More Natural Bee Keeping

new foundationless comb with brood

The presenters at our January meeting were John Seaborn of Wolf Creek Apiaries and Trevor Qualls of Bon Aqua Springs Apiaries and Woodenware.  Natural beekeeping was the subject of the evening – and we really appreciate the contribution of their time and knowledge to our group.  If you need equipment be sure and check out Trevor’s line of innovative locally produced honey bee woodenware.

Not all that long ago you could have a couple of beehives out back for years without paying very much attention to them other than putting supers on in the spring and harvesting honey in the fall, but that is not usually the case any more.

Our honey bees are native to Europe (not America) while varroa mites were probably imported from Asia and Small Hive Beetles came from Africa – no telling where tracheal mites, foulbrood, and nosema originated.  We don’t even know what CCD is yet. But by bringing all of these elements together we may have made it impossible for Apis mellifera to live independently in the wild.

Chemical free, natural, treatment free, organic,  freedom from buying and applying expensive (perhaps toxic)  time consuming treatments to our bees – while producing large crops of wholesome, healthy honey and other hive products – Sounds great, but unfortunately, this very worthwhile goal has become much more elusive because of the globalization of diseases and parasites.

None the less – it is not necessary to constantly douse your bee hives with chemical pesticides – but you probably do have to do something.  “Treatment free” does not mean doing nothing – it means using a different set of cultural practices.

“More Natural” beekeeping include the following:

Integrated Pest Management – such as using screened bottoms to allow mites to fall out of the hive.  Also, drone brood removal, and powdered sugar treatments.  One of Januaries presenters mentioned a neat trick for drone brood removal – putting a frame or two of a smaller than usual size in the brood nest will usually cause drone brood to be built on the bottom of the frame where it can easily be removed during inspections.

Because varroa favor drone brood to reproduction in you can use drone foundation like this to attract varroa and then remove them - along with drone brood - from the hive.

Summer Splits – “Walkaway” splitting (alowing them to make their own queen instead of furnishing one) causes a period of broodlessness which in itself  interupts the varroa life cycle, and also is an excellent opportunity to administer other treatments while all of the mites are phoretic – riding adult bees instead of inside of capped brood.  Since in our area early nectar flows mostly end (except for sourwood) by July 1st splitting after that point does not interfere much (if any) with honey production.

Natural Cell or Foundationless – allowing bees to build whatever size cells they want without furnishing any foundation.  Note that this is not the same as small cell.  Natural cell bees may never “regress” to 4.9 mm size worker brood comb, but they will build the size that is natural to them.  The effectiveness of natural cell is controversial – but it can’t hurt.

Small Cell bee keeping – In actual small cell culture bees are furnished with special small cell (such as 4.9) brood foundation to force them to “regress” to a smaller size.  A number of beekeepers – including some very reputable ones – swear that this is the magic bullet for bee health, but it remains quite controversial with at least some empirical studies refuting it’s effectiveness.  The package bees that we have ordered from Wolfe creek are small cell bees, but unless installed into hives with small cell foundation they will revert to a larger size.  If interested you can get small cell foundation from Kelley bee supplies – the only source that I know of.

Essential oils – naturally occurring in plants some EO have been proven to be useful in managing honey bee pests – the only commercially available product that I know of is Apiguard which uses thymol (a constituent of EO of the herb thyme) as the active ingredient to treat for varroa.  Other EO treatments may be – and probably are – effective, but without USDA/EPA approval as pesticides they can be used, but may not be marketed as pesticides.

Genetically resistant bees – the holy grail, often spoken of, but rarely seen.  If you know where they can be obtained, please let me know.  Seriously there is a movement to utilize “locally adapted” queens instead of those produced by queen factory farms hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Learn to produce your own queens or get them from someone locally who does.

Sustainable Apiary – Another reality of bee keeping is that you will sometimes lose hives – most often over the winter.  A way to cope with this fact is to make increase by splitting some hives, and perhaps producing your own queens, and going into winter with some extras.

Natural bee keeping is a huge subject, and probably the best way to learn about it is with the internet, but where ever you get your information be prepared to use your own judgment as you formulate your own plan of action.