Thoughts on Beekeeping

April 19, 2021

I cherish the many things on the farm that are linked to history. Our beehives, for example, are part of a ten-thousand-year-old chain of honey foraging and beekeeping. Successful beekeeping requires an attentive and knowledgeable beekeeper, but even the most mindful beekeeper can encounter problems that endanger the hive. Heading into last fall, we knew our hive was weak and at risk, and those concerns proved justified as we learned that the colony did not survive the winter. We were able to harvest the honey from the old hive and began preparing for the installation of a new colony this spring.

There are several ways to begin a hive ‘from scratch’. These include rescuing a swarm from the wild or ordering a queen from a professional beekeeper. We were able to order queen bees for our new hives, which arrived yesterday! The queens require a little special care to introduce into the new hives, after which nature takes over. Over this coming season we will observe the bees as they first draw out new honeycomb and begin the process of laying eggs and producing honey.

There is evidence of humans foraging honey from wild beehives as early as 10,000 years ago. Numerous societies discovered beekeeping in different parts of the world at different times. For example, sealed pots of honey were found in the tombs of pharaohs, but ancient Greeks also left evidence of hives, smokers, and honey extractors. Documentation exists of beekeeping in ancient Mayan culture and in China since antiquity.

Early methods of honey foraging were destructive to the hive. Honey collectors would crudely destroy the entire hive to access the honey. In medieval Europe beekeeping was an extremely popular activity particularly in monasteries and abbeys. The honey was used to make a type of fermented mead beverage and the wax was used to make candles. During this time beekeeping evolved to resemble modern times more closely, as the design of beehives began to consider the survival of the hive as well as the harvest of the honey.

Our hives here on the farm are ‘Cathedral’ style top-bar hives, which are a modern version of a 3,000-year-old Greek design. In addition to being beautiful they are practical and allow for honey harvesting while supporting and growing the colony. When I helped install the queens into these hives I did so for the first time. Wearing a bee suit and getting close to the bees is something I have only done a couple of times in my life. I realize as I learn the art of beekeeping that I am becoming woven into the history of humans who keep bees and I have thousands of years of knowledge from which to learn. As with other crafts, learning requires a teacher who had a teacher who had a teacher. It is the teachers who teach us the knowledge that has been passed down from antiquity for whom I am the most grateful.

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