Philosophies


What's on this page?


The Bees Know Best

The biggest overriding philosophy I have in beekeeping is that the bees know best.  Bees are wild animals for the most part.  Theyíre not like cows and chickens who in the wild will be picked off by predators.  Farm animals have been truly domesticated.  Bees on the other hand have only been somewhat tamed.  We have bred bees now that are a bit gentler and more productive, but they are really still wild.  They canít be controlled.  They canít be caged.

So, what weíre left with is not the ability to force them to fulfill our goals, but the desire to work with them to encourage them to do the things they naturally do but do them in a way that benefits us as humans.  Among others thatís one reason why we use movable frame hives or top bars in top bar hives.  We want to be able to encourage the bees to enlarge their brood nests to make more bees and produce more honey.  We want to turn their reproductive impulse into an increase in honey production.

These are my goals.  But where have humans gone wrong in the past?  What have we done which have stood in the way of the bees rather than standing beside them?  There are a couple of glaring things.


Pollination

Commercial pollination, I believe, is one of the things that stands in the way of a real synergistic relationship with the bees.  In nature, hives of bees do not move.  They swarm and the swarm may travel a few miles, and they might abscond if the hive location is poor, but realistically, a single hive or queen will never go more than a few miles at most.  Pollination however, due to the monoculture of almonds in California and other crops in other places, requires hundreds of thousands of hives to be moved thousands of miles.  Furthermore, those hives which in nature would naturally be miles apart are concentrated to a point where disease can spread like wildfire.  After a couple of weeks all those hives will again be disbursed throughout the country spreading that disease from one point to the rest of the country.  And this happens every year!  And itís not only almonds.  There are blueberries, melons, apples, peaches, alfalfa, and the list goes on.

I donít believe migratory pollination is possible without the use of chemicals and antibiotics to prop up the bees.  I have found that moving my own bees is very stressful on them.  I have heard rumors of migratory treatment-free beekeepers.  I believe there is one operation that makes a yearly journey from Texas to the Dakotas.

Bee Migration

The solution is to create farming areas that are not concentrated monocultures where bees can be kept the whole year.  Nothing can live in those almond orchards.  There is virtually no living thing for miles other than almond trees.  I've been there.  I've seen it.


Chemicals

The chemicals themselves are a massive part of the problem and for a number of very important reasons.  We should think of a hive as an organism.  It is one large organism made up of individually autonomous parts.  The queen is not the ruler of the hive, she is only a part.  Drones are not a waste of resources; they are a resource and have their part to play as well.  But more recently, we have discovered that the hive as a whole is not just an organism made up of bees, but a super-organism made of hundreds of species of microbes as well.  Those bacteria, fungi, and other living things form a complex synergistic web which when properly tuned helps to eliminate disease and attenuate infection.  Even disease causing bacteria in the proper balance cancel each other out keeping the disease under control and keeping symptoms from appearing.  They do this by competing with one another and in a sense fighting one another.

But when we treat for diseases, we introduce effects far beyond the treatment of the disease.  Antibiotics kill indiscriminately.  Their discontinued use leaves open a chance for an opportunistic infection to rapidly populate the hive and take over.  Therefore their continued use is necessary in treated hives.  Thus the most workable solution is to never use them to begin with.

There is another deeper aspect to chemical usage, persistence.  Many of these chemicals are lipophilic.  In other words, they are soluble in oils and fats, otherwise known as lipids.  Wax is a lipid.  The chemicals are absorbed into the beeswax until it becomes saturated.  Even when the chemical use is ended, the chemicals persist in the wax.  In medicine, we know that improper usage of a drug leads to resistance by the infectious organism.  One route is over usage (using the drug whether it is needed or not) and other one is under usage (using an insufficient amount of the drug to totally kill off the organism).  Since in the very best of cases, we don't know if the organism will actually kill the hive, the chemicals and drugs are always overused.  In the worst of cases, every hive is treated indiscriminately and every hive has a quantity of residual chemical in it year 'round leading to resistance and continued need for treatment.  I will say it again, it's better to never use them to begin with.

Wax Management

Though we humans see wax moths as destructive and something to be avoided at all costs, in nature wax moths are highly beneficial to the life cycle of a hive.  I have read of cases where feral bees have allowed wax moths to destroy part of their comb only to rebuild it later.  In a tree hollow, when a hive dies out or leaves, the wax moths come along and clean up the leftovers.  A future hive will then take its place and continue to enlarge the hollow.  You see, wax in a way is like the parts of your body which absorb toxins and keep them away from the rest of your body.  Your fat and bones may store heavy metals and thus they do not affect you and make you sick until their concentration becomes too great.  The bees can do this too, and itís part of their cycle for their wax to be destroyed every five to ten years. 

It should be part of your management practice to cycle wax out of the hive as it becomes old, allowing the hive to build new wax.  Though it's far from a hard and fast rule, I try to add one or two frames of foundation into each box each spring.  At the same time, since most of the frames are empty from winter, I can find the worst of them (excessive drone comb, crooked, moth eaten, etc.) and remove them to be rendered

Using plastic frames and foundationless combs makes comb processing easier if done properly.  Wax from plastic frames can be scraped off or left out for the wax moths.  When at Michael Bush's place, I saw how old boxes of plastic frames were quickly cleaned and returned to service after sitting for a year or two being eaten by moths.  I found a stainless steel box at a commercial cooking store which I fill with water and place a fire under.  When the water gets warm enough, I can swish the frames through the water, removing old comb in a matter of seconds.  A lot of people have used old 55-gallon drums cut in half for the same purpose.  You can also use solar ovens and other nifty gadgets which I will explore later.

Wax Melter


Queen Production

The way queens are bred is also an unfortunate aspect of todayís beekeeping practice.  I have been told that there used to be hundreds of individual genetic lines of queens in the US.  Now after the import of varroa mites, there are less than 40.  Now I donít particularly trust the source for much, but what he says is a key to one of the problems of beekeeping.  For years, those in charge of the beekeeping media have demanded that swarmsí queens be replaced with well bred commercially produced queens.  Many wild feral lines of bees were undoubtedly simply squished because someone thought that they should replace their queen every year.

Such wholesale replacement of queens leads to production of large numbers of queens.  Perhaps hundreds of queens may be produced from a single mother in a yearís time.  This never happens in the wild.  A long lived queen who swarms maybe even twice a year will probably have less than a dozen daughters in her lifetime.  A good breeder from a commercial beekeeper will produce thousands.

Why are wild queens dirty?  They represent a source of genetics for which no one gets paid.  Thatís right, itís money.  Queen producers want you to buy queens primarily because they sell queens.  Thereís nothing wrong with your queens.  Your queens donít need to be replaced.  In fact, your own hives will replace their own queens pretty reliably and with pretty amazing regularity. 

When your queens need to be replaced for some legitimate reason, be it waning productivity, meanness, or disease, do it.  But don't do anything arbitrarily.  And even if you don't, the hive will do it eventually anyway.


Feeding

In the ever present drive to make more honey, feeding, especially stimulative feeding, becomes a practice seemingly necessary to produce on par.  Even freshman beekeepers seem to think itís necessary to feed sugar syrup and pollen substitute in the fall, winter, and spring.  Why?  Bees have survived countless millennia without humans to coddle them, why do they need it now?  It has come to the point where much of the honey available in food and in stores is high fructose corn syrup fed to the bees and converted into honey.  Most people canít tell the difference, but they wonít hesitate to tell you that local honey tastes MUCH better.  Itís often because itís actual honey.  Bees donít need fed if youíre managing them properly.  If you take too much from them, they may starve.  Donít do that! 

Sometimes in dire circumstances after a poor season, you may be in danger of losing them.  If thatís the case, consider feeding them granulated sugar.  It wonít hurt and it will allow them to survive for the time being.  But followup should be done to assure that these bees aren't contributing their genetics to the population if they can't survive the winter without help.  Check the Feeding page for more details. 

Bees donít need stimulative feeding.  Itís purposeful trickery and itís not good.

Bees eat honey.  Thatís what they make, thatís what theyíre meant to eat.  Sometimes in our management of them, for instance in artificial reproduction, we need to feed them to return to them something weíve taken in our practices.  So if you can, feed honey.  If you canít, feed granulated sugar.  Do NOT feed HFCS.  Itís not a biological or natural product.  I almost believe people think corn syrup is just squeezed out of corn.  ďitís corn, itís okay right?Ē  No.  Itís not corn.  Itís made from the chemical processing of starch in the kernels.  You wouldnít eat that kind of corn unprocessed.  Itís not sweet corn.   Itís nasty corn.  Itís basically inedible without processing.  HFCS is not good for you, itís not good for bees.  Leave it alone!

Commercial Beekeeping versus Hobbyist and Backyard Beekeeping

I am a hobbyist beekeeper.  If you are reading this website, you probably are too.  And that's okay.  As a backyard beekeeper or hobbyist, you should understand that you are not a commercial beekeeper and there's no reason for you to do things like they do.  You have entirely different needs.  They need to make their living with their bees and you probably don't.  They have contracts to fulfill, you don't.  They may have millions of dollars tied up in their business and need to provide a paycheck so they can eat, and you don't.

With commercial beekeeping and perhaps the culture in general, thereís the willingness to solve every problem with drugs.  Now if you think about it, itís not that surprising, and I canít say I could really expect anything else.  Drugs work.  They produce a tangible and timely benefit. You have to realize, for commercial beekeepers, bees are money.  Bees are income.  If their bees die, they starve (a bit of hyperbole).  Well, you know what I mean.  If your bees die, itís like losing your job.  The only commercial beekeeper that has ever simply allowed bees to die of disease rather than treat them has been Dee Lusby and her late husband Ed.  During their transition to treatment free and small cell survivor bees, they went from a thousand hives to less than an hundred.  Very very few commercial beekeepers could survive that.  But they had low overheads, just like you do.

There have been some who have done it well, if not late.  What they did was set aside a portion of their bees to follow through the process of treatment-free acclimation and then use those surviving queens to breed in survivability.

So, given all these drags on the business of beekeeping, what can we as small queen producers, backyard beekeepers, and sideliners do to help?

Herein lies the overriding philosophy.

We want to work with the bees.  Letís not ask questions like ďhow can I get the bees to do such and such?Ē  The question is, ďwhat do the bees need to do what comes natural to them?Ē  What can I do so that both our goals can be met?

When we bring a give and take relationship to the table, the benefit goes to everyone.  Compromise is where everyone gives up something and everyone gets something.  Humans get pollination of crops and production of honey, bees get homes and the expansion of their species.


Survivorship

Finally comes the toughest part of my philosophy and I think part most people have the biggest problem with.

I let bees die.

Now let's not start making comparisons to sick pets or sick children or sick farm animals.  Bees are not pets or children or farm animals.  Despite common practice, you won't hear me referring to 'the girls.'  They're insects.  Properly keeping them involves properly understanding them.  In nature, the primary method for advancement of a species is natural selection.  This is something that is common in the cultural base of knowledge.  What seems to be forgotten however is the reciprocal concept which for the sake of argument I'll call 'deselection.'  We understand the process of natural selection selects the organisms most fit to survive to continue reproducing.  But the part everybody seems to forget is that the rest die.  99% of all the species that have ever existed in the history of the earth died and have gone extinct.  They couldn't cut it, they couldn't triumph over whatever adversity they were facing and they died.  Not only did they die, but every member of their species died.

In beekeeping, when you artificially prop up the bees, allowing them to survive as a species without doing the hard work overcoming obstacles and adversity, you get a weak species, one which cannot survive without human intervention.  Furthermore, in the case of the diseases you're fighting for the bees, you're getting stronger organisms.  You're creating extra additional adversity that they have to overcome, and when they do, they are stronger than they would have been had the bees dealt with then naturally.  By interfering with the natural process, you're creating wimpy bees and super mites.

That's unacceptable.

But it's the status quo.

So not only do I not treat, I don't even do the other things to help the bees along.  I don't use screened bottom boards to let mites fall out of the hive.  I don't kill drone brood to interrupt the mites' reproduction cycle.  I don't interrupt the bees brood cycle to interfere with the mites' reproduction.  I don't do any of the things that are done to help the bees deal with mites or any other disease.

And when a hive shows that they are having problems, I let them either deal with it themselves, or the disease will deal with them.

The funny thing is, that's how nature works and it not only breeds stronger bees, but in a small way, it breeds weaker disease (mostly mites in our case).  A disease which drives its host extinct is a poor survivor itself.  If the host dies, the disease dies.  A proper parasitic relationship is one in which the parasite is only a very minor inconvenience or goes unnoticed by the host.  Not interfering and allowing the host and pest to come into balance is the only sustainable and workable option for both.

That's not to say that given the opportunity you shouldn't requeen very poor performers and avoid losing the hive altogether.  But I like to give them the opportunity to die on their own.  Oftentimes, the bees may supersede the queen and the replacement is often better than the original.  You need to make your own decisions as to how you'll proceed.

Another aspect I'm adding to this lately is not feeding.  The winter of 2013-4, I did not feed any hive until February 1 at which point I fed a single hive which was was very nearly starved and which I wanted to keep because it was on medium frames, a part of my operation I am trying to expand.  By that time, at least four of 25 hives had died of starvation.  Feeding can be thought of as treating for starvation, so I have decided to avoid it except in very special circumstances.