Winter is coming, and in the beekeeping world there is flurry of activity to get ready for the cold season. Do your bees have enough food? Is their hive insulated? Did you do autumn mite treatments? Have you shrunk the entrances to keep cold away? Did you move your frames to condense space? Are there ventilation problems you need to address so that your colonies are not in a damp, cold, moldy space for the winter months? Do you need to combine a few weak hives? Did you lose a queen late in the year? Are your candy boards all ready to go?
Frankly, just reading all this on the bee forums gives me a headache! If I had to do all this every year, I don’t think I’d keep bees. I keep bees “another way.” My winter prep is pretty much like my spring prep: There isn’t any.
Our bee club and nonprofit, Preservation Beekeeping, teaches a different kind of beekeeping. In our bee yards, we try to mimic as much as possible the natural behavior of the bee. Most of us use alternative hive styles, such as Warre’ hives, top bars, log rounds, or straw skeps. All our wooden hives are insulated heavily both summer and winter.
We are treatment free, putting no chemicals or essential oils into the hives. Bee colonies truly are a village of creatures and organisms beneficial to bees, and chemicals in the hive destroy this delicate system the bees have worked out over the past 30 million years. In a nut shell, our way of managing our hives and keeping our bees IS our treatment.
Following Entomologist Thomas Seeley’s 10 recommendations for keeping bees healthy and thriving, our management includes keeping small hives. If we use Warre’s, we keep it to two boxes. If we use Langstroth hives, we keep the colony to one deep box. Smaller hives mean the bees can survive times of dearth, don’t need as many bees or stores to get through the winter, and are able to completely attend to every inch of their hive space.
The smaller hives are easier on us beekeepers, too, as there isn’t all that heavy lifting. We also try to keep our hives separated as much as possible because bees prefer not to be on top of each other. In the wild, they mostly look for living spaces at least a quarter mile from their home hive. So, we set them in different corners of our yards, or behind privacy screens.
I’ve used Warre’ hives in the past, and top bars, but these days, I’m keeping my bees in straw hives, or skeps. I weave them myself, and they are wonderfully thick, giving my bees wonderful, breathable colony space that is far warmer in winter than any standard wooden hive. It also eliminates the need to fret about condensation and where/when to add extra ventilation.
I encourage my students to put an “eco-floor box” beneath their hives filled with old mulch and dried leaves. The floor is open to the colony, and many creatures settle into the flooring: earwigs, ant colonies, wax moths, springtails, pillbugs, and a network of mycelium that may be advantageous to our bees’ immune systems. This flooring mimics the bottom fall-away zone in a tree hive. The decaying matter below the bees also helps with heat, moisture retention and absorption.
Our club is also a big fan of swarming because it has been proven so beneficial to the bees. Mite numbers are reduced every time a hive swarms. Of course, you need to know your neighbors and educate them about bees and swarms. I’ve always found swarms to be a fantastic teaching moment. I’m blessed to work at home, so I can easily capture my swarms in the spring, but for those who work all day, we make bait hives to hang in our yards (and our neighbor’s yards) so we can catch our swarms that way.
Also, we don’t regularly inspect our hives. Bees don’t appreciate intrusion, and each time we enter a hive and fiddle about, it takes the bees two to four days to restore the hive temperature and reapply the propolis seal in the hive, which is so important to their health. In my own hives here at home, I only open them up at most a few times a year.
Because my bees are in skeps, inspection means simple tipping the hive on its end and taking a peek. No combs are moved, no bees disturbed! If I need to look deeper into the combs, I can easily slice a piece off to inspect more closely.
Keeping bees in this non-intrusive way allows them the benefit of having natural selection work on them, rather than human selection. I don’t prop up weak hives. I don’t disorient my bees by splitting or combining colonies or adding new queens. I don’t feed sugar to them, but leave them to their own honey stores. I don’t stack up boxes and remove them. When we add and remove boxes, our bees never have a chance to regulate a particular size of hive. They are always playing “fix-this-mess” when the space in the colony suddenly expands or contracts.
Keeping bees this way is so much simpler for the keeper, but most importantly it is far easier on the bees. Stress is a killer, and all of the manipulations standard beekeeping literature recommends may be fine for short-term maximum honey production, but all this interference is rough on the bees and they suffer for it.
Now, this kind of hands-off, let-the-bee-be method we call Preservation Beekeeping does require that we know our bees, our neighbors, and our beekeeping friends nearby.
Choosing to go treatment free with your bees does mean that you will lose hives to varroa mites, and you don’t want your mites migrating to your other beekeeping neighbors. I’m blessed in that I don’t have anyone with hives for miles around me, and my neighbors have been intrigued with my bees and delighted with the lushness of their yards and flowers thanks to my bees!
I also use frameless hives, which are not as easy to inspect as a Langstroth hive, but they are not illegal where I live as they are in certain other states — again, I’m just lucky this way. But I took the time to research all this before I started keeping bees this way, and it works very well for me.
Conventional beekeepers are confounded and often critical of the way we approach beekeeping. Our methods look like abuse and neglect to many modern beekeepers. To us, conventional beekeeping methods seem harsh and stressful to the bees, and unsustainable in the long term.
The perceptual difference between these two methods of beekeeping makes it hard for natural or alternative-style beekeepers to talk to conventional keepers, and online bee forums can be hotbeds of contention. Yet bees, by way of their staggering numbers of deaths, are forcing a change to the landscape of what we call beekeeping. Our methods must change, because the bees are telling us that what we are doing now is not working for them. Where a new homeostasis will be found remains to be seen.
Many commercial beekeepers are leaving the business, and more and more backyard beekeepers are stepping into the hobby. Many more women are also discovering the joys of being with bees.
As more is learned about the complex social system of honeybees, we who keep bees “the other way” are finding strong scientific backing for what to us has been an intuitive approach based on curiosity, respect, and constant observation.
There are many, many ways of beeing. The more I settle into “bees—the other way,” the more success I find, and the simpler the process of being with my bees becomes. I’m no longer their keeper as much as I am their host and their endlessly curious friend.
If you are curious about this kind of bee-centered beekeeping, you can visit our website, preservationbeekeeping.com, and our Facebook page, as well.