Natural Beekeeping

bee
Inspecting a frame from a Kenyan top-bar hive. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Growing in popularity globally, natural beekeeping offers an api-centic approach to beekeeping, mimicking the bees’ wild environments and honouring the natural rhythms of the colony.

Though there is some overlap with traditional beekeeping, natural beekeeping differs in several important ways, from the design and construction of hives through to the caretaking of the colony. Natural beekeeping encourages the creation of natural comb and natural reproduction through swarming, and reduces intervention in the hive by keeping hive inspections to a minimum. And while honey is harvested, it is an added bonus of beekeeping, not the main point.

An Api-Centric Approach

Natural beekeeping prioritises working with the bee in an apicentric approach.

Practically, this means the needs of the bee come first. Natural beekeepers provide optimal conditions for the health of the colony and trust in the intelligence of the honey bee superorganism (the Bien).

Though the information in this article pertains mostly to the European honey bee Apis mellifera, the ethos and principles of natural beekeeping have broad application. Ultimately, the natural beekeeper’s aim is to work with nature, for nature, adapting their management techniques to support the Bien they are responsible for.

Bee-Centric Hives

Natural beekeepers generally choose hive designs that best mimic a hollow tree trunk or a horizontal hollow limb. Beecentric hives are made with natural materials such as wood, straw, clay or mud. As bees are highly sensitive creatures, natural beekeepers aim to minimise the use of metal (screws, nails and wire) and refrain from using glues and plastics, which off-gas inside the hive and are harmful to Bien health.

Top-bar hives do not use a traditional frame to support the wax comb. Instead each individual comb hangs from a top bar (a strip of timber) and each hive is made up of many top bars positioned side-by-side. The bees use the top bar as the starting point for creating vertical masses of wax comb. The Kenyan top bar, Warré, Cathedral® and Sun hives are examples of top-bar hives.

Other hives conducive to natural beekeeping include golden hives and log hives. (For a comprehensive article on hive designs, refer to issue 4 of Pip Magazine.)

Before committing to a particular style, check that it meets the hive requirements specified by your state or territory’s agricultural department.

Natural Comb

Bees build natural comb by expressing wax from their wax glands. Enabling this behaviour, and other natural instincts, is necessary for a healthy hive, therefore a fundamental practice of natural beekeeping is to not use foundation in the hive.

Foundation is a sheet of wax or plastic placed into frames and embossed entirely with hexagonal-shaped cells, which bees build upon to make wax comb. The embossed cell size on the foundation has been engineered in such a way as to force the bees to build cells that produce only female worker bees. These cells are larger than what the bees would naturally build, resulting in larger worker bees who can gather more nectar.

In nature, bees build pure wax comb and vary the size of wax comb cells from season to season to suit the individual needs of the Bien. For example, a colony will increase the size of their wax comb cells to rear drone (male) bees during spring and summer, or to store more nectar when there are lots of flowering trees. Inversely, they will decrease the cell size as winter approaches, rearing smaller bees that require less food over the colder months.

Culling old comb out of the hive is an important task in natural beekeeping as it encourages the bees to build fresh comb from season to season, and helps remove pathogens, heavy metals and pesticides that accumulate in the wax. Allowing bees to build fresh comb means a slightly smaller honey yield, but increased hive health.

Another reason natural beekeepers cull comb is for our own health: we consume and use bee products, therefore hive health translates to our health.

Clockwise from top: Freshly harvested honeycomb; Harvesting the honey and the comb; Kenyan top-bar hives located in close proximity to flowers and nature; Harvested honeycomb. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Queen Bees And Swarming

Swarming is, essentially, how bees reproduce and is therefore of absolute importance. Although in popular culture the term ‘swarm’ has negative connotations, making one think of vengeful killer bees, in reality swarming bees are at their most docile: full of honey, with no home to defend and with bigger things on their mind than wanting to harm you.

Swarming occurs when the queen bee sets out with a troupe of loyal daughters and sons to establish a new home, leaving those that stay behind to raise a new queen and continue with the original home. Thus, one Bien splits into two. One of the benefits of swarming is that young queens can mate with multiple drones that have genetic traits from the specific locality in which they live, passing on these favourable and diverse genetic combinations to their offspring.

In natural beekeeping, the queen’s freedom to live out her full life is celebrated. The bees are devoted to their mother, loyally following her pheromone, the unique fingerprint and spirit of the Bien. As the queen ages, she, like us, starts to experience reduced fertility. If the queen were to swarm, become infertile or die, thereby threatening the colony’s survival, the bees will raise a new queen to serve.

Harvesting Honey

A key principle of natural beekeeping is to honour the Bien and the work the bees do for our environment by ensuring they always have enough of their own honey. Leaving enough honey in their hive for the bees to feed on over winter is vital to their survival. The reason for this is simple: supplemental feeding (eg sugar syrups) is detrimental to Bien health and should be used only as a last resort, an emergency food supplement in difficult seasons. Therefore, honey is only harvested when they have enough to give.

Treatment-Free And Darwinian Beekeeping

Treatment-free and Darwinian beekeeping involves taking a hands-off approach to pest and disease management, allowing the Bien to evolve in response to environmental pressures and changes without human intervention, i.e. no antibiotics, miticides or other artificial treatments. This approach allows the bees to develop and maintain their natural immunities, ensuring a robust and resilient hive.

Getting Started

Spring is a good time to get started. Bees love this time of year – there’s lots of pollen and nectar in the garden and the surrounding forests – and bee numbers increase dramatically. Gaining in strength the Bien will often swarm, so it makes sense to have an empty hive ready to accept a swarm in spring.

To make your empty hive attractive to a swarm, place three drops of lemongrass oil on a tissue and place the tissue in your empty hive. The lemongrass oil mimics the scent that a scout-bee deposits into a cavity it favours as a potential home for its swarm; other scout-bees will find the hive by following that scent and report their findings to the rest of the swarm. Sooner or later, fingers crossed, a swarm will turn up in your hive – free bees!

Alternatively, a swarm can be caught by hand with some help from an experienced beekeeper or bee-club member and placed into your empty hive. If all else fails, you can buy a package (artificial swarm with an introduced queen) or nucleus (nuc; hive containing a small colony with a queen) from your local beekeeping supply store. Be sure you tell them what type of hive you will be using so they can get you the right nuc, because different hives have different comb sizes.

Bee-Friendly Behaviours

Whether you are personally responsible for a hive or not, there are plenty of ways you can support local bee populations.

• Plant flowers on your property that attract pollinators, ensuring the seeds and seedlings you buy are pesticidefree. Thyme, peppermint, lavender, lemon balm, borage, sweet basil, coriander, banksia, grevillea and wattle all attract helpful pollinators, as do many others; see actforbees.org for an extensive list of bee-friendly plants.

• Hang bee boxes (like possum boxes with smaller entrances) or hollow logs in your trees to attract swarms.

• Support local organic producers by buying your organic produce locally.

• Buy good local honey! Check out the Honey Map at www.beethecure.com.au for your local small-scale supplier.

Adrian and Robin teach natural beekeeping courses in various states and have been featured on the popular television series River Cottage Australia. Visit Beekeeping Naturally (www.beekeepingnaturally.com.au) for more information.

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