Domesticated honeybees have been in the news a lot in recent years because of their mysterious dwindling numbers due to colony collapse disorder. CCD seems to be caused by a cocktail of problems, from bee exposure to pesticides, to being fed insufficient food, to environmental stress, to pests like the varroa mite. These factors are exacerbated by a new virus/fungus combination which affects the bees' already jeopardized immune systems.
Wild populations have also been suffering for lack of habitat due to urban sprawl. A large percentage of our fruit and vegetable crops in the United States depend on pollination from bees and they are a link in a long domino-chain of species interdependence. Some have dubbed the disappearing honeybees the proverbial canary in the mine.
In reaction, many individuals have taken it upon themselves to keep their own backyard bees, and to do it naturally in order to encourage robust health and disease resistance in their hives. These are pioneers in the world of beekeeping, often eschewing practices considered de rigueur in the beekeeping world, and their bees are thriving.
The organization at the forefront of this brave new world is the Los Angeles-based Backwards Beekepers (beehuman.blogspot.com), founded by veteran beekeepers Kirk Anderson (whom his peers know as Kirkobeeo), Russell Bates and Amy Seidenwurm. I got the chance to speak with Ruth Askren, a member of Backwards Beekeepers and active beekeeper, in order to get advice on natural beekeeping in residential landscapes.
How to be a Backwards Beekeeper
1. Catch your own swarm instead of buying one.
Like native plants, the theory is that locally adapted feral bee colonies are more robust, healthy, and able to resist local stresses than whatever industrially-produced bees you might buy through the mail. How do you catch bees? When they swarm, which is likely to happen any time during the warm seasons, all you have to do is find a swarm, trap it in a box, and then transfer it to your hive box. They will make themselves at home.
You can also post on Craigslist, advertising bee removal services. Other people will probably pay you to humanely remove their bees. A third option is to set a bee trap. This is simply an empty box of some sort, sprayed with either queen bee pheromone or lemongrass oil, which attracts honeybees. If you're lucky and patient enough, eventually bees will move right into your box and it's as easy as that.
The first question beginner beekeepers will probably ask is, “What about killer bees? How do I know I'm not capturing a killer bee swarm?” Ms. Askren, who regularly assists in wild colony cutouts, dismisses the whole “killer bee scare” as a figment of a fear mongering media's imagination. “You should be afraid, but only a little. Honeybees sting and it hurts,” but they're not going to kill anyone, Ms. Askren assures. “If you're working with bees, you need to gear up,” but beekeepers needn't worry about “killer bees.”
“Bees only sting when they're afraid you're going to destroy their home. Beekeepers call it defensive action. Non-beekeepers call it aggressive behavior. If you have a swarm, they are very unlikely to sting. In that swarm they know they're homeless and waiting for instruction from the queen. Some colonies are more aggressive than others, but any bee colony will protect itself, with stings, when attacked. This is the nature of bees. They don't go out looking to kill things.”
2. Don't use any foundation.
According to The Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, most people who keep bees are not even aware that beekeeping without foundation is possible. No one told the bees they need foundation and they've been building their own just fine in the wild. The natural method is to use starter strips, which is an 1/8th inch strip of wood coated with wax which runs along the top of each comb frame. It simply provides a guide for the bees so they don't draw comb at strange angles, which would be inconvenient for the beekeeper.
Ms. Askren uses comb she gathers from bee cutouts as a guide for her bees. A “cutout” is beekeeper terminology for removing established hives built in walls or other places that need to be removed. “One of the big benefits is you get comb that bees have already built and it's very useful in building a new hive or expanding an old hive,” she advises. You can simply tie the comb to the frame with string or rubber bands, which the bees remove once they are established in their new home.
However, it's not a perfect science. In one of her hives, Ms. Askren's bees built comb so randomly that it was impossible to inspect the hive. “With the next boxes, I started out with a frame of cutout comb and then an empty frame and then a frame of cutout. On the empty frame, they built straight comb.” And that's been her method ever since. “Some colonies just build straight, others don't.”
3. Don't feed your bees junk.
It's standard in the bee industry to take honey from bees and then feed them with sugar or corn syrup, since these are less expensive than honey. However, backwards beekeepers make sure their bees have plenty of honey stored before they take for themselves in order to obviate the need to supplement with other sugars. Honey is nature's perfect bee food, and in many ways a great human food. Forcing bees to survive on sugar or corn syrup is, well, not that different from a human trying to survive off those same foods—it's a quick recipe for disaster.
Instead, let your bees build up at least two or three boxes of brood and honey, and only then, when they are well-stocked and robust, take honey for yourself. [DIY Resource: HomeTalk.com]
4. Don't use chemicals.
“Beekeeping backwards is environmentally responsible. It keeps pesticides and fungicides out of the environment,” Ms. Askren assures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that whether chemicals are used to treat for mite infestations or not, the chemicals only hurry the death of the hive.
What do hives infested with mites do in nature without a beekeeper there to spray chemicals on them? That's like asking what deer in nature do about ticks, or what fish do about parasites. This hands-off approach is controversial, but according to beekeepers like Ms. Askren, it works.
What does the future hold?
“As a grassroots movement, this has tremendous potential to have a trickle-up effect to influence commercial beekeepers, who will see that this manner of beekeeping doesn't bring CCD,” Ms. Askren says. “In other words, beekeeping backwards will help educate rest of world about what we need to do to prevent the extinction of bees.”
Backwards Beekeepers is opening its first chapter in Brooklyn soon. For more information, check out beehuman.blogspot.com or see the book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer.