, 11:31 am
  3. When I have been out and about recently I have been impressed by the number of honey bees on fuschia hedges and to a lesser extent on ivy; do these sources alleviate the need for sugar feding, at least for a while?

    Posted by philipstrange | September 25, 2015, 3:56 pm
    • As I indicated to Tina from Texas in another comment, feeding bees prior to winter is first and foremost about addressing a shortfall in their own stores before the harsh weather conditions. There’s a kind of informal weighing where you lift the hive to get an indication of the amount of stores (of course, you can just look at the comb, but as conditions get colder you don’t want to be opening the hive too much). Yes, bees do make much of autumn pollen and nectar opportunities. But these are brief and may not allow them to build up stores. Ergo, the pre-winter feed. For the rest of us, whose bees might have set by enough for us and them, pre-winter feeding is more of an insurance policy. We need to be more concerned with pre-spring or early spring feeding as starvation can come on quickly if bees have gone through stores or can’t get to what’s available. Sorry, a bit long-winded. You might be interested in this ivy study: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/19003

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 26, 2015, 11:41 am
  4. I told my bees about the death of Daisy Dog and I fed them. Hopefully it means I might get more than three jars of honey next year …. hopefully

    Posted by bluebunny01 | September 26, 2015, 10:32 am
  5. If you’re selling honey in England, then there is a right answer to the definition of honey, provided by the Honey Regulations 2015 – http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2015/1348/pdfs/uksi_20151348_en.pdf Those state that honey should be from the nectar of plants, the secretions of plants or the secretions of plant sucking insects. Anything else is not legally honey. Sugar syrup ‘honey’ won’t taste of much either and possibly isn’t as good for the bees as it contains no minerals, but hard to know for sure!

    Posted by Emily Scott | September 27, 2015, 10:29 am
    • Thanks, Emily, I knew I could count on you! My question though is this: if the bees do not compartmentalize comb according to nectar source, when you are extracting how are you going to know? I mean, I know there is a rapeseed season, but that does not mean the bees have exclusively collected from that source. And if you have fed your bees at the beginning of spring and potentially during summer when there have been periods of dearth and possible starvation, how are you going to be sure your honey is purely plant source? Bees collect from all different sources; the various colors of nectar attest to that. Sugar syrup is just one more source.

      Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 27, 2015, 9:37 pm
      • You’re right, you can’t know. So the usual advice is not to feed at all while you have honey supers on, to try and cut down the risk. Some beekeepers argue that ‘honey’ from the syrup may get moved up from the brood box later in the season when supers have been put on, but hopefully that would be a very minimal amount. Looking at honey under a microscope would tell you if it contained pollen – no pollen at all would be very suspicious.

        Posted by Emily Scott | September 27, 2015, 10:03 pm
      • Good advice!

        Posted by mylatinnotebook | September 28, 2015, 4:12 pm
  6. Here is a question based on this discussion. Last night I went to a folk concert (Simpson, Kerr and Cutting) and one of the songs sung by Nancy Kerr was about bees and called Dark Honey. You can listen to the song here: https://www.google.com/search?q=dark+honey+nancy+kerr&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8.
    The first verse is about bees in a cemetry near her house and the second verse refers to bee hives on the top of the Bank of England. She said that the honey from these hives is very dark and she had heard that this was because these bees were feeding off discarded cans of coca cola.
    This doesnt sound likely to me but I wondered whether any one had heard this story or had any opinion???

    Posted by philipstrange | September 28, 2015, 2:21 pm
  7. I love the idea of sentimental bees who care if their owner has died and who will only live with peaceful families! It is so Victorian!!

    Posted by annabelletroy | September 28, 2015, 5:10 pm
  8. Hello, I just wanted to say thank you for liking for post ‘I’m a Bee Widow’ on my “lifeoftuna” blog. I’ve just started blogging so it’s great to get some response!
    Your blog is truly interesting and I’ll be giving it a follow. My husband is the latin officianado and the beekeeper and that’s where he is now – with his bees. Our bees live near Pontefract in WestYorkshire. Best wishes.

    Posted by thecraftytuna | September 29, 2015, 3:06 pm

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