Guide To Sustainable Beekeeping
Let’s start with this general, uncomfortable truth about beekeeping.
Native bees living in a natural environment do not require human help to survive. They lived for thousands of years without any human assistance.
Differently, 60 – 80 % of our fruit and vegetables come from insect-pollinated plants.
Bees don’t need us, but we need them.
How to practice sustainable beekeeping and live in harmony with bees
However, artificially produced bee breeds, that may sting less and produce more honey might need human assistance to survive diseases and virus attacks. Due to their unnatural softness and weak defense mechanisms, they struggle handling and defeating invaders coming from outside the hive. So how to help bees in their daily activities and live in harmony without exploiting them?
Read our guide to sustainable beekeeping1:
- Keep bees for the bees’ sake and value them as pollinators first, and honey producers second.
- Do not practice migratory commercial beekeeping on monocultures. Monocultures are not considered natural habitats and do usually rely on pesticides that intoxicate your bees.
- In case you decide to purchase a queen bee: Become an expert about honey bee races before the purchase. However, your best choice would be to keep local bee races (feral bees). Read more about bee races and their traits in our Guide to honey bee races
- Fill your garden or the surrounding environment of the hive with nectar and pollen-rich plants. Find our Guide to bee-friendly plants. Make sure that your bees have enough foraging possibilities, particularly between winter and spring and in the early summer. Of course, avoid using chemicals.
- Feeding: Do not use sugar-water, sugar syrup or honey from the supermarket to feed your bees.
- The feeding of everything else than their own honey should be only practiced in absolute emergency circumstances (lack of nectar). This depends also on the climatic region in which you live. In warm climates, there should be always enough foraging possibilities.
- Differently, in cold or mountainous climates, the lack of foraging flowering plants in certain months of the year could happen more frequently.
- Acquired honey from beekeeper cooperatives or from the supermarket should never be fed to your bees. This honey could contain bacteria or viruses from other colonies that you really don’t want to have in your hives.
- Furthermore, allow bees to overwinter on their own honey instead of feeding a sugar substitute. As a rule of thumb, this means that you should leave them enough honey, so that no sugar feeding is necessary.
- Harvest honey only if there is excess honey and when there is sufficient nectar flow.
- Maintain the nest scent and warmth inside the bee’s home by opening the hive only if really needed.
- Label your honey:
- Help consumers to make the difference between your high-quality product and commercial mass market honey. Write on the etiquette where the honey has been produced and put as many details as possible about the production.
- Settle for multi-flower honey: This means that you don’t have to force your bees to produce honey from just one type of flower. Instead, they can choose what is best for them. This implies also to not engage in migratory beekeeping on monocultures.
- Go for cold honey extraction: In this way, the natural properties of honey will be conserved. Write it on your etiquette.
- Use glass pots for the honey, not plastic.
- Choose hives that replicate natural sites used by bees, e.g. hollow trees, cavities, wooden hives. Learn more about hive types here.
- Avoid smoking the bees as this can cause undue stress. If you think you must do it, then do it only at the entrance of the hive and WAIT at least one minute before opening the hive. Remember: Smoke produces the same escape-impulse on bees as it would to a fire approaching the hive. What happens is that bees fill their bodies with as much nectar / honey as possible: They prepare for transferring the whole hive in a new location, far away from the “fire”. This is the reason of why they struggle stinging you, when you open the hive after smoking it: They are literally too packed with honey, so they can’t correctly use their sting! Thus, you should at least wait a minute and smoke only at the entrance, not directly in the hive. In this way you give the bees the time to communicate the news and get prepared to fly out. The next time you use smoke, think about it.
- Make life for parasites and diseases as difficult as possible:
- Don’t keep hives too close to each other. The minimum distance between hives should at least 1.5 meters. If hives are stocked one on the other or side by side, infected bees could easily fail the entry of their home and contaminate another (eventually healthy) colony.
- If possible, get native bees (feral bees) from the place where you practice beekeeping. The best way is to domesticate wild bees. Usually, those races have developed the best defenses against the local diseases and parasites in a natural way. Caution: They might sting you more due to their natural and unmodified defense mechanisms.
- Allow the bees to reproduce naturally by swarming. Do not cut the internal wings of your queen. By allowing the swarming, you also help to break the varroa cycle. More about swarming here.
- Follow the best practices of your local environment in terms of natural disease prevention. In some areas, ant acid is efficient against varroa. Become an expert in this topic. This includes asking more than one beekeeper of your area. Contrarily, don’t use chemical treatments for disease and pest control (varroa mite included). Learn about natural treatments here.