Beekeeping is taking flight. Honeybees are estimated to pollinate 30 percent of the food we eat, making bees a vital part of the food chain. According to the U.S. Department of agriculture (USDA), the S.S. Boasted 2.62 million colonies producing honey in 2012, up five percent from 2011. Beekeeping—or apiculture—may seem intimidating due to the fear of being stung. But the odds of dying from a lightning strike are greater than those of dying from a bee sting. The benefits of apiculture, which include improving pollination for local agriculture and a number of products from the hive, far outweigh the potential of a bee sting.
To bee or not to be
Getting started in apiculture requires extensive research and exploring resources, which can range from books to local classes. Many states have a beekeeping association with county chapters that offer bee schools. While books offer a great deal of insight into bees and apiculture, hands-on experience provides a confidence boost for first-time beekeepers. “These classes are a great way to get started, as they cover everything from basic honeybee biology to the diseases and pests that plague them,” says Inge Kautzmann, vice president of the Person County Beekeeping Association in North Carolina. Many bee suppliers offer starter kits that include a single hive body, protective gear and tools.
The bees and “supers,” or the hive box that holds honeycomb frames, help complete the setup at an average cost of $300. For new beekeepers, Kautzmann recommends maintaining two hives, which will enable keepers to pull resources such as brood, pollen and honey from one hive to help boost the other should something happen to it.
Anatomy of a hive
Beekeepers have a number of hive architectures to consider. One of the most common designs is the Langstroth hive, which encourages the bees to build honeycombs on removable frames. The frames are designed to prevent bees from attaching honeycombs in between frames or to the walls of the hive. The Langstroth hive contains a bottom board on which the hive rests. This is most commonly made of wood and can either be solid or have a screen that would allow debris to fall through.
The outer cover helps protect the hive from the elements, and with an entrance reducer, beekeepers can partially close the hive entrances to prevent intruders such as mice and other insects from entering the hive. The hive body—or “brood chamber”—is a box that holds the comb frames, normally either eight or 10 frames. This can also be called a “super” or “deep super.” The wooden frames contain a beeswax foundation imprinted with hexagonal shapes that are commonly known as the honeycomb shape. Says Kautzmann, “The foundation provides a starting point for the bees when they build their wax combs.” Some of the frames in the hive are kept exclusively for storing honey, a function that’s enabled by beeswax’s ability to support 20 times its own weight.
Honeybee colonies are complex social environments. Bees live in large, well-organized social groups designed to keep the hive buzzing along. Each bee has a defined role that is dictated as soon as it completes metamorphosis into an adult. The honeybee colony consists of a single queen bee, several hundred drones, and thousands of worker bees that must work together and contribute to the success of the hive. The queen bee is the only sexually mature female bee in the hive. As such, she lays nearly 1,500 eggs a day during peak production, which runs from spring to early summer. Over her two- to three-year life-time, she can lay as many as a million eggs.
Queens lay both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The unfertilized eggs become male drones, and the fertilized eggs become female worker bees. “Queen bees and worker bees are genetically identical,” says Kautzmann. “What makes a bee become the queen is the diet of royal jelly she’s fed as a larva.” Worker bees are the most abundant in the hive, and as the name implies, they perform a number of tasks within the colony, including cleaning the hive, feeding the brood, building beeswax combs and handling incoming nectar. They also forage for nectar, pollen, water and plant sap (propolis) as they mature. A worker bee’s lifespan is only about six weeks during the peak season and about six months in the late fall and winter.
Drones are normally only present in a hive during the late spring and summer. Their main function is to fertilize the queen bee during her mating flight, enabling her to lay eggs that will eventually become worker bees.
Beehives produce a number of products that are beneficial to humans. The most common and well-known output is honey. Honey’s color and flavor vary depending on the vegetation from which the pollen and nectar is collected. Heat and moisture also affect a honey’s quality, as both can lower the grade and shelf life of the end product. “Honey for consumption is available in four basic types: extracted or liquid honey, cut-comb honey, chunk honey and creamed honey,” explains Kaufman. Most beekeepers produce extracted honey, which is the honey commonly found in grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
Bees tend to produce more extracted honey than honey in the comb, and by extracting the honey, beekeepers can reuse the combs multiple times. Extracted honey can be gathered by cutting the combs from the hive and either using gravity or specialized centrifugal equipment to spin the honey from the cells. Cutcomb honey involves cutting the combs out of the frames and letting those sections drain overnight. Producing chunk honey requires cutting the comb to fit a jar or other storage container and letting it drain.
The beekeeper then fills the open spaces in the container with liquid honey. Creamed honey is honey that is finely crystalized until it reaches a consistency similar to that of butter. In addition to sweetening food and drinks, honey has a number of medicinal benefits. “Honey has been used for thousands of years to treat conditions such as insomnia, ulcers and constipation,” explains Kautzmann. “Used externally, it had antiseptic qualities that make it ideal for healing simple cuts, scrapes and burns, as well as diabetic ulcers.”
Products from the hive
But honey isn’t the only beneficial byproduct of apiculture. Honeybees also produce beeswax, which is used in a number of products including soap, lotions and candles. The cosmetic industry is the number one consumer of beeswax, followed by candle-making. Bees must consume 18.5 pounds of honey to create 2.2 pounds of beeswax. is also a vital ingredient for beekeepers to create the wax foundations for their beehives. Lesser-known products from beehives include the “brood.” Brood is the collective term for all stages of honeybee development from egg to pupae. “While not popular in the U.S., brood is a high-protein food source in other countries, particularly Asia and Africa,” says Kautzmann. “In fact, honeybee pupae are 18.2 percent protein, compare to beef at 17.9 per-cent.” Royal jelly, the primary food source for queen bees, is well-known throughout the world to treat skin conditions. The substance helps decrease free radicals, making it an ideal anti-aging product according to some experts. For the queen bee, royal jelly helps accelerate maturation and ensure a longer lifecycle. Propolis, a resinous mixture collected from tree buds, sap flows and other botanical sources, is among the byproducts of beekeeping. Honey-bees use propolis to seal and protect the hive, as well as prevent the spread of bacteria and fungi in the hive.
The antibacterial and antifungal properties are also good for humans, and the substance has been proven to effectively treat wounds, gingivitis, sore throats and acne among other ailments. Propolis is also used in wood varnish. Surprisingly, bee venom is a beneficial byproduct of beekeeping. Bees use venom as a means of defense and a way to communicate, particularly when the hive is threatened. Medically, bee venom therapy has been used to treat joint pain associated with arthritis, as well as Multiple Sclerosis, Lyme disease and chronic fatigue syndrome.
With a number of pesticides targeting other insects endangering honeybee populations, engaging in apiculture can help ensure that bees and their beneficial byproducts continue to sweeten our lives.