Natural Beekeeping In The City
Like most new beekeepers who are eager to get everything right from the start and care for their bees correctly, it's hard not to take note and listen to all the free advice offered from other beekeepers; particularly from those who have been beekeeping for many many years. It's important to know the basics and the dos and don'ts, but what quickly becomes apparent is, every beekeeper has their own way of beekeeping, and it's not uncommon to hear conflicting advice from experienced beekeepers.
Besides, there are many factors that will influence what one beekeeper may do that another does not, for example, the location of apiary, whether they are a commercial apiarist or hobby beekeeper (like myself). The reason why I mention this is just to make clear that I share my experiences and ways of doing things, not as a means to denounce practices that differ from my own or to "convert" others, just simply sharing.
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.
Over the past few years, I've adopted some of these bee-centred practices gradually rather than all at once. Through gradual change I can monitor the behaviour of the bees and any consequential effects (be them positive or negative).
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 (therefore 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 my 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 listened to the advice of inspecting the hive once a week (at the very least, once every fortnight). But, I noticed following these frequent intrusions my 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 three inspections in a year - April, mid-June 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 also be learned from just observation.
Swarm prevention methods: Although I don't employ some of the conventional methods for swarm prevention mentioned above, I do prepare for the growth of the colony and try to minimise congestion early on by adding an extra super (April inspection).
One reason why a colony may swarm is that it has outgrown the hive. Even though this practice is still a form of interference, being in an urban setting with neighbours all around in close proximity, I have to be a little more considerate and conscious of not turning tolerance into fear and complaint. Not a sure fire way to prevent a swarming but expanding the hive is harmless and appears to work as the colony has not swarmed (as far as I have observed, can never be 100% sure).
The expansion of the hive in early spring is shrunk back to its normal size in late summer.
Feeding: In the 3-4 years have had my colony, have only ever taken 5 frames of honey for self (1 in 2017, 4 in 2019). The surplus honey (from the extra super) is stored away to feed back to the bees (if and when needed). Ample surplus is always left within the hive. So far, my bees have not needed feeding and to be honest I'm over-run with stored honey but at least it's there for the bees when the need arises.
Natural comb building: Allowing bees to build their own comb is central to a bee-centred approach. Previous to this year, 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; we were taught to build frames with foundation. For beekeepers where honey production is the main reason for keeping bees, foundation frames are much easier to manage and harvest honey from.
This year I started to replace some foundation frames in the supers 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.
I will gradually replace all foundation frames. As I've only just started to introduce this new change, I've not yet been able to see how this change effects the colony's behaviour, or how it will impact on future hive management, but surely, letting bees build what's best for them (rather than the beekeeper) can only be a good thing.
On the plus side for the beekeeper, not having to buy foundation saves quite a few pounds.
Treatment / Medication: Lastly, on my journey to 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 my 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 bees are thriving, strong with a great temperament.
Of course, I've still got a lot to learn and a long way to go before I can say I'm a true natural beekeeper, but it feels good to know that I am slowly moving away from being a beekeeper to becoming a bee guardian.
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.