Beekeeping—A “Sweet” Story
By Awake! correspondent in Greece
THE dawn twilight hesitantly spreads its pastel illumination across the sky. Amid the early morning chill and mist, a pickup truck pulls quietly to the side of the road at the base of a mountain slope. Two shadowy figures emerge—clothed in gloves, boots, cotton overalls, and veiled, broad-rimmed hats. With careful but eager movements, they load scores of wooden boxes onto the truck. A couple of thieves making off with easy spoil? No, a couple of beekeepers taking good care of their army of precious bees—ready to hit the road, heading for another destination where there are nectar-producing plants.
Beekeepers are a special breed of people, who boast of an interactive relationship with a special kind of insect. On one hand, there is the honeybee, perhaps the most economically valuable of all insects, which produces honey and beeswax and pollinates a great variety of crops. On the other hand, there are the people who eke out a living tending bees and who at the same time love these little creatures and “understand what makes them tick,” as one of them puts it.
A Caretaker of “Everyday Miracles”
Becoming a beekeeper may sound easy: Obtain a number of hives full of bee colonies, put them at a nectar-producing location, and return after some months to harvest the products. But this is not so. To find out what is actually involved, we spoke with John and Maria, professional beekeepers, who gladly told us about their beloved occupation.
“Beekeeping is an exercise in everyday miracles,” John remarks as he leans over an open hive. “As yet, no one clearly understands the highly structured community life, the advanced communication skills, and the brilliant work habits of the honeybee.”
Tracing the history of professional beekeeping, John mentions that in the past beekeepers harvested honey by destroying the colonies, which inhabited hollow trees and other cavities. In 1851, however, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, an American apiarist, found out that bees leave spaces of about one fourth of an inch [6 mm] between wax combs. Thus, man-made wooden hives in which a similar space is left between comb frames could be used. Removing individual frames from a beehive and harvesting honey and wax without destroying the colony now became possible.
“For successful beekeeping,” continues John, “you must have strong affection for your bee colonies. You are like a father to your bees, and I believe that they realize this and respond accordingly. You also become their doctor, their caretaker, their feeder during the difficult times of the winter.”
Maria adds: “A good beekeeper can tell much from just a glance at a beehive, which usually contains between 8 thousand and 80 thousand bees. If you are experienced, when you open the hive, the mere sound of the buzzing will tell you if the colony is thriving, productive, and ‘happy’; if it is hungry; if it is an ‘orphan’ because the queen bee has died; if it is agitated by something unpleasant; and much, much more.”
Important Factors for Successful Beekeeping
“A careful choice of the location where a beekeeper puts his hives is crucial,” John explains. “We take pains to locate flowering pastures where the bees can find food.
“The beekeeper may follow orange and basswood blossoms in order to keep his colonies busy. During summer and autumn, an area full of pine and fir trees will help to produce good quality honey having a clear reddish color, which sells well in the market. Fields of wild thyme blossoms will make for the best kind of honey—the king of honey, as apiarists call it. The bees also forage on white clover, yellow sweet clover, and alfalfa.”
Common sense is paramount. Maria explains: “When we place the hives in a mountainous region, it is advantageous to put them near the base of the mountain. Bees can therefore fly uphill, visit the flower-laden trees, and then—loaded—fly an easier, descending path back to their hives. If the hives were far up the slope above the trees, this would exhaust the bees and adversely affect the colony’s productivity.”
“Every beekeeper understands the vital role played by the queen in the welfare and the productivity of a colony,” says John as he gingerly holds up one of the hive frames with a young queen nestled at its center. “In hives that produce meager amounts of brood and honey, the queen has to be killed and replaced. Colonies with young queens make the most honey. Also, when we want to create new colonies, we take a healthy double hive teeming with bees and separate the top and bottom boxes. One half holds the queen, so we put a young, mated queen in the other half. By the time the flowers bloom, the new queen will be laying eggs, filling the hive with young worker bees.”
How long does a bee live? We are told that the life span of the worker bee is inversely proportional to its industriousness. In summer, when a bee is foraging flowers for about 15 hours a day and flying at a speed of some 13 miles an hour [21 km/hr], it lives only six weeks. Wintertime is less physically taxing for the bees, as they work only two to three hours a day, and thus they may manage to live several months.
The first thing that comes to mind when we speak about beekeeping is, of course, honey. This sweet, viscid fluid is nectar converted by the worker bee. On an average, a commercial hive can produce 64 pounds [29 kg] a year. Beeswax is another precious by-product of the bee’s activity. A honeycomb is useful for about five to six years. By then, its color has darkened because of various microbes and parasites residing on it and it must be replaced. The discarded honeycombs are processed for their beeswax. Average commercial production is 20 to 40 pounds [9 to 18 kg] of beeswax for every ton of honey harvested.
Pollen—which is the principal source of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fat for the development of queen, worker, and drone—is also praised by some people as a fine natural medicine for a number of physical ailments. A hive can give about ten pounds [5 kg] of it in one year. Propolis is a substance that bees use to insulate their hive and to encase any intruder that is too large to remove.
Directly or indirectly, the production of about one fourth of the food we consume depends upon the honeybee’s ability to pollinate crops. Apples, almonds, watermelons, plums, pears, cucumbers, and different kinds of berries all depend on bees for pollination. So do various seed crops, including carrots, onions, and even sunflowers. Meat and dairy products are also affected by bees, which pollinate the alfalfa that becomes feed for livestock.
“I think that most beekeepers do believe in God,” says Maria, reminding us of our inability to explain the intricacies of the bees’ social structure, their fascinating development of a complex community life, and their superb abilities in orientation and communication. Many people who study and take care of bees would readily ascribe all of this to the fact that bees are “instinctively wise,” such instinct having been generously bestowed upon them by our Grand Creator, Jehovah God.—Compare Proverbs 30:24.
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From the Flower to Your Table
1 The field honeybee visits a flower and collects nectar
As they visit flowers, the bees collect nectar in their honey sac, which is an enlargement of their esophagus. To fill this sac, the bee must make between 1,000 and 1,500 visits to individual florets
2 Back in the hive, nectar is stored in the honeycomb
On entering the hive, the field bee regurgitates the contents of its honey sac into the mouth of a young worker bee. The worker bee then deposits the nectar in a cell and performs the tasks necessary to convert the nectar into honey
3 The beekeeper harvests the honey
With a heated blade, he shaves away the wax that covers the cells within each frame. Then he puts the frames into an extractor, which will remove the honey by centrifugal force
4 Honey is packed in jars or individual portions
Labels on honey jars tell what plants were foraged by the bees. If the jar is transparent, you may be able to check the quality by the color of the honey
5 Honey is good for your health!
Honey is easily assimilated by the body and quickly converted into energy. Reports show that it can be used for treating burns and various types of flesh wounds