honey bee

Small Scale Beekeeping
by Curtis Gentry

Table of contents

adapted for the web by Conrad Bérubé
Island Crop Management
email: uc779(at)freenet.victoria.bc.ca

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Copyright © 2007 Conrad Bérubé, site design, concept and scripting. All rights reserved worldwide.

web version copyright © 2002 Conrad Bérubé, site design, concept and scripting

Printed material from Small Scale Beekeeping (by Curtis Gentry. 1982. Peace Corps office of Information Collection and Exchange, Washington, DC. Illustrated by Stacey Leslie) may be freely reproduced, without changes, for non-commercial purposes (education and development). The html version is copyrighted and may not be reproduced in electronic form without the consent of the copyright holder (but as long as you're not selling it permission to duplicate will be granted upon request-- contact me at the email address in the banner above)


Chapter 3


Types of Bees

There are many different species of bees. Most bees are solitary, but some are social. These live together inn colonies with a division of labor among the individuals.

The habit of visiting flowers makes all bees important as pollinating agents. All bees gather nectar and pollen from flowers, but only a few of the social bees store the nectar as honey. Of the bees that store honey, there are even fewer species that store it in sufficient quantity to make the effort of harvesting the honey worthwhile.

Although some "stingless" bees are robbed of their honey in tropical regions, bees of the genus Apis, the true honey bees, are the major producers of honey and other hive products. Apis mellifera, the western hive bee, has been introduced into most regions of the world for use in beekeeping.

Stingless bees

In tropical regions, some species of stingless bees-- notably Trigona and Melipona- are robbed of their honey. All of these bees build their nests inside cavities. Even though these bees do not sting, they defend their colony by biting the intruder. Some secrete irritating substances along with the bite.

The brood comb of stingless bees is one cell thick and usually horizontal. These bees store honey in thimble-sized wax honey pots placed around the brood area of the nest. In some areas, these stingless bees are kept in gourds, clay pots, or hollowed logs. Honey is harvested by opening the nest cavity and removing the honey pots. The yield is very low, and marketing it is worthwhile only on a local level. Such honey is often highly prized locally for medicinal use.

The Mayas of Central America developed a system of keeping one species of Melipona in log hives. Honey was important in their religious celebrations, and they had special festivals and rituals to assure good honey harvests. This is the only case in the world where a bee culture developed with a non-Apis species of bee. Such meliponiculture still survives in regions of Central America. Yields of 10-12 kg/year are maximum with these bees.

Since stingless bees use a different type of nest structure for honey storage and brood, improved methods for keeping these bees are limited in their effectiveness for increasing production. This, coupled with low yields, makes the keeping of these bees economically feasible only for home honey consumption.

Apis: The true honey bee

There are four species in the bee genus Apis-- three which are native to Asia and one which is native to the Euro-African region. All of these are similar in appearance, though there are size and color differences. All build vertical combs that are two cells thick.

The giant or rock honey bee (Apis dorsata) and the little honey bee (A. florea) are found in Asia. Both of these bees build a single-comb, exposed nest. Nests are often seen hanging from branches of trees, roofs, or ceilings. The adult bees hang in curtains around the nest to control nest conditions. Brood and honey stores are in the same comb - the brood in the lower section and the honey in the upper section.

In some areas, methods have been devised for removing the honey section of the comb and reattaching the brood area; thus bee-having is practiced with these bees. The yields are often high enough (especially with A. dorsata) to make the effort well worthwhile for the farmer.

No methods of keeping either of these bees are known which are better than those currently practiced. The behavior of both species is unpredictable, and they will not live inside a hive. The giant honey bee is especially defensive of its nest. Therefore, there is little potential for development in the management of either species, though there is often potential for improving the quality of the honey by using more care in processing.

Two other species of Apis (mellifera and cerana) normally build multi-comb nests in enclosed cavities. These bees can be kept in hives, and methods have been devised to allow for a more rational utilization of their potential. It is with these two species that a potential for beekeeping development exists.

The western hive bee (Apis mellifera) is native to western Asia, Europe, and A-Africa. There is tremendous variation in this bee across its range, and at least twenty different sub-species or "races" are recognized, broadly divided into European and African groups. Several races of this bee are considered especially desirable for beekeeping.

European races of the western hive bee have been introduced into most parts of the world, including the Americas, Australia, and Asia. This bee has been studied intensely from both a strict biological and a beekeeping viewpoint. Under good conditions, desirable races build large colonies' and produce large surpluses of honey. Yields of 100 kg/year or better are possible under optimum conditions.

The western honey bee offers a great potential for beekeeping development. In addition to high honey yields, its ability to survive under a wide range of conditions and its availability due to past introductions or to native populations are characteristics which have made this bee popular for beekeeping. For these reasons too, the focus of this manual is on the western hive bee.

The eastern or Indian hive bee (Apis cerana, formerly A. indica) is native to Asia. Beekeeping developed with this bee in different regions of Asia, since it can be easily hived in man-made containers. Honey yields of up to 15-20 kg/year are obtained in some areas, but the average is much lower.

There is a lot of variation in the eastern hive bee across its range, and little work has been done toward selecting more desirable strains from a beekeeping point of view. Techniques of beekeeping with this bee are similar to those used with the western hive bee, though the hives used are smaller.

Development of small-scale beekeeping with the eastern hive bee deserves attention in its native area. Although yields are considerably lower than with the western hive bee, this bee has the advantage of being well adapted to the area. It is more resistant to some of the disease and pest problems found in the area. Therefore, it is better able to survive under the minimal-management conditions which often characterize beekeeping at the small-farmer level.

In recent years, there has been an effort in Asia to replace the eastern honey bee with European races of the western honey bee. This has been successful only in temperate regions and only for large-scale, capital-intensive operations where the technology is available to control disease and parasite problems of the European races. For a small-scale development effort in this area, consider the likely beekeeping conditions in choosing a species.

In any small-scale beekeeping development effort, the existing bee resource of the area should be used. Importing bees for such a project is far riskier than it is worth.

The importation of bees is often fraught with problems. Importing bees for a small-scale project often makes the people psychologically dependent upon the outside source. They do not realize that there is a locally available bee resource, nor are they motivated to make use of it.

Imported bees often are not adapted to the areas into which they are introduced. This is especially true of introductions of temperate European races into tropical areas.

Importing bees also risks the introduction of exotic bee diseases and parasites. Tragic cases of this have occurred in recent years in Europe and South America with the introduction of Varroa, a mite parasite of the honey bee.

The most notable problem of the unguarded importation of bees occurred in Brazil in 1956. A beekeeping industry based on European races of the western bee was well-established in many areas of temperate South America. African bees were imported into Brazil in an attempt to establish an industry in some of the more tropical regions. Some of these bees accidentally escaped and became established. They have continued to expand their range in the tropical lowlands, and in most cases they have actually supplanted the existing European bees.

The establishment of African bees in tropical America has caused a great disruption of the beekeeping industry. The African bee is noted for its defensiveness and unpredictability. These are characteristics considered undesirable from a beekeeper's point of view. In some cases nearby persons and farm animals have been stung to death. Adjusting to the increased number of stinging incidents and to the difficulty of managing this bee has been difficult for beekeepers. it is usually necessary to move hives away from inhabited areas when the bees become "Africanized" by interbreeding with wild colonies.

On the other hand, The African bee is often more amenable to low-management beekeeping than the European bee. Small-scale farmers who want to start beekeeping have a cheap source of bees in the wild colonies of the African bee. Such colonies are common in the areas where this bee is found, since the African bee is adapted to live in tropical regions. (See Appendix A for a resource on the nature of beekeeping with the African bee.)

Climate and Beekeeping

To understand the relationship of climate to beekeeping, it is useful first to understand two concepts related to bees and their environment. These are the nectar flow and the honey flow. Although beekeepers often speak of these as being the same, they are different, though similar, concepts.

The nectar flow is totally a function of plants. It refers to both the quantity and the quality (amount of dissolved sugars) of the nectar secreted by the plant. The nectar flow in an area at a given time is dependent upon the species of plants present and the weather factors affecting those plants. Climatic and edaphic (soil) factors determine the flora of an area and thus the potential nectar flow. Rainfall, temperature, and sunlight affect the plants and thus determine the actual nectar flow.

Some plant species secrete very little if any nectar, while others secrete copious amounts. The quality, or sugar content, of nectar also varies among the different plant species. Weather also has an effect on quality. High rainfall promotes nectar secretion, but such nectar is often very low in sugar content.

For most plant species, the conditions promoting optimum nectar flow are adequate rainfall previous to flowering and dry, sunny conditions during the flowering period. The timing and relative amount of rainy and dry, sunny periods vary from year to year; thus the nectar flow can be highly variable. Some plant species are less affected by weather patterns than others. These plants can be depended upon for good nectar flows every year. Other plants are very sensitive to weather patterns. These plants may give excellent flows during some years and no flow during others.

The honey flow is a function of the bee-plant relationship. it is the use of the nectar flow by the honey bee colony. While the beekeeper can do little to affect the nectar flow, good colony management is important to insure good honey flows. Strong colonies are needed at the time of the maximum nectar flow to maximize the honey flow.

Weather conditions are also a factor in the honey flow. Good flying weather for the foragers during a good nectar flow is necessary for a good honey flow.

The optimum areas of the world in terms of potential honey flows are areas of deciduous forest in the wet/dry tropics. Such areas have a long dry season which allows bee colonies to build up their strength to peak population to take advantage of the maximum nectar flow. The flora of these areas is also particularly rich in melliferous (bee-attracting) plants. The dry, sunny period after the rainy season promotes a good nectar flow and provides good foraging weather. These areas can support large apiaries of up to 100 colonies with optimum yields of up to 150 kg/colony/year.

Areas with continuous cool and cloudy or rainy conditions are poorly suited for beekeeping. Nectar is usually of poor quality, and the bees have little good weather to forage in these regions. of course, large desert regions are precluded from permanent beekeeping, even though good bee pasture may be present there for short periods during the year.

Not all plants are attractive to bees. The melliferous flora varies widely within any major climatic zone. Natural factors affect the environment, and sometimes people can alter the suitability of a region for beekeeping by their land use patterns or agricultural practices. Cutting down large areas of suitable bee forage and devoting these areas to monoculture can destroy a good bee area if the introduced crop is a poor resource for bees.

Conversely, the bee pasture of an area can be improved if marginal melliferous plants are replaced with good nectar- and pollen-producing plants. It is seldom economically feasible to make large plantings solely for improving the bee pasture, though the bee pasture of an area can be improved by selecting good melliferous plants for other primary purposes such as reforestation, windbreaks, cover crops, firewood crops or forage crops for livestock.

Beekeeping can be carried on profitably under a wide range of nectar and honey flow conditions. These conditions figure more in determining the size and type of a profitable beekeeping operation rather than determining the profitability per se. There are many areas that would not be practical for a large-scale beekeeping venture, but would be highly suited for a small-scale project.

The planning of a small-scale beekeeping project should not put too much emphasis on bee flora. The goal of most such projects is to introduce improved methods into an existing bee-human relationship. if a bee-human relationship already exists, and the bees are producing honey, it is far more practical to assume that a bee pasture exists. It is a waste of resources to emphasize studying the region's bee flora in beginning a small-scale project.

The identification of bee flora is an integral part of the beekeeper's knowledge which is built with experience. A special study is not needed. It will be learned when there are beekeepers to observe it. The first step is to make beekeepers.

Life Cycle of the Honey Bee

The honey bee is an insect with complete metamorphosis. This means that there are four distinct stages in the life cycle - egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

The first three stages develop in cells in the comb, and are collectively referred to as the brood. Eggs and larvae are in open cells and are cared for by adult workers. These stages are called the open or unsealed brood.

Once the egg hatches, the workers-continually feed the developing larva. When the larva nears the end of the larval period, it engorges on food provided by the workers, and the workers seal the cell. This is known as the capped or sealed brood.

After the cell is sealed, the larva changes into the pupal stage. There is no feeding during this period. The pupa develops into the adult form, which emerges on its own from the cell.

The Castes

The honey bee is a social insect with three different types of individuals or castes in the colony-- queens, drones and workers. Each caste has its special function in the colony. The queen and workers are female, the drones are male.

Each caste has a different developmental time and is reared in a distinct type of cell. The developmental time of the queen, 16 days, is the shortest. She is reared in a specially constructed royal or queen cell. Queen cells appear similar to peanut shells which hang from the surface of the comb. They can be located along the edges of the comb or within the comb area. The colony constructs queen cells when there is a need to rear queens, though cells are sometimes started and then abandoned. These are called false queen cups.

The developing queen larva is always surrounded by royal jelly, a special, highly-nutritious food produced by head glands of the workers This feeding scheme, called massive provisioning, is unique to the queen and continues throughout her entire developmental period.

All young larvae of less than two days are fed with royal jelly by the massive provisioning scheme. After the second day, worker larvae are gradually switched to a progressive feeding scheme where they are fed with a mixture of royal jelly, honey and pollen. With progressive feeding, the larvae are fed periodically, thus food is not always available to them. The different feeding schemes determine the caste of the adult bee. Thus any female egg or larva less than two days old has the potential to become either a queen or a worker.

Workers are reared in the same type of cell that is used to store honey and pollen. This type of cell makes up the majority of the comb in the colony.

The size of the cells of naturally built (i.e. without embossed foundation) worker comb is useful for distinguishing between species and some races of Apis commonly kept in hives. The distance across ten cells of comb built by the eastern hive bee (A. cerana) in the Philippines averages 4.1 cm, and in-southern India, the distance is 4.3-4.4 cm. The African races of the western hive bee build comb with measurements of 4.7-4.9 cm across ten cells, while the distance in comb constructed by common European races is 5.2-5.6 cm.

The cappings on sealed worker cells are opaque and flat. The adult worker emerges from the cell 21 days after the egg is laid.

The developmental period of drones is 23 days. Drones are reared in cells of the same shape as worker cells only larger. Drone cells are sealed with dome-shaped cappings.

The following chart summarizes the developmental periods, starting at the time the egg is laid. The figures given can vary a day or so, depending on the type (species and/or race) of honey bee, the weather conditions, or the time of year.


The queen is the only female that is completely developed sexually. This is a result of a total diet of royal jelly during a developmental period. She is distinguished by her long, slender appearance, due to the full development of the ovaries in her abdomen. She has a sting without barbs. In the colony, she is found in the area of the brood nest.

Approximately five days after emerging from her cell, the virgin queen begins to take a series of mating flights. She takes a number of such flights over a period of two to three days, and may mate with ten or more different drones. The sperm is stored in a special organ, the spermatheca, and the queen never mates again after this period.


About five days after taking her mating flights, the queen begins to lay. During favorable periods a good queen can lay more than 1500 eggs per day. Factors which affect egg laying are the weather, the nectar and pollen flows, the size of the queen, and the condition of the colony. The number of eggs laid varies with the annual cycle as available resources of nectar and pollen vary. Large amounts of incoming resources stimulate workers to give the queen more food, which in turn stimulates her to lay more eggs.

Several of the queen's glands produce a complex of compounds called the queen substance. It is distributed throughout the colony by workers that care for the queen and pass it on to other workers.

The queen substance is a combination of pheromones, chemical compounds which serve to control the behavior of other individuals of the same species. Pheromones produced by the queen and by the other individuals of the colony serve to harmonize colony behavior.

Normally, there is only one queen per colony, though sometimes two queens are present when the old queen is being superseded.

The queen can live for up to four years, but in the tropics, where the yearly laying period is longer, the queen does not live as long. Older queens do not have the laying capacity of younger queens, therefore young, vigorous queens are preferred by beekeepers. in intensive beekeeping, queens are replaced about every two years.

Drones, the males of the colony, are produced from unfertilized eggs. (The queen can control whether or not the egg is fertilized as she lays it.)

The body of the drone is larger than that of the worker or queen. The eyes are large and cover practically the whole head. The end of the abdomen is blunt and is covered with a tuft of small hairs.


Drones cannot sting. As the sting is a modified structure of the female genitalia, drones do not have stings. They also do not have any of the structures necessary to collect nectar and pollen.

A strong colony can have about 300 drones. But during periods when resources are scarce, the workers run the drones out of the colony. They die as they cannot fend for themselves.

The sole function of the drones is to fertilize the queen. The mating of honey bees takes place in the air away from the colony. When the weather is good, mature drones leave the colony during the afternoon and congregate in certain areas where they wait for virgin queens to fly by.

Drones sometimes return to colonies that have a virgin queen. such colonies will accept drones from other colonies and will tolerate a large drone population while the queen is a virgin. However, after a queen mates, the workers run many of the drones out of the colony.

Workers are females which are not fully and developed sexually. They do the work of the colony a maintain it in good condition. Workers have special structures and organs which are associated with the duties they perform.

The tasks that the adult workers perform change as they age. This is correlated with the physiological development of various glands. However, this scheme is not absolutely fixed; workers can change tasks to meet the needs of the colony.


The life span of worker adults varies greatly with the time of year. During periods when the colony is relatively inactive (dearth periods), workers may live three months or more, but when the colony is active, few workers live for as long as six weeks. During these active periods, about three weeks are spent as a hive bee and the remainder as a forager. The life span of workers of tropical races of the western hive bee and the eastern hive bee is shorter.


When a colony has become queenless and there are no young larvae or female eggs from which to rear a new queen, laying workers can develop. The ovaries of some workers in the colony develop because of the absence of queen substance, and they start to lay eggs. Since workers do not have the body structure or behavior necessary to be fertilized, all of the eggs are unfertilized and thus produce drones.

Laying workers can be suspected in a colony if there is an excessive number of drones present. Close examination of brood comb can verify this. Worker cells that contain drone brood (i.e. worker cells capped with a domed cap) and cells that contain a number of eggs of varying sizes laid in a haphazard fashion confirm the presence of laying workers. A good queen lays only one egg per cell which is placed in the center of the base of the cell.

Resource Needs of the Colony

Foraging workers fly up to three kilometers from the colony to collect the resources needed by the colony. Of course, it is better if there are abundant resources closer to the colony. Bees will fly further than three kilometers, but this is often energy inefficient.

The four substances collected by foragers for the colony are:

Nectar is a sugary secretion of plants. it is commonly secreted by nectars associated with the flowers, though some plants have nectaries located on leaves or stems. Nectar is 70% to 80% water. Higher percentages of water are found during rainy periods. The remainder is sugar and trace amounts of other organic compounds. Nectar is the carbohydrate or energy component in the diet of the bee.

Foragers take the nectar from the nectaries and carry it back to the hive in their honey stomachs. When they return to the colony, they pass the nectar to younger workers who ripen it into honey and store it in cells.

The nectar-ripening process involves evaporating the water content down to less than 19 percent and adding a small amount of enzymes. The workers do this by continually regurgitating droplets of nectar from their honey stomachs and extending the droplets from their proboscises. increasing the surface area of the droplets in this way hastens evaporation. The action also mixes in enzymes which break down the complex sugars of the nectar into simple sugars.

Bees sometimes collect honeydew, a sugary secretion of certain insects which feed on plant sap. Honeydew is acceptable to the bees as food, but honey produced from it is dark and strong-tasting. Such honey is usually considered inferior in quality. Honeydew is more commonly collected by bees in temperate climates.

In the hive, the honey is always stored above and around the brood area of the nest. Adult bees feed on the honey, and mix it with pollen to feed older worker and drone larvae. Most colonies produce more-honey than they need during good honey flows. This extra honey can be harvested. With management, the amount of extra honey can be increased. Simply removing honey stores from the colony stimulates it to produce more honey if the floral resources are available.

Pollen is a powdery substance produced by the male organs of flowers. It contains the sperm call of the plants. Bees aid in transferring pollen from plant to plant. Such pollinating agents are very important for the cross-pollination of many plants.

Many agricultural crops are dependent on insect cross-pollination for successful seed set. These plants are often self-sterile and need to be pollinated with pollen from other plants. Such crops can benefit greatly when they are flowering by having bees nearby.

When foragers visit flowers, pollen sticks to the fine, plumose (feather-like) hairs which cover the body. Periodically, the worker removes the pollen from the hairs using the pollen comb, a structure on the hind legs. Then she forms the pollen into small pellets with the pollen press, and sticks it into the pollen basket to carry it back to the hive. The pollen press and basket are also on the hind legs.

Pollen is used to feed older brood and is also eaten in large quantities by nurse bees who are producing royal jelly from the head glands. It is the protein, vitamin and mineral component in the bee diet.

Pollen is stored in cells immediately surrounding the brood nest where it is readily available for feeding brood and for consumption by the nurse bees. A complex of yeasts in the pollen acts to preserve it in a process similar to ensilaged hay.

Propolis is a resinous substance collected from plants. It is found around wounds on plants and sometimes around buds. Bees use it to seal small cracks and holes in the colony, for reinforcing and repairing old comb, and for covering dead animals in the colony which are too big to be removed.

Propolis contains chemicals called turpines which act to limit bacterial and fungal growth. Therefore it serves to help control bacteria and fungi in the colony environment. It is collected by foragers and carried to the hive in the pollen baskets.

Water is mixed with honey before the bees eat it or feed it to the brood. Bees also use water to cool the hive on hot days. When it is hot, many foragers are busy collecting water. The water is placed in small droplets around the hive, and air currents are set up by bees which stand in the colony and fan their wings. The colony temperature is lowered by evaporative cooling.

Water is carried to the colony in the honey stomachs of the foragers. A nearby source of fresh water is helpful to a bee colony. This minimizes the effort needed to satisfy the water requirements of the hive, and allows the colony to devote more effort to foraging for nectar and pollen. if no natural sources of water are available nearby, the beekeeper can profit by providing a water supply in the apiary.

Swarming, Supersedure and Absconding

Swarming is natural colony division or reproduction. When a colony has reached a large size and there are abundant resources available, the workers will construct queen cells. These queen cells or swarm cells are usually located around the edges of the comb.

A few days before the first virgin queen emerges? the old queen leaves the colony followed by part of the workers and drones. The queen usually lands nearby and the other bees cluster around her. Scouts leave from the cluster in search of suitable nesting sites. within a few days, the cluster usually leaves and moves to a site where it establishes a permanent nest.

The first queen that emerges in the old colony searches out other queen cells and destroys them. If two or more queens emerge at the same time, they will fight until one kills the other.

Sometimes, if the colony still has a large population, a recently emerged queen will leave the colony with a number of workers instead of destroying the other queen cells. This is called an afterswarm. it is similar to the original swarm except it is smaller and the queen is a virgin. A colony sometimes afterswarms several times.

Supersedure is queen replacement without colony division. if the old queen begins to fail, workers will construct queen cells to rear a replacement. These supersedure cells are usually located on the face areas of the comb. The old queen does not leave the colony in supersedure. The new queen mates, returns to the colony, and begins to lay.

After supersedure, it is not uncommon to find both the old queen and the new queen together in the same colony. They are not competing, therefore they tolerate each other. The old queen can be distinguished by her tattered wings and her abdomen, which is worn of hairs. She dies soon after the new queen has started laying.

Absconding is the abandonment of a nest site by a colony. It is usually due to excessive disturbance of the colony by predators or beekeepers, or to diminishing resources in an area. Absconding is more common in tropical species and races of the honey bee.

This background information on the basics of honey bee biology is necessary in order to understand the nature of beekeeping and the principles of hive management. Optimum hive management can only be achieved with a good understanding of bee biology. Your knowledge of bee biology will never stop growing once you start working with bees. As with everything else, experience is the best teacher.

Helping beginning beekeepers to build a knowledge of bee biology is often a slow and difficult process in development projects. Abstract discussions, lectures, and extension material often mean nothing to persons whose learning has not been geared to such media.- They need to see the thing for themselves. Actual demonstration is often the most effective teaching method in these situations.

Questioning and listening on the part of the teacher are also important. You need to learn how bees and their relationship with the environment are viewed by the target group of a bee project. You need to learn what the target group already knows.

Folk wisdom on bees is based on the bee environment relationship as it is perceived and observed by those in the community. Often such folk wisdom is correct vis-à-vis bee biology even though the fancy words are lacking.

By finding out the local folk wisdom on bees, the person trying to teach improved beekeeping methods can reinforce what is correct and seek to change what is misunderstood. Seeking to understand and respecting the local folk wisdom will greatly increase your credibility.


Small Scale Beekeeping-- Table of Contents
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