Do Not Disturb

An Excerpt from Susan Knilans & Jacqueline Freeman’s new book “What Bees Want” 

“Alas, many hives are forced to operate according to a beekeeper’s agenda. Sadly that agenda often prioritizes more honey production and pollination services instead of putting the evolutionary needs of the bees first.”—Song of Increase

A primary tenet in our style of keeping bees is what we call “very low intervention.” That is, we keep out of our hives. This is not lazy beekeeping. Bees are extraordinarily complex beings in their hive culture, and our understanding of them is at a very basic, simple level. Our inspections are—to the bees—chaotic intrusions into their day.

Throughout this book, we’ve stressed the importance of listening to our bees. Listening with the eyes, the ears, the nose, the intuition. Bees tell us that they are not interested in us poking our nose in their insides—which is good way of describing the interior of a hive. If bees were pleased with us mucking about in their uterus (brood comb) pantry (honeycomb), and lungs (beeswax), we would not have to protect our bodies from their stings with hazmat-style bee suits.

Learning to leave the bees to themselves may be the hardest skill to acquire as a bee tender. But it is well worth the learning: First—do nothing. Then, do nothing a little longer.

In most cases if a colony is truly failing, there will be little you can do to bring it back. Our approach with bees includes a willingness to let failing colonies perish. In these difficult times, bees are—like us—having to find new ways to deal with a shifting environment. Not all colonies will find the means to survive these times. 

Our task is to support the colonies with good forage, small well-insulated homes, water, and food when needed. Failing colonies leave behind the gifts of honey, wax, and propolis that will offer a fine head start for the next colony who inhabits the nest. Perhaps this is what Nature intended: In each colony’s failure dwells a gift of wax and propolis and perhaps some honey to future bees.

For most new  bee-tenders, the urge to intercede is relentless. In the beginning of a bee journey, we have little deep knowing of the bees, and many worries. We’re not sure what we are seeing at the hive entrance, and above all, we don’t want to make any mistakes that will harm the bees.

Fortunately, preservation-style beekeeping ensures that you will not be participating in activities that can harm your bees. By allowing them to manage their nest and interfering as little as possible, you are granting them the greatest opportunity for success and good health. If the colony fails, it was not you that failed them. 

It is wise not to think of your bees as pets or as livestock. Or even as “your” bees. Our pets and farm animals require our care to survive. Bees need the opposite from us. They require that we keep our hands mostly in our pockets, and allow them to just be. 

Dabbling inside of a superorganism, we can’t help but blunder. Such a complex creature is beyond our ken and requires that we approach it with reverence and restraint, and trust that 30 million years of evolution have provided bees with everything they need to adjust to any challenge Nature throws at them.

Bees have collective behavior patterns that protect the entire colony from disease and parasites. Groups of bees within the colony can assess problems and create solutions on literally a moment-by-moment basis. For example, when sickly or aged bees die inside the hive, a group of undertaker bees will find them and carry them outside for disposal a good distance from the hive. 

If another group of bees notice some of the brood have mites, they take on the self-developed hygienic behavior of opening the cell and removing the infected larvae, again taking them a far distance from the hive. Removing dead and diseased bee bodies keeps the hive clean and healthy. 

Responding to diseases like chalk brood that are caused by moisture, the colony can, as a group, increase the hive’s internal temperature and overcome the pathogen. Each bee with her housemates works to do her share. And collectively, they accomplish large tasks.

Their healing capacity is also tied to their ability to seal off the hive with propolis which lets the propolis’s curative scents bring about their healing. They are driven to be healthy and use their skills to do whatever is needed to survive.

How do they know who is healthy and who is not? Bees have a profoundly developed sense of smell. They know when flowers are at the peak of ripeness, when the nectar is ready, when an aging bee reaches her end-time. Guard bees know if an intruder is testing the defenses of the front door by sniffing her and discerning another queen’s scent.

 Nurse bees can smell when a larvae is not perfect. They also can discern which queen larvae are the strongest and likely to be most fertile and they will focus their feeding on those queens, isolating and not giving as much care to the rest. 

These tasks are all driven by their acutely developed olfactory sense, far beyond what we humans can even grasp as possible. Many of the animal kingdom are blessed with a phenomenal capacity to distinguish scent and their survival as predator or prey often depends on this sense. 

From combined experience, we can tell you that although this hands-off approach can be very nerve-wracking to new bee-tenders, after a few seasons the anxiety fades as confidence in the bees and knowledge gained through hours of observation and study expand. 

This is the point when bee-tending becomes utterly joyful and healing for bee-tender and bees. You could even call it—as we do—sacred.

Frames and Bars and Cross-Combing

In Langstroth hives, bees build their comb on square, wooden frames. In Warre’ hives, bees build down from a narrow piece of wood. In top bar hives, bees build from a bar that is often V-shaped, to encourage the bees to attach their comb to the point of the V. 

How bees build their comb is a very popular topic among beekeepers. Nearly all beekeepers want their bees to build straight down with their wax, and not attach any wax to the side of the hive. It is not easy to pull out combs for inspection when they are affixed to the sides of the hive, or when the combs run slantwise across several bars or frames at a time.

 When bees choose to go rogue with their comb creation, they will build sideways, in waves, in circles, and sometimes even on the top of the bars or frames. The general term for this is “cross-combing,” and there are many videos and articles out there with instructions for getting your bees to toe the line. The straight line.

Forcing the bees to build their comb like pages in a book is stressful and unhealthy for bees. What looks messy and all which-a-way to us is efficient perfection to the bees. Honeybees construct their comb in the way that best moves air through that particular hive, in that particular climate, in that particular wind current. It is their HVAC system. 

If the bees do not have the opportunity to build out their wax the way they need to, their ability to regulate their temperature and airflow is severely compromised. Anytime the bees must work constantly to correct a defective nest situation, the bees are stressed, and the maiden workforce is pulled away to “fix-it” chores rather than to foraging or housekeeping or nursing duties.

As a preservation beekeeper, the problems of cross combing don’t affect us. We let the bees build as they choose, and keep our hands out. When faced with the question (and we are—all the time!) “How do you inspect your bees?” we answer that keeping bees in the way we do pretty much takes away the need for inspections. Bees the way we keep them just don’t harbor disease.

If you are really tempted to dive into your colony, consider this: It will take the bees three-to-four days to put themselves back in order, recreate their propolis seal, and reset the delicate temperature balances inside the hive. Should your intrusions cause the temperature inside the colony to drop, you are putting the brood at serious risk. Even a temp or two off of the temperature required to raise the young will cause the baby bees to be born “less than.” They will have less ability to think for themselves, to switch from one task to another, and their lives may be shortened, as well. Please. Let the bees be.

We’d like to invite you to continue learning and “beeing” with us on our various sites:

SpiritBee is Jacqueline’s personal site of bee and farm stories.
Susan maintains two blogs: Cultivating Wonder (Nature reflections), and AmericanSkep (her straw hive site).
We also have active FaceBook and MeWe pages.

-Jacqueline & Susan