Beekeeping is an ancient activity that has become both a business in agricultural circles and a backyard passion. Domesticated honey bees are the major players in beekeeping, but providing housing and habitats for wild bees also has its sweet rewards. It’s not just about the honey, either, as bees are the workhorses in the pollination services department! Their work is necessary for the production of many fruits, nuts, berries, and other crops, and their value to the agriculture industry is often estimated in the billions of dollars. So, with bee populations in danger, it's becoming more and more important to learn all we can about bees and how we can care for them.
Humanity's History with Bees
The history of beekeeping began with the simple collection of honey by foraging humans. They probably got the idea from a wild animal tearing into a bee's hive. Once discovered, this sweet food resource was worth the price of extraction. How it evolved was probably a process of trial and error that must have stung along the way.
Honeybees, native to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, attracted the interest of humans long before the dawning of Christ. Depictions of humans in the Iberian Mediterranean Basin of eastern Spain collecting honey date to over 8,000 years old in some famous prehistoric pictographs in the Cuevas de la Arana or Arana Caves. An image of a climber harvesting wild honey from a hive while surrounded by angry bees is painted on a canyon wall.
The Ancient Egyptians domesticated bees around 4,500 years ago. They had a "Sealer of the Honey" who removed the combs from hives and poured the honey into earthen jars before sealing it shut. Fast forward to when Europeans brought honeybees with them to the New World. Of course, North America was loaded with bees at that time; there are over 4,000 bee species native to North America, but the honeybees were known entities.
Today, commercial use of honeybees as pollinators for orchards, crops, flowers, and vegetables is a common and big business practice. Estimates are all over the place, but because bees are responsible for over 75 percent of insect-pollinated crops, this translates into billions of dollars annually.
Bees have been around pollinating flowers since the time of the dinosaurs, and they haven’t changed much since that time. Effective at their jobs, bee anatomy is well designed for carrying pollen from flower to flower. Covered with branched hairs that snag and hold pollen, the bee’s hind legs have baskets that they fill during their foraging missions. Their habit of being specific flower-centric ensures delivery of pollen to different flowers of the same species, also ensuring the process of pollination is completed.
Inside the hive, different bees have different tasks. Female worker bees create the waxy hexagons where the queen lays her eggs. These worker bees raise the young, create new honey cells, and clean out the nest. As they mature, they will serve as guards, defending the hive from intruders. They will also groom bees returning from a foraging trip, and even if another bee dies in the hive, they will push it out. The queen will not lay her eggs in a dirty cell, so the workers keep things pretty tidy. Eventually, these workers will leave the hive to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis or tree sap used to seal cracks in the hive.
Another type of bee in the hive is the drone. These bees don’t work, but will mate with the queen. If fact, later in the season when the weather starts to turn cold the worker bees will kick out the surviving drones because of their uselessness.
Lastly there is the queen, the most important resident in the hive. A queen may live a couple of years or more, as compared to the five or six week life span of a worker bee, and is much larger than the other bees. She is really made, not born to her station in life. When a hive needs a new queen, the worker bees feed young larvae a mix of pollen and honey called beebread, along with some royal jelly, a milky substance. If they are raising a new queen, the larvae get only royal jelly. The queen can live for several years and will raise up to 2,000 eggs a day.
At times when a hive is getting overcrowded and a new queen is born, a group divides from the hive and flies away from. This process, called swarming, can be dangerous for the bees, but beneficial to a beekeeper if they can catch the swarm. Of course, beekeepers can order bees online! And depending upon one’s location, there might be a local company that rents and maintains hives for homeowners.
You don’t have to be a mega farm to have bees. Small, single-owner farms often have a hive of their own or allow a beekeeper to set one up on their property. The beekeeper (apiarist) collects honey and beeswax and sometimes pollen and royal jelly. Where the bee hive is set up is called the apiary or "bee yard." Hobbyists or small farm beekeepers might have one or a couple of hives, enough to have their crops pollinated. Even the former First Lady Michelle Obama had one at the White House.
The honeybees' hive is where they live, store food, and start a new generation of bees. In nature, bees nest in hollows of trees or rocky alcoves, in the ground, in small tubes and other locations. Constructed hives made with frames provide ample space for honeybees, even though they are fairly packed together, and allows for the beekeeper to harvest the honey without destroying the hive.
Keeping bees is like any other animal husbandry endeavor. It requires some knowledge and care, equipment, and a location free of pesticides. For new beekeepers, there are usually local groups or extension offices willing to provide information about raising and caring for bees. Of course, you can also find information on providing habitat and resources for native bees. These bees don’t succumb to colony collapse disorder like honeybees do, and are important pollinators as well. Plus, providing for native bees in an urban setting might be a little easier on your neighbors.