I’m absolutely delighted to be writing for Keeping Backyard Bees. Actually, I’m delighted with bees in general, and came to the hobby—and my particular style of Bee-Centered Beekeeping—in a rather magical way.
Several years ago, I found an advertisement for a retreat about sacred beekeeping. I was new to the area, the retreat was close by, and the topic fairly dragged me to the registration site. I’ve been writing about the sacred and healing relationship between humans, animals, and nature for over 20 years now. Sacred bees? This was something new, and it looked right up my ally.
The two-day retreat was held at Friendly Haven Rise Farm in Battle Ground, Washington, and the teachers were Jacqeline Freeman (author, The Song of Increase: Restoring Our Sacred Partnership with Honeybees, and owner of the farm) and Michael Joshin Thiele. Michael is a biodynamic apiculturist who lectures worldwide on keeping bees in more natural and healthy hives, and has designed and installed several beekeeping sanctuaries. He also lectures on the sacredness of bees and beekeeping.
I called the farm and asked Jacqueline if the retreat was appropriate for someone with just about no knowledge of bees and she said, “Of course! You’ll have less to unlearn!”
At that retreat, I held my first honeycomb in my hands, marveled at queen cells, smelled the intoxicating aroma of propolis, and sat surrounded by the hum song of many hives. On the second day, Jacqueline and Michael lead us through a process where we circled a hive, then made a series of toning sounds as Michael instructed. Michael told us to watch and be still. As we slipped into silence after our brief chants, we were stunned to see hundreds of bees suddenly pouring from the hive to encircle us. The cloud of bees rose up to just above our heads, then settled down in a slow swirl around the circle, passing slowly in front of our faces, so close that we could feel the soft breeze of their wings.
I don’t remember how long we stood like that. I remember, though, that when the bees returned to their hive, all of us had tears running down our faces.
That did it. I was hooked! I’ve been bee-dazzled ever since. I started taking classes from Jacqueline (spiritbee.com), Corwin Bell (backyard hive.com), and have listened at the feet of Laura Bee Ferguson and Debra Roberts, Michael Bush (bush farms.com) and of course, Michael Joshin Thiele (gaiabees.com). I brought my first hives home four years ago. All of my teachers and mentors have been wildly unconventional, and so my beekeeping leans that way, too. We all have a style of beekeeping that puts the bees first: What do bees like, in terms of hives, location, care, and forage? What is our relationship with bees? Keeper? Guardian? Steward? Master? These are conversations worth having with ourselves and other beekeepers because the way we see ourselves in relationship to the honeybee will determine her fate.
My yard include Warres, Top Bars, Cathedral hives, log hives, and Sun Hives. I usually have about six hives coming and going at any one time.
I teach a series of beginning beekeeper classes out at the farm now called Bee-Centered Beekeeping: Putting Bees’ Needs First. My approach is non-treatment and minimal intervention, trusting the bees to take care of most things themselves. As Jacqueline and Michael Bush say, “First, do nothing.” This is a hard tenet to learn, especially when we are new to bees and often inclined to be overly helpful. I am hopeful that my efforts with my bees—all collected from swarms—is that I may help to keep a small chalice of golden genetics alive and safe for the future here in my little city yard. It’s a small thing, I know, but when I sit by my hives and watch them work for the good of every living thing, it feels like a big thing to me.
I’m happy to add my perspective to those of the distinguished contributors to this blog. There are many, many different, good ways to “bee.” I sincerely hope my experiences will help you to find your own unique style of bee-ing.
I would like to get started on haveing a bee hive, but find getting started is expensive. Is there anyone out there wants to get rid of an old hive so I can get started?
Hi Ronnie, check with your local beekeepers association as they might be able to help you…or, you can make your own hives, there are many different models that you can build yourself if you are handy with woodwork. I have heard that is probably best not to reuse hives since the bees that used to live there might have been sick or might be infected with mites, etc…best to use new equipment that perhaps you can make. I got to say, though, that I am by no means an expert in beekeeping! Just sharing what I have learned from having 2 colonies in the past. Trying again this year. Best wishes to you!
I think using old hives depends a lot on where you are from. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we don’t yet have hive beetles or any real problem with foul brood. Bees love to live in hives where bees have lived before. Once a hive is abandoned, the mites die quickly. I use old hives that are given to me all the time. If you are unsure of what you are getting, you can clean it out, then lightly torch the inside. You should be good to go! (Craigslist often has used equipment).
Great to meet you, Susan. I am new to beekeeping and probably do too much for the bees! I had 2 hives a couple of years ago and one died off and the other left…so, now, with 2 new nucs, I am probably overly maternal. So far, they are doing great (I think)…one hive better than the other in terms of more bees but I see no dead bees in either hive, so I consider this to be positive. Thank you for being part of this group!
I’m so happy to bee here! When we first start out, we tend to “hover” over our bees. I know I did (and still do). I’m wishing you great success with your girls!
I’m happy to read this post. I am a second year keeper, bumbling along. I have not spent a lot of time inspecting and looking for queens, it seems invasive. I just hope the bees know what to do and that I just need to supply them with lots of flowers and protection. I always think I am not as good as I should be but the thought that the bees will do what they need to is reassuring. My bees thrive so I guess this is a good theory.
One question, I have lots of problems with my top bars cross combing. This has resulted in very messy harvesting. Any suggestions? Do you have any better luck with the cathedral hives? I’m looking for a solution. Thanks!
Alison, sorry to be so late getting back to you. Where do these summer weeks go??? I have to admit that I, too, have a lot of cross comb in my hives. Nature does not like straight lines…sigh. Getting honey out is often a mess. Lots of times, I just lift out three bars or more at a time and poke through them gently. I just don’t feel good about forcing the bees to make straight comb, as the cross combing is done for temperature and ventilation regulation by the girls, so I just let them have at it. So far, my Cathedral hive has no evidence of cross combing. I think this is my favorite hive style at the moment—in terms of ease of working.
I am not a beekeeper yet but currently spending this winter doing my research so I can be readily prepared to make sure I take care of my future bees correctly. I am currently trying to decide what is the best type of hive to construct. I want to ensure I have happy, healthy bees able to survive the colder Canadian climate and as well, be able to harvest honey without too much disturbance to the bees. I saw you said Cathedral was turning into your favourite. So far, from my research that is the hive I’m leaning towards. Just wondering if you still feel the same way.
Hi Janelle: Since I wrote that post, I’ve become totally sold on straw hives, which I weave myself.They are legal where I live, and I love them, but, were I going for a wooden hive style, I believe I would go back to the Warre’ hive. They are small boxes, easy to handle, and honey can be harvested without too much upset to the bees. My caveat on any wooden hive is that none of them have suitable insulation (needed summer and winter), and I would insulate them with insulating panels or straw bales, or something–anything! I’ve got styrofoam panels on my Cathedral hive now.
While I enjoy my cathedral hive a great deal, it is a really LARGE hive and holds a massive amount of bees. For backyard keeper–and this is, of course, totally subjective–I prefer keeping smaller hives. Thomas Seeley recommends smaller colonies for better health and survival. I suppose I could run my Cathedral like a duplex with a separating board between them, but I don’t.
On a Warre’, you could easily stick to two boxes total, with one empty to spare which you would replace when you removed a honey box. With Warre’s you generally manage them not comb-by-comb, but by box, which is why I think they are a great idea for new beekeepers (you simply don’t have the options to make the amount of mistakes one can make with a Langstroth!) David Heaf has the definitive book on how to use Warre’ hives.
Did I leave you with more questions than I answered?! Write back, I’m happy to ‘splain!
We had a Horrible first year.. The Mites are just terrible . How do you go treatment free? Don’t the Mites kill the bees? Our were packages bought from a Guy that Got them in GA.. I’m in CT.. 1st mistake. in late October after trying to be as organic as possible our Mite count with a Sugar shake were 55 per half cup in our Carnie hive and 16 per half cup in our Italian hive.. We treated with Hop Guard because we can’t just let all of them die.. I have 2 hives and we are in it for the the bees.. Not to make money , just because we had seen local honeybees decline in our gardens.. Basically I am really in it for them and don’t believe in poisoning them to keep them.. I want to be a steward and not a keeper.. We have 2 langstroth hives .. Help
Bruce, I hear you. Moving to a bee-kind approach takes time, knowledge, and particular management styles. First, I’m going to refer you to some really good online sites where you can begin accumulating the right “training” to pull this off.First, google the Thomas Seeley “Darwinian Beekeeping” article. Also, do some study at the Natural Beekeeping Trust website. They are based in England, and have more research and good articles on Natural Beekeeping than anyone else on the planet. Subscribe to their magazing, Natural Beekeeping Husbandry. It is WONDERFUL. Also, Google Kirk Webster, who discusses the process over a number of years of moving to treatment-free.
As I wrote, our method of keeping bees IS our treatment method. In two Langstroth hives, this is where I would personally start. And…as I said, you won’t find this information much of anywhere else. We are developing this new paradigm as we go: First, keep your Langs to only one deep box, or a deep and a medium atop. BENEATH the hive, removing the floor on the bottom deep, place a medium box that will set atop a board and serve as your ecofloor. Fill the box with old wood mulch and leaf matter. This is where your village of 4,000+ beneficials will live.
Next, block the bottom entrance to the Lang, and drill a hole about halfway up the hive (maybe about an inch or inch-and-a-half diameter. Insert a 3″ bamboo tube in the whole (or a piece of PVC that fits). This is your “bee gauntlet.” With and entrance like this, regardless of the weakness of your hive, you will have no wasps or robbers to contend with.
Then, place empty frames with no foundation in the hive. Some of our students actually just put the bars across the top and cut away the rest of the frame. This will allow the bees to build their comb the way they need it for insulation/cooling purposes.
Insulate your Lang box by any means that makes sense to you. I’d go with 2″ insulation boards tacked on the sides, top, and bottom. This needs to stay on the hive year round. Bees to best when the inside of the colony is not heavily influenced by fluctuating outside temps. The bees need the insulation more in summer than in winter, actually!
You can use a medium box to create a Warre’-style quilt box for the top of the hive so that you have no problems with moisture and condensation. If you do all of this, you now have a hive that bees can manage with far less stress to them, and a bottom where, if mites fall, someone will be down there to eat them.
Now–the biggest issue: Where do you source your bees? Package bees cannot survive treatment free unless you are just plain lucky and hit the bee-jackpot. Package bees are not suited to your geography, and come to you stressed, weak, and incohesive. Start now looking for local beekeepers who sell nucs, or BEST YET–get yourself on swarm lists this coming season. Swarms will most easily adapt to treatment free keeping. Take local classes from bee clubs who might maintain swarm lists and learn how to catch swarming bees.
Then–Expect to lose bees in your first years. To find the genetics that work best for you takes time. Basically, collect the swarms from your own bees that survive over the winter. In a smaller hive, you may get three or more swarms from one hive each season, or even more. Catch all of these by hanging bait boxes in your’s and neighbor’s yards. Come autumn, you may lose some of these swarms, but over time, more and more will survive the winter for you. Don’t prop up failing hives. This is the hard part. I think of my bees as family and watching a hive fail hurts like hell. But you must allow nature her wisdom. This is easier to do if you keep more hives than you think you need. It’s easier to lose some when you know you have their sisters right next door in one of your other hives. You are seeking to keep healthy bee families, and those families will become the bees who survive for you. My mentor says she lost all her bees every year for 4 years. Then, some started surviving over the winter. She restocked from those swarms. By year 8, she was going through many years losing NONE. Her survival rates remain high, 14 years later.
Beekeeping is not in a place right now where any of us can expect not to lose hives. I lose usually 50% of mine each year, some to mites, but these days, mostly to failing queens. (which is an article in itself…). But each spring, I restock from my own bees. Two lines of genetics I found from swarms now seem to be my “survivor” bees.
Bruce, first get your hive so that it is as bee-friendly as you can. Then, plan on getting your hands on good local bees. Then, give yourself time. It is really a timing thing!
I’m so happy to have stumbled upon your website. I am very new to beekeeping and I have been reading all I can about this before starting this Spring with some hives. I still have so many decisions to make and I am looking for advise on whether reading/researching/watching YouTube videos and joining a local beekeepers association in Spring is enough to get started? I live in Germany at present and I see Michael Thiele (I believe is the same Michael Thiele you initially learnt from) has the Centre for Ecological Apiculture here in Germany. I have looked to do courses here but the practical course seems to cost thousands of euros and the online ecological Top Bar beekeeping course is at around 500 euros which is more affordable. http://www.thiele-und-thiele-consult.de/courses/topbar-beekeeping-for-beginners.html#traineeship.
But it seems strange to do an online course when I believe working with bees should be learnt practically. I have been following a free online course with PerfectBee.com and it covers basic beekeeping for beginners. I am just wondering if I should spend the money and the time to do online courses to gain confidence and education or should I use my money and invest in hives and bees and learn as I go? I completely want to be bee centred and to just love them up.
Would you recommend Langstroth, Warre or Top Bar hives for beginners? Thank you so much for supporting novice beekeepers like me and sharing your knowledge. Much love Fiona
Hi Fiona: I learned by reading, taking some local classes, and then getting bees–and continuing to read. My experience is that it was not until I had bees that I could truly benefit from the classes. Because before I had bees, it was all just theoretical. Look close to where you live for some bee clubs or classes, and perhaps to find a bee friend who can work with you.
If you want to go “natural” you have the perfect organization to learn from in your country: The Natural Beekeeping Trust. Their website is FULL of the best natural keeping articles, research and advice. Our organization here in the states–preservationbeekeeping.com–also is full of good and free information. We also are in the process of getting our monthly bee club meetings onto live streaming video, so all can attend, world over.
If you read the article by Thomas Seeley which you can find online, “Darwinian Beekeeping,” it will provide you with all the steps a good beekeeper will ever need to follow. I’m sure the free basic class on bees is all you need to get some bees and get going.
As to hive styles, I am partial to Warre hives. I don’t use them myself anymore because I keep all my bees in logs and woven skeps, but Warre’s are a good hive for beginners in that the hives can be kept small and manageable, and are good for bees. Whatever hive you choose, remember that any of the wooden hives, Top Bars, Warre’s, Nationals, all have no decent insulation. So, even with a Warre, I’d STRONGLY recommend insulating the outside with more wood or insulation panels. Also, I recommend keeping all hives under cover, even if only a large wooden flat roof on the top of the hive. You don’t want them getting totally saturated on the outside.
Fiona, happy bee-ing!