Natural beekeeping is a recent buzz word in the industry. Natural beekeeping, a fluid term, roughly refers to minimal disturbance and manipulation to the hive. This system attempts to create a natural environment for the bees where they are left to their own devices to survive – nothing added and only a small amount of excess honey taken. Strategies are put in place to limit or altogether eliminate chemicals and antibiotics from the hive. In some extremes, natural beekeeping forgoes supplemental feeding of sugar syrup, use of foundation and moving hives to assist in pollinating commercial crops. But, are natural beekeeping practices the answer for all beekeepers?
Something I enjoy about beekeeping is hearing all the different ways people manage hives. Beekeepers have the ability to customize their hive management and operations to their own way of thinking and time they have available to devote to the bees. I enjoy the association I have with many of my fellow beekeepers as we work together and share ideas in helping each other be successful. Some of us practice mostly conventional beekeeping and others more natural. Though most beekeepers, I believe, use a combination of both practices as we all share in the same goal to have healthy bees and low hive loss.
A growing concern I have is that some beekeepers are starting to attack beekeeping practices that they don’t agree with. They often vilify commercial and sideline beekeepers who continue to implement conventional strategies – sometimes placing all the blame of CCD on them. But, as I recall scientists and researchers still haven’t come to any concrete conclusions. New findings are coming to light all the time. As beekeepers we are all interdependent on one another. When one beekeeper markets his business by putting down other local beekeepers he is hurting the industry as a whole.
Traditional methods served beekeepers well for decades. I feel it would be foolish to abandon many of the time tested strategies which have been fundamental to successful beekeeping. When the varroa mite showed up in the late 1980’s it forever changed modern beekeeping. Adjustments to hive management were made with the best information beekeepers had at the time. Back then many felt that varroa mites would run their course and eventually die off, but they didn’t. So here we are today still fighting the same battle. Only this time a bunch of other problems have been thrown in the mix – parasitic flies, viruses, high queen failures, contaminated pollen, droughts, bacterial disease and too much corn. Each beekeeper is again trying to make the best decisions with the knowledge they have and the circumstances they are in. I admire any beekeeper willing to fight the battle to keep bees alive.
One-third of all the food we eat comes from commercial farms that require pollination from honeybees – a statistic I still can’t find the original source for. These hives are supplied by commercial and sideline beekeepers who still use many conventional practices in their operations. Natural beekeeping fits well in the organic farming industry which produces approximately two percent of the food purchased in this country. Some studies have shown that if all farms were converted to organic there wouldn’t be enough food to meet current demand and prices would skyrocket. So the question to be asked is if natural beekeeping practices could be implemented in a commercial operation that supplies pollination services to large commercial farms?
Just for fun I would like to compare hive management to the health management of people in an attempt to illustrate natural verses conventional practices. Most households don’t build up a long-term food storage because grocery stores and restaurants are available year round. Honey bees don’t have this luxury. They do have a food storage because their “grocery store” closes down in the winter months and during occasional nectar dearths in the summer. If the hive’s food storage runs out before the “grocery store” opens again, bees starve to death. This is where supplemental feeding comes into play. Conventional beekeepers will feed mainly sugar syrup. Natural beekeepers are split on this issue. Some will feed honey and others don’t feed at all. For those that don’t feed at all, the thinking is that the strong hives which survive have superior genetics because they stored enough honey. Now I do agree with the idea of tapping into superior genetics when it’s time to split hives and raise queens, but sometimes a perfectly good hive will simply run out of food for reasons that are completely beyond their control. For instance, a drought year will often bring an early closure to the “grocery store”. A cold late spring will delay the “grocery store” from opening up. Comparing that to humans – would we let our neighbors down the street starve to death because they were unable to make it to the grocery store?
A more controversial comparison is when you are dealing with illness. Beehives, like people, need a proper diet, active lifestyle and safe environment to promote good health. But what should be done when a hive gets sick? Well, when a person gets sick, sometimes all they need is extra rest along with good nutrition and they get better on their own – the same holds true for a hive. Other situations when the illness is more extensive a person will need specific medicine or treatment prescribed by a doctor. Conventional beekeeping practices recommend giving a sick hive “medicine”. Natural beekeeping may practice “alternative medicine” or give no medicine at all. Modern medicine for humans sometimes becomes extreme in prescribing large cocktails of chemicals and supplements to those with poor health. The same holds true for some conventional beekeepers. It’s a balancing act that each beekeeper gets to decide for themselves. Whether you choose natural or conventional it doesn’t make it wrong for some other beekeeper to do it differently.
With each passing year I have found the most success in staying one step ahead of the stresses that will come to the hive. It is better to be proactive instead of reactive in our hive management. That being said, mother nature will still throw a few curve balls at you from time to time so don’t beat yourself up too much when some of your hives die. There is alway the next spring to rebuild.
In the end, you will need to decide why it is you keep bees – what is it you are passionate about? Is your goal to practice natural beekeeping and cater to the organic crowd – or do you want to assist commercial farmers with pollination needs to help feed a larger percentage of the population? Is your focus going to be honey production, queen rearing or possibly selling nucs? Let us examine the good of natural and conventional beekeeping and implement those strategies that work best for us and quit knocking down those who manager their hives differently from us.