Beekeeping

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Beekeeping (or apiculture, from Latin apis, a bee) is the practice of intentional maintenance of honey bee colonies, commonly in hives, by humans. A beekeeper (or apiarist) may keep bees in order to harvest honey, beeswax and other products of the hive, or for the purpose of pollinating crops, or to produce bees for sale to other beekeepers. A location where bees are kept is called an apiary.

History of beekeeping

A precursor to beekeeping was the early practice of robbing honey from wild colonies of bees. Some of the earliest evidence of such robbing is from rock painting, dating to around 13,000 BC. The actual husbandry of bees is first known to have developed in Egypt, and was discussed by the Roman writers Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro, and Columella. Aspects of the lives of bees and beekeeping are discussed at length by Aristotle. A pioneering beekeeping popularizer in the 19th century United States was Amos Root.

While beekeeping was traditionally practiced for the bees' honey and beeswax, nowadays crop pollination service can often provide a greater part of a commercial beekeeper's income. Honey, which is made from floral nectars, is used as a sweetener for human consumption. Beeswax, a glandular secretion of the young adult bees, is used in candle making, cosmetics, wood polish, and for modelling. In ancient times beeswax was commonly used for tribute or taxes. Other hive products are pollen, royal jelly, and propolis, which are also used for nutritional and medicinal purposes. The modern use of hive products has changed little since ancient times.

Feral honey bees have moved into the space underneath a mobile home. They will be removed and placed into a Langstroth hive.

The most commonly kept honeybee, the Western honey bee Apis melifera is native to Asia, Europe and Africa. American, Australian, and New Zealand colonists imported honey bees from Europe, partly for honey and partly for their usefulness as pollinators. The first honey bee races imported were likely European dark bees. Later Italian bees, Carniolan honey bees and Caucasian bees were added. While honey bees are sometimes referred to as domesticated, beekeeping does not include changing the behavior of the bees; rather, it is an attempt to assist the bees to do what they do naturally; by providing suitable housing, protection from predators, parasites and disease, feed during times of dearth, and other husbandry practices.

Other species of bees have also been cultured on a smaller scale, such as Apis cerana (southeast Asia), and some non-Apis stingless bees in Central America and Australia.

Western honey bees were also brought to the Primorsky Krai in Russia by Ukrainian settlers around 1850s. These Russian honey bees that are similar to the Carniolan bee were imported into the U.S. in 1990. The Russian honey bee has shown to be more resistant to the bee parasites Varroa destructor and Acarapis woodi.

Before the 1980s, most U.S. hobby beekeepers were farmers or relatives of a farmer, lived in rural areas, and kept bees with mostly laissez faire techniques passed down for generations. The arrival of Acarine mites tracheal mites in the 1980s and varroa mites and small hive beetles in the 1990s led to the discontinuation of the practice by most of these beekeepers as their bees could not survive infections of the new parasites without treatment.

Art of beekeeping

The control of a colony mainly consists in taking care of the state of the “demography” of the hives. Although some call it a "science," the "art" of the beekeeper is in managing a colony's population so that the maximum number of bees is available for a task at a particular time. Beekeepers who wish a surplus of honey manage for the most workers bees (both foragers and ripeners) to be present at the exact same time that nectar-producing flowers (in both numbers and nectar production) are also at the seasonal maximum. This so-called honey flow may be only be two or three weeks per year in some areas, or may be extended for months in others.

For pollination, both the grower and beekeeper are looking for a surplus of foraging honey bees, with the maximum possible young brood that needs pollen. This drives more foragers to collect pollen, and bees that are deliberately collecting pollen are much more efficient pollinators than bees that are gathering nectar.

Package bee and queen producers try to have as many nurse (young worker) bees as possible on hand. Queen breeders also try to manage drone population numbers.

A colony of bees is composed of a single queen, many workers (infertile females), drones (males), and a brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae). A hive is the box used by beekeepers to house a colony. A colony of bees tries to accumulate a surplus of provisions (nectar and pollen) during the more favorable seasons, in order to be able to survive the more unfavorable seasons and reproduce. Usually this period of dearth is the winter but in some tropical areas the period is the dry season, or summer.

The population of the colony varies according to the seasons. It is important for the colony to have a large population (30,000 to 50,000+ individuals) when there is a lot of forage available, in order to achieve the greatest possible honey harvest. The population is minimal in the winter (6,000 - 10,000 individuals) in order to reduce the consumption of provisions. The colony should not be too weak, however, because the bees which overwinter have to revive the colony again in the spring. If the population is too small over winter, another problem may be encountered: honey bees need to cluster together in winter in order to maintain the temperature (9 degrees celsius) required for their survival, and with reduced populations this is much more difficult to achieve.

Types of beekeepers

Beekeepers generally categorize themselves as:

  • Commercial beekeeper — Beekeeping is the primary source of income.
  • Sideliner — Beekeeping is a secondary source of income.
  • Hobbyist — Beekeeping is not a significant source of income.

Some southern U.S. and southern hemisphere (New Zealand) beekeepers keep bees primarily to raise queens and package bees for sale. In the U.S., northern beekeepers can buy early spring queens and 3- or 4-pound packages of live worker bees from the South to replenish hives that die out during the winter, although this is becoming less practical due to the spread of the africanized bee.

Cold-climate commercial beekeepers usually migrate with the seasons, hauling their hives on trucks to gentler southern climates for better wintering and early spring build-up. Many make "nucs" (small starter or nucleus colonies) for sale or replenishment of their own losses during the early spring. In the U.S. some may pollinate squash or cucumbers in Florida or make early honey from citrus groves in Florida, Texas or California. The largest demand for pollination comes from the almond groves in California, which requires about a million beehives each February. As spring moves northward so do the beekeepers, to supply bees for tree fruits, blueberries, strawberries, cranberries and later vegetables. Some commercial beekeepers alternate between pollination service and honey production but usually cannot do both at the same time.

In the Northern Hemisphere, beekeepers usually harvest honey from July until September. The rest of the year is spent keeping the hive free of pests and disease, and ensuring that the bee colony has room in the hive to expand. Success for the hobbyist also depends on locating the apiary so bees have a good nectar source and pollen source throughout the year.

In the Southern Hemisphere, beekeeping is an all-the-year-round enterprise, although in cooler areas (to the south of Australia and New Zealand) the activity may be minimal in the winter (May to August). Consequently, the movement of commercial hives is more localized in these areas.

Types of beekeeping equipment

There are considerable regional variations in the type of hive in which bees are kept. A hive is a set of wooden boxes filled with frames that each hold a sheet of wax or plastic foundation. The bottom box, or brood chamber, contains the queen and most of the bees; the upper boxes, or supers, contain just honey. The bees produce wax and build honeycomb using the wax sheets as a starting point, after which they may raise brood or deposit honey and pollen in the cells of the comb.

These frames can be freely manipulated and honey supers with frames full of honey can be taken and extracted for their honey crop. In the USA, the Langstroth hive is commonly used. The Langstroth was the first successful top-opened hive with movable frames, and other designs of hive have been based on it. Langsthroth hive was however descendants of Jan Dzierzon’s hive designs. In the UK, the most common type of hive is the National Hive but it is not unusual to see some other sorts of hive (Smith, Commercial and WBC, rarely Langstroth). The more traditional skep is now largely unlawful in the United States, as the comb and brood cannot be inspected for diseases.

A few hobby beekeepers are adopting various top-bar hives commonly found in Africa. These have no frames and the honey filled comb is not returned to the hive after extraction, as it is in the Langstroth hive. Because of this the production of honey in a top bar hive is only about 20% that of a Langstroth hive, but the initial costs and equipment requirements are far lower. Top-bar hives also offer some advantages in interacting with the bees and the amount of weight that must be lifted is greatly reduced.

A bee breeder beekeeper checks a 4-frame nuc (nucleus or starter colony) to evaluate the queen's performance. The frame of sealed brood he has set aside reveals the work of a young queen that is already busily laying, as the frame has a large quantity of sealed brood. Bee breeders seek to raise productive, gentle, disease and parasite resistant stock, by seeking the best genetic queens and raising offspring from them, while at the same time, culling the weak, non-productive, or feisty bees.

Protective clothing

When interacting with the bees, novice beekeepers usually wear protective clothing (including gloves and a hooded suit or hat and veil). Experienced beekeepers rarely use gloves because they make movement clumsy, and gloves can help transmit disease. The face and neck are the most important areas to protect, so most beekeepers will at least wear a veil.

Defensive bees are attracted to the breath and a sting on the face can lead to much more pain and swelling than a sting elsewhere, while a sting on a bare hand can usually be quickly removed by fingernail scrape to reduce the amount of venom injected.

The protective clothing is generally light colored and of a smooth material. This provides the maximum differentiation from the colony's natural predators (bears, skunks, etc.) which tend to be dark-colored and furry.

Smoker

Smoke is the beekeeper's second line of defense. Most beekeepers use a "smoker"—a device designed to generate smoke from the incomplete combustion of various fuels. Smoke calms bees; it initiates a feeding response thought to be in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. Smoke also masks alarm pheromones released by guard bees or when bees are accidentally squashed in an inspection. The ensuing confusion creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the hive and work without triggering a defensive reaction.

In addition, when a bee consumes honey the bee's abdomen distends, supposedly making it difficult to make the necessary flexes to sting, though this has not been tested scientifically.

Smoke is of no use with a swarm, because swarms do not have honey stores to feed on in response. Usually smoke is not needed since swarms tend to be less defensive, as they have no stores to defend, and a fresh swarm will have fed well from the hive.

Many types of fuel can be used in a smoker as long as it is natural and not contaminated with harmful substances. These fuels include hessian, pine needles, corrugated cardboard, and rotten or punky wood. Some beekeeping supply sources also sell commercial fuels like pulped paper and compressed cotton, or even aerosol cans of smoke.

Formation of new colonies

Swarming

Small honey bee swarm

Untended healthy colonies reproduce by swarming. With the coming of the first good nectar flow of spring, a number of queen cells are produced. About a week before the queens hatch, the old queen leaves the hive in a "prime swarm" with about half of the worker bees, and often with one or more of the first hatching virgin queens as well. Just before they leave, the worker bees fill their crops with honey to carry. The queen has been starved to stop her egg laying and shrink her abdomen to make flight possible, but she usually cannot fly far. Wherever she lands, the swarm will pitch.

The swarm then sends out scouts to look for a home. They investigate cavities that are suitable, and more scouts are recruited by dances to visit the most desirable cavities until a consensus is reached and the swarm moves to its new location. Beekeepers may capture swarms and introduce them to new hives. Otherwise bees escape and become feral, find shelter in a hollow tree, an uninsulated wall, unused chimneys, junked cars, farm machinery, open tanks, or any other suitable cavity. New honeycomb will be quickly created by young bees from honey that they've transported internally, and the old queen will quickly begin laying eggs. If virgins also attended the swarm, one of them will generally succeed in mating and will replace the old queen. If no virgins are present, the new colony will quickly raise additional queens, so that the old queen is generally replaced within at least the first month.

Inside the original hive, more virgin queens are emerging. Where their instinct is to immediately kill all her rivals who are still in their cells, worker bees will often prevent this, and an afterswarm (or two or three) will emerge, each carrying one or more virgin queens and more adults. These small swarms have less chance for survival than the prime swarm, but may form additional colonies if they do not encounter adverse conditions. Casting multiple swarms depletes the original colony of adult bees and leaves it with almost no brood. It is vital for its survival that there be a remaining virgin queen that successfully mates and begins egg laying. It is considered good beekeeping practice at this point to add one or two frames of brood from another colony. This will provide some young bees to offset the fact that most of the colony is now composed of old bees. And it provides some eggs or young larvae from which the colony can raise an emergency queen, should their only queen be eaten by a bird, or get lost on her mating flight.

Normally a colony has only one queen, though occasionally a mother and daughter may persist for awhile, and beekeepers sometimes artificially create colonies with multiple queens for increased production.

Artificial swarming

When a colony accidentally loses its queen, it is said to be orphaned. The workers realize that the queen is absent after one or two days. The colony cannot survive without the queen laying eggs, renewing its population. So the workers select cells containing eggs aged less than three days and enlarge these cells. The larvae contained therein receive nothing but royal jelly, which ensures that they will grow up to be queens.

Beekeepers use this capability in order to multiply their colonies. In order to do this, they remove several honeycomb frames from a healthy hive. These panels must hold many worker bees and eggs aged less than three days. The workers are then placed into a little hive that has honeycombs filled with provisions. If everything goes well, a new queen is born two weeks later.

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