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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Saving the Honeybees, One Hive at a Time

winter beehive 

Jeremy Marr is a beekeeper from Michigan who uses natural beekeeping methods — no chemicals. To populate his beehives, he captures swarms and removes feral bee colonies from trees and buildings. Jeremy will blog and post videos about natural beekeeping, feral honeybees and more throughout 2011. He’s also looking for just a little bit of funding to expand his bee yard, and we would encourage you to help him out. He’s trying to help save the art of beekeeping, and his new bee yard will help with his research on colony collapse disorder. Details are at the end of this blog post. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS  

This time of year, I’m happy that I’m not a bee. They are shivering a lot right now. There’s snow on the ground again in Michigan after a brief warm up that brought in the New Year.

Bees don’t hibernate through the winter. They spend the cold months huddled in a ball inside their homes. The queen stays in the center and the workers rotate inward from the edges to share the burden of the cold. They flex their wing muscles to create heat and gorge themselves on honey to power their shivering. They keep the cluster at about 90 degrees.

The other day I found a very cold bee outside one of my hives. I picked it up and it flew off into a snow bank after warming up from my finger. It looked totally frozen when I walked by it on the way into the house. I brought it inside and gave it a drop of honey off my finger. After filling up it began buzzing against the window, trying to take the honey back to the hive. They can be such single-minded creatures. Such focus!

The fact that the cold weather chases me indoors more often than not is something I can use to my advantage. It’s time to plan. These winters are good for giving you time to think.

bees in wall 

For the past two springs I’ve kept busy. I’ve been collecting colonies of feral honeybees.

Some might think that this is a strange or even crazy pursuit. If I were allergic to bees I would probably agree. But bees don’t have it out for us, even though we’ve given them reason enough. If you are nice they will reciprocate. You just have to get to know them. They can actually be quite gentle if you know what ticks them off and what charms them. And the rewards are as sweet as... well, you know.

bee on nose 

I fell in love with bees when I was a kid. My father kept a couple of hives and I had neighbors who were also beekeepers. The first time I saw the inner workings of a beehive I was hooked. It was such a fascinating world they had constructed in there, filled with strange patterns and lovely smells.

A few years ago I took up beekeeping in earnest. Like a lot of other people, I had been hearing about colony collapse disorder and varroa destructor mites. We had just moved the family to a small parcel of land on the outskirts of town and we were starting our homestead. My wife mentioned keeping honeybees.

I started digging into the literature and found that the beekeeping industry isn’t doing very well right now. For the past three winters alone most commercial beekeepers have reported losses that have hovered around 30 percent. That doesn’t count summer losses, which can be significant. That’s a lot of your stock to lose.

The response that many have taken to the heavy losses has been rather predictable. They have started treating their beehives with fungicides and miticides.

That wasn’t for me. I became very discouraged when I heard over and over that you can’t keep a bee colony alive without treatments. The status quo has it that all of the wild (or feral) bees died out when varroa went through North America. A lot of beekeepers say that the chemicals are the only thing keeping the kept honeybees alive.

I like a challenge I guess, because rather than being turned off by the difficulties I was all the more intrigued. I started reading everything I could find on bees.

My research eventually led me to a technique called natural beekeeping. Here was a group of beekeepers who claimed they weren’t suffering the huge losses anymore. They had changed their animal husbandry and the way they worked their hives and their bees were thriving again. This sounded promising.

The natural beekeepers posit that many of the industry’s problems stem from a shallow gene pool. Most bees come from only a small number of breeders who use artificial insemination rather than letting natural selection take its course. This is creating stock that has to be coddled. I wanted to find a tougher kind of bee.

bees in tree 

So, I started collecting feral bee colonies from walls and trees. Some of these had surely come from recently kept hives. But some of them were from colonies that had been feral for over a decade at least. They are colonies that have been on their own for years, but weren’t killed by parasites. And they weren’t treated either. They must have traits that help them fight off pests and disease.

And the bees are tougher. So far they are doing very well. My pest problem is mice, not mites.

My biggest problem besides the mice is that I don’t have enough hives. I’ve been getting more calls for bee removals than I can get to because I have nowhere to put them. I’m the only beekeeper in the area who is doing this, so if we can’t get to them, people often have the bees sprayed by an exterminator.

This year I’m trying something different. I’m raising funds so that I will have plenty of hives to fill this year. And I need your help.


Could you send a link to my project page to anyone you know who appreciates bees or honey? If you could throw in a few dollars, that would be great too.

Thanks, and bee good.

Photos: Winter hive and nose-to-nose with a bee by Jeremy Marr. Swarm in tree and bees in wall by Gregg Marr. 

suzie halle
9/17/2012 4:15:37 AM

beautiful 3 minute video of the honey harvest from hive to jar...

1/26/2011 2:19:51 PM

great blog! Looking forward to a post on the experimental hive you built. I want to build a top bar hive this winter. keep on posting looks like you got your kick start funds congrats!

1/19/2011 9:57:40 PM

Good for you Jeremy. I think you be very successful with your bee keeping. I look forward to reading about your avocation. I don't currently have bees but I did as a, hobbyist, for almost 10 years. I got into many years ago in the 1970's because my Mother became interested in bees. She introduced me to the state apiarist and other "old timers" and they advocated minimum chemicals/drugs and among other things,leaving enough honey and pollen in the hive to make it thru the winter and giving them a good start in the spring. I was able to expand my hives by splitting and some harvesting 'feral' bees from trees, swarms and buildings. They seemed to be very healthy and didn't need much interference from me.

1/19/2011 8:45:14 PM

We have an apple orchard and thousands of bees naturally come and every spring for our wonderful blossoms. I don't know where they come from or where they go, do you think if we set up hives throughout the orchard they would stay? We have plenty of water here as well and are way out in the country so it seems we have the perfect conditions for bees. Thanks.

sharon morris
1/19/2011 7:04:06 PM

I don't believe in anything chemical not in my food, my house or medicine. I'm about to sign up for a local bee keeping class but I'm afraid their practice is going to be chemically based. Do you do natural bee keeping classes or know of anyone that does?

abbey bend
1/19/2011 2:25:32 PM

Interesting article, be aware there are no native honeybees in North America, so feral bees are just escaped bees and from the same gene pool. One of the probable reasons the feral bees mostly have died out from mite infestations. Also the first records of Colony Collapse date back to 1880, so while it gets more press now, it is a long way from a new problem, but one the answer has been searched for over a century now. One thing I have learned keeping honeybees, is because they are a non-native insect, they are not as well adapted to life in the Americas as the native solitary bees. So best of success with your project, a very big question to answer.

jerry ward
1/19/2011 2:22:01 PM

I'm about 90 miles east of you and am trying the same thing, beekeeping without chemicals. I'll be interesting in following your progress, my son and I just started spring 2010. See

tig _1
1/19/2011 1:34:22 PM

Wow (quiet and respectfully said). What a video! This was the best video I've seen on bees AND on doing something with love and respect for nature, which is giving a helping hand to an element that our toxic chemicals has really hit hard. I wish every school kid could watch this video. Can you imagine how many would be inspired by it?! Watch and take away with you some of the good energy embodied in this video. It's a little bit of balm for a sick world.

1/19/2011 1:19:37 PM

Good for you and your patient wife. I'm a former Michigander myself (Grand Ledge), now in northern CA. I'd love to keep a hive or two here, but my husband is not yet on board with the idea. While I keep working on him, I'll send you a pledge. I hope others do the same, as you are doing good work for all of our benefit. Thanks for the thoughtful updates, too.

1/19/2011 10:10:46 AM

Great post, Jeremy! I can't wait to read more. :)

dan moyle
1/18/2011 12:50:26 PM

Great info Jeremy. I had no idea how bees kept warm. I love that they reciprocate niceness. Karma, even at an insect level! Keep up the great beekeeping, and keep writing. Thanks for sharing!