The honeybee has attracted human interest like nectar attracts bees since the beginnings of the world's ancient civilizations. To quote Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), "We have chosen to fill your hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with two of the noblest of things, which are sweetness and light."

The practice of collecting wild honey began at least 4000-5000 years ago, with primitive man hunting out bees in caves and trees and collecting the mysterious sweetness. Cave art and rock art from countries such as Spain and Africa have been discovered, showing scenes of people gathering honey, using methods such as smoke to drive the bees away.1 Beekeeping may have started as early as 3,500 years ago. In the pyramids, the ancient Egyptians are known as the some of the first apiculturists (beekeepers), keeping the bees in clay jars and collecting the honey, wax and propolis.2 The Egyptians used honey in all areas of their lives: for food, to hold together wigs, and in their medicines.3

Apiculture was also common in ancient Greek and Roman society, and the earliest written record of beekeeping was found in Aristotle's book of Natural History. 4 Since its beginnings, beekeeping has been a part of cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe. Many different kinds of hives have been used, including clay-daubed wicker, woven hazel, logs, and straw skeps hives. Medieval Europe experienced the domestication of honeybees for honey and wax, as the church was a large consumer of wax candles.5 Apiculture later underwent many advances, in terms of development, innovation and honeybee biology, in Europe. 6

In the early 1600’s when the early European settlers came the New World, they brought the precious honeybee with them, thus introducing the species Apis mellifera to North America. The Native Americans already knew how to boil maple sap into the sweet maple syrup, but the settlers brought their own familiar sweetness to start their new lives. Once introduced into North America, beekeeping became a well established and expanded practice. The first recorded use of honeybees in Canada was around the 1820's in Quebec, and then it spread to Ontario around the 1830's.

In 1851, an American named Lorenzo Langstroth invented the “modern” beehive, which revolutionized beekeeping forever. The Langstroth hive was built based on the idea of “bee space”, a space only big enough for the bee to pass through, thereby controlling where they go and where they build comb and wax. This new design with movable frames allowed beekeepers to do what they could not before- to fully inspect the bees for health, disease and honey production, as well as to easily collect the honey by removing the frames from the box. Today, about 75% of hives in use are based on this design. 7

Honeybees have been, and always will be, imported into Canada. This is one of the potential downfalls of depending so heavily on a foreign species. In the early days, bee colonies were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, kept in straw skeps (hives), packed in ice and sawdust for the three weeks of the voyage.8

Today’s beekeepers still rely on the importation of honeybees to sustain their colonies. Every spring there is a need for new honeybees to help replace winter losses or to replace an old queen bee. However, there are strict government regulations on honeybee importation due to the possible spread of disease from other countries. The Canadian Honey Council states that there are only three choices for the importation of honeybees: a package of bees (2 lb, 3 lb or 4lb size with a caged queen), a nucleus colony of bees from a Canadian producer (3-5 frames with a laying queen), or a new queen to begin a new colony or revitalize a queen-less colony. It is required by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that all beekeepers apply for an Import Permit. Packaged bees can only be imported from Australia and New Zealand, and it is only legal to import queen bees from the countries of Australia, New Zealand and USA.

All of North American’s “wild” honeybees are from colonies that have escaped from domesticated hives. Honeybees have easily adapted to life in forests and wooded shelters throughout Canada, since they have the ability to generate heat to warm their hives during winter.

Apiculture, otherwise called beekeeping, came to have strands: commercial beekeeping, for the production of honey and wax, and agricultural beekeeping, for the purpose of crop pollination. There are other by-products of beekeeping, including: wax for cosmetics, candles and crafts; pollen as a food supplement for bees and humans; and, propolis and bee venom, which is being studied for human health benefits.9

According to the Canadian Honey Council, Canada has approximately 10,000 beekeepers, operating a total of 600,000 colonies of honeybees. There is an 80:20 ratio of commercially operated bee colonies to those owned by hobbyists.

By the turn of the century in Canada, beekeeping was well established and since then has only been getting stronger. In term of honey production, beekeepers have been providing Canadians with top quality honey for years. Historically, honey and fruit pollination helped Canadians get through sugar and food shortages from two world wars. 10 The Canadian Honey Council (CHC) was formed in 1940, to go between beekeepers and the government and to assist beekeepers in honey production and pollination.

Currently, according to the CHC, Canada produces 70 million pounds of honey annually. Approximately one third of the crop is from Alberta, one third from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, one third from rest of country. One half of all produced honey is exported, mostly to the USA. There are approximately four months for honey production per year, usually from about May to August. Honey can be pale gold to very dark brown in colour; it all depends on the flowers from which the bees collected the nectar. The kind of nectar also determines the honey's flavour and fragrance. For example, nectar from white clover makes a famous light coloured honey. 11 A single kind of crop may be grown in large scale, or there may be a mixture of crops, depending on the kind of honey the beekeepers wish to have. A wide variety of honey is therefore possible, for example, creamed or liquid honey. Pollen grains are always present in honey and give it a clouded look, something that can be removed by filtering the honey in various ways.12 When winter comes, there are two methods for over-wintering the honeybee colonies so that they can be used again in the spring: indoors, or outdoors using insulated material to protect the hives from the cold.

In 2005, the top honey producing country in the world was China, with 298,000 tonnes. Canada came in eleventh with 36,109 tonnes of honey. 13

The domestication of honeybees created the large honey industry we enjoy today, but it also opened up the practice of using honeybees for pollination. Pollinators are the backbone of the agricultural economy, responsible for one third of all the food we eat. Honeybees are one of the top pollinators and their pollination services are worth over $1 billion each year. They are raised in colonies and are rented out to farmers in the spring for pollination. They can be transported on trucks and easily distributed around the crop by placing the hives and releasing the bees.

The minimum number of honeybee colonies needed for pollination depends on the amount of native pollinators already present in the area. Apple, blueberry and canola crops, for example, require at least one colony (around 30,000 bees) per acre, and more colonies could be needed depending on the plant density and other pollinators.14 The cost of renting colonies for blueberry pollination was between $65-95 per colony in 2001. Canola pollination cost higher, renting between $95-125 per colony. The CHC states that beekeepers base the rental cost of colonies “on the cost of overwintering bees, feeding, medication, transportation, labour, loss of honey from moving the colony, queen loss during travel and a small percentage is retained as return on investment.”15
 


 

  1. More, Daphne. The Bee Book The History and Natural History of the Honeybee. New York: Universe Books. 1976. 82.
  2. Environmental Studies on the Piedmont http://www.envstudies.org/Sections/Research/Bees/ApiaryHBHistory.html
  3. Ellis Hattie. Sweetness & Light The Mysterious History of the Honeybee. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.62-63.
  4. Ibid. 83.
  5. Ellis Hattie. Sweetness & Light The Mysterious History of the Honeybee. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.101.
  6. Environmental Studies on the Piedmont http://www.envstudies.org/Sections/Research/Bees/ApiaryHBHistory.html
  7. Invent Now Hall of Fame. http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/345.html
  8. Canadian Honey Council. http://www.honeycouncil.ca/users/folder.asp?FolderID=4558
  9. Canadian Honey Council. http://www.honeycouncil.ca/users/folder.asp?FolderID=4883
  10. Canadian Honey Council. http://www.honeycouncil.ca/users/folder.asp?FolderID=4558
  11. More, Daphne. The Bee Book The History and Natural History of the Honeybee. New York: Universe Books. 1976. 71-74.
  12. Ibid. 74.
  13. Canadian Honey Council. http://www.honeycouncil.ca/users/folder.asp?FolderID=5919
  14. Canadian Honey Council. http://www.honeycouncil.ca/users/folder.asp?FolderID=4896
  15. Ibid.