Almost everyone loves honey – one of nature’s sweet treats, most people don’t give it a second thought when it comes to how it was produced; they just know it tastes delicious! But did you know that beekeeping is an ancient practice that dates back thousands of years? In fact, the act of collecting honey has evolved dramatically over the course of history. In order to responsibly harvest this invaluable natural resource, there are a series of ethical and environmentally-safe practices that beekeepers must maintain. In this article, we’ll explore the elaborate process of apiculture and what it takes to be a beekeeper today – including the fascinating evolution of beekeeping and how it affects our planet.
What Is Apiculture: An Introduction
Beekeeping – or apiculture – is the maintenance of bee colonies, typically in man-made hives, by humans. The most commonly utilized bees used for honey production are honey bees (genus Apis), but other honey-producing bees such as Melipona stingless bees are also kept.
A beekeeper – or apiarist – keeps bees in order to harvest their honey as well as other products that the hives produce (such as bee pollen, flower pollen, beeswax, propolis and royal jelly) in order to pollinate crops, or to breed bees for sale to other beekeepers. An apiary – also known as a bee yard – is the location where the bees are kept.
Archeologists have discovered depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees that date back 10,000 years. While beekeeping in pottery vessels began approximately 9,000 years ago in North Africa, domestication of bees is portrayed in Egyptian art around 4,500 years ago. Other prehistoric evidence of apiculture has been found in Greece, China, and in ancient Maya civilizations.
What Does An Apiarist Do: Exploring The Practices Of Beekeepers
In addition to raising bees and overseeing their production of honey and honey by-products, an apiarist’s responsibilities also include keeping their hives healthy and productive. In certain cases, some apiarists will keep and breed bees for pollination programs in geographic regions where wild bees and other pollinators are in short supply. In a nutshell: our ecosystem essentially depends upon bees.
As you can see, the job of a beekeeper is not only important to the survival of bees, but our environment as a whole! It should also be noted that beekeepers practice their craft in many capacities – while some may work on big industrial farms, others may own small to medium-sized companies that produce honey for their local marketplaces. Additionally, there are apiary hobbyists who raise bees for their own personal honey production. Most successful beekeepers monitor their hives carefully, which includes but is not limited to tasks such as:
- Keeping detailed records of bee activity
- Monitoring the bees
- Maintaining the hives
- Harvesting the honey & other produce
Due to the demanding nature of apiculture, a beekeeper requires both education and commitment to bee welfare as a whole, including ecological conservation and biodiversity. Additionally, today’s apiarist must stay abreast of growing environmental challenges, such as the parasitical Varroa mite, CCD (colony collapse disorder), and other ecological problems. Simply put, beekeepers must be passionate about their livelihood, as it is a demanding yet rewarding field that affects our environment on a massive scale.
The Environmental Impact Of Apiarists: Supporting Healthier Hives
The job of a beekeeper is no joke – in addition to maintaining their hives and the welfare of these incredible insects, their work ultimately affects how our planet’s ecosystem operates. By helping to protect the health and vitality of the Earth’s bee population, they are directly impacting our environment by minimizing the levels of toxins in their hives.
Toxins are a part of our ecosystem – for example, did you know that plants naturally produce toxins to protect themselves against pests and predators? Honey bees have evolved so that they’re able to detoxify some of these naturally-occurring toxins that are ingested along with pollen or nectar. However, it becomes problematic when synthetic chemicals and other man-made pollutants make their way into the hive – and when the bees ingest more than one toxin at a time, their immune response is often overloaded and can lead to a myriad of detrimental results. Unfortunately, one of the biggest forms of toxicity is from the chemicals used to control the Varroa mites. Research has shown exposure to combined toxins make honey bees more susceptible to diseases and Varroa infestation, while having an adverse effect on fertility and longevity.
One hopeful initiative led by biologist Paul Stamets is the development of a mushroom-based treatment for the deadly viruses spread by the Varroa mite:
“In field trials, colonies fed mycelium extract from amadou and reishi fungi showed a 79-fold reduction in deformed wing virus and a 45,000 fold reduction in lake sunai virus compared to control colonies”
Additional research has indicated that in an ideal scenario for bee health, a colony is sited effectively to perform pollination services at a single, permanent location that offers year-round forage without exposure to harmful substances. This can be supported by re-designing the business models for both the crop producer and the beekeeper. In 2016, pollination services made up 41% of beekeepers’ revenue. By bringing bees on site, and designing for better forage, the farmer can potentially decrease their costs associated with pollination services, while supporting beekeepers to have healthier hives that can produce high-value comb honey.
While it requires a great deal of dedication, research, knowledge, and experience, successful beekeepers can do so by avoiding agricultural pesticides and synthetic miticides, as well as rotating out all comb within the hive on a routine basis. But at the end of the day, beekeepers don’t take on this job because it’s easy – it’s a challenge that is often difficult, but always fascinating (ask any apiarist)!
Looking Ahead: Better Beekeeping For The Future
With the ever-changing state of our earth’s ecosystem, it is so important for professional beekeepers to maintain best practices – what may have worked as an apiarist several years ago may no longer be relevant. By staying abreast of science news, technology, and related products, beekeepers can help to shape and protect the collective future of the bee kingdom and the planet’s biodiversity at large.
The subtle nuances of a beekeeper’s techniques along with variables such as climate, year, forage quality, bee genetics and other environmental factors directly impact not only the success of a hive, but ultimately the role that bees play in our ecosystem. Pass The Honey is committed to a synergistic relationship with its producers for that very reason – we realize the importance of honey bees and their impact on our environment, and continue to strive for ways to support responsible harvesting methodologies – and the apiarists that keep them (and our planet) thriving!
1) Conrad, Ross. “The Successful Beekeeper.” Bee culture.com, August 23, 2016, https://www.beeculture.com/the-successful-beekeeper/. Accessed May 6, 2019.
2) “What Is a Beekeeper?” Environmental Science.org, (no publish date), https://www.environmentalscience.org/career/beekeeper. Accessed May 6, 2019.
3) Caughey, Melissa. “11 Considerations Before Becoming a Beekeeper.” Keeping Backyard Bees.com, February 9, 2015, https://www.keepingbackyardbees.com/11-considerations-before-becoming-beekeeper/. Accessed May 6, 2019.