Natural Beekeeping

Natural beekeeping has been on my mind from the very start. I always wanted to be “natural” in my beekeeping. But what is natural?

I think a goodly number of hobbyist beekeepers (which I’ll define as less than 20 hives for my purposes) want natural. And yet, among that group, I find some who treat with medications and some who don’t. Some who feed and some who don’t. Some who reverse the hive bodies each spring and some who don’t. Some who swear by Top Bar Hives and some who swear by Langstroths. Some who use foundation some who don’t.

And most of them claim to be natural.

When I first started, I leaned strongly towards natural as I interpreted it; doing what must be done but otherwise letting the bees take care of themselves. It’s an attitude I adopted largely from my mentor, Aleisha. Aleisha doesn’t medicate, although she does use essential oils and naturally occurring treatments. Aleisha also takes a very hands off approach (she calls it lazy beekeeping). And that’s basically what I did last year. I was probably a bit more hands on than she would have been, but my hives were also in my backyard instead of at another person’s house.

Then enter my dad…. I’m serving as mentor for my dad. I’m hardly qualified, but I’m eager. In business as well as life, I’ve often found eagerness to often be the difference between qualified and unqualified. I’m eager. I’m eager to be qualified.

Over the last few months, I’ve done at least as much research as I did the first year. What I’ve discovered is I’m finally informed enough to recognize the inconsistencies and differences across the beekeeping community. My first year I just accepted whatever was offered as fact. It was too easy not to, and frankly I was just uninformed enough not to recognize it all anyway. Like a sponge, I was there to soak it all up regardless of the quality of the information. Now, I’m filtering.

As I’ve worked with my dad and talked with him, I’m finding myself moving farther away from what is considered main stream practices in beekeeping. I’m finding myself looking at things like medication and treatments with a strongly critical eye. Even foundation with its forced cell size has come under review.

I found him last year, but I’ve recently been exploring the writings of Michael Bush on beekeeping. He talks about beekeeping in ways that even natural beekeepers would label fringe. And it really resonates with him.

None of that is to say that Aleisha or Emily or any of the dozen other beekeepers I know and talk to are wrong (or even that Michael Bush is right), but it has the sound of truth to it.

So what does this mean? Well nothing immediate. Last November, I bought all new Plastic Frames with plastic foundation. Not very natural, is it? I also just bought three new Langstroth hives. That’s neither natural or not, but I’m wishing I had bought Top Bars. For the record, Michael Bush does both.

One thing I’m going to immediately do is freshen my wax. I do agree with Michael Bush that wax stores the chemicals we often use in our hives and that they cause problems. I was going to start extracting, but I think I’ll end up doing Crush and Strain. I actually kind of like that method. It’s simpler, less labor intensive, and produces more wax, something I want. It also keeps the wax rotated in the hives.

Over time, I won’t be surprised to see myself move more towards foundationless frames, local queen rearing, and so forth. My intent has always been to be a completely self-sustaining beekeeper, meaning that I would not buy packages, queens, and so forth.

Last year was a year of new beginnings when it came to beekeeping. I was open to trying everything and experiencing all of it. This year I’m feeling more educated, more informed, and more prepared to experiment and find what really works for me. For now, Michael Bush’s thoughts have struck a chord, and that’s the direction I’ll go with for the next little while (as in several years). I’ll let you know how it goes.

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6 Responses to Natural Beekeeping

  1. aleisha says:

    yah, so my lazy beekeeping isn’t very effective beekeeping…i keep losing my hives…i can’t tell if it is lack of attention or just statistics that lots of beekeepers lose 50% or more of their hives every year! eagerness is really all you need…i would imagine that your style of beekeeping could also be influenced by what you want at the end of the year…wax or propolis or honey or queens, etc. i haven’t really decided what i need. i do know i like honey more than i thought but it sure is a pain to extract….so, i am still deciding what i want from this experience myself. love your passion!

  2. Emily Heath says:

    I can’t claim to be a completely natural beekeeper, as I feed my bees sugar syrup & fondant in the autumn/winter, and treat for varroa with oxalic acid & Apiguard and nosema with Fumadil B. Varroa is such a problem here – our national bee inspectors view it as the most common cause behind a colony dying off – that I don’t think sugar dusting alone would really cut it as a control method.

    But some of the practices you mention as ideas you are looking into Emma and I do…for instance we use wax, not plastic, foundation and change our brood combs annually so the combs are fresh. We’ve been talking about possibly going foundationless in the supers. We don’t clip our queen’s wings and we let our bees raise their own queens mated with local drones.

  3. daveloveless says:

    Thanks Aleisha and Emily.

    I guess that was kind of my “natural” thing at the start. There’s so much that we as beekeepers consider natural. Some of it we consider essential, like the varroa treatments. As someone who lost my first hive to varroa just three months ago, it’s hard for me to really know what that line is.

    I guess this is one of the things that attracted me so much to beekeeping in the first place. There are a bunch of hard and fast rules, but the rest are guidelines that encourage personal experimentation and camaraderie. If you’re the kind to explore and constantly learn, beekeeping provides incredible opportunities for that.

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