Backyard Bees and Beekeeping - August 29, 2012
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of 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 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 the book: Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop.
In 2010, Arizona had about 24,000 bee colonies that produced 1.84 million pounds of honey. Compare this to 2009 when Arizona’s 20,000 bee colonies produced 1.04 million pounds of honey. This demonstrates that Arizona’s honey production is variable and highly dependent on precipitation. Many readers have likely heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a malady which causes some honeybees to leave their hive never to return. Several studies have implicated neonicotinoid pesticides, but the evidence is inconclusive. Parasites, pathogens, commercial honeybee management practices, and other factors are also being investigated.
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. The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) created an excellent manual called Beekeeping Basics which is available on-line at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/agrs93.pdf. This reference contains information regarding types and castes of honeybees, beekeeping equipment, how to get started, colony management, honey production and processing, pollination, and much more.
Before getting a backyard bee colony, you should check your local zoning ordinances to ensure it is legal in your community. There are also many practices that minimize the potential for bee colony/neighbor conflicts. Selecting hybrid strains that have been bred for gentleness and requeening your colony on a regular schedule will certainly minimize the potential for aggressive bee behavior. The publication linked above has several other responsible urban beekeeping practices.
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Last Updated: August 20, 2012
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