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What Is Beekeeping?

Beekeeping is the maintenance of bee colonies, commonly in man-made hives, by humans. A beekeeper keeps bees to collect their honey and other products that the hive produce (beeswax, propolis, flower pollen, bee pollen, and royal jelly), to pollinate crops, or produce bees for sale to other beekeepers. A location where bees are kept is called "bee yard".


Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date to 10,000 years ago. Beekeeping in pottery vessels began about 9,000 years ago in North Africa. The domestication of bees is shown in Egyptian art from around 4,500 years ago. Simple hives and smoke were used and honey was stored in jars, some of which were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamen. It wasn't until the 18th century that European understanding of the colonies and biology of bees allowed the construction of the moveable comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony. Traces of beeswax are found in pot shreds throughout the Middle East beginning about 7000 BCE. In ancient Greece, aspects of the lives of bees and beekeeping are discussed at length by Aristotle. Beekeeping was also documented by great Roman writers; Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Varro, and Columella. It’s been also been practiced in ancient China since antiquity. Written artifacts by Fan Li (or Tao Zhu Gong) describes the art of beekeeping, stressing the importance of the quality of the wooden box used and how this can affect the quality of the honey. The Chinese word for honey (? mì, reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation *mjit) was borrowed from Indo-European proto-Tocharian language, the source of "honey", from proto-Tocharian *??t(?) (where *? is palatalized; cf. Tocharian B mit), cognate with English mead.

Natural beekeeping

The natural beekeeping movement believes that beehives are weakened by modern beekeeping and agricultural practices, such as crop spraying, hive movement, frequent hive inspections, artificial insemination of queens, routine medication, and sugar water feeding. Practitioners of "natural beekeeping" tend to use variations of the top-bar hive, which is a simple design that retains the concept of having a movable comb without the use of frames or a foundation. The horizontal top-bar hive, as championed by Marty Hardison, Michael Bush, Philip Chandler, Dennis Murrell, and others, can be seen as a modernization of hollow log hives, with the addition of wooden bars of specific width from which bees hang their combs

Urban beekeeping

Related to natural beekeeping, urban beekeeping is an attempt to revert to a less industrialized way of obtaining honey by utilizing small-scale colonies that pollinate urban gardens. Some have found that "city bees" are healthier than "rural bees" because there are fewer pesticides and greater biodiversity in the urban gardens. Also, homeowners can use their landscapes to help feed local bee populations by planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen. An environment of year-round, uninterrupted bloom creates an ideal environment for colony reproduction.

Indoor beekeeping

Modern beekeepers have experimented with raising bees indoors, in a controlled environment or indoor observation hives. This may be done for reasons of space and monitoring, or in the off-season. In the off-season, large commercial beekeepers may move colonies to "wintering" warehouses, with fixed temperature, light and humidity. This helps the bees remain healthy, but relatively dormant. These relatively dormant or "wintered" bees survive on stored honey, and new bees are not born.

Bee Colonies

Generally, a bee colony consists of three types of bee:

  • A queen bee, which is normally the only breeding female in the colony;
  • A large number of female worker bees, typically 30,000-50,000 in number;
  • Several male drones, ranging from thousands in a strong hive in spring to very few during dearth or cold season.

The queen is the only sexually mature female in the hive and all of the female worker bees and male drones are her offspring. The queen may live for up to three years or more and may be capable of laying half a million eggs or more in her lifetime. At the peak of the breeding season, queen bee may be capable of laying 3,000 eggs in one day. This would be exceptional, however; a prolific queen might peak at 2,000 eggs a day, but a more average queen might lay just 1,500 eggs per day. The queen is fed a larger amount of royal jelly than a normal worker bee, resulting in radically different growth and metamorphosis. The queen influences the colony by the production and dissemination of a variety of pheromones or "queen substances".

Mating of Queens

The queen emerges from her cell after 15 days of development and she remains in the hive for 3-7 days before venturing out on a mating flight. Subsequent mating flights may vary from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, and she may mate with several male drones on each flight. Over several matings, possibly a dozen or more, the queen receives and stores enough sperm from a succession of drones to fertilize hundreds of thousands of eggs. If she does not manage to leave the hive to mate””possibly due to bad weather or being trapped in part of the hive””she remains infertile and becomes a drone layer, incapable of producing female worker bees. Worker bees sometimes kill a non-performing queen and produce another. Mating takes place at some distance from the hive and often several hundred feet in the air; it is thought that this separates the strongest drones from the weaker ones, ensuring that only the fastest and strongest drones get to pass on their genes.

Worker Bees

Most of the bees in a hive are female worker bees. In summer when activity in the hive is frantic and work goes on non-stop, the life of a worker bee may be as short as 6 weeks; in autumn, when no brood is being raised and no nectar is being harvested, a young bee may live for 16 weeks. Throughout their lives, worker bees' duties are dictated by age. For the first few weeks of their lifespan, they perform basic chores within the hive: cleaning empty brood cells, removing debris and other housekeeping tasks, making wax for building or repairing the comb, and feeding larvae. Later, they may ventilate the hive or guard the entrance. Older workers leave the hive daily, weather permitting, to forage for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis.


Drones are the largest bees in the hive (except for the queen), at almost twice the size of a worker bee. They have much larger eyes than the workers have, presumably to better locate the queen during the mating flight. They do not forage for pollen or nectar, are unable to sting, and have no other known function than to mate with new queens and fertilize them on their mating flights. A bee colony generally starts to raise drones a few weeks before building queen cells so they can supersede a failing queen or prepare for swarming. When queen-raising for the season is over, bees in colder climates drive drones out of the hive to die, biting and tearing their legs and wings.

Structure of a bee colony

A domesticated bee colony is normally housed in a rectangular hive body, within which eight to ten parallel frames house the vertical plates of honeycomb that contain the eggs, larvae, pupae, and food for the colony. The two outside combs at each side of the hive tend to be exclusively used for long-term storage of honey and pollen.

Within the central brood nest, a single frame of comb typically has a central disk of eggs, larvae and sealed brood cells that may extend almost to the edges of the frame. Immediately above the brood patch, an arch of pollen-filled cells extends from side to side, and above that again a broader arch of honey-filled cells extends to the frame tops. The pollen is protein-rich food for developing larvae, while honey is also food but largely energy-rich rather than protein-rich. The nurse bees that care for the developing brood secrete a special food called "royal jelly" after feeding themselves on honey and pollen. The amount of royal jelly fed to a larva determines whether it develops into a worker bee or a queen.

The annual cycle of a bee colony

The development of a bee colony follows an annual cycle of growth that begins in spring with a rapid expansion of the brood nest, as soon as pollen is available for feeding larvae. Some production of brood may begin as early as January, even in cold winter, but breeding accelerates towards a peak in May, producing an abundance of harvesting bees synchronized to the main nectar flow in that region. Each race of bees times this build-up slightly differently, depending on how the flora of its original region blooms. Some regions of Europe have two nectar flows one in late spring and another in late August. Other regions have only a single nectar flow. The skill of the beekeeper lies in predicting when the nectar flow will occur in his area and in trying to ensure that his colonies achieve a maximum population of harvesters at exactly the right time.

Colony Reproduction: Swarming and Supersedure

All colonies are dependent on their queen, who is the only egg-layer. However, even the best queens live only a few years and one or two years longevity is the norm. She can choose whether or not to fertilize an egg as she lays it; if she does so, it develops into a female worker bee; if she lays an unfertilized egg it becomes a male drone. She decides which type of egg to lay depending on the size of the open brood cell she encounters on the comb. In a small worker cell, she lays a fertilized egg; if she finds a larger drone cell, she lays an unfertilized drone egg.

All the time that the queen is fertile and laying eggs she produces a variety of pheromones, which control the behavior of the bees in the hive. These are commonly called queen substance, but there are various pheromones with different functions. As the queen ages, she begins to run out of stored sperm, and her pheromones begin to fail. Inevitably, the queen begins to falter, and the bees decide to replace her by creating a new queen from one of her worker eggs. They may do this because she has been damaged (lost a leg or an antenna) because she has run out of sperm and cannot lay fertilized eggs (has become a "drone laying queen"), or because her pheromones have dwindled to where they cannot control all the bees in the hive.

At this juncture, the bees produce one or more queen cells by modifying existing worker cells that contain a normal female egg. They then pursue one of two ways to replace the queen: supersedure, replacing or superseding the queen without swarming, or swarm cell production, dividing the hive into two colonies through swarming.

Factors that trigger swarming

Some beekeepers may monitor their colonies carefully in spring and watch for the appearance of queen cells, which are a dramatic signal that the colony is determined to swarm. This swarm looks for shelter. A beekeeper may capture it and introduce it into a new hive, helping meet this need. Otherwise, it returns to a feral state, in which case it finds shelter in a hollow tree, excavation, abandoned chimney, or even behind shutters.

A small after-swarm has less chance of survival and may threaten the original hive's survival if the number of individuals left is unsustainable. When a hive swarms despite the beekeeper's preventative efforts, good management practice is to give the reduced hive a couple of frames of open brood with eggs. This helps replenish the hive more quickly and gives a second opportunity to raise a queen if there is a mating failure.

When a colony accidentally loses its queen, workers realize that the queen is absent after as little as an hour, as her pheromones fade in the hive. Instinctively, the workers select cells containing eggs aged less than three days and enlarge these cells dramatically to form "emergency queen cells". These appear similar to large peanut-like structures about an inch long that hang from the center or side of the brood combs.

The developing larva in a queen cell is fed differently from an ordinary worker-bee; in addition to the normal honey and pollen, she receives a great deal of royal jelly, a special food secreted by young "nurse bees" from the hypopharyngeal gland. This special food dramatically alters the growth and development of the larva so that, after metamorphosis and pupation, it emerges from the cell as a queen bee. The queen is the only bee in a colony that has fully developed ovaries, and she secretes a pheromone which suppresses the normal development of ovaries in all her workers.


A hive frame or honey frame is a structural element in a beehive that holds the honeycomb or brood comb within the hive enclosure or box. The hive frame is a key part of the modern movable-comb hive. It can be removed to inspect the bees for disease or to extract the excess honey.


In 1814 Petro Prokopovych invented the world's first beehive which used hive frames. Early prototypes had a large distance between frames, and the frame lay on supporting strips of wood. As a result, the frames were cross-attached by burr comb and propolis to the supporting strips and were difficult to remove. In Prokopovych's design, the frames were placed only in the honey chamber. In the brood chamber, the bees built the combs in freestyle.

Johann Dzierzon described the correct distance between combs in the brood chamber as 1½ inches from the center of one bar to the center of the next. In 1848, Dzierzon introduced grooves into the hive's side walls replacing the strips of wood to hang top bars. The grooves were 8 mm apart and met the distance requirements for a bee space.

In May 1852, August von Berlepsch in Germany designed a movable frame. On October 5, 1852, in the United States, L. L. Langstroth patented a new hive with movable frames under US patent # US9300A. Today, the Langstroth hive is the most common design.

Types of frames:

  • Plastic frames: They are injected-molded out of plastic and come in various colors. They usually come with a built-in plastic foundation molded as one piece with cells stamped to a specific size. The colors usually are used to distinguish types of frames within a manufacture's product line (example: green for frames with drone size foundation cells).
  • Queen rearing frames: Specialty frames such as cell bar frames are used to raise new queens. The queen cups are attached vertically to bars to encourage bees to build queen cells. Once these cells are capped, the beekeeper moves them each to a queenless colony for adoption.
  • Drone Trap frames: Some beekeepers have designed frames specifically to encourage bees to built drone brood to cut it out as part of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan in the fight against Varroa destructor.

Wax Foundation

Wax foundation or honeycomb base is a plate made of wax forming the base of one honeycomb. It is used in beekeeping to give the bees a foundation on which they can build the honeycomb. Wax foundation is considered one of the most important inventions in modern beekeeping.


Wax foundation was invented by German Johannes Mehring in 1857, a few years after Langstroth designed and patented the Langstroth hive in 1852. Mehring's wax foundation had only the bottom of the cells, and today's base with the foundation of the cells was invented by US beekeeper Samuel Wagner. The Langstroth patent did not call for foundation and let the bees build their comb.

At first, wax foundations were made in the wax foundation press. The first presses were made of wood, while later presses could be made of plaster, cement, and finally metal, which are the ones used today. Wagner also invented the wax foundation rollers, but never perfected them; the first usable rollers were made by Amos Root and precise mechanic Alva Washburn in 1875. In 1895. Detroit inventor Edward Weed invented rollers that can make a wax foundation in a continuous roll.

How to use:

Wax or plastic foundation is inserted into a wooden frame through the top and is usually connected to the sidebars with wire. It is not used in foundationless frames or in plastic frames where the foundation is made of plastic and is part of the frame itself. Foundation is not usually used in top-bar applications (where no frames are used) such as Top Bar Hives or Warre Hives except sometimes as starter strips.

Wax foundation has some advantages over letting bees build their comb:

  • It provides a guide for bees to build straight comb. Without foundation, the beekeeper runs the risk of having comb built outside the Hive frame when they start, preventing its easy removal for inspection.
  • Foundation built comb is usually stronger in part due to the wiring embedded in the wax. This allows for centrifuge extraction.
  • Foundation allows beekeepers to increase the size of the cells on the honeycomb. By stamping bigger cells on the foundation than what bees would naturally build, the beekeeper is guiding bees to build bigger cells, increasing the size of worker bees as well as the volume of the cells for honey storage.

For these reasons, the foundation had been used extensively in commercial operations.

Recently there has been a large movement toward foundationless beekeeping by hobbyists for various reasons. Some of which are listed below:

  • Varroa: With the expansion of Varroa destructor around the world, some believe that natural cell size helps bees combat this pest. Cutting out drone cells is also an effective way in an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan to fight varroa.
  • Chemicals in the wax: Most beekeepers purchase their foundation from beekeeping suppliers. In addition to honey, beekeepers also need pollen and nectar from their colonies. Honey contains vitamins and other valuable nutrients for bees. The cost of honey, including beeswax, is variable depending on how many of these components are used and where they are purchased. The price of honey, with a wide range of beekeepers' items, is also variable. These suppliers manufacture these sheets of foundation with wax purchased from various beekeeping operations which may have used chemicals or worked near fields where chemicals were sprayed. With an increasing awareness of pesticides and their impact on bees as well as the organic and natural beekeeping movements, some beekeepers are concerned with the traceability of the wax used.
  • Cost and/or time: The foundation needs to be manufactured. The beekeeper can make it or purchase it and this leads to him or her spending time and our money on foundation or equipment to manufacture it.
  • Production of raw honeycomb: Since the comb will be cut out, it is easier to not have any wires in the comb. It is also better to not have chemicals (pesticides) in the wax if it is going to be used for human consumption.

A-frame has to be wired so that the wax foundation could be inserted into it The foundation is then soldered with the wire by using a spur embedded or electric current. Also extant are wax foundations with an embedded wire that only need to be inserted into the frame. Wax foundations are made in various sizes, depending on the frame they will be inserted into. If needed, a roller knife is used to cut wax foundations.

Comments (2)

Abdulatif Al Sayegh

Informative content. Keep it on :)

Rimshan Ali

I am so glad, clicked on your website. Great information!

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