- Domesticating an insect -

Summary: Beekeepers manage honey bees and use these insects to pollinate agricultural crops, as well as produce honey and beeswax. While beekeeping can be a hobby or business, fewer new businesses are starting nowadays because of problems with invasive species, mysterious disorders, parasites, and diseases.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Beekeeping can be a business or a hobby. Commercial beekeepers employ honey bees to pollinate agricultural crops, for which beekeepers are paid a fee, often transporting hives long distances between fields or orchards. Honey is also harvested and sold at the end of the season. Hobby beekeepers, on the other hand, generally are interested mainly in honey production.

Besides pollination and honey, a third valuable product of all this bee labor is beeswax. Beeswax is a complex wax secreted by bees and is used to build the structure of the hive. Beeswax is used by humans to make high quality candles, cosmetics and polish. Beeswax candles burn very cleanly and won't drip or smoke as much as paraffin candles.

Until recently beekeeping was seen as a potentially lucrative business or enjoyable, "back-to-nature" hobby. However, in recent years several severe pests and a hive disorder make profitable beekeeping a challenge and have discouraged many hobby beekeepers.

common misspelling: bee keeping

Beekeepers now face a number of serious new pests. A new, invasive bee species, the highly aggressive Africanized honey bee ("killer bees"), can take over a colony and make it practically unmanageable (see What are Killer Bees?). And, a parasitic mite called varroa mite which can weaken and kill colonies, has become widespread. Currently, however, the most important threat to beekeeping is something called Colony Collapse Disorder (see below). Anyone considering starting beekeeping as a hobby or profession should check with their local county Agricultural Extension office, or equivalent, about the status of these honey bee pests in their area.

Varroa mite parasites

Varroa mites (see photo below) are external honey bee parasites. These mites feed on the blood of both adult and larval bees but most of the injury is done to larvae or brood (bee larvae are called brood by beekeepers). Compared to other mites, full-size varroa mites are fairly large at 1-1.5 mm. These reddish brown mites are easy to see on white bee larvae. Untreated infestations can weaken and kill colonies and may go unnoticed unless the colony is specifically inspected for the mite. Control of varroa mite can be tricky. Early detection is important so all beekeepers should develop a regular scouting program. New pesticides are under development including miticides like Apistan (fluvalenate) and essential oils like thymol are useful so check with your local beekeepers association.

varroa mites
varroa mites - photo by USDA/ARS

Colony Collapse Disorder

Colony Collapse Disorder is a condition in which honey bees abruptly and mysteriously disappear from a hive, leaving it empty. The reasons for the "colony collapse" are not yet understood but researchers are focusing on diseases and environmental factors such as pesticides. (see What is Colony Collapse Disorder?). Whatever the cause the widespread nature of the disorder should serve as a caution to anyone thinking about getting into beekeeping as a business, at least until some solutions are found.

Related Articles

The European Honey Bee

The Threat of Africanized Honey Bees

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