Bees and Beekeeping - February 15, 2006
Jeff Schalau, County Director, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
Most people enjoy honey. It is naturally sweet and contains vitamins, minerals, and other healthy compounds. It also takes on the character of the flowers that are visited by the bees creating delicate flavor nuances. Honey and beekeeping have also sustained and shaped several human cultures throughout history. Today, bees are responsible for pollination and increased production of agricultural and horticultural crops around the world.
Cave drawings from 6,000 B.C. depict honey gathering from wild bee colonies (hives) using ropes to climb and gourds to collect the honey comb. Colonies were located and revisited to rob them of honey. Wild bees were domesticated over time and smoke was (and still is) used to calm the bees while the honeycomb was collected. Note that the word “domesticated” is a relative term. Bees are, and will continue to be, wild in their instincts and actions.
The Egyptians are thought to be one of the first societies to manage bees for honey production. The Greeks and Romans followed. Over time, beekeepers started using hollow logs and baskets to house the bee colonies and families kept bees for their honey. Europeans developed techniques to house, manage, and sustain bees. European bees were introduced to North America by early settlers and became naturalized citizens along with their keepers. Still, the workings of the hive were poorly understood and the colonies were generally handled crudely often killing some of the bees.
Major breakthroughs in beekeeping occurred in the 1850’s to 1870’s. The invention of the modern wooden hive by Lorenzo Langstroth was first. He had observed that bees seal up large openings in their hives, but when the proper spacing is maintained (about 3/8 inch), wooden frames designed to hold honeycomb could be removed from the hive with minimal damage and disruption of the bees. Langstroth’s basic hive design is still used today by beekeepers around the world. Bee smokers with attached bellows and centrifugal honey extractors were also invented during this time. These advances made commercial beekeeping a more viable and profitable industry.
Flowering plants began appearing 150 million years ago and honeybees had evolved to collect nectar and pollen 100 million years later. Bees go from flower to flower collecting pollen to feed the larvae within the hive. They visit several individuals of a single flower species during each foraging mission. The pollen is held on hairs that protrude from their back legs. In doing so, they cross pollinate each successive flower that is visited. A single female worker may make up to 50 foraging trips per day. It took humans a long time to figure out that bees were increasing crop production, but once they did, bees became a major player. It is estimated that bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of the major food crops we consume.
The historical information above was summarized from a book I recently read: Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop. I enjoyed the book and recommend it to readers that like natural history.
In 2004, Arizona had about 32,000 bee colonies that produced 1.76 million pounds of honey. This was about 1% of U.S. honey production for that year. Arizona honey production is highly dependent on precipitation and therefore highly variable. Because of the current drought, most Arizona bees are currently being fed sugar and many will soon be moved to pollinate fruit and nut crops.
Backyard beekeeping was once popular due to necessity. Today, it is again increasing in popularity. There are books, web sites, and associations dedicated to this hobby. Alabama Cooperative Extension has a book: Backyard Beekeeping available for $10 (on-line order form available at www.aces.edu/pubs/ or call 334-844-1592). An excellent six page Missouri Cooperative Extension Publication called Beekeeping Tips for Beginners is available on-line at: extension.missouri.edu/explorepdf/agguides/pests/G07600.pdf. After reading Holley Bishop’s book and researching this column, I am considering beekeeping myself.
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest control. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.
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