Chapter 5 beekeeping with the common (european) honeybee (Apis mellifera)

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A. Beekeeping equipment
B. Obtaining colonies of Apis mellifera
C. Colony location
D. Colony management


A. Beekeeping equipment

A period of over a century of widespread movable-frame beekeeping with the common honeybee Apis mellifera in many parts of the world has resulted in the development and marketing of virtually all types and sizes of beekeeping equipment. Many innovations in design, and the use of different materials, enable beekeepers to select their equipment according to their own needs and preferences, but certain standard appliances and items of equipment are required in almost any type of beekeeping operation.

It is of great importance that the hive equipment used in any one apiary be of standard size under the Anglo-American or metric system 1/ not only because standardization of equipment offers beekeepers operating convenience and high resale value, but also because most of the supplies and appliances available commercially are tailored to fit standard size designs.

(1) Hive Bodies and Supers

Properly speaking, the expression "hive body" refers to the box containing brood frames, whereas a "super" is a box placed above the hive body to accommodate frames containing combs of honey. The standard hive body is 9 1/2" (238-240 mm) high. Many beekeepers often use hive bodies as full-depth supers, but the height of supers can vary from full-depth (= standard hive body) through "honey supers"(3/4depth = 7 1/2" or 185 mm) to "section supers" (1/2-depth = 4 3/4" or 133 mm).

1/ Since the dimensions of the Langstroth hive were originally established in the Anglo-American system. whereas a number of countries in Asia currently use the metric system, the sizes of equipment discussed in this chapter are presented in both systems. It should be borne in mind however that the metric-system figures are not derived directly from the Anglo-American, but refer to similar (but not identical) measurements in general use in countries where the metric system has been adopted.

The width and length of standard 10-frame hive bodies and supers are 16 1/4" x 19 314" (405 x 505 mm) outer measurements and 14 3/4" x 18 1/2" (365 x 465 mm) inner measurements. Running along the upper inner rim of the width of the box, a recess of 3/8" x 5/8" (10 x 13 mm), known as the "rabbet" or "rebate", serves to hold the top-bars of the free-hanging frames inside. (See Fig. 5/1.)

Fig. 5/1. Langstroth hive bodies, showing different corner constructions and details of the rabbet (Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

Wood is the material most generally preferred for hive construction, offering durability, flexibility and convenience, as well as improving the colony's efficiency in regulating hive interior temperature and humidity. Bodies and supers painted externally will last longer than those without paint; white is the colour generally preferred for its action in radiating direct heat from the sun.

Wooden hive bodies and supers should he built to be as strong as possible. The weakest points in the hive's architecture are the corners of the boxes. The three basic ways of making corner joints (box corner, special box corner and dove-tail joints) are illustrated in Fig. 512.

Fig. 5/2. Major types of corner joints for the construction of hive bodies and supers Upper left: Box corner Upper right: Special box corner Below: Dove-tail loins (Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

(2) Hive Cover

The outer cover is essentially the roof of the hive. It should be long-lasting and provide good insulation for the bees. Most beekeepers prefer telescoping covers fitted with sheet metal or aluminium (see Fig. 5/3).

In some areas, an inner lid or cover is used in addition to the outer cover. In severe weather, it assists in insulating the interior of the hive. Inner covers are commonly made of boards, plywood or masonite in a wooden frame.

Fig. 5/3. Telescoping hive cover (Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

(3) Bottom Board

The bottom board (see Fig. 5/4), the floor of the hive, is built to fit the hive body. In order to provide a landing board for the bees, the length is extended past the front of the hive body for about 2" (50 mm), so that the total length of the bottom board is 22" (555-560 mm). The board consists of a flat floor mounted on side-rails. An entrance reducer is generally used at the front of the hive to permit alteration of the size of the hive entrance.

Fig. 5/4. Bottom board (Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

(4) Frames

The concept of movable frames in box hives is the noblest innovation in beekeeping. The basic function of such frames is to hold individual combs firmly in place, so that the entire comb can be moved while remaining intact.

Fig. 5/5. Details of frame construction
Left: Top-bar end
Right: Bottom-bar and frame end
(Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

A frame consists basically of a top-bar, two end-bars and a bottom-bar, nailed together. Since the frames must fit the supers, and these are of uniform length, the top-bars of all frames must be 19" (482 mm) long; they are 3/4" (16 mm) thick and I 1/16" (25 mm) wide. The height of the end-her reflects the depth of the super: 9 1/8" (230 mm), 7 1/4" (175 mm) and 4 1/2" (125 mm) for full-depth, three-quarter depth and half-depth respectively. End-bars are 1 3/8" (33 mm) wide and 3/8" (10 mm) thick. The bottom-her is 17 5/8" (450 mm) long, 3/4" (25 mm) wide and 3/8" (10 mm) thick. When these elements are assembled, both ends of the top-bar protrude so that the frame can rest on the rabbet.

Fig. 5/6. Full-depth (9 1/8" = 230 mm) end-bars (Redrawn from Miller, 1976)

(5) Comb Foundation

The invention of comb foundation for use with movable frames marks another milestone In the history of beekeeping. Comb foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax stamped with a pattern of hexagons of a size equal to the base of natural brood cells. Providing beeswax foundation accelerates comb construction, thus making better honey harvests possible. It also leads the bees to construct comb whose cells are of a uniform size.

The overall dimensions of comb foundations available on the market are calculated to fit standard frame sizes: full-depth, three-quarter depth or half-depth. While foundation types vary, medium-brood plain foundation offers reasonably good performance under normal conditions. As a rule, foundation is fixed to the frames by being mounted on four fine but strong wires, threaded through holes in the end-bars and stretched tight (see Fig. 5/7). A spur embedder or an electrical heating device is used to embed the wires into the comb foundation.

Making comb foundation is a complicated task, requiring not only skill and experience but also a costly foundation mill, preferably of the type composed of two precision-engraved rollers, used by manufacturers. While a few large-scale beekeeping operators and cooperatives may be in a position to own such a mill, most beekeepers find it more convenient to buy their foundation ready-made.

(6) Other Hive Equipment

Pollen Trap. As its name implies, the pollen trap is used to scrape pollen pellets from the legs of foragers as they return to the hive; it is convenient for beekeepers who wish to obtain surplus pollen for sale or for feeding bees during the dearth period. When a pollen trap is set at the hive entrance (see Fig. 5/8), returning foragers have no way of entering the hive but to pass through the trap. As they do so, the pollen pellets attached to their hind legs are scraped off and fall into a receiving tray.

Queen Excluder. The purpose of the queen excluder (see Fig. 5/9) is to confine the queen to the brood box while allowing the workers to have access to the super, in order to ensure that the honey combs contain no brood. It is also used in producing royal jelly, in queen-rearing and in forming multi-queen colonies. Based on the fact that the bodies of workers are much smaller than that of the queen, it consists of a single sheet with openings large enough to allow the former to pass through, but too narrow for the queen. The conventional excluder is designed to be inserted horizontally between the super and the brood box of a multi-storey hive, but vertical models also exist that can be placed between frames of brood and honeycomb in single-storey hives.

Feeder. At certain times of the year the beekeeper may wish to feed his colonies with sugar syrup as a food supplement, or to medicate them using syrup as a carrier. Among various types of feeders existing, two simple models can be recommended: the division-board feeder and the feeding pail or ,jar.

In the broad sense, the division-board feeder is a rectangular syrup container (see Fig. 5/10) whose length is the same as that of a frame; it is designed to be placed within the hive in the same manner as a frame. To prevent the bees from drowning, chips of wood or Styrofoam are placed in the feeder as floats.

Alternatively, plastic or glass pails or jars holding from 2 to 4 litres of liquid can be used as feeders, provided that they have relatively large and tight-fitting lids in which small holes can be pierced. When in use, the pail containing the sugar syrup is turned upside down and placed on the frames, allowing the syrup to seep through the holes. An empty super is installed between the hive cover and the honey chamber, in order to close the hive.

Hive Tool. Honeybees use propolis to seal frames and covers to hive bodies and supers. In order to separate these various pieces (e.g. to open the hive or remove a frame for inspection) the beekeeper prizes them apart with a hive tool, which is also useful in scraping excess propolis or wax from hive parts. It is such a convenient piece of equipment that virtually all beekeepers carry one in their hand when working with their hives (see Fig. 5/11). It consists basically of a length of iron or steel, flattened at one end. A good commercial hive tool may be made of spring steel, but the sawn-off end of a crowbar can furnish equally satisfactory leverage.

Smoker. The bee smoker, used to calm bees, consists of two principal units: a metal fire-pot with a funnel-shaped cover, and a bellows (see Figs. 5/11 and 5/12). Some good models are equipped with a shield for protection against the heat generated. A smoke-releasing fuel (e.g. dried leaves. grasses, wood shavings, rice hulls, etc.) is burned in the fire-pot, and air is injected into the pot by operating the bellows; the smoke is then directed at the bees through the funnel.

Bee Brush. A soft camel-hair brush, used to brush the bees off combs and supers being manipulated, is considered one of the most necessary tools for harvesting frames of honey comb, particularly in small-scale beekeeping. In less sophisticated operations, a handful of grass or leaves may be used.

(7) Protective Equipment

Bee Veil. Every beekeeper accepts that he will be stung many times during a season. However, no one likes being stung on the face, especially near such sensitive parts as the nose and eyes, and therefore wearing a bee veil is essential when honeybees are being handled. (See Fig. 5/11.) Such veils should be made to fit snugly around the hat or to cover the head, and to fit tightly to the shoulder, leaving enough space between the veil and the face. Black screen is preferred for the veil, since it provides the best visibility; 12-mesh screen wire or fabric are the preferred materials. Apart from the black screen, all parts of the veil, including the hat if one is worn, should be light in colour, to avoid antagonizing the trees and because such colours are cooler. When a hat is worn, it should have a wide brim.

Protective Clothing. No specific design of protective clothing for beekeepers exists, but white overalls are occasionally worn. Most clothing suitable for field work is also suitable for beekeeping, although light-coloured, smooth materials such as cotton are preferable because they are cooler and create less risk of antagonizing the bees. Beginning beekeepers may feel more secure in handling bees if they are wearing gloves, although experienced ones wear gloves only under extreme conditions. Bee gloves are made of tightly-knit cloth and/or soft leather; they cover the forearms up to the elbows.

(8) Uncapping and Extracting Equipment

The basic equipment required for extracting honey from the comb consists of an uncapping knife, a honey extractor, a honey strainer, a wax melter and storage containers. The beekeeper should of course select equipment whose type and capacity are best suited to his needs.

Uncapping Knife. Worker bees seal honey-storage cells with a thin layer of wax, known as cappings, which must be removed from the combs as a first step in honey extraction. Although normal long-bladed kitchen knives can be used for this purpose (see Fig. 5/13), the operation can be carried out with greater ease if heated knives are used. The beekeeper may use two knives and plunge them alternately in hot (preferably boiling) water, or he may decide to obtain a specially designed electrically heated knife (see Fig. 5/14) or steam knife.

Honey Extractor. It has been estimated that in making 1 kg of wax for building comb, the bees consume 8 kg of honey. The honey extractor makes it possible for the beekeeper to save the comb for re-use by the bees and to increase his honey crop accordingly.

Basically, the honey extractor is a device that spins the combs so rapidly (up to 300 rpm) that the honey is flung out of them by centrifugal force. Different types and sizes are available, ranging from the motor-operated extractor accommodating hundreds of frames (see Fig. 5/15) to the manually-operated two-frame extractor. Normally, the beekeeper working with several hundred hives will find a hand-operated extractor adequate for his needs (see Fig. 5/16); stainless steel models (see Fig. 5/12), although somewhat more costly than those built of other materials, seem to offer enough advantages in their operation to justify the higher price.

Honey Strainer. After its extraction from the combs, honey is passed through a strainer to remove impurities. A large funnel lined with layers of cheese-cloth or fine wire mesh can serve the purpose in small apiaries, but larger operators may find it preferable to own a compact honey strainer, consisting of two or three "baskets" of different mesh sizes, fitted one within the other. Honey passes through the innermost, 12-mesh, basket and then through one or two others with finer meshes. Such strainers work well for most beekeeping operations.

Storage Container. Honey is a delicate, perishable product, and after it has been extracted and strained it must be properly stored. The beekeeper should be aware of some of its special properties: it can absorb moisture from the air, it reacts with metals, it changes colour if exposed to light over long periods, and its taste changes on heating, so that it must be neither heated nor stored in an excessively warm room.

If it is not bottled for sale immediately after extraction, honey should he stored in clean, noncorroding, tightly-sealed containers strong enough to withstand its weight (honey is about 1 1/2 times the weight of water). Glass-lined steel drums, off-white opaque heavy-duty polyethylene cans, and lacquer-coated or galvanized-iron cans are among the popular containers used.

Wax Melter. Beeswax is a valuable hive product, and it should be melted down with care. The equipment used in rendering it from cappings and broken combs, after all surplus honey has been extracted from them, includes solar wax melters, steam chests and presses. Since the first two of these can only recover from a third to half of the wax contained in the residue, a press is needed to obtain as much of the remaining wax as possible; steam-heated, underwater, screw-type or hydraulic presses are used for this purpose.


B. Obtaining colonies of Apis mellifera

Several methods exist of obtaining colonies for initiating beekeeping with Apis mellifera. Two, mentioned briefly in Chapter 4 in connection with A. cerana, are of little or no practical use in most parts of Asia, where large populations of the common honeybee have not yet been established: capturing swarms and transferring colonies from feral nests.

(1) Buying Complete Hives

The easiest way to obtain honeybee colonies is obviously to buy complete hives from an established beekeeper. It must be recognized, however, that in countries or areas in which modern beekeeping with A. mellifera has not yet taken root, such local purchase is rarely possible, and it is necessary to import such complete hives from abroad, not a realistic approach in many circumstances.

Given the right price and the good condition of both the bees and the equipment, buying complete hives has often proved to be the most economical approach for beginners, who may in addition be able to obtain valuable suggestions and guidance from the seller. Other advantages are that an apiary can be established immediately, and that the beekeeper can often divide colonies in the populous hives acquired.

Considerations which the prospective purchaser should hear in mind in buying hives include the condition of the hive equipment, the population of adult workers and brood in each hive, the age and egg-laying performance of the queens, and the amount of honey and pollen stored, as well as the price.

(2) Buying Nucleus Colonies

A nucleus colony (see Fig. 5/17) is a small hive unit, normally consisting of 2 to 5 frames of brood, a small quantity of food reserves, several thousand workers and a laying queen. Nucleus colonies are cheaper than complete hives and are lighter in weight, so that they can be transported more easily at less cost.

The guidelines set out above for the purchase of complete hives apply equally to the purchase of nucleus colonies. They should if possible be bought in the spring, or at another time when natural Forage is abundant. Under these conditions, they will soon outgrow their small hive bodies and must be transferred to standard hives properly equipped with frames and foundation.

(3) Package Bees

Package bees are not normally available in most Asian countries, but in some areas the private sector of beekeeping development projects may wish to purchase packages from abroad. The handling of package trees is discussed here in some detail because of the likelihood that this technique will take on greater importance in the medium term, if not sooner.

Basically, a package of bees consists of several thousands of workers, a mated queen, and a can of sugar syrup provided as food during shipment. The trees are packed in a wooden box, two ends of which are screened to provide ventilation. A package contains from 2 to 5 pounds (900 to 2250 g) of bees, one pound (450 g) consisting of 2500-3000 workers. The price of a package, net of shipping costs, is determines by the weight of trees it contains, but as a general rule package trees are cheaper than complete or nucleus colonies.

When ordering packages, the beekeeper specifies a delivery date, in order to be prepared in time to receive them. As soon as they arrive, the bees are fed on a 1:1 sugar syrup, which is brushed over the wire screen of the package. To ensure adequate feeding, from 300 to 500 cc of syrup should be allowed per package, depending on the number of bees it contains.

The bees are best transferred from the package to the hive in late afternoon, one or two hours before dark. Hives should contain five frames, provided with foundation. The feeder can is removed from the package, and any bees it contains are shaken into the hive. The queen cage is removed from the package and the condition of the queen is observed. If any "queen candy" 1/ remains in the hive, at least half of it is removed, so that the workers can release the queen from her cage within a day; the queen cage is then placed between two frames in the middle of the hive. The remaining bees are shaken from the package into the hive (see Fig. 5/18) and provided with about two litres of sugar syrup.

One or two days after installation the hive is inspected to ensure that the queen has been released and that the hive contains enough syrup to stimulate comb construction. The colony should normally begin rearing brood within a week of being installed. The beekeeper should inspect the hive frequently for signs of disease or abnormalities and to ascertain whether the colony needs additional frames.

The greatest difficulty involved in obtaining package bees from abroad lies in the transportation problem. Starvation and suffocation from heat at airport warehouses while the packages are in transit are perhaps the two most important limiting factors in the importation of package bees. These risks can however be minimized by reducing the duration of the travel, and

Establishing honeybee colonies from packages thus involves complex arrangements, care during installation, and a certain amount of time and attention, but since only adult trees are shipped in this manner, the risk of importing brood diseases is minimized.


C. Colony location

A good apiary site must suit both the needs of the bees and the convenience of the beekeeper. As far as the bees are concerned, a good location is one in which forage is abundant throughout the year or during a period long enough to permit the bees to hoard food. It should be secluded, well drained, safe from flash floods, and protected against strong winds and heavy rains; a source of clean water must be available nearby. In temperate regions the site should receive plenty of sun, but in the tropics it should be partially shaded, to protect the bees against hive overheating in the hot sunlight (see Fig. 5/20). If possible, the site should also be safe from destructive enemies of honeybees and from toxic farm chemicals.

It is to the beekeeper's advantage that there exist a good access road or path to the apiary. The site should be relatively flat, and spacious enough for the colonies to be manipulated easily. To avoid foraging competition with bees from neighbouring apiaries, and also to minimize robbing and the spread of bee diseases, apiaries should be located at least two kilometres apart; if the apiaries are large, this distance should be increased, since workers can fly farther than 10 km.

Commercial beekeepers generally own many colonies of honeybees, and the question arises of how many colonies should be placed in a single apiary, since if the number is excessive, the foraging competition among colonies will have a direct and negative effect on hive yield. For all practical purposes, an apiary should normally consist of 30 to 80 colonies, the two most important factors determining the optimum number being the worker population in the hives and the amount of forage available in the area. Where nectar and pollen sources are abundant, an apiary can consist of 50 or more hives with relatively large worker populations without endangering satisfactory yields.

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