Sunday, December 2, 2012

Natural Beekeeping

     The greatest dilemma for many beekeepers today is whether to be treatment free or not.  The most widely used label for treatment-free beekeeping is "Natural Beekeeping" although there are several others.
     Natural beekeeping is not to be confused with "Organic Beekeeping" which allows for the use of organic medications and large cell bees.  The actual definitions of these Beekeeping Labels are like most beekeeping issues arguable.  When I started beekeeping an old beekeeper told me if you have 6 beekeepers in a room you will have 8 different opinions because two will change their minds during the discussion.  I have found this to be true.  To be a true "Natural Beekeeper" you must be treatment-free and regress the cell size of your bees to their natural size (approximately 4.9 mm).  The European Honey Bee was artificially increased in size by increasing the foundation cell size over 100 years ago to produce more honey. Although the honey yield was increased with bigger bees "Natural Beekeepers" will argue that some of the subsequent health issues that we are now dealing with are a result of messing with Mother Nature.  Philosophically I agree 100% with this approach but the pragmatic skepticism in me needs absolute proof.  There are no long term scientific studies which prove the benefits of small cell beekeeping though Dee Lusby (a pioneer of Natural Beekeeping) will adamantly argue that point.  Dee and her late husband Ed (commercial beekeepers) began small cell natural beekeeping in the 1980's and published their findings in "The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping".  Dee is the owner and moderator of the yahoo discussion group "Organic Beekeepers".
     Both Michael Bush and Dee Lusby are extremely knowledgeable beekeepers and I highly recommend visiting their websites for a natural perspective on beekeeping.  The difficulty with "Natural Beekeeping" for most of us is in order to develop a survivor, resistant stock of bees (treatment-free) you must allow your weaker colonies to die.  This is often referred to as the James Bond method or "Live and let die".  Despite the obvious long term benefits this goes against our natural instinct to help the weak and sick. The other issue is the possibility that the sick, untreated colonies may pass their pests and diseases onto other (i.e. neighbours') colonies.  For small, backyard beekeepers this can be devastating.
     Despite the lack of scientific proof of the benefits of small cell, natural beekeeping I hope to one day follow this natural approach.  For more information on "Natural Beekeeping" go to the Natural Beekeeping section of our Beekeepers' Library.
      Jacqueline Freeman is the author of an upcoming book "Bees, the OTHER Way". She points out the different strategies that conventional bee keepers might try to save their hives from colony collapse disorder. Although she refers to her beekeeping methodology as organic (which it is) I believe it is what most would refer to as "Natural".  Similar to organic farming there are a number of organic bee medications (i.e. Essential oils, formic and oxalic acids) that would not be acceptable to "Natural Beekeepers".

#1 general approach: use organic practices
#2 general approach: strengthen bee immune system instead of "attack and kill" what nature uses to remove weak bees
#3 don't use insecticide (for mite control or any other insect problem) inside of hives - bees are insects!
#4 allow bees to create their own cell size (typically smaller) - no more pre-made foundation or cells
#5 genetics based on "survival of the fittest" is superior to genetics resulting from mass production where the weak are medicated
#6 swarming is the natural way to good genetics
#7 local bees have adapted to challenges in your area
#8 stop moving hives
#9 feed bees honey, not sugar water
#10 feed bees polyculture blossoms, not monoculture
#11 stop using insecticides on crops - bees are insects!
#12 raise hives off the ground

     Another book "Natural Beekeeping" (Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture) by Ross Conrad describes the philosophy and methods involved in organic beekeeping.
Natural Beekeeping Excerpt

     Natural Beekeeping follows the basic philosophy of permaculture which is sustainable agriculture systems based on natural ecosystems.  To learn more about permaculture go to Permies.


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