Happy New Year's! The beekeeper’s calendar begins in the fall. So, autumn is the right time to get started if you want to create a new apiary or try a new style of hive in an existing bee yard. Recently, more keepers are breaking away from conventional methods to try to establish a healthier beekeeping system. When choosing your beekeeping method, one of the first things to consider is the time commitment involved. In this post, I will give you a general overview of the annual activities associated with an alternative method created by a Frenchman named Emile Warré that is gaining popularity among organic and holistic beekeepers.
The Warré (pronounced like soirée if you drop the “s”: wa hray) method and philosophy are more “bee-centric” than most contemporary apicultural approaches. In other words, since bees have survived without mankind’s intervention for millions of years, a Warré beekeeper strives to recreate a natural environment in which the bees can be largely self-sustaining, thus reducing the keeper’s role from manager to assistant. Simplicity is one of the most important principles of Warré’s system. As a result, this method is less time-consuming than most others. In my next post, I will provide a more elaborate explanation of the Warré beekeeping philosophy.
In the meantime, the following overview of a Warré beekeeper’s annual activities will give you a general idea of what your new hobby will entail each season. If you are new to beekeeping or just pondering getting started, don’t worry if you don’t know all the terms: over the course of the year my posts will provide detailed explanations of each of the seasonal topics, guidelines, and techniques mentioned in the calendar to help walk you through the process. You can also feel free to skip to the summary at the bottom of this post and come back to look at the calendar when you are actually in the process of getting started. Experienced beekeepers will notice that this calendar differs a bit from most other contemporary methods: one of the biggest differences is that the hive is opened as few times as possible to avoid creating unnecessary stress for the bees.
THE FIRST YEAR is the most important because you will be making many important decisions that will affect your apicultural experience for years to come. You can avoid many frustrations and subsequent problems by taking the time to lay a good foundation for your apiary, or “bee yard." Your objective is to create conditions in which your bees perform optimally so that they can basically operate the hive by themselves simply by using their natural behavior. This also requires carefully selecting the kind of bees best suited to the environment you can offer.
The Beekeeper's First Year
FIRST FALL: Do Ground Work for New Hives
• Laws: Before you do anything else you need to know if there are local laws that will affect what kind of hive you can use and where you can keep it.
• Compare different kinds of hives (Warré, Top Bar, Langstroth, etc). Choose the one that not only corresponds to your goals and needs as a beekeeper but is also suitable to your geographic location.
• Choose the site and orientation of the hive(s). Weigh the options of backyard and long distance beekeeping taking into consideration nectar sources.
• Make sure the site is bee friendly by avoiding pesticides, herbicides, GMOs.
• Consider creating a “honeybee haven” by planting mellifluous plants.
• Decide what type and size of honeybee is best suited for your environment and beekeeping method.
• Source your bees. Research venders and get on a waiting list no later than November.
• Consider “regressing” the dimension of your bees back to a more natural small size to increase their ability to defend themselves against mites.
FIRST WINTER: Prepare the Equipment
• Get the basic start-up equipment:
- Hive(s) (buy from a good source or do-it-yourself)
- Other basics: veil, hive tool, feeder, etc.
• Prepare the frames if you decided to use them. You’ll have to consider the pros and cons of providing wax foundation.
• Assemble a library of good reference books or websites.
• Learn about bees: read, watch documentaries, and talk to established beekeepers.
FIRST SPRING: Install Bees into Their New Hive
(Resist taking honey this year so that the colony can become well established using their own reserves).
• Set up the hive(s).
• Install the bees.
• Observe and monitor the hive(s).
• Learn about what is happening inside the hive.
• Learn about the bee colony, the bees that compose it and how they function as a unit.
• Learn about diseases and bee enemies and how to deal with them organically.
• Learn about pollen, what’s in bloom…
• Plant more mellifluous plants if you chose to make a honeybee garden.
• Continue to observe and monitor the hive and respond to any issues that arise.
During THE SUCCEEDING YEARS, things fall into a regular annual cycle. You will take on the role of steward and thief: helping the bees through difficulties (drought, pests, disease, etc.) and stealing their spare honey and other hive products. You can make lots of things with your harvest: candles, soaps, balms, etc…
In summary, initially setting up a Warré apiary requires quite a bit of thoughtful planning and preparation but, once well established, the following years don’t demand much time on a daily or weekly basis. There will be unexpected surprises that demand attention, such as pests, but on the whole the system is fairly low maintenance and a pleasant way to keep bees.
My next post (entitled “The Beekeeper’s Calendar”) will help you make more sense of the regular annual schedule of an established apiary. The detailed calendars in these first two posts will be most useful when you are actually in the process of getting started because you can refer back to them regularly as a schedule.
Photo by Lisa Gustavson