Honey Bee Biology


  Honey Bee Biology  - July 2014

Bee Hives in the Walls of Houses, a Little-Known Beekeeping

Method with the Asiatic Hive Bee, Apis cerana

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


In the previous article, we learned about Asiatic Hive Bee, Apis cerana, the far eastern version of the western honey bee, Apis mellifera, the species of honey bee here in the United States. I described some of my travels into the rugged foothills of the Himalayan Mountains of northern India to see these exotic bees. Just getting there was an ordeal. After a long train trip from the south, the tracks ended. Then we rode by jeep up long winding dirt roads clinging to the sides of cliffs (see Figures 1 and 2).

The roads pierce into these remote places only so far. The one we traveled on abruptly ended at a pile of rocks (see Figure 3). Undeterred, we hiked up narrow well-worn paths, passing all kinds of walking travelers who carried almost everything up to mountain houses and villages (see Figure 4). Most memorable: a frail looking elderly lady calmly toting a heavy five-gallon container of diesel fuel up a steep mountain grade. A lifetime up here works wonders for fitness.

While some Indian beekeepers use a small-size frame hive for Apis cerana, movable-frame beekeeping is a more recently introduced method here. Their frame hives resembled the ones shown in the previous article from southern India. More problematic though is the high cost of frame hives compared to the income of local people in this area of northern India. Expensive frame hives are partly why traditional beekeeping continues.

Traditional beekeeping in this remote region incorporates the beehive as part of the house, a design called a wall-hive. Rarely do western bee scientists or beekeepers witness this unique beekeeping system. During house construction, builders make 1 - 3 cavities in the walls of the house that open from the inside of the house as a wall hive (although not all houses have wall-hive cavities. The walls of mountain houses, made mostly of large fitted stones, wood and mortar, are quite thick, about two feet, providing enough thickness to accommodate a hive. The cavity volumes of the hives vary quite a bit, with no standard at all, as shown in the photographs. Inside a wall-hive cavity, the bees build a set of combs without any guidance from foundation or frames (see Figure 5). Hence a wall hive is a fixed-comb hive, a design that limits bee management. Although, during my wall-hive inspections, I showed beekeepers how to save colonies as shown in the example below.

A wall-hive cavity could be built in the wall of a bedroom, kitchen or perhaps in a storage room in a house (see Figure 6). Consequently, these hives could be in the intimate personal living spaces of the house, in contrast to the typical hive located outdoors in an apiary. For colony inspections, wall hives call for some diplomacy. I need to open the hives from the inside of the house and require access to those personal spaces of the beekeeper or family. Typically, the interior of a room is finished in a layer of smooth mud (analogous to plaster). To open the hive, the beekeeper removes a small board, embedded into this layer of finishing mud. Behind the board is the cavity with combs and bees. A small entrance is on the opposite side (through the exterior wall). Hiking past houses, I looked for the entrances in the walls to indicate the houses with wall hives. Bees flying back and forth, aimed at the side of a house, were good indicators of finding a wall hive colony there, unless a cool morning stopped the bee flight. With one small entrance and the colony behind a fortress wall of rock, the bees were safe from theft and predatory animals.

In North America with our western honey bee, Apis mellifera, some aspects of its biology may get taken for granted because they seem so obvious that we might never wonder about them. For example, ....

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