Natural Beekeeping — Losing a Natural Beehive to Unnatural Causes

I put this swarm trap in a maple beside my house and it did get lots of interest but no takers. I will try a different spot this year. Two other traps caught bees. Two of five, not bad. Also used an old ninjutsu trick for the camo. If you want to disappear into the woods, wear brown, not black.

Last year I started out with one package of Siberian bees and enough material on hand for five hives. I built the first hive during the winter and built three more during the spring, keeping one step ahead of the swarms I caught. My trapline was a bit small because I didn’t have a lot of hives ready. I set up five swarm traps last spring and caught two swarms. All the traps drew the attention of bees, and I saw one swarm enter the only trap I had here at the house, but they didn’t stay. Maybe the queen saw me and didn’t like the attention.

The first swarm I caught was at a hunting area near here. I’ve checked as carefully as I can for advice about the legality of setting swarm traps on public lands and so long as I don’t mark or damage trees, it appears that I’m in the clear. Indiana is not like the Ozarks, everyone here has No Hunting and No Trespassing signs up and you can get into trouble just by picking mushrooms on private property without the owner’s permission. In the Ozarks, all the old neighbors fished and hunted and foraged on each other’s property, and that’s the way I grew up. No one would have considered posting their land off limits as it would have been rude. If you were out hunting and wandered upon someone’s house, you walked up to the front door and said Hi.

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.

That’s not the way it is here. Here the people probably call the police instead of inviting you in to have some coffee and warm up by the stove on a cold winter’s night. We would of course leave the rifles propped against the wall by the door, it’s only polite. Here, there is an entirely different set of rules and I’ve studied it all carefully because it’s all very foreign to me.

As yet I’ve only set swarm traps on public land, because as a taxpayer I have the mistaken impression that public land is for the public use. Apparently that is not so, in Indiana, where it’s illegal to even take dead wood from public property. Can’t cut a limb or mark a tree or do any damage to anything, be it tree or rock or fallen log. About all you can do is hunt or fish in season and within the limits of the constantly evolving fish and game regulations. You can walk through the woods, you can collect nuts and berries and fruits and mushrooms for your personal use. You can’t fish or hunt or forage and sell what you acquire, until you purchase an official permit, and probably you can’t sell anything but mushrooms even if you get the permit. There’s even restriction on gathering leaves for the pot, it’s not entirely forbidden to pick things like poke salad or winter cress, but the amount you can take is up to the discretion of the DNR rangers. Seems like whenever I’m out doing such things, a DNR truck pulls up to ask me what I’m up to. Actually they’ve only confronted me three times in the past four years, I had more trouble with park rangers in the Ozarks.

At any rate, I couldn’t find out why it’s illegal to set a swarm trap on public land, so I did, and I had good luck with them. Caught two swarms out of five traps. That set me up with three hives, the amount most people start with if they are serious. Start with too many and you can’t keep up with the bees. Start with one or two and you may wind up with no bees. Bees today have many problems to face.

The other two swarms were happy to follow the original plan and built comb on the foundation instead of the ceiling. This was the post mortem of the hive that died of insecticide. Beautiful comb and a little poison honey. Lots of dead bees. Stuff happens.

Scouts from my first wild swarm arrived at the trap even as I was hanging it on the tree I’d selected, in a quiet spot in that hunting area alongside a creek, with lots of spring flowers blooming in the creek bottoms. Inside a week, I had a swarm in that trap. I waited another week for them to settle in, and when I saw them bringing in pollen I assumed the queen was laying brood. Time to take them home. This was a strong swarm, I could hear them from a considerable distance when I went to check the trap. On the evening I picked them up, the trap was very quiet. I saw bees still returning, though, and knew the bees were inside. It just didn’t sound right, bees in good shape make a constant hum.

The next day I installed the bees in their new hive and for awhile it all seemed fine. A few scouts went out, the bees were active, getting adjusted to their new digs. But the next day, no one was flying. Bees tried to fly but only tumbled out the door. All the bees were sick, not from any natural problem but from agricultural chemical poisoning. I will guess nicotinoids, Monsanto put them into distribution by exploiting a quirk of the law that bypassed the testing procedure intended to protect honeybees from accidental poisoning. Nicotinoids could be considered natural chemicals and this possibly enabled Monsanto to skirt the law a bit. Nicotine is a natural insecticide, even considered appropriate for organic gardens. Nicotine kills everything, including honeybees, and that’s the problem also with nicotinoids. All my new bees were drunk and stupid. They fell out the front door and wandered away, never to return. About two pounds of them stayed in the hive, and I gave them clean honey to eat in hopes they would recover, but within a week all of them were dead.

One of the tenets of today’s “natural beekeeping” is that you don’t interfere with the bees. You let them do what they do, live or die. You don’t mess with them even if it’s thought of as help. This is how bees adapt and overcome problems, the weak colonies die and the strong colonies live. But in today’s apiaries, that process is buggered by people. People select who mates, who lives and who dies. In theory, natural beekeeping could gradually overcome many of the problems of today’s apiaries, by letting bees make their own decisions.

In practice I will argue with this and break some rules. I did what I could to save my bees, and even though I knew them for a short time I felt that I owed them a chance. Nicotinoids are not a tool of natural selection. We introduced them into this world and they follow no rules. Being immune to nicotinoids is nearly as unlikely as being immune to gunfire.

I have worried that I will lose my other hives to agricultural poisons, because this is big farm country and all my neighbors are farmers. They don’t intentionally damage my garden with overspray of herbicides, but they do. They might even accidentally kill all my bees. The good news is that of three hives, two survived for the full agricultural season. I’m less concerned with the perils of winter and Colony Collapse Disorder than I am with the poisons. Two hives survived the summer here, and that is very good news. I will hope they did not gather the poison honey that killed my third swarm. If that’s in the hives, I will only know it when I open the hives and all the bees are gone, out the front door in a drunken stumble, to die. There’s been a housecleaning now and then, not all the bees survive the winter and on the warm days the bees are busily bringing out the dead. The Italians have shoved about fifty bodies out the door, and the Siberian bees only about twenty. I would think this is normal.


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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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