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by Ann Harman, Virginia, USA
Ann Harman has worked as a volunteer in many countries including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Egypt, Hungary, Macedonia, Moldova, Panama, Russia, Uganda and Ukraine. Ann has discovered a universal desire to learn more about honeybees, “People I have worked with have realised how much can be learnt from sharing information about bees and I also never fail to learn more”.
An essential challenge is to understand the climate of the region where I am working. One way to do this I call ‘reading the plants’. During the latter part of the 1800s trees and all sorts of smaller plants were transported around the world. Some became established and today are recognised as part of the landscape and not always acknowledged as being exotic. Such plants can give excellent clues to the type of climate. For example in Armenia I found that everyone had at least one fig tree, some quite large. The presence of figs indicates a mild winter with little frost or snow. At my home in the mountains of Virginia growing a fig tree is impossible: the tree would not last even through mild winters.
A reason to use plants as an indicator of climate is because beekeepers do not always give particularly accurate answers. Individuals living in temperate climates describe their winters as very cold, whether or not they actually are! Fuel to keep homes warm is expensive and not always available and electricity supplies may be unreliable and also expensive. Therefore a family may use only the kitchen as living quarters during the winter and leave bedrooms unheated. If people are cold, the weather is described as extremely cold.
It follows then that the bees must be cold. Beekeepers in the temperate climate of Eastern European countries put great effort into keeping their bees warm. If cellars are available hives are kept there for three to five months, or if left outside, stuffed with straw or wool (this is frequently left on all year round). We now understand ‘wintering’ better, and know that bees do not heat their whole hive. Instead they cluster and heat themselves only: not unlike the family living in the kitchen where the heat is.
In these countries most beekeepers follow traditional Russian management methods since this was, for generations, the only information available. However, not every country that was once part of the Soviet Union has the same climate or resources, and although the approach to management is the same, the problems with the bees and hives will differ.
The purpose of plastic
An item in today’s modern world that has indeed influenced beekeeping is plastic. Sheets of plastic are used to cover hives, both around the outside and placed under the top cover. The reasons for using plastic vary. Some beekeepers explain it keeps the hives dry because rain cannot leak in, whilst others say it keeps the bees warm. I visited an apiary with every hive wrapped in plastic, from the top all the way down to the ground and buried in the earth. Yet the day was very warm, the sun was bright and moisture was running down the inside of the plastic. This environment is not healthy for the bees and a common and severe problem I have observed with plastic-covered hives is the fungal disease chalk brood Ascosphaera apis. Today plastic hives of various kinds are being made and sold. But where is the research that shows such hives are successful homes for bees? Here is a situation where it seems that new inventions are not always suitable and no reason for using plastic really fits in with the natural life of the honeybee.
In tropical regions where hives are widely spaced apart and surrounded by vegetation, drifting of bees from one hive to another is not a major problem. In some countries, where hive or honey theft occur frequently, hives are best kept in a small area close to an occupied house. This means spacing between hives is minimal (they almost touch) and the distance between rows is only enough for the beekeeper to walk and work.
By tradition the hives are often painted the same colour. What is a poor forager bee to do in this situation? Drifting is a severe problem in such apiary sites, but frequently goes unrecognised. Poor performance from hives in the centre of such apiaries is often not addressed properly. Sometimes the queen is blamed, or hunger suspected. One approach where drifting is suspected is to let the bees explain what is going on. Encourage the beekeeper to open a number of hives on the perimeter and compare that population with the ones centrally placed. If drifting is indeed the culprit disparities should be evident and you can address how to better mark hives so bees can tell where their home is when they return.
The conservation of trees and forests differs widely around the world. Some countries are almost devoid of trees; whilst in others cutting down a tree is prohibited. This leaves us with the question of where to get the wood to build hives? In western Russia, in Kaliningrad, the answer is “Go to the forest and cut down a tree”. In Haiti, a tree provides the only fuel available for cooking and is therefore a precious item. Whether log hive or manufactured hive, wood to build hives is invariably difficult to find at a reasonable cost.
An axiom of some development programmes is that traditional hives or honey hunting is less productive than beekeeping with hives such as top-bar or Langstroth hives. Nothing could be further from the truth! A successful transfer of information depends on understanding the constraints on building any hive and learning the management necessary for beekeepers to have success. We must be flexible and work with what works best.
And finally . . . . a word about computers! I, like many, find them a useful tool and also a blessed curse. Computers can indeed give beekeepers the chance to ask questions and receive answers. Web sites show diagrams and photographs to illustrate without words so that language is not necessarily a barrier. Computers do not need to be owned by every person. An agricultural extension office can receive information and pass it along to beekeepers in remote places. A computer can open the world of beekeeping to those without books or access to a library.
I view the use of computers as an extremely valuable resource for the future. Since the time I spend in any country and with its beekeepers is limited, I welcome the opportunity the Internet offers to extend and continue discussion, and bring the latest information from around the world or just around the corner. Not all of it is good information but with care is a useful tool and can be used to inform, educate and teach.
Drifting is the movement of bees to another hive rather than their own. Some drifting is expected in an apiary especially with little visual/spatial distinction among hives.
Wintering is the continued survival of a honeybee colony through the cold winter temperatures by means of clustering for warmth. Beekeepers once considered it important to assist wintering bee colonies.
[Bees for Development Journal #63]