Courtesy Carsten aus Bonn
Having even a few beehives can seem like a full-time job sometimes. There's hive maintenance, honey collection, winter feeding and health monitoring to keep up with. Beekeeper Michael Bush, author of The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally (X-Star Publishing Company, 2011), has a number of "lazy beekeeping” methods he uses at Bush Farms in Nehawka, Neb. His simplified beekeeping methods allow him to keep 200 hives for slightly more work than he was doing to keep just four. Here are modifications Bush suggests to make beekeeping easier.
1. Top Entrances
Not to be confused with top-bar hives, Langstroth hives with top entrances are easier for bees to access than those with bottom entrances. Bush realized the need to switch when he noticed his hives were not flourishing due to skunks eating the bees—scratching on the hive and snagging the bees one by one as they came to inspect the noise. Rather than eliminate all the skunks, he rearranged the boxes, putting the entrance on top. An advantage he found was that tall grass and high snow no longer kept bees from entering the hive, meaning less mowing and snow shoveling was required.
2. Smaller Boxes
"The fact is as you get older, things get harder to lift,” Bush says, and several of his simplification methods support this notion.
A 10-frame deep box full of honey weighs 90 pounds, but a 10-frame medium box is 60 pounds and an eight-frame medium box is approximately 55 pounds. Especially if your beekeeping is a solo venture, there's no reason to make lifting a box so difficult.
Bush recommends starting off with medium boxes to begin with. If you're already invested in beekeeping with deep boxes, you can cut down your frames and boxes without too much trouble. Likewise, start out with eight-frame boxes, or if you already have 10-frame boxes, use those for brood and get eight-frame boxes to use as supers.
3. Medium Frames
"If you have all the same-sized frames, the frames can go anywhere,” Bush says, as long as you use medium frames. It's nice to have all of your boxes the same size, too, but the frame size is what really matters. You can move frames up or down a box to prevent a swarm or encourage your bees to move, and you don't have to scramble to amend, build or buy a medium frame when all you have are empty deep frames.
4. Natural Feed
When you let your bees feed on honey instead of artificial feed, not only do you ensure your hives are chemical-free, you eliminate the expense and time commitment of dealing with artificial feed. When harvesting honey in the fall, consider the colony size. As a general rule, Bush leaves a minimum of one frame of capped honey per frame of bees going into winter.
When you need to supplement feed beyond what honey will provide, use dry sugar instead of syrup. This allows the bees to eat it when it's below the syrup's freezing point and prevents the bees from drowning. Wet a little sugar so it’s soggy to attract the bees. Put it on a sheet of newspaper, on top of the top bars but under the inner cover. Be careful to not cover all of the spaces between the bars, or the bees won't be able to access the top entrance.
5. Paint-Free Boxes
Bush says his wife and neighbors are the only ones who care that the boxes aren't painted. He hasn't painted his hives since 2009, and the bees haven't complained so far. Bush admits that the equipment might not last as long, but not painting them (and especially not painting them every year) is a big time saver. Other beekeepers are on-board with this idea, as Bush is quick to point out, including C.C. Miller, author of Fifty Years Among the Bees (1911), and Richard Taylor, author of The Joys of Beekeeping (St Martin's Press, 1974).
More "lazy” beekeeping tips—as well as instructions for converting boxes to top entrances, cutting down boxes and frames, and using 10-frame brood boxes and eight-frame supers—are on Bush's website.
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About the Author: Freelance writer Lisa Munniksma attended Michael Bush's "Lazy Beekeeping” session at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference. Follow The News Hog, her Hobby Farms ag news and opinion blog, and Freelance Farmer Chick, her blog about sustainable living, agriculture and food systems around the world.