Beekeeping is the art, or science, depending on how you view things, of rearing and keeping bees in manmade hives. It is a subject that can be so complicated that people devote their entire lives to its study and yet so simple that man has been able to practice it for thousands of years.
Whether you want to start with just one hive in your back garden or you hope to have dozens of hives and turn beekeeping into a business, this book will walk you through the hows and whys of what you need to know. Good beekeeping involves husbandry and careful stewardship. There is a delicate balance to be maintained so that you can harvest some of the honey while at the same time leaving enough to maintain the hive in a state of good health, especially over the cold and lean winter months.
There are many factors that motivate people to start keeping bees. Obviously, having access to one’s own honey is one of the more commonly recognized motivators, but there are plenty of others. Bees are crucial to the overall health of the planet because they are so essential to the pollination process.
People will argue that there are plenty of other creatures that also perform a role in the carrying of pollen from one plant or flower to another, and therefore the bee is not as crucial as it is made out to be. People who use that argument are a little ill-informed. Of course, there are other pollinating animals and insects, and some plants are able to self-pollinate. As far as you and I are concerned, however, one in three commercially produced crops requires bees at some stage in its pollination process. That means the humble honeybee is responsible for one in three of every mouthful you put in your mouth. Though there are over twenty thousand different types of bees, only one of those is suitable for honey production, and that is the honeybee.
Many years ago, honey was the main reason why big honey farmers kept bees. In some countries, most notably the United States, hiring hives to farmers to improve pollination is now the primary reason why they stay in business, with the honey being just a secondary by-product. The almond industry of California relies almost entirely on bees that are trucked in during the flowering season. As far as pollination is concerned, even though you may lack a giant almond orchard, a hive of bees can do wonders in improving the pollination of flowering plants in the domestic garden.
Another specialty line in the area of beekeeping is the rearing of queens. Queens are the heart of the bee colony, and maintaining a healthy queen is critical to having a healthy hive. As you will learn, there are ways of the breeding queen, which can then be sold to other beekeepers. The character of the queen dictates the character of all the other bees in her colony, and if the queen is bad-tempered, the hove will be more aggressive then if the queen is docile. It is common for owners of a hive of vicious stinging bees to swap out the queen for a more manageable one.
Other products that are produced by bees include wax, propolis, bee pollen, and royal jelly. All of these products provide an incentive to keep bees. Although honey is, and probably always will be, the product that we first think of when we think of keeping bees, the lesser know bi-products become available to the beekeepers should he choose to harvest and process them.
In recent years there has been a large increase in the number of people who have turned their hands to beekeeping. Bee numbers have seen a dramatic decline that has drawn a lot of attention from the press, and many people who are concerned about the well being of the environment have taken to keeping a hive or two simply to try to address some of that decline. We will look into some of the possible reasons why we are seeing colony collapse later in the book, but you should know that even if you only introduce one small hive, you are doing something positive for the natural environment. An ecologically managed hive will boost the environment in which it is situated.
The bees will have a positive effect on the local flora, even if it is just a domestic garden, and this, in turn, provides food and habitat for other insects and animals. As a benefit, you suddenly have access to a number of products, nearly all of which are proven to provide health benefits. When you look at things in that context, the idea of supporting a beehive seems almost irresistible.
At this point, it may be a good idea to take a brief look at registration. There is no one size fits all answer here as different states have different rules, and you may also be governed by city or suburban by laws. There is also a big difference in the requirements of the domestic beekeeper that wants just one or two hives and the professional who may well need his honey house certified.
For the smaller non-professional, a good place to start is at your local council, where you can ask if there are any restrictions. Generally, there are no or very few, but check, nonetheless. If there is no law pertaining to beekeeping, there is probably one that covers nuisance, which will quickly be employed should problems develop. The best thing you can do is to make sure that no problem develops in the first place. Once you have ascertained that the local laws are not going to hold you back, the next port of call should be your neighbors. Many people have a preconceived idea that bees are dangerous. If you are well prepared and can demonstrate that you know what you are doing and have taken all the necessary precautions, then you can avoid many of the problems they will try to present.
Keeping your bees behind a hedge or fence is one way to lower risks of unintended stings. This protects the hive from wind, keeps it out of sight, and means the bees must take off at above head height, thus lowering the small possibility of them flying into someone unintentionally. Ensuring that they have easy access to water near the hive will stop them from having to pop over to the neighbor’s pool if they need a drink.
One of the times when your bees are likely to get most agitated is when you harvest the honey. There are ways to minimize this, and we will get to those later in the book. Even if your neighbors or some unhelpful bi law prevent you from having a hive in your back garden, you are by no means defeated. There are plenty of people who would be delighted to have a managed hive or tow on their farm or in their garden. Generally, an arrangement is reached where you place your hive on their property, and they are given a share of the honey produced. Of course, the side benefit of all that pollination goes to them.
If your ambitions extend to more than just beekeeping for a hobby and your own supply of honey, then things become a little more complicated. Again these rules vary from state to state and country to country if you are in Europe. Your nearest agricultural department should quickly be able to direct you to whoever it is that controls and inspects apiculturists. We all tend to avoid government interference, but in this case, there are distinct advantages that come with the regulation. You may need to get your honey house approved, and this could even entail an inspection annually.
In some areas, they will also want to inspect your hives. The reason for this is to control and eradicate the spread of disease. Later in this book, we will see that disease is a major problem, especially to the professional beekeeper, and these inspections should be seen as something to help you rather than rules simply thrown up to make your life more difficult. Another distinct advantage here is that the state apiary inspection officers are experts in their own right. They have access to all the latest research and can supply scientific papers, news, and sometimes even further training. If there is a spread of disease somewhere in your state, these are likely to be some of the first people to know about it, and that information will probably affect the way you treat your hives. Instead of seeing him as your enemy, look on your apiary inspection officer as a rich source of information.
One other factor has recently come into play. In some parts of the US, where beekeeping is big business, theft of whole colonies has become quite widespread. Here too, the inspection officer is likely to be aware of these incidents before you are, and he can at least give you a heads up as to whether or not you need to augment your security.
You may think that beekeeping is too complicated for the amateur or that you require a great deal of space or expensive equipment. Neither of these is issues that need to be a stumbling block. Inner-city beekeeping has really taken off in recent years. Parks and private gardens are often rich in flowering plants and a great source of nectar for your urban bee.
If you are wondering why you have never seen any of these hives where you are living, it could be because the beekeeper has stationed them on top of buildings. Many tower blocks have large expanses of roof space that are not utilized, and these roofs are perfect places to place hives where they will not be disturbed but from which the bees will have easy access to the cities many flowering food sources. There is a growing awareness among city councils of the threat posed by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Many of them have gone pesticide-free, and with that threat, removed bees often thrive better in the cities than they do in farmland.
We have all grown up reading children’s stories with cartoons depicting swarms of angry bees chasing some unfortunate person down the road. In fact, if you speak to people with no working knowledge of bees, they will almost definitely tell you that bees are dangerous. This is one myth that needs to be cleared up quickly. Even if you have only a tiny garden, you will be able to keep at least one hive of bees. Bees only attack if they believe that the colony is threatened, and as long as you don’t go too close, they will go about their busy lives and pay you little attention. In fact, as they become used to you and understand that you do not pose any sort of threat, they will ignore you even if you come right up to the hive. This does not mean that you should not take sensible precautions. If you have small children or pets, then the precautions you are going to have to take will need to be more carefully thought out. A football kicked into a hive, or an overly curious dog could cause the bee to panic, and that will lead to problems as they attempt to protect the colony.
If you are serious about keeping bees, there is a wealth of information available to you, but it is difficult to beat the benefits of some hands-on experience. The first time you open a hive and find yourself surrounded by bees, and the very distinct smell that emanates from their colony, is one that you will not soon forget. The beekeeping world is one of the most generous with information that I have ever encountered. Beekeeping clubs are the backbone of the amateur beekeeping world, and there will almost definitely be one within reach of you. If not, contact your nearest local beekeeper
beekeeper and tell him you are thinking about trying your hand at bee husbandry. It is highly likely that he will show you the ropes.
I have often found myself wondering why beekeepers are so free with their information, and the conclusion I have reached is that instead of seeing the newcomer as a threat, he sees him as an accomplice in an effort to make the world a better place. Beekeeping clubs offer an invaluable source of information, and they will also have a working knowledge of the local environment in which you are planning to set up. Very often, they have a group discount for the buying of equipment, and, as much of what you will need for harvesting the honey is only used infrequently, the club often shares items like honey extractors. Many clubs go on to serve as a place for social interaction between likeminded people. Unfortunately, these days, many beekeepers are getting on in age. This can play to your advantage as they may well be looking for a keen new enthusiast to whom they can donate equipment, providing they think you are serious. My first hives were a gift from an old hand that was getting ready to retire. Those old-timers are an absolute treasure trove of information.
Man has had a working relationship with bees that goes back millennia. Thousands of years before sugar became the primary sweetener; we were smacking our lips with delight over the sweet sticky honey that was produced by these tiny little flying insects. In fact, sugar is a much more recent addition to our dietary pallet. Sugar was originally only found in Polynesia. We know that it was consumed there in 510 BC and that from there, it would eventually be transported to India. It was not until the Crusades in the 11th century AD that the first westerners encountered it, and it would be centuries later that it would finally reach Europe in 1099.
For hundreds of years after that, it was a delicacy that was confined to the very rich. It was heavily taxed in the United Kingdom until the tax was abolished under Prime Minister Gladstone in 1871. At that stage, it first started to become available to the less well off, but still at a price that meant it was a luxury rather than the everyday item we eat so much of today. The even more modern sweetener, corn syrup, has really only seen widespread use in the last couple of decades as industrial food companies strive for cheaper and cheaper ways to satiate our elevated craving for sweetness. Before that, honey or syrup derived from things such as the maple tree were our only options
Even before we began to master the complicated but fascinating art of beekeeping, honey had already become recognized as a precious commodity. Of course, then we did not know how to harness that honey making potential of bees, and we instead had to pilfer supplies from hives we found in the wild. Painted onto walls of a cave in Spain, called la Cuerva de la Arana, is a picture depicting a honey hunting expedition in what is believed to be one of the earliest pictorial records of such an event. It dates back fifteen thousand years.
It is difficult to ascertain when man first began to understand that if he could sustain the stings of angry bees, then he stood to reap the warm, sticky reward of a sweetness he had never before encountered. Early hominids probably quickly learned that if they followed honey birds, they could lead you to a hive of bees. There are several different types of honey bird, and the fact that they will guide people to honey in the hope that they will gain a share of the spoils has been well documented. Experts believe that as far back as the Stone Age, early man and birds co-evolved, and this relationship began to develop. That period dates back to 1.9 million years.
In Myanmar, a bee was found petrified in amber, and that insect is almost identical to the modern honeybee we are now so familiar with. Scientists estimate the age of that petrified insect at 100 million years. The last dinosaurs became extinct approximately 66 million years ago, which means that the bee must have been playing its crucial role as a pollinator even then and that, in doing so, it would have heavily influenced the direction that the evolutionary process took. Many of the large dinosaurs lived on a vegetarian diet, and that would have been made possible because of the bees. It also shows that the bee somehow survived the calamity that wiped out the much larger dinosaurs.
The earliest written record of bees to date is made on clay tablets written in cuneiform dating back to 3000 BC. Cuneiform is one of the earliest known means of writing. Biblically honey is mentioned in the Old Testament frequently but most notably, when it is used to describe the many benefits offered by a move to the Promised Land. It is often associated with the word of God. In the New Testament, it was one of the main things that sustained the profit of John while he lived in the desert as a hermit.
Looting beehives in the wild and actually cultivating them on a sustainable basis are two very different subjects, and it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date when this conversion took place. The ability to access honey without actually destroying the hive was a massive leap forward in our relationship with bees. The ancient Egyptians definitely made beehives, and honey was found in the tombs of many of the pharaohs, including that of Tutankhamen. One of the interesting things about honey is its anti-bacterial properties.
Some of the honey found in ancient Egyptian tombs was still edible. The first examples of keeping bees were in earthenware vessels in north Africa at around 9000BC, and by 3500 BC, the Egyptian understanding of the subject had developed to a level where they were able to transport hives to different regions and use smoke to aid in honey extraction. It would not be until the 1800s that Europe would develop their skills to that extent. The Egyptians used honey in their mummification processes and had discovered the medicinal benefits that it offered. There are papyrus texts describing the health and medicinal benefits of honey and propolis, and these two products were used in over nine hundred different remedies. In the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet, the bee is the symbol of royalty.
Like the Egyptians, the Chinese have a long-standing relationship with the honeybee. The first ruler of the Chinese Zhou dynasty led his troops into battle under a flag bearing a bee as its emblem. As in Egypt, here are many ancient Chinese medical texts where the use of honey is included.
Aristotle, the keen Greek observer of nature, described the bees’ ability to collect nectar from flowers and return it to their hives though he misinterpreted what happened after that, and he described honey as a deposit of the atmosphere. Lycurgus, the ancient founder of Sparta, modeled his government on behavior he had learned from watching the workings of bees in their hive. Bee husbandry was highly valued by the Greeks, who were quick to include honey in many of their dishes, and they appointed overseers of their bee colonies who were men of high standing.
The famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy was a beekeeper. Napoleon Bonaparte’s robe was decorated with bees for his coronation as emperor. Louis XII had hoped to include a beehive in his coat of arms, but this was rejected by the National Convention, stating that ‘bees have a queen.’
In Israel, there have been remains discovered of what is thought to be one of the first large scale apiary operations which date back to the ninth or tenth century BC. The two hundred hives would have required a fairly sophisticated level of beekeeping skills to maintain.
In India, honey has long been used in a drink, which was known as madhuparka, which young men as they prepared to ask for a young woman’s hand in marriage and to special guests. The Sanskrit word madhu means honey and lends itself to the Slavic word medhu, which in turn is the root of the word mead in English.
We may have failed to pin down an exact moment in time when beekeeping first started, but it is obvious that the relationship between man and bee goes back a very long way. There is no other insect on earth which man has become nearly as adept at profiting from. So powerful is our relationship to the bee that they have entered into the mythology of many different cultures.
The San Bushmen who inhabits the Kalahari Desert tells of a bee that carried a mantis across a river. The effort cost the bee his life, but before dying, it deposited a bee in the mantis, which, when hatched, gave birth to the first human. The tears from the sun god Ra of Egyptian mythology are said to have turned into bees. The Greek god Aristaeus was considered the god of beekeeping. While pursuing his wife, Eurydice, he caused her to stand on a snake, and the ensuing bite killed her. This so enraged her sisters that they killed all of his bees in revenge.
Aristaeus sort advice from Proteus, who told him to sacrifice four bulls and four cows to honor his deceased wife. From the rotting corpses of these beasts emerged hives of bees. This is vaguely similar to mention of an incident in the Bible where Samson killed a lion, which was later inhabited by a swarm of bees. He shared the honey with his parents and later used the incident as a riddle to trick the Philistines. His wife, a Philistine herself, persuaded him to tell her the answer to the riddle, which she then shared with her brothers, and thus his plan failed. It is a famous biblical story, and yet one where the presence of the bees gets lost amongst all the other events that take place.
If the bee holds an important place in both history and mythology, it is nothing compared to the importance of the role they play today. Bees are major pollinators of many of the commercial crops that we eat on a daily basis, and even though honey is a wonderful product to eat, that pollinating role is far more important to man. We can all play a role in protecting these creatures, and with the current problems they face, perhaps it is time we did so.