Natural bee-keeping

The style of bee-keeping practised at Meadow Orchard is apicentric. The purpose is to support the bees’ health and autonomy, rather than to harvest hive products such as honey, wax, propolis and royal jelly.

These are the essential elements of this approach:

Swarming

By allowing the bees to swarm we are giving them the opportunity to make genetic choices important to colony resilience. Many bee-keepers make the choice of queen succession themselves, destroying queen cells and splitting colonies artificially, and introducing artificially bred queens to colonies that are not related to them. The queen in a commercial nucleus colony will very likely have been artificially inseminated. The genetic choices of the colony are dramatically reduced because a queen allowed to mate naturally mates with many drones and stores their living sperm in her abdomen for her productive life.

We need to check daily for swarms in May, and communicate well with our neighbours, for swarming to be tolerated.

Retaining Drones

Many bee-keepers see drones – male honey bees – as unproductive free-loaders because they do not forage. Their larvae are cut out of the hive during weekly inspections. New research shows that drones fulfil other functions as well as mating. Rudolph Steiner said that they are the colony’s storytellers or historians.

Not doing weekly inspections

Weekly colony inspections are widely believed to be vital to inspect for diseases. However, opening the hive lowers the temperature for up to three days. This not only makes a lot of work for the bees, but gives the parasitic varroa mites a better chance, as they thrive in a lower temperature. The scent from the opened hives could also attract the small hive beetle which is another parasite to bee colonies.

Not doing varroa treatments

We have been treating the hives with biodynamic preparations at the Meadow Orchard. Sean, the bee-keeper at Organiclea puts a bed of wood chip at the base of the hive. This allows other creatures to cohabit with the bees and some of them enjoy a nice lunch of varroa mites. We are planning to do this in future.

Hive communication

Comb that is wired and contained in a frame, as in conventional bee-keeping, cannot vibrate in the way that a free hanging comb does. The waggle dance is the bees’ language which they use to broadcast the location of nectar and pollen sources. For it to work effectively the combs should be joined to each other with brace comb, which is cut away during hive inspections.

Pheremones are another important communication tool within the hive. Using chemicals in the hive, even essential oils, interferes with the delicate balance of pheromones.

Planting wild flowers

There has been a lot of not-doing highlighted so far. One thing that we have been doing is planting wild flowers and other flowering herbs and shrubs, which are food sources for all pollinating insects. The abundant fruit-tree blossoms in our orchard are also an early source of pollen and nectar for our bees.

For further information see the Natural Beekeeping Trust.