Three-quarters of the world's food crops rely to some degree on pollination by insects and other animals. Bees, apart from producing wax and honey, both directly pollinate many of the vegetables and fruits we eat and pollinate the food of the animals we consume.

Honey bees in particular increase the yield and quality of farmer crops. The honey bee is a managed species, meaning that they're cultivated and commercially sold to farmers, so they can grow more food on less land. This is why, in a world where a growing population needs more food, bees have become an essential part of modern agriculture.

X-Team encourages its developers to pursue their many diverging interests. It almost came as no surprise when I noticed, browsing through X-Team's many Slack channels, that we had a channel dedicated to keeping bees. Intrigued, I realized we had a beekeeper among our midst: David Cramer has been keeping bees for years. I wanted to know more about how he got into beekeeping and what some of the peculiarities of beekeeping are. Here's what David said.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Let me start by asking what got you into beekeeping?

I have always been fascinated with bees growing up, but my sister is highly allergic, so I've always been afraid of them too. Many years later, I noticed some bee activity on the roof of my house, just above the rain gutter. I had never noticed them before and assumed they were just moving in.

So I called a bee remover to remove them before they got settled in, since I don’t want my kids to get stung. To my surprise, we found out they'd been living there for well over a year. While removing them, we got eight kg of honey. It was the most amazing honey!

Having had them in the roof of my house for over a year and never noticing them, I realized that bees don’t really bother anyone. And, having just bought a house with a large property, I decided to give it a try.

8 kg of honey, that seems like a lot. How much honey do bees usually produce? Is there a time period where they produce more?

African honey bees (what I have) produce a lot of honey. They never stop, so there’s a constant supply. You would generally harvest during summer months. Leading up to winter, you leave them alone so they can build up their supplies that see them through winter. But, where I am in South Africa, it’s generally warm in winter, with only a little frost in the morning. So they still work through winter.

Ready for some beekeeping

Apart from the protective clothing you wear, are there any other ways or techniques you use to avoid getting stung?

You need smoke. Pine needles are best because they give a thick, heavy smoke. The smoke simulates a forest fire. When bees smell smoke, it puts them into survival mode and they start drinking up honey to protect the hive in case they need to flee. (Don’t over-smoke them, because they may actually flee) They are way less concerned about invaders.

But if bees drink honey when they smell smoke, isn't that what you're trying to avoid 🤔?  Because you want the honey, no?

You don’t take all of the honey. You only take what they don’t need. If you take too much, they leave and abandon the hive.

I see. Any other techniques?

Slow breathing is also helpful. They sense carbon dioxide from your breath and may investigate a possible attack.

The type of bee is also important. The European honey bee is a really chilled type that doesn’t sting readily. What I have is the African honey bee. Some call them killer bees, but we just call them bees. They're more dangerous because, when they sting, they release a hormone that signals the rest of the hive that they're under attack and all the other bees will join in. The smoke cancels this out though.

Also, never swat a bee. A bee can land on you without stinging. But try to swat it and it freaks out.

That's good to know. I've been known to swat at bees, so I'll keep that in mind. And what are some of the most important things you can do to keep a beehive healthy?

1) First of all, keep the hive dry. Avoid moisture buildup.

2) Keep track of queen cells and watch for swarm cells. Swarm cells are long egg cells that hang off the bottom of the brood. This is an indication of an overpopulated and crowded hive. The bees start making these in order to make a new queen and split the hive up. You should control the population by maintaining the brood comb.

3) I’m not sure about elsewhere in the world, but in South Africa, we need to watch out for cross species contamination. We have the African honey bee and the Cape honey bee. If you get them living together in a hive, the whole hive can collapse.

I’ve vaguely heard that there’s a bee crisis. Bee populations are dwindling and it’s really bad for the planet. Can you tell us a bit more about the implications of these developments?

There are so many theories about this, with the latest and best so far is that herbicides are causing the issue. One of the biggest things to know is that there are many different kinds of bee, with our “honey bee” only a small part of it. I have heard that it’s not the honey bee that’s reducing numbers, but bees in general.

What can people who don’t keep bees do to help (if anything at all)?

The best thing according to current research is to stop using weedkillers in your garden, and resort to good old-fashioned pulling the weeds out by hand. Also planting more flowers of varying colors can help attract bees of all kinds to your garden. Just enjoy the space as naturally as possible.

This was very interesting. Thank you for your time, David, and best of luck with your beehives!