Contrarian ideas for beekeepers to consider

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Oh, the simple life of a beekeeper. That peaceful, relaxing closeness to nature, enjoying bees and all their benefits. What could be more simple, calming and uncontroversial?

Well – beekeeping!

You have probably already discovered this but few things are as simple in beekeeping as they first seem. In our last lesson, we looked at some “golden rules” of beekeeping, but in reality there are very few.

There are certainly no magic bullets. Even the most experienced of beekeepers cannot be assured of success with any particular hive. There are so many variables that even beekeepers with decades of experience are surprised by what they see and are constantly learning.

Every beekeeper has their own stance
Consider it your responsibility as a beekeeper to find your own philosophy. There will always be an opposing view.

Read about bees. Talk about bees. Watch bees. Respect experienced beekeepers. But most important, form your own opinions as you learn more about beekeeping.

Here we look at why this is important. We have taken a number of areas where there is seemingly widespread agreement and yet, as an illustration of the “no golden rule” rule, explained a contrary view strongly held by many beekeepers.

All of these alternative perspectives have thoughtful reasoning behind them. None are without foundation. So, take it all in and understand the reasoning. Then start forming your own opinions.

“If your bees get in trouble, don’t treat them”

Of course, this thinking comes from a natural beekeeping perspective.

There are many treatments available when bees are hit by mites and diseases. Most beekeepers will identify the issue and rush to the store to buy their save-the-bees treatments.

Let’s be honest, many treatments can indeed help in the short term and we do have many options for treating mites in our beehives. So why would anyone ignore what we find in the hive? That’s where the debate begins.

The idea behind treatment-free beekeeping is that the application of treatments means you are effectively selecting for mites that are resistant to the treatment. Each time you administer a treatment you are likely to see some success. But there will also be mites that survive. The theory is that an ongoing regime of treatments will eventually narrow down the mites to those that happen to have a resistance to the treatment. That’s bad for us – but particularly bad for our bees.

Natural selection, non-naturally.

Alongside this perspective is the idea that some of the bees will survive, even if you don’t treat. Those that do will have shown a capacity to resist the mite or the disease on their own.

So let them. Over the course of a few generations, a resistance to mites will build up in the bees.

Natural selection…naturally.

It is accepted by treatment-free beekeepers that some losses will occur and the statements above are a simplification of a complex and controversial debate. Losses can be tough to take. But the long-term strength of your colony is more important. For natural beekeepers, the avoidance of treatments is perceived as a difficult but essential decision in eventually having bees that can withstand mites and disease, without human interference.

Of course, we’re just touching the surface here. But as you start out as a beekeeper, think hard about what you are trying to achieve when you treat bees and whether natural – and treatment-free – beekeeping is something you would like to consider. At the very least, don’t treat “just on case”. If you decide to treat, do it from an educated standpoint and with a reason to do so.

“There’s no need to add medications proactively”

This is the proactive equivalent of the previous issue. Many beekeepers place medications in their feeders, as a mechanism to avoid issues later. This is often done in the spring, as a way to boost the bees as they recover from the cold of winter and to provide a platform on which they can gain strength.

Many of the same concerns exist here, as with treatment-free beekeeping. But another factor, relevant to both medications and treatments, is the impact on the comb in the hive and the honey produced.

Many treatments and medications, by design, introduce non-natural chemicals into the hive. These chemicals find their way into comb. They can also potentially find their way into the honey that you will someday harvest and eat.

Again, this is part of a broader discussion but many beekeepers avoid the use of medications.

“Bees are great, but beekeeping takes a ton of time”

“Beekeeping is 24 x 7 – to be a good beekeeper and do it right, don’t expect to have a life”.

Yes, someone actually told us that (for the record, this was not a commercial beekeeper)! At this extreme level, we have a simple response.

That’s simply wrong, even in spirit.

Beekeeping is enjoyed by a great number of people throughout the world and, for many, it is a relaxing and fascinating hobby. It does requires attention but doesn’t suck up every last waking moment.

But behind that (extreme) view there is a valid point. We respect our bees and their incredible capacity to take care of themselves. As a general rule, we serve them best by leaving them alone whenever possible.

But the other side of this coin is that we have a responsibility, as beekeepers, to be there for them. We took these bees and placed them in a man-made box, so that obligation exists.

What does this mean in terms of time and effort? That is very much down to the individual beekeeper. What we will suggest is that it is an obligation of every beekeeper to continue to learn, on an ongoing basis.

Colonies react differently, even when side-to-side in the same garden. Every beehive has a story. Learning how to understand and interpret what our bees tell us is important. That does take time.

But you can still have a life. Don’t fall pray to the “elitist beekeeper” who believes anyone not spending huge numbers of hours on bees, just like he or she does, is a poor beekeeper.

“Don’t tell the neighbors you are setting up a beehive”

In considering beekeeping and neighbors, it’s important to consider how to raise your plans with neighbors and how to educate them about bees, where there is misunderstanding.

Another perspective is to simply not tell them!

Beehive in urban garden

Let’s start with the easy part. Make sure it’s legal first. Regardless of whether you plan to inform the neighbors, if you do so in a location where it is not legal (which is rare) then you are simply offering an easy target to the angry neighbor who finds out after the fact. Oh – and you are breaking the law (or at least some regulation). So, as a good and proud citizen, just make sure you have the legal right to keep bees in your location first.

Assuming that, then you do have a decision to make. Some beekeepers make an intentional decision to just install beehives, without telling the neighbors. The underlying philosophy is often that neighbors are uneducated about bees, overreact and are going to fight it regardless.

We think this is a harsh oversimplification, at least most of the time. Most neighbors will be open to listening and many will take a genuine interest. That’s a best-case scenario – neighbors who both understand and want to enjoy your bees with you.

Neighbors and bees
The one situation where not telling the neighbors might potentially be OK is where your bees truly are out of sight and not close to where humans congregate.

But generally, PerfectBee has confidence that most neighbors will listen to you and be interested in your new hobby.

“Don’t hang the queen between two frames”

In terms of package bees, the common wisdom on introducing them is to isolate the queen. This is done by hanging the queen cage between two frames for a few days, on the basis that the rest of the bees don’t yet know her and will kill her if they could get to her.

Virtually all new beekeepers do this when they introduce a package of bees, because it’s what they read (including at PerfectBee) and it seems to be an accepted truth. If that makes you feel comfortable then it makes sense to do just that. There is not a lot that can go wrong specifically because you had the queen hang around for a few days!

But many experienced beekeepers feel this practice is overstated and unnecessary. One drawback presented is that the existence of the cage, between two frames, messes up “bee space”. This often results in comb being drawn in an ugly and messy manner between the frames and around the cage. This is an early and tricky problem for the new, fresh-faced beekeeper to address.

Some of the “evidence” from bees killing a queen may actually come from an unanticipated queen existing with the other bees anyway. In this situation there will be two queens introduced into the hive. The colony will only support one, which means they will likely kill a queen.

Though rare, this can happen. When it does, the natural conclusion is to assume that the bees “didn’t take to the released queen” when, in fact, the colony was just following the natural order of things in a colony (one active queen).

“Queen excluders suck”

The queen excluder is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment, certainly more so than one would expect of a simple grate of metal or wood! As a reminder, the purpose is to ensure a queen cannot move from one box to the one above it, leaving upper boxes brood-free (since the queen cannot lay eggs there). The holes in the queen excluder let workers and drones through but are intentionally sized to block the larger queen. This avoids the messiness of boxes with a mixture of brood and honey, especially when it comes time to harvest honey.

The problem that many beekeepers have with the queen excluder is that even though workers can pass through the holes, it still creates a challenge. This slows them down, which is precisely what you do NOT want to do if you are looking to create boxes filled with honey! In fact, even if they can move through just fine, they may not want to do so. It’s an obstacle or them, not matter how you view it.

For this reason, queen excluders are sometimes facetiously called “honey excluders”.

The new beekeeper has an easier decision. In PerfectBee’s opinion, a new beekeeper should not be entering the first year with a view to harvesting lots of honey! The first year should be ALL ABOUT THE BEES!

Let them get established and give them all the support they need to get through the winter. Taking honey from them in the first year, at least in significant quantities, is contrary to that singular focus on the bees.

So leave they honey for them, don’t worry about queen excluders and consider that something to think about in the second year.

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