What is Natural Beekeeping and does it work

 

It’s a simple question but the answers might surprise you.  Natural beekeeping is a method of beekeeping that attempts to fit bees into a more natural system that mimics the way bees live in nature. 

Let’s have a look… In nature bees mostly use a tree hollow that is often vertically elongated and has just one entrance and no ventilation but is insulated with many inches of timber from the tree.  The bees will mostly start at the top of the tree hollow and work there way down building there comb and utilising the entire space.  The available space in a tree hollow is highly variable from 10 litres to 100 litres and the conditions from one hollow to another can change dramatically.  The high degree of variability in tree hollows explains why bees are relatively adaptable to different box designs and sizes and man has tried a huge variety over the past several thousand years and possibly longer.

If we truly wanted to emulate a natural hive design that fitted better the model of a tree hollow the first consideration would be timber thickness.  Tree hollows are naturally at the centre of a tree and the hollow would normally have at least 100mm (3 inches) of timber thickness surrounding the hive.  This would make the hive design very heavy and construction would not be easy and moving of such a beehive would be very difficult.  There are records and examples of log hives going back thousands of years but management in these hives is rather difficult and in the process of harvesting the honey and wax from the colony it is likely that the colony will be killed as was the case with most skeps and pottery hives prior to the use of modern movable frame hives.

There are four main types of modern hives that claim to be more natural in there approach to bees and they are the Warre hive, Top bar hives, Kenyan long box hives and the sunburst hives.  All of these hives have one thing in common and that’s the use of Top bars rather than full frames.  So why the use of top bars rather than full frames like the langstroth hives?  Proponents of top bar beekeeping make many claims about there top bar systems but is it true.  Sort of true to a certain degree, but as natural tree hollows show us that bees are highly adaptable You have to ask does it make a difference.  Is the difference in the top bars themselves compared to using full frames?  NO.  Top bar users still use a guide to keep the comb built by the bees nice and straight.  Often they will use a small strip of foundation or a paddle pop stick dipped in wax to guide the bees rather than a complete frame of wax foundation.  Getting bees to make there own comb without foundation as a guide is said to be healthier for the bees and in polluted environments this would be very true.  Many users of langstroth beehives also use starter strips and paddle pop sticks rather than full sheets of foundation so there really isn’t any difference here.

 

large square hive 60mm timbers

 

Is it the box itself that makes the big difference……  No.   Be it a Warre hive or a long box top bar hive the timber thickness used is all relatively similar.  Langstroth is around 26mm and this is the same approx. thickness used in most hives of all designs worldwide.  Even the sunhive which utilises a woven basket structure covered in mud clay is about the same thickness.   So the timber thermal properties of most hives used today are all fairly similar and are based on ease of use by MAN and not what’s best for bees….  If you wanted to make a beehive that was really closely derived from nature you would need a beehive with a minimum timber thickness of 60mm plus.  I did this and I know it works well for the bees but it does make the hive rather heavy and difficult to move once it’s been setup.   Log hives are still used in some countries but there use is limited due to there difficulty in harvesting honey, checking for disease and they are super heavy and difficult to move.

Next we have the issue of hive ventilation and the different types of ventilation available for different hives.  Natural tree hollows don’t have any ventilation and only one entrance so ventilation is an issue created by man and the use of overly thin timbers that suit man rather than the bees.  With the use of 60mm plus timbers there is great insulation and little or no issues with moisture in the hive in winter.  All modern beehives used by man have issues to some degree concerning moisture build up in hives due to condensation.  The Warre hive seems to provide a suitable solution to this issue and the sunhive using a clay mud covering seems to alleviate much of this issue as well.  The standard long and top bar hives have issues with moisture in winter and its not recommended for people in cold moist temperate zones for this reason.  The langstroth hive in Australia uses a migration cover and this has several vent holes for ventilation but is easily modified and many users of Langstroth hives simply use a flat board under there lid to simulate a tree hollow and this seems to work well for most beekeepers here in Australia and alleviates most of the moisture issue.

Natural beekeeping philosophy can be practiced using any bee box available to you as it’s about the ideas of how to look after and manage your bees. 

Doing what you can to create a more harmonious relationship with your bees. 

The biggest difference between natural beekeepers and mainstream beekeepers is the use of foundation.  In a natural hive the bees will make a range of cell sizes that can range from 4.6mm up to about 5.7mm with the smallest cells normally in the centre of the brood chamber and larger honey stores and drone cells on the periphery or away from the brood chamber. 

Natural beekeepers make the bees build their own comb from scratch with top bar guide and allow the bees to build what they want.  This is great for the bees from wild tree hives which make natural small cells but what about the bees coming directly from commercial sized foundation?  Bees will act in accordance with their current size so bees coming directly from commercial 5.4mm un-naturally large foundation will unfortunately build the same size as they are used to building or just 0.2mm smaller cell sizes and sometimes without a guide they just build a whole bunch of odd sized cells as if they have forgotten what they really need to make.  Bees like humans get used to doing stuff in a routine way and when you suddenly change that routine it can cause some strange side effects in some colonies.

For those who wish to change over to a more natural philosophy in there beekeeping methods you can use wild colonies after checking cell size which should be around 4.9mm or below and if purchasing bees from commercial beekeepers, swarms etc. then for just one season it may be useful to use full sheets or half size sheets of small cell foundation to help the bees back to a more natural sustainable size before going completely foundationless.  As to the use of wire in frames I have found no difference and no effects good or bad associated with the use of wire and thus this is down to the beekeepers personal preference or philosophy.  Some claims of wire limiting the vibrations of the bees waggle dance etc. through the comb are just conjecture on their part and I find this thinking to be on the fanatical side and no actual proof is available to support this claim.  It is often the case that in a natural tree hollows there are bits of timber and stuff that go across the hollow and bees build over and around it and use it to support their combs just as wire is used in full frames.

The other big difference in natural beekeeping is the complete lack of additives used in beehives.  Not true.  Many natural beekeepers use a variety of what they call therapeutic oils to help them with there beekeeping.  Things like thyme oil, lavender oil, lemon grass oil etc. compared to standard beekeeping which often use the same oils but also use a range of commercially available miticides etc.  Are there times when I might think its ok to use an additive in the hive mmm yes but I hesitate to say this as any additive you put in a hive can have major long term ramifications on the pro biotic relationships that bees have with their environment.  Some oils like Borage oil and evening primrose oil and tea tree oil are very effective in combination at treating things like American foul brood and European foul brood and Nosema but the application method, qty to be used and timing for effectiveness has not been properly studied or determined and certainly no data is available on any adverse effects if any if used incorrectly.

Does natural beekeeping equal or mean Organic beekeeping and what is organic beekeeping.  If you follow the Organic way of Dee Lusby then no additives of any type ever should be used in your bees once they have been regressed back down to their original natural size range of 4.9mm or below in the main brood chamber.  As stated by Dee and witnessed by many the only bees that need treatments are those that are still unnaturally large bees of 5.4mm and this has been proven and demonstrated time and time again. 

The real key to organic natural beekeeping is the cell size and once this issue is dealt with properly in a hive or apiary then all other issues become less (unless you’re in the middle of a farming area spraying toxic crap every day) but actually its true.  Most all diseases and mite issues become minor issues and within a year or two of getting bees back to their original smaller size beekeepers can throw away there poison potions.  Large Migratory beekeepers are a special class of beekeepers that place a high level of stress on there bees and as I have stated in the past this practice should be banned.  Even so I have read of several medium sized migratory beekeepers that have been able to do away with almost all treatments by utilising natural small cell beekeeping practices.

There are only 4 things we do differently today compared to 150 years ago. 

  1. The use of foundation to guide bees and manipulate cell size.  Man chose to make bees bigger and this in turn made them more susceptible to disease.  We need to get back to a more natural cell size.
  2. We keep bee colonies for longer as previously most beekeepers killed there colony in the process of collecting the honey and wax.
  3. The sheer quantity of bees we migrate around the country.  Very large trucks full of beehives are not natural or sustainable and this needs to stop.
  4. The use of and quantity of chemicals used both in beehives and the environment. This also needs to change.

 

At the end of the day I don’t care what box design is used or what beekeeping method you want to use as what’s important is the cell size.  Fix this and most issues will disappear.

 

Did I answer the Question?  You tell me?

Thanks for reading

Steve

Recommended reading of my blog www.ikeepbees.com.au or for those wishing to read in depth have a look at www.resistantbees.com