What Is Beekeeping? (A Primer For Beginners)

What is beekeeping _ bees drawing comb

Honey bees are very beneficial insects. In addition to their role as pollinators, they provide us with various natural products.

Throughout history, humans made the honey bee one of the most domesticated insects in the world to capture its products and services. This domestication is what we call beekeeping.

Beekeeping is the ancient agricultural practice of managing honey bees in enclosed structures called beehives. Beekeepers may obtain crop pollination services from these bees and harvest their honey, beeswax, pollen, and other products. Beekeeping can be a hobby or commercial in nature.

Honey bees have been kept since antiquity for their ability to make honey and wax and their value as pollinators.

In this article, we provide an overview of what is beekeeping and some of its history.

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What is beekeeping _ bees drawing comb

What Is Beekeeping Called?

Beekeeping is technically called “apiculture.”

Beekeeping Is Agriculture

The word “apiculture” is derived from the Latin “apis,” meaning “bee” and “cultura” for “growing (similar to “agriculture”). Thus, apiculture is considered a form of agriculture or farming, where the honey bees are considered livestock.

From the Latin derivations, beekeepers are “apiarists,” and their yards full of beehives are “apiaries.”

Beekeeping is also considered farming in standard usage and by various governmental agencies.

In beekeeping, bees raise brood and produce hive products such as honey in manufactured enclosures called “beehives.”  From beehives, beekeepers harvest apicultural products for human consumption.

In addition, honey bees play a significant role in agriculture as pollinators of crops such as almonds, apples, blueberries, and much more.

See our article Is Beekeeping Agriculture? for more details on how keeping bees is considered farming.

About Honey Bees

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is an insect in the family Apidae, order Hymenoptera. It is native to Eurasia and Africa but has been introduced worldwide. There are two subspecies: the Western honey bee (A.mellifera mellifera), which lives in Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia; and the Eastern honey bee (A. m. scutellata), which lives in parts of Africa and South-East Asia.

The honey bee is a social insect, with colonies consisting of multiple generations of queens, female workers, and male drones. 

Worker bees gather nectar and pollen from flowers. They use these items to produce honey, beebread (primarily pollen), and royal jelly as additional foods.

While foraging, honey bees pollinate plants by carrying pollen between flowers on their bodies. 

While some other insects also make honey, honey bees hoard excess honey during times of abundant nectar flow. In contrast, bumblebees do not store honey, instead of using it immediately for their current diet.

The bees’ instinctive hoarding of honey for later consumption provides “surplus” honey available for harvesting by beekeepers.

Hive Products

In addition to honey, honey bees provide other products for human consumption and use:

  • Beeswax,
  • Propolis,
  • Bee pollen,
  • Royal jelly, and
  • Bee venom.

Since bees are livestock, commercial beekeeping operations also market bees and queens for sale to other beekeepers.

A Brief History Of Beekeeping

The use of honey bee products by humans dates back at least 40,000 years, as evidenced by the use of beeswax.[1]

Domestication of honey bees may have begun about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the rise of agriculture. “The widespread use of bee products among Neolithic groups could mark the beginnings of honeybee domestication. Neolithic farmers began co-opting cattle, pigs and other animals around this time, and may have seen honeybees in a similar light.”[2]

Clay cylinders excavated in Israel date back 3,000 years appear to be the oldest beehives yet discovered.[3]

In Medieval times, honey gatherers would seek out honey bees nesting in tree trunks. These early beekeepers protected and nurtured these colonies for the eventual honey harvest.

Harvesting honey with these early beekeeping methods typically requires ripping out the comb and the destruction of the colony.[4]

Beginning in the 17th century, scientists began to study the behavior of honey bees and how to collect such large quantities of honey. These studies led to new beekeeping techniques that allowed for a more efficient honey collection without destroying the colony.

Incremental innovations led to movable frames, facilitating hive inspections and honey harvesting. Movable frame hives based on the concept of “bee space” developed by Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth constitute the vast majority of beehives used today.

See our article on why we think the Langstroth hive is the best type of beehive for beginners. In that article, we also discuss the other types of beekeeping: Warré hive along with the top bar and other horizontal hives.

The bear and the honey
By Wenceslaus Hollar – Artwork from University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital CollectionScanned by University of TorontoHigh-resolution version extracted using custom tool by User:Dcoetzee, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6236557

Beekeeping Today

Over the past decade, the number of honey bee colonies maintained in the United States was about 2.7 million, which produced 57 million pounds of honey. Approximately 212,000 beekeepers manage these bees.

USDA Number of honey bee colonies

Beekeepers – What They Do

A beekeeper is often categorized as one of the following:

  • Commercial beekeepers manage hundreds of hives as a full-time business,
  • Hobbyists (also called backyard beekeepers) having fewer than 25 beehives, and
  • Sideliners in between the other two and running part-time beekeeping businesses.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture estimates about 90% of US beekeepers are hobbyists or backyard beekeepers.

Check our article Beekeeping As A Hobby to see if beekeeping is for you.

Beekeepers in all these categories have the primary task of managing and caring for their bee colonies. In addition, beekeepers decide what hive products to harvest from a healthy honey bee colony for either personal use (hobby beekeeper) or sale.

Managing beehives includes:

  • Regular inspection to check the health of the colony,
  • Mitigation of any problems such as loss of the queen, disease, or hive damage,
  • Harvesting and processing honey and other hive products, and 
  • Keeping books and records, among other tasks.

See our article What Does A Beekeeper Do? | Beekeeper Jobs for more information.

Other Domesticated Bees

Besides honey bees, beekeepers house and manage some types of bees for their prolific ability to pollinate.

Bumble Bees (Or Bumblebees)

Bumble bees (genus Bombus), of which there are 49 species in the United States, are essential pollinators of many crops and wild plants,

Like the honey bee, bumble bees are social insects and produce honey. However, unlike honey bees, bumblebees have an annual life cycle and do not hoard honey for future consumption. Thus, there is no surplus honey to be harvested by beekeepers.

According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, “Bumble bee domestication is in relatively early stages of development as an industry. Currently, it is dominated by a few international companies.”

Bumblebees serve as the primary pollinator in greenhouses.

Bumble bee on plant
Bumble Bee
Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Mason bee house
Mason Bee House
Dennis Bratland, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mason Bees

Mason bees (genus Osmia) are solitary bees. As solitary bees, mason bees seldom sting as they have no queen and colony to defend.

Beekeepers house mason bees for their incredible efficiency as pollinators.

NatureServe, an authoritative source for biodiversity data throughout North America, says, “Mason bees are considered efficient pollinators because visits to flowers result in a great deal of contact between pollen carried on the bee and the flower’s stigmas, which enhances the chance of successful pollination.”

Conclusion

Centuries ago, humans harvested bee products from feral bee colonies. Domestication of honey bees seems to have coincided with the rise of other agricultural activities.

Eventually, scientific study and advancement led to modern beekeeping techniques which permit repeatable use of bee colonies on a commercial scale. However, despite the commercial opportunities, the vast majority of beekeepers are hobbyists.

If beekeeping is a hobby you want to pursue, we suggest you start with our series on how to begin beekeeping.


[1] d’Errico, Francesco, et al. “Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.33 (2012): 13214-13219

[2] Callaway, E. Early farmers minded their own beeswax. Nature (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2015.18771

[3] Industrial apiculture in the Jordan valley during Biblical times with Anatolian honeybees | Guy Bloch, Tiago M. Francoy, Ido Wachtel, Nava Panitz-Cohen, Stefan Fuchs, Amihai Mazar | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2010, 201003265; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003265107

[4] The Beekeeper’s Bible: Bees, Honey, Recipes & Other Home Uses by Richard Jones and Sharon Sweeney-Lynch

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