Natural Organic Beekeeping


Working with bees is such a privilege and the bee’s ability to survive in an ever increasingly hostile environment is amazing, but there is a limit as to just how much bees can handle and that limit is now being reached.   Man is responsible for most of the bee’s melodies and much of what’s happening in beekeeping today must change.  The constant adding of chemicals to beehives combined with trucking thousands of beehives all over the country was never a good idea and at some point these practices must stop.

For the past three years I have constantly asked myself why is the world having so many problems with bees and is there a way to keep bees that’s commercially viable, sustainable, organic and natural.  I searched back in history and looked for answers in scientific papers and found that the answers are right there starring at us.  What have we done to help create this melody of dramas for bees and why wasn’t CCD happening in the past or did it.  There were historically massive bee deaths in countries at various times but almost always this appears to be the result of a new virus strain and the bees quickly recovered and life continued uninterrupted for long periods without further issues.

History shows us that many people cared for bees and recorded much information that today can shed light on many of the ways we have changed the bee’s ability to cope with stress and disease and insect attack from the likes of Varroa destructor.  There are small groups of people around the world who have used this information to change the way they keep there bees and have been able to stop the use of chemicals in there beehives and once again reinvigorate the bees natural abilities to protect themselves from attach from Varroa and diseases and once again return to a natural balance where sustainable natural beekeeping without chemicals and massive yearly die offs can once again be the norm.

Going back just 120 years will show that beekeepers around the world used many different beehive designs from skeps to logs of all different sizes and shapes and this had been going on for longer than we have records.  Before this people would collect honey from wild natural hives any which way they could.  Some records show people moved bees from time to time but mostly bees where kept for long periods without movement.  Bees where studied and measured and dissected by many people in the past and there records are a treasure trove of information for those who are looking for answers.

So what’s different about beekeeping today that’s significantly different today compared to the beekeeping practices and mediums of the past. 

Many natural beekeepers place blame on the very homes we provide for bees as the Standard Langstroth or Warre beehive today consisting of a wooden box with movable frames or top-bars was revolutionary 100 years ago but in truth and from a bees point of view it’s not so different from the skeps and logs of old.  It’s only revolutionary from a human point of view because it made the beekeepers job of inspecting and manipulating the hive so much easier when compared to a skep or log hive.  For the bees it’s a home like any other and fulfils all the basic requirements of shelter and comfort adhering to the bees’ basic requirements.  Not much of a change really.

Many activists and environmentalists blame the state of the environment and the numerous poisons that we use on farms and in our backyards for the melodies of bees today and forget that bees use and encounter chemicals naturally in there environment.  Plants produce some of the most toxic substances known to man and bees.  The bees collect many of these compounds to use in there hives and have devised a number of ways to reduce there toxic effects and benefit from these toxic resins and use them to their own advantage.  Resins filled with active compounds are used to waterproof the hive and close up gaps and sterilise the hive.  These compounds are used to kill bacteria and fungus in the hive and keep the bees healthy.  Environments change all the time and disasters happen every day and bees are able to adapt and manage in a huge variety of situations and the very design of their nest and there habit of collecting lots of nectar for storage shows they understand there need to save up for times of dearth.  They know better than most the need to be ready for change.  Beekeepers rarely put there bees in extreme environments for excessively long periods such as almond monoculture orchards and other than acute accidental poisoning of bees the bees can cope with many changes in there environment very successfully and the chemicals beekeepers are putting into beehives to combat issues such as the Varroa mites can weaken a hive for a short time but they quickly recover if given time and a clean environment to do so.  Extremes of any type are never good and commercial beekeepers often push there bees to the extreme edge of their ability to cope with the constant changes and chemical imputes from there environment and we are able to see today that commercial beekeeping practices are contributing to many of the issues bees are facing in their fight to survive.  But aside from the commercial beekeepers bees in backyards and hobby farms are doing reasonably ok and the less we move hives around the better they can survive but if done properly and with great care and love for bees the moving of bees in large numbers should not really be an issue.  It’s only an issue because we are moving them from one extreme environment to another extreme environment and the bees don’t have time to rest and recover.  Bees have been dealing with chemicals in there environment for hundreds of thousands of years and being moved around in there environment has been going on for thousands of years or longer so I can’t see this as the massive change although we are often pushing the bees limits for sure.

The biggest change today from beekeeping 120 plus years ago would have to be the use of man-made wax foundation.  People around the world recorded everything they could see about bees including the cell sizes and aside from a few bees in tropical environments they found bees to have a brood nest cell size of 4.7mm to 4.9mm on average and beekeepers of old would do all they could to make bees keep there brood chamber as compact as possible and bees were often using cell sizes in the brood chamber of 4.6mm and sometimes even smaller.  This idea of having a compact brood chamber had persisted for a very long time and records show that the more compact the brood chamber the less disease they had of any type.  It has been found that bees in the wild in most parts of the world build brood chamber cells of 4.7mm to 4.9mm on average and beekeepers using natural comb log hives in turkey had no disease issues until they started using Large cell wax foundation of 5.4mm.  It was only with the invention of the modern day wax foundation that bees became subject to large upsizing manipulation by man.  The first person to make wax foundation using a wood press made a cell size of 4.7mm to 4.8mm on his boards and shows us that this is what he believed was the natural size used by bees at that time.

For over 100 years beekeepers around the world have been manipulated into using large cell size foundation of 5.4mm believing this to be the right size.  It must be right because that’s what all the shops sell and that’s what my father used and his father before him for 3 or 4 generations now we have been using this overly large cell size but then something happened.   Varroa Destructor came along and showed the folly of upsizing but companies soon came to the rescue with chemical additives potions and oils etc. to fix the problem, all at expense of your wallet and the health of the bees and knowing full well that it was a very short sited quick fix that will not last long.  Varroa quickly develops resistance to all of these chemicals added to beehives and the chemical companies and experimenters find a new chemical but now the price goes up and the cycle of additives goes around again and again.  How to get off this merry go round?

There is only one real way of getting of this cycle of destruction and that’s to follow nature and look at what works in nature.  There are two things that determine a successful wild hive in nature against Varroa destructor and that’s temperament i.e. hygienic behaviour and small cell size.  When the two are combined you have a simple solution that simply works.  Bees are all about there epigenetics and bees at different sizes activate different epigenetics and if you have ever seen Large cell bees next to Small Natural sized bees you can see immediately the difference in how they move because small natural sized bees move more, they don’t stop moving and move effortlessly compared to large cell bees. 

This connection between small natural cell size and the bee’s ability to survive has been observed for over 30 years now and its time that people started to see the truth.  Beekeepers around the world have been manipulated into using chemicals in there hives for too long now and the health of bees has been effected and the quality of our honey has diminished often tainted by these beekeeper imputes into the hive.  Queen longevity has reduced to just 1 or 2 years and the whole beekeeping industry and the bees are suffering needlessly.  Many have been told of super bees that have superior powers to fight Varroa Destructor but still they need help from mans added chemicals when used on Large cell 5.4mm foundation even if its reduced chemical imputes it has not fixed the problem and it never will.  The only fix that completely removes the need for chemical imputes is to use small cell foundation of 4.9mm or below.  Once this has been achieved almost all bees will become super bees able to defend themselves against Varroa Destructor and will allow beekeeping to once again be a sustainable organic and thriving industry with many less issues.

Steven Murphy

Natural cell size beekeeper