What is Beekeeping?
If you mention beekeeping, most people will envision a similar picture: a veiled beekeeper harvesting sweet, sticky honey from a hive swarming with bustling little bees. Despite this humble and idealistic imagery, it’s not a task that simply involves putting out a box and waiting for honey. Whether you’re a backyard hobbyist or working within a commercial operation, beekeeping requires intricate knowledge and understanding.
The act of beekeeping is defined quite simply: it is the keeping of bees, typically in man-made hives. Like keeping livestock in a paddock, these allow for easier access to harvesting the fruits of the hive: honey, wax, and pollen.
The beekeeper also plays a vital role in managing the health and productivity of the hive. This is especially important; a sickly hive will be unable to keep up food production, while a less productive hive will be hungry and weak, thus having difficulty fending off disease.
Honeybees are from the genus Apis, and are the most widespread domesticated bee. A colony generally numbers in the tens of thousands, and combined with their great versatility for products and pollination, honeybees make for a fantastic hobby or business enterprise.
So what goes on inside?
A typical man-made beehive consists of boxes called “supers” filled with frames. A bottom board allows for bees to enter and leave, and a cover on the top protects the hive. On some hives, a top entrance may be present.
The frames form the basis on which honeybees will make wax cells to fill with honey and pollen (their food), and eggs. These eggs grow into larvae, and when the brood is fully developed, they will chew off the wax cap that seals their cell and emerge to join the rest of the hive.
The hive consists almost entirely of female worker bees. They play the part of nursing the eggs and larvae, collecting nectar and pollen from flowers, building wax cells, and keeping the hive at a steady temperature by fanning their wings.
A few hundred male bees called drones play little part in the hive other than reproduction with the queen during her mating flight. They typically die right after mating, but those that survive will eventually be kicked out of the hive.
Ruling over the hive is a single queen, who bears the responsibility of laying thousands of eggs over her lifetime, including as many as 2000 eggs in a day. As she ages, the pheromones she creates become weaker, and eventually signals the need for her to lay the eggs for a new queen.
Within the past decade, backyard beekeeping has experienced an exponential rise worldwide, especially among the younger population. This is likely from a combination of concern over colony collapse disorder and an interest in food security.
Why might one want to become a beekeeper?
The answer might seem obvious: delicious honey! Packed with antioxidants and proven to have antibacterial properties, many boast the positive aspects of this wonderfully sweet nectar.
However, the majority of beekeeping operations make their profit through pollination services, renting out hives to orchards and growing operations for the season. Honeybees are the most popular pollinating species across the world.
Beekeeping for the purpose of pollination is a relatively newer concept. As a general practice, however, it is by no means recent. The domestication of honeybees likely began in Egypt around 2500 B.C.E., where honey was used for medicine, cleaning wounds, and sweetening foods, of course. The antibacterial properties and natural acidity of honey means that for the most part, it has no expiry date. Archaeologists have discovered pots of honey in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and deemed the contents to still be edible.
Collection of honey and wax from wild bee nests is significantly older. 7000 year old pots in Algeria contained fragments of beeswax, likely used to waterproof the vessels. Even more impressive is an ancient spearhead attached to the shaft with the help of beeswax, discovered in a cave in South Africa and estimated to be around 40,000 years old.
For both the commercial beekeeper and the backyard hobbyist, honeybees are a wealth of resources, including:
The sweet syrup we all know and love.
Bees extract the nectar from flowers and store it in a “honey stomach”, one separate from their digestive system. The nectar’s water volume is reduced, and then deposited in the cells of the honeycomb and capped off with wax for storage.
Despite their tiny size, a honeybee typically has over 3 million hairs covering her entire body, including her eyes. These hairs are ideal for capturing pollen from flowers. The honeybee mixes saliva, nectar, and secretions from her body with the pollen, brushing them into “pollen baskets” on her legs, where large combs of hair hold them in place.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, it is claimed that consuming pollen can improve athletic performance and provide more energy.
As bees consume nectar, the sugars are converted in wax glands, and then secreted as droplets through pores on her body, which harden into wax. The bees employ this wax to make cells for the queen to lay eggs, and to store pollen and nectar in.
The soft, malleable product is popularly used in candles, cosmetics, and moisturizers.
A white, creamy substance is secreted from the glands of nursing bees, and fed to larvae to boost development. Larvae intended to become the next queen bee will be fed a diet consisting only of these secretions, hence the name “royal” jelly. Regular worker bees are primarily fed “bee bread”; a mixture of pollen and nectar.
Although there hasn’t been much research, royal jelly is reportedly beneficial to menopause, type 2 diabetes, and faster wound healing.
Used by the Soviet Union during the world wars to ease infections, propolis gained the nickname “Russian penicillin”. The history of this substance can actually be dated back to ancient times, where it was used in similar respects.
It’s a resinous material formed by a combination of honeybee saliva, beeswax, and sap primarily from the buds of coniferous trees. Honeybees use it as a strong glue to seal cracks in the hive and act as insulation.
This tough and sticky substance contains many compounds that suggest it may have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antiviral properties.
The most common use of honeybees, as well as the most profitable, is pollination. Hives are moved into the growing operation the middle of the night, after foraging bees return home before the evening chill sets in.
Bees exist in a symbiosis with plants; flowers provide food for the bees, and in turn the bees inadvertently spread pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing the ovaries of the flowers and producing fruit.
Since the hive is at any time home to tens of thousands of bees, the workers must be meticulously clean to keep disease at bay. Cells are immediately cleaned after food is extracted or a new bee emerges, and only the queen will defecate in the hive. Even then, she has attendees who will clean up and discard of the mess outside.
If dead bees or larvae are discovered, workers will pull them from the hive and deposit the deceased outside the front door. If a creature such as a mouse invades into a hive, the workers will sting it to death. Unable to move such a large body, they will cover the offender in propolis, which will seal it off from the rest of the hive and prevent rotting. In a sense, the honey bees will mummify the creature.
Beekeeping is a wonderful and fascinating practice. Many enjoy it simply as a way to return to nature and retrieve some honey and wax, while for others it provides a great business opportunity.
Regardless, if you like honey in your tea, lighting beeswax candles, or enjoy eating fruits and vegetables, you can thank bees and their keepers for these delights.