Japanese natural beekeeping
Japan has two honey bees, the native Apis cerana japonica (Japanese honey bee) and the imported Apis mellifera (Western honey bee).
The Japanese honey bee is one of the subspecies of Apis cerana. Other subspecies can be found in Korea, Taiwan, China, Thailand and several other asian countries.
In 1877, the Western bee was imported along with Langstroth hive to Japan.
Commercial beekeepers started keeping only Western bees after that.
On the other hand, more and more people have started keeping Japanese bees as a hobby, using a simple hive called a pile box hive.
I am a hobby beekeeper who keeps Japanese bees in a pile box hive.
I would like to share this type of hive and beekeeping technique.
Please feel free to contact me via my Facebook page.
Japanese honey bee
Pile box hive
In my opinion, the pile box hive has many attributes that make it an ideal choice .
The goal of this article is to explain this method of beekeeping and what makes it ideal.
The pile box hive may look primitive, but it is practical in some specific conditions and environments.
This is why I and most hobby beekeepers use the pile box hive to keep Japanese bees in Japan.
It could potentially work well in other countries too, although this hive is not currently well known.
I am writing this article for 2 types of beekeepers.
Firstly, for beekeepers who keep Apis cerana in Asia. I have heard there are many beekeepers using log hives in many Asian countries, especially in rural areas.
Switching to a pile box hive can increase productivity without increasing cost.
Secondly, for beekeepers who keep Western bees. The pile box hive is a very natural way to keep bees, but it is a big improvement from the log hive and Skep hive.
Some European beekeepers are familiar with and use the pile box hive.
Japanese honey bees are found everywhere in Japan except for Hokkaido, Okinawa, and some isolated islands. They prefer trees which have a space large enough for them. They live not only in mountains, but also in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. It is not so easy to find wild colonies, but I guess there is at least one colony per 1 km2
Pile box hive
The pile box hive has a very simple structure. It does not contain any removable frames.
The structure is simply a box with a small entrance.
Like log hives, bees are allowed to build comb as they want.
Additional boxes need to be added from the bottom as the colony grows.
The top box is removed for extraction after it is filled with honey.
Pile box hive
Transition of the pile box hive
Additional boxes need to be added to the bottom as the colony grows.
Subsequently, the top box is removed to extract honey, so the boxes circulate.
1. Bait hive
2 boxes are sufficient.
2. Additional box 1
An additional box needs to be added 1-2 months after the swarm enters.
2 or more boxes can be added at the same time.
3. Additional box 2
4 or 5 boxes are added before taking honey.
4. Taking honey
Remove the top box (box-a) to extract honey.
Additional boxes can be added at the same time of honey extraction.
5. Additional box 3
The bees will continue to construct their comb from the top down after honey extraction.
Additional boxes are needed as the colony grows.
Box-a can be reused after honey extraction and a cleaning.
Advantages of the pile box hive
There are many advantages especially for hobbyists.
- Low cost to construct the hive.
- Time and effort to manage bees is less.
- Few skills and know-how are needed.
Disadvantages of the pile box hive
There are some limitations to the pile box hive that restrict how you can manage a colony.
The basic idea is the same as the log hive. This hive provides an enclosed space for wild bees.
Honey extraction is much easier than a log hive, but some limitations are almost same.
You cannot do following things:
- control the swarm
- split the colony
- combine colonies
- collect honey from a single flower source
There is also less honey production.
Dimensions of the pile box
There are 3 ways to get bees:
- Capturing a swarm
- Buying a colony
- Transferring a wild colony into a hive
Capturing a swarm is the most common way to start keeping Japanese bees.
Wild bees live not only in rural areas, but also in cities. Beekeepers set bait hives and wait for the swarms.
Buying Japanese bee is not common because only a few commercial beekeepers sell Japanese honey bees.
It is quite expensive, ranging from 300 - 700 US Dollars. Hobby beekeepers prefer to keep costs low.
It is also possible to transfer a wild colony into a hive, but it can be quite challenging for beginners.
Bait hive ( 2 boxes)
Cymbidium floribundum to attract a swarm
It can be challenging to get a swarms to enter your hive. Cymbidium floribundum is used to increase the possibility.
It is widely known to attract Japanese bees.
Most beekeepers use this flower and place it next to their bait hive.
This flower attracts worker bees which are looking for a new place to swarm.
Please have a look at the next video to see how bees are attracted.
How does Cymbidium floribundum attract Japanese bees?
Some researchers found that there are chemical components which attract Japanese bee.
Based on these chemicals, some researchers created a substitute product called "Machibako-Lure".
Machibako-Lure is widely used now because it is easier to use.
You can buy it, open it, and then attach it to your hive. It attracts Japanese bees up to 45 days.
If you choose to use a Machibako-Lure you do not have to grow Cymbidium floribundum.
Machibako-Lure attached to a hive.
90% of swarms are attracted by Cymbidium floribundum or its substitute on "Swarm map"
I developed "Swarm map", a swarm reporting web system on the web.
It allows beekeepers to report swarms and all of reports are shown on map.
Over 1,500 of swarm reports are collected every year.
Beekeepers write what they used to attract swarm when they submit a report.
Cymbidium floribundum or its substitute Machibako-lure is used in around 90% of swarm reports in 2018.
・Cymbidium floribundum 45%
・Neither 10 %
Machibako-lure launched in the spring of 2013 and it has become popular.
Over 5,000 beekeepers use the product in 2018.
This product is great help for beginners because getting bees is most difficult to start beekeeping of Japanese bees.
Skilled beekeepers also use this to increase colonies efficiently.
I do not split the colony, but allow them to swarm
It is easy to split colonies kept in a Langstroth hive in order to increase the number of colonies.
However, it is impossible to do this with a pile box hive, so beekeepers focus on capturing swarms.
It is common to allow bees to swarm as they want, because it is difficult to kill new queens when they are larvae.
Beekeepers set bait hives within 300 meters from a hive which is swarming.
They also collect swarms when they find them clustered on tree or elsewhere.
Swarms tend to cluster within 10 meters from the first hive.
Many beekeepers attach a board to a tree in order to attract swarms.
I let some swarms go, but it is ok
Most swarms can be captured or enter bait hives on their own if there are many bait hives and you are keeping an eye on your bees.
It is impossible to capture all swarms and some leave and nest in the wild.
Its descendants may come back to your bait hive in the future.
There is a limited number of colonies in one are due to the quantity of nectar and pollen sources.
Beekeepers have to be mindful of nectar sources and the number of colonies they are keeping.
Many experienced beekeepers can determine whether or not they have sufficient nectar sources. If they feel that there are not sufficient nectar sources for the number of colonies they capture, they will sometimes give friends some swarms.
Transferring wild colonies into a hive
There is another method for capturing bees.
Japanese honeybees build combs in tree, graves, houses, etc.
Several colonies are exterminated.
However instead of exterminating a colony, it can be transferred into a hive.
I use a small Langstroth hive to keep the distance between each comb adequately.
Otherwise, there is a risk of the colony absconding.
Please have a look at the next video. On some occasions I am able to extract over 10 kg of honey.
Vacuum for bees
Capturing a wild colony
The pile box hive was designed to maximize time and effort with minimal management.
Japanese bees are native bee to Japan.
They are resistant to infectious diseases and mites.
They can defend themselves against the Japanese hornet and they can live in cold climates.
Little management is required other than adding boxes as the colony grows.
Adding boxes as the colony grow
Additional boxes need to be added as the colony expands.
This must be done before the comb reaches the bottom of hive.
Additional boxes need to be added to the bottom because Japanese honey bees build their comb from the top down.
The next video explains how to add an additional box.
I was little bit late and the comb had reached the bottom.
I should have done this a few weeks earlier. Fortunately, this did not cause any problems in this case.
A pile box hive does not have frames, so inspections are limited.
It is almost same as a log hive or skep hive.
There are 2 ways of inspecting.
Firstly, you can look inside from the bottom.
Secondly, you can observe the bees at the entrance of the hive.
First Inspection: Looking inside from the bottom
You can take a look inside the hive from the bottom.
Mainly, I check following things.
- Colony size
- Determining if the number of bees is sufficient
The next video shows an inspection of a healthy colony.
On the other hand, the colony in next video has less bees.
It does not have a queen bee, so this colony is dying.
It is not common to combine a queenless colony with another colony.
Fortunately, it is too late for this colony.
Second Inspection: Observing the entrance
I check for the following things:
- Whether bees bring pollen
- The number of bees coming and going
- The number of drones
How often should I inspect my bees?
Once a month is sufficient.
It is not easy to identify problems in the early stages.
For example, I cannot check if eggs have been laid in the combs in order to know if the queen is healthy.
I can determine that the hive is queenless after the number of bees decreases and many drones appear, but sometimes at this point it is too late to remedy the problem.
In addition to this, it is difficult to combine colonies.
Sometimes you cannot save colonies despite all your effort even if you inspect your bees often.
Natural predator 1. Japanese giant hornet
Japanese giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica) is terrible. It destroy bee's colony completely. The honey and bee larvae are also taken to feed the hornet larvae.
Japanese honeybees can defeat this hornet surprisingly. Please watch next video.
However, they cannot protect their colony when many giant hornet attack them at the same time. It seems that many wild colonies of Japanese honeybees are destroy by giant hornet. I can save my bees completely from the hornet because my pile box hive is designed to prevent it from invading. The entrance is not high enough for giant hornet and they cannot invade.
By the way, giant hornet is much bigger problem for Western bees. They can protect their colony from the hornet. An individual giant hornet can kill forty Western bees a minute while a group of 30 hornets can destroy an entire hive containing 30,000 bees in less than four hours. This is why Western bees cannot go wild in Japan.
Natural predator 2. Bear
Bear is widely known as a honey hunter. It has a good nose to find colonies of honeybees and It has a strong arm to break hives.
Most of my apiaries are near mountains and about 5% of my hives are destroyed by bear. An electric fence is used to prevent bears from destroying the hive.
30% of loss is acceptable
It seems that only 25% of colonies can survive for over a year in the wild.
This is due to:
- A colony swarms a few times or more in the spring
- The number of colonies temporarily increases up to 4 times
- However, it does not actually increase, it is constant in the long term.
On the other side, roughly 70 % of my colonies (kept in a pile box hive) survive over one year with minimal care.
The reasons that survival rate is much higher are due to:
- Hive durability
- Hive design prevents giant hornet from invading
- An electric fence is used to prevent bears from destroying the hive
- Number of hives are placed taking into consideration nectar sources
- When needed, sugar water is fed to weak colonies
30% of colonies are lost, but this is considered an acceptable number.
I can increase the number of colonies by capturing swarms every spring.
I may save 10 to 20% of colonies if I inspect and manage the bees more.
However, it takes a lot of additional time and effort.
Although a pile box hive does not have any frames, the method for extracting honey is an improvement compared to a log hive.
The colony must be destroyed in order to take honey from a log hive.
Swarms need to be captured every spring. It is not easy to increase the number of colonies if you use a log hive.
A pile box hive allows us to remove only the top box after it is full of honey.
The colony does not need to be destroyed to take honey.
If about 5 kg of honey is left for the colony it can survive over the winter.
This is the most important point and this makes it easier to increase the number of colonies.
One box filled with honey contains about 5 kg of honey.
You can take 5kg - 10kg (1 box or 2 boxes) of honey per colony on average.
Honey Extraction Method
The top box is removed to take honey. It takes only 10 - 20 minutes.
Removal does not disturb the bees too much.
The colony looses about 20 % of comb but will continue to raise the larvae and collect honey.
The bees rarely abscond after taking honey.
Extracting honey from the box
Basically, extracting honey is not difficult and it does not take a lot of time and effort.
Expensive tools are not needed, you can use kitchen goods to squeeze the honey from the comb.
First, I cut each comb into 3 pieces.
About 70 % of honey drips out in 12 hours.
I then compress the comb to extract the remaining honey.
Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honey bees. It can be used for making hand cream, lip balm and skin care products at home.
For beekeepers, the most important thing is it can attract swarms. I sell beeswax to beginners who try to capture swarms.
It is said that beeswax of Japanese honeybees need to be used, one of Western bees does not work to attract Japanese bees.
When to extract honey
You need wait for the hive to have 4 or more boxes.
You should not take honey earlier because
- the top box can contain larvae.
- the combs can drop after taking honey.
I do not recommend to take honey in summer because it is too hot in Japan and it makes combs is softer.
Honeybees need to time to build large combs, so fall is best to take honey
You need to be patient.
Why and When is a pile box hive better?
You may still have some doubts as to why I use pile box hives.
Needless to say, the Langstroth hive is known very well in Japan.
Everyone uses this type hive to keep Western bees.
Some beekeepers use Langstroth hives to keep Japanese bee too.
In fact, I have used Langstroth hives for keeping Japanese bee, but I prefer using a pile box hive.
Let us not forget the log hive. Some beekeepers still use log hives, but I feel many beekeepers have made the switch to a pile box hive.
I would like to tell you some reasons why.
Why has the log hive lost popularity?
The log hive itself does not have an advantage over a pile box hive, but the method of honey extraction is disadvantageous.
The log hive and pile box hive share many of the same points:
- Inner structure
- Cost and effort to make the hive
- Method of obtaining bees
- Inspection method
- Bee management
However, honey extraction is different.
The biggest problem with the log hive is that you need to destroy the colony and force out all bees in order to extract honey.
The bees loose their larvae and honey in the fall, which means they cannot survive over the winter.
In that case, you need to capture swarms every spring, so it is not easy to increase the number of colonies.
Some beekeepers have some methods to avoid destroying the colony, but they are not easy to carry out and require more time and effort.
It is better to use a pile box hive if you do not want to destroy the colony.
Is productivity of a Langstroth really higher?
It is often said that the productivity of a Langstroth hive is higher.
I am not sure it is true when keeping Japanese bee.
Actually, honey production per hive can be higher.
However, in terms of time management, honey production per hour is more important.
A pile box hive can be better in production per hour because less time and effort are needed.
All I have to do when I use Pile box hive is:
1. Make a beehive
2. Set a bait hive in the spring
3. Add boxes a few times throughout the year
4. Extract honey
At a minimum, I need only 5 hours to get 5kg of honey.
One the other hand, with a Langstroth beehive, it is expensive and it takes longer if you make it yourself.
I need to inspect the colony almost every week and it takes a lot of time to go to places where hives are located.
How much more honey could I potentially get?
As mentioned, I can get somewhere between 5kg - 10kg per hive on average when I use a pile box hive.
The increase of honey production may not be worth the time and effort required.
A pile box hive is good for hobbyists and a side job
I understand that a Langstroth hive has many advantages over a pile box hive and I do not think that a pile box hive is better than a Langstroth hive at all times.
It depends on your preference and why you are keeping bees.
A pile box hive is good for hobbyist because:
- It does not take much time and effort
- Low learning curve
- Initial cost is lower, under a few hundred US dollars or less
- Tons of honey production is not needed, around 10kg is enough in many cases.
You can get enough honey for your family and friends without it taking a lot of time and money.
You still have time to enjoy other hobbies like a kitchen garden even if you are a full-time worker.
A pile box hive is good for a side job as well.
You can find many places to keep your hive if you live in a rural area.
It's ok if it's not located near your home since you do not have to manage your hive often.
The honey produced by Japanese bees is more expensive than that of Western bees, costing about 100 US dollars per kg.
If you have 20 hives and extract 100kg of honey, the revenue can generated can be up to 10,000 US dollars.
Bees for development in Asian countries
Eastern honey bees (Apis cerana) live in many Asian countries.
I have heard that there are many places in which people keep wild Eastern bees in a log hive as a side job or a hobby.
Keeping honey bees can be a way to earn money in rural areas of developing countries.
However, they do not have time to learn how to use a Langstroth hive.
Switching to a pile box hive from a log hive can increase honey production and income without an increase in cost and effort.
Visit of Sri Lanka
I visited Sri Lanka in July 2018. Sri Lanka is a very interesting country because there are no Western bees, because the country has not imported. Like Japan and other Asian countries, it has culture of traditional beekeeping.
Pod hive is used to keep wild bee (Apis cerana indica). It is attached on trees. Log hive seems to be uncommon here.
The government has a institute of beekeeping. A Japanese volunteer was working there, I could get information from him.It is trying to increase the productivity of beekeeping of Apis cerana by using Langstroth beehive. It recommends beekeepers who are using Pod hive to use Langstroth hive.
The technics of beekeeping is introduced in a book named Beekeeping For Honey Production In Sri Lanka, written by Punchihewa R W K. You can read the book on the web.
Pile box hive for Western bees
In Japan, only a few beekeepers keep Western bees in Pile box hive, mainly when its swarm come into the hive accidentally. I am not sure if it is going well.
It is hard to treat diseases when pile box hive is used, it is a huge problem.
I guess you can use Pile box hive when
- You are keeping Western bee in Skep hive or Log hive
- There are wild colonies and they are living by theirselves.
I am not sure Pile box hive works in your countries, it depends on behavior and characteristics of your bees, your style and purpose of beekeeping. However, I have found some beekeepers who use pile box hive (many of them call it "Japanese hive"), let me introduce.
Please contact me via my Facebook page. You can send me messages.
Why don't I use smoke?
It is not necessary to use smoke to calm Japanese bees.
Why doesn't the person in the videos take one box of honey and leave the second box?
It is to prevent the comb from dropping.