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A bee-friendly approach to apiculture

Author Fedor Lazutin

Editor Leo Sharashkin

Today's post is from the second edition of the bestselling beekeeping guide Keeping Bees with a Smile: Principles and Practice of Natural Beekeeping by Fedor Lazutin , one of Europe's most successful natural beekeepers, shares the bee-friendly approach to apiculture that is fun, healthful, rewarding, and accessible to all.

Be sure to enter our giveaway starting March 19th on Facebook and Instagram for your chance to win your own copy of Keeping Bees with a Smile. Just post a question for the author and you are entered to win.

 

Excerpt from the book

Principles of Natural Beekeeping Revisited

For many practicing beekeepers the natural approach inspires serious and perfectly expectable doubts, due to its radical nature. But the simple fact is that this system works! One can find any number of examples of successful apiculturists who have kept and continue to keep bees in the old-fashioned way: they prefer to keep the local bee race, leave their hives outdoors for the winter, and effectively avoid the use of any medicines. I sometimes hear tell of some “bizarre” extra-deep frame hives, made back before World War II, that beginning beekeepers threw out when they inherited an apiary from a grandfather.

And it was precisely World War II that marked a milestone in beekeeping: Russia’s entire economy, not to mention beekeeping, was largely destroyed and had to be restored from the ground up. The mass production of Dadant hives was seen as a quick way to bring apiculture back to life, and what had been before was quickly forgotten.

Keep interference in the life of a bee colony to a minimum

Any experienced beekeeper will confirm that the less the bees are bothered, the better. Georges de Layens was already emphasizing this 150 years ago. Excessive interference distracts the colony from gathering nectar, drastically increases the likelihood of swarming, and triggers aggression, particularly in the European dark bee. Keeping bees in horizontal hives with extra-deep frames reduces the number of interventions in the life of a bee colony to just one per year — namely, the spring inspection, carried out as early as possible, when the bees are less perturbed by an inspection of their nest area.

Photo caption

Use an extra-deep frame, which allows the bees to prepare fully and independently for the winter.

For the ideal placement of the winter cluster and of honey reserves, a bee colony at our latitude (Zone 4) needs comb that is at least 16 inches (400 mm) deep. This is precisely the depth of the Layens frame. The Dadant brood frame became especially popular in France, where, according to his careful calculations, a depth of 11 13/16 inches (300 mm) is more than sufficient. With an extra-deep frame (standard length, 18 ½ -inch or 470-mm depth), a bee colony is able to independently — without interference by the beekeeper — prepare for the winter, and to winter successfully. Ideally, the frame will be free from internal barriers — that is, it will ensure unobstructed movement across a single comb surface. The actual depth of the frame depends on the climate.

Horizontal Hives

Don’t use additional boxes and supers.

Any changes to a hive during the active season — including pulling honey, adding and removing boxes and supers, and inspecting nest frames — engenders profound discomfort for the bee colony, and one of the results may be swarming. In most cases, anti-swarming Methods require yet another intervention in the colony — and a vicious circle ensues. One sensible way to avoid all this is to keep the bee colony in a single box that is designed for maximum colony growth throughout the season and for effective storage of all the honey gathered during the season.

Pull surplus honey just once per year, in the fall, after all of the brood has emerged and the colony has finished preparing for winter.

This principle flows logically from the two previous ones.

Don’t give the bees supplemental food, including sugar syrup-based foods.

As is well known, worker bees feed on nectar or honey by drawing on previous stockpiles. In addition to carbohydrates, nectar contains vitamins and micronutrients, while honey also contains traces of pollen. Unlike these natural products, sugar-based supplements contain nothing but carbohydrates. Therefore, sugar-based food is one of the main reasons for bee diseases, including the widespread Varroa mite. One principle common to all living things is that an organism weakened by a shortage of necessary substances is most likely to be targeted by pathogenic microorganisms and parasites. And it is simply impossible to avoid such problems unless bees live on their wholesome natural diet. Don’t medicate your bees in any way. This principle is directly tied to the previous one. You can only stop using medicines if you do not feed your bees any artificial food and work with the local race of bees only.

Propagate your bees by swarming only.

Artificial propagation of bee colonies is a fully controlled process and is certainly convenient for the beekeeper — but from our point of view, it is a completely unnatural procedure. And at the same time, many beekeepers regard swarming as a serious problem that should be fought against. However, under natural conditions, absent various kinds of emergencies, only strong colonies with old queens are prone to swarming — and when they do, they cast no more than two or three swarms. In this case, even colonies that have swarmed still survive, and in most cases the swarms result in full-fledged colonies. Unlike an artificial splitting of a colony into several parts, natural swarming does not result in drastic disruptions of colonies’ makeup and all of the resulting problems. Queens that are produced by a colony naturally are far superior to those that are raised and/or inseminated artificially. Therefore, successful longterm work with bees can only be based on swarming as the natural mechanism for producing new bee colonies.

Bees only winter outdoors.

Much as in the previous item, having bees winter indoors is beneficial and convenient for the beekeeper, since it allows him to preserve the maximum number of bee colonies and save on winter consumption of honey. However, many researchers have noted that wintering indoors weakens bee colonies’ immunity and promotes negative selection. Therefore, if one takes a long view of beekeeping, extending several decades into the future, then allowing bees to winter in natural conditions is the correct and only possible choice.

Only keep bees of the local race — in our case, the European dark bee.

All of the aforementioned principles, such as outdoor wintering, no medication, etc., are only possible if one keeps bees of the local race — in our case, the European dark bee — which is ideally adapted to the local climate and honeyflow. However, as a result of an entire century of large-scale imports of southern bee colonies and queens, the local race has been lost almost everywhere, and what remains of it has degenerated greatly due to negative selection. Therefore, our challenge now is not only to restore local bee races, but also to aid selection by allowing the strongest and most successful colonies to swarm. By transitioning to natural beekeeping, we will be assisted in this by the forces of nature itself: weak mixed-race colonies will be filtered out, and strong ones will reproduce.


Where did these principles come from, and are they absolutely mandatory? The answer to the first question can be found in Part I, where I’ve tried to present, as systematically as possible, the thoughts that led me (and many other beekeepers, both past and present) to adopt each of these principles. The answer to the second question is obvious: it’s up to you whether or not to follow them. As a rule, beekeepers are highly independent and freedom-loving people — there’s no telling them what to do! Personally, I’ve made my choice, and I’m happy with it. And now I don’t even regard it as a choice of principles, but rather as a choice of one’s path in beekeeping and in life in general. And when problems do arise, I try to analyze them, draw conclusions, and move ahead, delving deeper and deeper into the fascinating world of natural beekeeping — the natural interactions between human beings and nature, and, in the broadest sense, a natural way of life on this Earth.

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