Sustainable Beekeeping

What follows is a basic rundown of the short talk I gave at the beekeepers’ association on February 12th.  I will be editing and adding sources over the next few days but figured I may as well get at least a placeholder up here!

Well, I’m excited to talk to you all tonight about natural beekeeping.  Or…organic beekeeping…or sustainable beekeeping…or biodynamic beekeeping…or holistic beekeeping.  These phrases all have such a large variety of connotations, it’s hard to know the exact best phrase to use!  In my mind, sustainable beekeeping comes the closest to what we as beekeepers want to do.  Beekeepers are clever, inventive, frugal and curious.  We enjoy having our bees around and are always looking for ways to do our jobs better.

          Some things, though, may be just fine the way they are.  Honeybees have flourished throughout history.  Artwork, cave paintings, poetry, sculptures, stories and more abound.  Bees are mentioned in the Bible, the Koran, the Veda scriptures, the Iliad and other things I’ve never heard of!  Humans have been keeping bees, and not just hunting them, for thousands of years.  The Egyptians put bees on rafts and floated them down the Nile River, following the blooms!

          So, for all these thousands of years, beekeepers have had to keep their bees safe from natural predators, both inside and outside of the hive.  What’s the big deal these days with using synthetic chemicals inside the hive to keep bees healthy?  Well, it all started about 100 years ago.  Russian soldiers in 1904 brought hives back from India.  These may have been European bees or Apis Cerana, an Asian honeybee.  These hives introduced Varroa destructor the European honeybee, much to everyone’s dismay.  Fortunately for the United States, Varroa did not reach our shores until 1989.  That’s only 25 years ago!   We have thousands of years of beekeeping under our belts and much of it is being undermined by this tiny mite the size of a pin head.  Varroa in itself is not the main disease.  Honeybees can live with mites.  It’s the diseases that come along with them that are the problem.  The mites pierce the honeybee exoskeleton, allowing pathogens to enter and cause disease.  This happens in much the same way that we get Staph infections.  Most of the population exists with this bacteria on our skin.  It only causes a problem when it enters through some type of wound.

In the late 80s/early 90s, beekeepers faced unheard of losses.  Many gave up in the face of such devastation.  Others began experimenting with brand new treatments for ridding hives of varroa.  Still other beekeepers turned to intensive sustainable management practices.

Now, 25 years later, last year’s winter loss survey gives us some relatively good news.

(read winter loss surveys)

          What is natural beekeeping?  It is a method of beekeeping that is:

1.   Holistic—it cares for the hive as a single organism

2.   Organic—it doesn’t use environmentally toxic chemicals and/or artificial chemicals

3.   Sustainable—it propagates the strongest colonies so they can survive in both optimal and sub-optimal conditions.

REF: David Heaf article about hive treatments!

Who would ever want to keep bees in this manner?

  • ·      Hippies,
  • ·      Lazy people,
  • ·      Curious people,
  • ·      Scientists,
  • ·      Third world countries,
  • ·      Backyard beekeepers,
  • ·      Commercial beekeepers

Ask yourself this question: if you were ever in the situation of managing your hives with only the materials you had on hand and your knowledge of bee biology, could you do it? 

          If your answer is “no” or “I don’t know,” how can you change that?

Why keep bees naturally? 

  1. ·      By continually “propping up” failing hives and weak colonies, we are breeding for weaker bees.  By maintaining stronger hives, the race of honeybees becomes better able to resist internal enemies.
  2. ·      Using chemicals against pests only kills the ones that are susceptible.  The strongest pests survive and produce stronger offspring
  3. ·      Chemicals that we add to the hives destroy the ecosystem within the hive.

o  8,000 different mites are in the beehive: only three are dangerous to the honeybees (tracheal, varroa and tropilaelaps claerea)

o  Intestinal flora of wild honeybees differ from kept honeybees

What this all means is that we’re really not sure what all we’re destroying by using chemicals in the hives!

           How can we keep bees successfully in a sustainable manner?

First, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s hard work.  It takes  lots of time, attention to detail and proper timing of your actions in the hive.  Sure, it’s easier for a backyard beekeeper, hobbyist or even a sideliner to maintain hives naturally, but everyone CAN do it. 

REMEMBER: before varroa came on the scene (Only 25 years ago!) beekeeping was the only agricultural industry that did not rely on the use of pesticides!

          According to Ross Conrad, there are roughly five ways to manage your bees naturally and still combat the varroa mite and its subsequent diseases:

  1. 1.  Begin with bees that have some level of natural tolerance to the mite: Russians, Minnesota hygienic bees, VSH bees (developed in Baton Rouge!) and survivor bees.
  2. 2.   Use screened bottom boards.  This makes it easier to monitor your varroa load in the hive.
  3. 3.   Make regular splits/disrupt the brood cycle.
  4. 4.   Replace old combs.  Old comb can harbor many pathogens and since we have taken away the one insect that loves to eat pathogenic honeycomb, we have to help the honeybee!
  5. 5.   Trap mites by culling drone brood

Another method that many beekeepers are using is reverting back to small cell foundation.  Let me state right away that this is obviously NOT a magic bullet answer.  If it was, hives in the wild would be varroa free.  This is just another weapon in your arsenal to fight the varroa!  Until roughly 1891, beekeepers used natural sized foundation.  In 1891, a French professor began spreading the good news of Lamarckism for honeybees.  What does that mean?  Simply: build a bigger bee and you get a honeybee that can fly faster, higher, farther, is stronger and can make more honey.  As an extra bonus, they keep the brood warmer. He advocated cell size up to about 5.7 mm.  This is also called “soft inheritance.”  Basically, offspring will be born with advances made by the parents.

EX:    giraffes

          Blacksmiths and muscles

In reality, if left to themselves, bees naturally progress back to a cell size of about 4.9 mm

The Apis cerana is the natural host to varroa and is actually about 2/3 the size of Apis mellifera.  The mite can only lay eggs in the drone brood, as opposed to reproducing in our honeybee’s drone and worker brood.  Apis cerana is able to live with the mite because it never reproduces at a fast enough rate to overwhelm the colony!

I have more information along these lines if anyone is interested in seeing it.

In conclusion, sustainable beekeeping is simply giving the honeybee its best chance at surviving.

  • ·      treat varroa in as natural manner as possible,
  • ·      revert to smaller cell foundation or let bees build their own foundation;   clean wax
  • ·      select for bees that are able to thrive in your environment.  Raise your own queens from your very best stock.  Deepen the gene pool!

The big question we have to ask ourselves is: what is the main goal?  Why are we treating our bees?  If we left them alone, would they in fact be wiped out?  Or, would the strong hives survive and reproduce?  Would hygienic bees be the result?  As beekeepers, we can’t rely on artificial respiration to keep our bees alive.  Sure, we don’t want to abandon them but we also don’t want to let them weaken to the point that we must intervene!


Honeybee Nectar Plants along the Gulf Coast

Well, since the weather has warmed back up, the honeybees have been in a frenzy.  Saturday and Sunday, there were energetic waggle dances on the landing board, indicating there was something good nearby.  On one of our neighborhood walks, I closely observed trees in the landscape.  Sure enough, looks like the maple has begun to bloom!  In our area, maple (red/swamp maple) is one of the earliest sources of nectar.  If you’re in a swampy area, you may also have willow available to you.  Ti-ti, willow and red maple all bloom in a range of January to March, making a good nectar flow that is perfect for sustaining the spring build-up of honey bee larvae.

Our cherry laurel is loaded with buds, meaning that it will be a huge attractant when those blooms pop open.  In years past, the tree has been alive with their buzzing.  The first major source of nectar that will also provide surplus honey in your hives is the well known Ilex Glabra, or Gallberry.  Gallberry is a type of holly native to our Gulf Coast highways and by-ways.  In fact, most hollies provide nectar for honeybees.  Last year, someone called me about a potential swarm near the entrance to their home.  When I arrived, there was a large and heavenly smelling holly bush.  The honeybees had all gone home but several solitary bees and wasps were still feasting on the sweet nectar.

Some smaller plants that will attract honeybees are: coral vine (year round blooms), redbud, abelia, ligustrum and yaupon.  If you’re on the Gulf Coast, these sources probably already thrive near your home or in your landscaping.  One trait that makes each of these plants desirable for honeybees is a mass quantity of blooms.  Honeybees favor trees and shrubs for nectar sources because they can gather a large amount of nectar or pollen without leaving the source.  One plant with thousands of blooms is better than a thousand plants spaced around with single blooms.  Our apis mellifera are efficient creatures!

If you don’t have any of the plants I’ve mentioned in your yard, don’t despair.  One reason that honeybees do so well in the urban landscape is because there is such a large variety of nectar sources.  You’re far less likely to get what is known as a “mono-source” honey, but far more likely to get a deliciously floral and fragrant blend that’s made up of the goodness that surrounds you.

If you’d like to see more nectar sources, here are some links I have gathered.  Enjoy!

A sensory view of pollination.  How do flowers attract pollinators?

Since pollinators see differently than we do, take a look at how different blooms look to the flying creatures in your landscape:

Honey Bees, Oak Trees and Forest Honey

Due to a friend mentioning to me that he has honeybees in his oak tree, I have been doing a bit of research as to why they would be there! Turns out, the oak tree is host to a gall producing wasp. When temperatures warm up, the larvae inside the gall begin feeding on nectar produced by the galls. Honeybees and other nectar hungry critters feed on this honeydew, protecting the larvae inside from other parasitic wasps.  Now, oak trees themselves are wind-pollinated so no nectar is produced by them.

The honeydew that seeps from the galls on the oak tree is very high in minerals and other non-digestible particles.  So, honeybees that feed on this oak nectar are more likely to develop a case of the “runs.”  Some types of forest honey (as it is called) is actually produced by honeybees collecting honey dew from aphids on trees and by sap being secreted by the leaves of trees.  This honey is said to be less sweet, less acidic and much higher in vitamins and minerals than flower honey.  It’s also more popular in Europe and in Australia and not much in the United States at all.

This doesn’t happen every year.  I’m guessing that the extremely cold winter we are having, coupled with the recent rise in temperature accounts for this unique activity in the insect world.


Wintering (Bees) : Sylvia Plath


To be honest, Sylvia Plath’s poetry has always made me slightly uncomfortable.  I find it hard to think of her without a creepy feeling.  I know, she was a tormented young woman but I feel the way I feel.  Imagine, then, my cringe when I opened an email from James in which he excitedly shared with me a poem by a beekeeper named Sylvia Plath.  I had no idea she ever kept bees.  Here is a link to her beekeeping poetry and a well-written article about this time in her life: Sylvia Plath and the Bees



This is the easy time,  there is nothing doing.
I have whirled the midwife’s extractor,
I have my honey,
Six jars of it,
Six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar,

Wintering in a dark without window
At the heart of the house
Next to the last tenant’s rancid jam
And the bottles of empty glitters –
Sir So-and-so’s gin.

This is the room I have never been in.
This is the room I could never breathe in.
The black bunched in there like a bat,
No light
But the torch and its faint

Chinese yellow on appalling objects –
Black asininity.  Decay.
It is they who own me.
Neither cruel nor indifferent,

Only ignorant.
This is the time of hanging on for the bees  the bees
So slow I hardly know them,
Filing like soldiers
To the syrup tin
To make up for the honey I’ve taken.
Tate and Lyle keeps them going,
The refined snow.
It is Tate and Lyle they live on, instead of flowers.
They take it.  The cold sets in.

Now they ball in a mass,
Mind against all that white.
The smile of the snow is white.
It spreads itself out, a mile-long body of Meissen,

Into which, on warm days,
They can only carry their dead.
The bees are all women,
Maids and the long royal lad.
They have got rid of the men,

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.
Winter is for women –
The woman, still at her knitting,
At the cradle of Spanish Walnut,
Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?
What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying.  They taste the spring.

Grain Free Pet Treats!

If you have pets and you like to give them treats, then I’m in good company. Here at BrightHaven, we have three dogs, one cat, six pond fish, one betta fish and several honeybees. To say that our pets are important is an understatement. All of the mammals are on a grain free diet, mostly raw meats and vegetables. They like it just a little.

The problem with feeding the animals a healthier diet is the same problem we humans have when we eat a healthier diet. Well, the same TWO problems.

  1. reading the labels.  ugh
  2. price

Once you start reading the labels on pet food, you can never un-see it.  What animal in its right mind willingly eats defatted wheat germ, corn meal and corn syrup??  So, you start reading labels and discover that it’s near to impossible to buy any kind of dog or cat treat that is grain and garbage free and still within the budget.  Fifteen or so dollars for a bag of treats anyone?  I think not!

Our dogs regularly eat pumpkin and yogurt and eggs and honey and peanut butter so I decided to blend up all these things and make a super treat that I would feel fine giving them AND that they would enjoy.  So, here’s kind of a recipe if you would like to make your own grain free treats.  I say kind of because absolutely nothing was measured.

  • pumpkin puree (not pie puree)
  • whole milk yogurt, greek style is best
  • egg(s) depending on size of batch
  • cinnamon, sprinkled
  • honey, drizzled
  • peanut butter, dollop
  • flax-seed meal

I mixed up all of these ingredients in a soup bowl and added flax seed meal until the mixture was slightly stiff.  I measured the batter out by the spoonful and baked on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet until treats were crisp on the outside and slightly chewy in the middle.  My taste-testers said they were fabulous.

So, there you have it.  Feel free to experiment.  Let me know if you find something that works well for your pups.  I will definitely be making these again.

Shade Plants: For the Win

Shade is not something that comes naturally to us here at BrightHaven.  However, we do have a few spaces in the front yard that have grown shady by the planting of a river birch.  The soil in these shady areas is amazing.  Worms dance and frolic all the time in these beds.  I felt I had to give them something better to do than just loiter.

And, it just so happened that I came across a little infogram on Pinterest, showing which vegetable plants would do well in the shade.  The picture depicted 15 vegetable shade plants but I just picked out the ones I liked best and that it was time to plant on the Gulf Coast.

Curious yet?  Here they are:

  1. kale
  2. beets
  3. parsley
  4. cilantro
  5. scallions
  6. lettuce
  7. garlic
  8. spinach
  9. bok choi
  10. mustard greens
  11. chard
  12. carrots
  13. parsnips
  14. arugula
  15. potatoes

I bought seed for the carrots, bok choi, beets and mustard greens so they are not quite in the ground yet.  And the garlic?  I normally plant garlic as my birthday present to myself.  Just didn’t happen this year.  I’m still telling myself I will plant it.  We’ll see, won’t we?

Marigold and chard
Marigold and chard
petunias and marigolds
petunias and marigolds
Calendula and savoy cabbage
Calendula and savoy cabbage
Calendula and savoy cabbage
Calendula and savoy cabbage

What to plant in November

English: The Gulf Coast region of the US, in red.
English: The Gulf Coast region of the US, in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, it appears that our lovely fall weather has finally arrived.


The cooler days and nights have left me wanting more than ever to get back out into the garden. However, a visit to a local nursery left me puzzled. No plants available?  We need to be planting!  Just in case anyone has told you folks along the Gulf Coast that it’s too late to plant, let me set the record straight.  We have plenty of things to do right now!  Here’s a list of some of the vegetables and herbs that you can be planting right now.

  • beets
  • broccoli
  • brussels sprouts
  • carrots
  • chinese cabbage
  • collards
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • mustard greens
  • onions: bunching and short day varieties
  • radishes
  • spinach
  • swiss chard

Herbs for winter growing:

  • anise
  • calendula
  • chives
  • coriander/cilantro
  • dill
  • fennel
  • garlic
  • lavender
  • rosemary
  • sage
  • sweet marjoram
  • thyme

Flowers for winter growing:

  • pansies
  • snapdragons
  • dianthus
  • daffodils
  • hyacinth
  • mums
  • English daisies
  • larkspur
  • yarrow

So, get out there and plant something!  You can still have a beautiful winter garden.  Even though the skies may be gray (sometimes) during the winter, keep up your spirits with a lovely bit of earth!