Honey Bee Biology

Honey Bee Biology  - August 2015


A Comprehensive Indian Beekeeping Book

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


For North American beekeeping, two comprehensive texts have evolved and stood the test of time, namely well known The Hive and the Honey Bee and the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. Both bindings have grown thick with new information since their beginnings in the 1800’s.

In India, with different honey bee species and vastly different ecosystems over its subcontinent, one wonders if any such single text could begin to capture all of its apiculture and honey bee biology. The text, Beekeeping: A Comprehensive Guide to Bees and Beekeeping1 by D. P. Abrol, has made a herculean stride in doing that (see Figure 1). For the North American beekeeper, the chapter structure has roughly the feel of The Hive and the Honey Bee, starting with essentially beekeeping history with a concentration on the subject in India. After reviewing the evolution and biodiversity of bees, one comes to a description of the other honey bee species, besides our western honey bee Apis mellifera. Even though the core of the book is on Apis mellifera beekeeping aimed for India (that bee species was imported into India), the other main honey bee species are given plenty of description because they are indigenous to India.

For example, the Dwarf honey bee, Apis florea, is a small bee living on a single comb built in the open, but typically with some vegetation shelter overhead (see Figure 2). I have seen the nests in banana groves and in crowded cities too, up in tree branches. (The little foragers can find nectar and pollen even in cut flowers for sale by street vendors. The bees are quite adaptable.) The biology of these bees is very interesting. They elongate the honey cells at the top of the comb. The honey cells bulge out to form a crest that completely surrounds the supporting branch. The top of the resulting honey crest is flat (see Figure 3). On this flat surface, the bees perform dances, horizontally (not on their vertical comb), where the straight run part of the waggle dance points directly to the food source. While Apis florea is important to Indian beekeeping, here is one concern for a beekeeper there with Apis mellifera (essentially a very gentle Italian bee). Apis florea has a “sister species,” recently determined, called Apis andreniformis. Both of these honey bee species have their “matching” species of varroa mites parasitizing them, which are different from the varroa mite here in North America, known as Varroa destructor. These mites are in the genus Euvarroa, and have a life cycle similar to Varroa destructor. Euvarroa wongsirii parasitizes Apis andreniformis. Euvarroa sinhai parasitizes Apis florea and also A. mellifera, the imported bee, which apparently became in contact with that little known mite.

While Euvarroa sinhai parasitizing Apis mellifera remains a concern, by far the more problematic mite for Indian beekeepers (with A. mellifera) is Tropilaelaps clareae. The book gives a detailed account of its biology, including the complications concerning a closely related mite Tropilaelaps koenigerum. Tropilaelaps mites parasitize brood similar to Varroa destructor, but the adult mites do not feed on adult bees. (The chronic concern is that Tropilaelaps clareae will arrive in the Americas.) The Apis mellifera colonies that I worked with in many parts of India would eventually perish from Tropilaelaps mites if not treated with miticides. Even in colonies recently treated with miticides, I could still find Tropilaelaps mites just by carefully inspecting individual brood cells.

The natural host for Tropilaelaps clareae is another honey bee indigenous to India, the Giant or Rock honey bee Apis dorsata (see Figure 4). These bees build a large single comb, about half the size of a door, in the open, which could be under a big tree branch or under a water tower in the city. (Apis dorsata is larger than Apis mellifera, hence the name Giant. The bee also nests up under rock cliffs, hence the name Rock.) While “varroa” in India so far is not the primary concern, at least in the Apis mellifera I saw in India, an Apis mellifera beekeeper knows a natural reservoir of Tropilaelaps mites resides in nearby Apis dorsata colonies. For example, when those bees naturally abscond, migrating to better forage, one should expect Apis mellifera to “inspect” their old combs and bring back to their hives a surge of immigrating Tropilaelaps mites. Here is one of numerous beekeeping conditions that are inherently more complicated in India with the coexistence of more than one honey bee species. Consequently, the book’s information on the Rock bees and Tropilaelaps mites is intensely relevant for a beekeeper managing an Apis mellifera beekeeping operation in India.

The chapter on beekeeping equipment has the ...

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