Visitors to Whirlow Hall Farm can hardly fail to miss the cows, sheep and hens out in the fields, the sows up by the pig unit and the ponies in the barn, but not many notice the most numerous and also the smallest creatures we care for on the farm. Tucked away in a quiet corner, within easy flying distance of the orchard and vegetable field, are around 10 bee hives, each housing around 50,000 bees at the height of summer!
The Whirlow ‘Bee Team’ have been looking after the honey bees here since 2012. At the moment the bees are only just starting to stir after a long cool spring . There haven’t been a lot of flowers out for them to gather nectar (to make honey) and pollen (to feed their babies), so we have been quickly checking every week to see if they have enough to keep them going, and giving them a little sugar syrup if we think they need it. And hooray! – in the last few days it has warmed up and the dandelions have really come out, and honey bees just love dandelions.
On warmer days we have been able have a quick peek inside the hives, and we have seen that our queens have started to lay eggs after their winter break. Like a tiny grain of rice, the eggs quickly hatch into pearly white grubs which grow fat on the nutritious pollen and honey before turning into bees, in just the same way that a caterpillar turns into a butterfly.
Some of the new bees are male drones, which is a sign that the queen might soon be thinking of flying off with half her worker bees, leaving the rest to bring up a new young queen who will mate with the drones and start a colony of her own. This behaviour is called swarming, and part of the beekeeper’s craft is using this to their advantage, so that we end up with 2 strong colonies in our apiary rather than a bunch of homeless bees hanging around in a tree!
From now until late summer the worker bees will be spending their days collecting nectar and storing it in the wax honey comb cells that they have made in their hive. They evaporate excess water off the nectar by fanning it with their wings, until it is thick enough to be called honey. They then cap it with wax lid to save for winter – but honey bees just don’t know when to stop, and as long as there is something good in flower they will continue storing more honey than they need. This is why the beekeeper can get away with taking some of the honey away! We simply extract it out of the honey comb using a machine that spins the comb around, strain any bits out, and put it in jars to sell in the farm shop. Our honey is untreated, straight from the comb and there’ll be some more in the farm shop soon!
See the Whirlow Hall Farm enclosed beehive as part of their Pop-Up Farmyard at this year’s Sheffield Food Festival.