Bees and Beekeeping - July 18, 2018
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.

In 2016, Arizona had about 27,000 bee colonies that produced 1.24 million pounds of honey. Compare this to 2009 when Arizona’s 20,000 bee colonies produced 1.04 million pounds of honey. 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, and, while inconclusive, evidence continues to support this theory. 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 (resources are linked to the online edition – see URL below). Keep in mind that Arizona has populations of feral or Africanized honeybees. These feral bees are more aggressive than European honeybees (see the May 23, 2018 Backyard Gardener for more information).

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 re-queening your colony on a regular schedule will certainly ensure greater production and minimize the potential for aggressive bee behavior.

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Additional Resources

Penn State Extension

Honey Bees and Beekeeping: A Year in the Life of an Apiary
eXtension: a series of short videos on getting started in beekeeping

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: July 12, 2018
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