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!