Hive bees are so much at home in our gardens, that I am afraid most people think they know all about them, and take very little notice of them. This is unfortunate, because bee-keeping is very interesting, and many more cottagers might make money by bees, and at the same time become really fond of these busy little insects.
When all the bees in the hive had to be killed each time the honeycombs were taken, we could not get fond of our bees. But now, even cottagers can have boxes and glasses on the top of their hives so as to take the combs without destroying the little friends who fill them for us.
The hive-bee is a wonderful insect. She has three pairs of legs, and two pairs of wings just like a Wasp. But the hind pair of legs is longer than the others, and she has a groove in each of them which makes a kind of basket, into which she packs pollen from the flowers, and carries it home to make bee-bread for her grubs. You may often see a bee going into a hive with both its hind legs heavily laden with sticky pollen. It is puzzling at first to guess how she gets it into the basket, but, if you look lower down her leg, you will see that it is covered with hairs which form a small brush. When she comes out of a flower her hairy body is covered with pollen-dust, and she brushes it off with one leg, making it into a little lump, which she packs into the basket of the other leg.
Her mouth is a most useful tool for getting honey. When she is not sucking, her trunk is drawn in under her strong jaws. But when she is feeling for honey, this trunk, which is really a long under lip with a hairy tongue inside it, is thrust into the flower and brings back the honey, which she passes down her throat into a honey-bag, or first stomach.
Then she flies back to the hive. There other bees take the pollen out of her basket as she goes in, and she passes on to the cells, and pours into them the honey from her throat. Some of this honey is used to feed the young bee-grubs, and the rest to fill the honey-combs for the winter.
Sometimes, however, the bee does not pour out the honey, but goes to the top of the hive, and hangs quietly by her front feet. After about four and twenty hours the honey is digested in her stomach, and part of it forms bees-wax, which oozes out under her body into eight little pockets. Then she goes down into the hive, and licks this wax out with her strong jaws, moistens it with her tongue into a kind of paste, and uses it to build the cells of the comb.
It is when the bees are out getting honey and pollen that they are so useful to the gardener. You will remember that the vegetable marrows cannot grow unless the bees carry pollen from one flower to another. Our plants have better flowers and our fruit trees bear better fruit because the bees fly to and fro and carry pollen from one to another.
But if the bee carried it haphazard from one kind of flower to another it would be of very little use, for strange pollen would not make the seeds grow. Watch a bee and you will find that she very seldom visits more than one kind of flower on the same journey. She will fly from one bed of violets to another, or from apple-tree to apple-tree. But she will not in one journey go from an apple-tree to a pear-tree, nor from a violet to a primrose. We do not know why she does this, but it is very useful to us, and all gardeners should encourage bees in their garden.
And now, if you want to keep bees, you must learn a few simple things. You must always be very gentle and quiet with them. They will soon learn to know you, and to understand that you are not afraid of them.
If you have a straw hive it should measure about sixteen to eighteen inches across, be about eight or nine inches high, and flat on the top, with a hole in it in which a plug is fixed. Put this hive in a warm sheltered part of the garden on a wooden bench about fifteen inches from the ground. Then in May buy a swarm of bees which has just come out from a neighbour's hive. Smear your own hive inside with balm and sugar, and hold it under the bough on which the swarm hangs. Shake the bough gently till the bees fall in. Turn the hive down on to a piece of wood, and in the evening carry it gently to your garden. The next morning the bees will be busily at work. The big heavy drones will wander about idly, but the smaller working bees will go out and collect honey, hang up in the hive till they have wax in their pockets (see p. 57), and begin to build the comb
If your swarm was the first to leave the hive, the old queen bee, which was in the middle, will soon begin to lay eggs in the cells—about 200 a day. But a second swarm is led by a young queen, and she will fly out with the drones before she settles down in the hive.
Now the working bees will be very busy. In two or three days the first eggs are hatched, and the nursing bees feed the grubs with honey and pollen which the other bees bring in. In about five or six days they seal up the mouth of each cell, and the bee-grub spins its silken cocoon, in which it turns into a bee in ten days more. Then it comes out and works with the rest.
The empty cell will soon be filled with honey; but it will be brown, not white and clean like the "virgin" honey which is put into new cells. After about six weeks the queen lays some eggs in larger cells, out of which come males or drones. Then about every three days she lays an egg in a cell like a thimble, on the edge of the comb. The grub in this is fed with special food, and becomes a queen-bee.
Unless you have a hive with a glass window in it you cannot see all this going on. But about the beginning of June you may expect that the hive is getting full of combs and bees. Then is the time to take out the plug at the top, and put on a bell-glass, or a box of wooden sections (see p. 58). In these the bees will make comb which you can take away. You must put in a small piece of comb to tempt the bees to build, and then you must put a straw cover or some old cloths over the whole to keep it warm and dry and dark.
In about a month you will find this upper hive full of honey-comb sealed up in the cells. You can take it off with a cloth dipped in weak Condy's Fluid, for the bees do not like this, and they will not come near you. These sections of honeycomb will be pure and clear, and you can take them away without killing a single bee.
In July you may get one or more new swarms, and then when September comes you must take off the top and cork up the hive for the winter. But remember that you have taken a great part of the bees' store of food and you must feed them with honey and sugar during the cold weather.
Examine three bees—male, female and neuter. Examine trunk and hind legs of the working bee. Get a piece of brown honey-comb with remains of bee-bread and young bees. Compare it with pure honey-comb. Watch a bee among the flowers. Find honey-comb with thimble cells on the edge.