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What is Beekeeping? Beginner’s Guide

Beekeeping is the practice of managing bee colonies (usually in man-made hives).  These colonies are largely kept for the purpose of producing honey or providing beneficial pollination to farmers. Those who care for honey bees are called apiarists. The location where hives are kept is called an apiary. To define beekeeping, we must take a look into its origin.

What is Beekeeping Called?

Apiculturist involved in beekeeping inspecting hive image.

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.

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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.  Apiculture was first used to describe honey bee management in the mid-19th century.

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.

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.

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 can be very small or very large. A small bee yard with a few hives is considered a hobby or small scale operation.

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

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

These folks 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.

Commercial beekeepers typically manage a large amount of beehives.  They may have anywhere from 100 to thousands of colonies in various bee yards.  

Life for a commercial beekeeper often involves moving many hives from one location to another.  This allows them to make money from pollination services.

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

  • monitor quality of queen bee
  • feed colonies sugar syrup to prevent starvation
  • add and remove honey supers at right time
  • manage or catch swarms
  • prepare colonies for Winter
Large apiary of commercial beekeeping hives image.

Honeybee Colony Life

Honey bees live together in a colony that has thousands of individuals.  The queen honey bee’s job is to lay eggs for the colony.

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 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.

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.

There are many beekeeping products of the hive that farmers can produce:

  • pollen
  • beeswax
  • bee venom
  • propolis
  • royal jelly
  • new hives of bees
Chart with beehive and beekeeping apiculture terms image.

Modern Beekeeping Practices

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

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

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

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