All About Honeybees

All about honeybees. Even today honey still holds a place a step above that of common household sugar. To satisfy the world demand for this sweetener, beekeeping has modernized dramatically.

Dark, sweet honey has been the nectar of the Gods for quite some time. Ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener and for medicinal purposes. Peasants presented the viscous liquid to European lords as a form of payment. And kings and queens throughout the world accepted honey as a coveted gift. Even today honey still holds a place a step above that of common household sugar. To satisfy the world demand for this sweetener, beekeeping has modernized dramatically.

Honey is the sole diet of honeybees and to produce their food requires a group effort. Honeybees are quite social and prefer to live in groups, or colonies. The colonies consist of one female queen, several drone males (whose only purpose is to mate with the queen and then die), and several sexually underdeveloped females known as worker bees. These worker bees are responsible for all the duties in the hive from its construction to the collection of nectar. Worker bees will fly several miles in a day foraging blooming flowers for nectar. When the bees return to the hive, the nectar undergoes an enzymatic process that turns it into honey. As the process takes place, the bees are responsible for removing any excess water, then sealing the honey in the wax honeycomb for safe storage. The honeycomb is made through an excretion of the worker bees.

In the wild, bees prefer to build their hive in the crook of trees or hollow logs. For commercial apiculture, more controlled environments are necessary. Ancient manmade beehives were made of dried mud and bark. When it came time to harvest the honey, the structure was broken and the bee colony destroyed. Modern apiculturists use special beekeeping boxes with removable parts that enable them to remove the honey without disturbing the reproducing queen or her eggs. To more easily retrieve the honey, apiculturists smoke out the bees. Fearful of fire, the bees gorge themselves on honey in preparation for escape and subsequent rebuilding of the hive. Bees satiated with honey are less aggressive towards beekeepers. Once the honey has been removed and the smoke clears, the bees return to where their queen lies undisturbed in the manmade hive.

Bees will travel several miles to collect nectar during the blooming season. Some honeybees, such as the European honeybee, produce much more honey than the hive could possibly use, allowing beekeepers to siphon off the excess. The flavor, color and texture of honey depend on the type of nectar harvested by the bees. Bees that are raised near alfalfa or clover fields will produce a light golden honey called Clover honey. Bees cultivated near orange groves will produce the tangy Orange Blossom honey. According to the United States National Honey Board, over 300 unique types of honey exist in the U.S. The Hawaiian Islands, for example, have an abundant variety of tropical flowers that flavor their specialty honeys. Australia is famous for its Eucalyptus honey, while other gourmet honey types include Rata, Nodding Thistle, and Honeydew.

Honey is available in four forms: liquid, creme, comb and cut comb. Liquid honey is the most common type of honey found in stores throughout the US. This honey is extracted from the comb by centrifugal force and then pasteurized. Crème honey is the crystallized form of honey. This form is very popular around the world, and is easily spread like butter. Comb honey is honey in its purest form - directly from the comb. Cut comb is comb honey with chunks of the edible comb added. Honey has many other uses outside of consumption. For centuries honey has been used for medicinal purposes. Honey is a natural antiseptic and was frequently applied to wounds and burns. In the American colonies, the liquid was used to make cement, varnish and polish.

Close relatives of the European honeybee include bumblebees and Africanized honeybees. Bumblebees are large bees usually black or striped and are recognized by their clumsy flight pattern. Bumblebees collect nectar from flowers to make honey in their hives, but bumblebee honey is not used commercially. Bumblebees rarely produce enough excess honey, and their hives are so disorganized that removing the honey would destroy the entire colony. Africanized honeybees are originally descendants of South African honeybees. In 1956, these South African bees were imported to Brazil. Brazilian scientists were conducting breeding experiments to develop a bee strain well adapted to tropical climates. Unfortunately, some of the South African bees escaped and bred with the local population. The result was a highly aggressive bee known as the Africanized honeybee, or killer bee. These bees are so aggressive that they will attack with little provocation. They remain agitated for longer periods than the European honeybee and also attack in high numbers. Their aggressive nature makes them a poor choice for commercial apiculture.

Beekeeping today is a big business full of large vats, pasteurizing equipment, and specialized hives. But apiculture continues to function as a cottage industry, as well. People living in both the country and the city have begun honey cultivation as a rewarding pastime. Basic equipment for the small, one-person operation is not excessively expensive, although there are few monetary rewards in exchange. There is also a wealth of information in books and on the Internet relating to best practices in beekeeping. Bees are susceptible to mites and fungus and their honey attracts mice and raccoons, so new beekeepers need to prepare appropriately. Most importantly, local agricultural restrictions should be researched to avoid any problems with the authorities.

Beekeeping has developed into a virtual science with new techniques making honey harvesting more economically viable. Honey is no longer reserved only for the Gods, but its heavenly texture and flavor make it the Queen of all sweeteners.

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