Beekeeping – An Essential Part of Permaculture

Beekeeping can be labour-intensive during certain times of the year. Working with bees requires a gentle touch and calm disposition. It also requires a basic understanding of the honey bees and their behaviour during the various seasons and during handling and moving.

There are many varieties of bees, of which about 5% are more familiar to us, and which are the ones that produce the honey.

All bees spend a large part of their lives collecting pollen and nectar and they cross-pollinate at the same time. Bees form an indispensable link in the food chain and their service as pollination agents is essential to plants in the wild as well as to certain agricultural and horticultural crops. Bees play such a great part in balancing and increasing the fruitfulness of the planet that we need to ensure their protection.

The honey bee belongs to the genus Apis of which there are four known species. They all build wax combs, store surplus honey and pollen and live in large colonies.

The best known and most common honeybee is the Apis mellifera which includes Apis mellifera scutellata and Apis mellifera capensis. They are well known for their egg-laying abilities and are indigenous to the south-western Cape of South Africa.

How bees communicate


These are chemicals produced by glands and secreted on the outside of an animal’s body. (Hormones are released inside the body.) These pheromones govern a bee’s life and are one of the most basic forms of communication. Bees can receive pheromone messages by direct contact via their antennae as well as via their mouthparts. They can also transmit and receive airborne pheromone messages.

The Nasonov gland releases a pheromone which keeps bees together while they swarm, guides forager bees to food sources and brings stray or lost bees back to the hive. To release the scent the bee raises her abdomen, opens the gland chamber and fans her wings to disperse the pheromone into the air.

Alarm pheromones are released when a worker bee exposes its sting sheath and secretes a drop of venom. The pleasant floral scent evaporates and alerts other bees in danger. Once a person has been stung they may be stung over and over again as the scent from the pheromone triggers the attack response in other bees.

Guard bees can detect the pheromone scent particular to their own colony. Guards at the entrance of the hive touch and smell each incoming field bee to check if they belong to that hive.

Dances, movement and attitude

The dancers, known as scouts, act as recruiting officers for food-collecting bees and make up about 5% of field workers. The majority of field bees wait inside the hive for scouts to bring back information about the location of forage. By touching a dancing scout bee with her antennae, recruit bees can work out the direction and distance of the food source as well as its aroma. During the dance, newly found nectar is offered to recruits. Having relayed information to several field bees, the scout may continue to dance on a different part of the comb in an effort to recruit more bees. The amount of enthusiasm displayed by the dancer indicates the quality and quantity of food she has discovered.

Different dances convey different information and the three best known are the ‘round’ dance, where the bee goes around and around, which indicates that forage is nearby, the ‘wagtail’, when the bees wag their tails to indicate forage further afield, and the ‘sickle’ dance which indicates the amount of forage and the direction.


The hairs visible on all parts of the body of the bee are touch receptors. Also known as sensillium trichodeum. Impulses are sent to the brain as these hairs are depressed and then spring back to their original position. The antennae and mouthparts are well-endowed with touch receptors. The antennae are used for palpating the queen bee’s body to encourage the release of queen substance, the queen’s particular pheromone scent. Once the antennae have received sufficient queen substance they are used to distribute it to other bees throughout the hive. The tips of the antennae are also used to gauge the thickness of cell walls when building beeswax cells. The transfer of food from bee to bee involves mutual touching of antennae. Included in the many signals given by the antennae are signals for offering food, acceptance, rejection and completion. The hairs that sprout from between the lenses of the compound eyes are thought to monitor wind speed when the bee is airborne.

Castes and tasks within the bee colony

It’s good to understand the roles and activities of bees more clearly. The caste of an individual bee is prescribed according to its birth — it will be either a queen, drone or worker bee. The drone is the only male bee. The function of the queen is to lay eggs after mating with drones and the worker bees perform a wide range of age-related roles during their short lifetime.


No colony is complete without a queen and it is her presence in the hive that keeps the colony content. They can live for up to five years but their most productive period is the first two years. The queen has a sting that is curved and smooth, unlike the barbed sting of the worker bee and she is unlikely to sting the beekeeper. Queens use their stings to kill rivals during fights or to kill unborn queens.

She has an elongated abdomen which is highly specialised for egg laying and she is able to lay in the region of 2,000 eggs a day at her peak. A colony’s workforce can potentially reach about 50,000 individuals and thus the queen’s laying abilities are critical. The number of eggs a queen lays depends on the available food supply.

The queen is able to lay two types of eggs. A fertilized egg can give rise to female worker bees or queens. Fertilized eggs are diploid and their cells contain 33 chromosomes. The second type of egg laid by queens is unfertilized. These are haploid and result in drone bees. The cells of haploid eggs contain only six chromosomes. The queen deposits fertilised eggs in worker cells and the unfertilized eggs are laid in drone cells.

Worker bees

The female workers are armed with barbed strings to use in the defence of the hive and have undeveloped reproductive organs. Their function is to do all the work within the hive as well as to gather nectar, pollen and other materials such as propolis and water from the outside.

There are three main phases in the worker bee’s life:

  1. They do brood activities which entails cleaning cells, tending and feeding the larvae and feeding the queen.
  2. Hive activities which entail guarding, building comb, capping cells and packing pollen. They also do the general repairs and maintenance as well as cleaning and fanning to keep an even temperature and they transform the nectar into honey.
  3. Field activities entail gathering nectar, pollen, water and propolis, which they use for hive repairs and which also acts as a disinfectant.

Beekeeping kit and tools


Protective clothing is necessary, which consist of white long-sleeved overalls that zip up and have elasticated wrists which should be loose-fitting for comfort. As bees are capable of stinging through one layer of clothing it is best to wear clothes underneath as well.

Boots should be lightweight, preferably white and the trousers should be tucked into the boots.

Veils are for protecting the head and neck and mostly form part of the hat and come down to the shoulders. Re-enforced wiring holds the veil away from the face.

Gloves are generally made of leather or rubber and have a long cotton gauntlet which reaches to the elbow.


A bee smoker consists of a furnace with a lid and bellows. The smoker should be lit and smoking nicely before you approach the hive. In nature, bees start gorging on honey if they sense smoke, after which they flee their nests. They are less aggressive when their stomachs are full of honey.

Gentle puffs of smoke are used to clear combs of bees while manipulating a colony.

Location of bee hives

Hives should not be located near homes or areas used for recreation. Hives need to be near nectar and pollen sources and fresh water; protected from predators, vandals, and adverse weather conditions; and accessible throughout the year. Beekeeping is not a seasonal enterprise, but requires year-round management.

Ideally the entrance of the hives should face in the direction of the rising sun in the winter. Bees will begin work earlier in the morning if so positioned.

The Structure of the Bee Hive

Your hive requires a floorboard, which should be 5cms longer than your brood box. This provides a take-off and landing space for the bees.

The brood box

This is the deeper part of the two types of hive chambers and it is rectangular, with two narrow sides being the front and back. On the inside the upper edge of the front and back are rebates onto which galvanized metal strips are nailed. The brood box is open, both on the top and bottom, and is placed above the floorboard. The brood chamber is central to a colony’s brood activities and it is here that the queen lays her eggs. This section should not be exploited by beekeepers and kept exclusively for the use of the bees.


Ten frames fit inside the brood chamber and ten or nine inside the super. They are suspended length-wise with the extended ends of the top bars resting on the galvanized metal strips which are nailed to the rebates. Foundation wax sheets are attached to the frames for the bees to build their honeycomb cells on.

Super box

The super box has the same dimensions as the brood chamber, except it is shallower, and like the brood box it usually holds ten frames — although it is useful to fit them with nine frames as the resulting larger space between frames allows the bees to build longer honeycomb cells, which hold a larger amount of honey, and thick combs are also easier to uncap at honey extraction time.

The queen excluder

This gets placed on top of the brood chamber and it is to keep the queen in the brood chamber only.

Supering and harvesting honey


This is the placing of the supers or honey chambers onto the brood box at the start of the honey season. It is important to super in advance of the colony’s requirements. During the honey season bees should never be allowed to use all the comb available to them. The bees will anticipate over population and will prepare to swarm if there is insufficient space for expansion.

At the beginning of the nectar season one super with waxed frames should be put in place above a strong brood chamber and queen excluder. This will ease congestion in the brood chamber and let the workers prepare for honey storage. If another super is needed during the nectar flow then it should be placed above the brood chamber or it may get ignored if just placed on top.


When clearing bees from the supers, have the smoker lit and handy at all times and remember to stand back or to one side while harvesting the honey.

Create a ramp by leaning an inner lid with one side on the ground and the other side at the entrance to the hive. Give each super frame a sharp shake so that the bees are dislodged on to the ramp. If bees are shaken back into the super chamber instead of onto the ramp they will end up having to be removed again and again as each frame of honeycomb is harvested. The bee-free honeycombs must be placed quickly in an empty super box which has a lid beneath and above to keep bees out.

When all the harvestable combs are removed they must go straight to the extracting room as they will attract the interest of the bees before long.

Have spare super boxes with waxed frames and drawn comb ready to replace the ones you have cleared.

Honey extraction

It would be simple if we could turn uncapped frames of honeycomb upside down and let the honey flow out of the cells by gravity, but the thickness of honey prevents such a flow. For fast and effective extraction, centrifugal force is needed. The honeycombs get placed inside the extractor and spun at an average of 250 rpm. The rotation of the extractor causes the honey to be flung out of the cells and the honey runs down the side of the tank and collects at the bottom from where it is tapped into buckets. It is important that full combs are spun slowly at first to prevent breakage.

The honey can then be strained and needs to settle before bottling.

Obviously the more involved you become with beekeeping, you will expand on your tools and also on your methods. The above is just a brief introduction to the tasks involved with beekeeping.

References are from: Beekeeping by D Marchand and J Marchand-Mayne. And Beekeeping/Apiculture by Lance Gegner.

Further Reading:


  1. Thanks Lois. Some really interesting info here, especially the dancing part : )

    A note on the smoker though:
    Mari Korhonen in How to Revive the Honeybee says, “…it causes relatively long-lasting disturbance to the communication among the bees. The bees communicate with pheromones, delicate scents they produce. Smoking blurs this system for a couple of days every time it’s used and so makes the life in a compact social environment much more difficult. In order to maintain peaceful working conditions simply observing and respecting the mood of the hive is a good way of building trust and connection with them. Corwin’s advice was that on a bad day it’s better to just leave the hive be and come back another time.”
    Also, I learned from Cody and Christy Kerr that you can also use a spraybottle with water (and optionally a little apple cider vinegar) to spray a little if necessary. When we used that method it seemed just as effective at ‘calming’ them but doesnt cause them to gorge on honey as a stress response. they also said that the smoke can hurt they’re eyes as they don’t have eyelids to shut.

    I’d like to know your thoughts on this though.

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