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Beginners course notes – Week 7

Bee Anatomy, Plants, Pollination and Products

The anatomy of the bee is totally unlike our own. The external limbs and feelers and their brood structure resemble something from Star Wars and indeed was an inspiration for some of the costume design! The body comprises 3 segments; the head, the thorax and the abdomen. The head contains the compound eyes on either side with 3 smaller eyes on top which resemble light sensors in function; the antenna, which though much more complex resemble cats whiskers in function; the mandibles used for manipulating items and for adding enzymes to them; and the tongue which is used for sucking up nectar and water into the crop or honey stomach. Internally is the brain and the hypo pharyngeal glands which manufacture the brood food. The thorax houses all 3 pairs of legs-the last containing the ‘pollen baskets’; both pairs of wings; and the first 3 pairs of spiracles-the openings through which the bee breathes. All the wing and leg musculature is also contained within. The abdomen externally comprises 6 telescopic plates containing the other 7 pairs of spiracles. By sliding to varying degrees over one another and thus varying the volume of the abdomen these plates induce different pressures through the body fluids, which causes the gases and fluids to flow back and forth from high pressure areas to low. Internally the heart is much less a pumping machine and much more a series of valves that open and close sequentially to provide a flow of blood, or haemolymph to the brain. The abdomen contains the stomach, gut, heart, nervous system and kidneys of the bee as well as the reproductive organs.

In that bees have developed in sympathy with plants over millions of years, they specialize in gathering only nectar, pollen, propolis and water. The nectaries of plants release droplets of sugars which the bees collect on their extended tongues and take down into their crop. The pollen anthers are normally close by and the bee will probably have brushed past them in collecting the nectar. As the bee continues foraging from flower head to flower head, it will transfer some pollen from anthers of one plant to those of another and hence provide the pollination service the plants require. The nectar is the reward for providing this service. Whilst the nectar supplies the energy needs of the colony, the pollen provides the building block proteins of life required by the developing brood and its’ carriage into the hive in spring is an excellent indicator of brood build up. Propolis is gathered for immediate use from tree barks and plant buds, and used to seal up draughty gaps and strengthen and polish cells. It is only gathered on warm days and then worked up on the mandibles as it is passed from forager to house bee and thence into final position. It is malleable at hive temperatures around 35*C, melts at 60*C and is hard below 15*C. Its composition makes it very effective at suppressing fungal, bacterial and viral growths. Water is gathered for immediate use, for diluting stored honey for consumption in the hive and in tropical climes for wetting the inside of the hive and then fanning to induce evaporative cooling.

The pollination service provided by the honeybee far outstrips that provided by any other animal or insect. Because it does not hibernate but remains as a viable colony of several thousand even through winter, it is able to provide the earliest pollination of early spring plants before most other pollinators (moths, wasps, bumblebees, birds, bats and man) have got going. Economically it is far more valuable than the sales from honey. The effects of reduced pollination are felt immediately, as in the reduced crops experienced in the central valley of California following the colony collapse disorders of the last few years. When the foraging bee returns to the colony and passes the contents of its load onto the house bees, the quality of its load will be measured by the recipient and compared to that of other forage. Providing the sugar content of the nectar is sufficiently high, the recipient will be correspondingly agitated to encourage the forager to perform a waggle dance to indicate the location of the forage source relative to the hive. The house bee may be recruited to that particular high quality forage and location once it starts foraging, whilst poor quality nectars will not attract followers at all and the foraging bee may not find any takers for its’ load, thereby encouraging it to forage elsewhere in future.

The products of the hive include honey, wax, propolis, pollen and royal jelly. They have markets of differing size and for the amateur only the first two are relevant. Extracting the honey from the hive first requires the supers to be cleared of bees, either by using specialized clearer boards or adding a ‘porter bee escape’ to a crown board. Sealed frames of honey can be extracted as they will be at the correct water content, but unsealed frames should be checked either by using a refractometer or by shaking the frame over the hive for any drops flying out. If drops emerge then replace the frame as the water content is still too high and fermentation of the bottled honey would result. The process of decapping and extracting the honey will be the subject of a separate presentation later in the year.
The bottling and sale of honey is regulated by the Food Standards Agency and it is important to realize that any sales must meet the regulations on weight, water content and labelling. The label must include name and address, net metric weight, a best before date and lot number. The main label must not mislead, must contain the word ‘honey’ and the statement ‘Produce of the UK’ or England/Scotland/Wales etc. Alternatively let one of the big retailers do it for you.

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