What is Natural Beekeeping, Anyway? Part One

A front view of our now deceased Kenyan style top-bar hive in happier times.

In general, Kelly and I believe in following organic practices in the garden. When we started keeping bees it seemed like an obvious leap to use organic, “natural” beekeeping practices. But what does it really mean to keep bees naturally? And what compromises (if any) are we willing to make to keep our bees alive?

These are questions we’ve come up against repeatedly in our first year of beekeeping, and we’re still trying to define what terms like “natural” really mean in this context.

At a recent meeting of the Beekeepers Guild of San Mateo County (of which we are proud members), an informal poll showed a wide range of hive losses for this winter. While several members still had all their hives, the vast majority had lost at least a few, and many had experienced losses of between 40% and 100%.

I should stop here and clarify that many of these beekeepers have decades of experience under their belts and keep anywhere from a few, to a few hundred hives. They also run the gamut from super-treaters (those who use whatever chemicals are available), to strictly organic, or even hands-off. Interestingly, among guild members, no strong correlation between treatment approach and hive success exists.

Natural beekeepers unite (and try to figure out what they stand for)

Recently we’ve also been attending meetings of a fledgling subgroup of the guild focused exclusively on natural beekeeping (whatever that is).  I think the group would be hard-pressed to agree on a single definition. Some of us are willing to use essential oils or powdered sugar to treat for Varroa mites, while others feel that until we allow bees to truly fend for themselves, we’re meddling with the evolutionary process that could ultimately free bees from a dependency on human intervention.

Kelly and I seem to be coming down on this second side of the argument, but it’s easier said than done. We know we don’t want to perpetuate a weak gene pool, but we also want our bees to live.

One of the many complicating factors in the equation is that bees don’t live in a vacuum. Over half the hives in the US are trucked to California each winter for almond pollination, bringing with them a host of viruses, and pests.

Many beekeepers, especially the hobbyists so common in urban and suburban areas, don’t breed their own bees. When a hive dies they often replace it with a new package of commercial bees the next spring.  This means that those of us who might prefer to let bees work things out themselves face an overwhelming obstacle; suburban communities like those in the Bay Area face a huge influx of bee packages each spring, primarily from the same few breeders.

Almost all commercial bee-breeders use chemical treatments to keep their bees alive, and their primary aim is to produce bees that are good-natured, mega honey-producing, egg-layers, not bees that can survive Varroa mites, viruses, and now a deadly, parasitic fly, unaided by chemical treatments.

Where do we go from here?

Given current bee-breeding practices and the prevalent beekeeping culture, beekeepers that try to let nature run its course may not make much of a difference in the bee genetics flying around.

Still, Kelly and I are giving it a shot. We’ve resolved to take a very hands-off approach with our hives. We’re not treating for mites, and we’re reluctant to feed. We’re also reluctant to buy any more packages and are exploring options for acquiring swarms and rescue colonies this spring.

We’re crossing our fingers that our last remaining top-bar hive, Mondo, will survive the winter, and I wonder whether our anti-treatment stance may soften if we lose it.

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