What is Beekeeping?

by James Bailey on November 30, 2020

Beekeeping, also known as apiculture, is the practice of maintaining bee colonies to achieve desired objectives. The honeybee is the most common domesticated bee species. Other honey producing bees such as stingless bees are also kept. Apiculture is unrestricted; bees can be kept in villages, farms, large cities, rangelands, deserts, or even forests. Amazingly, urban beekeepers in densely populated cities can even place their beehives on their rooftops!

What is Beekeeping

Why keep the bees? Bees play a vital role in the natural and agricultural ecosystems. Besides their valuable and healthy products, bees and other pollinators like butterflies help in pollinating approximately three-quarters of plants that produce about 90% of world food. The person who maintains the beehives is known as an apiarist or a beekeeper.

History and Evolution of Beekeeping

Human beings have been eating honey from the onset of their existence. Initially, it was harvested from wild honeybee colonies. This was referred to as honey hunting or honey gathering. Honey collecting involved the destruction of the whole bee colony. The wild hives were broken into and smoke was used to suppress the bees. People later learned that they could make a home or hive close to their homes instead of looking for bees in the wild. They started keeping bees in pottery vessels, woven straw baskets, wooden boxes, and hollow logs.

During harvesting, honeycombs were crushed with all the honey, larvae, eggs, contents they contained. The liquid honey was then strained through a sieve. There was no continuity of production since each colony was destroyed at harvest together with the queen. In the 18th century, people came to understand the colonies and the biology of bees, which enhanced the construction of movable hives. These hives allowed the harvesting of honey without destroying a colony.

In the 19th century, there was a breakthrough in beekeeping through the perfection of a movable comb hive by Lorenzo Langstroth. He designed a set of wooden frames inside a rectangular hive box, which allowed a beekeeper to gently remove the combs with honey and extract it without ruining the combs. The empty combs were returned in the hives after harvesting for bees to refill again. People were also able to divide a colony instead of depending on natural swarming.

The invention of movable comb hive, development of wax-comb foundation: a starter comb which bees build on, use of centrifuges for extraction, and the like gave way to commercial beekeeping. The recognition, prevention, and control of bee diseases, use of pollen substitutes to maintain healthy colonies, and artificial insemination of queens have led to the increase of honey production and the effectiveness of colonies. Commercial beekeeping started in the 19th century. Commercial apiarists own hundreds or even thousands of hives that produce large quantities of honey.

Types of Beekeeping

Natural Beekeeping

Natural beekeeping aims at imitating the bees' natural environment. A beekeeper meets the needs of the bees with methods and techniques similar to or close to the wild and the natural state. Intrusion into the beehive is minimized, and the colony overwinters on their honey; no syrup or artificial feed is given. The bees use their natural comb rather than premade or reused comb. Most natural beekeepers do not use chemical treatments in the hive. They use essential oils in the treatment of mites and diseases.

Backyard or Urban Beekeeping

Backyard beekeeping refers to keeping bee colonies in an urban environment. It aims at obtaining honey and other bee products by utilizing small-scale colonies. Urban beekeeping is on the rise in many parts of the world.

Indoor Beekeeping

It entails keeping bee colonies indoors. This may be due to space, monitoring purposes, or during the off-season. Latest technologies have invented some advanced in-house hives that create a home for bees to thrive. During winter, some commercial beekeepers move their colonies to warehouses with fixed humidity, light, and temperature. This helps to keep their colonies healthy.

Advantages of Beekeeping

Honey and Other Bee Products

The first thing that we think of when we hear about apiculture is honey. It is the most popular product from the beehives. Honey is rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, which have a myriad of health benefits. Other products include wax, pollen, and propolis. Beeswax is used to make candles, soaps, lip balms, soaps, hair care products, and creams many others. All bee products are highly valuable in the market. Modern equipment has made beekeeping more advanced and easy for the potential market.

Crops Pollination

Plants require pollination to reproduce. Honeybees are the most valuable pollinators in the world. Numerous crops such as blueberries, almonds, avocadoes, apples, and cherries depend entirely on them. They pollinate crops naturally as they forage for nectar and pollen. Research shows that bees contribute approximately $20 to US crop production.

Source of Income

Is beekeeping profitable? Absolutely! It is a profitable venture, but this depends on the number of hives and the amount of honey you harvest. Some commercial beekeepers also earn income by renting out their hives to farmers for pollination services, while others produce bees for sale to other beekeepers.

An Inexpensive Venture

Despite the initial start-up cost, apiculture requires low maintenance. Honeybees are super experts when it comes to running the hive and making honey. They only require supplementary feeding in times of scarcity.

Bees need us

Just as we need the bees for pollination and their products, they also need us to protect them from pests, pesticides, toxicants, and other threats. They require safe water sources and safe flowering plants to forage. A good beekeeper assists the bees by caring for their hives and ensuring the surrounding environment is safe.

Understanding a Honeybee Colony

To maintain a healthy and effective colony, it is crucial to understand the characteristics and properties of bees. A honeybee colony comprises one queen bee, female worker bees, drones, and the brood (egg, larvae, or pupae). The number of bees in a colony ranges from 10,000 to 60,000 bees. The numbers change in seasons; in spring, a bee colony has the most bees, while in winter population shrinks dramatically.

The Queen Bee

The queen is the only reproductive individual in a colony, and it depends on her. She lays the egg for the colony. After mating with several drones, she receives and stores enough sperm to fertilize hundreds of thousands of eggs. A queen can choose either to lay unfertilized eggs (male drones) or fertilized eggs (female worker bees). She can lay up to 1500 eggs in a day. She feeds exclusively on royal jelly and has a lifespan of up to 4 years. A colony requires a properly performing queen. Workers sometimes kill a non-performing queen and raise another one.

Worker Bees

These are sterile females who carry out all the duties in a hive. These include foraging, honey production, feeding the brood, cleaning, and defending the beehive from intruders. Workers bees live for about 4-6 weeks in an active season but can live for months in winter since they are inactive. Their duties depend on age. Young worker bees perform essential housekeeping duties while older workers go to forage for nectar, pollen, and water.

Drones

Drones are the male bees in the colony. Their only purpose is to mate with the queen; they do not work or forage. Drones are about two times the size of the worker bee. In winter, when the food supply is scarce, they are evicted by the workers. They bite and tear their legs and wings.

How Do Honeybees Make Honey?

Honeybees collect nectar, a sweet solution from nectar from flowering plants. Nectar comprises up to 80% water. The bees convert it into honey, which has about 16% water content and can be stored for years. The foragers also collect pollen, a feathery male element from the anther of flowers. Pollen is a protein source for the young brood. It is converted to bee bread, which is digestible to the young bees.

Honeybees also secret beeswax from their wax glands to make honeycomb. Honeycombs are used to store honey, propolis, royal jelly, and pollen. The queen also lays eggs in some of the cells of the comb. Honeybees make 2 to 3 times more honey than they require.

Beekeeping Calendar

Successful management of honeybee colonies needs an understanding of their annual cycle. It follows seasonal cycles, and the flow of nectar is influenced by weather patterns. The activities of honeybees also vary with the season. When pollen and nectar is abundant, the colony raises more brood, and the population increases. When resources are scarce, the colony population decreases.

Spring

In early spring, new sources of pollen and nectar stimulate brood rearing. It is the perfect season to introduce a new colony. You may also need to feed the colony if the food supplies were depleted during the winter season to increase brood rearing. Towards the end of spring, the population increases rapidly. You should prevent swarming at this stage by ensuring there is enough space. If the bees outgrow the space, they will certainly swarm. You may promote the storage of more reserves by adding empty frames.

Summer

Early to mid-summer is the ideal time for honey harvesting and extraction. The colony is at its optimum population, and all effort is geared toward foraging and storing honey. Bees may need more space for nectar storage; more space stimulates nectar gathering.

Fall

The colony is preparing for wintering, and you should ensure it has enough food reserve to carry them through the cold season. Facilitate effective ventilation and put guards against pests and rodents.

Winter

The colony survives solely on reserves. Egg laying and brood-rearing cease and the bees cluster together to generate warmth. Eliminating the drones reduces the consumption of the stored honey. A beekeeper may need to supplement with sugar feeding. You may need to cover the hive with a protective jacket. At the end of winter, you need to check whether the bees are still alive and if the queen is there.

Modern Beekeeping

Modern Beehives

A beehive is a structure where honeybees live and raise their young ones. There are various types of hives, and the choice depends on individual preference.

Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth hive is the most popular in modern-day beekeeping. It Comprises an outer and inner cover, frames, honey supers, a queen excluder, foundation, a brood chamber, and a bottom board. It is large and heavy, and it can be hard to move the hives.

Top Bar Hive

It comprises wooden bars that are laid on top of a long box. Honeybees build honeycombs from the top bars. No foundation is required when introducing a colony and is easier to lift and maintain than the Langstroth hive. However, you cannot use a centrifugal honey extractor to harvest honey, so you end up removing the comb and honey from the bar. Bees have to make new comb every year.

Warre Hive

It is referred to as a vertical top bar hive. It consists of uniform-sized stacked boxes with no frames or foundation sheets. Honeybees build comb from top bars placed in each box. Warre hive is smaller than the top bar, and Langstroth beehives. New boxes are added underneath the existing boxes when bees need more space, unlike the Langstroth hive.

Beekeeping Tools and Equipment

Although rearing bees requires a few tools, they are very essential in the hive operations and make your work easier.

A smoker

A smoker is a device used by apiarists to blow smoke into the hive. The smoke calms the bees and masks alarm pheromones discharged by the guard bees. This confusion allows the beekeeper to open and perform any task on the hive. It also initiates a feeding response to the bees. Once a honey bee feeds it loses ability to sting.

beekeeper smoker

Hive tool

It is an elongated paint scraper that helps to open the hive, lift frames, loosen hive parts, and scrape off propolis and excess wax. A hive tool is a must tool when visiting the beehive.

Bee brush

A bee brush has long, soft bristles that help you to remove bees from the frames and honey supers when harvesting honey.

Protective gear

Protective clothing protects you from bee stings. These include a full bee suit or a beekeeping jacket, gloves, veil, and boots. Suits and jackets are white since light colors are calming to the bees. Gloves are made of leather or canvas. They are thin and pliable, making it easier to work with and avoid harming the bees.

Honey Extraction Equipment

This device helps you to extract honey from the combs without destroying them. It works by centrifugal force.

Feeders

A feeder is placed on the hive entrance. It holds the sugar syrup fed to the bees in times of food shortage.

Beehive Management
Basic Colony Examination

Beekeepers perform a routine check of their colonies to ensure they are healthy and there is enough space. Preferably, every 7 to 10 days. The ideal time to check your hive is on a warm sunny day with minimal wind to avoid chilling the brood and also when the worker bees are on their foraging errands. Here are the key things to check during a hive inspection.

Fresh Eggs

The presence of fresh eggs indicates that the queen is present even if you do not see her.

Brood Pattern

A good brood pattern signifies a well-performing queen. An uneven brood pattern may show the presence of a disease or non-performing queen.

Honey and Pollen Storage

Little food stores show a shortage of external food, and a colony requires supplemental feeding.

Space

Abundant food sources and lack of infection cause a colony population to increase dramatically. Lack of space in the hive may cause a colony to swarm. In such a case, a beekeeper can divide the bee colony into two. The presence of queen cells in the hive indicates that a bee colony is preparing to swarm, and they are raising a queen to take over the beehive.

Signs of Infection or Disease

Appropriate treatment is recommended if there is infection.

Challenges of Beekeeping

Bee Diseases

Diseases spread very fast in a honeybee colony and can kill the entire colony in a few days. The most serious brood disease is American foulbrood that is caused by Bacillus larvae. It is a worldwide catastrophe. The bacterial spores are highly resistant to chemicals and heat. Many countries require the diseased colonies to be destroyed by fire. Other diseases include Nosema, chalk brood, European foulbrood diseases and deformed bee virus.

Parasites

The most common bee parasites include wax moths, Varroa mites, tracheal mites, and small hive beetles. The wax moth lays its eggs on the honeycombs. On hatching, the larvae burrow through the combs destroying the honey stores. The tunnels they dig are lined with silk, which entangles the emerging bee larvae. Hive beetles are destructive and can cause a colony to abscond once infested.

Predators

The most common honeybee predators are bears, honey badgers, and skunks. They feed on the honey, the brood, and even the adult bees. Other predators include mice, lizards, toads, and birds such as bee-eaters.

Beekeeping Tips

More Colonies are Better

To succeed in beekeeping, you need strong and healthy colonies. It is advisable to have several beehives instead of one for management purposes even though it is more expensive. You can transfer honey, pollen, or brood from one hive to the other when the need arises. You can also strengthen a weak colony with ease. It is easier to re-queen beehives that do not have a queen. The beehives act as back-up for each other when the need arises.

Keep the Hives Close

The closer and more accessible they are, the better the attention you will give them.

Inspect Every 7-10 Days

A healthy and productive hive runs out of space. If the space is limited, the bees make queen cells and swarm in less than two weeks.

Learn About the Bees First

Before you learn about beekeeping, learn about bee behavior, biology, and evolution. Once you understand the bee behavior, it will be easier to manage them. Surprisingly the honeybee is the most studied insect worldwide.

Use Frames

Despite the various hive designs to choose from, the hives with movable frames win the game. Frames secure the honeycombs in place, helps you conduct regular checks, do splits, and use a honey extractor.

Use New Equipment

Used equipment may be cheap or free, but it may have problems that you may not recognize at the moment such as pores of American foulbrood. It is advisable to start fresh with new hives and frames to avoid problems.

Start Early in Spring

The ideal time to start a honeybee colony is in the spring so that it can have ample time to build up, raise a brood, and have enough honey storage before winter.

(James Bailey and Kamenju, 2020)

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