Good quality of honey bee products, high productivity and the excellent health status of honey bees are the ultimate goals of beekeeping. To achieve those goals, good beekeeping practice (GBP) is crucial. GBP is strongly related to regional and environmental influences but in a global context, GBP includes the ensuring of breeding through prolific young queens, an ample supply of food, effective and seasonally based management, the use of the right equipment, prevention of unwanted swarming and absconding behavior, or protection from predators and threats affecting the health of honey bees. Within this document, ten important “rules” for honey bee colony management were formulated and they serve as a guideline for beekeepers to increase the quality of their honey bee products (e.g. honey) and to improve the health of their honey bee colonies. Those rules were evaluated within the EU Horizon 2020 project SAMS (Smart Apiculture Management Services) by highly experienced beekeepers from Ethiopia, Indonesia and Europe to guarantee their validity for these regions.
Rule 1: The quality of your bee product needs to be secured
Honey is made of floral nectar, collected by honey bees, and needs some time to mature - the main reason is the water content. Honey with high water content is still very similar to nectar and is exposed to the risk of fast fermentation, resulting in sour tasting honey. This risk is correlated with the humidity in tropical countries. For honey wine this fermentation is wanted, but not for table honey. Therefore, harvest honey only from honey frames (no brood) that are at least 70% sealed. You can also do a shake test to identify if the honey is mature. Therefore, turn the honey frame horizontally and shake it jerkily. If you recognize any splashes, the honey is not ripe yet. If available, a honey “refractometer” also can be used to test the product for its water content. Further, protect your honey from direct sunlight and avoid moist conditions. If you observe fermented honey, or moldy pollen, remove those frames from the hives.
Rule 2: Breeding activity is an indicator for a strong and healthy bee colony
The relative performance of a honey bee colony depends on its numerical strength. To check, if reproduction takes place, open the hive and look at the brood area. Do you see the queen, eggs, and/or bee larvae? If yes, chances are high that the colony is queenright (queen is present) and therefore develops normally. Another indicator is the brood pattern of the brood area- it should look solid and compact.
Apis cerana bees with capped and open brood, nectar, pollen and queen cells.
Apis mellifera bees with capped and open brood.
Rule 3: A honey bee colony has to have enough food
To be sure that your honey bee colony has enough food, every beekeeper should be aware of the colony surroundings. What plants are in flower and when? Is there a phenology calendar (= flowering calendar) for your region which may help you? It is important, that your bees have enough melliferous plants (=plants which produce bee forage in the form of nectar and/or pollen and can be collected by bees) in their environment (should be checked, before the hive is set up at the particular location). If there is a lack of forage opportunities, think of growing your own melliferous plants. It has to be mentioned though, that not every plant is a nectar AND pollen producer.
It is also important to check not only the surroundings, but also the colony itself. When observing the flight entrance, are there returning pollen foragers? When opening the hive, are there combs filled with honey or beebread (=processed pollen)? If not, consider to offer supplemental food (carbohydrates and/or protein). Sugar syrup should only be provided outside of the honey harvesting season to avoid the falsification (adulteration) of honey (quality loss, fermentation, …). Make sure to place the supplemental food on the upper side of the brood chamber in a closed environment like an empty honey chamber instead of putting it on the bottom board to avoid robbery by other bees and predators. Another important point in times of harvest is to leave sufficient reserves of honey and pollen for dearth periods.
One important nectar source in Indonesia is the plant Calliandra (Fabaceae).
Exemplary representation for a flower calendar (based on West-Java, Indonesia).
Rule 4: Keep your colony healthy – aim for a low predator-, pest-, and pathogen- pressure
There are numerous amounts of organisms affecting the honey bee. As the organisms and the control methods strongly vary between regions, it is important to get in contact with experienced local beekeepers, (if existing) development agents, research centres, beekeeping associations and training centres that may provide that information for you. Maybe there are even authoritative services when you need help? It is not possible to free your colonies of every bee-health affecting organism, but it is very important to keep the pest/pathogen/parasite/predator-pressure as low as possible. Be aware, that the use of certain substances as antibiotics as a preventive measure is not allowed in every country. This has to be checked before its use is considered. Further, if the use of antibiotics or other chemical substances are necessary, you have to follow the instructions exactly. As an example: Clean the bottom board (if existing) of the hive regularly from detritus and other dirt during your other beekeeping activites.
Rule 5: Provide a safe environment for your beehives
Choose a location, which is suitable and safe for your bees’ needs. The preferred area/location protects the hives from excessive weather conditions (rain, high temperatures, wind, etc…), has a low exposure to agricultural pesticides (avoid areas with high pesticide exposure), and is rich in foraging opportunities throughout the season (nectar, pollen and water). Common examples for agricultural fields with high pesticide exposure are wine, maize, tea, coffee or cocoa.
Rule 6: Provide a safe environment for yourself
To provide a safe environment for yourself, do not open your colonies on days of unfavorable weather conditions, overthink your steps prior to conduct them, work slowly and be calm and use equipment in good condition. Those steps are important to avoid injuries and unnecessary working steps. Be sure to have the opportunity to call someone for advice or in case of injuries/emergencies.
Rule 7: Dark beeswax needs to be exchanged but wax is valuable - reuse or process it
Depending on the bee species used for beekeeping and their specific behavior (e.g. brood rearing activity), beeswax gets darker sooner or later. Therefore, check the color of your frames at least once a year and if necessary, replace them with empty frames or frames containing light wax to keep your colonies strong and healthy. As wax belongs to the most valuable raw materials for a beekeeper, be sure to not throw it away. Instead recycle it by melting it down. You can use the pure wax to either produce wax foundations for your bee hives, sell it, or process it. For this purpose, special wax melters exist, but it is also possible to use solar power by putting the old wax in a bucket and leave it in the sun for several hours. To get to the valuable purified wax, simply skim off the waste. If you are not sure how to do it, YouTube is a great tutorial tool (suggested keywords: “melting beeswax”, “cleaning beeswax”, “processing beeswax”, …).
Rule 8: Control UNWANTED swarming and absconding behavior
In general, it is a good thing if bee colonies are strong enough to show reproductive swarming behavior but if you do not want half of your bees leaving the hives, you may be interested in controlling it. For this purpose, you should requeen a colony every 2 years and offer enough room within the hives. Absconding greatly differs from reproductive swarming. Bees in tropical regions show absconding behavior by leaving the nest and brood and storage in it behind. The behavior is triggered by unfavorable environmental conditions (droughts, low forage opportunities) or disease/pest pressure. To avoid absconding, good beekeeping practice is very important: keep the disease pressure low (rule 4), offer enough natural food and water and offer supplemental food in times of need (rule 3), manipulate the hives with methods that cause as little stress as possible (e.g. open the hive only if its necessary).
Rule 9: Avoid robbery through other honey bees or other organisms
Robbery through other honey bees or organisms like wasps, hornets, ants, or even mammals cause significant stress to your bees and even can lead to the death of your colonies. Additionally, by robbing the nest of weak bee colonies, there is a risk of disease-transfer to the robbing colony. Strong bees defend their nesting sites more successfully, therefore it is very important to keep your colonies as strong as possible to avoid robbery. For this purpose, keep the disease pressure low (rule 4), place supplemental food on the upper side of the brood chamber in a closed environment like an empty honey chamber (rule 3), narrow down the size of the hive entrance, work in a hygienic way and do not leave your equipment or brood/honey containing frames accessible to bees and other organisms. Another method to reduce robbery, especially in dry seasons or times of low forage opportunities, is to add more distance between your bee hives.
Rule 10: Educate yourself
There are no rigid beekeeping rules that fit perfectly for every beekeeper and there is also no perfect system fitting all honey bees of the world. For this reason, it is essential to constantly educate yourself and to find out what’s happening in your region. Get in contact with other beekeepers and learn from each other or maybe you can even share tools and logistics. Find out if there is a local beekeeper network and if not, you may be interested in developing one by yourself. Are there possibilities to visit beekeeping trainings? Also visit the internet and watch for example YouTube videos on beekeeping but be critical and use only methods that fit to your region and bee race. It is also very helpful to document your hive management and phenology (flowering) of forage by taking notes and compare them between years.
Acknowledgements: The research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation project SAMS – “Smart Apiculture Management Systems” (Grant Agreement N° 780755). The authors acknowledge Mr. Flemming Vejsnæs, his colleague Miss Eli Asen and the nordic baltick beekeeper advisers who worked on a similar project and allowed us to use their ideas as a foundation for this document, which was developed in a global context, including tropical countries.