Chapter 4 Beekeeping with oriental honeybees (Apis cerana)

Contents - Previous - Next

A. Hive types
B. Obtaining colonies
C. Colony management
D. Colony propagation
E. Bee pests and diseases


The history of beekeeping with Apis cerana in Asia is at least as ancient as that of beekeeping with A. mellifera in southern Europe and the Middle East. The nesting habit of both bees, which leads them to prefer enclosed cavities, has made it possible for man to engage in certain aspects of colony management, most importantly the hiving of the bees in man-made vessels.

Several geographical races of the oriental honeybee occupy the vast Asian mainland, and they possess different behavioural characteristics, particularly those contributing to the bees' capacity for survival. Among the major behavioural characteristics exercising a direct influence on colony management are migration and absconding, colony reproduction rate, colony population size, and foraging and food-storage behaviour.

There appear to he marked differences among the tropical, sub-tropical and temperate races of A. cerana with regard to these characteristics. It therefore has been, and continues to be, difficult - if not impossible to design a single colony-management scheme suitable for all A. cerana races throughout the Asian continent. This chapter will however provide some useful information and general guidelines on A. cerana beekeeping, even if certain modifications of the methods proposed may be necessary for practical colony management in specific localities.


A. Hive types

(1) Log-Hive Beekeeping

Keeping A. cerana colonies in log hives doubtless originated in man's observations of the natural nesting habits of the bees. It is the most ancient form of apiculture in Asia and, inefficient as it seems to be, it is still practiced throughout the continent. On being asked, its practitioners explain that it is traditional. It seldom fails to provide the hive-owner with a certain amount of honey and beeswax, helping him to generate additional income. It can also be undertaken as a hobby or off-farm activity, requiring little investment in terms of capital and time.

Essentially, there is not much that can be done in managing log-hive colonies. Since the general design of such hives permits them to be opened only from the top or base, and since lifting the roof of the hive is often impossible without breaking combs attached to the hive walls, the beekeeper cannot conveniently open his hives to inspect them. Attempts to furnish log hives with top bars have had only limited results, because the cylindrical interior of the hive makes it impossible to prevent bees from building their combs adjoining the hive walls. The difficulty of opening the hive for colony inspection thus precludes many useful techniques of colony management.

There is little room for improvement in log-hive beekeeping, or in methods of handling the honey and beeswax obtained from such hives. The following general indications may however be useful to the log-hive beekeeper:

1. The interior volume of the hive should be from 20 to 25 litres.
2. The hive interior should be coated with melted beeswax to improve baiting.
3. All cracks in the hives should be carefully sealed, and only one opening left as the hive entrance.
4. Hives should be kept in the shade, and safe from major predators such AS ants and hornets.
5. In order to avoid competition among foragers from different colonies, only a few hives should be kept in any one place.

(2) Keeping Apis cerana in Lox Hives

Maintaining colonies of oriental honeybees in box hives is an improved and often less expensive version of loghive beekeeping. In view of current wood prices in many parts of Asla, the cost of building hives from good solid logs can be prohibitive. In some coastal areas of tropical Asia, coconut bark is frequently available for log-hive construction. But where such bark is not readily available and good lumber is expensive, box hives can be built of discarded wooden crates and boxes, or even from scrap lumber.

One advantage of box hives is that their design makes it possible for the beekeeper to open them to inspect the colony. Some progressive beekeepers build their hives in such a way that they can be used with frames or top bars, so that the bees can be managed in a manner similar to beekeeping with standard movable-frame hives.

Unfortunately, there has been no standardization in the size and design of wooden box hives for the entire continent of Asia, one major difficulty being the wide differences in colony populations among the various geographical races of A. cerana. In general, the A. cerana box hives most common in tropical Asia are smaller than the full-depth Langstroth hive, whose volume is about 40 litres (465 mm x 365 mm x 238 to 240 mm inner dimensions). An internal volume of about 20 to 25 litres is considered adequate for most tropical colonies of A. cerana; colonies in larger hives have difficulty in defending their nests against the bees' natural enemies and in controlling the hives' microclimate.

In temperate Asia, where the population size of A. cerana colonies is normally larger than in the tropics, traditional beekeepers use larger box hives, which may reach the dimensions of hives used for temperate A. mellifera, i.e. 35 to 45 litres.

Box-hive beekeepers may find the following suggestions useful:

1. In order to better protect the colonies against pests, all cracks in the hive walls should be sealed, and the size of the hive entrance should not exceed 5 cm2.

2. In order to ensure that the hive is properly insulated, its walls should not be less than 2 cm thick.

3. A box hive should, whenever possible, be placed in the shade, preferably on a stand suitably protected against ants.

(3) Movable-Frame Hives

Keeping A. cerana colonies in movable-frame hives is the most advanced form of beekeeping with native honeybees employed in Asia. The method allows for virtually any manipulation of the colony: brood-nest adjustments, inspection for diseases and pests, verifying food-store levels, queen rearing, supering during the honey-flow season, etc.

Whereas the full-depth Langstroth hive can be used for temperate and sub-tropical races of A. cerana, smaller hives are required for the tropical races, often from half to two thirds of the size of the Langstroth. Some beekeepers prefer hives with 8-frame supers and 10-frame brood boxes.

Keeping oriental honeybees in movable-frame hives appears to meet with varying degrees of success, most of the difficulty lying not so much in questions of hive design and size as in the bees' biological characteristics. Beekeepers in temperate, sub-tropical and tropical Asia agree in finding that absconding by colonies is their main problem, even more prevalent in the tropics than in the other regions. In this particular case, absconding is not caused primarily by colony mismanagement: it is a form of the bees' genetic behaviour which enables them to evade attacking enemies and to migrate to other foraging areas during dearth periods. Although this trait is biologically favorable to the bees, it constantly threatens beekeepers with the loss of their colonies. Thus, the economic success of beekeeping with A. cerana depends essentially on minimizing the rate of absconding of the honeybees.


B. Obtaining colonies

There are three principal manners of obtaining honeybee colonies: baiting swarms or absconding colonies, transferring bees from feral nests, and buying complete hives.

(1) Baiting

When food is abundant and an Apis cerana colony becomes over-populated, it divides into two or more units, the parent colony and the swarm or swarms, which leave the hive and search out a new home site. Absconding colonies must also find new home sites. Such swarms and absconding colonies can be attracted to a well-prepared and suitably placed bait hive.

Many beekeepers use old empty log or box hives to bait the bees. For better results, the hives should he coated internally with melted beeswax. They can be made more attractive to the house-hunting bees by placing in them a piece of old comb about 10 cm square, containing honey-storage cells. Bait hives should be placed in an open shed or securely attached to a tree or post, about 2 to 3 meters above ground level. The best time of year to put out bait hives in temperate Asia is early spring, and in tropical Asia when the mayor forages are in bloom, usually at the end of the monsoon season.

A swarm or absconding colony will not enter a bait hive unless it is safe from attack by the bees' natural enemies. It is therefore essential for the beekeeper to inspect his bait hives frequently and to take all measures necessary to prevent other animals or bee pests from occupying them. Once a swarm or absconding colony has moved in it is best to wait until comb construction and brood-rearing have begun before attempting to relocate the hive or to transfer the bees to another hive. Methods of transferring bees from bait hives to movable-frame hives are identical to those employed in transferring bees from feral nests (see below).

(2) Transferring Bees from Feral Nests

Despite the fact that transferring A. cerana colonies from feral nests to movable-frame hives is time-consuming, its cost is low and it is practical for villagers with spare time.

The beekeeper can learn of the presence of a feral nest in one of several ways: by active search, often in areas already known to have been frequented by bees; by tracking foraging bees back to their nest; or by word of mouth. Some beekeepers pay a small reward to informants, mostly village children, who report the presence of accessible feral colonies.

Once a colony has been located, the operation is quite simple. The equipment required includes a knife, a hive tool or other means of opening the nest, a hive with empty wired frames, a smoker, a roll of twine, a brush, and a litre of 1:1 sugar syrup in a vaporizer. If available, a portable battery-operated comb-embedder is useful. The beginning beekeeper will need good protective clothing and a veil, but as he gains experience and learns to avoid disturbing the bees unnecessarily, he can dispense with some of this protection.

The best time of day to transfer bees is late in the afternoon, when flight activity is minimum. The beekeeper first applies a little smoke at the hive entrance, and then gently opens the nest wall, exposing the combs. After spraying sugar syrup on the bees until most of the workers are coated with it, he cuts all the brood and honey combs from the nest. He embeds the combs in empty wired frames by gently exercising pressure on them until their mid-ribs reach the wire; this operation is facilitated by heating the wire, if the necessary equipment is available. He further secures the combs to the frames by tying them with twine and then places the frames in the hive, brushing as many bees as he can into the hive with them. It is most important that the queen be with the colony in the new hive. It is useful to find her and place her in a queen cage, to ensure that the workers remain in the hive.

When all is done, the transferred colony is moved several kilometres from its original site, to prevent some of the workers from drifting away. If possible, two or three frames of honey should be given to the newly-transferred colony. The queen should remain caged for three or four days (or a week at most) before being released to resume its egg-laying.


C. Colony management

A honeybee colony will provide the beekeeper with substantial amounts of honey on only one condition: that it is placed in a good foraging area. All other colony manipulations can serve only as complementary approaches, designed to enhance the colonies' efficiency. Past unsatisfactory results in Asian beekeeping development have been due primarily to misconceptions regarding colony management.

Whereas the simultaneous blossoming of both cultivated and wild flora during the spring and summer offer great opportunities for temperate-zone colonies to collect and store their food, this situation does not always apply in the tropics. The natural vegetation pattern in tropical Asia is generally irregular, with diversified populations of many floral species. The simultaneous blooming of a single good forage source, or of only a few, covering large land areas, is a rare phenomenon in undisturbed tropical zones; it is mostly found in cultivated or otherwise disturbed lands, where one or a few species become dominant.

The success or failure of colony management with Apis cerana depends largely on the beekeeper's ability to find good bee forage land and to adjust his colonymanipulation techniques accordingly.

(1) Feeding

Seasonal fluctuations in food availability and the ability of the honeybee colonies to store food are the two most important factors determining whether feeding is necessary. For many years, oriental honeybees have been kept in rural areas of Asia without the colonies being fed with sugar syrup or a supplementary diet of pollen, and this technique is still possible in areas where there is a continuous supply of bee forage all year round, such as on land adjoining coconut plantations. Nonetheless, where such regular supplies are not available, supplemental feeding becomes necessary, especially when the beekeeper harvests all or most of the colony's food stores. Methods of colony feeding are similar to those for A. mellifera (see Chapter 5, D.(3) and (4)).

(2) Prevention and Control of Swarming

The oriental honeybee has a high reproduction rate, and it casts multiple swarms over short periods of time. When swarming takes place, the beekeeper loses a substantial part of his colony population, the inevitable result being a poor hive yield. But there is virtually nothing a beekeeper can do to prevent his A. cerana colonies from swarming, except to maintain them in movable-frame hives and to inspect them regularly in order to determine when he must intervene.

One of the major causes of swarming is hive overcrowding. The beekeeper can increase his hive space by providing one or more additional supers with empty combs, if the colony is strong enough, or by replacing one or two frames of older larvae with empty combs. A routine inspection for the presence of queen cells, at weekly intervals, will let him know whether the colony is preparing to swarm. If such queen cells are found, removing them all is an effective swarm-control method; they can be used to form new colonies. Clipping the queen's wings will not necessarily prevent the colony from swarming: if the old queen is unable to fly, newly hatched queens will leave the parent colony with the swarms.

(3) Reducing the Likelihood of Absconding

It will be recalled that absconding is the colony's natural response to such unfavourable hive environments as lack of food or attacks by the bees' enemies. Correcting these situations can to some extent deter the colony from absconding.

In marginal foraging areas, where food is not abundant all year round, supplementary feeding during the dearth period is necessary, especially, as already noted, when all or most of the stored honey has been harvested.

Colonies of A. cerana are highly responsive to threats by the bees' natural enemies, and it is of the utmost importance for the beekeeper to make every effort to protect his colonies against attacks by bee pests. Heavy predation by hornets, ant attacks, wax-moth infestation and parasitism by bee mites are among the major problems to be dealt with. In this regard, the techniques indicated in Chapter 6 A for the protection of A. mellifera colonies apply to A. cerana colonies as well.

It has often been suggested that a mass programme to select A. cerana races for reduced absconding behaviour constitutes a priority sector in an apicultural development programme. From the practical standpoint, however, genetic manipulations of honeybees are usually difficult. The queens' multiple mating with drones in mid-air forms an obstacle to maintaining any particular breed or gene pool. Drones from feral nests are a major hindrance to selective breeding: unless the breeding site can be isolated, it is impossible to ensure that queens of the selected stocks mate with drones of the breeder's choice, so that the genetic quality of the offspring cannot be guaranteed. Apis cerana queens can be artificially inseminated but the technique is difficult even under normal laboratory conditions, and transferring this technology to rural beekeepers would create many problems. Further, should the selection approach be adopted, a special queen-breeding station for large-scale distribution would be required.

It thus appears that the most practical, and therefore the most appropriate, approach thus far available for minimizing the absconding behaviour of A cerana colonies lies in good colony management: good hive construction, suitable apiary sites, supplemental feeding during dearth periods, prevention and control of honeybee pests and diseases, etc.

(4) Honey Harvesting

Honey-harvesting methods are determined by the type of hive in which the honeybees are kept. With log or simple box hives, the beekeeper has no alternative but to open the hive and harvest the crop in a somewhat destructive fashion, because in such hives there is no separation between brood and honey combs. most of the honey-storage cells being either in the upper part of combs also containing brood, or else in outer combs attached to the hive walls. About half the brood combs should be left in the hive; this practice can assist somewhat in limiting absconding by the colony.

In harvesting honey from log or box hives, the beekeeper applies a little smoke and then uses a sharp, thinbladed knife to cut the combs containing honey from the hive walls or ceiling from which they are suspended. The sections of comb containing honeystorage cells are separated from the brood and pollen cells. The honey is squeezed or pressed from the combs and strained through fine wire mesh or a double thickness of cheese-cloth. Some beekeepers prefer to chop the comb into small pieces and allow the honey to drain out; this method is said to be more hygienic and to yield a clearer honey, with less foam. The rest of the comb, with its pollen and brood, is usually consumed, or sold in the market, as a delicacy.

Generally speaking, honey obtained from log hives is not of prime quality: since opening the hives for inspection is difficult, some "unripe" honey with an excessive moisture content, in uncapped storage cells, is harvested along with the ripe honey. A further inconvenience is that the honey obtained from log hives tends to be limited in quantity, not more than a few kilogrammes per harvest. On the other hand, however, log-hive operators in tropical Asia occasionally obtain two or even three harvests per year.

The advantages of movable-frame beekeeping become especially evident at the honey-harvesting stages. Not only can the hives be opened for inspection to determine the availability and ripeness of the honey they contain, but individual Frames containing capped ripe honey can be removed from the hive, leaving the pollen and brood cells intact. Finally, the honey can be extracted mechanically, and a better-quality product obtained.

Automatic or semi-automatic machinery exists for uncapping honey cells, but in most places in Asia, manual uncapping is preferred. Several thin-bladed knives are heated in boiling water for alternate use. The operator removes any excess water from the knife with a clean cloth, and carefully slices off the caps of the honey cells. When the frames have been uncapped on both sides, they are placed in the extractor, where the honey is thrown off by centrifugal force. (Most Asian beekeepers prefer manually-operated extractors.) The extracted honey is strained through fine wire mesh or a double thickness of cheese-cloth; the cappings, which may contain as much as 10 to 20% of honey, are chopped fine and allowed to drain in the same manner. After 24 hours, most of the honey they contain will have drained off; the residue is heated, pressed, filtered and allowed to harden into blocks of beeswax.


D. Colony propagation

Apart from the methods of obtaining colonies outlined in Section B of this chapter, the beekeeper can expand his Apis cerana apiary by colony propagation, although only those who operate movable-frame hives can adopt this technique effectively, The operation depends essentially on obtaining new queens for colony multiplication, either by working with naturally-constructed queen cells or through special queen-rearing methods which will be discussed in Chapter 5.

As has already been seen, populous honeybee colonies construct queen cells as the initial step in swarming, and the beekeeper can select capped queen cells from healthy colonies. Large, capped queen cells built with new, white wax generally indicate that the immature queens within have been adequately fed for their larval stage. Three or four brood frames with honey and pollen in their upper parts are transferred from healthy, populous colonies into an empty hive. A queen cell is gently detached from its comb, maintained upright, and attached to a brood frame in the centre of the new hive. A few thousand adult bees are shaken into the hive and to prevent them from drifting back to their parent colonies, the newly-assembled hive units are moved to a new location several kilometres away, where there are honeybee colonies whose drone population is adequate to ensure mating with the new queen when she undertakes her nuptial flight.

The queen's life cycle in the new hive follows the pattern established for all queens, as described in Chapter 2. Emerging after a few days, she rests within the hive for a few days more, makes her orientation flights, mates and soon begins to lay. The entire process, from transferring the queen cell from the old colony to the commencement of egg-laying in the new hive is usually accomplished in from 10 to 14 days; during this period, frequent inspection of the newly-assembled hive units is necessary to ensure that all is going well.

It should be emphasized that while this procedure is satisfactory for small-scale operations, a more systematic approach is necessary when a largescale expansion is contemplated. For this purpose, the more sophisticated techniques of queen-rearing, originally developed for Apis mellifera and described in Chapter 5, must be adopted.


E. Bee pests and diseases

The oriental honeybee has inhabited the Asian continent for millions of years, and over this long period various microbial diseases, parasites and predators have found ways of exploiting bee colonies. In fact, it is now believed that the bees' high rate of absconding is an inherited behaviour characteristic which has gradually evolved a response to pressure on colonies from heavy predation and parasitism.

Pest control is one of the most important aspects of the management of Apis cerana. While the primitive design of log and box hives does not allow for much choice in the way of pest-control measures, the least the traditional beekeeper can do is to ensure that the environment of his hives is free from major pests, and to make it difficult for pests to invade the hives. All cracks in hive walls should be sealed; the hive entrance should be kept as small as possible, to limit the ability of wasps and wax moths to enter the hive; to protect them from ant attacks, hives should be placed on stands whose legs are coated with grease or spent oil. But colonies in simple hives cannot he manipulated effectively to control infestation of bees and brood within the hive by tree mites and microbial diseases.

(1) Bee Mites

Two mite species are considered to he serious pests of A. cerana in Asia: the tracheal mite Acarapis woodi and the Varroa mite Varroa jacobsoni. For the most part, the other mites found in association with oriental honeybees feed exclusively on pollen, using the bees primarily as carriers. These "phoretic mites", particularly those belonging to the genus Neocypholaelaps, may be present in large numbers in honeybee colonies, but apart from consuming stored pollen, and disturbing foragers when many of them hoard the bees at once, they are essentially harmless. A simple way of distingishing between parasitic and phoretic mites is that the latter are not found within sealed brood cells, nor within the adult bees' tracheal system,

(a) The Tracheal Mite Acarapis woodi

Beekeepers in parts of India and Pakistan have reported heavy losses in commercially-operated colonies of A. cerana as a result of infestation by the tracheal mite. It is not yet clearly established whether the parasite was introduced into Asia via imported colonies of A. mellifera or whether it is indigenous to Asia. Whereas some beekeepers and apiculturists suggest that A. cerana colonies are more susceptible to the tracheal mite than colonies of the European honeybee, others maintain that the reported losses of colonies are due mainly to the spread of Apis iridescent virus (see below) or to a combined attack by the mite and the virus.

Symptoms and Diagnostic Procedure: It is difficult to determine the presence of tracheal mites in honeybee colonies: the parasites are very small, and they infest the host bees internally, in the thoracic trachea. Adult bees infested by A. woodi show no noticeable signs, but their life-span is shorter than that of uninfested bees; as a result, rapid decreases in colony populations in winter and spring can be observed. The only reliable diagnostic method is the microscopic examination of dissected tracheae of sample bees from colonies suspected of being infested. If present, the mites are usually found within the trachea closest to the bees' thoracic spiracles; the infested tracheae display a colour darker than normal.

Control: The tracheal mite can be controlled by hive fumigation according to the methods set out in Chapter 6.

(b) The Ectoparasitic Bee Mite Varroa jacobsoni

The bee mite Varroa jacobsoni is a parasite of Apis cerana indigenous to the entire continent of Asia. Wherever colonies of the oriental honeybees are kept, there is therefore a possibility of mite infestation. Through millions of years of being parasitized by the mite, the bees appear to have developed some degree of resistance to its attacks. Absconding is one of the colony's manners of ridding itself of the mite, or at least of those infesting the brood, which in such cases is abandoned.

Colonies heavily infested by Varroa produce little or no honey, but most often the beekeeper can lose the entire colony when it absconds.

Symptoms and Diagnostic Procedure: See Chapter 6.
Control: See Chapter 6.

(2) Viral Diseases

At least three viral diseases affecting Apis cerana are known: the Thai strain of sacbrood virus (TSBV), the Kashmir bee virus (KBV) and Apis iridescent virus (AIV). While TSBV affects the brood, the latter two diseases affect the adult bees.

TSBV was first reported in A. cerana colonies in Thailand and has since been reported from other Asian countries. Its natural distribution range may cover the entire Asian continent where feral colonies of the bee exist. In Thailand the disease is found in colonies under "stress" conditions: lack of food, excessive humidity, low worker population, poor-laying queens, etc.

Little is known about KBV, except that it has also been reported in A. mellifera colonies in Australia. In its first recorded presence, It was identified together with AIV in bees from Kashmir.

Recent reports state that AIV has been causing serious damage to commercial colonies of A. cerana in northern India and Pakistan, the virus being associated with "clustering disease". The bees are unusually inactive; they frequently form small, detached clusters of bees that do not fly. Many individual bees are observed crawling on the ground and are lost. At first, these symptoms were associated with the presence of the tracheal mite Acarapis woodi on some diseased bees, but it was later shown that AIV is the major causative agent.

Treatment: No chemical treatment that can be used effectively against the viral diseases of honeybees is available. Since it has been observed that the diseases are most frequently found in colonies under stress conditions. it appears that strengthening the colonies and providing better hive environments are among useful preventive measures. It is suggested that among measures to be taken are requeening the colonies with young, healthy queens, supplemental feeding, adding frames of older brood, and protection of hives from cold, humidity, and strong wind.

(3) Microbial Diseases

Colonies of A. cerana are occasionally found infested with bacterial diseases such as American foul-brood and European foul-brood; other microbial diseases have also been reported. Since much of the technical information concerning the microbial diseases of A. cerana is based on that obtained from experience with A. mellifera. recommendations for their prevention and control with respect to the latter species (see Chapter 6) are also applicable to beekeeping with A. cerana.

Contents - Previous - Next