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In brief: how to keep bees

Honey hunting, or plundering the nests of wild honeybees to obtain honey and beeswax, is practised throughout the world wherever colonies of wild nesting honeybees are abundant. It has been known for thousands of years, however, that obtaining honey is easier and more convenient if bees are encouraged to nest inside a hive. This housing of bees in a container is true "beekeeping", but the term is used loosely to describe all the techniques involving bees and the harvesting and processing of their products. There are many ways to utilize honeybees for their pollination services or to obtain products from them. The methods used will be determined by the types of bees available, and the skills and resources available to the beekeeper.

Obtaining bees

Bees can be obtained by transferring a wild nesting colony to a hive. The wild colony will already have a number of combs, which can be tied to top-bars or into the frames of a hive. Another way to get started is to set up a hive, perhaps rubbed inside with some beeswax to give it an attractive smell, and wait for a passing swarm of bees to occupy it. This will only be successful in areas where there are still plenty of honeybee colonies. The best way to start is with the assistance of local beekeepers.

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, bee diseases were spread around the world as a result of people moving honeybee colonies; there were serious consequences for the beekeeping industries in some countries. The few regions without introduced honeybee diseases are mainly in developing countries. It will be beneficial if these countries can retain their stocks of disease-free honeybees. Honeybee colonies, or even single queen bees, and used beekeeping equipment must never be moved from one area to another without expert consideration of the consequences.

Choice of hives

Beekeeping does not need to take up valuable land. Depending on type, hives may be placed in trees, on scraps of wasteland or flat rooftops. This makes beekeeping feasible for smallholders and landless people. A good site should have a water source nearby, plenty of flowering plants and trees in the area and shelter from wind and strong sunlight. A hive is any container provided for honeybees to nest in. There are three main types: traditional hives, movable-frame hives and top-bar hives.

Traditional hives

These are made from local materials such as hollowed-out logs, bark formed into a cylinder, clay pots, woven grass or cane - whatever is suitable and available. The sole purpose of the hive is to encourage bees to nest in a place accessible to the beekeeper. The bees build their nest inside the hive, just as they would build it in a natural cavity. The beekeeper plunders the nest to obtain crops of honey and beeswax. Bees may or may not be killed during this process, depending on the skill of the beekeeper. If the colony is destroyed, the hive will remain empty for a while. If there are plenty of honeybee colonies in the area, a swarm may eventually settle in the empty hive and start building a new nest. Traditional beekeepers often own many hives and expect only a portion to be occupied by bees at any one time.

All the materials required should be locally available, but traditional beekeepers can benefit from assistance in obtaining protective clothing, smokers and containers for the honey, and help in locating markets for their products.

FIGURE 21 Traditional local hives made from logs in Bhutan.

FIGURE 22 End removed to show inside a traditional hive: the bees build their combs from the top of the hive.

Top-bar hives

Top-bar hives have the same advantages of manageability and efficiency in harvesting honey as movable-frame hives, without the disadvantage of high manufacturing costs. To make the hives manageable, bees are encouraged to construct their combs from the undersides of a series of bars. These bars allow individual combs to be lifted from the hive by the beekeeper. As with traditional local hives, the container for the hive may be constructed from whatever materials are locally available. Many different designs have been published (see Aidoo, 1999 and Sakho, 1999).

All equipment can be made locally. The only items that need to be constructed with precision are the top bars, which must provide the same spacing for combs in the hive that the bees would use in the natural nest. This spacing will depend upon the species and race of honeybee. As a very general guide, the width of top bars needed for Apis mellifera of European origin is 35 mm, Apis mellifera in Africa - 32 mm and Apis cerana in Asia - 30mm. The best way to determine the optimum width is to measure the spacing between combs in a wild nest of the same bees. The volume of the brood box should be roughly equal to the volume of the cavity occupied by wild nesting honeybees.

FIGURE 23 Top-bar hive beekeeping in Cape Verde.

FIGURE 24 Top bar and comb.

An advantage of this type of equipment is that it opens up beekeeping to new groups of people. In some countries, traditional beekeeping tends to be an activity for men only, who use hives made from bark, kept deep in forests. Groups of women beekeepers may prefer to begin beekeeping with top-bar hives that can be made and kept close to home. Top-bar hives can also be an inexpensive way of housing large numbers of colonies for pollination purposes.

FIGURE 25 Top-bar hive in Nepal.

Movable-frame hives

These hives are used in most industrialized countries and some developing countries, especially in Central and South America and Asia. Rectangular wood or plastic frames are used to support the combs. These frames have two major advantages.

· They allow for inspection and manipulation of colonies, such as moving frames of bees or honey-filled frames (stores) from a strong colony to strengthen a weaker one.

· They allow for efficient harvesting of honey, because the honeycombs in their frames can be emptied and returned to the hive, which allows increased honey production because the bees do not have to build fresh combs.

Frame hives consist of a series of boxes, usually of wood, stacked on top of one another. Frames are arranged in the boxes like suspension files in a filing cabinet. The bottom box is usually used for the brood nest, which is where the queen lays her eggs and young bees develop. A queen excluder - a metal grid with holes that allow worker bees to pass through but not the larger queen - is placed between the box with the brood and the box above it. This ensures that only honey is stored in the boxes above the queen excluder. A hive stand, floor and roof are required, along with various other specialized items of equipment.

Frame hives must be constructed with precision. Boxes must fit together precisely and the spacing between frames must be the same as in a natural nest. Frame hives require seasoned timber that is accurately cut and planed and materials such as wire, nails and foundation. They are therefore relatively labour-intensive to make and maintain. There must be access to replacement parts, particularly foundations and frames. The spaces between combs, nest volume and other features of standard frame hives have been developed for use with European honeybees in Europe, North and Central America and Australasia and are not necessarily suitable for other races and species of honeybees. When buying equipment it is important to have an understanding of the honeybees to be housed and the specifications of the equipment offered.

FIGURE 26 Beekeepers with their frame hives in Albania.

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