Natural Beekeeping: The Problems with Following The Crowd

Keeping it Real

Natural beekeeping has quickly drawn the attention of new beekeepers across the nation. It’s a rare bee class or meeting when the topic doesn’t come up. Out of concern for the environment and especially the status of our beloved honeybee, it seems the majority of beeks (beekeepers) who have just taken up the hobby and newbees interested in getting started, are gravitating towards what has become known as “natural beekeeping”.

This series of articles is written for the new or beginning beekeeper (though we hope all beekeepers will find an interesting discussion here) and will cover the various aspects of “natural beekeeping”. Those beekeepers who have kept bees for a number of years have most likely already made decisions about how they will manage their bees. At PerfectBee we believe that even some established beekeepers are still searching for greater success and have a desire to move away from some of the traditional beekeeping practices. They too can gain from following along with our discussion.

So just what is Natural Beekeeping?

Interestingly enough, Natural Beekeeping is not easily defined. It’s a philosophy that often stems from a person’s views about the environment, concerns over the Big Ag. style of food production, or simply a desire to get closer to nature and help our bees. Those varied backgrounds usually lead to a wide variety of viewpoints about Natural Beekeeping. However, the one shared value that is common ground for all “natural beekeepers” is the elimination of the use of synthetic chemicals in the hive. Common ground is what we hope to establish here, even though some of the discussion will likely challenge the reader.

Some of you are probably not even aware that chemicals are introduced into the bee hive itself in an effort to control the varroa mite. Antibiotics are introduced as well for the control of disease. This is considered to be part of the more traditional way of beekeeping and is what new Beeks often want to move away from.

Natural Beekeepers usually take a different view of the type of hive to use (Langstroth, Warre and Top Bar) and a hands off approach with minimal inspections is normally part of the philosophy. The type of foundation, such as small cell, is often part of the discussion and many believe in using no foundation at all.

Some don’t believe in the use of a smoker, others don’t believe in feeding the bees and still others believe in allowing colonies to swarm instead of controlling the swarm impulse.

I think you get the picture.

There are many aspects to Natural Beekeeping and we expect to cover each of those topics in detail in later articles, so please stay tuned.

For now, I think the majority of us can find common ground and agreement in the statement that the difference between Natural Beekeeping and conventional beekeeping would be something akin to the difference between Big Ag. farm production and the organic garden you enjoy in your backyard. They are worlds apart.

But the question remains, can we find some form of practical balance between the two or are they simply so far apart that the new beek must choose sides and go all in with one side or the other?

An Interest In Beginners Finding Greater Success

PerfectBee’s desire is in helping the new beekeeper find success. If you read the first article in this series you may remember I mentioned that new beekeepers lose approximately 80 percent of their colonies in the first two years. How can we help the bees if new folks taking up the hobby cannot do any better than that?

For me, as an individual, that is simply not acceptable. We must do better.

There are many approaches to beekeeping and without experience to guide a new beek through the maze of information, diving headlong into one camp or another can be one of the greatest factors contributing to failure. What we hope to accomplish in this commentary is to highlight some of the myths and lead the beginner to greater success. And if you’re an established beekeeper you may find a slight change in direction will bring you greater success as well. Then, after moving beyond the folklore and gaining a better understanding of bee biology, you will have some of the knowledge you need to make educated decisions about which camp you want to gravitate towards.

Will the beginner still lose some hives? Of course – everyone loses colonies, but you should not lose so many you want to quit. It’s our hope to reduce your losses and bring greater health to your apiary.

From The Dark Side

You’re probably wondering if I really know what I’m talking about so a little background may be in order. To begin with, I’m no expert. Around the globe there are only a handful of those folks and even most of them won’t refer to themselves as experts. Do I have experience? The answer to that question is yes. I have experience on both sides of the fence having come from the dark side and into the light.

When I began beekeeping nearly a decade ago the only mentors I had were old school. You use this type of hive, you treat with these chemicals and medications at these times of year and you feed sugar water at this time of year to help get numbers up early in the season so you can have a greater honey harvest.

There were just a couple problems with that. My wife and I had organic gardened for a decade prior to getting bees and my gut was telling me the chemicals and medications I was told to use just weren’t right. Still, I was the beginner and my mentors seemed to know what they were talking about, so I didn’t question things (at this very moment you should be thinking about your own “buy in” to Natural or any other form of beekeeping – things are rarely everything they seem to be).

The second problem happened when I became a living example of the statistics I’ve quoted you. After year one I lost one of the two colonies I began with. I purchased another package so I could begin my second year with two colonies. At the beginning of year three both of those hives were dead. As you’ve heard me say, “Seventy five percent of beginning beekeepers quit in the third year” and believe me I was ready to quit. “I’m selling all the equipment” I told my wife in frustration when I’d returned from the bee yard. She reminds me of that moment to this very day.

Fortunately, with her encouragement, I did not quit and proceeded to acquire two more packages of bees. Yep, in my third season I was still a bee buyer, not a bee keeper, even though I had followed the instructions of my mentors to a “T”.

By the time I was mingling with my bees in the raspberry patch that year I had made up my mind that I would no longer be following the instructions of my mentors. I’ve never been afraid to go my own way, or “fly outside the swarm”, as I like to call it, and thus began my search for a practical, balanced approach to beekeeping that keeps the bees alive without the use of all those synthetic chemicals.

Let’s Keep It Real

Salesmen know their trade. They’re slick, polished and offer just the right amount of temptation for you to take the bait and buy in. “Everyone’s doing it”, or some version thereof, should be a phrase that raises red flags.

Let’s be clear, I’m not calling the experienced folk on the web with their instructions and video’s, snake oil salesmen. Many are well-intentioned, provide excellent information and I have great respect for a number of them.

The experienced folk I’m thinking of are just that – experienced. Their years of experience allow them to teach the things they are showing you today. They’ve paid their dues and have the right to share their approach to beekeeping anyway they like.

There’s just one thing lacking.

Rarely will you see videos of their struggles or mistakes. The issues a new beekeeper should be made aware of are often not discussed. As an example, when someone talks about going foundationless they rarely explain in depth the issues of cross comb, at least not enough to give the newbee a clear understanding of what they might be up against. You won’t necessarily be told that the comb built by bees on foundationless frames is natural – but very fragile. It’s not at all umcommon for a new beekeeper to unintentionally damage that comb as it falls off during the first few hive inspections.

These are real factors and yet you will normally you find a pitch that is always positive. “Do it this way and your beekeeping problems will all be solved” is often how it comes across to the newbee.  Here’s an example.

To start with let me say how much I like the design of the Warre and Top Bar hives. If the old school guys who started me out hadn’t gotten me into Langs I’d probably be pretty invested in both these designs. So I’m not taking a negative view of them. That said, I have a couple issues with both types of hives. Because of the philosophy with which they are presented with on the web and in beekeeping books, I constantly run into people who buy these types of hives thinking the hive itself will solve all their problems. So many newbees (both friends and in classes I teach) seem to think they will hardly ever need to do a hive inspection, that the hives will solve all their mite problems and everything in general will just be hunky dory. As much as I like these hives there is no question a lot of people are mislead about them.

Newbees are so swamped with information the nuances of the matter just don’t become apparent. What’s lacking is a bridge that gets the newbee from beginner to the other side of three years without experiencing so many loses and frustrations they want to give up. That is what this series of articles will be about. Crossing that chasm to the land of bee keeper instead of bee buyer is the goal.

Taking Your First Flight Outside the Swarm

I realize I could lose a few of you here, but I encourage you to give it a try. So please come join me for your first flight outside the swarm (flying outside the swarm is simply another way of saying we are not lemmings running with the crowd.) Now, are you ready to fly?

I’m going to make a couple points to illustrate where this series will lead in the future. With regards to the example above discussing Warre and Top Bar hives (this includes Langstroth hive as well) beekeepers must remember they are managing the bees, not the box. When the beekeeper gains an understanding of bee biology they can make proper management decisions. The type of box does not really matter, regardless of the frequent discussions/arguments that one type of “box” is more natural than another.

Remember, folks, honeybees are not native to the U.S. They were brought here and are pretty much a semi-domesticated animal requiring management. Virtually every point of discussion about beekeeping stems from the fact we are NOT keeping bees naturally. The type of hive or type of frame, foundation or foundationless, use of chemicals to treat mites, to feed or not to feed, hands-on or hands-off approach, allow swarming or prevent it and whether to use a smoker or not are all issues that stem from the fact we are keeping bees in a box.

In the strictest sense of the word, beekeeping is unnatural.

There, you did it! You took your first flight outside the swarm. Our hope is that you can begin to see we are going to give you a real, unbiased approach to beekeeping in hopes of making you more successful. There will be more flights soon, covering all manner of topics. I hope you’ll join us.

In Summary

We’ve been talking about Natural Beekeeping, what it is and isn’t. I think it’s fairly well agreed that moving away from introducing synthetic chemicals in the hive is a good thing. Allowing the bees to build their own comb and in general, allow the bees to live as “naturally” as possible is a good thing. We can probably agree that natural food is better for them than pollen substitutes or sugar water and even that a more hands off approach might be warranted.

On the other hand, natural beekeeping may not be everything it initially appears to be, though it still has much to offer when paired or more appropriately, balanced, with bee biology. To that end we hope to help the hobbyist beekeeper become more successful, both for the sake of the beekeeper and the bees.

I hope you’ll stay tuned.