Apiculture is a method to keep honeybees for the purpose of efficiently collecting honey throughout the year without having to depend on the unpredictable seasonal weather patterns that directly affect the production of wild honey. Beekeeping is an ancient practice that has been dated at least as far back as the Egyptian empire around 2400 B.C.. The methods of beekeeping have taken on numerous forms over the thousands of years and are widespread across the globe. Most hives were constructed from wooden logs, pots, or other objects with a natural cavity. It wasn’t until 1789 that the first man-made hive was created.
Traditional forms of beekeeping in India included the use of old earthenware pots, horizontal hives with small hole for flight entry and made from pottery, and woven horizontal hives. The traditional forms of beekeeping were much more common in the higher altitude regions of India, such as in the Indus valley, where it was too cold for Apis dorsata to survive, hence beekeeping would proliferate with Apis cerana. However, Apis dorsata thrived in the hotter peninsular regions of India, thus people were more likely to go to the wild and collect honey from the hives of these honeybees, as opposed to practice apiculture with Apis cerana that gave much less of a yield in honey and was less capable of handling the heat.
This contributes to speculation to why traditional forms of hive keeping were relatively absent in the more southern part of India. Around the late 1800s the Europeans introduced Apis mellifera (European honey bee) along with the movable frame hives. This honeybee species was much more profitable in regards to honey yield, capacity to be hived, and more. Thus this likely led to the reduction in traditional forms of beekeeping in India. In India, apiculture was officially implemented and organized around the 1930s.
Fast forward to about 60 years later (~1993) and the founders of Keystone Foundation/ Last Forest, and the handful of initial staff, were working to implement the practice of apiculture among the indigenous communities of the Nilgiris. The majority of Nilgiri tribal communities were already participating in the ancient tradition of honey hunting and collecting wild honey every year. However, this practice is heavily dependent on weather patterns (i.e. plentiful rain) that in turn determines how much flora will be in bloom, and thus how much the honeybees will be able to pollinate and turn into honey. Hence, in years with little rainfall there is very little yield of honey, which the tribal communities depend upon for sustenance and commodity.
Introducing and implementing beekeeping provided to these communities a sustainable and consistent resource for honey. In addition, honey hunting often only allots one season for honey collection whereas beekeeping can allot two more. If well maintained, one colony can last for several years and not abscond the artificial hive, and besides supplying honey they also provide new queens that then lead to more colonies for beekeeping. Apiculture has also aided with the pollination of agriculture vegetation such as a coffee, hence supporting cash crops and boosting local economy. Beekeeping has become a very lucrative and assured form of side income for the Nilgiri communities. Nevertheless, beekeeping in the Nilgiris in has been met with several challenges, such as but not limited to: deforestation that has led to a reduction in flowers, TSBV (Thai Sac Brood Virus) being introduced in 1993 that wiped out numerous broods and even wild hives, bears demolishing the beekeeping hives, and more.
In the Nilgiris, only 2 out of the 4 honeybee species can be hived – Apis cerana and the Trigona spp. (Dammer bees). These honeybees are relatively easy to do beekeeping with, even without the use of artificial hives. For instance, with Apis cerana, they naturally build their hives inside the cavities of trees. Various communities will then manually enlarge the cavities for sufficient access to the honey combs as well as cover the cavity with a large stone so that no bears can take the honey but the honey bees can still get through. With Dammer bees, they can bee easily hived within bamboo, making this natural beekeeping process also portable .
Over the years, Keystone Foundation has done extensive research as to what the ideal shape and size of bee hive should be, even to the meticulous measurement of the natural distance of combs and how that can be incorporated into artificial hives. Even the maintenance of a hive is very particular. Here are the specifics:
- Wild bees will build their nest such that they combs have a fixed distance in accordance to their body size
- This is measured from the midrib of one comb to the next (C-C)
- Thus bee hives have been constructed to have frames or top bars in accordance with this C-C distance
- The relative distance is about 1 in
Volume of the hive
- Volume affects the bees behavior
- Too small a volume and the bees will be crowded, inducing swarming
- This will also cause the bees to abscond (leave) the hive
- Hence excessive space is good for production
Maintenance (Bee Colony Construction and Management)
- In order to establish a new colony, a queen has to be reared and then a colony will naturally form around her.
- How to naturally rear a queen:
- First grafted combs have to be introduced in the colony
- Worker bees will build a cup shaped structure on this comb, which is typically vertical at the lower edge of the comb, and the current queen will lay her eggs within
- Worker bees will feed the new queen (at present in the larvae stage) with royal jelly
- The new queen will emerge on the 9th or 10th day
- How to artificially rear a queen
- Create an appropriately sized wax cap
- Select a day old larva from the bee colony and place in wax cap
- Make sure wax cap is in the middle of the open brood so that worker bees will feed it and cap it with wax
- hence the worker bees will have assimilated to this artificially placed queen and treat her as such
- This avoids the damages and frustrations caused by trying to capture a wild colony
Currently there are 150 working bee boxes in the Nilgiris. This number oscillates each year with the effects of climate change, diseases (i.e. TSBV), and more. The communities who maintain the most bee boxes are the Irula and Kurumba tribes. These aforementioned bee boxes are in regards to beekeeping with Apis cerana, however there are also 500 Dammer Bee colonies being maintained throughout the Gudular area. New models of bee boxes, specifically with the Newton Hive, are being made and utilized.
The variety of the Newton Hives include the 8 frame boxes, which are large, whereas the 6-7 frame would be considered small models. Through the years of beekeeping experimentation it has been confirmed that the artificial bee hives have to be maintained at a temperature of 32-35 Degrees Celsius, as it is naturally within a hive. Keystone has been cultivating its Beekeeping Program since starting the initiative over 20 years ago, and it is expected that the progression of the program will continue at this foundation.