Bees, Organic Gardening & Farming

Long Live The Queen : Lessons in Beekeeping

Before I started my first beehive, I studied. I spent a full year preparing for that first hive. I attended beekeepers club meetings regularly, I went to the state beekeeping conference. I listened to beekeepers and asked questions. I read books and blogs, and studied pictures of bees on frames of honeycomb. I felt ready. Then the bees came, and they taught me just how much I had left to learn.

I have never repeated the same mistake twice with my bees, but success has been elusive. As it turns out, there are quite a lot of different things that can go wrong in a hive. Last year, after a devastating winter loss, I really went the extra mile for my bees. I brewed herbal teas, performed religiously regular inspections, winterized the hive expertly, and even built them a straw fort windbreak. I spent hours watching them at work, singing to them, and encouraging them. Still, they didn’t make it through the winter.

I’m not giving up. I’m not bad at this, and I’m definitely not the only one struggling with the learning curve. I try really hard. I love my bees immensely and I always do my best to make choices that are in their best interest. Bees face many pressures in our modern world, and it’s much harder to be a beekeeper now than it was for previous generations. I will continue to do my best to identify problems and resolve them.

This year, I’m going back to square one. I’m changing pretty much everything about my beekeeping strategy, starting with the bees. Here’s my plan.

Local Bees

When I was a newbee, I fell in love with top bar hives. This non-standard hive design has many great attributes, and it has a reputation as the favorite of natural beekeepers. The only problem is, nobody sells locally raised bees in a format that fits into this style of hive. I tried to catch a swarm, and I tried to partner with another local top bar beekeeper for a local split, but when neither of those efforts yielded bees for me, I ended up buying packaged bees from huge bee farms in the deep American South. These bees always arrive a little stressed out, and they aren’t very well adapted to our Indiana climate. This year, I decided to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate local bees. I ordered a “nuc” (short for nucleus hive) from a local beekeeper in a neighboring town. A nuc includes one queen bee, a few frames of comb filled with honey, eggs, larvae, etc, and some bees that have all been living together with that queen and working with her. It’s like a nuclear bee family. This family seems to have adjusted seamlessly into their new hive, and we are off to a great start together.

Langstroth Hive

I originally built two really nice top bar hives, and I still really love these hives. They’re easy for me to work on my own without any heavy lifting, and I feel like the bees have been really happy in them too. I love the anti-consumerist angle of top bar hives, since they are easy to build and maintain myself. But in order to accommodate the local bees, I invested in a standard langstroth hive this year. A langstroth hive is the kind you have undoubtedly seen everywhere made of stacking modular boxes.

Another bonus of langstroth hives: there’s more support available. Conforming to standard methods and equipment that the majority of other beekeepers use opens up many more possibilities for collaboration and advice from other beekeepers. This year, I plan to do everything the mainstream way to rule out any vulnerabilities with the slightly less conventional practices I’ve been using up until this point.

I still do not believe that the top bar hives have been the cause of my bee losses, and I am keeping those hives in the hopes of using them again next year.

Treatments

This is a touchy subject, but I plan to introduce a regimen of natural varroa mite treatments this year.

The varroa mite is a honeybee parasite. It bites the bees from the outside sort of like a tick, but compared to the size of the bee, the size of the mite is quite large. A rather horrifying human-scale equivalent would be if there were ticks the size of pineapples! These native Asian mites were introduced to the United States in the late 1980s, and since then they have spread throughout the continent and become endemic to the honeybee population.

I really wanted to believe that it was possible to keep bees without regular treatments, and quite a few people assured me that it could work. However, my experiences have convinced me otherwise. I attended the state beekeeping conference again this year and I asked all the experts about my hive problems. I went to classes on hive postmortems and troubleshooting. All signs point to the varroa mite as a major underlying problem in my hives. I didn’t think the mites were out of balance in my hives, but it turns out that the methods I had been using to monitor mite levels aren’t as accurate as I thought they were. It seems likely that there was an unnoticed mite problem in my hives that was just bad enough to weaken the bees and make them more vulnerable to other stressors. So this year, I bought some natural formic acid treatments to try in the hive. I’m not happy about it, but if this makes the difference between bees that live and bees that die, then I am willing to try it.

Why Beekeeping is Important to Me

Although honeybees are not native to this continent, they are a connecting link between humans and the insect world. For the sake of honeybees, people will plant wildflower gardens, forego lawn chemicals, and advocate for organic agriculture. Fewer people would be willing to take similar actions for the sake of native pollinators such as the paper wasp, but the same actions benefit all pollinators. The honeybee has a certain charisma that helps to affect positive change in the world. I believe that because of the honeybee, and our human relationship with them, the world is a better place.

Honeybees have a much better chance of survival if they partner with a human beekeeper. When the relationship is balanced, both bee and beekeeper benefit from this relationship.

The act of beekeeping helps me deepen my understanding of the natural world in a way that brings me great joy. I am absolutely fascinated by all that the bees do. They possess a cleverness, a sense of curiosity, and a strength of community that belies their tiny size. Although this has been a difficult road so far, I feel like I am getting closer to mastering this skill, and I have a strong desire to keep moving forward. And so, I will persevere with the hope that I will eventually be able to return all the blessings that the bees have already given to me.