Natural Beekeeping in Your Backyard

Enjoy the sweet rewards of natural beekeeping. Here’s what you need to know about keeping bees — using natural methods — and harvest fresh, delicious honey from your own backyard.

| February/March 2008

  • Bees 2
    In the late summer, it’s time to harvest some of the honey from your hives.
    Photo by John Ivanko
  • Bees 1
    Honeybees are important pollinators of many flowering plants. The best time to start a new hive is in the spring.
    Photo by iStockphoto
  • natural beekeeping
    When you’re ready to start beekeeping, you can purchase the bees by mail order. These three packages of bees are ready to go into a new hive.
    Photo by Amy Grisak
  • jars of honey
    Looking for local sources of honey? Visit www.localharvest.org and search for “honey,” or go to www.honeylocator.com. 
    Photo by Amy Grisak
  • honeybee on flower
    If you keep apple trees, starting a few beehives to be sure you have pollinators nearby can ensure a good harvest.
    Photo by Amy Grisak
  • beekeeping supplies
    Essential beekeeping equipment. A veil will protect you from bee stings, while smoke helps calm the bees so they’re less likely to sting.
    Photo by Robin Arnold

  • Bees 2
  • Bees 1
  • natural beekeeping
  • jars of honey
  • honeybee on flower
  • beekeeping supplies

If you’d like to benefit your garden and community and offer a treat to your taste buds, consider trying your hand at natural beekeeping in your own backyard. As honeybees gather pollen and nectar to make 50 pounds or more of pure, wild honey per hive, they pollinate crops nearby — and up to four miles away. This pollination is essential for good yields for some flowering crops. Best of all, honeybees require only simple management once the hives are up and running. Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, says that keeping bees takes “more effort than for your cat, but less than your dog.”

But can you achieve natural beekeeping? For the first time in 20 years, the answer is yes. Until the mid-1980s, some beekeepers avoided using chemicals inside beehives, but then a quarantine violation led to the importation of the varroa mite, a devastating tick-like honeybee parasite. At about the same time, much tinier terrors called tracheal mites began ravaging hives throughout the country.

To save their bees from these and other pests, many beekeepers turned to chemical controls, which worked for a while. Then two things happened: many populations of varroa mites became resistant to the two main pesticides used to control them, and entomologists discovered that feeding bees fatty patties made of sugar and shortening suppressed tracheal mites to tolerable levels.

In addition, products that utilize the mite-minimizing properties of essential oils (such as thymol-based Api-Life VAR and spearmint and lemongrass Honey-B-Healthy) can effectively suppress mites in small apiaries. Dusting with powdered sugar is another technique used to knock down mites. Combined with routine hive maintenance and using bees bred to clean out compromised cells, new natural techniques can eliminate the need for chemical controls.



Getting Started

The general rhythm of bee life involves making and storing honey in wax combs from spring to fall, and then feeding on the stored supply in winter. Bees make honey from nectar. First, foraging bees collect nectar from flowers and store this sugary fluid in their “honey stomach.” They transform the nectar into honey by repeatedly passing it back and forth, which helps evaporate most of the water and adds enzymes. Strong hives make more honey than they need, so good beekeeping involves doing everything you can to keep the colony healthy, and taking out just the right amount of honey without depriving the bees of an ample winter supply.

Honeybees reproduce rapidly as the weather warms in summer, so spring is the best time to set up a new hive. As you wait for winter to end, spend some time with a good book on natural beekeeping (See “Resources,” below). You will be working with highly organized insects, so a working knowledge of bee behavior is helpful — and fascinating. You might look for a local beekeeper to help guide you through your first season. Your local extension service may be able to suggest someone (or offer a beekeeping course), or you can find a beekeeping club at Bee Culture.

Alvin
1/21/2016 8:11:13 AM

I liked you article Natural Beekeeping. Generally I use new techniques of beekeeping and honey extraction. For growing healthy honey bees I feed them with winter patties which I got from Dadant.com.


Alvin
1/21/2016 8:09:52 AM

I liked you article Natural Beekeeping. Generally I use new techniques of beekeeping and honey extraction. For growing healthy honey bees I feed them with winter patties which I got from Dadant.


Rose
5/8/2014 10:38:14 PM

Great article, very informative. I've just started out my urban bee keeping project and I want to keep it as natural and chemical free as possible. As a total newbie there's quite a bit to learn. I found this e-book a good place to start with some good info especially the part on raising Queen Bees http://tinyurl.com/honeymaker







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