If you were a honeybee in the United States, there is a roughly 86% chance you would live in a commercial operation. This means you would be managed like a commodity for the pollination of crops, and secondarily for honey production. Your colony would be one of hundreds of thousands trucked around the country on semi-trailers following the blooms of mono-cropped agricultural commodities. Your honey would be taken from you and you would probably be fed high fructose corn syrup. Your queen would be replaced every year, or else your entire colony would be killed each year and replaced. The new queen would be a highly inbred individual, with relatively low vitality and your entire colony would be thrown into chaos in the effort to accept her. The frames within your hive would contain either contaminated wax, or else plastic, on which you are expected to live, work, raise brood and thrive. Chemical treatments would be added routinely to your home for disease control, many of which are toxic to you. It would be a tough life.
These commercial management practices are just one of many factors contributing to the decline of honey bee populations world wide. But they are an entry point to change that each one of us can effect. By becoming a backyard beekeeper using natural methods you can help bring the honeybees back into a healthy and vibrant life, and through the importance of this keystone species, contribute to the enlivening of the entire ecosystem.
This series of articles will focus on the principles of natural beekeeping. It is hoped that by understanding these principles, you can take up this wonderful hobby with insight and skill and develop the artistry of working with nature to steward honeybees with the care and respect they deserve, and need.
Principle I — The Bees Know Best: i.e. Just leave ‘em alone
This is the über- principle in natural beekeeping, and includes many other principles within it. While it may seem obvious to a naïve observer of nature, the fact is that after a century and a half of commercial beekeeping, we have grown accustomed to the intense manipulation of colonies to suit our purposes, and lost our sense of what is natural and healthy for bees.
To appreciate the immense wisdom nature has bestowed upon the bees let’s consider a feral honeybee colony living naturally. A feral colony lives in a hollow tree, and looks for one that is large enough, but not too big, and dry. They prefer a cavity high off the ground for protection against honey robbers like skunks, raccoons, rats and bears. They may reduce a large entrance with wax or make a second entrance for ventilation or convenience. The colony will build it’s own comb, in a shape and size that fits the space and maximizes surface area, warmth and scent retention. They will keep their queen as long as they choose, then either throw off a swarm or simply replace her. The queen is free to move throughout the comb and to swarm with her workers if that is their decision. The wild bee colony stores away extra honey, pollen and propolis for use when needed, and dips into those stores to stay warm and fed through the winter. The workers devote themselves to the care of the brood, and maintain a clean environment for them that is regulated in temperature and humidity to a precise degree. The workers build drone cells as needed and tend the drones until the mating season is over, then drive them out for the winter. The colony becomes like an immortal organism, throwing off swarms and re-queening throughout the years, expanding to fill the entire cavity. At some point, when the cavity is filled and the wax comb is old, the colony may finally abscond, taking as much honey as their crops will hold to begin anew in a fresh tree hollow.
This is how bee’s lived for tens of thousands of years before human beings began to domesticate them through the practice of beekeeping. While bees have been slowly domesticated over thousands of years to live in close contact with human beings, both for their pollinating and their honey, they still revert to this natural state wherever they live in the wild. Thus, the feral bee colony contains the picture of the innate wisdom of a bee colony, and this picture provides these basic principles of natural beekeeping:
1) a tree-like hollow space
2) some height off the ground
3) natural comb [no foundation]
4) queen is free to move throughout the colony [no queen excluder]
5) honey is left for the bees, take only what is truly superfluous and then in the late spring
6) drones are allowed to develop at the will of the colony
7) swarms are allowed to occur naturally, no interference or swarm prevention
8) queen remains as long as the colony accepts them, [no requeening at beekeepers will]
9) no chemicals used for medication or miticide/fungicides
10) the colony is left alone whenever possible [no weekly hive checks that disperse the precious warmth and hive scent]
In a following series of articles we will take up each one of these principles in some depth and consider the benefits and costs of both natural and conventional methods methods of beekeeping. Our goal is to educate about the life history of bees so that people can make their own decisions about methods of beekeeping based on the well being of the bees, and their own goals of pollination and/or honey production.