Before domestication of bees by man, collection of honey, royal jelly and other bee products were harvested in the wild. Taste and quality varied according to the species. With over 20,000 species of wild bees, the level of variety is unimaginable. That is why “Beekeeping 101”, understanding the basics of beekeeping, begins with understanding the bee itself. Not only do bee species have different physical characteristics, they also have different social characteristics as well.
Solitary Bee Species
- Mason bees
- Leafcutter bees, (megachilidae)
- Carpenter bees
- Many varieties of bees that nest within the ground
Burrowing & Small Colony Bee Species
- Stingless bees
Wild Honeybee species
- Little honeybee (apis florea)
- Giant honeybee (apis dorsata)
- Rock Bee (apis laboriosa)
Social Honeybee Species Popular With American & European Beekeepers
- Western honey bee (apis mellifera)
- Italian bee (apis mellifera ligustica); a sub-species of the Western honey bee
- European dark bee (apis mellifera mellifera); a sub-species of the Western honey bee
- Carniolan honey bee (apis mellifera carnica)
Honeybee Species Popular With Beekeepers In Tropical Climates
- Asiatic honey bee (apis cerana)
Apiculture, or beekeeping, manages colonies of up to 100,000 honey bees cultivated in man-made hives. Beekeeping 101 wants novice beekeepers to realize that it is important to know what particular honey bee species you are raising.
All sub-species of the Western honey bee (apis mellifera) can inter-breed and produce hybrid honey bees. This can actually produce beneficial results such as stronger resistance to parasite infestation and disease, increased honey production, minimal swarming behavior, increased reproduction, and gentler dispositions. When shopping around for a starter bee colony you may see hybrids marketed under specific trade names such as the “Midnite Bee” or the “Buckfast Bee”. Although they may be more resistant to disease and hardier in general, in future generations, you may lose the original qualities of the hybrid and have an altogether different bee.
A Honeybee colony is a highly structured and complex society. There are three social classes called “castes”. They are listed here by order of rank within the hive:
- Queen –typically the only female within the hive who breeds and produces offspring
- Worker – a large population of female bees, usually about 30,000-50,000
- Drone – thousands of male bees whose only job is to mate with the Queen
The Queen – She is the mother of all the other bees within the hive. Her lifespan is typically about three years, during which she may lay over 500,000 eggs. Spring and summer is her most prolific breeding season where she might lay well over one thousand eggs daily. The Queen begins her life as a humble worker bee but is fed more royal jelly than other worker bees thus becomes much larger and develops different physical characteristics. As she begins to produce pheromones, the ovaries of female worker bees respond by not producing eggs.
Within fifteen days of hatching, during which she has been growing exponentially because of her enhanced royal jelly diet, the Queen emerges and rests within the hive for about a week. After gaining her strength she sets forth on her nuptial flight. This initial flight outside the hive may last only seconds but it serves to mark the position of her hive territory. After that her flights will last longer, even up to a half hour, as she mates with multiple drones. She chooses drones that are several hundred feet away from the hive to ensure she is mating with the strongest and thus will produce healthy offspring.
The Worker – Female worker bees live, on average, about six weeks during a busy summer season or around four months during the restful winter season. There short summer season lifespan is probably due to being worked to death. Their duties are determined by their age and include throughout their brief lifetime: clearing out empty brood cells, general housekeeping such as removing debris from the hive, creating wax, maintaining the comb’s integrity, feeding the young larvae, ventilating the hive, entrance guard duty, and foraging for nectar, pollen, propolis, and water.
Drones – About twice the size of the female worker bees, the male drones are still much smaller than the Queen. They do no work. They only mate with the Queen in flight outside the hive. When mating season is over and the weather turns cold, the workers are driven from the hive where they die unsheltered and exposed to the elements.
Beekeeping 101, understanding bees, can help novice beekeepers understand what they are actually shopping for when they are looking for a starter honeybee colony. Hopefully you will quickly distinguish between the three different bee castes.