Copyright 1997 by Janice D. Green

The Basics

Many people enjoy keeping bees. Some enjoy beekeeping as a hobby. Others make a career of keeping bees. They make money by pollinating crops for farmers and by selling honey.

Beekeepers must have certain equipment to work with bees. First they must have a bee veil that usually hangs around a plastic helmet and fits closely around the neck. This keeps the bees from stinging the beekeeper around the face and head. When bees are angry they usually try to sting as close to the eyes as possible, so the veil is very important.

Beekeepers use smoke to calm the bees down. They do this by making a small fire in a smoker and squeezing the bellows to make the smoke come out. When bees are frightened they send out a special scent to alarm the other bees to attack. When a beekeeper uses smoke on a beehive, the bees are no longer able to smell the alarm scent so they keep on working in the hive.

Beekeepers use special clothing to protect themselves from stings. Some bee suits are thicker than others and give more protection. Many commercial beekeepers feel that the bee suits and gloves are too bulky and hot. They choose to risk getting stung every now and then rather than have to wear clothing that slows them down. Those who don't wear official bee suits usually choose light colored shirts and long pants. They avoid bright or dark colors. If the beekeeper wears dark colors the bees might think he is a bear. If he wears bright colors, the bees are attracted to him as to a bright colored flower.

Beekeepers know that if they move slowly around the beehives they are not likely to get stung. They also learn the best times to work with the bees. If the bees are busy gathering pollen and nectar, they are happy and hardly notice the beekeeper if he is careful. It is best not to disturb the beehives if it is a cloudy or rainy day or if it is late in the evening or after dark. The bees get angry quickly when a beekeeper opens a hive under these conditions.

A basic tool of the beekeeper is the hive tool. This is a simple piece of metal that is long, flat and straight and curves up on one end. It works as a pry-bar to open the hives and a scraper to clean beeswax and trash off various pieces of equipment. The curved end has a notch in it for pulling out nails.

The Bee Hive

Before discussing the equipment used to make up the bee hive, it will be helpful to learn a little about the bees. The most important single bee in a colony is the queen bee. She is the largest bee in the hive and her only job is to lay the eggs for all the bees in the colony.

The smaller worker bees do all the work in the hive. When they are very young they take care of the brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae that have not hatched). As they get older they take on different jobs such as tending to the needs of the queen, gathering pollen and nectar, and guarding the entrances to the colony.

The male bees, called drones, are larger than the workers but smaller than the queen. Their only job is to mate with the queen. After this happens they die immediately. In times when food is scarce such as in the winter, the drone bees are pushed out of the hive to die.

Most beekeepers in the United States keep bees in Langstroth hives. These hives are rectangular boxes 16 1/4" wide X 20" long X 9 5/8" high. The opening is at the bottom of the hive and is built into the bottom board which extends out in front like a porch. Inside the hive box are usually nine or ten frames the bees build their combs in. The bees raise the brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae) in these combs.

A second box, called a super, is only 5 - 6 inches high and sits above the hive body. This box usually has nine or ten frames of comb in it. A special metal or plastic divider is placed between the hive body and the super. This divider has many holes in it. These holes are small enough to keep the larger queen bee from passing through it to lay eggs in the super. The worker bees, which are smaller than the queen bee, can pass through these holes to make honey in the supers. Many supers can be placed upon a single hive body if the bees are strong and there is a flow of nectar available from the plants around for the bees to gather to make honey. There must be a water-tight lid over the top super to keep the combs dry.

There needs to be some kind of hive stand to keep the hive up off the ground. This protects the hive from ants and termites and keeps the hive dryer.

Beekeepers need to continually check the bees for mites and disease. They also need to check to see if they need feed, especially in the winter and sometimes in the heat of the summer or any time there are no good sources of forage. They need to check now and then to see if the queen bee is laying eggs. If she is not, she is too old and needs to be replaced with a new one.

Queen bees as well as package bees (workers) can be ordered through the mail. Beekeepers may order queens to replace old queens, or they may try to raise their own queens. Queen bees can be raised by carefully selecting day old worker larvae laid by an especially strong queen. These larvae are then moved into larger, specially designed, queen cell cups. The cups are then hung inside a frame that is placed into a hive that has no queen. The workers will feed these larvae the diet that is to be given to queen larvae and queen bees will eventually hatch out of the cells. Transfering the larvae is very difficult to do and, until the beekeeper gets good at it, only a few survive to make queen bees.

Pollination Specialists

Beekeepers must often move live beehives from one place to another for pollinating crops. The hives can be stacked one on top of another on the back of a flatbed truck or trailer.  Farmers pay the beekeeper to place beehives on the edges of their fields so they will pollinate the blossoms on their crops. A very large field of watermelons (say one hundred acres) may have as many as one hundred hives on it. The hives must be in the fields as soon as the blossoms begin to bloom and they must stay in the fields until the last blossoms finish blooming. The hives are placed in groups of two to six on pallets or other stands. By doing this the bees can more readily locate their own hives. Once the crops stop blooming, the bees are ready to be moved to another farm on another kind of crop. Sometimes a hive of bees may be placed on three or more different farms in a summer.

Commercial Honey Production

The bees might also be moved from one place to another to get good nectar for making honey. Some special kinds of honey American beekeepers like to get are orange blossom honey (on orchards of orange trees), clover honey (in the Northeast and Midwest), sourwood honey (in the southern Appalachian Mountains), mesquite honey (from mesquite shrubs on the southwestern deserts), starthistle honey (from the starthistle weed in the North), blackberry honey (from blackberry blossoms) and wildflower honey (from various wildflowers, especially goldenrod).

Migrant Beekeepers

Often bees are moved only a few miles, but sometimes they are moved several hundred miles. Beekeepers who move their bees great distances are called migrant beekeepers.

Many beekeepers from New York, Vermont, and other northern states take their bees to South Carolina and Florida for the winter season. This gives the bees a better chance of surviving the winter. Many beekeepers who stay in the northern states such as New York and Vermont lose large numbers of their beehives every year.  Beekeepers who truck their bees south have  stronger bees in the spring to take back north. Some of these bees spend the winter in southern states such as South Carolina while others are taken further south to Florida where they pollinate oranges and grapefruit. While these bees are pollinating the oranges, they were also gathering nectar and making honey. Orange blossom honey is a very tasty honey and is easy to sell for a good price.

When we keep in mind that one third of our food is dependent on pollinators and we realize that there are fewer and fewer bees each year, we begin to appreciate the hard work of the beekeeper and the importance of bees and beekeeping to our food supply. More beekeepers are needed if we are going to have enough bees to pollinate our food.

SWARM  a New Fun Bee Game


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