Apiculture [eɪpɪkʌltʃər]


The word ‘apiculture’ derives from the Latin word ‘apis’ meaning bee, and ‘cultus’, which means ‘care’.

What is Apiculture?

Apiculture – the art and craft of beekeeping – is the care and management of honey bees. In modern times most beekeepers keep bees in man made boxes known as hives, and will harvest honey bee products, such as honey and wax, through the year. Humanity’s association with honey bees, however, has a history that stretches back to prehistoric times, as evidenced by early interactions with honey bee products found in archaeological discoveries. Around 40,000 years ago, prehistoric humans used beeswax to attach a modest spearhead to its shaft in a Spanish cave. This is one of the earliest indications of human utilization of honey bee products. Furthermore, cave paintings from ancient times depict early humans gathering honey, showing that the practice of honey gathering predates recorded history.

The origins of beekeeping itself are lost in the mists of time, but archaeological evidence suggests that beekeeping had emerged by 2450 B.C. The earliest known documented evidence of beekeeping practices appears in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs from this period. The Egyptians revered bees and considered them a sacred gift. As a result, honey held a special significance as a divine and sought-after treat.

One of the earliest depictions of beekeeping is found in the Solar Temple of King Nyussere Ini (2445 – 2421 B.C.E) in Egypt. This temple’s reliefs show scenes of beekeeping activities, illustrating the removal of combs from the hives and the extraction and preservation of honey. These ancient depictions offer a glimpse into the practices of early beekeepers, highlighting their fascination with honey bees and their efforts to harvest honey and beeswax.

Pre-modern apiculture probably involved tending to wild beehives or providing natural cavities, such as hollow logs, for the bees to use as nest sites. Around 4000 BC, people in regions like China and Egypt began to develop artificial hives made of pottery or woven from straw. These early hives allowed beekeepers to have some control over the bees’ nests, making it easier to manage them and harvest honey.

As civilizations progressed, so did the understanding of bee behaviour. Beekeepers learned various techniques to manage and interact with bees, such as capturing swarms, using smoke from torches to pacify the bees during hive inspections, and replacing ageing queens with younger ones to ensure the hive’s continued productivity. They also devised ways to protect the hives from predators and diseases that could threaten the bee colonies.

Despite these advancements, the hives themselves still had limitations. Most hives were essentially hollow cavities, and the bees were encouraged to build their honeycomb within them. This posed a significant drawback – in order to inspect the brood or harvest honey, the comb had to be damaged or destroyed. Beekeepers tried various methods to minimize this damage, but none were entirely successful at preventing it.

Over the centuries, apiculture continued to evolve, with advancements in hive design and beekeeping techniques. The quest for more efficient hive structures led to the development of moveable frame hives, pioneered by figures like Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the mid-19th century. This invention revolutionized beekeeping, as it allowed beekeepers to inspect the hive without causing extensive damage to the comb, making hive management and honey harvesting much easier.

Today, modern apiculture incorporates knowledge from various fields such as biology, entomology, and agronomy to optimize honey production, pollination services, and the well-being of honey bee populations. Beekeepers use a range of hive types and management practices, taking into consideration factors like bee health, colony dynamics, and environmental impacts.

Apiculture continues to be of vital importance for the production of honey, beeswax, and other bee-related products. Additionally, honey bees play a crucial role in pollination, benefiting agriculture and natural ecosystems worldwide. The history of apiculture, from prehistoric times to the present, demonstrates the deep and enduring connection between humans and bees and the timeless fascination with these remarkable insects.

Relief from the Solar Temple of Nyuserre Ini, Fifth Dynasty. This relief was originally located in the Chamber of Seasons but nowadays it is among the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin

Association Beekeepers at Prae Wood Apiary

Above: Honey gathering scenes in the Cuevas de la Araña, or Spider Caves, near Valencia, Spain. At 8,000 years “The Man of Bicorp” is the oldest known surviving depiction. 

Below: Digital rendition of “The Man of Bicorp”

Beekeeping in Action

Beekeeper's Hive Inspection: Unveiling the World of the Bees

Central to successful beekeeping is regular hive inspection, which allows beekeepers to assess the health and productivity of their colonies and take necessary actions to support the well-being of their bees. Before undertaking a hive inspection, beekeeper’s ensure they have the necessary gear. 

A typical beekeeper’s attire includes a bee suit, veil, gloves, and sometimes knee-high boots. The protective clothing is designed to prevent bee stings (particularly to the head) and protect the beekeeper from potential aggression during the inspection by preventing the bees from entering beneath any clothing. It’s important to understand that the aim of a bee suit is to make it harder for stingers to reach you, not to stop them in their tracks. It is also a useful way of keeping one’s clothes clean from the multitude of messy hive products, such as wax, propolis, honey etc. Additionally, beekeepers often carry essential tools such as a hive tool, smoker, and brush.

Approaching the hive cautiously is advised to avoid startling the bees and triggering defensive behaviour. Beekeepers typically approach from the rear of the hive, allowing them to work with minimal disturbance. Before opening the hive, they observe the activity around the entrance to gauge the overall health and behaviour of the colony. A bustling entrance with bees coming and going is a positive sign, indicating a robust and active colony.

After these initial inspections the beekeeper proceeds to open the hive. They use the hive tool to gently pry apart the boxes, starting with the top cover and then the uppermost supers (boxes). Each box contains frames, which are wooden or plastic structures within which the bees build comb and store honey, pollen, and brood (bee larvae and pupae).

One of the primary objectives of the hive inspection is to evaluate the health and condition of the brood. The brood pattern on the frames can provide crucial clues. A healthy brood pattern consists of well-organized, capped cells containing developing bees at various stages: eggs, larvae, and pupae. An irregular brood pattern, patchy cappings, or discoloured larvae may indicate issues such as pests, diseases, or nutritional deficiencies.

Beekeepers closely inspect the frames and bees for signs of pests and diseases. Common pests include Varroa mites, small hive beetle (not in the UK), and wax moths. The presence of these pests, along with their larvae or eggs, can significantly impact the colony’s health. Likewise, various diseases, such as American Foulbrood and Nosema, may manifest in certain symptoms that beekeepers must identify.

The queen bee is the heart of the colony, responsible for laying eggs and maintaining its population. During the inspection, beekeepers pay close attention to the queen’s presence and performance. They look for the queen on the frames and observe the overall brood production. A well-performing queen will have a solid brood pattern with healthy and capped cells, indicating her productivity. If the beekeeper cannot find the queen during their inspection they will look for day-old eggs, strongly indicating the queens presence within the hive.

Hive inspections also involve assessing the colony’s honey stores. Sufficient honey reserves are essential to sustain the bees, especially during colder months or periods of nectar scarcity. Beekeepers ensure that there is enough honey stored in the hive, and if required, they may supplement the bees with feeding (sugar syrup and bee fondant).

Beekeepers may look for signs of swarming tendencies, such as the presence of queen cells or ‘play cups’ (practice queen cells) on the frames. If they detect signs of swarming, they may take measures to prevent or control the swarming behaviour.

Accurate record-keeping is an integral part of beekeeping. Beekeepers document their hive inspections, noting any observations, issues, or actions taken. These records provide valuable insights for future inspections and allow beekeepers to track the progress of their colonies over time.

Beekeeping and hive inspection are intricate processes that demand dedication, knowledge, and careful observation. By closely examining the brood, evaluating the health of the bees, monitoring honey stores, and identifying potential issues, beekeepers can maintain thriving colonies. The art of hive inspection not only ensures the productivity of the bees but also plays a significant role in the preservation and sustainability of these vital pollinators, essential to our ecosystem and agricultural practices.