It has been my privilege to teach a few more new beekeepers these past several years. Beginning beekeeping is my favorite class to teach because it is the most fun. It is almost misleading for new beekeeping students to get a brand new package or nucleus started on new foundation. The first year is the most successful. It is much the same thing as growing rice on land that has never grown rice. If you follow all the best procedures, that first crop will likely be the best crop of rice ever produced on that piece of land. New foundation has no diseases, the bees have few if any mites or small hive beetles. Unencumbered by mites, disease and small hive beetles, a new colony will flourish that first year if you start with clean stock. New beekeepers hear about all the problems contributing to colony collapse disorder, but it is not a problem for them in the first season. Like Cinderella at the ball, it is easy to start clean but not easy to keep clean.
Lately, thoughts of keeping bees in bee gums and skeps have been a plague on my mind. We seem to be regressing into yesteryear with keeping bees. Modern beekeeping is developing much in common with keeping bees in hollow logs, skeps or empty wooden boxes. My apiary has been productive this season. But many of my colonies were lost. The cleanup will be late this year. Wax moths are eating most of the comb where colony collapse disorder (CCD) claimed the colony. I will start next season with all new foundation in the empty colonies from now on. When all of this CCD started a good friend and beekeeper came through here and we had a visit. He starts new colonies every year. He replaces all his combs every season! He keeps only enough frames of brood to start new colonies and changes those combs as soon as the new ones are drawn and full of bees. That action, combined with screen bottom boards and fall mite control is keeping his honey production at a high level, but the cost in money for foundation and labor is also high.
In the early days of beekeeping, both in Europe and the United states, bees were kept in skeps, bee gums, wooden plank boxes and a few in baskets.
The Greek basket hives had top bars for the bees to build comb on like our top bar hives today. The skeps, bee gums and plank boxes were built to house small colonies of bees. The bees would build up and swarm. Beekeepers tried to capture as many of these swarms as possible to start more small colonies. These small colonies could overwinter if kept in a small recess, especially if that was part of the house wall and the house was heated in the winter. The main objective was to keep twice as many colonies as were harvested. Harvesting honey and beeswax from a skep or bee gum involved removing all the bees. The bees were most often sacrificed, but attempts were made to put them in another hive with their queen. The wax and honey were harvested from the sacrificed colony. The wax would be rendered and sold. The honey was either squeezed from the comb or sold in the comb. There were no extractors during the days of skep beekeeping.
The beekeeper destroyed half of his hives each year and sold the hive products for a profit. Most beekeepers had only one apiary, but a few had several. In every apiary half the bee colonies were sacrificed each year. Most apiaries would have had from 10 – 20 colonies. That means 5 or 10 would be destroyed for honey and wax production. This season one-fourth of my colonies have died, another one-fourth were weak and produced too little honey to replace …
Picture of Alejandro Reed with his father Dennis and teacher Ray Nabors (right).