Sustainable Beekeeping

Apicentric or Sustainable Beekeeping

What is sustainable beekeeping?

My definition is that it means to keep honeybees in a way that respects their natural behaviour, and does not negatively affect the local ecology. Done well, it promotes good practice for all pollinators, and engages the beekeeper with their environment in a way no other creature can. It also produces small batch raw honey with all its health-giving properties. It also informs the materials used in hives and other equipment, and how sustainably they are produced, and thinking carefully about the resources we as beekeepers purchase and promote in order to keep our bees happy and healthy. The following is an amalgamation of various permaculture, biodynamic, and natural beekeeping practises melded with principles of traditional/conventional beekeeping.

Basic ideas:

1. No use of a queen excluder – the queen can roam around the whole colony. In conventional beekeeping, the plastic or wire slatted mat prevents the queen from entering the supers (honey boxes) and laying eggs in the section to be extracted at honey harvest. However, the queen tends to only lay in a specific nest area in the centre of the colony. The nest (eggs, larva in all stages and capped brood) may migrate up and down the hive as temperatures or conditions change, and using a queen excluder prevents this natural process. It also means the queen’s pheromones cannot permeate throughout the whole colony as effectively if she is confined to the brood box.

Honey can still be extracted as the nest remains in the middle of the combs, and the frames removed individually if need be. The nest is not meant to be segregated from the stores, and the bees can get damaged from constant passing through the excluder.

Honey from a hive with no queen excluder

2. The hive should ideally be opened up only when the temperature is sufficiently close to that within the hive. Here in the UK, it rarely gets to 36˚C! (and if it was, I wouldn’t want to spend it in a beesuit) – but the idea is that the bees expend huge amounts of energy maintaining this relatively high temperature (similar to that of a mammal) and by lifting the lid off to check them without good reason puts a strain on the bees. It also allows chemical signals and ‘hive scent’ to leach out which again, has been developed by the bees for their own purposes. In the wild, the nest would never be opened so it is not something that is necessary for the colony, although they can regulate the temperature and adjust accordingly so no irrevocable damage is done during hive inspections. It is best from the bees’ perspective to observe activity from outside the hive, such as:

a) Amount and type of pollen being brought in (see

b) Number of flying bees, especially ‘orientation flights’ of young bees as they circle outside the entrance getting their bearings

c) Weather conditions

d) Estimating honey flow – numbers of flowers/crops in bloom in the bees’ foraging area (approximately <5km radius)

e) General behaviour of the bees.

f) using the Varroa inspection board as a viewfinder in to the bees’ activity

3. Foundation starter strips rather than whole sheets are recommended. Bees build their combs out from a central cluster and need to slightly increase the temperature to mould the wax into cells, which they can do if there are not full sheets of foundation in the way. It also allows the bees to make drone comb as well as worker comb, and reduces the foreign matter entering the hive. Foundation is wax melted down from numerous sources and may have traces of pesticides or other substances. It is not dangerous exactly but to reduce possible contaminants is the aim of the game, and if the bees make their own wax it is made from their own bodies. They can also leave the base of the comb detached from the frame to allow the communication vibrations to pass uninhibited between the combs.

Foundationless frame

4. Swarming are to be encouraged as a method of increasing colonies, rather than either breeding or importing new queens, or discouraging swarm behaviour with hive manipulations. Swarms have a habit of choosing somewhere other than where you want them to go to set up home but having bait (or at least built) hives in the apiary/garden, and being prepared during the swarm season is the way forward.

5. Varroa treatment: the ideal approach is to ensure the bees are fit and healthy and consequently able to deal with Varroa. The less disturbed the bees are, the more they can police their brood area and remove any mites. Allowing the bees to swarm provides a break in the brood cycle and this in turn hampers the mite’s ability to reproduce. All chemical mite treatments will kill off beneficial hive fauna as well as Varroa and it must be questioned as to whether it would be better to let a weak, Varroa-stricken hive die out naturally rather than continue to treat and inhibit a workable host:parasite relationship. Mesh floors mean the mites fall out of the hive as the bees groom each other, and if treatments are to be used, it is imperative they are carried out correctly and the instructions meticulously observed in order to prevent immunity or stress on the bees.

6. Honey removal: honey is there for the bees to eat. Adult bees eat nectar and honey and a large colony requires a continual supply in order to function, so harvesting honey requires a judgement on to whether the bees can genuinely spare it. It is entirely weather dependent but taking a couple of frames from a strong colony during a spell of good weather will not affect them and is a wonderful way to connect with your bees. The key is to put the bees’ needs first, add on a big margin of error and then only take the minimum. By doing this, you free up room in the super, enjoy a harvest of distinctive honey and the bees don’t miss it at all. If in doubt, leave it in the hive!

7. Forage provision: Bees can only thrive, let alone make a genuine surplus of honey, if there is enough nectar for them to collect. Feeding bees should not be necessary except in extreme circumstances – there should be enough in the local environs for them to live and provision their larders for winter as well as feed the pollinators that were there before the hive arrived. If not, you need to either provide more forage, or consider keeping your bees in an area with more available food. Simply propping them up with sugar syrup isn’t sustainable, and you can never be sure that your future honey harvests are not contaminated with syrup, as bees move their stores around the cells. Moreover, sugar syrup is simply sucrose and tap water: nectar consists of glucose, fructose and sucrose and has numerous trace elements and plant substances which are completely lacking in syrup. Understanding bee behaviour so that you can ensure your bees are well fed over winter is preferable to simply removing the honey and feeding an arbitrary amount of syrup to replace it.

Websites and resources:

“The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism” by Jürgen Tautz (ISBN 978-3-540-78723-3)

“Planting for Honeybees” by Sarah Wyndham Lewis (ISBN 978-1-78713-146-0)

“Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive” by Mark L Winston (ISBN 978-0-674-97085-4)

Natural Beekeeping Australia

The Beekeeping Mentor

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