Beekeeping Standard Practices

A good way to begin beekeeping, especially in Africa, is to bait an empty hive to attract a swarm. Set up a hive and either rub it inside with some beeswax or lavender to give it an attractive smell, or leave some attractive food for the bees: granulated sugar or cassava powder will work. You could also put some honey on the tops of the top bars.

The bees will not be able to get at it and take it away to another hive, but the scent will still remain to attract them. This will only be successful in areas where there are still plenty of honey bee colonies. Another option is to transfer a colony from the wild into the hive. The wild colony will already have a number of combs and these can be carefully tied on to the top bars of the hive, making sure that you include the brood combs and the queen. One of the best ways to get started in beekeeping is with the assistance of a practicing, local beekeeper.

Harvesting honey and beeswax

Honey is harvested at the end of a flowering season. The beekeeper selects those combs which contain ripe honey, covered with a fine layer of white beeswax. These combs are usually the outside-most ones. Combs containing any pollen or developing bees should be left undisturbed. Honey will keep a long time if it is clean and sealed in an airtight container, but will deteriorate rapidly and ferment if it has absorbed water. Preventing this from happening is crucial in honey harvesting.

Harvesting the Combs

Harvesting should be carried out in the evening or the early morning. Gentleness is the key to successful colony manipulation, so learn to carry out this process swiftly but calmly to avoid upsetting your bees.

  • Put on your protective clothing.
  • Get your smoker, brush or quill, knife or hive tool, and a rust- proof container in which to put the honeycomb.
  • Load your smoker, and puff some smoke gently around the hive for a few minutes. Wait a few more minutes, then puff smoke around the entrance holes.
  • After puffing the smoke, open the lid.
  • Knock the top bars to see which of them have combs; they will sound heavier than empty ones.
  • Use the knife or hive tool to remove the first bar from one end of the hive.
  • Puff smoke gently into the gap to drive the bees to the other side of the hive.
  • Start removing the bars one by one, until you get to the first comb, which will be white and new. It may be empty or it may contain some unripened honey. Replace it and leave the comb for the bees to develop.
  • Remove only the capped or partly capped combs, which will be quite heavy. Use a brush or feather to sweep any bees back into the hive.
  • Cut the comb off, leaving about 2cm for the bees to start building on again. Put the comb in a container and replace the top bar.
  • Carry-on harvesting until you come across a brood comb, which will be dark in color and contain pollen too. Leave this honey for the bees.
  • Start the process again at the other end of the hive.
  • Close the hive carefully, replacing the lid.

Honey Extraction

The honeycomb can be simply cut into pieces and sold as fresh, cut comb honey. Alternatively, the honey and comb can be separated and sold as fresh honey and beeswax. It is important when processing honey to remember that it is hygroscopic and will absorb moisture, so all honey processing equipment must be perfectly dry.

The most common traditional methods of honey extraction are squeezing or burning the combs. Burning the honeycomb is wasteful and makes the quality of both the wax and the honey inferior; it should be avoided at all costs. If your quantity of honey or financial resources are small, then squeezing the honey out by hand is probably the most viable option. The honey extracted by this method will have to be strained through several increasingly finer meshes to remove any bits of wax or debris, ending with something like muslin cloth. It is very important that this procedure be carried out hygienically, and that the honey is not left exposed to the air, where it will pick up moisture and deteriorate.

Another good way of extracting honey from top-bar or movable frame hives is a radial or tangential extractor. This is a cylindrical container with a centrally-mounted fitting to support combs or frames of uncapped honey, and a mechanism to rotate the fitting (and the combs) at speed. The honey is thrown out against the side of the container and runs down to the bottom, where it is collected and then drained off with a tap. Most manufactured extractors are made to hold frames and have to be adapted to take comb from top bar hives. This is usually done by making wire baskets to hold the comb. The baskets can either lie flat horizontally, or be attached to the vertical frames and sit tangentially within the container.

Top-bar combs in tangential extractors have to be spun twice, once on each side, to extract all the honey.

The honey must be stored in airtight, non-tainting containers to prevent water absorption and consequent fermentation. If you want to sell your honey it would be helpful to add a label describing the source of the honey (for example sunflower, mixed blossom, tree honey), the country and district it was produced in, the weight or amount of honey in the container, and your name and address.

Beeswax Extraction

The comb from which bees build their nest is made of beeswax. After as much honey as possible is separated from the combs, the beeswax can be melted gently over moderately warm water (boiling water will ruin the wax) and molded into a block.

Another option for processing the wax is a solar wax melter (Figure 4). This appliance is easy to make and consists of a wooden box with a galvanized metal shelf with a spout, a bowl or container that sits under the spout, and a glass or plastic cover. When placed in the sun the temperature inside the box will melt down a comb and the wax will flow into a container inside the box. Any honey that was left in the combs will sink to the bottom; it is usually used for cooking or beer making as its taste is spoiled somewhat by this process.

Beeswax does not deteriorate with age and therefore beekeepers often save their scraps of beeswax until they have a sufficiently large amount to sell. Many beekeepers still discard beeswax, unaware of its value. Beeswax is a valuable commodity with many uses in traditional societies: it is used in the lost-wax method of brass casting, as a waterproofing agent for strengthening leather and cotton strings, in batik, in the manufacture of candles, and in various hair and skin ointments. Beeswax is also in demand on the world market. Beeswax for export should be clean and have been re-heated as little as possible.

Bee Stings

Bee stings can be avoided by wearing protective clothing, but if you are stung, you should remove the sting as soon as possible by scraping it off with a fingernail or knife. Do not try to pick it off as you may squeeze poison into your flesh.

Some steps to help avoid bee stings are:

  • Wash yourself to make sure you are free of odours.
  • Do not use any cosmetics, perfume, etc.
  • Approach the hive from the side or behind the entrance.
  • Do not wear dark clothing.
  • Approach the hive quietly.
  • Provide bees with water during the dry season.
  • Be careful not to crush a bee, as it gives off an alarm scent. If you are stung, you should move away and remove the sting, as other bees will be attracted by the powerful smell that the bee leaves on the spot where you have been stung. As soon as the sting is out, the site should be smoked to disguise the alarm pheromone.

If you are allergic to bee stings, you should not take up beekeeping.

Disease and Pests (click image to enlarge)

During the last two decades there has been a tremendous increase in the spread of bee disease around the world. This has been brought about by the movement of honey bee colonies and used beekeeping equipment by people. There are few remaining regions without introduced honey bee diseases, and as a rule used beekeeping equipment should not be imported.

Honey bee colonies, or even single queen bees, must never be moved from one area to another without expert consideration of the consequences.

There are numerous pests that will disrupt a beehive and prey on your bees. Wax moths are almost universal, ants a very common and persistent hazard, and honey badgers a serious nuisance in Africa. It is best to talk to other local beekeepers about what the most common problems are and take their advice about appropriate defenses.

source: practicalaction.org, photo from abante.com.ph

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