Beekeeping- An Ancient Practice

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worker bees

I walk every day in the little forest/ park near my house.  It is full of trees, shrubs, as well as, beautiful flowers in the winter season.  On entering this area you see many squirrels and birds, not afraid of humans as there are a lot of people walking, running, and doing yoga, who also get grains and food to feed them.  Three days back I noticed something squashed on the walking path.  I thought to myself ‘who has thrown rotten food here’.  However, on approaching the mess I saw a swarm of bees and a beehive which from a distance I had thought was old food.  The bees were frantically hovering over the broken hive.  On seeing all the activity I pitied them for losing all their carefully and painstakingly collected food.  But as the honey collecting season is just about to begin they would survive.  On looking up I saw a huge beehive on a branch right above the fallen hive.  So it seems due to some incident, the lower part of the hive fell down.  The bees are amazing architects and they would not construct something which can fall.

My morning walk took me back to my childhood and I remembered when I was in the seventh grade, my father gave my younger brother, sister, and me a book on beekeeping. It was just before our summer break and we were asked to read the book.  Our summer holiday project was to start a bee colony and learn about beekeeping.  This was probably the reason for my empathy with the bees.  The next day on my walk I saw the beehive in the same place and the bees had meticulously collected and taken all the honey back to their hive.

To go back to my story we soon acquired a special wooden box with a small colony of bees.  As we had a huge garden in our house in Allahabad, the box was kept under a tree.  The trainer who came with the box from the government department showed us how the bees would lay eggs in the lower chamber which was bigger and a smaller chamber was for honey collection.  To us, it was difficult to imagine how the bees could understand the segregation.  The colony was new so we fed the bees with sugar syrup in a jam bottle with two to three tiny holes in the lid, inverted on the box.

Our summer holiday project turned out to be a real hands-on learning experience.  Our colony multiplied supplied by food and as soon as the flowering season started our excitement began.  The honey collecting chamber was seeded with sheets of bee wax which had the basic cell pattern on it, on which the bees started constructing the cells.  This was their storage area and sure enough, when all the cells were packed, using a drum with centrifugal force the honey was extracted without damaging the hive.  We kept bees for most of our growing years till we married and moved out.  The most fascinating aspect was that the same egg, depending on the time taken to hatch and food packed, became workers, drones, or queens.  The cell of the queen is the largest and the large cell is built when the existing queen becomes old.   The Queen cells are hidden all over the hive.  As soon as the first queen hatches she walks through all other queen cells and kills their larvae.  The new Queen fights the old Queen and either kills her or there is a swarm with the hive getting divided.  If both Queens die then the whole colony dies.  So to safeguard against this our trainer cut out the other queen cells and kept them in empty matchboxes to hatch.  He also clipped the wings of the old Queen to prevent a swarm.

Another fascinating aspect was that when a new queen was required more drones were born.  On spotting the queen cells we learned to destroy drone cells as they only ate and did no work.  We took the honey from the bees and then fed them sugar syrup in summer.  The bees collect nectar from flowers over an area of a few kilometers to make honey.  On shifting our house we also saw a guard mounted for a couple of days at the entrance of the hive.  They are social insects living in colonies with clearly defined duties.  Wish we would learn from them!

Some fascinating Bee-Facts:

  • Beekeeping is called Apiculture and the place where bees are kept an Apiary.
  • Beekeeping was practiced 4500 years ago in Egypt.
  • A Queen bee lays over 2000 eggs in a single day
  • In India evidence of honey collection has been found in rock shelters estimated to be 15,000 years old.

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