Since Spring 2017, Highbanks is home to two honeybee hives. You may have noticed them if you visited the rooftop terrace : two small towers of wooden boxes, one painted yellow, the other one painted blue. They’re home to over 100,000 honeybees!
This is their first year at Highbanks. They started as a nucleus of one Queen and about 5000 worker bees. Queens can lay up to 2000 eggs a day! The Queen of the yellow hive is called Éloïse, the Queen of the blue hive is called Désirée. Each colony can only have one Queen.
All summer long, the honeybees have been busy building their colony, collecting pollen and nectar, making wax and honey. Now they’re getting ready for winter.
There are many benefits to having honeybees around. Honeybees are excellent for local gardens and plants. Surrounding gardens will see significant increase in flowering and fruiting because honeybees are prolific pollinators. Of course, they produce delicious honey and beeswax. Honeybees are the only insect that make food that humans eat.
Honey has natural preservatives so that it won’t go bad. In fact, archeologists have found honey in ancient Egyptian tombs and the honey was still good!
Honeybees can fly up to 5 kilometers in all directions to collect pollen and nectar. Once nectar has been collected form a plant, it will not be visited again until next season. This means that even with a hive nearby, foragers will not suddenly invade neighbors.
As beekeeper I inspect the hives every 7 to 15 days. Some of you have called me “Beeman”. While “beekeeper” is the usual term, “Bee Rancher” (or Bee Boy?) might be more accurate: in Alberta bees are considered cattle! When I inspect the hives, I make sure the bees are healthy and have enough water. I often use my smoker; this calms the bees and lets me work inside the hives.
Do bees hibernate? Not quite. When it gets colder, the bees will cluster into a ball inside the hive and keep active. At the center of the ball is the Queen and a small amount of brood (eggs). To regulate temperature, the honeybees vibrate their wing muscles, and expand or contract the cluster. The core is kept at between 32 and 34 degrees. If the core becomes too hot, they expand the cluster, which increases air flow. If it becomes too cold, the cluster contracts and airflow is reduced. Bees on the outside of the cluster eventually get cold, so these outside bees get pushed towards the center of the cluster by warm bees who then exchange places with them. It’s a bit like penguins in Antarctica.
One question I often get is: “Do you ever get stung?” The short answer is “Yes, about 4-5 times every summer.” Most of us have been stung at some point. Honeybees sting to defend their hive or when provoked. When I get stung, it’s usually because I’m moving too fast or am being too clumsy while inspecting the hive. That said, honeybees very rarely sting. In the overwhelming majority of cases (about 99%), when people get stung, the culprit is a wasp. Unlike wasps, honeybees are docile creatures that collect pollen and nectar. Honeybees are not attracted to picnics. While honeybees are curious, unless you threaten their hive, you are unlikely to get stung.
In normal circumstances honeybees will tolerate someone walking or working within a few meters of a hive without any problem. Any sting away from the hives would be accidental. A bee can only sting once, and then it dies, which is why it’s a last resort defense. Bee stings do cause reactions in almost everyone, causing varying degrees of swelling, irritation and redness. But less than 2% of the population is allergic to bee sting and require treatment if stung. If honeybees were dangerous, beekeepers would not routinely approach hives with no other protection than a veil and a t-shirt. Some beekeepers don’t even wear a veil!
Contrary to Hollywood sensationalism, a swarm of honeybees is gentle. A swarm happens when a hive is overpopulated. Some of the honeybees will leave the hive and look for another home. Before they leave the hive they will gorge on honey. This makes it difficult for them to get into their sting position. Furthermore, because there is no “home” for them to protect, swarming bees are not aggressive unless provoked. If you see a swarm, leave it alone and contact the Calgary and District Beekeepers Association, they have a program to collect swarms.