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Bees

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

More than 211,000 beekeepers maintain about 3.2 million honey bee colonies in the United States. Thousands of beekeepers are small-scale entrepreneurs. Aside from the pleasures of the hobby, they keep honey bees for the production of honey, pollen, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly.

Only in the last century have people begun to recognize the value of bees as pollinators. Pollinators include not only honey bees, but also more than 3,500 species of pollen bees in North America. The contribution of bees as pollinators of cultivated crops far outweighs the value of hive products. Although most beekeepers specialize in honey bees, some raise pollen bees for their pollination services.

Beekeeping's profitability depends on many factors, and the decision to enter this occupation should be made carefully. Bee-keepers should know about bee biology, flora, and management, and should also possess business ability. They should understand that beekeeping is subject to factors beyond their control - such as market prices that fluctuate and weather elements that range from drought to floods and temperature extremes.

Entrepreneurs intent on commercializing should decide whether to be migratory or nonmigratory and select locations that offer opportunities for pollination rentals; production of honey, beeswax, or pollen; and selling of packaged bees and queens.

Although some local governments restrict placement of beehives, many beekeepers can keep their honey bee colonies in almost any urban, suburban, or rural location. Beehives can be found on rooftops and balconies in many cities. Observation beehives are sometimes seen In homes, classrooms, offices, and museums. The Insect Zoo at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum In Washington, DC, features an observation beehive. Specific publications may help in selecting a location. (See "Beekeeping and Their Neighbors" by Dewey M. Caron, Eastern Apiculture Society of North America, Inc., and "Beekeeping" from the Beekeeping Education Service, Wicwas Press, Cheshire, CT 06410/$1.50 to nonmembers.)

A potential beekeeper may find helpful information in many places. Most States have county agents and Extension entomologists whose responsibilities include beekeeping. Some State universities even offer college credits for beekeepers either as residents or by correspondence. All 50 States and Puerto Rico have beekeeping organizations that meet regularly to exchange the latest information. Many groups also put on workshops for potential beekeepers. National and regional beekeepers' groups meet annually. 'Who's Who in Apiculture," published yearly in the April issue of Bee Culture, (referenced below under "Beekeeping Publications"), lists organizations, dealers, and government information sources.

A would-be beekeeper should learn as much as possible about beekeeping before purchasing bees and bee equipment. Observing honey bees close up with an experienced beekeeper is an excellent way to learn about beekeeping.

Those First Honey Bees

A beekeeper can get started by:

  • Purchasing an established beehive.
  • Buying new bee equipment and packaged bees with queens from bee supply companies. (See "Who's Who in Apiculture.")
  • Obtaining bee equipment and capturing a swarm.

Beekeepers can collect swarms by making their interest known to apiary inspectors, Extension agents, police departments, beekeepers, and others who might receive swarm calls.

Information on availability of bees and bee equipment also can be obtained from beekeeping groups and trade journals.

Honey Bee Management

Cardinal Points to keep in mind when managing bees:

  • Bees need food to survive: honey or sugar syrup as a carbohydrate source, pollen or pollen substitutes for protein, and water as the universal solvent.
  • The bee colony will need lots of comb space for staring food and rearing brood. Lack of adequate space could lead to swarming, which could reduce honey production.
  • For successful wintering, a colony should have a young queen, a large cluster of adult bees, 40 to 60 pounds of honey, and several combs of pollen. Each colony should have a two story standard hive that includes a brood chamber and a honey super - the removable section where the bees store their honey.
  • Starvation is a principal cause of colony losses. If bees are short of honey, they should be fed a syrup of two parts granulated sugar to one part water. Lack of pollen can be compensated for by purchasing pollen substitutes from bee supply dealers.

Insecticides

The occasional pesticide spraying of isolated plants or gardens may kill only a few bees; but when entire fields and orchards are sprayed or dusted, the resultant bee loss could be devastating. In such cases, beekeepers will usually see a large accumulation of dead and dying bees at hive entrances.

Beekeepers who place hives on growers' property should mark each beehive with their name, address, and telephone number so they can be notified In advance about spraying. Beekeepers who maintain bees on their own property need to communicate closely with neighboring agricultural operations where the bees are likely to be foraging. With a few days' warning, several things can be done to minimize the effects of a spray. First, decide whether the pesticides would harm honey bees. If so, here are some alternatives:

  • The beehive may be moved to a temporary location at least 2 miles from the spray area.
  • The hive entrance can be draped with damp burlap. This protects the beehive from effects of a direct "hit." The burlap cover should stay on only for the duration of the application.
  • The hive may be left in place and some loss of bees accepted.

The best way is to work with the farmer and the pesticide applicator in developing programs that safeguard pollinating insects. Some general guidelines are:

  • Insecticides should not be applied to blossoms; honey bees visit not only blossoms on cultivated crops, but also those of orchard ground-cover and noncultivated plants.
  • The safest time to apply insecticides is late afternoon after bees stop foraging. Early morning applications are also less dangerous to bees than those in mid-day.
  • An insecticide may be selected that has the least impact on nontarget insects and animals.

Diseases and Pests

Bees, like all creatures, are subject to infectious diseases. To lessen the spread of disease and minimize harm, beekeepers should learn as much as possible about healthy, normal colonies so they can recognize signs of diseases.

The most common brood diseases of honey bees are American foulbrood, European foulbrood, and chalkbrood. Among adult bees, Nosema disease is one of the most serious. Two parasitic mites, Acarapis woodi and Varroa lacobsoni, recently replaced more traditional adult and brood diseases as the most serious ailments.

If disease is suspected, the county Extension agent, a more experienced beekeeper, or the State apiary inspector can help. "Who's Who in Apiculture" (mentioned above) lists State apiary inspectors.

Here are a few simple rules for avoiding diseases in honey bees:

  • Do not feed honey from an unknown source; it may carry organisms that cause American foulbrood disease.
  • Buy packaged bees and queens only from reputable dealers.
  • Buy used bee equipment only after consulting with the State apiary inspector.
  • Look for signs of diseases each time the beehive is opened. Early detection can avoid costly replacements.

Beekeepers also have been keeping an eye on the range expansion of Africanized honey bees. As of November 1994, Africanized honey bees are established in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and California. Subject of many scary media stories, these bees are more likely to sting in defense of their nests than are the domestic European honey bees. However, a chance encounter with an Africanized bee foraging on blossoms is no more likely to result in a sting than is an encounter with a domestic honey bee.

In 4 years, Texas has recorded only one fatality from stings of Africanized honey bees. All the stinging incidents attributed to Africanized honey bees originated from feral colonies- those not managed by a beekeeper.

Destroying feral colonies of honey bees in areas where Africanized honey bees are known to exist appears to be a good strategy for reducing the impact of Africanized honey bees.

Keeping European honey bees by requeening is strongly recommended in areas where Africanized honey bees are known to exist. Only queens from non-Africanized areas or certified European queens should be used for requeening. Printed materials, slides, and videotapes on Africanized honey bees are available in many languages from State and Federal Extension agents.

Products of the Hive

Honey, the most popular beehive product, can be marketed in many ways. The simplest is merely to cut out pieces of the comb containing honey. This "cut comb" may be wrapped with plastic or enclosed in a plastic sandwich box. Liquid honey is extracted from combs by centrifugal force with specially built extractors. The equipment needs make extraction impractical for many beginners.

Pollen and propolis - the resinous substance bees use to fill holes and gaps - are additional sources of income. However, small-scale entrepreneurs should make sure they have a market. Beeswax is a useful byproduct, but not for beekeepers with just a few colonies. Production of royal jelly is labor-intensive, and markets are limited.

Beekeeping Publications

Beekeeping periodicals and books abound. Many county Extension agents or State universities have publications dealing with beekeeping and bee supply companies. See "Who's Who in Apiculture" (mentioned above) for State universities with beekeeping specialists.

U.S. periodicals with the largest circulation are:

  • American Bee Journal, 51 South Second St., Hamilton, IL 623411/$16.20 a year.
  • Bee Culture, 623 W. Liberty Street, Medina, OH 44258/$16.50 a year.
  • The Speedy Bee, P.O. Box 998, Jesup, GA 31545-0998/$17.25 a year.

Because there are so many beekeeping books, a newcomer may want to borrow books from a library or another beekeeper before deciding which to buy. Two books in most beekeepers' libraries are:

  • "ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture," A.I. Root Co., P.O. Box 706, Medina, OH 44258/$25.
  • "The Hive and the Honey Bee," Dadant & Sons, 51 South Second St., Hamilton, IL 62341/$36.00.

Prepared by H. Shimanuki and S.W.T. Batra of the Bee Research Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA), Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program Director, Ag Box 2244, Washington, D.C. 20250-2244. Telephone 202-401-1805, Fax 202-401-1804.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in its programs on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs and marital or familial status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact the USDA Office of Communications at 202-720-5881 (voice) or 202-720-7808 (TDD).

To file a complaint, write the Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250, or call 202-720-7327 (voice) or 202-720-1127 (TDD). USDA is an equal employment opportunity employer.

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

All uses of fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides must be registered by appropriate State and/or Federal agencies before they can be recommended.

CAUTION: Fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides can be injurious to humans, domestic animals, desirable plants, and fish or other wildlife if they are not handled or applied properly. Use all products selectively and carefully. Follow recommended practices for the disposal of surplus products and their containers.

January 1994

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