Wooden hives, frames, feeders, wax foundation, queen excluders, varroa treatment... bees don't need any of this, or at least wild bees didn't long ago.
These inventions are all for the benefit of the beekeeper and the crop. Just like in conventional agriculture, we've harnessed a natural process and have bent it to our needs. Our concern for the bees stretches as far as trying to ensure their survival to continue to give us a crop.
I think it's ok to use natural processes and encourage them in a particular direction, for our benefit. It's a matter of degree, and I hope with my new bees to begin moving back towards a permaculture or biodynamic approach to beekeeping. Some principles of biodynamic beekeeping are:
- The biodynamic bee keeper aims to preserve the unity of the colony; he treats it as a complete organism not as separate parts.
- If the colony begins to split from itself by preparing to swarm we harness the power of this process, we do not suppress it.
- We use the power of the swarm process for renewal and all breeding.
- We do not make artificial nuclei or induce queen rearing.
- The bees build their own comb; we do not give them any foundation apart from little starter strips.
- We only use natural materials for the hives.
- We do not recycle wax in the hives.
(from Top Bar Beekeeping Forum)
Now my bees are a result of breeding, an artificial nucleus, and are living on comb that the bees built on human-manufacturer recycled wax foundation. Also I am using a convention hive box. My training and the fellow members of the beekeeping association are all conventional, so I felt it easiest as a beginner to start this way, where there's the most knowledge and support, and slowly change as I understand how to apply the biodynamic principles.
One change I am making today is to use a different feed recipe for the nucleus. It was surprising to me to learn that conventional beekeepers routinely rob almost all of a colony's honey, and then give them lots of sugar solution in its place! Good grief, it seems to me this is going too far.
Apparently i have to feed the nucleus of bees I've bought, and I won't risk not doing so. Unfortunately I don't have honey from these bees to give back to them, so it will have to be a sugar solution, but I'll at least use a biodynamic recipe (from the same website):
"You have to use organically grown crystallised white sugar (not brown or dark sugar). I put 3 kg of sugar into 2 litres of water (or in proportion to the amount you need). To the sugar we add 10% of our own honey (to 9 kg of sugar you add 1 kg of honey); to this mixture we add some chamomile tea and a very little pinch of salt. You only need a small amount of these substances â€“ if I prepare 100 litres of sugar liquid in this way (this would be nearly 75 kg of sugar and 7.5 kg of honey together with 50 litres of water) I would use one or two litres of a strong chamomile tea and maybe a teaspoon of salt (sea salt).
This mixture is suitable for feeding new colonies and nuclei as well as for autumn feed.
It helps the bees to convert the sugar solution to a honey like substance."
Next year I hope to have sufficient honey to take some while leaving enough for the bees too, so I can minimise the amount of supplementary feed I give them.
I've begun reading up on more "natural beekeeping" methods, here are some references:
Of course the biodynamic methods all come from the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. He gave quite a few lectures just on bees. I've read these with difficulty, and some of the ideas are pretty far out there, because they are spiritual and seemingly not related to anything practical at all! I dont know how much of this was a "direct feed" from a greater power, and how much of it came just from himself, but it has inspired biodynamic agriculture, which works, even if some of the practices can stretch one's credulity.