Category Archives: Beekeeping

A method for finding an elusive queen

Recently, one of our Co Dublin BKA beginners asked for help finding an elusive queen.  I’m sure we have all at some time or another struggled to find a queen (though sod’s law dictates that during inspections when you have no need to find her, she presents herself to you).   Some years ago I was taught a method for finding a queen when the usual searching has failed.  I have used it a few times with success (and once, without success, it must be said).  Here are the steps:

1. Choose a warm day when the foragers are flying.

2. Quietly & gently move the brood box containing the elusive queen onto a stand at least ten feet away from its current site. Replace it with an empty brood box, and leave the supers and queen excluder on the original site.

3. Remove 3 of the brood frames. Shake every bee off each frame before you do so.  Put them back into the brood box on the original site, so those bees keep any brood warm. At this point your queen must still be in your brood box unless she has taken to the air (in which case she may have arrived in the empty nuc box on the original site).  Push the remaining frames to the sides of the brood box, leaving a gap in the centre.

4. This is the clever bit. Go to another hive and take out a brood frame, shaking all the bees off it first. Put the foreign frame in the centre of the brood box that contains the elusive queen.  Move a couple of the brood other frames from the edges to alongside the foreign frames – so you have a group of 3 frames in the middle and a bit of a gap on either side of it.  Close it up and leave it for an hour or so.  Less time might suffice.

5. When you return to the hive containing the elusive queen, open it quietly and lift the 3 centre frames (foreign frame between 2 frames from this hive) together into an empty nuc box. All being well, your  elusive queen will have been attracted to the lingering scent of a queen on the foreign frame and will be looking for her to kill her.  Search these frames carefully and patiently, and you will usually find her there.

6. Catch her, reassemble the hive on its stand and then do with the queen what you will (it’s safer to have the hive reassembled before you do anything with the queen, just in case she escapes). Return the foreign frame to its colony (again, sans bees).

Note: you don’t strictly need to do step 2, but doing it makes the other steps more manageable, especially if the colony is aggressive or large.

Good luck!

(A version of this post appeared in An Beachaire magazine.)

Some notes on the internet for Irish beekeepers

The internet, for the 77% of the Irish population who use it (CSO, 2012) has changed our lives. The way we communicate, watch movies, read the news, shop, learn and solve problems has been transformed.  Best of all, once you have paid for the computer and the broadband, it’s free thereafter.  CSO statistics tell us that while the older generation have been late to the internet, they are catching up fast.  To the author, there seems to be a wide range of internet skills and knowledge among beekeepers in Ireland – a few are building websites, most are confident using the internet, and some are just starting out.  The world wide web can be a bewildering place for the newcomer – just as the the skills of beekeeping can appear daunting to the beginner with bees.

As the pace of change in beekeeping increases with new pests & diseases, new treatments, new laws and new debates (not forgetting the same old arguments, now conducted online!), the internet is becoming more and more important for the beekeeper in Ireland.  With this in mind, here are a few of the internet resources that might be useful to the reader of an

1. The Irish beekeeping group

Created by Tom Barrett in June 2001, this is an old-style email group: you send an email to the group list, and typically every member receives your email.  It is on the wane these days. In its heyday the mid-2000s its members regularly posted over 400 messages a month, but in the last year the list averaged about 25 messsages a month.  It’s on the way out.
Web address:
To subscribe, send an email to

2. Websites with useful information

Of course, there are tons of useful beekeeping websites.  Most of the equipment suppliers have websites, and many of the local associations have too.  Most beekeeping associations have at least a basic website containing information on events and contact details – some contain interesting articles or items like a library catalogue.  FIBKA, BIBBA and UBKA all have websites to give information to the public and to members.  For this author, two websites stand out as particularly useful: The late Dave Cushman’s wonderful beekeeping site containing thousands of useful pages is at and the
UK’s National Bee Unit at holds some high-quality advisory leaflets, training manuals & factsheets.

A wasp trap design taken from the excellent website created by the late Dave Cushman

Of course, the problem is that on the internet, any old fool can set up a website – and many do!.  As a result, the quality of the material varies a lot.  With all the fads and fashions that sweep the beekeeping world (FGMO, small cell beekeeping, Warré hives, urban beekeeping… I could go on!), one must be careful to choose sites that are reputable.  Nowhere is this more true than on Youtube. It contains some wonderful videos to learn from – and some absolute rubbish!  Caveat visitor..  At the other end of the quality scale is the
International Bee Research Association – subscribers can search for articles and read back issues of their academic journals.  See  No list of internet links is every complete or comprehensive, but this one from the Dublin beekeepers might be a good place to start:

3. Social media.

Social media is what we call the internet-based services where we share our news and chat with people – but unlike email, what you share can be seen by your friends – so if I post a picture of a swarm that I have just hived, my beekeeping friends can see it and comment on it. They are free of charge, though expect to see advertising.  The biggest of the social media is Facebook, with about half of the Irish population registered (though far fewer use it regularly).  Facebook is also host to a number of beekeeping groups – including the ‘Beekeepers of Ireland’ group.

One of the discussions on the ‘Beekeepers of Ireland’ Facebook group

Created in August 2012, our Facebook group has 189 members at the time of writing (October 2013) – and that number is growing every week. It hosts a wide range of discussions – questions from  beginners, debates on black bees, announcements of beekeeping events, request for help, sharing ideas and news and useful links.  The group won second prize in class 40 of the National Honey Show 2013.  The group is open to all comers.  If you are a Facebook member, it is easy to find by searching within Facebook for ‘Beekeepers of Ireland’.
Join: is often referred to as ‘Facebook for business’ – and your author finds it an invaluable resource at work.  It too hosts some beekeeping groups, including the lively and cosmopolitan ‘Beekeeping worldwide’ group.  It’s probably not worth joining if
you’re not working (unless you are looking for a job, but that’s another story) – but if you are, just go to, log in and search for ‘Beekeeping worldwide’.

4. Online forums (yes, I know, it should be ‘fora’!).

Another creation of the internet is the online forum.  Forums exist to facilitate discussion on particular topics.  Typically, anyone can read the discussions in the forums, but you need to register (free) to contribute.  A couple that seem to be popular in Britain are and the Scottish – it’s a shame we don’t have such a thing in Ireland yet.  The great advantage of fora over Facebook & Linkedin is that the make it much easier for members to have multiple conversations at the same time.
Well worth checking out.

There are many more useful places on the internet, so if you know of other useful sites, tell the author – and if you don’t, then do give these a try!

Simon Rees

Bees and warfare

The honeybee has a long history of being dragged into the wars that humans fight.  They have been used as weapons – in sieges (in attack and defence), on ships and on the battlefield.  Their honey has been used to poison opponents or, as mead, to stupefy them.  Their brains and flying skills are being copied by DARPA and others in the development of micro-air vehicles for reconnaisance and for killing.

It’s a fascinating subject.  I recently gave a lecture on the topic at the Irish Beekeeping summer school in Gormanston, Co. Meath.  For those who want more information, here are some of the more useful references:

If you have questions or comments, please contact me.

Building a beekeeper’s barrow

A beekeeper’s barrow is a handy item to have if, like me, you cannot bring your car right up to your beehives.  One can be built from a frame from an old builder’s barrow and a few bits of scrap wood.

Bee barrow mk 1

Bee barrow Mk I

My first bee barrow was built for me by my late Dad.  This frame has lateral steel strips with holes in (originally to attach the bucket) fore and aft of the legs which allowed Dad to fix the platform directly to the steel strips with bolts.  The platform was made of 12mm marine ply with small pieces of scrap oak (about 15mm x 15mm x 40mm) screwed & glued to the upper side of the platform to stop the hive parts from slipping off.  Notches were cut front and rear to allow a tension strap to fit snugly around the hive parts to hold them together.  My hive parts are 460mm x 460mm National standard.

Bee barrow mk  on amphibious duty

Bee barrow Mk I on amphibious duty

As the picture shows, this hive barrow was an amphibious vehicle.  It was a good solid item that lived outdoors with the beehives and served me well for about 5 years, until someone stole it from my Coillte apiary last year.

So I had to make another bee barrow.  Pondering the Mk I design, I perceived some potential improvements:

  1. The load sits above the legs and as such a large proportion of the weight is carried by the driver. It would be better to have the platform further forward.
  2. The platform is canted slightly forward at rest and further forward when in motion. This necessitates the load being very well secured and makes the barrow a little harder to handle on sticky or uneven ground.
Bee barrow mk. II

Bee barrow Mk II

As it happens, the next frame from a builder’s barrow that came my way (you can sometimes see them in skips) was built differently.  It had no lateral steel strip behind the legs, but instead had lugs with holes in on the top of the tubular frame just in front of the wheels.  This allowed me a different design: I sited the platform above the wheel.  The rear of the platform was raised by adding two old decking boards above the steel strip, and the platform rear, decking boards and frame were all bolted together.  Two brackets with holes drilled in at either end were made from an old steel bar and bolted to the lugs on the frame.  These support the platform at the front.  Small angle brackets bolted to the platform hold the steel brackets to the platform.

Bee barrow mk 2, laden with hive and stand

Bee barrow Mk II, laden with hive and stand

The resulting barrow Mk II has proved itself on its maiden voyage.  The load proved stable and the barrow was easier to drive than the Mk I.  The  platform is designed to be level when being driven on level ground – which means that it is canted backwards a little too far for ease of stacking when at rest, so I will point the barrow downhill when loading to compensate.

If I was building one from scratch I would follow the advice of my wise friend Joe Kelly and build it with a bicycle wheel for improved ground clearance.  However, this barrow cost me nothing bar some 12mm marine ply that I had to buy anyway, and scrap timber & spare bolts & steel that I had lying around.  For the parsimonious beekeeper (is there another kind?) the challenge is to find a suitable barrow chassis, with a tyre that’s still serviceable.  I am already looking out for another.  One could of course buy a builder’s barrow from the builder’s merchant, but where’s the fun in that?

On making and using a solar wax extractor

Solar extractor with sterilised frames, old cappings and a beautiful cake of wax. Time to throw the cappings in the compost and replace the filter with a clean one.

In 2004 I built a solar wax extractor. The design was based on what I could find on the internet at the time, for example the ‘encyclopaedia Cushmanica‘ and good advice from beekeeping friends, both in Dublin and on the Irish beekeeping discussion group.  Here, eight years on, is what I have learned about building and using one.  Disclaimer: hot wax can burn, and wax is highly flammable.  DIY is not without risks.  Do all of this at your own risk!


Before you start, it is good to think about how you will use your solar wax extractor.  Will it stay in the same place year round or will it need to be moved to make space or stored away for winter?  How many hives do you have?  How often will you visit the extractor?  I have found that my extractor, which I keep in our back garden in Dublin, is sufficient for my needs, with 8 honeybee colonies. Over a good summer I’ve easily processed every frame I’ve found an excuse to put in it, plus my backlog, plus all the old combs of a friend.

If the spring/summer/autumn climate was warmer or sunnier, or if I did not go to work five days a week, I could process a lot more wax though this extractor.  If the extract was at an out-apiary and I only visited it when I saw my bees, throughput would be much less.

The solar wax extractor does two tasks for me:

  • It renders used beeswax into handy cakes.  These I exchange for fresh foundation from Ben Harden, or I store for the day when I get into candlemaking.  The cakes of wax are not fully clean, as will be explained.
  • It partially cleans cleans and (when the temperature gets properly hot) sterilises frames.

Moreover it is most satisfying that all the energy costs come from the sun!


Casement window – starting point for my solar extractor

To build this solar extractor I started with a double-glazed hardwood casement window in its frame, donated by a friend. The basic idea is:

  • A double-skinned box, made of plywood with fibreglass insulation between the inner and outer box.  The inner box was built off the inside of the window frame.
  • The outer box is made of marine ply, and is built off the outside of the casement.  Fibregless and bubble foil insulation were put in the space between the two boxes.

    Outer box face down, showing insulation, awaiting back cover

  • The inner box is shaped to hold an aluminium tray.  Along the bottom edge of the tray is a notch for the wax to drip out through.  Below the tray is a space where the the receptacle that catches the molten wax goes.
  • In the aluminium tray goes a removable mesh tray (made from expanded metal), raised slightly up off the tray floor with short bolts.

    Inner mesh tray with old cocoons ready for the compost. Note t-shirt filter.

  • Fixed around the inside of the the mesh tray is a cloth filter (usually an old t-shirt, cut in half up the sides and across the shoulders) in which I deposit the wax.
  • The whole assembly is painted black to maximise absorption and is mounted on four legs, two of which have wheels.  The original white wheels shown in a picture further up proved unsuitable for the weight of the extractor on the terrain, so I used these larger black ones (from a gas barbecue that my brother-in-law had helpfully abandoned in our garden) instead.

Using the solar extractor

Here are a few notes & things that work well:

Washed cappings awaiting melting, in a new t-shirt filter.

  1. It processes cappings (they tend to get a fresh t-shirt filter), brace & burr comb, super comb and brood comb.  I like to wash cappings first to remove most of the honey.
  2. You will see an oven thermometer belonging to my brother’s ex-wife. That works well, but the extractor doesn’t really need one.  I’ve recorded temperatures up to 120C (therefore anything in or near the heating area needs to be heat-proof, and you need to keep children away on sunny days).
  3. I chose the angle of the tray by looking up on the internet the correct angle for solar water heaters.
  4. Almost all solid impurities are filtered out by the cloth filter – and the wax seems to flow down in 2 ways – down the front of the cloth to the bottom where it passes thru the cloth at the bottom, and straight thru the cloth & the mesh and then down the alu tray behind. Once the cloth filter gets dirty I replace it and use the old one (with most of the wax melted out of it) as a firelighter in the stove.  This works well for me.
  5. I try to remove frames while they are still warm (but not too hot, ideally) because the residue sets solid when cold.  I use the knife to scrape the worst of any adhering cocoons or propolis off them, then they’re ready for more foundation.  Gloves are good because the residue can be a) hot & b) very sticky.  Manky brood frames then get cleaned sterilised in caustic soda & boiling water.
  6. The cocoons that are left after melting old brood combs go onto the compost, once I’ve removed the wires.
  7. Every autumn the extractor gets put away at the bottom of the garden with a plastic sheet over it.  When the extractor gets wheeled back up and put on the deck it’s a sign in our house that spring is here.  The extractor is scrubbed and cleaned with boiling water before use.
  8. I made the inner tray wide and long enough to fit a queen excluder in, on the advice of my friend Joe Kelly.  However, I’m not too happy about the effects on the wooden joints of the metal expanding in the heat, so I tend not to use it for queen excluders.  Still, it’s useful to have a big extractor – useful for cleaning my travelling screen and so on.
  9. I collect the wax in old pyrex dishes or pots with a few mm of water in.  The idea of the water is to dissolve the honey out of the wax, but the collection pot rarely seems to get hot enough for the wax to be liquid by the time it arrives down there.  Pyrex dishes are used instead of the bread tin that you see in the picture because they don’t rust.  I get the wax out by pouring hot water on the underneath of the dish, or by putting the dish in the freezer.  My pyrex dishes come from the charity shops or the bric a brac stand at my local church fair, not from our kitchen!
  10. Having the door is hinged at the side seems to be right.  It may want a string or a prop to hold it open.
  11. As you will see in the top picture, I keep an old knife in the collection area for prising stuff out and cleaning frames.
  12. The extractor works on sunny days from about April to October.  I keep others’ wax separate because of disease & so I know whose pot of wax is whose.
  13. With my solar extractor, the solid impurities are nearly all removed by the t-shirt filter but one ends up with residues of honey left in the wax. This means I need to process the wax a second time to wash out the impurities.

I should point out that many of the smarter ideas come from other beekeepers (thanks all).

The extractor has done its work – the wax has melted and run trough the filter, from the tray and into the pot below. Note the residue left on the t-shirt filter. Either side of the pot that received the wax are two more that I made earlier.

Improving this design

The above is by no means a perfect design for a solar extractor.  Here’s what I would do differently if I were to do it again:

  1. Does it really need a double-skinned box?  I think so, but I’m not sure.  It probably keeps the temperature up on sunny/cloudy days.
  2. Alu tray with notch for wax to drip into receptacle below

    The lip at the bottom of the inner tray is horizontal. It would be better to have a slight gradient from the sides to the centre, by shaping the lip into a slight V.

  3. I’d put the wheels on a proper axle.  Just mounting each wheel on a bolt is probably not strong enough.
  4. I’d fit a handle for pulling it round the garden, or even fit it into an old wheelbarrow chassis.
  5. I’d try to make a box that wasn’t as deep.  It’s very bulky (which means heavy) & it doesn’t need to be that big.
  6. When it rains (it does that a lot round here), water can get in thru the window seals and into the inner box.  I added a lip on the window just above the top of the door and I built up the botton of the window with silicone sealant, which seems to have done the trick.  Perhaps a better design might be to get a double-glazed window pane, not in a frame, that is bigger than the box and lies on top of the box so there are no seals/joints at the front.  The rain getting in has meant that some of the marine ply has got rotten.  I wish I’d put extra effort into weatherproofing it, but perhaps it goes with the territory.
  7. The fibreglass in the space between the inner & outer boxes is probably fairly superfluous – it doesn’t seem to get hot enough down there to really matter much.
  8. Oh, and I’d move to live somewhere sunnier.
  9. One problem with this design seems to be that the wax needs to be liquid to pass thru the t-shirt filter, and the top of the extractor seems to get a lot hotter than the bottom, so it can get discoloured by heat before it makes it into the tray.  One day I may experiment with leaving out the t-shirt and collecting wax with solid impurities in it, to see if that improves the overall colour of the wax.  I think if I made the bottom edge of the alu / mesh trays about 50-75mm higher up the box and made the inner box smaller, this might make it it warmer down below and possibly solve the problem.
  10. I’ve been musing on the idea of a wall-mounted extractor.  It would swivel on gate hinges, and be angled much more to the vertical.  It would need to be smaller, but might be more suitable for a smaller garden.  Perhaos it would tuck away when not in use.

My next challenge is to get the honey residue out of the wax cakes, then someday I might make candles.  When I do that, I might use the solar extractor as a third stage to re-filter the wax thru gauze to take out the final few impurities.

Edit: Feedback received

In addition to comments below, I’ve had some feedback orally and by email.  Here are some of the points:

  • At least one beekeeper in Ireland has had success with a single-skinned box and single-glazed glass. I’m coming round to the idea that a single skin is adequate.  It would be interesting to test the 2 extractors side-by-side
  • Here is a different extractor design – a single-skinned bof with insulation inside.  Thanks David!
  • One beekeeper mounted his solar extractor on an old swivel chair. It must have been a smaler & lighter extractor design than mine, but it sounds ideal for flat ground.
  • Another beekeeper recommends using a lid of corotherm polycarbonate.  I’ve no idea what heat the polycarbonate will support, but he reports that his works well.
  • There has been a good discussion based on this post, in the ‘Beekeeping worldwide’ group on Linkedin.  One contributor uses a metal barrel cut in half, and another suggested these plans for a solar wax extractor.

Make an emergency hive roof from an election poster

Beekeepers – ever had that situation where one swarm or one split too many leaves you short a hive roof?  Well, I’ve just made a couple of serviceable emergency roofs from Irish election posters. Here’s how.

What you need:

  • A piece of flat corrugated plastic, 68cm square with no holes, cut from an election poster (this size fits national / commercial hives which are 46cm square).  Ideally choose a poster with printing on one side only.  NB election posters vary in thickness – most of the Irish ones are fine, but some may be too thick.

    Emergency roof ready for use

  • four thick cable ties (white is the best colour, I think).
  • A crown board or similar for a template.
  • Tools: a Stanley knife (box cutter), a marker pen, a hammer, pliers and a bradawl /skewer / small screwdriver.

Here’s how:

  1. Decide which side will be outside.  I like to have the face of the poster on the inside.  NB if your poster has anything printed on the back, make this the outside (I found that the printing on the back of election posters can flake off).
  2. Put the crown board in the centre of the square piece of election poster.  Using your crown board as a template, mark out a square area 2cm bigger than the crown board on each side.  There should now be a distance of 9cm on each side from the square you have marked to the edge (these areas will be the sides of your roof).
  3. Using the crown board as a straight edge, make a fold in the poster along each side of the square that you have drawn.  Folding with the grain of the poster’s corrugations is easy, folding across the grain requires force and care. Going against the grain, it helps if you score along the fold line first (don’t break the surface) with a hive tool (not a knife).  Bend the poster double at each fold, right to the edges.  Use the hammer to bash the folds flat so they stay put.  Don’t cut the plastic.
  4. Next, using the same technique, make a diagonal fold from each corner of the square that you drew to the corner of the poster.  If your piece of poster is square and you drew your square in the centre, these folds will be at a 45 degree angle to everything else, which is what you want.
  5. Bend the sides of your roof up at 90 degrees, and fold the 2 triangles in each corner over to one side, outside.  You may need to use the hammer again to make them lie flat.

    Newly-minted roof protecting my spare supers

  6. In each corner, drill two small holes though the 2 triangles & the roof side with your bradawl, skewer or screwdriver.  Put the holes parallel with the diagonal fold for maximum strength and durability.  Push the cable tie through the holes so the ends are outside, and pull them very tight with the pliers.  Snip off the ends.

There – your roof is complete.  Total cost: four cable ties and a few minutes’ work.  Two things to remember with this roof: first, it’ll need a weight on it to keep it from blowing off.  Second, it won’t offer good ventilation, so consider adding ventilation by putting matches on 2 or 4 corners of the hive between the crown board and the top super.  I use mine to protect the spare supers that I keep at home.


A version of this post appeared as an article in An Beachaire – the Irish Beekeeper in 2011.

The honey harvest – a guest post by my Godson Tom

We started at 7.45 on a soon to be very tiring Friday. Our first job for the day was to get the honey jars and lids out of the roof, this was to be the scariest part of the day. As I gingerly descended down the stepladder laden with a box of honey jars I heard Simon’s voice call out “Here’s another box”, I was already feeling hungry.

As we left the house in Eimear’s car with an empty boot soon to be filled, I was feeling slightly tentative about the day ahead. This was not helped by Simon describing how before he got 200 stings in one inspection (luckily not all of them broke the skin). As we got closer to the apiary site the countryside that surrounded the road calmed my nerves. As we left the road and entered the forestry commission site all I could see was rough open land and didn’t know where the hives could be! The car pulled up in the middle of nowhere and we both got out and suited up, then Simon led me round to the bees. The first hive that we took the honey off had 2 full supers.

As I left the site with a wheelbarrow full of honey I was already exhausted and it was only lunchtime! The next site that we visited was called Bohilla and this was the site that had the angry bees in it. As we pulled into the drive of Nan’s house there was no sign of the bees. We suited up again and let out the remaining bees whom were trying to protect their honey. I struggled through wood behind Simon getting caught on the twigs as I went. As we arrived to the hives I could see 6 hives and a nuc box!

As we got into the robbery Simon suddenly remembered that we had to write up the inspection notes. This job was down to me and when you are gripping a pen with 2 pairs of gloves on it takes double the time! When we had finished we took all the honey back to the car all 9 boxes of it.

When we got back home we decided that it was time for lunch (as we had been working so hard), so we went to the Chippy up the road. After lunch we got to the messy bit EXTRACTING. This started with putting newspaper down to try to contain some mess, which later got screwed up and later made it even worse.

Halfway through the extraction process and the floor was Eimear’s nightmare, there was newspaper everywhere honey and cappings on the floor and the extractor was going wild dancing all over the floor, not to mention the burst frames! The only thing that released my mind from this mayhem was the beautifully capped frames of honey of which this was one.

At this point the smell of honey was pungent in the house and as my parents came to pick me up for the night they got blasted with the scent of Irish honey that they had never smelt before.

Day 2: As I arrived at an all too familiar sight, Simon slaving over a bucket of honey and trying to keep the mess down as much as possible. I was given my orders for the day BOTTLING, BOTTLING was not the word to describe it, it was more like slave labour. I had about 150 jars to fill and it wasn’t going to be easy, I started by doing the very painful task of putting the lids of the jars into the oven to sterilise them and to this day my hand has only just recovered from it.

I have to say that the good thing about bottling is that you have to make the jars look nice which means digesting about a pound of honey thought the process. This is why I think Eimear got a bit angry with me for taking her job and making her retire to the sofa in front of the T.V.

At three o’clock I was nearly done and we decided to cut it short and start constructing some frames this meant a lot of banging. After we finished the extracting we had to clean up the extractor. This would have been easy but there were swarms of bees around it wanting the honey that we were trying to clean. After we had battled through the bees we had to take the extractor back to a man called Seamus.  When we arrived at his house (without dropping the extractor out the back of the car) we had to get the extractor down the drive. This would have been easy in normal circumstances  but there was a car in the way. We had to go through the next door neighbours house which was being refurbished. As we got to the door we had to unlock it as Seamus wasn’t in. We got back in the car we thought that it was a bit strange that he wasn’t in.

In fact I heard later from Simon that he was in and that he didn’t hear us!

That was our honey harvest experience it was tiring, it was sticky but it was fun.

Tom Brown


Simon’s note: I’m very grateful to Tom for his help with the harvest and for his contribution to the blog.  Cheers, mate!

A spoonful of honey…

Not so long ago someone asked me whether it was true that it took the life’s work of five honeybees to make a teaspoonful of honey.  Having never seen this assertion made by a reputable source, I thought it an interesting one so I tried to answer the question.  Here are my calculations:

1. How much nectar is in a teaspoon of honey?

  • One teaspoon of honey is maybe 7ml in volume (depending on the spoon and its holder, of course)
  • 7ml = about 10 grammes of honey (density of honey: 1.36 kg/litre according to one source)
  • Honey is c. 20% water
  • The bees collect nectar to make honey. Nectar varies enormously in its sugar content, but let’s say our spoonful comes from nectar that is 80% water, by weight.
  • Therefore to make one spoonful (10 grammes) of honey you need 40 grammes of nectar.

2. How much nectar is made in a worker bee’s lifetime?

  • A honeybee’s nectar load is estimated at 25-40mg per trip.  Let’s assume 32mg /trip .
  • Worker bees begin foraging for nectar when they are a few weeks old.  Let’s say a worker bee lives 40 days and starts foraging at 23 days old.  That’s a maximum of 17 days foraging.
  • We will assume that’s raining on a quarter of these days.  That gives her about 12 days foraging in her working life.
  • A foraging bee will do about 10-15 trips each (dry) day.  Assume 13 trips/day.
  • A 32mg nectar load x 13 foraging trips/day x 12 foraging days/life gives 4992 mg = about 5 grammes of nectar in a worker bee’s lifetime.

3. How many worker bee lifetimes does 40 grammes of nectar take?

  • 40 grammes nectar = 8 lifetimes of a summer worker bee.
  • Therefore one 7ml spoonful of this honey is the foraging life’s work of 8 worker honeybees.

However, as every beekeeper knows, beekeeping is a matter of opinion, and this calculation is no exception.  Spoons may be smaller or nectar may be more concentrated.  Bees may start foraging younger, may forage longer per day or may have fewer cold wet days.  They could carry more, or nectar sources may be closer to or further from the hive.  Moreover, an accountant would tell you that if the spoonful of honey was fully costed, then one would have to take into account many other factors such as the honey used as fuel in foraging & honey processing, and the overhead of the queen & the male bees (it would take weeks to build all that in!).  I’d say you could pick any multiple between say four and twelve lifetimes, and be quite justified.

So there you have it.  A spoonful of honey is the life’s work of eight honeybees.  However, as my friend Bill Kantor says, ‘your mileage may vary’.

A version of this post first appeared in An Beachaire – the Irish Beekeeper in 2009.