Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Bees were really the beginning of my farm changing from an equestrian hangout for teenagers to a production-centred landscape. After reading one afternoon several years ago about the seriousness of bee losses, I made up my mind to help in the best way anyone can: to have hives on my property. Common to many new beekeepers, I’m sure, I only ever intended to have one or two. Yep, just one or two…that’d be enough.
After some research, I thought the most logical way to proceed was to take a course offered by a local commercial outfit before buying myself two package of bees. Armed with pen and paper, I took note of the procedures which the commercial beekeeper presented as standard: which pesticides to apply to the frames in the spring to kill off the almost universal verroa mites; how during the summer it would be necessary to treat for various bee diseases such as nosema, how I could rob a great deal of honey provided I supplied food through the fall, and how it was vital to re-queen the hive annually to ensure a strong population of workers. Conveniently, after the course was completed, the beekeeping shop on the same property offered everything a beginner could need. I probably spent around $600 on the various bee boxes, lids, frames, foundations, and of course the panoply of chemicals with which to dress the whole operation.
I’d read that 3 pound packages would make excellent starter hives and excitedly installed my very first bees. They prospered in the beginning, and I delighted in the busy activity that surrounded my little boxes. Dutifully following my notes from the course, I followed commercial standards and applied pesticides at the correct times and in the correct amounts after testing the hives positive for mites. I took honey from the hives in the summer, and set feeders in for the early fall. Bees were taking the syrup I prepared, and frequent refills were necessary. But I noticed something was not quite right. Each time I refilled the feeders, I saw reduced numbers of bees on the frames. I read up. An illness? I checked the queens, and there they were, laying as usual. Brood of all ages was evident in both hives. Yet the numbers continued to decline. When it came time to cluster for the winter, I had little hope. There were so few bees left in either hive, they couldn’t possibly generate the heat require to keep things alive. On the first warm day in the very early spring, my fears were realised as I opened both hives to find them dead.
There are few things more desolate than a dead bee hive. Piles of bodies. Empty comb. Dessicated larvae and half-finished cells. It was heartbreaking to a new beekeeper. I was tempted to give up. But either by lucky coincidence or the interference of bee-gods, shortly thereafter I was introduced to a friend of my mother’s who happened to be a lifelong beekeeper. With forty hives on his place, he was a wealth of experience. He listened quietly while I described my woes, shaking his head from time to time with a sad little smile. “The one thing I’ve learned about bees,” he finally said in his low-key way, “is that less is more.” Less interference, he went on to explain, and more attention to the hive’s natural behaviours would do far more to protect the health of bees than any human-made chemical ever could. “Allow the bees to work up a large, closed population, and you’ll have no trouble whatsoever,” he said.
I took his wisdom to heart, and started again with two new packages. No chemicals, no over-harvesting, no manipulation whatsoever of queens. By mid-May, those two hives were overflowing and I split to make five separate hives. I did not add a new queen to the halves without them. I quashed my desire to control what was going on, and allowed them to figure out that they were queenless all by themselves. New brood was in each one within a few weeks. The bees knew what to do, each hive had bred and mated a queen all on its own! I took honey from all the hives, but left a large supply to do its job: feeding bees throughout the winter. And to my surprise, without any pesticides of any kind, the verroa counts were down in every hive.
This past February, the less-is-more approach gave me its ultimate reward: five hives successfully overwintered. As the late spring days approach and a bonanza of bee activity is evident in my orchard, I’ll split my five to ten. Ten's a good number. After that I'll keep a close watch….but mostly from my kitchen window.