bees hive natural beekeeping

Bees are interesting.  They just are.  Not to say that I have spent my whole life on my hands and knees over a clover patch with a magnifying glass.  I can’t say I ever really gave them much thought until this year.  To set the scene, about 5 years ago my wife and I moved to a small village in the country.  Probably for all the reasons people move to small villages in the country: space, house prices, community, child-friendly environment, etc.  One shop, one pub, one church, a part-time post-office, and LOTS of space!

This enabled us to have vegetable patches which are an avenue we have pursued with enthusiasm if not success.  We grow vegetables and fruit; make jams, chutney, and wine.  All of which make excellent presents (when we are willing to part with them), and have more recently made a foray into pigs.

This year, I began to consider the idea of beekeeping.  I thought this was an excellent complimentary activity that would fit very well with our lifestyle, as well as providing something else that could be put in jars.  However, my father-in-law—already a beekeeper—makes it seem like hard work.  He is always fiddling with something, worrying about something else, or needing something more.  It also looked quite expensive to get going.  He has now been at it four years and has been extremely prolific, but has only just received a return on the initial investment he put in.  I found this quite worrying as what if I didn’t like it once I had started?  What if it didn’t work?  It is certainly a lot of money to have wasted on a whim.  So this was my starting position… Reasons NOT to begin beekeeping:

1.  The investment in equipment is too high.

  • National Hive £200 ($325) (1 brood box, 2X supers, 1 floor, 1 roof).  In the U.S., Langstroth hives are more common and are more expensive still.
  • Frames, Foundation, Queen excluder, Dummy boards, Crown board/clearer £150 ($250)
  • Hive stand £20 ($35)
  • Smoker £35 ($60)
  • Bee suit £45 ($75)
  • Hive tool £10 ($17)
  • Queen marking equipment £30 ($50)
  • Honey extractor, honey buckets, sieves £300-£400 ($475-$650)

Costs can easily get higher than this, and this is for just one hive.  You will soon realise that you need a lot more spare parts, additional supers, another brood box to over-winter, queen rearing equipment, and on, and on.  Then you need somewhere to store everything you aren’t using, and probably a chiropractor on retainer for after you’ve tried to move it all.

2.  Bees are expensive!

To purchase a nuc (a nucleus or “nuc” is a small hive containing just five frames of bees including the Queen, some workers, and young bees in various stages of development from eggs to near hatching, this is called brood) costs around £250 ($400) in the U.K. depending on the genetic strain of bee you are buying.  Specific “pure” strains will often cost more as certain beekeeper-preferred characteristics can be attributed to each strain, e.g., calmness, disease resistance, increased honey production, and decreased swarm tendency.

3.  It all seems like such a lot of hard work!

Having to check the bees constantly to assess how they are, do they have enough food, how are their varroa levels (a parasite that lives on bees, a topic worthy of a whole article to itself), are there signs of brood diseases (another article), are they swarming/superseding/queen right (article, article, article), et cetera.  Not to mention the lifting of 25-plus-kilogram supers when they are full of honey (and potentially bees).  Do I have the time, will, and back for the task?

4.  Bees sting.

I am not afraid of a bee sting.  A few bees are of no concern to me whatsoever.  50,000 bees who think I am trying to steal their honey (which I may well be doing) is another thing entirely.  All that protective clothing MUST be for a reason because it is certainly not for style.

5.  I have not the least idea what I am doing.

Just some of the things listed in the first few headings above give you an idea as to the massive area of knowledge and learning you are leaving yourself drowning in when it comes to bees and beekeeping.  Other beekeepers are more than happy to provide their opinions in abundance, but rarely can you find concord between them… The collective noun for a group of beekeepers is a “disagreement of beekeepers”.

Hang on a minute, surely this can’t be right.  Honey bees have been on this planet for 50 million years doing exactly the same thing.  I really don’t understand how just because beekeepers are involved it should be so expensive, difficult, and complicated.  There must be another way.  As such, I donned my Google hat (other search engine hats are available) and set to work on finding an alternative.

I can tell you there are quite a few different types of hives out there.  The National hive is certainly the most common in the U.K., with the Langstroth hive taking the lead in the U.S., but there are many more options available.  There are also quite a few different ways of doing things even using the same hives.  The hive used and process by which you use it are too different things, but there was one way that caught my attention.  I stumbled upon the concept of “natural beekeeping”.  I believe there is still some discussion as to an exact definition of natural beekeeping but the basics are that “the bees know what they are doing” and “keep it natural”.  I liked the idea of that approach, not only that, but it appeared as though I could make a hive in my shed just out of the scrap wood I had laying around!  I opted for a Kenyan top-bar hive (believe it or not these were developed in Canada).  The building plans were available for free online and easy for anyone with even the most basic woodworking skills to make.  Within one month my list had changed considerably:

1.  The investment in equipment is too high.

The cost to produce my hive has been around £30 ($50) in total.  Though on top of this I did also buy a bee suit and smoker.  The bee suit gets used only about 50% of the time, and I still haven’t taken the smoker out of the box.  I could have easily spent a lot less had I wanted to.  I have since made hives from old packing crates and pallets for the grand price of £0.00 ($0.00), the only cost being some screws and raw linseed oil to weatherproof.    

Kenyan top bar hive bees
My Kenyan top-bar hive built from old scaffold boards and remnants from garden fence building.

The Kenyan top-bar hive (KTBH) I made has everything it needs already in there, with no additional supers or brood boxes required.  I would recommend spending some money on public liability insurance, but this is fairly cheap and usually available with membership to a local beekeeping association (which I would also recommend joining, at least to start).  Friends of Bees also provide this insurance without needing to affiliate to an association.

2.  Bees are expensive!

With some guidance, I built a bait hive (basically a small hive designed to attract a swarm of bees) and caught some not far from my house.  FREE BEES!  This meant a) no outlay for me, b) the bees were already adapted to live with my local climate and plant life, c) there was a real buzz (no pun intended) associated with having caught them myself, it’s a cross been catching a fish and opening a Christmas present, and d) did I mention they were free bees?  If you let people in your neighbourhood know you are interested then they can let you know if a swarm turns up in their garden and you can go and collect it.  This is a little trickier as there is a real timing issue, especially if you work full-time.  The bait hive is a good starting point as it’s just a wait and see, and you can place as many as you can make.  You can knock them up very quickly as they don’t have to over-winter.

There are arguments that the import of queens from other countries and the maintenance of genetically pure bee strains inhibit the development of resistance to some of the diseases currently affecting bees.

3.  It all seems like such a lot of hard work!

This part is still contentious and there are certainly hands-on and hands-off methods.  As it is, I check the hive every couple of weeks, and will leave it alone completely through winter checking again in February.  When it comes to diseases some natural beekeepers have a no-treatment approach, but most use more natural treatments.  These include essential oils or oxalic acid instead of the more highly-toxic chemicals used in conventional beekeeping which are arguably more effective as a varroa treatment.  As for the lifting, well, because in a KTBH the bees build their comb naturally down from a wooden bar placed across the top of the hive, these are what you remove for harvesting.  A single comb at a time can be removed if desired, which, when full of honey, may weigh no more than a couple of kilograms.  This makes this type of hive perfect for those who are physically limited.  In fact, I have just finished building one for a farm providing free holidays to families with disabled children.

natural beekeeping bees hive
Beautiful naturally built comb. The bees are given a top bar with a small amount of beeswax rubbed or melted onto it to act as a guide to tell them where to build. In a more developed comb, you will notice some of the hexagonal cells are covered with white wax—this is honey; some are covered in biscuit-coloured wax—these are brood; and some are filled with pollen.

4.  Bees sting!

Well, this part is still true but often not much of an issue.  I so far have been stung… once… by the bees, anyway.  I manage to be stung by stinging nettles every time I go to the hive.  A commonly observed phenomenon of natural beekeeping is that the bees seem a lot more calm and friendly.  I can easily remove the hive roof and check inside the colony whilst wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  Many believe this because hive inspections are much less invasive and involve less heat and hive scent being lost from the colony than with conventional framed hives.  Others think it is simply because bees are allowed to build their comb naturally without being constrained by using foundation.  Provided you don’t do anything which is construed as a direct attack on the hive—dropping one of their combs, knocking over the hive, or squishing bees—they don’t seem to mind you being there.  My four-year-old daughter has come to the hive with me in the past to help me feed and watch the bees and we took no more than a water mister with a little peppermint oil added.  If this isn’t your experience, on the upside, there is evidence to suggest bee venom is an excellent treatment for inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.  That is, of course, providing you are not allergic.

5.  I have not the least idea what I am doing.

This also continues to be true.  I have joined my local beekeeping association but many conventional beekeepers I have spoken to in regard to natural beekeeping are skeptical, others are dismissive, some are downright abusive.  I don’t think this comes from a bad place but is simply because every beekeeper wants to do right by their bees.  No one keeps bees in order to abuse them, and the concepts of natural beekeeping perhaps seem accusatory of conventional techniques, leaving them understandably defensive.  They are still, however, excellent sources of local information for seasonal advice, as well as a source of potential backup queens.

I have noticed that, more so than any other community, online or otherwise, the natural-beekeeping community seems intent on the sharing of information and continuation of their cause.  There are online forums such as BioBees started by Phil Chandler, that have natural beekeepers, new and old, sharing knowledge, ideas, and advances.  There are more free books, hive-building plans, articles, translations, and opinions (of varying quality and increasing quantity) than you have the paper to print them on.

The more I learn about bees, the more I want to learn about bees.  They are truly fascinating, though I am taking care not to become what this beekeeper’s wife terms a “bee bore!”  The thing to remember is that even if you don’t know what you are doing, the bees do!  Primum non nocere: first, do no harm.  If you’re not sure, often it is best to leave them to it until you do.  There is a wealth of information and advice in books, online, and through seeking local mentors; you are never fully alone.  I will never forget what I was told when I first housed my swarm and was beginning to worry about…well, everything a new nervous beekeeper worries about, and that is, “Bees will often succeed in spite of the beekeeper” and I have certainly begun to realize the wisdom of these words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.