The other night I was invited to give a talk on how I maintain my Naturally Treated, Antibiotic-Free hives at the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association. Seems like a good moment to write that up for a few reasons.
1) Customers ask me about how I keep hives, so now I can point them to a single page. 2) My talk had a lot of references in it, but not enough time to give a lot of details or links. 3) Got to have something to write about – I’m cleaning boxes, feeders, and floats and that really makes a dull blog.
First, let me clarify a few things:
- Everything I write is in “my humble opinion”
- This is how I keep honey bees, I expect no one to do things the same way
- There is a great difference between Natural Beekeeping, Keeping Honeybees Naturally, and Naturally Treated honeybee hives.
Natural beekeeping, to me, is creating forage and habitat for our native bees, which do not include honeybees.
Our native bees including bumblebees and mason bees lost habitat, and could use some support. The best place I know to go for information and great downloads about how everyone can help our native bees, and all our native pollinators, is Xerces.org, the invertebrate conservation center based in Portland, Oregon.
KEEPING HONEYBEES NATURALLY
The closest I think anyone comes to this are the folks who do foundationless beekeeping, with no treatments. That’s not me. I have tried this and failed, but will probably try again.
Close in this category would be the small cell, treatment-free folks. At least they’re not foisting honey-sized cells on the bees – which I do.
NATURALLY TREATED HIVES (this would be me)
I do treat my hives, but only with naturally occurring substances that I would ingest or that occur naturally in bee hives. I do not use any antibiotics in my hives. The use of naturally substances rates this as “Naturally Treated”, but it isn’t natural. There are no forest sprites flitting about putting formic acid, thymol, or other natural chemicals (they are chemicals) into hives.
WHEN I TREAT:
I feed cane syrup with essential oils for three weeks in the spring – timing the feeding to, hopefully, end just as our Big Leaf Maples come into bloom. I do this again in the fall right after I pull honey. More on that below.
I treat for varroa mites in the fall, soon after honey harvest
Currently I am alternating between Miteaway Quick Strips (formic acid) and Apiguard (a thyme oil – a.k.a. thymol – based product). I come from raising 4-legged livestock where we treat for worms. One always alternates wormers each year, to avoid the worms becoming tolerant to the chemicals. I figure this would hold true in a hive. If one kept up the same mite treatment every year, one would soon have mites resistant to that treatment. (Here’s more on how I use Apiguard )
I used to use Powdered Sugar (the Dowda Method), but it seemed to work less and less well. This corresponded with my bees becoming less and less Russian (Primosky), which may give you the answer as to “why” that would happen. Russians are very resistant to varroa.
As I mentioned above, I feed cane syrup with essential oils in the spring and fall. I use Spearmint, Lemon Grass, and Thymol (thyme oil). It’s the spearmint and the thymol that are said to help with varroa. The lemon grass, I think, is simply an attractant “look here, eat this”. The idea makes sense to me: Varroa don’t do well eating mint and thyme. The larvae are eating some of that mint and thyme courtesy of the nurse bees. The larvae incorporate it into their system. The mites suck the oils down as they feed on the larva. Who knows? It seems to buck the girls up, at any rate.
I have not treated for this since my first year of beekeeping. At that time, I didn’t realize the Fumagilin-B was an antibiotic. When I did, I stopped using it. I’ve nothing against antibiotics when used for heavy-duty infections on humans or animals. I do think they’re overused on mammals, and the idea of giving them regularly to any creature is, in my humble opinion, asking for trouble, as we’ve already seen.
This year I am testing Nozevit, which John Kraus, of Kraus Honey Company, said was working well for him. It seems to be oak tanninbased, natural, organic, which makes me comfortable. Hopefully it will work for my bees.
NATURALLY TREATED IS MORE THAN “TREATMENTS’
That’s the “treatments”, but they’re other aspects that I consider vital to my beekeeping operation.
HOUSEL METHOD OF FRAME PLACEMENT:
I learned of this method this year, from my friend Clyde Caldwell, who is a small cell / no treatments beekeeper. The image here is from Dee Lusby’s website, where there is a great write up.
The basic idea is to make the frames we put in a hive mimic the pattern in nature.
Take a piece of foundation or drawn comb (it’s easier to see this with drawn comb). Look at bottom of the comb: where the egg is laid. It will look like a “Y” on one side. Turn the comb over, LIKE THE PAGE OF A BOOK. Now the “Y” at the bottom is upside down. The side with the “Y” facing up faces the outside of the hive. Thus, in the center of a ten-frame hive, frames 5 and 6 have upside down “Y”s facing each other.
This is apparently how honeybees build comb in nature. All I can say is that my bees built and filled their comb more rapidly this year than in previous years. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I’ll keep doing it. It takes no time to make a mark on the frames.
I also mark the year that the bees first drew comb on the frame, because my frames have limited “life spans”
I have come to this within the last 5 years or so. No one spoke of it when I started out. In fact, most beekeepers considered it quite wonderful to keep using older frames. Think of all the money saved, not to mention the time for those of use who still hang wax.
The problem with older comb: Wax is a sponge. It absorbs everything.
Most bees seem able to resist a small amount of a disease (say American Foul Brood spores). But if the spores keep building up in the cells, they can reach a point where the bees’ resistance can’t handle the amount of pathogens. Then the hive crashes.
A dead hive is depressing. It’s also lost money if the solution is to kill the bees and burn the frames. So, my frames have limited “life times.” Honey frames get to work for 5 years. My brood frames were doing 3 years, until this year. Then, with my second year of AFB, I lost it one day and got rid off all brood frames that were not working in hives. If it works, it’s cheaper than AFB kills and burns.
It’s also good for bees to make wax. They’re supposed to do that.
HANGING FRAMES (or the new “3-deep tunnel method”)
I don’t use moth crystals on my stored frames. Let me first say I live in an area where it will drop below freezing for one to two months, which is a real detriment to wax moths, so I do have a bit of an advantage (plus the cross-country skiing is really good).
Most of my frames spend the winter hanging off of long pieces of wood in my hayloft (now the bee gear area). This open-air treatment seems to ward off wax moths.
I have also been trying the “3-deep tunnel”, as I term it. Three boxes filled with frames are placed on their side, one in back of the other (thus the “tunnel”). Another three are put on top of those in the same pattern, and so on until I think it’s too tall. I figure my “tunnels” could be 4 boxes as the idea for this came from an article where the beekeeper was using deeps. In that article, the beekeeper put 1/8-inch hardware cloth over each end of the tunnel. I think this may have been to deter mice. I don’t do this. I don’t have mice in the barn; I have five happy barn cats.
There, that covers Natural Treatments and methods, but there is another aspect that’s critical to Naturally Treated hives (in my humble opinion) : using and/or raising Queens that are adapted to no treatments, natural treatments and your local environment.
If bees are bred from chemically dependent stock they probably lack the ability to fight pests, pathogens, and parasites on their own.
But this blog has gotten a bit long, so I’ll go on about Queen rearing in the next blog : Part 2.
That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, Washington. Where I’m very happy to say the rain has finally stopped and the sun has poked out from behind the clouds.