Natural Beekeeping

by Lady Spirit Moon

There seems to be two definitions of Natural Beekeeping: 

The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program requesting beekeepers be certified by having their hives inspected annually by 2 other beekeepers. The program is called natural because beekeepers use “organic” products in the hives, e. g. essential oils, Formic Acid, Oxalic Acid…etc.

The other definition of Natural Beekeeping is nothing in the hive but frames and what the bees take in. If the bees don’t take it in through the front door, it isn’t put through their roof. This is where I fit in.

My Natural Apiary

When I first started beekeeping folks snickered because I wouldn’t treat my bees. I took some pretty hard comments from old time beekeepers and commercial beekeepers telling me my bees would die if I didn’t treat. The first year I tried using the essential oils formula. I used a very tiny portion of the formula once before throwing the rest out. I just couldn’t bring myself to put it into the hives. Instinctively, I couldn’t put anything in my hives the bees didn’t take in. After the first 3-4 years into beekeeping my bees still didn’t die. The beekeepers leaning on me to treat, or telling me I was in denial, stopped asking me about my bees. Some actually stopped talking to me at all. 

Though I use Langstroth 8-frame equipment, I always imagine the colony in a tree and keep that perspective in mind whenever I do anything to the hives, bees, or yards. There are no weeds touching the hives in my apiaries. Bugs can drop down through the screened bottom board, but they can’t climb up. I mulched the apiaries; though I will be transplanting Corsican mint to keep down the weeds as the mulch degrades. I also planted herbs.

One hive swarmed the first year and to my knowledge that was the last time I had a swarm. I make sure they have enough room to grow and split hives when necessary. There is a solar bear fence surrounding an inner fence. This year I will put landscape fiber against the inner fence as a wind barrier. Last year the winds were horrendous enough to move a metal commercial cement mixer 8’ and lay it on its side. And that was behind the house. Freezing wind is what killed 2 hives during a severe snow storm this past winter. And temperatures dropping from mid-70 to below 40 before 5:00 p.m. killed 4 more hives.

Varroa

I don’t have Varroa mite destruction because I use 4.9 foundations in my brood frames. This choice was based on Michael Bush and Dee Lusby’s information regarding the cell size. Italy did a study in 1999 on foundation cell sizes 4.9mm, 5.0mm, and 5.1mm and found there was a significant drop in Varroa in the 4.9mm cell, with no significant drop in 5.0mm or 5.1mm. I had a hive die during a snow storm a couple years ago when the lid was blown off and was talked into sending 1,000-1200 bees to Beltsville Lab for testing. They counted 40 Varroa. Even though that amounted to 3-4%, they called it Varroa Destructor. 

A Stress-free Focus

The honeybee’s autoimmune system is 67% at best. Anything and everything stresses them, for example: opening the hives (which sets them back a day); not enough food stores; noises on the outside of the hive; position of the hive in the apiary; going into the hive too often; animals or pests; almost anything that doesn’t happen if they were in the tree trunk. And any kind of natural or man-made chemicals in the hive upset the hive’s bacterial balance.

All too often people don’t think of the honeybee in its own environment. Beekeepers tend to keep bees according to their own personal viewpoints or life style. In truth the bees keep me. They tell me what their needs are and I try to provide. This is not easy in a farming community. Five hives have had CCD scenarios this year, queen issues in 2 hives, and 3 hives with diminishing amount of bees over time. I never had problems until a farmer, experienced in No-Till farming and planting GMO corn, expanded his acreage. There was a major dearth last year from mid-June to late fall and my girls in the late nucs only had the GMO corn to feed on the following spring. The Clothianidin in the Neonicotinoids used on the coating of seed corn affects the bee’s learning ability. It will fly out to forage but will forget how to get back. Their nervous system is also affected—saw this in my one queen as she marched across the comb for three months without laying anything. Sometimes she acted drunk while hanging on the very edge of a frame when I lifted the frame out of the hive. Held my breath on that one.

Hive Inspections

I check my hives twice monthly unless there are indications to do otherwise. When I approach a hive for an inspection, I check for several things:


  • The ground in front of the entrance for dead bees. If I see more than there should be for that time of year, I go into the hive. 

  • I watch the bees going and coming. I was told if I saw pollen going into the hive I could be sure of a queen. Experience has taught me otherwise. 

  • I check for robbers or other insects on the sides, under, and behind the hive. 

  • I open the lid and deeply inhale. If it smells like warm honey, I don’t go any further. If there is an unusual odor, I go into the hive.

  • I check for the hive’s sound when I open the lid. I have discovered that if they seem to scatter to the four directions and there is no hive hum, it’s an indicator of no queen.

  • If I do go into the hive, I check for the queen, amount of bees and brood, conditions of bees, and amount of pollen and honey.

  • In my notes, I keep track from where the nuc came and its history (if I have it), weather, time, temperature, and, in red ink, where the queen was spotted on which side of what frame. I also keep track of brood pattern, honey/nectar and pollen, and on what frames. Notes are kept on every hive in both apiaries. The deadouts are kept as well but in a different file. No notes are deleted.

  • I do not mark my queens. I’ve never seen my girls put a mark on her, so I don’t. My mentor, Carl Chesick, would often remind me to mark my queen, but I haven’t come across a situation where marking was going to tell me anything I needed to know other than the fact she was superseded.


Regarding Queens

As in the natural order of things, my bees raise their own queens. They know better than I how to do this. I do not introduce a queen into a new hive. I do get nucs of different stocks and spread them in different locations for the queen to mate with feral and local stocks. My bees are resistant and hygienic. They are not cheap as I have spent time and effort raising them. There is a lot of feral stock in my diverse pool of genetics. When sold, each 5-frame nuc box will have 4 frames of brood, nurse bees. Nurse bees do not forage so I provide a frame of honey, with pollen if I can arrange it. By the end of the old brood cycle, the queen has mated and the honey in the honey frame has been replaced with new brood. Usually they are ready to go into a regular hive by this time. I do not ship bees. 

Honey

The honey supers stay on until mid to late fall—usually after the last flower dies. Holistically, the Annual Honey has the entire year’s pollen to help with next year’s allergies. This year I did make extra honey by increasing the size of my colonies, but not enough for them and for me. Bee hives do not fatten up in farming communities as they do elsewhere because of GMO crops. I’m fairly certain I’ll have enough to feed to my two dogs (a tbsp a day keeps them worm-free). I’ll take my share after I’m certain my girls have enough to get them through to spring. In the past, a 2-box deep brood with one medium honey super has been sufficient. If I have to feed, I make sure at least 25-30% of the sugar feed is honey. Bees need their nutrients to come out of the winter in good health. Honey keeps the Nosema in check.

Great Instructors

Carl Chesick is my teacher and mentor. I have learned and shared more with him than with any other person. But I listen to everyone. From what I have learned from many beekeepers around the world, scientists, and doing my own research, I glean what will work in my apiaries. But, in truth, I mainly listen to my girls. They have taught me to listen to the animals in the woods, birds in the air, and heed the messages in the blowing wind; look at the flowers and the environment around me and plant for their and my needs; to move gently and slowly; compassionate patience; and most importantly, all living things have the right to live and be treated well.

*      *      *

I look forward to working with the African beekeepers in Senegal, Africa, January, 2013, sharing information on bees, teaching Apitherapy, and How to Make Your Own Soil. BEe Healing Apiary and the Center for Honeybee Research have partnered in this project. And, yes, I will share the trip when I come back.

Lady Spirit Moon owns BEe Healing Apitherapy; is a Certified Beekeeper; Master Herbalist; Certified Nutrition Consultant; and is studying Apitherapy under Dr. Stephan Stangaciu, Romania. She is also Ambassador for the Center of Honeybee Research.


  • email