Honey bees are among the best-known insects in the world, second only to ants or flies. Like the ants, they are social insects who live together to form a hive.
A single queen lays all the eggs in the hive and workers, as the name indicates do all the work including foraging, hive maintenance and feeding the larvae. Although the queen only has one job, the hive will not survive without her.
Honey Bees are the only bees that produce a surplus of food, i.e. more than they need to survive. This
Beekeeping records date back 10,000 years to a cave painting in Spain of someone gathering honey from wild hives. The earliest archaeological record for beekeeping was in Israel, near the Jordan Valley, all equipment found at the site pointed to at least 1 million domesticated bees and up to 500 kilograms of honey produced at the site. So keeping bees is not a new idea.
Starting your own colony
Why would you even want to get involved with stinging insects in the first place? Well, there are several reasons. The original reason for keeping bees was likely for the honey. If you kept the hives nearby, you would not need to hunt around to find a hive and if you found one, you might have to climb to it and wrestle the bees at a height putting yourself in considerable danger. It would be much safer and more convenient to have some hives nearby and raid them at your convenience.
In those days there were fewer sources of sweet-tasting food than there are today, so they took what they could get. They also used honey as a form of medicine and even today many people treat allergies and even wounds with it.
Today we still like honey, but we realise that bees are important for other reasons. Many beekeepers find keeping bees relaxing and therapeutic even though it can also be hard work at times. Beekeepers often bring a chair with them to their apiary or sit on a rock and just stare at the bees coming and going at the entrance of the hive. This is useful for assessing the health of the colony but also very relaxing. As good a reason as any for keeping bees but the value of bees extends even further. They are vital to the production of many of our favourite foods. It has been said the two thirds of the foods in our supermarkets would disappear if bees were no longer there to fertilise our crops.
There are some beekeepers, known as commercial beekeepers who have gone beyond keeping some bees nearly for their own use. They would have many hives of bees numbering in hundreds or even many thousands. There are two main ways that commercial beekeepers make their money. One way is selling honey. The other way is bringing their hives to a farmer’s crops when they are in flower and in need of bees to fertilise them. The best known of these crops is the almond orchards in California. Beekeepers load their hives on trucks and bring them to the almond orchards where their bees are let loose. They are then moved to the next crop before the trees are sprayed for pests.
As you may guess there is not a lot of that going on in Ireland. But all else being equal, having a few hives in the vicinity of your crops will improve the yield without a doubt. And there are beekeepers in Ireland moving their hives to take advantage of the abundance of nectar at these times and when asked by farmers to bring their bees to fertilise their crops.
To produce honey, bees fly around looking for flowers that offer them a supply of nectar, a sugary substance that honey bees use to make honey. They bring the nectar back to the hive and pass it on to the house bees who put it in one of the cells and begin the drying process. Each flower only gives a little nectar and that nectar is reduced by drying some of the water from it to thicken it for storage as honey, so the foraging bees must visit a lot of flowers to make the quantities of honey that we see in a jar. One pound of honey takes 1,152 bees flying 112,000 miles and visiting 4,5000,000 flowers. Hard to believe, right? That’s why they say, “Busy as a Bee”.
Beekeepers do not take all of the honey that is in the hive. The bees need some to survive the winter. When it is gathered it is taken to a honey room, a room sealed so that bees cannot get in and try to recover their lost treasure. In the honey room, there will be a machine to extract the honey from the comb. It does this by spinning the comb around at speed until it falls out of the cells and drips into a collection tank from whence it is jarred.
Small scale beekeepers may crush the comb and strain the honey from it keeping the wax (beeswax) to use themselves or to sell.
As a food product, there are many regulations surrounding the sale or even the gifting of honey in Ireland.
There is quite a lot to learn before you make a start in beekeeping, but it is so worth it. Watching the bees hard at work and opening the hive to see the result of their labour and yours is very exciting, definitely fun. Not much profit at a small scale. In fact, the opposite is true. Small scale hobbyists tend to spend more than they might make if they sold their crop, though they usually hand out the honey to friends and family.
As for the profit, it doesn’t usually come in financial rewards… unless, of course, you become a commercial beekeeper and even then it is hard earned.