What’s natural about keeping bees? Man has been cultivating bees for thousands of years, but to the bee, it’s not natural. But then, thousands of years of keeping them one way or another, maybe it is. Over a hundred years ago when the framed hives were invented, the doomsayers said it would destroy the bees. Is it? I hardly think so, but it is putting a lot of stress on them, constantly manipulating the inside of the hive the bees have worked so hard to make their own. Chemicals to fix this and that, constantly inspecting, cooling the brood, making life inside the hive more taxing. Stealing too much honey and having to replace it with sugar water. Is it actually the sugar water which is causing the problems? Moving the hive from point to point and grazing on single plant species. Replacing the queens 2, 3, 4 times a year and then watching the whole bunch fly off to places unknown (CCD). Do artificially inseminated queens even know what their role in life really is? Never having taken the first flight, no wonder they take the colony and leave. Is it simply these queens which are responsible for CCD?
As backyard bee keepers, we need to make a change and begin committing to a more natural way and make it better and less stressful for both us and the bees. Allowing the bees to build their own environment makes them more docile. Frankly, friendlier bees means no more sweating days under the hood.
Bee diseases can and should be monitored only, but on occasion we can give them a hand. Nosema for example, is a fungus caused by too much humidity in the hive and this we can help by providing more ventilation. I also think it is caused by feeding sugar syrup which has been around too long. For the Hive Beetles we can provide beetle traps and screened bottom boards with catch basins under to catch larvae as they drop, or using Nematodes around the hives. Tracheal mites can be treated with oxalic acid without too much adverse effect to the bees. But the Vorra mite is something the bees have to learn to work with. Applying poison’s only poisons the comb and honey, exposing that back to us as consumers and then, because the mites become resistant, we have to put in stronger and stronger poisons, a never ending cycle. But by allowing the bees to build their own environment inside the hives; they can then fend off all of the above. And if they can’t, we have to let them perish and start anew with a hardier breed and or crossbreed from other hives which have survived. (By the way, Monsanto is trying to develop, through gene manipulation, a “Super” bee which they say will fight off the mites, Or are they just trying to make a bee which can withstand there own poisons so they can then sell more and stronger ones? Of course all with government grants.)
So what is natural bee keeping? It is simply allowing the bees to tend to themselves. By providing them with a more natural environment inside the hive and allowing the bee’s to build new comb to raise brood however they want, the bees do exceptionally well on their own. Natural comb shape is not straight, but curved to inhibit a bad environment inside the hive. Monitoring the bee’s actions from outside and checking the drop board for any problems, and allowing the colony to die if need be and opening the hive only as a last resort. With all the problems we have caused over the years, we need to be trying to raise a hardy, more resistant bee and not to promote further problems.
Let’s talk about the hive. My preference is an octagonal shape, more closely resembling the inside cavity of a tree. After several years of experimentation, I have settled on one that suits me well. The boxes are 7” tall with a 14” diameter inside cavity, closely matching the inside dimensions of the Warre hive. The bottom board is screened and has a beetle trap entrance. Under the screen is a drop pan which is sprinkled with Diatomaceous earth. The roof has a built-in blanket filled with a cedar shavings for positive ventilation. Each box has ten top bars (some of have 4 center removable frames, which helps with splitting the hives if need be and or transferring eggs and brood to a queenless colony, these are bottomless). A single full box of honey will weigh approximately 35lbs, more than enough supplies for an entire winter. I harvest in July, then, just monitor through-out the late summer until close-up in winter, when I add insulation to the outside of the hives.
After finally learning to let my bees be, I have succeeded, this year anyway, in having a 100% survival rate and more than doubled my stock naturally. I also gave away 2 swarms and had the misfortune to lose 1 to Nosema, after feeding some leftover syrup and lost 2 that flew away when I, unfortunately, was not around. Good luck on your endeavors. Later