People have been raising bees for thousands of years. The honey they produced gave humanity its first sweet tooth, and fermenting honey into mead may very well have given our ancestors their first hang over.
Raising bees, however, offers much more than simply a lifetime supply of delicious, organic honey. Maintaining a couple of hives on your landscape is the best way to ensure quality pollination for whatever you´re growing. It´s also an educational experience on how animals work together for the greater collective good.
Bees work tirelessly throughout the entire growing season to collect nectar from all sorts of flowers. They turn this nectar into honey inside their hives as a food source to sustain the colony during the winter months when there are no more flowers or sources of nectar. Since bees always produce much more honey than they need to survive the winter, a large portion of that honey can be taken advantage of by bee keepers. As they go from flower to flower collecting nectar, they also carry pollen on their feet and bodies. A normal bee will most likely pollinate hundreds of plants each day.
Getting started with bee raising
To get started raising bees, most people purchase bees for their hive. While you can try and catch a wild swarm, purchasing a hive is an easier option for novices. Before you get your bees, however, you will need to either build or purchase a hive. While there are a number of different designs, the top bar hive and the Langstroth hive are the two most common designs. The top bar hive allows you to access the honey from above ,which can help to limit bee stings.
The honey that you collect from your hives is one of the few food products in the world that won´t ever go bad. While honey can crystallise, especially if you feed your bees sugar water as a supplement to their diet, simply warming up the honey jar in warm water will turn it back to its liquid form.
Ecological benefits of raising bees
Another important reason to consider keeping bees has to do with the continued ecological stability of our planet. In recent years, millions of bee colonies have begun to mysteriously die off in what has come to be called “colony collapse disorder”.
While it still isn´t completely clear why these bees have been dying off, many of the dead bees have been found to have high concentrations of insecticides and other agro chemicals in their systems. Genetically modified crops may also be playing a role in this mysterious disappearance of nature´s main pollinators.
The potential consequences of this colony collapse disorder could be catastrophic. Even if we manage to stop runaway climate change and save our soil so that plants can grow, without pollinators, all that luscious green foliage won´t yield us any sort of edible fruits. Keeping a few bee colonies in a natural, pesticide and GMO-free setting, then, is an important step in helping bee populations to recover from their recent demise.
Why native bee species?
The vast majority of beekeepers around the world raise the western honey bee, or Apis mellifera. From a business standpoint, the honey bee offers a relatively large amount of harvestable honey and also offers pollination benefits. However, the Apis mellifera is only one of at least 25,000 different bee species. While honey bees can pollinate a large amount of flora, native bee species are often better adapted for providing different ecological services. In some cases, native bees may be specifically adapted as important pollinators for the unique flora of each region.
In recent decades, the commercial raising of the western bee has led to massive problems with the Varroa mites. This common bee pest has been known to cause colony losses that have exceeded 90% in some locations. Of course, the loss of honey production is accompanied by an even more worrisome loss of pollination services provided by bees.
Many native bee species are better equipped to withstand and resist Varroa mites and other common bee pests. In Australia, for example, native bees such as the species of Tetragonula carbonaria, T. hockingsi and Austroplebeia australis all offer important crop pollination services and have a higher resistance to common pests and diseases.
Furthermore, many native bee species are known as “buzz pollinators”. Unlike honey bees, these types of pollinators are able to contract their flight muscles to create a type of vibration that releases pollen while in mid-flight. This buzz pollinating technique can increase the pollination rate for several important commercial crops.
Melipona bees in Guatemala
In Guatemala, Mayan communities have been raising a native bee species known as the “melipona” bee for thousands of years. While small amounts of honey are harvested from the stinger-less bee colonies, these bees also play an important role as pollinators for the unique flora of the Guatemalan highlands.
Additionally, the white honey produced by this species of bee also is used by traditional midwives and healers for several medicinal purposes. Unlike massive, commercial bee raising operations, raising small melipona bee colonies is often an integral part of a holistic, diversified form of ancestral, family agriculture, wherein these stingless bees provide ecological services and a needed food and medicine source.