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What is Beekeeping?

Honey bees are some of the most important pollinators on the planet. Mainly, due to the fact that they live in large families and can be transported to crop fields. They are also known for producing delicious honey. This is not a new practice. Humans have been managing honey bees for thousands of years. To clearly define – what is beekeeping, we must look at its history and future.

What is Beekeeping Called?

Apiculturist involved in beekeeping inspecting hive image.

Beekeeping is also called apiculture (ay-puh-kuhl-chr).  The word is derived from a combination of the Latin word for bee “apis” and the French word culture. 

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Apiculture was first used to describe honey bee management in the mid-19th century. But, humans and bees were interacting well before them. Bees are referenced in many aspects of mythology and even associated with Gods.

Okay, so we are taking care of bees – but what kind of bees?  Did you know there are thousands of species of bees in the world!  However, it is the ever-popular honey bee who is at the heart of the beekeeping industry.

Beekeepers who care for honey bees are called apiarists. Colonies are largely kept for the purpose of producing honey or providing beneficial pollination to farmers. Some folks want to have a hive to two just to enjoy the beauty of bees.

Early beekeeping tools smoker, hive tools image.

History of Beekeeping

Though we do not know for sure when man first kept a hive of wild bees, we do know that the practice dates back thousands of years.

Discovered cave paintings depicting beekeeping date back thousands of years.  In those early times, the honey bee colonies were likely killed in order to harvest honey.

As time went on, humans learned how to care for the honey bees.  This meant a chance for a harvest without destroying the hive.

Big changes in beekeeping took place during the 1800’s.  This was the time of Rev L Langstroth and his work in developing the Langstroth hive

Building on the earlier work of other bee researchers, his book – The Hive and the Honeybee became the beekeeper’s bible.  It is still revered today as a detailed work on honey bee management.

Old beehives wood and straw in an early beekeeping field.

Of course, there have been some famous beekeepers throughout history.  Not all of them were bee researchers but they all shared a love for this miraculous insect.

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Other beekeeping inventions during this time period include the bee smoker, wax foundation for frames and the honey extractor.  These items helped make it possible for beekeeping to become a viable business model.

Types of Apiaries (Beekeeping Businesses)

An apiary is the term used to describe a location where hives are set up. It can be very small or very large. A small bee yard with a few hives is considered a hobby or small scale operation.

Backyard Beekeeping

Hobby beekeepers often have less than 10 hives and produce honey for family and friends.  Any excess honey may be sold to a local market or small shop.  

These backyard beekeepers are not trying to produce a viable income from their hives.  However, it is really nice to be able to recoup a few beekeeping expenses from honey sales.

Large apiary of commercial beekeeping hives image.

Beekeeping as a Business

Commercial beekeepers, on the other hand, may manage thousands of beehives in several different apiaries or bee yards.

Even though honey bees all have the same basic needs – managing a thousand colonies requires some different techniques – compared to having 2 hives in the backyard.

Life for a commercial beekeeper often involves moving many hives from one location to another.  This allows them to make money from pollination services. However, these beekeepers also shoulder a lot of risk.

Regardless of the number of hives you have, there are basic bee management tasks required for any colony.

  • monitor quality of queen bee
  • feed colonies sugar syrup to prevent starvation
  • diagnose and treat pest problems
  • add and remove honey supers at right time
  • manage or catch swarms
  • prepare colonies for Winter

A backyard beekeeper can expect to spend some time each week during the warm season in the bee yard. These tasks as not necessary each day but a watchful eye on the hives is always a good idea.

Honeybee Colony Life

The Western Honey bee or European Honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most popular species of honey bee world wide. These bees live together in a colony that has thousands of individuals. 

Each colony member has a job to do. The queen’s job is to lay eggs for the colony and produce pheromones.

Female worker bees take care of the queen, raise young and gather food for the colony. Male bees, known as drones, do no work but are necessary for mating when a new queen is needed.

While honey bees do not hibernate, they can survive as a colony from one season to the next. Working hard during the warm months, bees gather plant nectar and convert it into honey for use during Winter.  In fact, bees are such good workers that they often make enough honey to share.

Beekeeping pollination work with hive in lavender field.

Beekeeping is Farming

According to the USDA, beekeeping is farming.  While managing a hive is much different than tending a vegetable garden or keeping cows, there are some similarities.

Gardeners, ranchers and beekeepers are all dependent on good weather conditions.  Bad weather can result in a loss of crop for the season. Migratory beekeepers faces enough more challenges.

Honey bees are considered livestock.  However, they are still wild insects.  We do not control where they fly. 

This can cause problems for the colonies as they sometimes get into dangerous substances such as pesticides. Risks of this type are the flip-side of the benefits of keeping bees.

Managing your livestock in a way that keeps it healthy increases your chance of having a successful harvest. However, the specific tasks of a beekeeper depends on your goals, number of hives and location.

Honey, wax and pollen beekeeping products produced by hive.

Products Produced by the Hive

There are many products of the hive that be produced and used or sold.

  • pollen
  • beeswax
  • bee venom
  • propolis
  • royal jelly
  • new hives of bees

Honey bees collect pollen as a protein source. It is used to raise developing young. Excess pollen can be harvested from the bees and sold to health food stores.

Comb or beeswax is another valuable hive product. Beeswax is used in many creams and lotions – and it makes beautiful candles too.

Bee venom and propolis both fit into the homeopathic category. They are used to ease the pain of various ailments.

Some beekeepers (even mid-sized ones) sell extra bees to help offset the cost of beekeeping. This is a great way to let the colonies help pay for themselves.

Modern Apiculture

Apiculture in the United States has changed greatly in the last 30-40 years.  Beehives have always had some health issues to watch for including the deadly American Foul Brood.

In recent years, an influx of new diseases and pests of honey bees has taken a toll on beekeepers.

Colonies are not as healthy as they once were resulting in more colony losses than normal.  This makes being a bee farmer much more difficult. Colonies that die must be replaced and this is expensive.

Being successful in beekeeping today involves much more attention to bee health than in years past.

Yet, each year thousands of new beekeepers as excited about starting a hive.  It is a task that requires a lot of hard work but working with your hives is a special experience.

The Beekeeping Experience

When asked, “what is beekeeping?”, you will receive a wide range of answers. Even among the thousands of beekeepers in the United States, our goals differ.

Some are interested in apiculture as a hobby.  Others hope to grow their bees into a full time or at least part time business.

Even though honey bees are not currently endangered, beekeeping is a great way to learn more about the natural world.

Whether you have 2 colonies or 200, sharing your life with honey bees is a wonderful experience. Consider giving apiculture or “beekeeping” a try!

Chart with beehive and beekeeping apiculture terms image.

FAQs about Keeping Bees

Is it beekeeping or bee keeping?

Beekeeping is most often written as one word.

Why is beekeeping important?

As major pollinators, honey bees contribute billions of dollars to our modern agriculture system. They live in large families and can be moved from crop to crop. In the wild, their pollination helps provide food for wildlife.

What is the difference between apiary and beehive?

A beehive is the physical structure that honey bees call home – usually the inside of a box or tree. An apiary is a location (field, backyard, city lot, etc.) where several beehives are located.

Can beekeeping be profitable?

Yes, you can have a profitable beekeeping business. With a lot of hard work, some patience and an eye for business, some beekeepers do make money with their bees.

Where do beekeepers get their bees?

Sometimes a beekeeper catches a wild swarm of bees. But the most common way to get bees for a new hive is to buy bees from a supplier.

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