Aggressive African bees or better management?

African strains of bees (specifically A.M Scutellata) have the reputation of being very aggressive and almost ‘unworkable.’ This is not our experience at all, indeed we find races of bee like Scutellata to be a distinct advantage with higher yields, better pollination and better ability to manage themselves than other strains of bees.

The African Killer Bee is without a doubt a tragedy in many instances, not the least of which was the loss of life due to bees attacking as a cohesive unit. The African Killer Bee is from A.M. Scutellata, which is the bee we have been working with for centuries in Africa. Indeed, we don’t class Scurtellata as ‘aggressive’ but as ‘defensive’ in that they will defend what they have. A.M. Littorea found on the East coast of Africa is a genuinely aggressive bee, and will sting apparently unprovoked from a good distance away. The methods of handling African bees are different to European races, but if you learn how to handle these bees they give increased honey production over their larger, lazy, European cousins.

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The JHH is a very unobtrusive method of handling bees. The fact that the brood chamber does not need to be disturbed to harvest honey or inspect the development of the hive allows the bees to be far calmer. This hive has application throughout the world with all strains of honey bee, however areas with African bees or Hybrids of these bees the JHH is a very good hive choice. African strains of bee have shown to out produce and out compete European strains of bee, thus if beekeepers have hybrids or pure strains of African bees, they tend to improve their honey yields and pollination, but their management techniques must adapt accordingly. The JHH makes this very easy to do.

We do not have ‘more docile,’ or ‘less aggressive bees’ we simply handle the bees in such a manner that they do not need to be aggressive.

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Smoke application is handled in a separate section of this site, but it has a lot to do with the ease with which bees in JHH can be handled. By applying smoke at the back of the hive, where the bees are working to ripen honey, means they are moved forward away from where we work, into the relatively undisturbed brood chamber. Once the hive is opened and any bees are shaken off the frames for harvesting, they fall onto the floor of the hive and again move towards the darkness of the undisturbed brood chamber. With supported frames (and to a degree with gentle handling of unsupported top bars) a honey storage area can be inspected and harvested efficiently, honey frames removed, new frames replaced and the hive closed in a very short period of time. This means that the microclimate of the brood chamber stays intact, bees do not get aggressive and the JHH allows for the easy handling of races of bee which are more aggressive in other hive designs and methods of management.

Brood chamber management

Brood chambers always need periodic management. The life cycle of bees means that after they hatch they leave behind a chrysalis. After repeated hatchings in the same cell, it gets constricted which leads to stunted bees. Eventually the cell is too small for the queen to insert her abdomen and cannot lay in the ‘exhausted cells’, leading bees to fill them with honey. With the orientation of JHH being that the brood chamber is always as close to the entrance as possible we know that the first and second frames are the oldest frames. If a queen exhausts a frame in the JHH the brood chamber is simply migrated backwards and as it is a continuous chamber (as opposed to hives with separate boxes) the queen has unlimited space to brood. This gives stronger colonies of bees, better honey production and less swarming, all of which are distinct advantages.

When working a JHH one opens the hive from the back. These are normally empty frames and the beekeeper moves forward until the first drawn combs are found. These are unripe nectar and are not harvested. Any capped honey is harvested and once eggs or brood is encountered the beekeeper stops going forward (on routine harvesting procedures.) A quick count of how many frames the bees are brooding from the entrance allows the beekeeper to know if the front frames are exhausted and need replacement. A Normal brood chamber is approximately 10 frames (there are exceptions to this) and thus if brood is encountered at frame 12 from the front, the first two or three frames need removal. This is easily done and the rest of the frames are moved forward so that frame 1 is again the oldest frame, and new frames are inserted behind the unsealed nectar which is returned to the hive. It’s a very easy way to manage the brood chamber and allows the bees unlimited space to have as large a colony as possible.

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The natural expansion and contraction of a brood chamber

Arguably the best decision we made when designing the JHH was to take the fact that bees know more about what they want than we as beekeepers know about what we think they want! We designed the hive around a bee’s perspective in understanding a number of key aspects, and one of them was the fact that a brood chamber is a dynamic thing. It expands and contracts depending on many factors which beekeepers can never manage a brood chamber with nearly the efficiency that bees can.

In periods of abundance bees expand their brood chamber. A heavy pollen flow induces the queen to start laying faster, more nurse bees to look after the brood, produce royal jelly and so on, leading to an expansion of the brood chamber. When supply slows down so does the egg laying of the queen and thus it contracts. This ‘breathing’ of a brood chamber is complex and dynamic, so we deliberately choose a hive with one continuous chamber. This means that the brood chamber can ‘breath’ and also be migrated (as described above) and stay as a cohesive unit with all bees being able to cluster together and reconnect with the Queens pheromones. This allows the social structure of the hive to stay intact, reduces pest such as laying worker and produces more stable colonies. All without a beekeepers intervention simply because we allow the bees to manage it themselves.

Static air around a brood chamber

A Horizontal vs Vertical alignment of beehive has been discussed by beekeepers often. Both styles give advantages and disadvantages, but we believe as far as bees are concerned that a horizontal alignment is the easiest for them to maintain as optimal as possible conditions around their brood chamber and improves the ease to which bees can evaporate nectar for honey production. Those are two very big factors when it comes to beekeeping, as optimal brood chamber conditions allows for larger colonies and greater field force to gather nectar, and ease of nectar evaporation increases honey production.

In a vertical supported frame system has a space between each frame (bee space) which allows the bees to move from one chamber to another. The brood chamber is at the bottom (in most hive designs) and additional boxes are added as required for honey storage (called supers). In order to incubate eggs, the bees maintain their brood chamber with relatively moist air at a temp of 35˚ C. This is achieved by bees clustering around the brood to warm the air with vibrations of their bodies and is a very energy sapping process, but bees manage to maintain this even when the ambient air temperature is well below zero. The difficulties come about when physics of a warm body of air has a tendency to rise. This buoyancy means that it slips upwards between the frames carrying the warmth and moisture into the suppers where honey storage is being conducted. This compounds the work bees have to do. In order to evaporate nectar into ripe honey almost 60% of anything that is collected needs to be evaporated away. Bees are very efficient at doing this and will beat their wings to increase air flow over the open cells to increase evaporation. But the lower the relative humidity of the air is, the easier it is to evaporate a liquid. Thus the warm moist air lost from the brood chamber increases the work load of bees in the honey storage area.

Bees are very effective at air-conditioning their home. Air ways throughout a hive are created to move air in or out the hive by bees aligned with each other fanning their wings and moving air. The manage this in a vertical, horizontal or oblique direction. But the warm rising air of a vertical system due to the loss of heat from a brood chamber makes the job that much harder. In order to remove moisture laden air from the upper supers where honey production is, bees have to fan air against the natural tendency of it rising.

In a horizontal system the frames butt tight against one another. This means that air from the brood chamber is trapped close to the brood area, preventing it from rising.

The bees thus do not have moisture being added to areas they do not want it, and they do not have to move air downwards against the rising air from below. But most importantly they have a relatively static body of air, which they maintain by moving air in a predominantly horizontal direction. In the Jackson Horizontal Hive we designed the frame to have a space around three sides of the frame. The side dowels are inset from the side wall of the hive and the bottom down is raised above the floor, giving bees space to move around, preventing bees from attaching comb to the side walls and most importantly allowing bees to create air movement channels around the hive. We designed the hive with what we believe bees require as much as what beekeepers require to harvest honey efficiently and to a high standard.