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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Approaches to beekeeping

For at least 7,000 years human societies have been harvesting honey from bee colonies. Many species of social bee are used in both honey hunting and apiculture. Intermediate forms of bee keeping have evolved in places where indigenous species do not lend themselves to hive beekeeping, such as the rafter methods used for Apis dorsata in Asia. The human relationship with bees is worldwide and, because of the length of that association, the methods and traditions surrounding bees are as varied as the people who carry them out.  Today , countries where the land area and populations are very large, notably China, USA and the former countries of the USSR, have the most Apis mellifera colonies and produce most commercially traded honey. Europe has the greatest density of beehives although honey yields are relatively low, while Asia has the greatest diversity of honey bee species. Africa has long been a supplier of honey along ancient trade routes to the Middle East. Despite the importance of honey production in South and Central America, Apis mellifera is an introduced species, while honey hunting and management of stingless bees is traditional.


Image©Primo Masotti


The number of natural populations of bees in any area may be an indicator of the state of the natural resources within that environment. Indeed, the ease of hive colonisation is a useful measure of the health of the local environment.  The productivity of an area, measured by the presence of natural colonies and the average honey harvest that can be collected reflects the natural resources available for exploitation by the bees and the fitness of the bees to live and thrive in a given area. For instance, tropical races of Apis mellifera do best in tropical areas while temperate races do best in temperate areas. The introduction of African bees into South America gave a graphic, natural laboratory, example of this, where the better adapted Africanised bees rapidly displaced other races.


The profitability of beekeeping depends on honey yield, labour and other costs, and value or the selling price of honey and other bee products. These factors may influence the intensity of honey hunting, how many colonies a beekeeper will keep, the species of bee that may be used and the methods practised. The long term health of the environment may be enhanced by sympathetic exploitation of bees. All kinds of environmental benefits flow from beekeeping when it is carried out sustainably. Conversely, poor understanding of the issues of sustainable beekeeping may lead people to pursue methods of bee management and use of bee species that are damaging for their local environment or inappropriate for the culture within which they are working. The short term benefit for an individual beekeeper may be bought at the expense of the long term health of the honey bee population, the survival of indigenous and locally adapted bee populations, their vital pollination functions, and the long term sustainability of beekeeping in that area. Bees are so essential for human wellbeing that it is vital for beekeepers both to understand and to consider the wider effects resulting from their own beekeeping practice. Threats to bees come not just from inappropriate use of bees and the consequent reduction in bee vigour and health, but also from habitat destruction, pollution, intensification of agriculture and urbanisation. 


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