Apiculture, the practice of breeding and keeping honey bees (Apis Mellifera) has been practiced in Europe and Asia throughout recorded history. What are honey bees? Honey bees are social insects living in colonies with a single fertile queen, which is normally the only egg layer in the colony. The work required in the hive and the collection of nectar and pollen from the flowers, is carried out by the worker bees (females). Drone bees (males) are present to mate with the queen. Sufficient honey is stored in the hive to keep the bees over the winter.
The workers convert the nectar (a weak solution of mostly glucose and water) into honey (a concentrated solution of glucose and fructose) using the enzyme invertase secreted in the worker bee. They also secrete beeswax from which the comb is made and in which the eggs are laid and the honey is stored.
At one time, bees were kept by country people to provide honey for the family as a valued food, and it could be sold to provide extra income. The population of this country is now generally more affluent and does not need to keep bees to supplement family income – you can get inexpensive imported honey from the supermarket. So there are now fewer beekeepers.
Honey Bees around the hive
Of the honey sold in this county about 90% is imported. Honey has always been regarded as a pure and healthy product and it is important that honey does not lose this reputation. Beekeeping is a truly international activity and there is widespread cooperation between beekeepers throughout the world.
There is a serious interest in Europe in bee breeding to improve the quality of honey bees – whereby bees show an enhanced resistance to disease, an ability to forage in poor weather, a lack of aggressive behaviour, and an ability to cope with the very variable and unpredictable British climate. In Britain, although the importation of honey bees is now carefully controlled, we nevertheless have a hybrid or mixed stock of honey bees. By contrast, in Germany, through hard work and cooperation between their beekeepers, beekeeper associations and the provincial and federal governments, the country now has one type of purebred bee – the Carniolan bee, so their bees are of consistent quality and aggressive behaviour should not occur.
The membership of the British Beekeepers Association has been declining for the last fifty years. In spite of this rather sad fact, one feels that there will always be people in Britain dedicated to the craft of beekeeping to keep it going. But one cannot be certain of this. In the future we can be assured of future difficulties to be overcome – dealing with GM crops, the effect of climate change, the resistance of bees to present methods of treating varroa, and new parasites coming in from abroad.
In spite of all these potential hazards, there can be an enjoyment and satisfaction in keeping bees, which is quite profound and difficult to put into words. There are ‘ups and downs’, things that sometimes go wrong, not to mention that you can get stung! Nevertheless, through beekeeping you meet the most interesting people and work with the most fascinating animals. It is not to be undertaken lightly, but as I have said, the rewards of a life-long interest in bees are really ‘something special’.