Learn about bees, beekeeping and the science behind honey bees.

Getting Started

Keeping honey bees can be a fascinating and fulfilling pastime. There are some rewards you may not have considered:

  • A new challenging hobby with rewards.
  • Learning about nature and the honey bee.
  • Honey for your family and friends.
  • Wax for candles and other crafts.
  • Pollinating bees for your garden or trees.
  • Creating a thriving ecosystem in your space.
  • Sharing your knowledge with family, friends and children.


Worldwide, there are about 20,000 different species of bees. Of this number, perhaps 4,000 are found in America north of Mexico.

If we examine insect biologies, we can find various degrees of social organization. The most complex social organizations are termed eusocial (truly social). Honey bees, bumble bees, stingless bees, yellowjackets, hornets, paper wasps, ants and termites are all eusocial. Eusocial insects exhibit:

  1. Cooperative care of young.
  2. Reproductive division of labor (caste system).
  3. Overlap of generations capable of carrying for young.

Head: Has two large compound eyes, three smaller simple eyes, one pair of antennae, numerous glands and mouth parts.

Thorax: The middle part of an insect that has one or two pairs of wings, three pairs of legs and muscles for their movement.

Abdomen: Rear-most part of an insect that contains the reproductive system, most of the gut and many other organs.



Drone: A male bee.

Races of Honey Bees

Italian bees Apis mellifera ligustica

Carniolan bees Apis mellifera carnica

Caucasian bees Apis mellifera caucasica

German black bees Apis mellifera mellifera The bee race of northern Europe. The original bee carried to North America in the early 1600s by Virginia and Massachusetts settlers.

Africanized bees Apis mellifera scutellata and its hybrids

Russian bees Apis mellifera carnica and its hybrids

Classification of the Honey Bee

Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Arthropoda Class: Insecta Order: Hymenoptera Suborder: Apocrita Family: Apidae Genus & Species: Apis mellifera L.

History of Beekeeping

In eastern Spain there is a cave painting of an ancient honey gatherer, or a honey hunter, that is estimated to be around 8,000 years old. The art can be found in the Cuevas de la Araña (known in English as the Araña Caves or the Spider Caves), which are a group of caves in the municipality of Bicorp in Valencia, Spain.

By 2400 B.C., ancient Egyptians became beekeepers instead of bee predators. Horizontal clay pots were set out to attract honey bee swarms which would use them to build nests.

In ancient Greek and Roman times, beekeepers used hives made of woven wicker, logs, wooden boards and pottery. They retained the basic horizontal design of the Egyptians.

Honey bees were not native to the Americas. No one knows the exact date when honey bees were introduced to North America. By 1622, the German black bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) was established in Virginia, and to Massachusetts prior to 1638, presumably imported from England.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that indigenous Americans called honey bees, “white man’s fly” because the appearance of honey bees often preceded the advance of European settlers.

The nineteeth century saw the most remarkable advances in beekeeping of any time in the history before or since. Subsequent technical contributions have mostly been refinements of innovations from the late 1800s.

In the autumn of 1851, the American, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, envisioned a hive with combs in wooden frames suspended in a box such that bee space was maintained all around. With Langstroth’s movable frame hive, combs could easily and non-destructuvely be moved and interchanged.

In 1857 the German, J. Mehring, invented beeswax foundation – a sheet of beeswax imprinted with the hexagonal shapes of honey comb cells.

In 1865, Major F. Hruschka of Italy invented the first honey extractor in which uncapped combs are spun in a drub and centrifugal force slings the honey out of the cells.

Moses Quinby invented the first practical bee smokeer in New York in 1875. By adding a bellows to the traditional fire pot, smoke could be directed where needed.

After 100 years, these same technologies are the industry standards – a testament to the enduring genius of their inventors.

1984 introduction of tracheal mites 1987 Varroa mites 1998 small hive beetles Generally, bees won’t forage unless the temperature is at least 57° F and wind speed no more than 12 miles per hour.

How Bees Make Honey

Nectar is a thin sugar solution produced by plants to attract pollinating insects. Bees can eat nectar directly, but for long-term storage they must process it to deter spoilage. Returning foragers transfer nectar to house bees. These bees add enzymes that break down the complex sugars into simpler forms that are more digestible and resistant to spoilage. To further retard microorganisms, bees dehydrate the nectar by rolling it around their mouthparts (like a taffy machine at a fair) and, once it is placed in a cell, by fanning it with their wings. When the water content reaches about 18%, bees cap the honey cell with wax and the honey is considered “ripe.”

Judging Honey Quality

Honey is judged on the basis of water content, granulation, color, flavor, clarity, cleanliness and packaging.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed seven color classes to help grade honey: water white, extra white, white, extra light amber, light amber, amber and dark amber.

Honey Bee Development

It takes 21 days for a worker to develop from an egg to an adult and another 23 days before she starts foraging.

Healthy larva should look pearly-white or bright white and c-shaped in the bottom of the cell. Healthy capped brood should be dense with few open cells.

Pests & Diseases

Be cautious about feeding your bees honey from unknown sources since spores can persist in honey.

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, started in the 1960s as a reaction against the pesticide excesses common at the time. It is now widely understood that dependence on chemicals is not environmentally sound or sustainable in the long term. Research has shown that non-chemical means are most effective when several of them are levied against the pest at the same time. preferably at different points in its life cycle.

A healthy colony of honey bees has a large population of adult honey bees. Large numbers of adult bees help protect the colony from robbing. It also prevents small hive beetle and wax moth infestations. With enough bees present, such pests are unable to get a foot hold within the hive. Most hives overrun with small hive beetles or wax moths are suffering from a more serious issue and the SHB and wax moth infestations are taking advantage of the weakened colony. Large numbers of adult bees also helps prevent the expression of disease, insures winter survival and can increase your honey yield.

American Foulbrood (AFB)

American foulbrood is a bacterium that infects honey bee larvae. Spores are fed to 1 to 2 day old larvae. The bacteria germinates in the midgut of the infected larvae and then ruptures their stomachs during the pupal stage of development. Dead pupae putrefy forming coffee colored masses. These masses will distill into a black scale at the bottom of the cells, which contain millions of infectious spores.

Causative Agent

Bacterium. Identified by G.F. White in 1906.

American Foulbrood Symptoms


American foulbrood has two stages. It has a vegetative state and then a reproductive state in which it produces spores. There is a labeled treatment for American foulbrood using the antobiotics Oxytetracycline and Tylan. However, these antibiotics suppress the vegetative state only and do nothing to elminate the spores. When you stop using antibiotics the spores will germinate and infect your colony again.

Used beekeeping equipment may contain AFB spores. These spores also contaminate honey. Do not buy store-bought honey and feed it to your hives. Studies have shown that honeys from stores almost always contain spores that may infect your hives. This is because large packers buy and combine honey nationally, and even internationally.

If your hives have American foulbrood, isolate the infected colonies immediately if possible. The black scale from AFB contains millions of spores. The infectivity is enormous and the disease expression will continue until the colony crashes. Honey bee colonies infected with American Foulbrood should be destroyed by fire to prevent the spores from spreading.


European Foulbrood (EFB)

European foulbrood is a bacterium that kills bee larvae before the cells are capped. This is a distinguishing characteristic because American foulbrood kills after the cells are capped. Its symptoms show a majority of sunken caps with holes in them. European foulbrood kills most larvae before they are capped. Larvae infected with European foulbrood will die in their open cells, become discolored and give off an unpleasant odor. Also, larvae symptoms can be variable because European foulbrood weakens the immune system of the larvae and secondary infections can set in. These variable infections are why the larvae exhibit a range of unhealthy discoloration.

Once the bacteria is fed to young larvae, the pathogen begins to multiply in their stomachs. Larvae die days-before the capping stage of development. European foulbrood has no spore stage.

European foulbrood is considered a stress disease and can cause significant loss of brood, but rarely crashes the colony. It will lower honey production, and can also spread to other colonies through robbing and drifting.

Causative Agent

Bacterium. Identified by G.F. White in 1906.

European Foulbrood Symptoms


European foulbrood will often disappear on its own.



Chalkbrood is a fungus that attacks larvae and pupae. Cells fill with mycelium, which is a fuzzy-white substance. The developing bee will then harden and solidify into chalk-like mummy.

Chalkbrood spores exist in bee bread. In early spring when the queen starts to lay more eggs, sometimes there are not enough adult bees to properly thermoregulate all the larvae in the combs, especially if the colony is hit by a late cold snap. The early chill in spring around the periphery of the brood area can stress the colony and allow Chalkbrood to set in.

Causative Agent

Fungus discovered in the U.S. in 1968.

Chalkbrood Symptoms


Chalkbrood is a stress disease and will usually clear up by itself during the first nectar flow.


Causative Agent


Sacbrood Symptoms


Sacbrood will typically clear up on its own.


Nosema is the most widespread bee disease. It rarely kills a colony outright but infected workers have shorter lives and underdeveloped food glands. Infected queens are soon superseded. The net results are slow population growth in spring, low honey production, high incidence of queenlessness and probably numerous secondary illnesses.

The disease begins when the adult bees eat spores of Nosema apis which soon germinate in the gut. The vegetative stage of the protozoan invades cells linking the gut wall, disrupting normal digestion.

Causative Agent

Gut protozoan Nosema apis.

Nosema Symptoms


Remove hives from shaded areas and low spots that collect cool, humid air. Protect hives from direct wind.

Wax Moths

Small Hive Beetles

Tracheal Mites

Discovered in the United States in 1984, tracheal mites (Acarapis woodi) have been a leading problem for beekeepers in this country. These microscopic mites live most of their lives in the tracheae, or breathing tubes, of adult bees. Inside this protected environment, the mite pierces the tracheal wall, sucks the blood of the bee and lays eggs. Tracheal mites severly damage the breathing tubes and flight muscles of bees. This promotes secondary bacterial infections and interferes with respiration.

Causative Agent

Mite Acarapis woodi.

Tracheal Mite Symptoms

There are not many good field symptoms for tracheal mites. Sometimes infested bees seem unable to form tight, organized winter clusters and crawl on the ground in front of the hive. Severely infested bee colonies usually die in late winter or early spring. For many unsuspecting beekeepers the first sign of trouble is a colony in spring with small, dead clusters of bees with plenty of unconsumed honey. Bees must be killed, dissected and microscopically examined.


Varroa Mites

Honey Bee Biology

Honey Bee Biology

Important Dates in the History of Beekeeping

1851 – Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth discovers bee space.

1852 – Rev. Langstroth received a patent on the first movable frame beehive in America.

1853 – Rev. Langstroth publishes a book called A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee which describes what would become known as bee space.

1865 – Queen excluder designed by Abbe Collin.

1887 – WBC Hive launched by William Broughton Carr.

1891 – Porter Bee Escape invented by Edward Porter.

1928 – Smith Hive launched.

1945 – Karl von Frisch discovers the bee waggle dance.

1946 – National Beehive Launched.

1975 – Robin Dartington develops the Dartington Long Deep hive.

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