What do bees like? If your bees could tell you what they would prefer from you—their gentle steward—what do you imagine they might say? This is a question my teachers and I ask ourselves, and we do our best to keep bees in a way that honors their true biology, which is the best indicator we have of how bees like to…well…bee. In short, we put bees first.
Interestingly, most of the studies and research we have on honeybees—and there is a lot of it—has been performed on bees in Langstroth hives or observation hives. Neither is a natural home for bees, and so what we are seeing in these hives are often not natural behaviors, necessarily, but rather adaptations to an artificial environment. It is akin to putting people in a large tank of water, and noting the behavior: “They ‘naturally’ hold their breath and flap their arms and feet when in their home, and sleep afloat on their backs. They have very wrinkled skin…”
For example, Biodynamic Apiculturist Michael Joshin Thiele (Gaiabees.com) reminded me that feral bees living in tree hives do not form a winter cluster, as the thermal mass of the thick surrounding wood keeps the interior of the hive comfortable. You might think, “Yeah, so what?” But if you are wanting to see your bees survive a long winter, and hoping to maybe collect a little honey sometime, you would be surprised to learn that bees consume four times less honey in a cozy log hive than in a Langstroth. All that shivering to keep the winter cluster alive takes a huge amount of energy for a bee—far more than just hanging out on the comb and sharing winter dreams. And in a honeybee’s world, energy equals honey.
This information on clustering we know from researchers who are following honeybees to their wild homes, and studying them there. Thanks to intrepid scientists like Dr. Thomas Seeley, and to backyard bee masters like Michael Thiele, Jacqueline Freeman (spiritbee.com) and Corwin Bell (backyardhive.com), we are beginning to understand what bees like and need from us.
My students and I use the phrase, “What do bees like?” to guide us in our keeping habits. In this series of articles, I’m going to share seven crucial tenets of our particular kind of bees-first beekeeping, and explain why we believe each of them is so important to 21st Century beekeeping. Here is the first:
1—We are Treatment-free: We encourage bees to develop their own resistance to diseases and pests.
I’ve started with one of our more controversial practices first. We don’t treat our bees. Not with miticides or sugar dusting, or anything else. Our reasons for this are really pretty simple. First, bees don’t like foreign things dumped, poured, or drizzled into their hives. It upsets the important balance of hive scent (which is nothing short of the bees’ immune system), destabilizes the hive temperatures, and is unhealthy for bees. When did we decide it was a good idea to use something that kills insects in a hive populated with tens of thousands of insects?
Bees are acutely sensitive to smells and foreign substances. I once inadvertently killed off an indoor observation hive by affixing a small plastic component with what was supposed to be an inert glue. The bees dropped from every comb in 30 seconds and were all dead within two hours. I’m shaken and horrified by the gawdawful results of my ignorance.
Second, if mite treatments worked, we would not still be having massive die-offs from varroa mites. Plus, used incorrectly or at the wrong time of the year, these products—including the organic ones—can kill our bees.
Most important of all, by propping up weak bees with medications, we are thwarting the ability of the bees to evolve so that they can manage varroa and other ailments by themselves. Dr. Thomas Seeley claims that feral hives seem to be inundated with varroa, but the bees have co-evolved to live with them. It took years. First, wild honeybee populations collapsed. Those that survived eventually blanketed their home areas with their varroa-resistant genetics, and a new kind of heartier bee has evolved.
Our own bees in their heavily managed and treated hives have not had that chance to develop inner-hive mechanisms to deal with varroa, and all the viruses these mites bring along with them. While it is harrowing to let a hive expire from mites, in the long run, it is the right thing to do. Mite treatments, in the end, create stronger and stronger mites, and weaker and weaker bees.
“So, you just let the bees die?” you ask, or yell, or curse. Yes. We let the weak colonies die. And yes, it hurts. Every time. But we don’t treat. We trust the ultimate wisdom of the hive and Natural Selection. On the plus side, beekeepers save time, money, and mess by simply bypassing the entire discussion on when and how to treat.
So what else do bees like? Bees like to build their own comb, and build it any which way they want, which leads us to our next tenet:
2—Natural comb: We let our bees create their own wax comb on bars or frames, without the use of foundation.
Wax is many things to a honeybee. It is the lungs, the womb, the skeleton, the ears, the pantry, the thermostat, the dance floor, the bassinet, and the foraging history of the hive. Not so many years ago, beekeepers decided that we would help the bees get up and going quicker in their hives, and so we started offering them plastic and wax stamped foundation on wooden, uniform, square frames. We did this because it takes a lot of honey energy to produce and craft wax comb, and we thought we could save that honey for ourselves.
This certainly made life easier on beekeepers, because these Langstroth frames can be easily removed and switched about. We also decided to make the hexagons on the foundation a bit larger, believing that bigger bees would be born from bigger cells (which was true), and bigger bees would gather more honey. What we didn’t consider is that varroa mites prefer these bigger cells. We also did not consider that in making honeybees larger, we might be cutting them off from certain forage flowers—flowers that a more rotund bee cannot access. This was also true.
Not knowing how bees lived in wild hives, we assumed bees would do well with these rectangular, fake frames, because they seemed to take to them just fine. A falling airplane is not flying, even though it is still in the air. Bees on foundation frames are not thriving. They are slowly falling, falling.
This is why: Bees adjust the size of their cells, the slant of the combs, the number of drone cells, and the air movement around the wax comb. While combs that are not built in a straight line are a real nuisance for beekeepers (ask me how I know this), Nature has never been a fan of straight lines. Bees are not casual about their comb placement and shape. They adjust the comb building to what is right and best for that hive in that particular place. Sun exposure, wind, seasonal shifts, the magnetic pull of the four directions, and the voice of Great Bee Mystery all influence how bees hang their comb.
We beekeepers talk a lot about proper hive ventilation, adding extra holes on hot days, or cracking lids, or screening bottoms or entrances, or shutting down entrances in the winter, or a hundred other variations on this theme. All of this is necessary because bees on foundation cannot control their hive temperature with the precision they need. The air space left on the sides of the frames allows drafts and dispersion of hive air. Bees living on these combs are dealing with, essentially, a punctured lung. They cannot control the hive breath. They also suffer from the drafty air all winter. Left to their own designs, bees adjust for their ventilation needs just fine. They’ve been doing so for millions of years. If you let them do it, then you won’t have to! We use just a top bar, a strip of wood, for the bees to build on.
I’m a bit odd in that I really don’t mind if my bees build their comb slantwise on the bars, or in circles. Yes, it is a mess if you need to poke around in the combs, but when I see what organic shapes, curves, and spirals my bees create, I honor that exquisite artwork, knowing they deserve to be the masters of their domain. I wouldn’t want anyone coming into my house, turning up the heat, flinging open windows, shutting off the air conditioner, or refolding my towels. My bees deserve their right to organize their home space.
I am well aware that in certain states or towns, removable comb is required. On many alternative hives, like Warre hives and Top Bars, it just takes a bit more doing to remove the combs. Mostly, in bees-first beekeeping, we have no need to sort through the combs. And in many communities, like mine, backyard beekeepers with small numbers of hives are not required to maintain removable combs.
Another thing bees like is sex and reproduction. Don’t we all? Our next tenet is this:
3—We allow Queens mate naturally and with many drones so they have an expansive gene-pool. Swarming is a desirable and proven means of colony reproduction.
Okay, okay, I know what you are thinking: “Yikes! Swarms?! What will my neighbors say?” Stay tuned for Part II of Bee’s-First Beekeeping: Swarms and Bee Tending…