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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas

Bees

Part Two



 
Ibiza Ecology

The honeybee is one of the first animals to be domesticated by man for the obvious purpose of profiting from its lovely and useful products (honey and wax).

Bee keeping - or Apiculture - is an old science. More than three thousand years ago there was already a deep knowledge of this insect and its behaviour.

The basis of this science, art and sport was already established, though with obvious mistakes that time has proved wrong. But considering the technological limitations of those days, almost everything to be known about the empirical ways of bees was already known in the ancient, though developed cultures of the world (China, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome).

Nothing relevant or even new came into this science for thousands of years, since the time of the ancient Greeks. The swarms were trapped the same way, the hives were also built in ancestral ways, the honey and wax was collected by the same systems (and still is in some parts of the world, including Eivissa). It was not until the second half of the XIX century that a new revolution in this science did happen and modern Apiculture started.

Most of these new ideas for the progress of this science came from America. The US citizen Langstroth, who invented a new type of hive, with extraordinary results for the bees' production, is considered to be the father of modern Apiculture. It was also in America, with the introduction of different races of honeybees, where the selection and the crossing of different types could be studied in a more scientific way. The results were spectacular and the real Apiculture, as a solid industry, begun.

We ended our first chapter talking about the different "varieties" of the specie "Apis melliphica": the honeybee.

In modern times and for practical terms, Root divides the honeybees into two main groups or sub-species, the black ones and the yellow ones. (More recently, there are also indeterminate numbers of hybrids between all the different varieties of both groups, and it's not easy anymore to see any of them as a pure specie).

The bees of the black group form the eldest and most extended of both groups, all over the place. These are the bees known from ancestral times: it is the bee that Aristhothelles and Plinio wrote about. It is believed to be originally from Greece or Asia Minor. We can distinguish branches of the European black, or common bee: The Dutch ones, the first to be imported in America, developing its own characteristics as they were colonising this continent: The German ones, from the centre of Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, British Islands, France Spain and Portugal.

This bee is very active, strong and sober, living as native, wild in its own environment as they do in these three last countries, they are also passive and very prolific; the swarms are easily formed and they can be rather big. It was introduced in America much later then the Dutch, where it adapted well, being now very appreciated for their good service.

Other important sub-species of the common black European bee, are: the "Carniolica" bee (Apis carniolica), from the Alps and the river Donau area, very resistant bees, with also a very mild and passive character, easy to work with. But their hives need more protection then others because they don't even defend themselves from other insects' attacks.

The "Caucasian bee", even more passive and mild then the "carniolica", the most peaceful in the world. The bad news is that they produce too much "propoleos," cementing their honeycomb, producing a lower-quality honey:

The Banat bee, originally from Rumania, not too aggressive, adapts well to all European climates, being active until the beginning of the winter. (Within this group, we can also include the most aggressive African bees' sub-group).

The Italian honeybee is the most important of the yellow group, with another three sub-groups of what we can call Mediterranean yellow-bees: Syria and Palestine bees. (Of the yellow group we also can find the Oriental bees, from Egypt and the Sahara, India, China and Japan).

The Italian bee is, of course, originally from Italy. Known as well as "Apis ligustica", it is well extended all over and is also the most important in the world in commercial terms. This is a pretty bee; lighter colour then the common bee, especially when it's young, with two nice yellow-orange rings across the abdomen. The end of it is black and it is - according to the great majority of beekeepers - the most beautiful of all. It is also very prolific and active, forming the biggest swarms of the lot, with a mild character when it is a pure race, easy to work with, but also very efficient stealing honey and pollen from other hives and lonely bees.

It was introduced in the United States in 1855, at the same time that they started to extend and be used through different countries in Europe. Soon all beekeepers felt a real passion for this bee and for years it was the favourite of the Apiculture industry. But some other problems started to show for this particular bee. Its queen comes out for her wedding flight before the other races do, and her flight is also longer then other queens, because, for unknown reasons, the queen prefers drones of other races. If there are other swarms in a radius of at least five kilometres, there is a good chance for her to be crossed with other kinds of drones, so the future generations will be hybrids. Also this bee prefers to live in big swarms, the bigger the better, so if the swarm that she belongs to is too small for her, she will abandon her own hive and queen and will join a bigger swarm.

It has also been proved by specialist W. Vogel, Dzierzon, Roma Fábregad that the new-born hybrids get the morphology and the working aptitudes of the mother queen, but the character comes from the drone. If an Italian queen is crossed with a drone of the black races, the Italian bees become stronger, keeping or enlarging the working activity. But also this normally tranquil and mild bee as a pure race becomes tremendously aggressive and dangerous to work with.

The Spanish introduced the European common black bee into Mexico. In 1763, they arrived in Pensacola, Florida and in 1793 a few swarms were taken to New York. By 1797, the common black bee was already colonising West of the Mississippi. There were two kinds of honeybees ("Apis trigona" and "Apis mellipona") used by the natives from long before pre-Columbus times. The peculiar fact about these bees is that they don't sting, but they can bite painfully when they get too excited or the hive is under threat. Also the Apis mellipona produces a much darker wax, known as "Black wax", which is not as much appreciated.

There are still quite a few more races of the specie "Apis melliphera" all over the world, important for the quality and the quantity of its production, but it is a long list, beyond the scope of these articles. Also since the development of the new Apiculture (especially in the last twenty years, with the new electronics and micro-technology) beekeepers have tried to improve the quality of their swarms and their production by crossing queens and drones of different races, with good results in some cases.

Beekeepers select the races according to several different qualities and aptitudes of the bees, such as the fertility of the queen, the age that the bees can reach, the distance they can fly, the length of their tongue, the amount of pollen and honey they can carry, resistance to work and illnesses, their character, etc.

In most cases, crossed bees increase the production, with a better result then the different pure species by themselves. Other times, the results are not so good, producing problems, especially with their character. It can change so much that it's like starting all over again for the beekeeper, so he loses control of the situation and the production drops. This is most probably what's happening at present in America, with what they call the African or Killer bees. Apparently they are the result of crossing Italian queens with some of the varieties of the common black-bee-drone, reproducing as wild in very large virgin areas, without any competition and control, forming enormous swarms of very aggressive bees. It is also said that the rising of the temperatures all over our planet helps this bee, which could easier conquer more territory up to the North of the USA.

In our modest Island, the great majority of beekeepers keep faithful to our common, bad character black bee. At least we know how its honey and sting taste. There are also some other varieties, but for practical terms, most prefer our ancestral and lovely "Maya".

The European Bee

José P Ribas

josepribas@liveibiza.com