The Ancient Tradition of Beekeeping Bees in Your Backyard
When I tell you offhand to give me your immediate response the moment you hear the word Honeybee, your response is going to be “honey," about 99.9% of the time. And then after that, you are going to say “beeswax.” But the product of a beehive is not restricted to just these two items. It also has royal jelly, pollen, and propolis.
All of these products have traditionally been in use by mankind for the propagation of good health, beauty, and products in use around the house and as a health food for millenniums, going back to prehistoric times.
So this book is going to tell you all about how you are going to be introduced to bees, and if you are enterprising enough to keep them in your backyard, you are soon going to be called an apiarist, keeping a number of your hives in your apiary.
I was visiting a prosperous family farm passed on through generations, belonging to some Greek friends and was admiring their poultry, their ducks, their livestock, and their horses, when I just happened to say, “Where are your bees?” And I got a look of surprise.
Naturally I returned it back because I was under the impression that beekeeping methods have come down the ages in older civilizations in Europe, especially when everybody knows that in ancient Greece agriculture it was a very highly respected farming tradition.
In fact, even today archaeologists have found bee extractors, bee smokers, and other beekeeping paraphernalia going back to prehistoric times.
History of Beekeeping
Once upon a time, mankind collected honey from honeycombs, in the woods, rock croppings, and other places where he could get honey easily, with the help of just hitting the honeycombs with some missiles, standing on the ground and with some protective covering, covering him from the attack of the bees.
More than 10,000 years ago, he decided that it was easier for him to keep the bees at home, in clay jars and vessels. Archaeologists have found the vestiges of honey in the tombs of the pharaohs, – especially that of the most famous archaeological discovery of them all, Tutenkhamun. The ancient beekeepers knew how to smoke out the hives when the harvesting needed to be done and this was done with smoke in order to stun the bees and make them so dizzy and drowsy that they did not bother to sting the collector of the honey because they were so busy getting their senses back to normal.
At that time, alas, the whole honeycomb had to be destroyed in order to get access to the beeswax and to the honey. However, as time went by, people began to know more about beekeeping ways and methods where these honeycombs could be raised in wooden boxes, natural hollow logs, and also in straw baskets, as is the practice even today in the Middle East.
Traditionally, people made do with whatever was available to them, or use their own creativity and ingenuity in order to keep bees in a trouble-free manner. However, there is some basic equipment, of which you need the knowledge, to become a successful beekeeper.
One of the traditional pieces of equipment which comes in very handy to an experienced beekeeper is the smoker. This is used to tranquilize the bees when the harvesting is done. Traditionally, the material used as natural fuel for smoking in the bees was dried cow dung which has been put in of your box, and to which the village blacksmith’s bellows have been attached. Even today, I have seen this being used in villages to puff smoke gently into the hive. Apart from dried cow dung, other natural materials which can be used for smoking bees are cobs of corn, jute, and hessian, but never ever use tobacco smoke because it is very poisonous. The beekeeper is going to puff that smoke at the beehive’s entrance. After that, the entrance is opened and bees are going to move from one section of the hive to another.
I have seen coconut fiber being used in many parts of Asia, especially in tropical regions where coconuts flourish and abound. Even today, traditional methods are to use any available non-odorous material which produces plenty of smoke and does not harm the bee.
Incidentally, the moment you use a smoker, you are going to tranquilize and calm the bee. For him it is going to be a natural state when the hive is on fire and that is why he is going to begin feeding on the honey. This is going to distend the stomach. These bees supposedly cannot bite under such circumstances – this is hearsay and has not been proven, – but it has been well known that the smoke is capable of masking the danger to the hive pheromones which are emitted by the guard bees, especially when some of the bees are accidentally squashed during the inspection or the honey removal process.
Naturally, you are going to need some protective clothing in order to protect yourself from possible bee stings, when the harvesting process is being done. My uncle used a traditional poncho design – once I asked him half seriously, why he did not use canvas or tarpaulin as a clothing protective material, and he said too heavy and bulky! – to protect his body, as well as a veil and a hat in the initial stages, but later on when he began to gain experience, he discarded this unwieldy protective clothing. He just began to use typical factory overalls because not only were they protective, but they were not bulky.
Also, he remembered to tie up the mouth of his sleeves and the legs of his trousers with elastic so that the bees could not crawl up his legs or his arms. The covering clothing is light in color. It is going to be smooth so that the bees do not confuse it with the naturally protective fur of their natural opponents like bears and other animals. That fur is dark, and the bees are naturally programmed to attack anything near their honey comb which has a dark rough fur and goes sniffing around the best way to gain access to that feast inside.
The Life of a Honeybee
Nectar being converted into honey
For thousands of years, mankind has acquainted himself with about 19,000 different species of honeybees, all over the world, down the ages. Most of them are wild and like a solitary existence. Some of them are giants and some of them are very small. Some of them are bumblebees and some of them do not sting. Some of them nest in the ground. A typical bee colony is going to have anywhere between 80,000 - 200,000 bees in it, depending on how strong the hive is and how old it is. In America and Europe, the species which is normally cultivated is Apis mellifera. In Asia Apis Cerana is more prevalent.
Beekeeping in Your Backyard
In ancient times it was always believed that the beehive should not be interfered with, until it is time for you to harvest the honey. However as we are working in modern times, and we think that our knowledge is always so superior, we cannot resist inspecting the hives frequently and often, giving the bees some routine medication, feeding them with sugar water spraying them with water, especially in the summer, and any other stunts which somebody has advised to us, and we think is beneficial for the good health and cheer of the bees. I have seen all this being done, especially from first time beekeepers were so excited with their new hive that they have to go and see what the bees are doing opening the hive, inspecting the honeycomb, watching the cells being made and interfering with any normal bee activity throughout the day. Poor little things. Leave them alone!
Just tell me how would you like it if some large hulking creature keeps hovering over your shoulder when you are cooking the dinner saying things like my my, this is so interesting, how do you know about the amount of spice to be put in the food and is this the proper way to chop up the vegetables, and this is a thing I did not know, how to stir the soup.
After 15 minutes he goes away and then comes back again about half an hour later with a new set of fool questions, getting in your way and apologizing when you want to do your work. The bees are really patient. They suffer fools gladly. Human beings would have lost their tempers and patience within half an hour and conked such a mutt upon his head with a cooking ladle and throw him out of the kitchen.
Artificial Raising of Queens
A colony cannot do without a queen bee
This is normally done when there is no queen in the colony. As the survival of the colony depends upon the Queen, because she is the only bee capable of laying eggs, the worker bees immediately begin making queen cells of some cells where eggs less than three days old have been laid. You can call these Emergency Cells, because these bees are going to be fed royal jelly, pollen, and honey.
The ovaries of these queen bees are developed fully and they are the only ones capable of laying eggs.
This capacity of raising a new Queen by the worker bees is taken full advantage of by the beekeepers who go through a procedure called splitting up the colony.
They are going to take a number of brood combs. The old queen has left behind. Those combs are going to have larvae and eggs which are less than three days old. They should also have a number of nursing bees. These bees are going to take care of the brood and keep the hive warm.
These new combs are now going to be placed in a place where there are other pollen and honey containing “nucleus hives.”
The moment the nursing bees notice that they do not have a queen, they are going to make emergency cells to raise a new Queen.
Now that you know a little bit of honeybees and how you can set up your own beekeeping yard in your own backyard, here are some very important tips which you cannot lose sight of.
Bees need plenty of shade. They also need plenty of water and lots and lots of pollen and nectar sources. That means there should be plenty of garden area in abundance so that the bees do not have to fly more than 5 miles away in order to feed themselves copiously.
That is why if you have a really nice colorful flowering garden, lots of trees full of fruit, – let us say an orchard, – a water source with plenty of water, you are already to set up beekeeping. There are a number of popular bee plants which are going to encourage the presence of the bees in your hives.
Beekeeping is best done by the side of a river, as they love that abundant water source. Or second best, next to streams with plenty of flowing water, especially in trees with lots of shade.
Vegetation normally blooms in September and October in lower altitudes. This blooming takes place between February and April in higher altitudes. You as beekeepers should know the bloom time periods of your location so that you can situate your hives in both areas for a higher yield of honey.
Honeybees, as I told you need lots of water, and that is why in the dry season, my uncle did not want his bees to go flying to the little rivulet about 100 yards from his garden because he did not consider the water to be really clean. He just put out lots of water containers and also made sure that his fountain never ran dry.
And to prevent the bees from drowning themselves, the ledges of the fountain in which the water droplets dropped had lots of twigs, straws, stones, and other bits of debris on which a bee would cling, when drinking its fill of cool water in the summer.
So how do you know about the right harvesting time? That is when the bees begin to stay outside the hives, instead of going in. They may also stay near the exit because all the cells have been filled up with lots of honey.
You are going to learn through experience the right time for harvesting the honey. This is normally done when the flowering season has ended. That means the bees have made enough honey and are now protecting it, they have covered it with a fine white layer of beeswax.
The keeper now knows that the honey is ripe. He is first going to inspect the combs, which are nearer to the entrance and outside of the comb. This is where the honey is going to be placed in the first instance. In ancient times, the beekeepers just cut the honeycomb and sold them in the local markets and it was your job to remove the honey, and the beeswax. Today, these honeycombs are being sold at premium prices.
Honey extractors are specialized equipment, which are going to help you extract honey, but traditionally, filtration was done through fine Muslin cloth after the honeycomb was broken, placed in the muslin and a heavyweight placed upon the muslin and the honeycomb so that the honey could drip, underneath into a container. After the honey was obtained, the beeswax was gathered by just placing the remainder of the honeycomb in a double boiler where the honeycomb containing utensil was placed in another utensil full of boiling water. Slow heating would melt the beeswax. After that you could either purify the honey into a block or use it in its un-purified shape, where it would have some honey in it and other impurities.
Live Long and Prosper!