12 Tenets of Preservation Beekeeping
We are aligned with the research of two dedicated bee scientists, Tom Seeley (US) and Torben Schiffer (Germany). We combined elements of their work with our own principles and observations and created this list of guidelines that exemplify Preservation Beekeeping. These are the cornerstone of ‘what bees want.’ The more of these guidelines you are able to implement, the better for your bees.
1—Keep Small Hives
Bees want a smaller home, one that they can fill completely with food and comb. In conventional hives, bees live in spaces that change constantly as empty boxes are added atop hives, or honey boxes are removed. Bees in such hives are always working to keep up with the constant changes brought by the keeper through management and meddling in the hives.
Smaller colonies in the wild spend 60% of their time doing food preparation, rearing their young, and hive maintenance. Small colonies spend the remaining 40% of their day resting and in mutual grooming. Small capacity hives fulfill their seasonal work more easily, leaving time for rest and self-care. When bees need to work continuously, self-care and mutual grooming are the first tasks abandoned.
Bees are naturally frugal. In the wild, they store honey for future years. In times of drought, fires, and climate fluctuations, bees in small hives with good honey stores can weather almost anything. Small really is better for bees.
2—Rough Up the Interior of the Hive
Bees use propolis to smooth out rough walls. Scientific evidence shows that bees who propolize heavily are healthier. Propolis is the bees’ medicine. When used heavily in a hive, bees survive better.
3—Place an Eco-Floor beneath each Hive
Eco-floors are simple empty boxes (or hollow log rounds) placed beneath the hive. They are fully open to the colony above. We place yard mulch in this empty space, providing a home for all the bees’ symbionts to dwell. Eco-floors host ant colonies, wax moths, pill bugs, earwigs, springtails and even beneficial mites, as well as thousands of bacteria and yeasts that help keep a colony thriving. Bees want to live in a village, and the eco-floor provides that.
4—Feed Only Honey
If your bees need feeding (and only if they truly NEED it), offer straight honey. Sugar solution are unnatural and hard on the guts of bees. We give them that and nothing else. It’s always preferable that you know where the honey has come from — your bees or a friend’s bees who also does clean beekeeping, free of chemicals and medicines.
5—Spread Out Your Colonies
In the wild, bees prefer to live at least a quarter mile from each other. We may not have this kind of land available to us, but it is easy to keep colonies separated by means of distance around the yard, lattice or screens set up between hives, or even just pointing the entranced different directions. This keeps bees from drifting into a neighboring hive by mistake, and can help limit disease transmission between hives.
6—Use No Chemicals in the Hive
Science is proving that the chemicals used to treat bees for varroa mites have the unintentional effect of creating stronger and more lethal mites, just as overuse of antibiotics in people has now created treatment-resistant diseases. These treatments also kill the symbionts we invited with our eco-floors. Persistent chemical treatments don’t allow bees to experience Natural Selection, which has proven to be the most effective “treatment” of all. Researcher Thomas Seeley studied wild bees who were allowed to survive on their own in upstate New York over 30 years. These bees exhibited more than 600+ changes to their DNA in that time. These DNA changes allowed wild bees to bounce back after the devastating introduction of varroa mites in the early 2000s. Chemicals prevent heavily managed bees from progressing in their health evolution.
7—Heavily Insulate Hive Both Summer and Winter
Bees want a hive that is stable during temperature changes. Raising brood and evaporating nectar require very specific temperatures, and the bees are master heating-ventilating-air-conditioning engineers when their hive walls provide significant thermal stability. Any hive, with a bit of creativity, can be reconstructed to provide optimal insulation.
8—Stop Using Frames
Langstroth hives use frames, which are a real benefit to the beekeeper because of the ease in which combs can be inspected, moved, or removed. But bees want and need to be able to treat each area between combs as a separate room they can heat or cool to their needs. Only a few degrees in temperature up or down can harm bee brood. In framed hives, air moves freely through out the entire colony, and bees have to work ceaselessly to maintain correct temps in the hive.
Frames also force the bees to build in straight, book-like fashion row to row. Depending on how the prevailing winds enter the colony, the bees may need to craft their comb in circles or half-moons to maintain optimal hive temperatures.
Instead of rectangular frames, use bars—simple strips of wood—across the top of Langstroth hives. Bars enable bees to build however they want to best take advantage of air circulation, prevent dampness, and maximize heating and cooling. In Warrés, top bar hives, bars are already the norm. In logs and skeps, the top of the hive is either a fat slab of wood, or thick woven straw, and bees build to suit their fancy.
9—Stay Out of the Hive
It can be fun to “inspect” your bees, but it is only fun for you. The bees do not appreciate any intrusion into their colony. Visits from the keeper result in propolis shields being broken, hive air being released or contaminated, and temperatures going wacky. Often, honey is spilled from the combs, making a mess for the bees to clean up. Sometimes inspections result in the accidental death or injury to bees, even the queen.
Learn to know your bees through observation. Over time, you will realize what is happening inside your colony by watching from the outside. This level of bee intelligence is wonderful!
Preservation beekeeping is at its heart a call to trust bees to make the right choices for themselves. By not interrupting colonies, we let them know we respect the mystery of bee life.
10—Work with Bees from your Locale
Local bees are acclimated to the area. They are best able to understand and work with seasonal variations and unique local forage. Bees from 50 miles away are not as attuned to your area as bees you gather from a swarm in your own town.
Bees purchased in “packages” from hundreds or thousands of miles away often arrive sick, dying, and riddled with diseases and pests. Please don’t support the cruel industry of packaged bees. Join a local group of like-minded beekeepers and share swarms and extra bees with your gang. No one should have to buy bees.
11—Let Your Bees Swarm
Bees want to swarm, but here is a belief in conventional keeping that bee swarms are bad for the community because they scare people. It doesn’t have to be that way. We have found that active swarms are outstanding teaching moments. When we arrive to gather a ball of bees from someone’s birdbath, car fender, or bike handlebars, we are able to show just how gentle bees really are. We invite the people standing nearby to touch the swarm and feel the warmth. Once they have their photos taken with their hands on bees, they are forever changed, and are eager to share their new-found knowledge with all their friends.
Besides offering great teaching moments, there is nothing like swarming to revitalize your bees. Conventional keepers thwart swarming by creating “false swarms” or “splits,” dividing a colony into two colonies, but this is not a true swarm. In a swarm, the colony decides who stays, who goes, and the timing of the event.
Swarms also reduce the mite populations. Mites need comb to lay their eggs in and a newly landed swarm hasn’t built its nursery yet, which means mites may die off while waiting. Swarming helps prevent mite build-ups.
Swarms are a glorious mystery of nature, a healing for the hive, and a memorable way to teach the community about the gentle wonder of bees.
12—Keep Your Hives Off the Ground (and under cover!)
Bees are by nature arboreal, having evolved in trees over millions of years. They are not adapted to ground dampness. All our hives are under cover of some kind as protection from weather. We want to keep them dry. We place hives on tables and shelves at least three feet off the ground. Higher is always better, even a second floor balcony would make bees happy. If you are adventurous, follow the lead of old European beekeepers who have developed ways to securely tuck their hives high up in the trees.