The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Beekeeping Basics

Bees and Trees

- January 1, 2022 - Dewey Caron - (excerpt)

Feeding bees

Early humans were initially hunters/gatherers. This includes the earliest beekeepers who practiced hunting of wild bee nests for their honey and beeswax. Some human cultures continue such traditions today. Dr. Mike Burgett, emeritus professor of Apiculture at Oregon State University, described the dangers to present-day Sundarban honey hunters of the mangrove coastal forests of India/Bangladesh in an interview article in the December 2014 Bee Culture. The honey hunters face man-eating Bengal tigers, 12-foot+ crocodiles, giant pythons, numerous stings from the bees and 9-foot tides in the mangrove forests where they need to go to harvest wild Apis dorsata nests.

Ancient and current honey hunters often faced obstacles. Hunting for and harvesting of Apis dorsata nests in the mountains of Nepal is another example of modern-day honey hunters facing difficult obstacles. Two interesting YouTube videos to view include:

  1. Tamil Nadu honey hunters of south-central India, “Honey of the Untouchables,” with superb insect photographer Eric Tourneret:
  2. Kulung culture (Nepal) Honey Hunters from National Geographic (restricted access)

The earliest beekeepers often “kept” their bees where they found wild nests, many in the actual cavities the bees used. Tree cavities of standing living trees were individually marked for ownership. Honey and beeswax were obtained by destruct harvest. Rather than total destruction, some owners would cut into the side or back of the cavity to remove combs. The harvesters would leave some comb to attract a new swarm if the harvested colony didn’t survive winter to start the cycle the next season.

Keeping bees in trees continues today. Forest beekeeping of Poland and Belarus has been nominated for listing as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It already has the status of a historical and cultural value in Belarus, where the ancient traditions of keeping bees in artificially-made tree cavities placed high in the trees, goes back to the 5th-6th century. Although the tradition was interrupted in Poland, it is being restored.

Langstroth wrote about this tree hive tradition in his 1853 bookHive and the Honey-Bee”:

The Russian and Polish beekeepers …. are among the largest and most successful cultivators of bees, many of them numbering their colonies by hundreds, and some even by thousands. They have, with great practical sagacity, imitated as closely as possible the conditions under which bees are found to flourish so admirably in a state of nature.

Putting bees in domiciles

Eventually, once trees were largely harvested, the beekeepers developed domiciles of clay or straw with mud and animal dung coverings. The iconic beehive, the skep, is widely represented as a beehive, even sometimes on our modern honey labels. Few beekeepers, certainly few in the Americas, have ever kept bees in a skep.

Skep/tree beekeeping management included capturing swarms to populate cavities. Stone walls had recesses, called boles, to hold the skeps. In North America the skep was used until about 1800. Their use faded in popularity because the abundance of timber allowed beekeepers to either keep bees in tree hollows (gums) or to build boxes for the bees. Sometimes boxes or woven baskets were placed on top of the skep or cut gum or box hives to allow the bees to store honey above the nest. This then allowed the harvest of honey but not displacement of the bees from their nest. Today the modern-day super no longer means destroying the comb to get liquid honey.

The European or western honey bees we husband in the Americas are quite flexible about where they nest. Swarms seek a dry chamber of a suitable volume (studies point to preference of average size of a standard Langstroth box — 40 liters), where there is good ventilation and a small entrance with southerly or eastern orientation. The bees line the interior with propolis and build parallel combs.

Since both honey and bee brood are sought as foods by a wide variety of wild animals and birds, the honey bee often selects cavities in trees and rock outcroppings some distance off the ground. The habitat likely determined the most popular nesting site. In desert areas, rock outcroppings are common sites for bees, especially if they are difficult for predators to reach from the ground. Where trees are found, the preferred nesting site is a hollow in a living tree. Bees are less likely to live in dead trees than living trees. Over 20 different tree species have been identified as hosting bee nests.

Tree hollows typically have much thicker walls than a standard beehive, and as such, are better able to handle the extremes of heat and cold. Bees in tree hollows do not normally construct their parallel combs to the bottom of the cavity, so a debris area forms at the base of the hollow. It remains moist and comprised of organic nutrients, bits of beeswax, pieces of wood and living organisms. Within this micro-ecosystem, there are beneficial predators and microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, wax moths, etc.) that may help the bees remain healthy. Since many of the cavities bees select are small, the bees often swarm. Swarming is the bees’ way of reproducing and is also a means for “solving” issues like American foulbrood and bee mites.

The history of humans bringing bees closer to their residences is not well documented. Most farmers kept other livestock and grew crops, and keeping bees was only a minor part of their husbandry/agriculture. The beginning of “domestication” of honey bees by middle eastern cultures is cited as from around 10,000 to 4400 years ago. In Asia, keeping bees in or around the home probably predates the Middle Eastern peoples.

Modern studies of bees in trees

Thanks to the elegant research of Dr. Tom Seeley and students, we understand more about bees in trees than we ever did. Dr. Seeley studied bees living in hollows of trees in the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, at Cornell, the only place in Europe and North America with data on wild colony abundance before and after arrival of varroa mites. He found colony numbers were the same before and after mite colonization with an average separation of about ½ mile. Density is low, about 3½ colonies per square mile.

He has discussed these studies in thoroughly documented, easy to read books such as The “Lives of Bees” and “Honeybee Democracy.” From studies by Dr. Seeley we have rediscovered some advantages tree hollows offer bees. Dr. Seeley has suggested an Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) beekeeping management approach (also termed Darwinian beekeeping, api-centric beekeeping or “natural” beekeeping) using the natural bee tree information. Some nine key managements to “naturalize” Langstroth hive beekeeping, based on what he finds common to bees living in trees, are:

  1. Good genetics — breed your own or purchase from supplier stock that is mite-resistant, or capture swarms that are “survivor” colonies from bees living in trees.
  2. Average in the wild is 3.5 colonies per square mile, so whenever possible, space colonies as widely as possible at least 15 feet apart. Colonies should be individually distinguishable to their inhabitants.
  3. Use a small hive configuration similar to what is found in tree hollows. That means one deep and one shallow. Although the bees will make less honey, colonies will be healthier.
  4. Use rough-cut lumber on insides of hive boxes or arrange plastic propolis traps on the insides of boxes to increase propolis coating.
  5. Maintain  ….