The history of bees

A man at the 2008 NC BugFest wearing a bee \"hoodie\"This weekend, Maggie and I went to a beekeeping workshop at the NC Museum of Natural History as part of BugFest 2008. The theme this year was bees, wasps, and hornets–with an emphasis on bees, since they’re the most sympathetic. It was fun to see a guy with a bee “hoodie” (like a bee beard, but placed differently) and the kids pushing around a giant ball (as dung beetles), but the crowds were overwhelming. Luckily, the workshop was in a private classroom so the only distraction was the small hive in the corner buzzing away.

Even though the class was less than two hours long, we really learned a lot. The instructor took a very organic approach to beekeeping, recommending that we avoid chemicals and pre-made foundations. His favorite solution to get rid of mites, apart from prevention, was powdered sugar! You dust the bees with it and it not only makes it harder for the mites to hang on but it also activates the bees’ grooming behavior (and who can blame them)!

Historically, he talked a bit about the three stages of bee cultivation or, as he put them, bee killing, bee having, and bee keeping. The first stage required finding a wild bee hive, killing all the bees, and taking their wax and honey. During the bee having stage, people would build upside-down baskets for the bees to inhabit. When a basket was full, they’d kill the bees in that basket and take the wax. They didn’t get much honey this way, so honey was rare, but the bees from other baskets would move into the empty one and soon fill it again so it was an improvement.

Then, in the late 1800s, L L Langstroth discovered that bees would create hives in rows if the space between layers was exactly 3/8″. If it were less, they’d seal it up and if it were more, they’d build a bridge between the layers. With this knowledge, he created the Langstroth hive, where bees build their layers in wooden frames that can be easily removed without harming the rest of the hive.

The class instructor favored a modified version of a Langstroth hive called a top-bar hive. It’s basically the same except that instead of a full frame, you just put in wooden slats on the top of the hive. The bees then build down from those however they like, leaving you with triangular comb (with a point facing down).

I also learned that Langstroth hives, and the introduction of beekeeping rather than bee having) revolutionized the agriculture industry. Most of the vegetables and fruits we eat today wouldn’t grow properly in the US without the active pollination of honey bees. Cultivating bees allowed farmers to grow more crops in the same space.

Our next step is to talk to some beekeepers in Indiana and see what’s different. I figure that it’d cost about $500 to get started if we purchase everything, but we might be able to knock that figure down by doing more of the prep work ourselves. Either way, we’ll have to decide if it’s something we want to spend money on, because now is the time of year to start setting things up. We were told that if we order now, we might get a queen and her colony in time for spring.

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