Many species of bees collect nectar, they convert to honey and store as a food source. Only bees that live together in large colonies store appreciable quantities of honey; these include bees of the genera Apis (honeybees), Trigona and Melipona (stingless bees) that people have recognized throughout the ages as sources of honey. Until the seventeenth century, honey from bees was the only commonly available sweetening substance.
The most widely used honeybees are European races of Apis mellifera, a species of honeybee also indigenous to Africa and the Middle East. Honeybees are not indigenous to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand or the Pacific islands, but during the last four centuries European races of bees have been introduced to these regions. During the last 30 years, European bees have been used increasingly in Asia. Beekeeping equipment and technology have been developed for use with European races of honeybees. Most beekeeping literature relates only to these bees.
Apis mellifera are indigenous to tropical Africa. They are slightly smaller than the European races of Apis mellifera and their behaviour is notably different. They are more readily alerted to leave the comb and defend themselves. Tropical honeybees are more likely to abandon their nest or hive if disturbed, because they have a greater chance of survival in the tropics. In some areas, honeybee colonies migrate seasonally.
FIGURE 7 Colonies of wild nesting bees are the major source of honey in many areas of India. These colonies will be harvested by honey hunters who climb the trees, cut off the honeycombs and lower them to the ground in baskets.
These are crucial factors governing tropical bee management.
There are many indigenous honeybee species in Asia. Some can be managed in hives; others build individual combs in the open and cannot be kept in hives. Honey hunters plunder these combs for honey. In Bangladesh, India and Nepal, for example, most honey comes from gathering the large combs of wild nesting bees.
There are no indigenous honeybees in the Americas. Their ecological niche is filled by many different species of stingless bees that were and in some areas still are exploited for their honey, which is particularly valued for its medicinal properties. Knowing nothing of these indigenous bees, European settlers long ago brought with them European bees, on which basis the industry developed. In 1956, some African Apis mellifera queens were introduced into Brazil. These bees survived far more successfully in tropical Brazil than their European Apis mellifera predecessors, and quickly proved dominant over them; they are known as "killer bees" in the media and have spread through much of South and Central America and southern parts of the United States. They have many of the typical African honeybee characteristics that have necessitated changed management practices and led to increased yields for beekeepers.
FIGURE 8 Hive for stingless bees in Brazil.