Imagine this: You’re brand new to beekeeping. You’ve just begun this popular and rapidly growing hobby, and you’re finding a lot of info. Beekeepers are an opinionated bunch, whether they share their experience, expertise and advice in person, through books, or online. Yet you’re hearing conflicting advice. How is a person new to the practice to tell good advice from beekeeping myths, half-truths and rumors?
If you’re inclined toward natural beekeeping, there are a few beekeeping traditions that are slowly creeping into the territory of “myth.” We’ll debunk some of those right now.
1. Top Bar (Kenyan) Hives Are More “Natural”
Top Bar hives have found popularity with certain communities in Kenya because they are affordable, easy to make and easy to manage. Harvesting honey doesn’t require expensive equipment, so it is ideal for lower-income communities—beekeepers simply cut and crush the comb. But among the top beekeeping myths is that this structure is more natural than others. Top Bar hives require the queen to lay in a horizontal pattern, when her natural instinct is to move upward along the brood comb to lay her eggs. In this way, the Langstroth and Warre Hive designs mimic her natural needs better. But there is no perfect hive set up—each has its draws and challenges.
2. You Must Use Foundation
In a traditional Langstroth hive, supers are filled with wooden frames, and within those frames are beeswax or plastic foundation strips. These strips have a hexagonal pattern printed on them, with the intended purpose to encourage bees to build their wax comb on the foundation, making it easier for you to manage and harvest honey. The trouble with this is manifold. First, while the wax is the lesser of evils, it is of unknown origin and might contain harmful chemicals or pesticides. The plastic is problematic because it is a nonrenewable resource and emits chemicals when heated or cooled significantly. (Remember that the inside of a beehive is very warm—usually around 92 degrees Fahrenheit.) Most concerning to natural beekeepers is the fact that the hexagonal pattern forces bees to build their wax cells to that specific size—which is the size of worker brood comb. But it doesn’t account for the fact that queens must lay drone comb. Drones play an important role in the world of honeybees, and it isn’t up to us to decide how many drones are present in the hive. That’s up to the queen. Which brings us to the next myth.
3. Drones Are Useless; Don’t Let the Queen Rear Them
Many beekeeping myths assume that we know better than the bees about their needs, and this one is no exception. It also assumes that the drones’ role is not critical when, in fact, it’s very important. Drones must mate with queens (yours or neighboring queens) for the queen to have enough sperm to lay for her lifetime—and be a strong matriarch to your colony.
4. You Must Use the Maximum Number of Frames Per Super
Supers, the boxes that make up the Langstroth hive, are built to hold either eight or 10 frames. They are designed this way to account for “bee space”—the amount of space that bees leave between their comb and around their hive so they can get through. It’s just enough to move about, but not so much that any space is wasted. The idea that one must use all eight or 10 frames is among the common beekeeping myths. Beekeepers often put seven frames in their eight-frame supers, or nine frames in their 10-frame supers. The result? Bees make each frame slightly fatter with comb, which can allow them to store more honey than in thinner frames.
5. All Bees Sting
Workers (females) are the stinging members of the hive. Queens have stingers, but use them only once—on their queen rivals shortly upon emerging out of their queen cells at birth. Drones do not have stingers and cannot sting.
6. If You’re Allergic to Wasps, You Can’t Keep Bees
While people with allergies and sensitivities to wasps can have trouble with honeybees, the truth is that honeybee venom and wasp venom is different. It is possible to have an allergy to one and not the other. See your doctor and allergist for necessary testing and more information.
7. Feeding Bees Sugar Is Bad
Giving your bees sugar syrup certainly isn’t ideal. In a perfect world, you keep enough honey on hand to feed back to your bees if the need arises. However, in a pinch, sugar syrup will keep your bees alive if they need it. And living bees eating sugar syrup is preferable to starving bees any day.
As you read up on the behavior and habits of bees and learn more about beekeeping, either natural or conventional, be open to various viewpoints of traditional practices. “We’ve always done it this way” is no longer sufficient grounds for continuing a practice, in beekeeping or otherwise. Ask questions, question opinions, and be sharp and savvy when beekeeping on your own. Use good judgment and instincts, and you might just end up debunking quite a few myths of your own.