Megatong Nursery: Beekeeping

Itumeleng Pooe of Megatong Nursery is contributing his vast knowledge on beekeeping that will be made available to the community through the newly founded Green Business College. This piece is a continuation from an earlier feature from Megatong; he expands from where he last left off plus people can now enroll for his beekeeping course taking place in the Greenhouse Project, Johannesburg.

Since Megatong is working in an African environment, the African Honey Bees are the ones of interest – although the information contain therein is also applicable to other species of bees. The “[w]orker bees make honey, which is their food, by visiting flowers. They collect a sugary juice called nectar from the blossom by sucking it out with their tongues. They store it in their honey stomach, which is different from their food stomach. When they have a full load, they fly back to the hive,” Itumeleng said.

Worker bees’ bellies produce wax flakes from glands on their underside. They use this wax to build new cells and to cap the ones storing ripened honey. To produce just 1 kg of beeswax bees need to consume 8 kg of honey.

“The worker bees produce when the Queen bee mates with drones – the Queen can lay 1500-2000 eggs per day,” Itumeleng explained. The drones’ only purpose is to mate with the Queen bee.

The process an egg goes through, as he explained, is first changing into larva, and then pupa, and then hatch into a fully grown adult bee.

He explained that the Queen bee lives for three to four years; and drones usually die upon mating or are expelled from the hive before the winter; and workers may live for a few weeks in the summer and several months in areas with an extended winter.

“The worker bees replace the Queen by selecting larva, which they put into a queen cell and feed with special food called Royal Jelly,” he said.

He explained the seasonal cycle for the African Honey Bee as follows: In Autumn – March to May – the amount of nectar and pollen coming into the hive is reduced, which causes the bee population to be reduced and less brood rearing. The old bees tend to die first, the young bees survive the winter. Propolis collected from the buds of trees is used to seal all the cracks in the hive and reduce the size of the entrance to keep out cold air. The worker bees drag the drones out of the hive and do not let them return, causing them to starve to death. This means less bees to consume the honey stores for the winter. When the temperature drops low enough the bees form a tight cluster, and egg laying stops. In warms climates, it may continue. If a colony has a lot of pollen and honey stores, they may feed the Queen so that she starts laying eggs early, so that in Spring they have a strong population. In Spring, the bees begin to gather pollen and nectar and increase brooding rearing. They also gather water to regulate the temperature and to liquefy thick honey so that they can feed the brood. Drones are absent or scarce in the Spring. Later in the Spring, surplus pollen and honey is stored. As the temperature increases, the colony increases and drones are produced. When the colony becomes crowded the bees will swarm, half of the hive will move to another location with the old Queen, while the virgin Queen will remain in the hive. When a new location is found, the swarm flies to it, construct wax combs, and begins brood rearing.

Bee hive, the upper box, called the super, is where beekeepers harvest the products                                                                                                       Picture by Mabontle Molapo

“Bees in a swarm are dangerous – they can kill you. More than 10 stings from bees are dangerous. Many people are allergic to a bee sting. The symptoms are: Swelling around the eyes, tongue, lips or throat; difficulty breathing or swallowing; wheezing; dizziness; rash; stomach cramps; fainting.” African bees have the meanest reputation of them all; affectionately dubbed killer bees.

People with a bee allergy “should not be involved in beekeeping. Those who are unsure, should consult… for a bee allergy,” he emphasized.

A smoker that burns things like hessian, cardboard, pine needles, egg cartoons and even rotten wood is smoke that calms the bees. He cautioned that there are materials that harm the health of the bees if used to smoke the bees.

“It is important to work in pairs or groups when around bee hives, so that if anything happens to one of you, another person is close at hand to help or call for help,” he advised, “Bees can get into any small opening, so when wearing a suit make sure it is properly closed.” Other peoples who have been living and working with bees for generations can work the hives without suits; that, however, is not the route to take if the habit of beekeeping and the psychology of bees has not been mastered. Bees are dangerous.

It is advisable to “keep out of the bees’ flight path when approaching the hive.”

“The hive is constructed from a brood box, where the Queen lays her eggs, and a super box, where the surplus honey is stored by the bees. This is where we can take the honey from,” he said.

“For the hive to be active and productive it needs to be located within 100 metres from sources of pollen and nectar, so that the bees do not have to fly too far,” he said. However bees can fly 4 km from their hives whilst foraging and visit about 4 410 000 flowers to make 1 kg of honey. A single worker bee makes just 1 tenth of a teaspoon of honey over a lifetime.

He explained that bees communicate with other bees to let them know where to find pollen and nectar, by ‘dancing’ in a particular way.

“After establishing the hive, the beekeeper needs to inspect the hive regularly, and pay attention to what the bees are doing – this will help… to know where they are in the seasonal cycle and how well they are brooding,” he said, “Inspect also for disease or wasps.”

There are 5 signs of a healthy hive he gave as the following: 1. Bee activity when approaching the hive – circling or gathered at the hive entrance. This activity tells you the hive is well. 2. You might notice pouches of yellow dust on the bees’ legs. This is the pollen that they’ve gathered from nearby plants – and shows that they’re hard at work. 3. If you see honey in the upper chamber, you know they’re well-fed. 4. You may be able to see the white worms in the comb (the larvae) or the cells may be capped over, which means the adult bees will soon emerge. Either of these show that the Queen bee is laying her eggs and the brood is being looked after. 5. Seeing the Queen bee herself is an added bonus.

Harvesting from the conventional hive of a boxed hive is done by “lifting the frames out of the box; removing the bees by brushing them off the frame; uncapping the wax using an uncapping fork; the wax is then scraped off; then the frames go into the spinner, which releases the honey. You can leave the old honeycomb on the frame, as this makes it easier for the bees to brood next time around. The honey is cleaned by leaving it overnight in a container. In the morning, the wax particles will have risen to the top and can be scraped off. Repeat until clean. The wax that is scraped off the comb and collected from the honey can, then, be put into a wax melter, and then into moulds (plastic margarine tubs work well). Leave about 1 kg for the foundations for the next hive. To make foundations the wax needs to be pressed flat and cut into strips. This is then put into frames.

Honeycomb                                                                                                   Picture by Mabontle Molapo

“Beekeepers can increase the amount of propolis that bees produce by making bigger holes in the hives that the bees will fill with larger amounts of propolis,” he said.

The farmers who practice monoculture with the aid of pesticides create an environmental unsustainable imbalance because their pesticides kill off the bee population. These bees that are reduced in great numbers by the pesticides are the very bees responsible for greater proportion of all plant pollination.

Pollination is needed for plants to reproduce, and many plants depend on bees or other insects as pollinators. Reproduction in plants happens when pollen from the stamens (the male reproductive organ of the plant) is deposited onto the stigma (the female reproductive organ of the plant) and bees have pollen stick to the hairs of their bodies which they then, when visiting the next plant, drop onto the tip of the pistil. When this happens fertilization is possible, and a product carrying seeds is able to develop. And plants that are frequently visited by bees produce larger and more uniform produce.

Bees use different dances to communicate with each other. Whether it’s a tremble dance to have other worker bees in the hive assist in taking nectar from foraging bees to be placed in cells or a dance to communicate where they have been to collect good nectar and pollen. The work of taking nectar from foraging bees is usually done by bees that are young to go out foraging.

The worker bees check on each larva over 1 000 times per day. They care and look after the Queen and drones. They feed them, groom them and remove their body waste from the hive.

Different areas have they are different laws governing the keeping of bees; it is the responsibility of those interested to know these by-laws as they apply to their area. Important to note here is that many of the natives of the African soil are yet to be reconciled with the laws of their making. It is a particularly thorny issue for without land it because difficult and in many cases extremely difficulty, bordering on impossibility, for any meaningful undertaking of beekeeping on a commercial scale. The Megatong skills transfer initiative (which is undertaken in a matter of a week) should serve as one of the important economic revolutionary tools given the lucrative nature of not only the pollination role played by bees, but the by-products of beekeeping which have a number of industrial use.  The initiative ought to also drive the urge for our land closer to the masses. The Megatong Nursery initiative is a symbol of self-sufficiency.

Be sure to seek seasoned help before attempting to keep bees and have the requisite tools and materials.

Itumeleng Pooe holding Megatong’s newly designed Beehives

 

By Themba Ka Mhlanga

 

 

 

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