Natural Beekeeping In The City
When I first started backyard beekeeping in 2016, like almost all newbee beeks, I started the conventional way. The main reasons behind wanting to keep bees was a genuine desire to learn/understand more about bees, and the ill-educated belief I held at the time of believing beekeeping was one way to "help save the bees".
If I knew then what I know now [that some conventional beekeeping methods are not only harmful to the environment and wildlife, but also harmful to bees] I would have opted to either not keep bees at all or start from a completely natural beekeeping position.
In this blog, I share my journey of gradually moving away from traditional beekeeping practices to adopting more natural ones. Through this gradual change implemented over a few years (rather than all at once) I have been able to monitor the behaviour of the bees and any consequential effects - be them positive or negative.
Natural beekeeping in the city, is it really possible to implement natural beekeeping practices in an urban environment? Well, keeping what is a naturally wild creature in a managed domesticated setting cannot really be called "natural" in the first place, but there are some practices which are more "bee-centred" focused rather than conventional.
Difference between "conventional" and the "bee-centred" approach
Some conventional beekeeping practices include frequent hive inspections, smoking the bees, routine medication, artificial queen rearing, swarm prevention methods such as clipping the wings of the queen to destroying queen cells; re-queening annually irrespective of whether the current queen is healthy and productive, to feeding sugar/fondant as a substitute for colonies with insufficient honey stores.
Broadly speaking, a bee centred approach focuses more on holistic methods such as having a "hands off" approach with minimal hive inspections and interference, little to no manipulation of the natural behaviour of a colony, never taking more honey than what is truly a surplus; using organic treatments or no treatments at all to enable bees to build up a natural resistance to colony diseases, to never feeding substitutes like sugar water.
Adopted Bee centred practices
Even before deciding to adopt more natural approaches, there were some practices which I learned when attending beekeeping courses that personally horrified me. Never would I think to clip (literally cut) the wings of a queen to stop her from flying in the hope of preventing swarming would be an acceptable practice for me to follow; neither the culling of drone brood to control and slow down mite population, so in some small ways, I started with a more bee-centred attitude.
Smoking bees: I stopped using a smoker within a few months of having my bees. The purpose of smoking is to calm and distract the bees while you disrupt their tidy home. Smoke interferes with the bees' sense of smell by masking the pheromones emitted when in a state of alarm (thereby making the bees less defensive and less likely to sting). It also initiates a feeding response; bees will gorge on honey to prepare for possible hive abandonment due to fire. Smoking thus creates a stress response in bees.
Not wanting to cause unnecessary stress to my bees just to make my life easier, I simply approach inspecting the hive with a little more respect. I figured the more calmer, gentler and less disruptive I am, the less the bees will be concerned. By the time the bees become overly concerned with my presence, inspection is over. This calmer approach has resulted in calmer bees. Only once have I discontinued an inspection due to the colony re-queening towards the end of August 2018; rather than use smoke to subdue their naturally heightened defensiveness at such a critical time, I simply left them alone.
Hive inspection frequency: As mentioned in the very beginning, as a new beekeeper I followed the conventional practice of frequent hive inspections - inspecting once a week (at the very least, once every fortnight); but I noticed following these frequent intrusions the bees would be on high alert for at least a week after.
I began to question whether inspecting the bees so frequently was really about caring for them or just so I felt like I was doing it "right" and filling out my bee reports, monitoring everything to counting brood frames, looking for eggs etc.
Honeybees are positive neat freaks, even a quick inspection causes a lot of unintentional damage. By the time they have repaired and put right what damage was caused, you're back in there repeating the process. What a stressful life for the bees!
In my second year, I drastically cut down the number of inspections and also stopped being concerned with recording everything. Now I just do two mini-inspections in a year - April and end of August. While I do not inspect the hive frequently anymore, I spend many hours just observing the behaviour of the bees, as much can be learned from just observation alone.
Swarm prevention methods: Although I would never employ some of the conventional methods for swarm prevention mentioned above, in the beginning stages of implementing more bee-centred practices, I would prepare for the growth of the colony and try to minimise congestion early on by adding an extra super in April (removing in August).
One reason why a colony may swarm is that it has outgrown the hive. While expanding the size of the hive is not a sure-fire way to prevent swarming, it is a relatively harmless method (providing you do not over expand - which can also have detrimental consequences). Since 2021, I no longer implement the expansion method - opting to allow nature to take its own course. I have yet to witness the bees swarming and have never been called for a nearby sighting of a swarm.
It appears, the current size of the hive (1 brood 2 super boxes) is adequate for both spring/summer growth and autumn/winter population decline.
Feeding: In the years have had the colony, have only ever taken 5 frames of honey for self (1 in 2017, 4 in 2019), and since 2020, have ceased taking any honey at all from the hive. Despite there is now always excess surplus, the bees are never at threat of starvation or being forced to eat substitutes such as fondant due to their stores being depleted.
Natural comb building: Allowing bees to build their own comb is central to a bee-centred approach. I had never considered whether foundation frames (frames built with sheets of beeswax for bees to build comb upon) were natural or bee friendly. In fact, before studying more about naturally built comb, in my ignorance I thought foundation frames were a help to the bees.
Believing they provided the ground-work and saved bees from having to build from scratch. There was also nothing taught in the courses I attended about the benefits of allowing bees to build their own comb.
Over a period of 3 years (2020-23), I replaced all foundation frames in the supers/brood box with empty frames. It is a wondrous and beautiful sight to behold seeing how bees naturally build their comb and the clear differences when left alone to how they want their home to be.
By gradually introducing empty frames - placing an empty frame in between foundation frames until all foundation frames have been replaced - the bees will naturally maintain the bee space and keep the hive relatively uniformed, thus preventing, or at least reducing, the likelihood of built-up comb and frames being bound together.
On the plus side for the beekeeper, not having to buy foundation saves quite a few pounds.
Treatment / Medication: Lastly, on this journey in trying to become a more bee-centred beekeeper, there is the issue of treating bees against several colony diseases, particularly varroa mites. I personally have not felt confident enough to not treat the bees at all, despite understanding the wisdom underpinning natural beekeeping that bees left to build up a natural resistance are more robust and pass on their resistance genes to their offspring.
If I had received my bees from a natural beekeeper who did not treat the bees from the start, I would be confident to carry on doing the same, but I never, and so "for now" I continue to use a natural one-week treatment of 'thymol' in late summer.
In conclusion, one may assume that keeping bees in an urban setting would require greater hive management and control, particularly when considering your surrounding neighbours and other things such as a lack of "green spaces". However, my own experience of having a more "hands off" approach has so far been a positive one, my 8-year-old colony continues to thrive, has remained strong through-out, healthy and has a great temperament.
Given that the bees are in a conventional national hive, there is only so much I can implement (at this stage). While I've still got some way to go and still lots to learn and understand, it feels good to know that I am now on the road to becoming a better bee guardian rather than a better beekeeper.
If you would like to learn more about natural beekeeping the Natural Beekeeping Trust is a great place to start.
Disclaimer: the above blog and its content is offered as a sharing of one beekeeper's practices. Just Bee Loved cannot be held legally liable to any users of this website for loss or damage sustained through following any of the practices shared here.
Last updated: August 2023
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