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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Colony management

People first exploited the harvest of bees through honey hunting. Gradually, to reduce the hardship and unpredictability of hunting wild colonies, people found ways to increase their control over bees through ownership and management. and a more systematic approach to harvesting honey The use of bee hives was an early step in the transition from honey hunting to beekeeping, and this allowed beekeepers to own colonies and choose their location.  Only the two cavity nesting species of honeybee, Apis cerana  and Apis mellifera are capable of being contained in beehives.  Rafter management of Apis dorsata is an intermediate form of bee ownership that also brings more certainty into honey harvesting.

Critical in the development of more managed system was the work of Reverend Langstroth in 1851. He brought together a number of existing ideas which led to the moveable frame hive, allowing beekeepers greater potential to alter and manipulate the workings of the colony for their own advantage. The moveable frame and moveable comb concept is based on an understanding of the bee space.  This is the space required for two bees to pass each other back to back.  In European bees it is between 6-8mm while in the smaller African and Asian bees it is a little less. This space is a biological requirement of the bees. If the space is any smaller the bees will fill it up with propolis; if it is any larger it will be filled with brace (wild) comb. If the spacing is correct then the bees will leave it free for their own passage. If combs are constructed to take the bee space into account then the combs will remain free and will be able to be moved about by the beekeeper. It is this concept that has allowed greater potentiasl for managing a colony and for reducing the uncertainty that just leaving things to happen naturally can entail.

There are very many different approaches to colony management, these range from extensive systems where the beekeeper inspects the colony very infrequently and rarely intervenes with the colony to more intensive, managed systems involving frequent inspection, feeding, manipulation and disease control. The type of management approach adopted by a beekeepers will be determined by a number of factors such as:

  • prevailing environment and climate
  • the species or race of bee
  • the availability of equipment and resources
  • circumstances of the beekeeper

Over time people have invented a plethora of equipment, both simple and complicated to enable them to exploit the bees more easily. Beekeeping, like all agricultural activity, is driven by the hope of maximising both the survival and the productivity of the animal in order to provide benefit to the producer. Colony management will depend on the environment and climate that the beekeepers live in, the species or race of bee that is used for beekeeping, the choices of technology or methodology that are easily available and the personal circumstances of the beekeeper. The methods and equipment used need to be effective for the purpose intended and, if beekeeping is being used as a tool for poverty alleviation, the methodology chosen should avoid unproven ideas or overly complicated technology. Under these circumstances the need is to maximise profitability of the enterprise, ideally using a cost-benefit analysis approach. There are fewer opportunities for colony management using fixed comb hives but they can be very profitable if kept on sufficient scale.

Some aspects of colony management are driven by the aim of maximising yield in order to provide benefit to the farmer.  Whilst there are clear advantages to yield maximisation there is increasing evidence that some approaches to beekeeping have prioritised yield and profit at the expense of bee welfare and sustainability. This should always be avoided, especially in developing countries where production systems must be self-sustaining and are likely to fail if they always rely on external inputs. Under these circumstances the need is to maximise profitability of the enterprise, ideally using a cost-benefit analysis approach.

Whatever methodology is chosen, the activities that a beekeeper will carry out are dictated by the seasonal rhythms of the bees. Bees should not be disturbed without good reason. For most producers there will be limited number of circumstances when they need to open the bees. It is important to be clear about why the beehives are being opened. The most important will be for harvesting honey and wax, while in some cases it may be necessary to investigate the health of the colony.  When inspecting a colony of bees  it is important to know how to do this safely.

 


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