Natural Beekeeping and Organic Honey Production

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  Natural beekeeping and organic honey production are closely related terms, which thus far have not acquired formal definitions. The latter term is based on distinct criteria for the source of nectar. You can be a natural beekeeper (or close to natural), but still not fulfill all of the requirements for organic honey production. On the other hand, organic honey producers must apply natural beekeeping techniques, which in general are more restrictive.

The more significant difference between the two terms is the fact that natural beekeeping is a term created and applied internally by beekeepers. As such, it is not subject to any legal standards. Organic honey production, however, represents a process regulated through the Organic Apiculture Standards. For this reason, any beekeeper who wishes to declare his honey as organic must abide by these regulations.

In this article I will further explain the differences between these two terms, based on limited discussions available in modern beekeeping literature as well as my own beekeeping practices.

Today almost all beekeepers, and especially those in the commercial sector, do not apply natural beekeeping techniques that were used in the past, which has led to a large-scale weakening of bee colonies. For example, almost all beekeepers now use immense amounts of chemicals to fight mites and other diseases. In addition, they feed their colonies with syrups and other supplements. My bee colonies are healthy because I have been practicing only natural beekeeping. In this article, I would like to explain all aspects of this beekeeping methodology.

There are two main aspects of natural beekeeping: the source of the nectar and hive management.

1. The source of nectar and location of the apiary

Proper apiary location is a very important issue, especially if you plan in the future to certify your honey as "Organic honey".

You should select each apiary site carefully. Otherwise, you may jeopardize the efficiency of your investment.
Locate beeyards in a protected area near water and flowering crops or wild flowers. Throughout the foraging season there must be nectar and pollen sources within a short distance of the hives.
In order for honey to be certified organic, the apiary must be placed in isolated areas miles from the dense population, industry, traffic congestion, and farm fields treated with chemicals and landfills.
In addition "The producer of an organic apiculture operation must not maintain colonies in an area where a significant risk of contamination by prohibited materials exist within a 4 mile (6.4 kilometers) radius of the apiary, as described in the operation's organic apiculture plan." (NOSB Apiculture Task Force Report Organic Apiculture Standards October 16, 2001)
Therefore, finding area which can be certified organic is extremely difficult, which is why there are so few certified organic honeys on the market.

By choosing a place for your hives, also you have to think about your colonies health. According to the USDA ARS: "...shaded apiary conditions caused colonies to have more mites. Overall, keeping entire apiaries of mite resistant honey bees in direct sun resulted in colonies having the fewest mites...Exposure to sunlight retarded mite population growth while prolonged shade accelerated it, causing the death of many of the Italian colonies."

Phytoncides of pine trees are capable of killing various microbes within a considerable distance. It is a known fact that feral bees that live in coniferous forests are usually healthy. Therefore, I decided to place my bee yards near the border with a coniferous forest.
If there is no forest in your area, you can plant some pine trees near your hives. These trees will also act as windbreakers.

It is advisable to protect your hives from high winds. Also you have to avoid any wet areas or locations that held damp air.

In the north, a south slope is desirable. Arrange you hives in a way, that the early morning sunlight will strike the front side of your hives early in the morning and wake your bees up. This will help your bees to become active early in the day, and thus gain an advantage by getting the first supply of nectar. At the same time, during the hottest hours of the day your hives should be shaded, so that the bees will not hang-out in front of the hive instead of working.
Avoid placing beeyards near areas frequently used by bears.

My bee yards are located in a watershed zone, controlled by DEP (Department of Environmental Protection).

  Therefore, there are many restrictions not only for the farmers, but also for all homeowners.


  In addition, thousands of acres of forest have been preserved as state land.

"NO TRESPASSING" - except my bees!

  This photo shows how wasps prefer to locate an entrance of their nests - SW in my area.

Probably we can use this information for our hives.

  All my hives are under full sunlight from 8 am. to 3 pm. There is partial sunlight from 7:30 am to 8 am and from 3 pm to 5 pm. Here you can see my hives' exposure to the sun.

2. Management of hives

- Hive design (a. materials, b. ventilation, c. paint colors...);
  a. Materials
- Foundations (comb size..)
I have read a lot of beekeeping literature in several languages, but never saw any practical recommendations on how to choose the correct cell size that will fit to your specific strain of bees.
Many years ago unproved theory about efficiency of small-cell size comb foundation in fighting with Varroa mites appeared. And unfortunately, many beekeepers succumbed to this theory. Nevertheless, recent studies have refuted the effectiveness of such approach.
Today, frames and foundations of various cell size are available for purchase. So, what cell size is suitable to your bees? I think with foundationless frames, installed in brood area, every beekeeper can find out the needs of his bees to build a comb with naturally required cell size.

b. Hive Ventilation
Wet and warm air creates a perfect habitat for many types of bacteria. Although we still cannot design an ideal beehive, especially for climates with frequent temperature changes over a short period of time, we should try to find a solution. After all, improvements in ventilation decrease hive humidity and reduce the need for beekeepers to intrude into beesí lives in order to help colonies to fight against bacteria.
And there is no doubt - you cannot provide an adequate ventilation in hives without attic space!
More about hive ventilation

c. Paint colors: Test Results are Here

- Hive inspection.
You should examine your bee hives only in case of obvious necessity. Before you plan to disturb your bees, think about the appropriateness of such a step. Remember, that during the honey flow season, each opening of the hive leads to significant losses of honey. Also, every time you inspect your hive there is a chance that you accidentally could damage or kill the queen. Therefore, try to find answers to your concerns based on indirect observation and outside attributes like newly emerged bees or an adult worker bees with damaged (undeveloped) wings.

An additional example of my "pollen collection as proof of the presence of a healthy and mated queen" theory:
you have just settled a new colony into a hive or placed a new queen into an existing colony and want to know whether she is alive and whether she started laying eggs. Instead of disturbing your bees, look carefully at workers' behavior.
If the worker bees are actively bringing pollen to the hive, it's a 99.9 percent guarantee that everything is okay with the queen or at least "base for the new queen" (queen cells, eggs or young uncapped larvae) is presented.
The biology of the Honey bees (Apis mellifera) explains my statement: worker bees collect the pollen and then mix it with some nectar. Such form of mixture (called beebread) is a protein-rich food used to feed the larvae (immature bees).
But you definitely have to inspect the hive in a situation when the workers in that hive are not bringing pollen, while the workers in the rest of your colonies are. One of the reasons that workers are not bringing pollen could be the absence of the queen or the queen is still unmated or the queen is unhealthy.

In a situations when you want to make sure that the queen is present, you can follow my recommendations:

1. Try not to do it during cold or windy weather.

2. Upon removal of the inner cover, first check the underside of the inner cover for the queen.
Usually, the queen is located in the place where there is the highest amount of worker bees. Generally, it is not recommended to take out first the frames with the most bees due to a chance of damaging or killing the queen. Therefore, it is better to start this task with the frame, which contains fewer bees, generally on the side of the hive.
If the first frame is fastened to the side of the hive body you can slide a scraper/spackle knife between them.

3. Take one side frame out and inspect it visually. There is still a chance that the queen could be there, therefore you should not put the frame on the ground, but use a nuc box as a temporary location. For the same purpose you can also use a Frame Holder (Frame Perch).

4. Continue by initially shifting the second frame into the open spot on the side and then lifting it out. Inspect the frame to see if the queen is there and return the frame into the side spot. Continue this motion as necessary with the next frames, by first shifting then lifting and replacing frames in a sequence until the queen is located.

5. Once you are satisfied that everything is okay with the queen, it is better to put back the frame with the queen in reverse motion. In other words, put the frame with the queen into an open spot and then shift it back into place. Then shift the rest of the frames towards the frame with the queen and put back the very first frame into its original place.

6. In addition, note that it is better to inspect frames directly above the hive, just in case the queen falls from the frame. If you haven't found the queen on your first try, don't be disappointed and don't try to repeat the task right way. Sometimes the queen can be on the wall or the floor of the hive. It is better to close the hive and come back in a few hours. Chances are the queen could move onto a frame during this time.

7. Finally, it is not necessary to see the queen. If young larvae are visible in the cells you know a queen was present at least a few days before.

Some reasons to replace honey/brood combs periodically:
- Honey combs and especially brood combs become smaller in size and dark over time, because of the cocoons embedded in the cells and because of the tracking of "travel stain".
- Honey/brood combs also hold reproductive spores of honey bee pathogens such as American foulbrood, chalkbrood, Nosema and bee gut disease.
- Honey/brood combs also absorb and hold environmental chemicals (miticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) and chemicals/medicine used by beekeeper.
- Honey/brood combs could be damaged by Wax moths/Waxmoths larvae or by hive beetles. In addition, adult Wax moths and larvae can transfer pathogens of serious bee diseases.
Therefore, normally I replace brood combs every three years or when combs become dark-brown.

My approach is very close to this typical recomendation: "The bulk of the evidence suggests that new combs optimize overall honey bee colony health and reproduction. These finding suggest that beekeepers should eliminate very old brood comb from their operations." BEE CULTURE, December 2008, Page #61
  Unfortinatelly, very offten you can see a comb condition, that in my opinion is totally unacceptale.

This screenshot is from the YouTube video posted here



- Water source
 

  "Bees store their food and raise their young in the honeycomb nest. Honeycomb is made from beeswax, which is secreted by young worker bees, and fashioned into the familiar honeycomb hexagonal shape. Because bees live in these wax combs, though, they have to keep the nest at a constant temperature, not only to keep the colony from overheating, but also to prevent the wax from melting. In hot weather, bees cool the colony much like your swamp or evaporative cooler does - by evaporating off drops of water. Bees collect water and spread it throughout the colony in droplets. Then they fan the air to create an air stream over the water drops, causing the water to evaporate and thus lowering the nest temperatures. When bees forage for water, they are not too fussy about where they collect it. It could be from a small, muddy puddle, a stream or your swimming pool, irrigation system, swamp cooler or birdbath." (http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=11067&page=7)

Almost all honey bees prefer warm wet areas rather than cold springs. Nice pictures are here

  - Strains of honey bees
The best bees are the bees that can overwinter in your area and build up in the spring.
I prefer ARS Russian bees (not original Russian bees from Russia!), because they are really mite resistant and "... are less likely than other bees to lose hive members during harsh, cold weather. Russian bees appear more frugal with their winter food stores." (USDA ARS - Russian Bees 2007 Annual Report: http://www.ars.usda.gov/research/pro...s=true&fy=2007 )
Try to choose a queen from a strain of bee less inclined to swarm!

- Package (packaged) bees installation;

- Feeding is here - part #1

- Annual requeening
The annual requeening is a very controversial subject...

- Swarming of honey bee hive and swarm prevention,
It's better to spend time preventing swarming well in advance than to fight it later.
Details are here

- queen breeding;
- harvest;

- Wintering
Winter is the most difficult time in bees' life and all beekeepers must remember this.

A number of factors must be considered in preparing colonies for winter.
Queen condition and colony size. Usually young queens lay more eggs than old queens. Young queens will lay later in the autumn to provide more young bees as the colony prepares for winter. A young queen not only will get through the winter better than an old one, but she will capable of expanding her laying just as fast as the weather and the cluster of hovering bees can care of it. Young bees are also preferable to old ones since they withstand the rigours of winter and are sufficiently long-lived to survive the spring, the time when bees are needed to cluster over the multiplying areas of brood as well as furnish the food for emerging bees. So, the strong colonies of young bees headed by a healthy vigorous queen is my first goal. Usually, I use two or three body hives for the winter season, depending on the colony size. I do not reduce colony size to one hive body if my colonies are too strong.
A sufficient amount of food in the hives is one of the key elements of successful wintering. The first (bottom) and the second hive bodies should contain from 20 to 30 pounds of honey and some pollen. Most of the honey is located in the top hive body. The top hive body should contains from 40 to 50 pounds of honey.
As the winter progresses and the food supplies decrease, a cluster of bees will shift its position upward as the stores are consumed.
When the winter is very cold and temperature steadily declines, the cluster is forced to rise and move away from the front of the hive faster. If a sufficient amount of honey is not left in the top body, the colony may starve even if an abundance of honey still remains at the bottom of the hive!


  I strongly recommend you to install any thermometer with a sensor to monitor temperature inside of your hive. Such a small investment will help you control temperature inside of your hives year-round.
During wintertime, if you notice an unexpected temperature drop, you will get a chance to prevent a possible loss of your colonies

I prefer "AcuRite" brand thermometers; they are very affordable and reliable.
This is the best investment I have ever made in my beekeeping practice.

However, direct sunlight, rain or wet snow can damage your thermometers. Therefore, it is your responsibility to choose a proper location for the thermometer on your hive.

Acurite Thermometers: $7.99-11.99
Two my favorite thermometers are on sale now:
- Acu-Rite Thermometer with Submersible Probe/Sensor - $6.73,
- Acu-Rite Digital Thermometer with Humidity Gauge - $9.73 (Wal-Mart, Lowes)

Sensors are located in the center of the area above the frames.


  Advise for the new arivals

To improve new colonies' defensive response to bacteria, I immunize them with freshly-grated onion twice a year, once during late autumn and once in the early spring if my new colonies may succumb to disease.

You don't have to apply this technique when your bees will adapted to a new environmental.


  My simple, but very effective technique is useful for beekeepers whose hives are located in cold-winter climates.

To reduce bee losses during the winter, I continuously try to keep proper ventilation in all of my hives.
Usually, after a cold storm, some bees die. They fall onto the bottom board, including the area near the lower hive entrance, consequently impeding hive ventilation. Additionally, the dead bees are a source of infections.

Because the outside temperature is too low to fly, worker bees cannot remove dead bodies from the hive. To help the bees in this situation, I use a hook made from metal wire. It allows me to remove dead bees easily. Afterwards, I burn the dead bodies.

If you find mouse droppings among dead bees, then you have to protect your hive.


  Preparation for snow storms.


  Small pieces of plywood installed at an angle help to maintain adequate ventilation of hives under a layer of snow.


  I prefer to use snow as a natural insulator.


Some pictures related to natural beekeeping:

  First spring inspection of my hives.

April 07, 2008

  I am looking at a two body hive. After a cold winter, we can see a very good amount of healthy bees in this second (top) hive body.

April 07, 2008

  But I have to add some honey

April 07, 2008

  and add some beebread.

For spring and autumn feeding, I use ONLY natural honey and pollen (beebread), instead of using high fructose corn or sugar syrups and other supplemental feeding!

April 07, 2008

  This is the first (bottom) hive body after a cold winter.
The thickness of all of my bottom bodies is 1 1/2"!
As you can see, the wooden body is absolutely clear - there is no mold!!!
How is this possible?


April 09, 2008

  This is my KNOW HOW: bee-friendly, 100% pure sunflower or olive oil.

Apply two coats of sunflower oil to your new hive bodies (especially the bottom body) and bottom boards as you would apply regular paint. You can use a paintbrush or a small piece of cloth. Apply sunflower oil on the inside ONLY!

How to preserve hives naturally

April 09, 2008


  I also tried another approach in avoiding mold inside of the hives. In 2009 I made and installed cedar hive bodies at the bottom of 9 hives to avoid mold in the brood area. The number of cedar hive bodies I could use was limited because 2" X 10" cedar boards are very rare. I bartered several Russian bee colonies for these boards.
The inspection of my hives this spring showed that there is no mold in any of the cedar hive bodies. So, the result is good, but the same result was achieved in the pine hive bodies that were "painted" inside with bee friendly sunflower or olive oil.

April 02, 2010

More details about my cedar hives are here


  The winter 2011 - 2012 was unusually warm therefore my bees were unusually active.
In such situation they already ate all honey in some hives.
I recognized such situation, because temperature inside of these hives dropped significantly in comparison with the other hives.

So the thermometers gave me the very good chance to save my two colonies.

I prefer to use natural honey to feed my bees in emergency situation.
Some details about my feeder posted here

February 17, 2012


Boris Romanov,   March 1, 2000
Last Updated:  August 18, 2015


 
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