Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
No matter where bees live there are a few things they absolutely need, and a lot of things that will make living easier. But it’s those few, but critical items that every beekeeper needs to be aware of, and be able to either supply or enhance to make sure their bees remain healthy, wealthy and wise.
I basically explored these in my latest book Better Beekeeping, but there I examined providing these requirements from the perspective of an experienced beekeeper, familiar with much of the biology that goes into these critical items. But let’s explore that biology in a bit more detail….
The first of these is that your bees should always have enough good food. That may seem simplistic, but think about it for a moment…it goes without saying they need good food…nutritious, balanced, uncontaminated and in a form they can easily consume, digest, and use. And, there needs to be enough of it, all the time. Good food isn’t a given in every location. In heavy use agriculture areas there can be lots of food…but not good food (think corn pollen for instance), and not for long. In some urban locations there’s way more pavement and manicured lawn than forage, and even in more remote locations, extreme weather… drought, flooding, wind…can limit the availability of what’s normally easy pickings.
Second, honey bees need a clean home. That, too, seems a tad too simple, doesn’t it? But there’s two things going on beekeepers need to be aware of…the first of course is the addition of mite control substances to many beehives during the past 25 years…yes, for 25 years we have been sharing our hives with mites, and those mites have been killing bees. But for much longer, bees have been visiting locations that are contaminated with similar toxins…agricultural crops, urban lawns, water puddles with other chemicals dissolved and suspended in them. So, even though a single toxic anything has never been added to a hive, bees have been, and continue to bring back all manner of stuff that isn’t common, and doesn’t belong in a beehive.
Third, honey bees need a safe structure…their actual home if you will. The hollow of a tree is a typical example of a safe structure for a honey bee home. The walls are thick enough to provide insulation in whatever cold winter, and hot summer they have. The cavity itself is large enough to house a modest sized nest with enough combs for food storage and brood rearing to maintain the perennial status of the colony, there is some manner of ventilation, and a space at the bottom where ‘stuff’ can fall and be out of the way. The entrance is usually near the bottom and small enough to easily defend. But of course bees choose to live in many other locations…larger and smaller, better and worse, but to continue living there, a nest must be sound, and mostly permanent.
This of course leads to what I think is another important factor…simply, our honey bees need to be able to stay dry. Some Asian bees, those that nest in single comb, exposed nests, form shields on the outside of the comb by all facing up and making a waterproof layer on the very outside with their wings. Our honey bees don’t do that, and, in fact, because they are generally in a cavity, tend to be very exposed to any water that enters the nest from above. Occasionally you’ll see a honey bee nest completely exposed, usually in a tree. You’ll notice that these bees, when inclement weather occurs, retreat to the very middle of the nest between combs for cover. This works for the adults, but leaves the brood exposed to whatever elements exist. The same thing occurs when moisture falls from the ceiling of a cavity.