Natural Beekeeping is a stirring and fascinating topics among beekeepers. Though its exact definition is open to some interpretation (I take my own stab at that below!), it is clear that the mere mention of natural beekeeping can be somewhat polarizing.
This is the first in a new series of articles here at PerfectBee about Natural Beekeeping. Our intent is to first educate you on what it means, discuss the rationale and intent behind it and then to help you find your own balance. Finally, we'll provide specific, practical advice on how to adhere to the principles of natural beekeeping.
But we also intend to add one more important characteristic to our guidance - balance.
Yes, discussion of the so-called natural beehive tends to create strong opinions and that's fine! But for a new beekeeper this can also be confusing as s/he tries to determine "truth". Much of the content you will find on the web and in books about natural beekeeping is positioned as rather black-and-white, with authors often taking a very strong view one way or the other.
But part of the joy of beekeeping - especially true with natural beekeeping - is that there really is no simple, packaged truth.
And so while the column is indeed shamelessly based on my own beliefs and philosophies, I intend to offer both sides to the story, in the hope this is a launching point for you to make your own decisions about where you fall and what principles you will follow.
We hope this new column will be of interest to both new beekeepers, finding their way, as well as experienced beekeepers who have already established their own approach to beekeeping, but are open to new perspective.
Before we get into the specifics of natural beekeeping, let’s look at how we got here.
Many of us came to beekeeping out of some concern for the environment, the bees or both.
Many also recognize the value of eating organically. So let me just say it - just when did it become alright to put synthetic (man-made) chemicals in everything we eat?
Not just our food, but literally everything we apply to our bodies! Your skin is the largest of all human organs and so you should look at what’s in your deodorant, shampoo, soap, creams, lotions, toothpaste and more.
Without giving it a second thought the citizens of this nation consume GMO foods. Regardless of where you’re at on the GMO debate you need to ask yourself why they made the GMO’s in the first place.
If you don’t know, you should consider the fact that these plants were created to be sprayed with Roundup (and other chemicals) and not be killed. Did you know that most of the wheat you eat is sprayed with Roundup just a few days to a week before harvest? And how many folks out there think they are gluten intolerant without giving a thought to the fact they just might be Roundup intolerant instead.
When I was young I would visit my grandparents. Their basement was filled with shelves of the foods they had canned. Some of it came from their garden and some, like the canned chicken, came from local farms. There was fish, beans, potatoes, applesauce made from local apples and my least favorite, canned beets. In January the local grocery didn’t offer strawberries or watermelon that came from thousands of miles away. Instead, my grandparents ate what was in season, which meant eating things that were locally grown (think fresh!) or canned during the season when they were available.
One of the things they always had was honey. It was a real treat for us kids to have creamed honey to spread on our toast in the morning (or as a bed time snack!). Occasionally we even had the chance to share in some comb honey that came from a local beekeeper my granddad knew. He usually traded his carpentry skills to obtain it.
In those days about all a beekeeper had to do was check the hive in the spring to make sure it was queenright and come back in the fall to collect the honey. My gosh, those were the days now, weren’t they? Well, at least for beekeepers, as indoor plumbing and electricity were still relatively new and the talk was often about who had just gotten power!
Do you see the contrast between these worlds?
While few would reject the modern conveniences and technological advances we all enjoy, something was lost along the way when it comes to the food we eat. Somehow it became OK to literally eat pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals as our nation turned to Big Agriculture for most of its food and the government told us it was all OK. Most people don’t think of it in those terms - but maybe they should.
The production of honey was no different and this most complete of foods was also sullied along the way.
It’s this background coupled, with the issues facing our honeybees today, that has spawned a fertile bed of new thinking when it comes to keeping bees. As an organic gardener of about twenty years I applaud and embrace the desire to “go natural” by NOT putting synthetic chemicals in our bee hives or filter and then heating the honey until all that’s left is a tasteless sweetener!
In the last few years beekeeping has literally become all the rage. Seems like if someone isn’t keeping bees themselves they know someone who is and the natural beehive becomes a key objective. Acknowledging that it’s human nature to tend to go with the crowd, I want to encourage you to have the audacity to “fly outside the swarm” just a little bit. The intent is to help you become a more successful beekeeper and to think about some of the assumptions associated with natural beekeeping.
I’ve kept company with beekeepers for many years and as a group I’ve found them to be some of the nicest, most kind-hearted people anyone could hope to meet. So what is it about the phrase “natural beekeeping” that can stir the soul so deeply it often brings hate mail when people write about it?
For the benefit of new beekeepers trying to filter out the noise and distortion we’re going to attempt to shed a little light on some of the areas that can be contentious. First let’s define what “natural” beekeeping is, and just possibly what it isn’t.
The people who sign up for my classes often express their desire to take up “natural beekeeping". I usually suppress the urge to ask them if they want to be stung naturally. After all, their hearts are in the right place and their concern for the honeybee is real. But natural is such an over-used word today, from potato chips to bathroom bowl cleaners, its meaning has been, at the very least, watered down, if not lost all together.
For the sake of our discussion we will define natural as existing in nature and not made by people. That’s a paraphrase of Webster’s definition. In my classes I just encourage folks to “keep it real” and that’s what we intend to do here.
So just what is “Natural Beekeeping”?
Natural beekeeping is generally considered to be beekeeping with minimal manipulations, with as hands-off an approach as possible
This is similar to past generations, like the beekeepers from whom my granddad got his comb honey. It involves foundationless comb, natural cell size, no artificial feeding and of course, no synthetic chemical treatments. It precludes the use of queen excluders and, for some, it even means no swarm control.
You wouldn’t think any of this would be all that divisive considering most of us are looking for healthy honey and even healthier bees, but the devil is in the details as they say. It’s those details that can cause new beekeepers to stumble and we are going to take a careful look at some of the things new beekeepers should know.
The goal is to find common ground and explain some misunderstandings, even if it means we have to fly "outside the swarm" a bit to do so.
Most importantly, the goal here is to help beekeepers be more successful.
Did you know that in the first two years new beekeepers lose eighty percent of their colonies and that by the third year seventy five percent of new beekeepers quit. We have to do a better job of passing along the knowledge and understanding that will bring success to beginners so they become bee keepers instead of bee buyers.
There are many approaches to keeping bees. If not, we’d all be keeping them the same way. Therein lays the dilemma for the new beekeeper. How are they to sort through the mountains of information to avoid the traps that can lead to failure and eventually cause them to give up beekeeping altogether?
Sorting through the issues and providing both sides of the discussion regarding “natural beekeeping” is the intent of the forthcoming articles on natural beekeeping, with the goal of guiding the reader to a more successful beekeeping adventure.
Watch this space as we further explore this fascinating topic.