Beekeeping is technically called apiculture. A beekeeper (or apiarist) keeps bees in order to collect their honey and other produce that the hive produces (including beeswax, propolis, flower pollen, bee pollen, and royal jelly).
Already the Egyptians…
Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees in a cave in Spain dated to 7,000 BC. However, fossils of honey bees date back about 150 million years, and remains of honey and beeswax were also detected on excavated pieces of Neolithic pottery. The bee was the sign of the king of Lower Egypt during the First Dynasty (3,200BC). The ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener, as a gift to their gods, and even as an ingredient in embalming fluid. For thousands of years, the only foolproof method of gathering honey was to find a wild hive — the locations of which were fiercely guarded. The first “domesticated” beehive likely traces back to the Egyptians. The earliest apiarists made hives from old logs or tree trunks to mimic the homes of wild swarms.
A Gift from the Gods
In a time when fruit was the sweetest thing they had ever tasted, honey seemed like a revelation from the gods. In the earliest centuries, nearly every culture had a myth explaining the immortal sweetness of honey. Honey cakes were baked by the Egyptians and later the Greeks and used as an offering to appease the gods. Many cultures also viewed honey as a healing medicine. Cheeses were mixed with honey to make cheesecakes, described by Euripides in the fifth century BC and used as medicine. Beekeeping flourished especially throughout the Roman Empire. Once Christianity was established, honey and beeswax production increased greatly to meet the demand for church candles. By the seventeenth century, sugar was being used regularly as the main sweetener, though still very expensive, but honey was used less. Bees were still thought to have special powers; they were often used as emblems. Napoleon’s flag carried a single line of bees in flight, and his robe was also embroidered with bees, as did the flags and coat of arms for the popes and kings.
Where does honey come from?
Honey is a sweet, syrup-like substance that bees produce from the nectar of flowering plants. The bees collect the nectar and then consume, digest, and regurgitate it inside the beehive to produce honey. Inside of a beehive, there are three types of bees: a single female queen bee, a number of male drone bees whose role is to fertilize the new queens, and 20,000 to 40,000 female worker bees. The queen’s two primary purposes are to produce chemical scents that unite the colony and to lay eggs. Worker bees are female but are not capable of reproducing. Their job is feeding the queen, drones and larvae, collecting the pollen and nectar, and making the wax. Queens are fed only royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers. Honey is stored in wax-like structures called honeycombs, which are gathered by humans. In cold weather or when other food sources are scarce, adult and larval bees use stored honey as their food. If the queen bee is not doing her job not producing enough healthy bees, the rest of the beehive kills her and appoints a new queen. The life inside the beehive is very fascinating. Please see our resources if you want to learn more about this microworld.
Many types of honey
Many types of honey are available, differing based on the plant source, the extraction method, and whether it’s raw or pasteurized.
Honey as food and medicine
Although the nutrition profile varies depending on the type, a single tablespoon (21 grams) of honey typically has 64 calories and 17 grams of carbs with little to no fat, fiber, and protein. It also contains several micronutrients, such as potassium, iron, and zinc. High-quality honey is rich in several important antioxidants — such as phenolic acids and flavonoids — and eating it may increase the antioxidants in your blood. Antioxidants are compounds that help fight disease-causing free radicals, thereby reducing your risk of oxidative cell damage. In some forms of traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda, honey is applied directly to the skin to aid wound healing. Honey has antibacterial properties and may aid in healing ulcers and treating skin conditions, such as psoriasis, dermatitis, and herpes. Shop at local farmer’s markets to make sure you are receiving a quality product. It is also said that eating local honey from your region helps combat seasonal allergies when over time, a person may become less sensitive to local pollen. Since ancient times a fermented honey beverage has been produced, called mead. Royal jelly is a unique, thick, milky substance that the worker bees manufacture and feed to the queen bee, and therefore it is packed with nutrients — all eight essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and hormonal-like substances. It is highly thought after, and very expensive.
But honey is still a type of sugar
Honey also raises blood sugar levels — so it cannot be considered healthy for people with diabetes.
Why are bees disappearing?
If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would have four years left to live. A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent per winter.
Scientists and beekeepers first notice bee colonies disappearing around 2005 and started to study their ailments and the colony collapse disorder. It was concluded that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor. Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide. Scientists further suspect that parasites, pesticides, and infections combine are the cause here. Pesticides first may weaken the bees. That leaves the insects too weak to survive diseases and pests that otherwise would not kill them. Earth’s changing climate worsens things. A changing climate can bring droughts or flooding that affect the availability of flowers on which bees depend. This makes our bees more vulnerable than ever.
Annual bee losses of 5 percent to 10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. Now, the losses approached one-third of all bees, despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure their health. This has reduced the number of hives needed to pollinate our nation’s fruits and vegetables. In China, for example, the army is called to action to hand pollinate their crops in the absence of bees to avoid famine.
Beekeeping as a small business?
With bee prices increasing and the need to have our crops pollinated, it could be a good idea to start a bee-keeping business. (See library resources below). You can also let a beekeeper set up hives in your backyard in exchange for a few years of quality honey. (Check local city ordinance or neighborhood association rules if one is allowed to keep bees in your area). It is a great hobby as well as a good deed for the planet Earth as the bee colonies are dwindling globally. There are many local organizations that can help you with information on how to start. See the list of resources below.
Information contained here is not intended to treat or cure any diseases or provide medical advice.
Local beekeeping Sources:
Baking at the 20th Century Cafe: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake by Michelle Polzine, with Jessica Battilana
Format: print book and ebook
The Complete Guide to Making Mead: The Ingredients, Equipment, Processes, and Recipes for Crafting Honey Wine by Steve Piatz
Format: print book
Beginning Beekeeping: Everything You Need to Make Your Hive Thrive! by Tanya Phillips
Format: print book
The Good Living Guide to Beekeeping: Secrets of the Hive, Stories from the Field, and a Practical Guide that Explains It All by Dede Cummings
Format: print book and ebook
Keeping Bees and Making Honey by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum
Format: print book
Any questions are welcomed!
Community Services Librarian
Kansas City, Kansas Public Library
625 Minnesota Ave.
Kansas City, KS 66101
913-295-8250 ext 1103