The importance of bees and a more natural way of keeping them

Bees are truly amazing insects. As a child growing up on the farm I occasionally saw the clump of white boxes sitting in a neighbouring paddock, however I never really knew how important bees were for the pollination of many of the plants we rely on for our survival.

A study that was conducted in 2006 by CSIRO scientists from England, Germany, US and Australia found that one in every three mouthfuls of food we consume comes from insect pollinated crops. This study was conducted in over 200 countries worldwide and found that 87 of the 110 global food crops we rely on require animal pollination (to varying extents).

Personally I found these figures astonishing, especially when most of the time we regard bees purely as creatures that sting and give honey.

This blog post is not aimed at commercial production of honey but rather a way to introduce bees into your backyard, garden or farm for the purpose of plant pollination and honey for personal consumption.

A natural way to keep bees?

Tim Malfroy of Malfroy's Gold checking a hive

Keeping bees will never be purely natural unless you leave bees alone in the wild to do their thing. I was introduced to a more natural way in beekeeping after attending a two day natural beekeeping course on the subject. I tend to make judgements on what makes more sense to me rather than “idealistic values”, therefore I try to read books or articles and talk to people about different ways to do the same thing, only then do I feel like I can form my own view. Natural beekeeping, using ‘the peoples hive’ (more on that later) made sense to me immediately. there are a few keys points that differentiate it from beekeeping in conventional hives:

1) The inside of the hive is observed less frequently (As little as 2-3 times a year) thereby reducing chilling of the brood, which can lead to weaker colonies that become more susceptible to disease.

2) The hive box is square and of a dimension where the bees are easily able to regulate the internal hive temperature during colder periods (the larger hive boxes of conventional hives entail a large amount of air space that requires more energy to heat).

3) The hive is expanded from below (hive boxes added) and the honey harvested from the top. This mimics a tree trunk. This may sound crazy but bees that build colonies in hollow trees draw comb downwards during a honey flow, they then move up to their honey stores to feed during winter. By mimicking this action we can let the bees draw comb down through the hive boxes and take the top boxes off after the comb full of honey has been capped and the brood has moved into lower boxes.

4) Less equipment and time is needed to prepare the hive – Frames or top bars can be used and are fitted with starter strips rather than foundation that requires wiring (conventional hives). This allows bees to natural form their own comb to their needs.

5) The more natural ‘peoples hive’ system produces less honey – From a commercial standpoint this is unfavourable, however from an amateur beekeepers perspective this is something that leads to an eventual saving in time, money and bee health. Less disease is apparent due to decreased disturbance of the hive (The bees regulate the inner temp of the hive at a constant 35°C and whenever we observe the hive the bees have to work hard to raise the temperature again) and less time is needed to manage the hives. This is not to say that careful observation of hive health and the monitoring of activity at the hive entrance is not necessary).

Honey

Honey fresh from the hive

As a sugar, honey is hard to beat. The form of glucose that is found in honey can immediately be assimilated and taken into the blood stream, whereas artificial sugars use invertase that is released from the stomach and intestines. This invertase is also used to break down fats and starches, therefore by consuming artificial sugars we increase the demand on our organs. Honey also contains formic acid, which makes an effective antiseptic. There are many health benefits to honey and many practical uses for bees wax.

To learn more about ‘the peoples hive’, natural beekeeping and bees take a look at the free ebook “Beekeeping for all” by Abbe Warre, The bee-friendly beekeeper by David Heaf and the biobees website.

To learn more about general beekeeping, the conventional way and bees check out the NSW DPI – Bee agskills publication (Australian residents), The bee book by ann cliff, The dancing bees by Karl Von-Frisch and backyard beekeeping by Courtney N. Smithers

Where to from here?

We will hopefully be establishing a few “peoples hives” on the farm in the future, with two already built and ready to go. Having said that it is certainly possible to become a beekeeper in an urban environment with many councils allowing 1-2 hives per backyard. I will add another post to the beekeeping category soon about how to build your own “peoples hive” aka Warre hive with observation windows. If you are interested in attending a natural beekeeping course and you live in Australia check out the Malfroys gold website and make sure you grab a copy of the free ebook by Abbe Warre – Beekeeping for all. I have no commercial interests in this blog therefore any recommendation I am giving are purely based on positive experiences.

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3 comments on “The importance of bees and a more natural way of keeping them

  1. Emily Heath says:

    I found your blog through the WordPress tag surfer. I don’t want to be critical of Warre hives, but wondered if I could say a few words in favour of conventional hives, in reply to a couple of your points –

    1) The hive is observed less frequently (As little as 2-3 times a year) thereby reducing chilling of the brood, which can lead to weaker colonies that become more susceptible to disease.

    I haven’t come across any scientific evidence that inspecting more regularly causes disease. I don’t inspect during winter, but during summer when I do inspect once a week, the brood is not going to get chilled. Observing less frequently can also mean you miss things, for example your colony is likely to swarm so you lose half your bees, your bees may go queenless without you realising, or you may miss that they have a serious disease such as foulbrood. Monitoring of activity at the hive entrance can tell you a lot, but as a beginner even if you sit there all day you’re unlikely to notice a brood disease or realise that your bees have created twenty queen cells.

    2) The hive box is square and of a dimension where the bees are easily able to regulate the internal hive temperature during colder periods (the larger hive boxes of conventional hives entail a large amount of air space that requires more energy to heat).

    My conventional hive brood box is also square. Conventional brood boxes can come in different sizes and a smaller size one can be used in a colder area or for a less prolific queen.

    Whatever hive you use, wish you the best of luck with your bees 🙂

    • raelandsfarmbarrington says:

      Hi Emily
      Thanks for your reply. I guess when I was referring to conventional hives I meant Langstroth hives, whereas the Warre has internal dimensions of 310x310mm. I am not trying to be negative towards conventional beekeepers and I too have not seen scientific evidence to back up my statement, however I was relaying the experience of a couple of beekeepers I have met who have used both systems and have found that there has been less disease and small hive beetle present in their Warre hives, this may be due to the fact that the colonies are particularly strong when the hive is at its maximum efficiency? In terms of swarming the Warre system allows as much increase in hive size as is necessary during the honey flow, reducing over crowding and the likelihood of swarming.
      I have heard some beekeepers explain that if there are many bees flying into the hive with pollen then there has to be a queen present in the hive, therefore she does not have to be observed during this time (sorry, I meant observing inside the hive).
      On chilling the brood, I guess that if the weather is very warm then chilling of the brood may not be a huge issue, however the temp inside the hive is regulated to 35°C so anything lower than this would require effort to regain this temp, which may take longer to achieve during the spring hive check and harvesting in autumn.
      The main point I wanted to get across is that the Warre system made sense to me because there is less disturbance of the hive, which allows the bees to regulate their own hive conditions, the queen can travel throughout the hive, as in nature and it can be expanded/split with minimal hive disturbance due to the addition of boxes to the bottom of the hive allowing bees to work their way down through the hive, as in nature.
      If you are interested I found ‘Beekeeping for all’- Abbe warre (free ebook) a really interesting read + the natural beekeeping course I attended was run by a commercial beekeeper, which helped. I am not partial to any one particular system, just the one that suits my purpose more 🙂
      I have found that I had to build my own few hives with observation windows due to their not being anyone who builds them here in Australia, which is a slight disadvantage.
      I took a quick look at your blog and it seems very comprehensive, I would love to hear what you thought of the ebook…

      I hope I have made some sense 🙂

      • Emily Heath says:

        Thanks for writing me such a detailed reply.

        I think there are probably pros and cons to both ways of doing things. Increasing the hive size won’t prevent swarming on its own, as the larger the colony gets the less queen substance there is going round, which is one of the factors involved in a colony making the decision to swarm. However in a rural area that probably doesn’t matter as much as it would in a crowded urban environment.

        When the temperature is below 35°C this doesn’t necessarily mean that the bees are having to try to get the temperature up to that level. During a nice summer day, say 23C, they are more likely to be trying to cool the hive down to 35C, by fanning outside the hive or hanging water in the cells, because 60,000 bees in the small space of a hive gets hot. So by opening the hive up on a nice day you are more likely to be contributing to heating the hive up than cooling it down.

        It all depends what suits you and your bees best at the end of the day. Very impressed that you built your own hives with observation windows! Wish I had those kind of carpentry skills.

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