Natural Beekeeping: The Sticky Points (and Sweet)

The Russian bees had different ideas about how their nest should be built. Instead of keying on the foundation strips they did whatever the hell they wanted to do. I have plans for shifting them around this year but it will be tricky.

A couple of years ago when I was setting up my own venture I read all sorts of things and focused on top bar hives as an economical choice. Later I discarded that idea and shifted to De Layens hives. I’ve been through this whole process many times and usually conclude there’s no profit in keeping bees. But this time I had my own ideas and was brave enough to buck the expert opinions. I found that other people think the same way.

Or, almost the same way. That is the sticky point.

I’m using a method developed by Georges De Layens in the 1800’s, using a style of hive that still functions well all across Europe, and with some modifications even into Siberia. The big practical difference between this hive and the Langstroth hive commonly used in the U.S. is that you can’t load it onto a truck with a forklift. The De Layens hive is meant to stay in one spot and it’s built to favor a healthy bee colony, giving them enough space to build honeycomb long enough to last the winter. Bees start at the bottom, work their way up, and if the hive is too short they hit the ceiling in late winter and starve. Sometimes the humans get the extra honey! and there’s minimal disturbance to the bees. In Russia, annual production from these hives equals production from communal farms running Langstroth hives, and the labor is much reduced in comparison.

The difference between using a De Layens hive and practicing Natural Beekeeping is essentially the difference between being a vegetarian and a vegan. So technically I’m not a vegan, even though I enjoy vegan food and often cook vegan meals. Heck, I’m not vegetarian either, if I’m hungry I will calculate the karma when a little animal walks past and compare this to how hungry I actually am. Maybe I could call myself a Practical Beekeeper.

Truly natural hives from hollow logs are actually illegal now, as are hives such as straw skeps, unless you somehow fit them with removable top bars or honey frames. Photo by Przykuta at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Przykuta

In Natural Beekeeping you do nothing to interfere with the natural activities of the bees. Except that in actuality, you do interfere. You give them an artificial home and manipulate their environment. You provide a healthy happy space for the bees, and a healthy swarm survives when a cramped and pillaged Langstroth hive will not. Healthy hives conquer most diseases and pests and produce healthy swarms to foster the improved strain of honeybee. To me that’s a good idea, let the bees do what bees do, give them the good space, and when they produce excess honey, as healthy hives always do, you can take some.

Simply by doing this you are already interfering with the lives of the bees, you just do it in a kind and rather hopeful, respectful way.

A major issue I have with Natural Beekeepers is that they refuse to feed their bees in stressful times. To me, that’s like refusing to buy hay and grain for your cattle during a drought when there’s no graze. I think of this as a criminal act, you installed those bees or at least provided a home, it is artificial, and you do no one any good by letting bees starve. Evolving to resist starvation is about as likely as evolving to resist machine gun fire. Yes, the strongest hives will endure and the weakest hives will fail, but this does nothing to improve the species. It’s just dumb luck, you were there soon enough to make honey, or you managed to dodge the bullets. In either case it does not mean you were smarter or better than the ones who died, it’s just karma. All it means is oops.

In other ways I do agree with Natural Beekeeping ideas. In the case of disease or parasitic invasion I think letting natural selection take its course is the only serious way to help the bees. If you intervene in the process by introducing pesticides or antibiotics you weaken the hive in other ways and prevent the bees from adapting to the new problem. Modern beekeepers don’t even let hives swarm. This is what hives do, this is how bees evolve to fit their surroundings. Hives split and move out, survivors are stronger. Even in the De Layens method, swarming is discouraged although in a passive way, by providing the resident hive plenty of renewing space. Again, good for the beekeeper, not so good for the bees. Bees need to swarm to adapt, unless they swarm they cannot.

Natural or not, if your hives contract serious diseases such as American Foul Brood, you can be ordered to burn both your hives and your bees. And, you should. AFB is the bee equivalent of smallpox and spreads to other hives. Spreading AFB is not a service to the natural community of either bees or people. Photo thanks to the HoneyBeeSuite

Natural Beekeeping isn’t illegal as yet, but it is subject to local supervision by Extension services. If an Extension agent decides to inspect your natural hives, the agent can order you to use medicines or miticides, move colonies to new hives, destroy unhealthy hives, and even set fire to your entire apiary if you don’t cooperate. Might be best not to go commercial if you are a “natural” beekeeper. Selling products puts you in the spotlight.

A basic point that always bothers me about natural beekeeping is whether to feed your bees during stressful times. I mean the natural cycles when things die if they have no food, and I do not mean the artificial times when beekeepers rob the hives of all the profitable honey and start feeding sugar. Cripes, that’s old China or old Japan where the bandits come take all the rice and leave nothing but barley. Bees and peasants do what they have to do, and develop nutritional deficiencies. Let the bees have their honey, take what they don’t need. This year was a drought year and my hives were new, I let them have all the honey they managed to get, and if need be I will feed them this spring.

In the springtime, if it rains so hard and so long that bees can’t forage, and the hives have used up all their winter honey stores, and you took some honey from them last fall, cripes. Give the bees something to eat. You put them there, you interfered, pay them.

Last spring I tried feeding my bees honey I bought at a bargain price at Walmart, because I thought it would be better than sugar syrup. It got them through the wet weeks, but they didn’t seem to like it much, and when I dumped the feeders on the porch for the Raccoon Clan even they didn’t bother it. I think it wasn’t good honey, might have been something labeled as honey. Anytime I see a jar of honey labeled as Pure Clover Honey I suspect fraud. How many times in your life have you seen a pure clover landscape? Clover is good forage, few people grow it.

On the other hand, bees love the sugar syrup, the stuff no human is supposed to love. The raccoons love it, the hummingbirds love it, the yellow jackets love it. Who am I to argue? In a dire spring, which is worse by far than a dire winter, I will feed sugar. I pay attention to the world around me, the raccoons and the bees, and the hummingbirds. In the fall, I will trust the bees to know what they are doing, and if it’s a short year like last year’s drought year, they can keep their harvest.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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