Beekeeping with Apis cerana in Nepal

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An earthquake proof house

This post was originally written as an article for the Kathmandu Times and I have included it in the ABOBA Booklet. The article is aimed at potential Beekeepers, to encourage them to keep bees and to practice their husbandry in the most effective way, with reference to benefiting the environment and maximising the products of the hive.

Beekeeping is a really fascinating hobby, a rewarding hobby that pays for itself and more, a hobby that can absorb as much of your spare time as suits you, depending on the number of hives you manage and the level of reward you seek, but beekeeping with A. cerana is much more than this, as a beekeeper you are on the front line in the battle to preserve biodiversity and the natural beauty of Nepal.

Mammals, are, in evolutionary terms, the most successful and advanced creatures on earth. Their ability to maintain a steady body temperature allows them to operate in a cold environment where cold blooded creatures cannot function, they store food for times when it is not available from the usual sources, they act together in groups where an individual could not succeed and they remember where food sources are located. These are thought to be major factors in their evolutionary success. Honey bees, when considered as a colony, are remarkable, in that they also exhibit these traits, the colony as a whole is often referred to as a super-organism they have evolved to be able to regulate the temperature in the nest, winter and summer, to within a degree or so. In the summer the bees “air condition” the hive by evaporation and ventilation. In the winter the bees cluster tightly together, vibrating their wing muscles, which they can disengage from their wings, to generate heat. They can even leave the hive, on a fine day, in the dead of winter to defecate and investigate local environmental conditions, whereas solitary insects and even some mammals have to remain in a state of hibernation to conserve bodily resources. Bees function as a group where each individual has duties essential to the well-being of the colony. The individuals cannot survive on their own, but only as members of that colony and amazingly bees can communicate with one another by means of body movement, sometimes in the form of dance and also by the use of pheromones (scent). Importantly these wonderful creatures store more honey than they need to carry them through the winter and this means that the beekeeper can harvest the surplus honey.

An interest in bees quickly leads to an interest in their forage, the flowers that supply pollen and nectar to feed and fuel the colony and to an interest in other insects that interact with the bees in some way. The typical beekeeper quickly becomes interested in aspects of botany and entomology and often from there, he develops an interest in how we are interacting with the environment, all too often to its detriment. When a beekeeper is looking at an area of jungle or uncultivated land he is looking for flowers yielding early pollen, and plants that will yield a succession of blooms supplying nectar. For him the natural world should look good, it should smell good, but most important of all it should hum!

We would like to make the general case for Beekeeping and in particular, to Nepali beekeepers, for hives that can be easily inspected. Hives can be divided into two basic types those which allow the beekeeper to inspect his bees and those which are simply a suitable receptacle, in terms of the bee’s evolution, for a nest. The first allows the beekeeper to inspect the nest and therefore anticipate the bee’s requirements and the second is a home for them from which the beekeeper can periodically remove honey, in what is usually a rather invasive manner. Removable top bar and frame hives allow inspection of individual combs but the traditional type hives, usually pots, cavities in a house wall or log hives cannot be easily inspected.

“Movable-frame hives”, were invented by L. L. Langstroth in 1851 and the type most commonly in use for A. cerana in Nepal is the Newton which was designed with frames in the brood and honey boxes, (brood and super chambers, as beekeepers like to call them). There are two types of top bar hives, they are the vertical type generally based on the Warre hive and the horizontal type which could be thought of as an open log hive, with top bars to allow inspection, and a roof. A Nepalese friend and I are trying all three. The Newton, with the management technique that we are following, is fairly hands-on, but may well be the most productive. The horizontal top bar is very convenient for swarm management and also for producing new colonies for other beekeepers or to expand your own apiary. The vertical top bar is the closest to the nest environment that the bees have evolved to use, a hollow tree or cavity where the bees can build their comb downward with no, or at least minimal, obstruction, where the bees can easily regulate the temperature and humidity in their nest, (the hive), and where they have plenty of room to avoid congestion. Of  these three hives the vertical top bar is the least demanding of the beekeepers time.

When the colony is expanding and environmental conditions are favourable, at the beginning of a “flow”, the bees usually experience the “swarming” impulse. Swarming is the bee’s method of reproducing the species. Unfortunately half of the colony is lost when they swarm and the beekeeper is left with a new unmated queen and few foraging bees. To make matters worse, the departing bees take much of the honey stores with them. Yearly replacement of the queen it is hoped will help discourage swarming. Absconding is an instinctive impulse that the colony experiences when there is a lack of pollen and nectar within their foraging range, typically 300m, or when the environment within the hive is no longer amenable to the bees. When the bees abscond the whole colony is lost! Swarming on the other hand can be turned to the beekeepers advantage.

Hopefully by comparing the merits of the different hives we will find the hive or combination of hives that suits us and other potential beekeepers can make an assessment, based on our experience and their personal preference, as to how they would like to practice their husbandry and which hive or hives they would like to use.

The bees act according to instincts which have evolved over millions of years and the beekeeper cannot modify or change a colony’s instinctive behaviour. In order to maximise his harvest of honey and to ensure the well-being of his bees he must work with the bees and satisfy the demands of their instincts. Using a hive that allows him to periodically inspect his bees will allow the beekeeper to take measures to manage or even turn the bee’s instinctive behaviour to his advantage.

Lastly in general the more beekeepers there are the better! Their bees will help maintain biodiversity in the local environment and their interest in nature will hopefully reinforce public opinion as to the vital importance of a maximum biodiversity, for us and even more importantly our children, as they, will have to live with the legacy that we bequeath them.

Einstein is quoted as saying “if the Bee disappears from the face of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants no more animals, no more man!”

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Sometimes we’re in the clouds, and sometimes we’re above them. This scene is on the way to Khandbari.

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