Bee keeping - as apprentice to A P Chandrashekhara

We had a great get together last weekend and discussed for around a day on matters ranging from conservation, politics, doctory, financial matters, ethics… until everything-under-sun and drew detailed conclusions on how humans should think and act in each of these cross cutting disciplines. The only step pending was to meet the concerned people in each of these matters (for example Barrack Obama, Mr. Modiji etc) and command them these simple steps chalked out so that they could execute them

Bee hive inside a fallen areca nut tree
After all these, now it was time to do some of the not-so-simple things ourselves, which we believed  the aforementioned people, obedient to our commands, could not execute.

So, we got into the action on one of those - Bee keeping!. Later that day, Ranjan Sham Mailankody (hereafter Ranjan), Anna (Thirumalesh Kaje) and I were lucky to work as apprentices to veteran farmer, thinker, writer and my beloved father-in-law, Sri A P Chandrashekhara (hereafter APC) and transplanted 2 bee colonies from their wild settlement to the boxes. This exercise made the day fruitful and packed with learning for us.

I have done similar work with APC earlier and considered myself a graduate in this field!. But when I attempted repeating the same at home independently, things looked fine but bees fled away every time! Some enigma left me puzzled around this practice. Even under expert guidance, out of 2 attempts yesterday, one was a hit and one was a miss. Reason is just that forces of nature are never fully under our control how much ever expertise we gain.

We then set out with the required equipment.

The gear!

Here are the basic things needed to capture a bee colony.

Tools needed

1.     A sickle to clean the place (if need be)
2.     A sharp knife – to cut the bee hives in suitable shape and tie them to wooden frames       
3.     Matchbox – to lightly apply some smoke ONLY IF the bees get enraged in the process
4.     A steel plate (or 2 if the hive is old and well settled with large number of hives)
5.     The 'gate' to prevent the queen bee from escaping in the initial days, until the colony accepts our box as their home
6.     A bee box with frames 

  • Thin threads made of biodegradable material (like banana dried sheath) to tie the beehive to wooden frame which the bees will later cleanup (not shown in the picture)
  • A stool to place the box after setting bees until night before we could move it home/destination (not shown)

Sharpening our skills!

Ranjan sharpening the sickle, the time-tested way

Initially we sharpened the knife and sickle, the old time-tested way. This may look like an insignificant step. But I have mentioned it with photograph to stress on the fact that, 
  • this apparently simple but skill-demanding job should have been quintessential for each one of us – young people – but IT IS NOT because of the untouchability of soil and soil related works
  • An even graver reason is that there are now chinese sharpening tools shipped worldwide to achieve a similar result, completely shattering the ‘localness’ of this job. 

Ranjan picked up the basics quickly on this and understood the movements needed and final testing of sharpness as well.

Where was the bee hive and why?

APC is a mad farmer who plants too many commercially unimportant plants in his farm and regularly prunes them and piles them up in the field. There are hundreds of such piled up vegetation in the farm slowly dying into new lives of ever new forms (statement inspired by Mr. Wendell Berry's literature). Today, honeybees are badly short of their natural good habitat – the large trees with natural crevices - in them. This lack of habitat supposedly makes the bees settle in these piled up biomass making it easy to catch some of them and domesticate!

Note: Mad farmer, a hyperlink above is a poem written by Wendell Berry, whose first part explains a city job and the second part, a true farmer's work.

We had to unpile the heap of biomass slowly to pinpoint the colony - which Ranjan, Anna and I did together. As we could suspect, the colony was in the hollow of an arecanut (a.k.a beetlenut) tree trunk. 

We lifted the tree trunk, now quite light due to partial decomposition and carefully placed them on the ground nearby.

Who made the hole for the honeybees?

The ‘hole’ in the tree would NOT happen by any ‘soft key press’ over WIFI network. Arecanut tree has a tendency to get burnt (kind of sunburn) during winters when the sun is closest to earth and the rays hit the tree at a sideways angle. The woodpeckers target such weak points, make a hole into the trees to catch some food from the juicy fibrous tissues inside the trunk which host the insects or worms. This fibro-vascular tissues inside the areca nut tree host worms because that part of the tree is the super highway transporting food and water from the ground to the ‘crown of the tree’, 100 feet atop. Such a tree with a ‘narrow hole’, that had fallen was heaped up at our ‘venue’ giving us this opportunity to transplant the bees. Nature is a matter of too many magical co-incidences which almost look ‘intentionally designed’.

Choosing of a new abode by honebees for themselves (the tree trunk in this case), is a very involved democratic decision within themselves which I am yet to look into in detail.

With some simple carpentry tools (which I honestly can’t name in English!) we opened up the areca nut tree longitudinally. There they were! humming and suddenly perplexed with this unexpected earthquake hitting their home.

Next steps put simply are as below:

  •        Cut out the brood combs (multiple thin sheets which together make the beehive) one by one.
  •          Tie them carefully to the frame using the banana stem fibre. I will not go into details here as this is not a complete how-to-guide on this matter.
  •          Shift the bees carefully by hand and place them at the entrance of the bee box. This is a subtle job like putting your hand into a basket of freshly collected jasmine flowers. We should be gentle like taking our newborn first time in hands. As the bees have a tendency to move towards darkness, they will make the move automatically inside with this slight help.

Shifting the brood comb to the box, using a knife
·      During this process, intentionally or unknowingly, the ‘queen bee’, the ‘numero uno’ of the colony would be moved inside the box and there we go! Rest of the work will be easier. Bees will move more willingly and quickly inside and start settling there!

Handling the bees abuzz is “apparently” difficult and risky but actually simple enough a process. Being careful and sensitive is the only mantra here. An intrinsic love and respect towards their life will give us the skills needed. Doing is the only way to learn. Hours of theories or Youtube videos will not be of much help here.

Once what we could do by hand is over, close the gate of the box so that queen bee would not runaway. As long as queen is inside, rest of the family will stay. Now we could sit back on the grass and take some rest, have a chitchat. It is now the time to look at the couple of stings, if we got any! We could place the box on the stool and return home to come back in the night to shift the box to destination.

Transfer of the first colony went very smooth in relatively short time span.

Agitated bees of the colony number 2

During the second venture, Abhijith APC and Sadashiva Rao Mailankody, who were doing 'bird watching' until then, joined us. The bees were a bit agitated this time and gave quite a few stings to Anna, Ranjan and me. To handle this, we had to make a small fire, and create smoke. Smoke will somehow calm them down and let themselves to be tamed. The family was quite well-settled with many broods. The hexagonal chambers were rich with eggs and young ones undergoing nursing. It took some time for us to shift them due to their numbers.

It was 2:30+ and we were too hungry. We let the bees move in to the box and proceeded for lunch.


A P Chandrashekhara is a rare breed among the farmers who has dared to throw away his Engineering degree to run a sustainable farm of his own. He has done bee keeping since he was class 7 during school days. Advantage of working with him is that he teaches the philosophy of work than only the work.

A P Chandrashekhara
Social insects like ants, termites and honey bees are ever intriguing due to the contrast in their social structure, caste system and hard bound responsibilities. Handling honeybees is quite an art which has much more involved practical skills beyond just setting a family into beebox. There is more to comment on honey bee sexuality and genetics, their social behavior, togetherness and a lot more. There is much more to learn as well...


  1. By the by,classification-commercial & noncommercial is made by money hungry man, not by nature. In nature everything has a specific role to play (though we might not have understood it)

  2. Nature a wonder beyond our comprehension- at times I feel that we are exploiting the hapless - in different forms and different purposes - unable to decide which is right and which is wrong OR is it also natural


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