There are about 20,000 known species of bees. Only 7 species are honey bees which includes 44 subspecies that can all be grouped into three branches: Micrapis (dwarf honey bees), Megapis (giant honey bee), and Apis (domestic honey bees and close relatives).
Humans have been collecting wild honey as far back as 10,000 years ago, and some time later, began learning how to manage wild bees (aka ‘domesticating’ bees) using artificial hives made from hollow logs, wooden boxes, pottery vessels, and woven straw baskets. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a better understanding of bee behavior and their colonies resulted in the invention and development of a revolutionary ‘moveable comb hive’ that allowed honey to be harvested without destroying the entire colony. Beekeeping really took off from there.
HOW BEES MAKE HONEY
Bees make honey primarily from flower nectar, but they’ll use other plant saps as well as the sticky and sugary liquid (called ‘honeydew’) secreted by insects feeding on plants. The bee sucks the liquid up through its long, tube-like tongue (called a ‘proboscis’) and stores it in its honey sac, then adds special enzymes that convert the nectar into different types of sugars as the nectar begins to evaporate. The bee returns to the hive, places the nectar into the cells of the honeycomb, and uses its wings to further evaporate water from the nectar. Warm temperatures within a hive continue the evaporation, and when the water content of the nectar is good and low, the bees seal the cell with a wax capping using the beeswax produced from the special glands in the abdominal segments of worker bees. Simple as that!
A TASTE OF HONEY
Honey is one of the world’s oldest foods, and it’s become increasingly popular today among foodies as different color, texture and flavor varieties have become available and the nutritional value is recognized as an added bonus to the sweet taste sourced from nature. In fact, honey is super rich in nutrients (glucose, fructose and water) and contains at least 16 antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and other plant substances such as grains of pollen as well as small amounts of other sugars, vitamins, amino acids, minerals and enzymes. Adding to all that good stuff, honey, with its antibacterial properties and healing power, is an ancient remedy in the treatment of wounds, burns, skin ulcers and inflammations.
There are also more and more hobby beekeepers and small producers, making fresh, locally produced honey more available at farmers’ markets and speciality stores and offering shoppers a chance to taste unique honey as well as help support beekeeping sustainability with a purchase. And now– incredibly, there’s a website to help you find locally produced honey anywhere in the world. GO TO → Local Honey Finder. The National Honey Board (USA agricultural promotion group) also has a Honey Locator Map for all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Germany. Try them both to find all the best spots for locally produced honey. (Tip – Call & verify online info before you take off for a new honey hole.)
IS BEEKEEPING THE RIGHT HOBBY FOR YOU?
If you’re thinking about beekeeping in Nepal, decide only after you’ve watched the video The Last Honey Hunter (Behind the Scenes). Two American photographers/climbers capture the harrowing process of harvesting honey from large hives of the Himalayan giant honey bee from under overhangs on the faces of vertical cliffs.
Beekeeping is both an art and science as well as a fascinating hobby. It also requires commitment and some know-how. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a rock climber, but there are a few things you should consider before embarking on a beekeeping venture:
Allergies to bee stings. Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. If you’re allergic to bee stings, this is not the hobby for you as a sting or two is inevitable in beekeeping. But, you can become an ‘arm chair beekeeper’ as well as help support environmental and education projects for research into sustainability of honey bees. [Go to → British Beekeepers Association Adopt a Beehive] You can also help bees by providing water and bee-loving flowering plants in an out-of-the-way spot within your backyard garden. [How to create an oasis for bees – Plant a Bee Garden]
Rules and Requirements. Check local ordinances, zoning regulations and homeowners association rules for beekeeping restrictions and requirements in your area, and talk to your neighbors to make sure bees would be welcomed in the neighborhood.
Local beekeepers association — Always the best information resource for honey lovers as well as beginner beekeepers. [Check out this → interactive map to find local beekeeping associations in USA and Canada, and the British Beekeepers Association online search tool to find local organizations within the UK → search UK. In Australia, find a club via the Amateur Beekeepers Association → find a local club. In New Zealand, search using a club map → here. If you reside in other areas of the world, there’s a good chance you’ll find helpful information for locating a nearby organization at this resource page → Honey Traveler – Beekeeping Associations, Journals & Magazines]
Beekeeping class. You’ll benefit from an introductory course that provides a basic understanding of beekeeping before you make a big investment in time and money. Most often you’ll find classes offered by local beekeeper associations or community groups, but there are online courses, too. For example, comprehensive online lessons and step-by-step basics (including videos) by Brushy Mountain Bee Farm are free → BEE Educated], and in the video series NATURAL BEEKEEPING, beekeeper Jerry Dunbar explains and demonstrates the entire beekeeping process, including establishing a new hive, monitoring and maintaining beehive health, harvesting honey, and transforming other products from the hive into useful healthy products humans can use.
Study Up. Do some online research and read books and magazines to learn more about bees and beekeeping. THE BACKYARD BEEKEEPER by Kim Flottum is a popular handbook filled with expert advice for urban and rural beekeepers at every skill level. There are also video documentaries that showcase bees and beekeeping around the globe. HONEY HUNTERS is a breathtaking documentary (the photography is amazing) that takes you from the perilous hills of Nepal to Paris rooftops for a look at some of the extreme methods involved in protecting bees and harvesting honey.
Definition and Uses of Honey, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Honey: Its medicinal property and antibacterial activity by Manisha Deb Mandal and Shyamapada Mandal (Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, April 1, 2011)
Beekeeping and Sustainability – Bees For Development
The Forest Beekeepers of Zanzibar, In Pictures (August 27, 2018) – Decades of intense farming has stripped much of the land, but reforestation programs are underway, and bees are helping by pollinating the plants and providing additional income to farmers from the sale of honey.
Massive Loss of Thousands of Hives Afflicts Orchard Growers and Beekeepers, NPR, The Salt (February 19, 2019) – Chemicals, loss of wildflowers, climate change, nutrition and viruses all affect the health of honey bees, but in 2019, a deadly parasite called the varroa mite is the cause of devastating losses of honey bee colonies. Many US beekeepers have lost half their hives, some as many as 80%.
Honey Bees and Beekeeping – Wikipedia
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Feature photo is courtesy of Jenna Lee/Unsplash CC0
Taste of Honey photo courtesy of Tookapic/Pexels CC0
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