Honey Bee Keeping then...

From cave drawings to now...

The western honey bee is a domesticated insect, and is the main species maintained by beekeepers to this day. Looking at bee keeping history records of beekeeping date all the way back to the time of the great pyramids 2400BC and cave wall drawing dating back 7000BC.

bee keeping history cave painting

In the Old Testament of the Bible, Israel was called "the land of milk and honey".  And the Romans also used honey as a gift to the gods and they used it extensively in cooking.

Bees wax candles have been found in tombs and was a main source of light for much of history.

Though honey bees have been around for a long long time, the domestication of honey bees is a fairly current event.  For many years man has raided hives in hollow trees, or made straw skeps to house bees. Consequently this usually meant that the hive was destroyed to get at the honey and wax. It wasn't until 1770 that Thomas Wildman recorded and described advancements so bees could be kept with out destroying the hives and killing the bees.

The next step in bee keeping history, came in the 1800's, seen the completion of workable hives by Lorenzo Langstroth. Though there were many others who worked to better the hives, it was Langstroth who figured out the "bee space" and used it in his hives.  Today, most modern bee hives come from his design with little change.

The Rapid Change in bee keeping history

Modern methods in bee keeping history were very rapid following Langstroth's patent. Wax comb foundation made it possible to have high quality, straight worker cells. The invention of the centrifugal honey extractor made large scale production easier.  Also the bee smoker was improved with bellows to blow smoke rather then just having a smoking pan nearby. And of course the bee veil we all love has evolved from coarse cloth to the fine hardware mesh we use today.

With the number of bee hives increasing through out the United States "a market developed for young queen bees. In 1861 Henry Alley, William Carey, and E.L. Pratt, all of Massachusetts, began producing queens for sale.   These early producers used narrow strips of comb containing eggs and larvae which they fastened to the top bars or partial combs. When these materials were added to swarm boxes that were queen-less, queen cells formed."  as stated in The History of Beekeeping in the United States, by Everett Oertel. About 20 years later, queen rearing using wax caps and grafting was being used and is the basis for how much of the commercial grafting is done today. By the 1970's artificial insemination was being done, which controlled the genetics and gave greater control for breeding for traits such as gentleness and honey production.

Bee Keeping History and Pollination

No one can say just when pollination services really started in bee keeping history. Thomas Wildman's book, "A Theatise on the Management of Bees 1770", dose describe the movement of hives for the bees to have flowers for food, more so than for pollination. Farmers knew that good pollination led to better crops, and poorly pollinated fruits would grow lop sided.  But the big move in honey bees moving across the country really started in the early 1900's with the rise of two things. the automobile, or in this case the truck, and Almond production in California. From the 1930's to the 1960's California had seen a slow but steady climb in acres of planted Almonds.  Growers knew that for the best crop the almond trees had to be cross pollinated. In 1964 a change took place in almond fields with a shift from hand harvest to mechanical harvesting. A major growth in acres of almond trees planted followed. Growth of farmed acres of

almond trees waiting to be pollinated by the honey bee
Almond Trees

Almonds went from around 100,000 acres to 760,000 acres by 2011. This accounts for about 85% of global production. 

With this increase came a greater need for colonies of honey bees, just as the number of colonies of honey bees in the United Stated was dropping due to the loss of small family farms converting to larger agricultural company farms.

Honey bee numbers had been declining from the 1940, where we had about 6 million bee hives in the United States, till around the mid 1990's when we only had around 2 to 2 1/2 million hives left.  It currently takes about 2 million bee hives being shipped to the almond fields each year in early spring.



Our Future in Bee Keeping History...

Silence of the bees... or is it?

What the history of the honey bee has shown is that the bees are adaptive.  But can they be adaptive with how fast man has changed the scape of the land or introduced new problems?


tracheal mite bee keeping historyThis very small mite was first detected in the United States in 1984 and at first caused large losses of bee hives. The Tracheal mite gets into the honey bees tracheal system and there they feed on the hemolymph of the bee. The mite lives and breeds inside the bees tracheal which clogs or restricts oxygen exchange. They also spread other diseases. Therefore the infected honey bee is weakened or dies and the winter survival of the hive is at stake. 

Some honey bees have shown a resistance to tracheal mite over the years and have been used as breeding stock. This may be to the bees smaller size.

Varroa Mite

In bee keeping history there has never been a parasitic mite as bad a the Varroa mite.

varroa mites on bee larva
Varroa Mite on Honey Bee Larva

The Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) first appeared in Florida in the mid 1980's and has spread nation wide since then. This mite is huge when compared to the honey bee and can be seen with the naked eye. The adults suck the "blood" (hemolymph) of adult honey bees for sustenance, leaving open wounds and transmitting diseases and viruses. In this process, RNA viruses such as the deformed wing virus (DWV) spread to bees. A significant mite infestation will lead to the death of a honey bee colony, usually in the late autumn through early spring. Consequently the Varroa mite is the parasite with the most pronounced economic impact on the beekeeping industry.

Mites reproduce on a 10-day cycle. The female mite enters a honey bee brood cell. As soon as the cell is capped, the Varroa mite lays eggs on the larva. The young mites, typically several females and one male, hatch in about the same time as the young bee develops and leave the cell with the host. When the young bee emerges from the cell after pupation, the Varroa mites also leave and spread to other bees and larvae.



Honey bee colonies in the United States have been dying at high rates for over a decade, and agricultural pesticides—including fungicides, herbicides and insecticides—are often implicated as major culprits. Until now, most scientific studies have looked at pesticides one at a time, rather than investigating the effects of multiple real-world pesticide exposures within a colony.  

A new study is the first to systematically assess multiple pesticides that accumulate within bee colonies. Most noteworthy the researchers found that the number of different pesticides within a colony—regardless of dose—closely correlates with colony death. The results also suggest that some fungicides, often regarded as safe for bees, correlate with high rates of colony deaths. The study appeared online September 15, 2016, in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Our results fly in the face of one of the basic tenets of toxicology: that the dose makes the poison," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at UMD and senior author on the study. "We found that the number of different compounds was highly predictive of colony death, which suggests that the addition of more compounds somehow overwhelms the bees' ability to detoxify themselves."

The researchers followed 91 colonies, owned by three different migratory commercial beekeepers, for an entire agricultural season. The colonies began their journey in Florida and moved up the East Coast, providing pollination services for different crops along the way. They also spent time in locations meant for honey production, as well as "holding areas" where beekeepers prepare large numbers of colonies for upcoming pollination contracts.

A total of 93 different pesticide compounds found their way into the colonies over the course of the season, accumulating in the wax, in processed pollen known as bee bread and in the bodies of nurse bees. At every stop along the beekeepers' itinerary, the researchers assessed three different parameters within each colony: the total number of pesticides; the total number of "relevant" pesticides (defined as those above a minimum threshold of toxicity); and each colony's "hazard quotient," a measure devised by other researchers to integrate the total hazard posed to each colony by the cumulative toxicity of all pesticides present.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2016-09-high-pesticides-colonies-linked-honey.html#jCp

CCD and losses

Colony Collapse Disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. 

During the winter of 2006-2007, some beekeepers began to report unusually high losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. As many as 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honey bee death:

  • Sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony.
  • The queen and brood (young) remained, and the colonies had relatively abundant honey and pollen reserves.

But hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and would eventually die. This combination of events resulting in the loss of a bee colony has been called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Though agricultural records from more than a century ago note occasional bee “disappearances” and “dwindling” colonies in some years, it is uncertain whether the colonies had the same combination of factors associated with CCD. What we do know from the data from beekeepers for 2014/2015 is that, while colony loss from CCD has declined, colony loss is still a concern.
And the 2016 report has initial findings that show losses of 40% of the hives in the current national survey. How much of that is from CCD is still to be determined.

Government and private science

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is leading the federal government response to CCD. In 2007, USDA established a CCD Steering Committee with representatives from other government agencies, and academia. EPA is an active participant in the CCD Steering Committee. The Steering Committee has developed the Colony Collapse Disorder Action Plan (PDF) (28 pp, 2 MB, About PDF). The plan has four main components:

  1. Survey/Data Collection to determine the extent of CCD and the current status of honey bee colony production and health.
  2. Analysis of Bee Samples to determine the prevalence of various pests and pathogens, bee immunity and stress, and exposure to pesticides.
  3. Hypothesis-Driven Research on four candidate factors including:
    • new and reemerging pathogens,
    • bee pests,
    • environmental and nutritional stresses, and
    • pesticides.
  4. Mitigative/Preventive Measures to improve bee health and habitat and to counter mortality factors.

In October 2013, the CCD Steering Committee hosted the national stakeholder conference on honey bee health. The conference brought together a broad group of stakeholders to examine the federal government's course of action to understand colony collapse disorder and honey bee health. Based on input from the stakeholders at this conference, the CCD steering committee is drafting a revised CCD and honey bee health action plan.

Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning April 2015 to April 2016

“The high rate of loss over the entire year means that beekeepers are working overtime to constantly replace their losses,” said Jeffery Pettis, a senior entomologist at the USDA and a co-coordinator of the survey. In conclusion these losses cost the beekeeper time and money. More importantly, the industry needs these bees to meet the growing demand for pollination services. So we urgently need solutions to slow the rate of both winter and summer colony losses.

Current times and Struggles

Beekeepers are indeed working nearly twice as hard as ever. Beekeepers report having to split their hives more often to make up for losses, entailing more work than in previous decades.  And for commercial beekeepers maintaining thousands of bee hives, all of this additional work means more employees, more salaries, and more expenses.

more to come...