A Practial Manual of Beekeeping
Honey-bees and human beings
UNDERSTANDING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BEES AND POLLINATION
You have just started to read a book about how to enter an exciting, multi-billion pound/ dollar, global industry that is not only of vital and strategic interest to governments but is also one that can offer you a fascinating hobby or career that could make you money and take you all over the world.
The honey-bee is one of our best known insects, whose relationship with humans can be traced back to the dawn of humankind when early people ‘stole’ honey from wild bee nests. Cave paintings in Spain from as long ago as 6000 bc show our ancestors taking honey from bees, which surely indicates that beekeeping is at least as old as the other two oldest professions!
By the time humans did come on the scene, the honey-bee had already been around for about 40–50 million years or more – it had evolved from its hunting-wasp ancestors and had become a strict vegetarian. Bees and flowering plants then evolved with each other in a truly remarkable relationship that changed and coloured the world we live in.
This evolutionary symbiotic relationship is probably the most important reason why our world looks like it does today, and still the vital work of bees goes on. It is a sobering thought that, if all humans were to be wiped out, the world would probably revert to the rich, ecologically balanced state that existed some 10,000 years ago. On the other hand, if bees and other pollinating insects were to be wiped out, humans and other animals would not last for long.
Bees pollinate plants so that plants can reproduce, and that really is the bottom line.
That is what bees are all about. That is why we need bees and that is why hundreds of millions of dollars, pounds and euros are spent annually by governments around the globe in protecting bees, in bee research and in beekeeping subsidies of one type or another.
Because of their pollinating activities, honey-bees are the most economically important insects on earth, and certainly the most studied. Honey production is essentially a side issue. The honey-bee’s role – and thus the beekeeper’s role – in this becomes more important and valuable by the day as our farming and other practices dramatically eradicate the habitats of other types of bees and pollinating insects. Some insects can exist only by eating the pollen of certain plants. If those plants were removed so that more crops could be planted, bees and other pollinating insects would die out.
What, then, would pollinate our huge areas of mono-crops? The answer would be to truck in honey-bees by the million.
Pollination can be achieved only by using large numbers of honey-bees. In this way, our crops and wildflowers are pollinated, and the beekeeper can obtain a pollination fee and honey for sale. As a reward for pollination, and as an enticement to the bee, most plants offer food – nectar – in return. The bees take this, alter it through the addition of enzymes, reduce its moisture content and store it as honey so that they and their colony may survive winter periods or other periods of dearth. In this way they differ from wasps, bumble-bees and other types of bee, whose colonies die out on the approach of winter, with only the newly mated queens hibernating until the spring when they will start new colonies.
PROFITING FROM A GOLD MINE
Food for free?
If you look at fields full of flowering crops or wild flowers in the countryside, or at garden and park flowers in the cities, you are not only looking at beauty but also at gold – thousands of tons of valuable honey. Liquid gold sitting there, all for you! If you don’t go and get it, the flowers will die at the end of the season and all those tons of honey will go to waste. All that money will simply have dried up in front of your eyes.
If, on the other hand, you have bees, they will go and get it for you for free, and you can then either eat it or sell it or both.
Bees are probably the only livestock that use other people’s land without permission – and those landowners welcome them. It is a win-win situation for the bee and for everyone else. Your bees are happy carrying out their work; you can enjoy your hobby or business, and if you want to you can make a profit; the farmers get their crops pollinated and so they make a profit; the shops obtain food to sell and they make a profit; the general public have food to eat; and the government is happy that its agricultural and environmental sectors are running smoothly and that somewhere along the line they will be able to raise some tax.
Bees and the economy
Don’t forget that governments regard the whole set-up as so important that they are willing to spend millions on ensuring that the status quo does not change and that nothing happens to harm it. Recent research in the USA has valued crops that require pollination by honey-bees at an estimated $24 billion annually, and the value of commercial bee pollination on contracts at around $10 billion annually. These are huge figures by any standard and they show that bees are big business.
Using honey in medicine
Honey sale value, on the other hand, is much less, at $285 million annually in the USA.
However, now that hard clinical trials are showing that certain types of honey can provide antibiotic wound treatments more effectively and with fewer side-effects than conventional treatments, this non-pollination side of beekeeping has become a rapidly growing industry. Active manuka honey has been shown to beat the MRSA super-bug with no side-effects to the patient and is used in burn dressings. Buckwheat honey has been found in clinical trials to be more effective as a cough treatment than many over-the-counter cough medicines. Honey is no longer old Gran’s remedy for colds or an ‘alternative’ therapy. It is now a mainstream medicine available on national health systems and used in hospitals in the UK, the USA and other countries.
COPING WITH BEE STINGS
But bees sting, don’t they? And that hurts, doesn’t it? Other than producing honey, bees are best known for their tendency to sting on sight. In fact, it is not in a bee’s interest to sting for the sake of it because they die in the process and they will avoid doing so unless in defence of their nest, which of course is why beekeepers are stung. All beekeepers will be stung during their beekeeping careers. This is a fact and it is also a fact that it is painful. But it is not very painful and the pain doesn’t last for long. Bee sting ‘cures’ rely on this fact. By the time you apply the patented bee-sting cure bought from the snake oil stall at the market (which, technically, can’t cure anything unless it’s an anaesthetic), the pain would be just about to disappear anyway.
Most beekeepers will tell you that bee stings are more or less of no concern to them and that, if you are well clothed and use calm bees, stings will be few and far between. For a very few, however, there is a danger. Allergy to insect venom does exist and can be fatal if the person stung goes into anaphylactic shock. This is extremely rare, however, and one statistic indicates that you are more likely to die from a horse falling on you than from a bee sting. Because there is a very remote possibility of suffering a fatal allergic reaction, many beekeepers carry with them an epi-pen injector for emergency use. This requires a prescription in most countries.
MAKING A HOBBY OF BEEKEEPING
Beekeeping, though, is more than just a profit-making activity: it can also be a fascinating, environmentally sound hobby that can totally absorb you. Beekeeping in many countries is predominantly a hobby activity. The numbers of commercial beekeepers who ‘farm’ bees are comparatively few and, in some countries such as the UK and many other European countries, they are a tiny proportion of the whole, and the ‘whole’ is but a tiny proportion of the population. Why, then, are governments interested in this small group of people and their hobby?
The answer is that, whether beekeepers are hobbyists or commercial operators, they have bees, and the national agricultural sector and the countryside commissions rely totally on these bees. The fewer the commercial beekeepers there are, the more hobbyists are needed to keep these vital sectors going.
BEES AND LEARNING
Honey-bees are not domestic animals. They are wild and, unlike horses and cows and other livestock, they don’t recognize beekeepers as their ‘owners’. Having said that, recent research has shown that, despite the small size of its brain, a bee can recognize human faces if trained to do so and can remember them for two days. Scientists hope that, by studying this amazing ability further, they will be able to develop better facerecognition computer software. It is unlikely, however, that the average beekeeper will find their bees flocking to them on sight.
Bees (like other insects) are assumed to act on instinct alone. However, they can also ‘learn’ – and not only learn a primary task but they can also learn and remember a secondary task resulting from the first. Like most other life forms, their daily life involves family (colony) survival and the propagation of their species.
To accomplish this, bees manufacture wax as a building material and honey as an energy food. They also collect pollen as a protein food. They produce propolis to use as a glue, a gap filler and an antibiotic and anti-viral varnish for the nest. They manufacture a highly complex venom to deter predators, including beekeepers, and complex arrays of pheromones that regulate life in the hive. Finally, they produce royal jelly – a highly nutritious substance with which to feed their brood, and they even produce silk to cocoon themselves in during their larval/pupal development. In short, they are master chemists, able to manufacture or collect and alter everything needed for their survival.
Honey-bees can navigate using the position of the sun, polarized light and landmarks. They can ‘tell’ other bees about the distance and bearing to sources of food using a well developed symbolic language based on movement and sound. They can also regulate the temperature of the nest to an exact degree using heating and cooling systems of immense complexity. As long as it has water and food, a colony placed on the sides of a volcano or iceberg will maintain its brood nest at 34º C (93º F). It is these facets of the honey-bee’s ability that have caused it to be one of the most researched insects on earth, and all countries maintain at least one institute devoted to bee research, and many universities have bee research departments.
So, could you manage to keep these highly complex creatures? The answer is yes, you could – if you knew how to, and that can be learnt from this book. It is not difficult at all, as long as you know what you are doing.
BECOMING A BEEKEEPER
A beekeeper, then, is someone who is not only engaged in a hobby or business but also someone who (by design or not) is taking an active part in protecting the future of the planet. This sounds dramatic but in fact is true, as you will find out if you continue.
Spending your time beekeeping
Unlike other livestock, bees do not need constant attention. They will go out each day and get on with it whether you are there or not. If you devote one day in ten to them with occasional bursts of more attention when required and during the harvest, you would be able to keep bees satisfactorily, and this is, in the main, for only part of the year. During the winter months you can leave them alone completely unless something dramatic happens, such as flooding or lightning strikes.
HONEY-BEES AND HUMAN BEINGS
Hobby beekeepers usually increase the number of beehives they keep, and some may expand their activity into selling part of their honey crop at local markets and in shops.
Most will join their local beekeeping associations that, in some countries such as the UK, are very social institutions holding shows, dinners and drinks parties, lectures and advice sessions, and some of the most cut-throat competitions where skulduggery reigns supreme (they would never admit to this, though).
Most commercial beekeepers who make their living from bees started out as hobbyists. Some specialize in honey production, others in pollination services to farmers; others specialize in rearing queen bees for sale; and yet others specialize in other hive products, such as beeswax, pollen, propolis or royal jelly. There is even a large and profitable market in bee venom. Some graduate into apitherapy – a very effective alternative type of healing that is fast becoming mainstream medicine. Mead, honey or propolis soap, face creams and so on are all side-lines for the imaginative beekeeper.
Other beekeepers devote their efforts to breeding the ‘perfect’ bee: a calm, gentle, disease-resistant, productive creature. Despite the fact that a male bee or drone has no father (which complicates the issue), breeding success is often claimed to be at hand.
And then there are the professional itinerant beekeepers who make a living by hiring themselves out to large commercial outfits all over the world. These young men and women travel the world moving from one hemisphere to the other according to the seasons, using their beekeeping skills to pick up the many jobs available in commercial beekeeping.
These people start as basic beekeepers and move on to become team leaders, head beekeepers and managers. They lead a physically hard life of travel and excitement. They pick up a huge range of skills, from heavy-truck driving, to landowner dispute mediation, plant biology and chemistry, to disease problem-solving and everything in between, and they come from all over the world. They need a huge amount of practical ability so that they can exist for weeks on end in often very remote areas, and they are known as the world’s last cowboys. In one beekeeping firm in New Zealand I worked with Peruvians, Canadians, Australians, Philippinos and Brits. Just down the road another similar firm employed Bulgarians and Peruvians. At the end of the season, most of them moved on to the Northern Hemisphere. But they would be back. And when on a night out, these young men tell the pretty young woman in the local pub that they are beekeepers, that young lady always wants to find out more (or the other way round, of course)!
You can even adopt a Zen approach to beekeeping – go with the seasons and be part of nature. Remember that bees are probably the most ‘natural’ of all humanity’s livestock. They are totally wild creatures. There is nothing domesticated about them at all, and so nature and the seasons mean everything to them – and to you, if you follow them. All the clues to success with this approach are in front of you.
Finally, while still on the subject of beekeepers, I know of two very highly placed executives who each have two hives and who just like to destress themselves after a busy week in the office by sitting in the sun with a glass of wine and watching the bees coming and going from the hives. They leave all the honey to the bees and carry out only minimal essential tasks to ensure their bees’ survival. What more could you ask for?
THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER
So what type of beekeeper will you be? There is a huge choice but, whatever you choose to do, you will need some essential instruction and guidance, and it is the aim of this book to start you off and to provide essential information clearly and accurately. By following the information in this book you will soon be enjoying yourself as a beekeeper, with a whole new world of possibilities opening up in front of you. If you are a beekeeper, the world is your oyster.