By Chris Lewis, MH
Special NOTE: Thanks to everyone who contributed to my crowdfunding campaign at freefunder.com
Special thanks to the following people:
Now back to the blog post…
There are a lot of different ideas about how honey bees should be kept, and since I like to know where my food comes from and how it’s raised, I thought I’d put this together so you can know where your honey is coming from.
A word about priorities. For many years, the priorities of most commercial beekeepers have been in the following order:
Honey production —> Increasing the number of bees —> Bee health
Now however, many beekeepers are changing their priorities to reflect a more sustainable approach. Here’s the order of my own priorities in beekeeping (which you will see in this blog post):
Health of the honey bee species as a whole —> Health of my own bees —> Increasing the number of bees —> Honey production
I believe that this second priority list most closely mirrors the priorities of the bees themselves.
What I DON’T do:
- Use chemical treatments in my hives – I don’t want to risk them getting into the honey, I don’t want to expose myself to them, and I don’t want to artificially prop up bees that can’t survive in my environment on their own. I would rather help the honey bee species adapt to the challenges they face by allowing only those who can survive on their own to reproduce. This may sound harsh, but in the end, by keeping a hive alive with chemicals, you only breed stronger pests who are resistant to the treatments and weaker bees who are dependent on them to survive. That’s not the kind of beekeeping I want to practice. Actually, I steer clear of even organic treatments for similar reasons, I don’t want to breed bees that are dependent on organic treatments to survive either. I consider myself to be a “treatment-free” beekeeper.
- Re-queen routinely – unless there is a problem that can be solved by requeening, I’d rather let the bees decide when their queen is due for replacement. Every time you change queens, you change the genetics of the entire hive. By constantly replacing queens, you don’t allow natural selection to work and the species can’t adapt to diseases, pests, and environmental challenges.
- Feed my bees sugar on a routine basis – Honey sells for a lot and sugar can be bought cheap. That’s why some beekeepers (especially major commercial honey producers) take every last drop of honey and ask the bees to survive the winter on sugar alone. Of course this harms their health. What would happen to your family’s health if someone broke into your house, stole all your healthy food, left you lots of candy and pop, locked you inside and asked you to try to live on that for 6 months!?
- Feed my bees high fructose corn syrup for any reason whatsoever – It’s even worse for the bees than sugar. I’ve even read that some commercial honey producers will feed an excess of HFCS to their bees which the bees then add enzymes to, place in honey comb, and let it cure just like they do with real nectar. The beekeeper then extracts this product from the combs, bottles it and sells it as “honey!” Apparently this is their strategy for keeping “honey” production going throughout the winter when natural nectar is not available.
- Feed artificial pollen substitute – It tends to reduce the workers’ life span. No matter how good a substitute gets, it will never be as good as the real thing.
- Clip queens – The idea here is to prevent the queen from swarming, but queens with clipped wings can lose their balance more easily (How would your movement be effected if someone cut of your arms?) and the bees may simply see her as defective and supersede (replace) her.
- Inspect my hives weekly – In my opinion this is much too often. Every time you open a hive, it takes the bees about 48 hours to get the internal environment of the hive right again (humidity, scent, temperature, etc.), during which time they won’t be spending their effort on making honey. If you do this every week for 3 months, you’ve just robbed the bees of 24 working days! I open my hives only when I have a specific reason to do so, create the least disturbance possible and try to batch tasks so I can get more done at once and open them up less often.
- Use foundation – Foundation was invented as a way of forcing the bees to build artificially enlarged cells to raise their larva in so the baby bees would grow larger. It was thought that larger bees would have longer tongues (probosci) and be able to reach the nectar in certain flowers that the smaller bees couldn’t reach. This had some unintended side-effects, however, like making the bees more susceptible to two kinds of mites that can kill them. Bees allowed to grow to their natural (smaller) size seem to be better able to resist these mites.
- Cull (cut out) drone comb – Drone (male) bees may not collect nectar and pollen, but having lots of them around is essential to having well-mated queens, which is in turn essential to having strong adaptable bee colonies. I let the bees decide how many drones they want to raise.
- Truck my bees all around the country to pollinate a different farm crop every couple weeks – I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with beekeepers offering pollination services, but I do think there’s something wrong with this way of doing it – i.e., it stresses the bees… a lot. It limits them to a single floral source at a time which can lead to malnutrition (just like if you were limited to eating nothing but apples for weeks at a time, then nothing but lettuce for several more weeks, etc. There’s certainly nothing wrong with apples or lettuce, but if that’s the only thing you’re eating, you’re going to develop some deficiencies. It also exposes the bees to many different geographical areas every year, along with all the bee diseases and pests that are found in each of those areas, then what is to prevent those poor bees from picking up those diseases and pests and spreading them to the next area they visit. Personally, if I were trying to design a strategy for spreading a disease or parasite as quickly as possible through a population, I would take several million stressed and malnourished susceptible individuals and have them visit as many geographic areas as possible in a short time. I have recently started offering pollination services to organic and chemical-free farmers, but I do it differently. I install hives on their farms that will stay there for years, then come and maintain the hives for them. There is no concern about removing the hives for spraying because no spraying will take place. If you are interested in this service, please feel free to contact me.
- Run “straight line” (pure bred) bees or artificially inseminate queens – History has shown us, both in animals and in humans, that the more you limit a gene pool (e.g., inbreeding), the weaker and more susceptible to health problems and birth defects the population becomes, and the more you mix genes (e.g., interracial marriage), the stronger and healthier the population gets overall. So why would I want to keep delicate little purebred “princess” bees when I can keep, strong, healthy, energetic, adaptable “mutts” who can survive and make lots of honey.
- Use a queen excluder on any of my hives – In my opinion these are completely unnecessary because bees separate their honey from their brood anyway and in my way of thinking, if they want to claim an extra box for their brood nest so they can raise more bees and have a bigger field force for collecting honey during the nectar flow, so much the better.
- Bring bees into my area from hundreds of miles away that may or may not have diseases or pests and may or may not be well adapted to the environment in my area.
What I DO do:
- Let my bees be bees – They’ve been doing it quite successfully for a very long time, so why not let them continue. They know what they’re doing. Actually, we need them but they don’t need us. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that human intervention is necessary for their survival; what they really need from us is for us to stop causing them trouble in the form of insecticides, fungicides, neonicotinoids, too rapid mixing of bees with pests and diseases faster than they can adapt to them, bad beekeeping practices, monoculture farming, etc. In other words, what they need from us is for us to get out of their way and let them do their work. Yes, we can assist them in doing what they want to do and make sure they have the resources they need, but in the end, bees need beekeepers like bears need bicycles.
- Protect my bees from bears, skunks, racoons and other things that like to tear hives apart (I use an electric bear fence for this – it serves as a psychological deterrent and does not harm the bears or anything else).
- Protect my hives from strong winds – I figure that if I’m going to put my bees into something that can blow over, I should probably take steps to prevent it from blowing over.
- Re-queen only when there is a problem that can be solved by re-queening – Most of the time, I simply let the bees decide when they need a new queen because they know better than I do what’s going on with her. However, if I had a hive that was acting extremely aggressive and I couldn’t find another reason for this behavior, I would probably requeen. Also, if I had a colony that was clearly struggling to survive , not because of a crisis, but because they were not well adapted to my environment, I would requeen them (probably with a swarm cell from one of my strongest colonies).
- Leave my bees plenty of their own honey to overwinter on – I’d rather sell a little less honey in the fall, but have a strong vigorous colony in the spring, than make a few more bucks now and end up with weak or dead bees later! As another beekeeper I know is fond of saying, “Dead bees make no honey.”
- Reserve feeding sugar for emergencies only – I’ll feed them sugar if there’s a drought or if they come to me too late in the year, or top them off with it over winter to make sure they won’t starve, but I always treat sugar as a last resort, preferring to have them eat either their own honey or fresh nectar instead.
- Inspect only when I have a reason to do so – and when I do, I don’t remove every single frame one at a time. I only look through as much of the hive as I need to to find out what I need to know. Often this means I only remove one or two combs from one or two boxes, or even just peak between boxes.
- Look for ways to avoid stressing my bees unnecessarily.
- Keep a close eye on my bees’ health – There’s a lot you can tell about what’s going on inside a hive without actually opening the hive. If you’re interested in this, check out the book At The Hive Entrance. It’s out of print but you can probably find a copy online.
- Allow my bees to build whatever size cells they want, wherever they want. Cell size actually varies from one geographical area to another. This may be something the bees do to adapt to different environments.
- Keep my bees in one location – if they ever get relocated, it’s close to where they started and on a permanent basis – they won’t be moved again and again within a short time.
- Let them raise all the drones they want – I like when I see drones because I know they will be contributing to the genetic diversity in the area and thus helping not only my bees, but also feral bees as well as other beekeepers’ bees to become more adaptable.
- Keep “mutt” bees and allow all my queens to “open mate” with a variety of drones from my local area – This helps to make the colony more adaptable and vigorous. The queens also seem to be VERY prolific layers for several years rather than petering out after a few months.
- Practice an “unlimited brood nest” – The bees know what they need and if they think they need more bees, who am I to argue.
- Get bees from swarms and “cut outs” that have already been surviving in my area for at least one year – Swarms tend to get a better faster start than packages anyway, so why not?
- Avoid doing things that would damage the thousands of beneficial bacteria, yeasts, other insects, and even mites that interact synergistically to keep a bee colony healthy. Some of these actually help prevent bee diseases and discourage bee pests from getting out of control.
- Use minimal smoke. Smoke has been used for thousands of years to calm bees (it temporarily masks the smells they use to communicate with each other, like the “alarm pheromone” that the guards use to tell the other bees to attack. Some beekeepers using organic management methods have decided not to use smoke and I do understand their reasons for this and if that strategy works for them, more power to them! In my experience, though, I tried to go without smoke for a couple years and it was very stressful for both the bees and me. Then I started using tiny amounts of well-placed smoke and the difference was amazing. Much less stress for them and me. Sometimes, I’m able to get away with not using smoke, especially in the spring, when they tend to be in calm moods anyway, but there are times when I feel that a puff of smoke here and a puff of smoke there is far better than the alternative. I will say though, that some beekeepers (especially novices) use WAY too much smoke. Just one puff on their front porch and one or two on top of each box is plenty. You also need to make sure that the smoke is cool, not hot.
The standard explanation is that the smoke makes the bees think the hive is on fire and they eat honey to prepare to leave for a new location, then they realize that the hive isn’t on fire after all, but they are so full of honey that they don’t feel like being aggressive. After a few years of observation, I no longer believe this to be the case. First of all, when I smoke them then watch them for a while, I don’t notice them eating any more than usual, second if they were preparing to leave the hive after a little smoke, then a lot of smoke should actually make them leave, but it doesn’t. They just go to another part of the hive. I think that the theory of it interfering with their alarm pheromone makes much more sense. I believe it also masks my human smell so they don’t realize where I am.
- Have a very mindful “present” attitude. – If I enter my apiary in the wrong frame of mind, my bees let me know that they’d rather I not work them at that moment (usually by buzzing my face or dive-bombing my head). When they do this, I go away for a few minutes, calm and center myself, then approach them again. Also, it’s hard to be around honeybees for more than a few minutes without feeling calm and centered anyway. They have a very calming influence.
How I process my honey:
I crush the honey combs (or spin the honey out with a centrifugal extractor) and strain it through a stainless steel strainer to remove the bits of wax. Then I pour the honey into glass jars. That’s it. No heating. No pressurized filtration. Nothing else at all.
If you’d like to buy some of my honey, visit http://wellness-warrior.org/ it will be listed there when I have some available for sale.