Natural Beekeeping

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Recent years have seen a growing interest in natural beekeeping vs conventional methods of keeping honey bees. This is not really a new trend but it gained momentum after the influx of chemical treatments for varroa mites in the 1980’s. Natural beekeeping is rooted in the principle of sustainability and living in harmony with nature. Here, I share some of the key principles of keeping bees naturally and what to consider if this approach appeals to you.

Fresh frame of honey comb from a naturally managed bee hive.

In full disclosure, let me say that I do not consider myself a natural beekeeper. I perform more hive management practices than folks that fully embrace the movement. However, I do adhere to natural practices are closely as possible – especially in reference to chemical treatments.

Principles of Natural Beekeeping

Natural beekeeping is defined by several core principles intended to form a holistic relationship between bees and beekeeper.

In the apiary, minimal intervention is the rule. With respect for the natural instincts and behaviors of honey bees, in most situations – bees are allowed to fix any problems that arise. There is very little manipulation of frames, hive brood boxes etc.

It is believed that being more “hands off” allows the colony to live in a situation that is healthier, less stressful and contributes to colony vitality.

Another important factor, natural beekeepers strive to avoid the use of synthetic chemicals or antibiotics. This prevents absorption and contamination of the hive infrastructure – maintaining the purity of the honey and beeswax.

If you don’t put synthetic chemicals in the hive, they do not get absorbed by the beeswax. I can say that I adhere to these natural beekeeping ideas in my apiary. Opting to use softer treatments for mite control-instead of approved synthetic products.

Different styles of beekeeping, routine hive maintenance and beekeeper with frame of honey from an more natural hive.

Natural vs Conventional Beekeeping Methods

One of the main differences between natural beekeeping and conventional beekeeping is the level of intervention and manipulation of the colonies.

Normally, beekeepers try to help colonies through tough times and be proactive by fixing problems. While natural beekeeping is a more hands-off approach – leaving bees to function much as they would in the wild.

Regular Hive Management involves:

  • frequent hive inspections
  • chemical treatments for disease and pest control
  • feeding sugar water to boost colonies

Natural Methods:  

  • hive inspections are minimal
  • little to no swarm control
  • let bees raise their own queens instead of requeening the hive
  • no synthetic chemical treatments for pests
  • no antibiotics to prevent or treat disease
  • simple honey harvest– crush and strain

Practices and Techniques

The overall goal of the natural beekeeper is to allow the colony to live in a bee-friendly way. The focus is on the goals of the honey bees rather than the goals of the human beekeeper.

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There are many different practices and techniques used to achieve this goal. The beekeeper may choose different types of beehives.

Some feel that either a bee skep hive, Warre hive or a top bar hive are better suited to the habits of wild bees. They feel the approach is more natural than Langstroth’s hive with special dimensions.

Frame of comb with bees from conventional hive and frame of natural comb from sustainable hive.

Allowing bees to draw out natural comb is a common practice. Foundationless beekeeping does not make use of beeswax or plastic foundation. The bees are allowed to build comb to the size and specification they choose.

For a natural beekeeper, swarming may be allowed freely. Bee swarms give the colony a chance to meet it’s instinctive desire to reproduce at the colony level.

An integrated pest-management approach that uses physical and biological methods to control honey bee pests is the first step– rather than conventional chemicals.

Benefits of Keeping Bees Naturally

There is no doubt that anything that is good for our honey bees is a good thing. Colonies allowed to “do their own bee thing” may experience less stress. There is no giant in a white hood removing the top of their home so often.

Any honey or beeswax removed from a naturally managed hive retains its purity more so than a hive treated with chemicals. Organic beekeepers can command a premium price for honey and wax.

Challenges in Natural Beekeeping

While natural beekeeping offers numerous advantages for the environment, the bees and the beekeeper – it is not without its challenges.

One major challenge is managing varroa mite infestations. Thankfully, some of the softer varroa mite treatments are organic – yet they are still chemical intervention. This is an individual beekeeper decision.

With the goal of selective breeding for bees that are naturally resistant to mites, the reality falls short in many cases.

Trying to practice natural beekeeping methods with bees that are massed produced and not bred for resistance usually has a sad ending.

If the beekeeper is determined not to feed their bees, forage availability due to weather conditions has a stronger effect on hive status. Rather than feeding bees to maintain colony strength during a nectar dearth – the beekeeper may let the bees starve or reduce their own population to cope.

In the beginning, I had aspirations of practicing natural beekeeping. But, the reality is that it does not work for me – with the bees that I am able to get. Though – I have been able to avoid using antibiotics and the harsher mite treatments.

FAQS

What is natural beekeeping?

Natural beekeeping is an approach that emphasizes minimal intervention and mimics the natural habitat and behaviors of honey bees as closely as possible.

How does natural beekeeping differ from conventional methods?

Unlike conventional beekeeping, which often involves the use of chemicals, medications, and manipulation of hives, natural beekeeping focuses on creating an environment where bees can thrive with minimal human interference.

What are the benefits of natural beekeeping?

Natural beekeeping promotes healthier bees, stronger colonies, and increased biodiversity. It also reduces the use of harmful chemicals and supports the overall health of the ecosystem.

What practices are involved in natural beekeeping?

Practices include providing natural habitats, using non-toxic pest management techniques, and allowing bees to build their comb freely. It also involves avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals and antibiotics.

Final Thoughts

If this way of keeping bees appeals to you, do your research – I recommend Ross Conrad’s work for one. If you are a novice, find an experienced apiculturist who can give you valuable advice on resources for bees, etc. Perhaps, you are able to fully embrace the practices of keeping honey bees naturally and be successful.

However, even if you can not wholly commit to it – we can all strive to reach a better level of bee care. Even when that “care” sometimes means leaving them alone for a bit.

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