Photo by Rachael Brugger
Eight years ago, my husband and I began to feel uncomfortable with the conventional way we were keeping bees. It was around the time that he had to dress up in a hazmat suit, complete with respirator and neoprene gloves, to apply a miticide to one of our hives. The assurances on the packaging defied logic. Somehow the human applying the chemicals required stringent protection, but they would not harm the bee or stay resident in their home.
When you keep bees, you quickly learn there is no "standard.” You have to learn from someone, but as soon as you have a hive, you find that you are simply containing and working with wild creatures. Every bee colony is different and teaches you how to relate to it in a different way.
During my first few years as a beekeeper, I followed the rules given by other humans. The bees, however, were whispering their wisdom to me every time I met them. We began to listen and haven’t looked back. Our bees have remained healthy with strong numbers surviving the winter and very low to nonexistent mite counts for several years.
Here are four of our favorite changes we made when we decided to take the turn into natural beekeeping.
1. Let Bees Eat Honey
The dangers of processed sugar to our bodies is a hot topic in today’s health-conscious society. It follows then, that high fructose corn syrup and processed table sugar is an unhealthy food source for bees, as well.
In conventional beekeeping, the honey taken off the hive makes more money than it costs to feed these inferior sugars. Therefore, beekeepers typically take all the honey stores and give the bees a steady diet of processed sugar as supplemental feed in the fall, winter and spring.
If you want healthy bees, however, keep at least 40 to 60 pounds of honey in their hive, and save at least a frame or two of drawn honey per colony. Then when they need supplementation, you’ve got it in reserve—you can simply scratch open the frames and add them into a hive in winter or lay them out in your bee yard on a warm day. If the bees don’t need it by the time there’s a strong nectar flow in spring, you’re free to harvest it for yourself.
2. Plant for Bees
Planting for bees is a bit like planting for yourself. You need to ensure they have food sources from early spring all the way through fall. Check your local extension office or university for lists of plants that provide both nectar and pollen. Planting on your own property or setting your hives on someone else’s where there is good access to these plants will help immensely.
Providing wide variety of plants for your bees is a must. Pumpkins are wonderful, but if you ate them exclusively, you would be very sick. In the same manner, bees need to access a diversity of pollen to stock their pantry.
Bee-specific plants include those that provide natural protection from mites, as well as viruses and funguses. Plant plenty of herbs in the area around your hives. Some of my favorites are mint (Mentha piperita), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), calendula (Calendula officinalis) and Echinacea (Echinacea spp.)
3. Redesign the Hive
Many different hive structures are available these days, and most of them allow bees to build comb in a more natural fashion. Pre-formed comb can introduce unnatural substances, chemicals and other contaminants into the hive. The cell size in these combs can cause stress, as the bees must work harder to build the multiple sizes needed for drone and worker cells. The pre-set cells on standard foundation also enable varroa mite growth. We’ve modified the standard Langstroth hive using foundation-less frames to allow the bees to make their own comb, but you might also try the Warre hive or the top-bar hive.
4. Hold the Chemicals
If you strive to become a holistic beekeeper, you need to make the health of your bees your top priority. This changes your mindset as you tackle any health issues you see in your hives. Fungi, viruses and mites will always co-exist within these colonies in the same way as fungi, viruses and bacteria co-exist on our skin. It’s only when the organism is weakened that they grow out of balance and become a problem.
When a hive has an overpopulation of mites, applying a miticide is the opening volley in a losing battle. Until you address the underlying weakness, more mites will be produced regardless of whether or not you kill today’s crop. Instead, stand back and look at the colony as a whole. Why are they stressed? Are they too exposed and being weakened by wind? Do they lack an adequate water supply? Once you identify the underlying reason, correct it. There are then a number of natural ways (herbal teas, essential oils, flower essences, or in emergency mite situations, powdered sugar sifted into the hive to increase grooming behavior) to build up the health of the colony again.
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About the Author: Dawn Combs has more than 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a bachelor’s degree in botany and humanities/classics from Ohio Wesleyan University. She is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows, a medicinal herb and honey farm near Columbus, Ohio, where she consults with women and their partners on issues of hormonal imbalance, oversees the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary and operates the Ohio Eclectic Herbal Institute.