Ever since it was discovered that honey bees could make more than enough honey for themselves, people have attempted to culture these insects for economic gain. Even in today’s modern biotechnology climate, however, human ingenuity continues to be challenged to effectively manage the complex behavior of a honey bee colony. This makes the craft of beekeeping alluring to many who are asking why not me?
Because of its universal appeal, the honey bee is the world’s most written about insect. Worldwide, over 140 journals are published on the biology and management of Apis mellifera. The origin of the genus “Apis” appears to have been written in the stars, associated with the “sacred bull” of Egypt. The lioness has also been shown to be related to the honey bee in Etruscan art. Almost every library has several volumes, some very old, on the science and craft (some call it “art”) of apiculture . We now know a good deal about the honey bee than our predecessors, but much more needs to be learned. And brand new challenges continue to appear.
In the recent past, beekeeping was a relatively less stressful form of agriculture, and did not require much attention to detail. This is no longer the case. The activity is now fraught with a host of issues from introduced pests, to pesticide use, infection from viruses, and deterioration of the environment, resulting in among other things diminishing nutritional resources for honey bees. The movement of honey bees for commercial pollination on a scale not experienced before is also something that beekeepers and their bees now have to contend with. It is becoming clearer that the total honey bee population is in fact one community, being infected by a panopoly of issues that taken together are currently referred to as “colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Most of these arise from humanity’s effect on the planet in numerous ways, an epoch known as the anthropocene. Modern beekeepers should keep this in mind and realize that it’s often best to look at managing from the honey bee’s point of view, now referred to as “apicentric” beekeeping.
The modern era has been called the “managerial age.” We can no longer look at the earth’s resources as infinite, and instead, must learn to conserve them now and in the future. The honey bee is an excellent ecological model, because the colony’s division of labor is a classic example of how effectively nature can use its resources. Thus, while managing honey bee colonies, the beekeeper can learn a great deal about the relationships among living organisms on planet earth, including how the human and natural worlds relate to each other.
Beekeepers have little influence over many issues in contemporary beekeeping. They are powerless to change world honey prices, influence weather conditions, or lower prevailing interest rates. However, they can actively manage their own and the bees’ environment in many ways to increase productivity. Measuring this continues to shift with time, but it is often based on the time frame chosen, which might be in the future. This treatise is based on conditions found at the end of the 20th to first part of the 21st century. It consists of over 100 pages of densely-linked information. The best way to see the totality of the information is to consult the table of contents.
One goal of this treatise is to help the beekeeper determine areas over which most control is possible. Another is to stimulate thinking about contemporary issues as they relate to apiculture. Relations with neighbors, financial management and ethics are all discussed in this context. This is not so much a comprehensive guide to beekeeping, but designed to increase awareness of the complexities inherent in the activity.
Many of the sections included here were written for beekeepers with some experience and can stand by themselves, but are often linked internally with other resources that add more detail. Thus, this treatise is organized to provide appropriate background discussion catering to readers of all experience levels. The final decision as to whether this effort fulfills its purpose, like management of the bees themselves, is left to the beekeeper.
First on the list for anyone interested in culturing honey bees is to look at the biology of this insect. That this truly the basis for honey bee management. With that understanding, the beekeeper can begin to manage the keys to success via regulating population, providing nutrition, controlling diseases and pests, managing pesticide exposure, promoting genetic diversity, processing and marketing honey bee products and managing finances. This is all accomplished through a number of traditional tools that beekeepers have learned to employ over the years.
The next chapter in understanding the honey bee will probably come from recent advances in genetic research. The honey bee genome has been sequenced and this will inevitably lead to a much richer knowledge base via genomic study than has already been developed for this most-studied of social insects. Recent genomic study has revealed that honey bees may have originated in Asia, not Africa has originally thought.
“The evolutionary tree we constructed from genome sequences does not support an origin in Africa,” said Matthew Webster, one of the authors of a recent paper. “This gives us new insight into how honey bees spread and became adapted to habitats across the world.”
“Another unexpected result was that honey bees seem to be derived from an ancient lineage of cavity-nesting bees that arrived from Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. Extensive losses of honey bee colonies in recent years are a major cause for concern. Honey bees face threats from disease, climate change, and management practices. To combat these threats, it is important to understand the evolutionary history of honey bees and how they have adapted to different environments across the world.
“We have used state-of-the-art, high-throughput genomics to address these questions, and have identified high levels of genetic diversity in honey bees,” Webster said. “In contrast to other domestic species, management of honey bees seems to have increased levels of genetic variation by mixing bees from different parts of the world. The findings may also indicate that high levels of inbreeding are not a major cause of global colony losses.” Editors note: This may not be true in managed honey bee populations afflicted with the Varroa mite.
“Also hidden in the patterns of genome variation are signals that indicate that climate change has strongly impacted honey bee populations historically. Populations in Europe appear to have contracted during ice ages, whereas African populations have expanded at those times, suggesting that environmental conditions there were more favorable,” said Webster.
In the modern world, inescapable change is the watchword around the globe, as currently being experienced by beekeepers across the globe. As an example, Australia and Florida are examined here. The inevitable conclusion is that operators must employ the strategy of “working smarter not harder” to increase Apicultural Productivity in the 21st Century. Contributor Randy Oliver provides an excellent update on the changes affecting current beekeeping at this NY Bee Wellness event, published February 2017, 1 hour 36 minutes:
Another area that seems ripe for exploitation by beekeepers is the cooperative. This construct has been around for a long time, but it is seldom used even though is the prime way that honey bees themselves have improved productivity over the centuries. A new model has been developed by entrepreneurs who install and manage colonies in urban areas for customers. A unique way to promote beekeeping is through the tax code. The American Bee Project seeks to connect owners of vacant land with commercial beekeepers in creative ways. “By leasing their vacant land to a commercial beekeeper for legitimate commercial agricultural use, property owners may be able to save on their property taxes, insurance and other costs while helping to save the bees. Commercial beekeepers use the land to make honey and rebuild the health of their hives.”
Perhaps the biggest shift in beekeeping in the U.S. over the last two decades is that many operators have moved into commercial pollination. This demands changes in honey bee management that are often not compatible with those traditionally used in honey production. In addition, the large-scale modern agricultural model for many crops and animals does not always fit as well for honey bees used as commercial pollinators.
Finally, research is an important issue that is becoming more important in the contemporary beekeeping environment. Although many beekeepers routinely take advantage of information created by researchers, there is often a tension that exists between these two groups. A recent article provides a wide angle lens view of the effort to revitalize the ailing honey bee via a number of research and other organizations: