Latin America’s path to sustainable beekeeping
Alexis Torres and Claire McHale, Fundación Salvemos a Las Abejas, Carmen #602, Depto 1706, Comuna de Santiago, Chile
Though bees play a pivotal role in our food system, people often view keeping them as a costly and time-consuming activity. However, it does not have to be so.
PermApiculture is a non-invasive beekeeping system that aims to provide bees with peaceful, chemical-free environments so that they can maintain optimum health, raise local organic agricultural yields, and create high-quality food for themselves and people. At the same time the system seeks to lower costs and labour for the beekeeper. PermApiculture focuses on long-term sustainable beekeeping free of contamination and dependence on fossil fuels. Hives of bees may require a two or three season maturation period before they begin to yield harvests - depending on the environment and genetic strength of the colonies.
PermApiculture was created by Argentinian beekeeper Oscar Perone, who drew his ideas from 40 years of experience with his hives and feral honey bee colonies. Perone sought to imitate the bees’ natural habitat as much as possible. He worked in subtropical Argentina with Africanised bees, but during the last four years, his techniques have also been modified and used in Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica with European bees. In 2012 beekeepers have initiated experiments with PermApiculture in France, New Zealand, UK and USA.
It is important to note that depending on the reader’s location, he/she may not be able to copy Perone’s techniques exactly: rather we advise that anyone wishing to use PermApiculture adapt it to their own climatic conditions. Whatever modifications are made, three elements must be incorporated:
• Lots of space – Perone insists that for bees to meet their full potential, they need more space than that provided by the boxes most beekeepers offer. He believes that larger colonies are stronger and better able to perform necessary functions – such as hygiene – that keep a colony alive year after year. He cites his own experience and the massiveness of several feral honey bee nests (see image 1).
• Lots of honey – PermApiculture recognises a colony’s own honey as the best source of nutrition for bees when there is no nectar flow and rejects the use of sugar or any artificial feeding, which it deems as harmful to the bees (and people too!). The beekeeper must respect the bees by leaving them with ample reserves.
• Lots of peace – Bees control hive conditions like temperature and humidity to meet their needs. Every time someone opens a hive, these conditions are ruptured and need to be restored. Furthermore, contamination can enter the brood area via a beekeeper’s hands, gloves or tools. To let bees maintain their health, PermApiculture advocates that the beekeeper never enters the brood nest nor applies chemical treatments.
To meet the above principles, Perone designed a frameless vertical top-bar hive – see images 2 (below) and 3 (overleaf). The hive has two sections: the bees’ part which is a 180 litre area for the nest and the colony’s reserves; and the beekeeper’s part for the commercial harvest. The sections are separated by a comb grid, which has seventeen 24 mm wide bars. Each bar is spaced 9 mm from the next. Perone copied the design from feral nests, in which he measured the distance from the centre of one comb to the next 33 mm. He believes that this distance allows bees to generate and maintain heat in the hive more efficiently, enabling them to survive winter and to control Varroa.
The beekeeper’s part consists of three 10 cm high supers and the roof. To deter the queen from laying in the beekeeper’s part, additional comb grids (or removable top bars if the beekeeper wishes) separate one super from the next. These comb grids DO NOT ACT as queen excluders - rather the logic is that the queen prefers to make her nest in the form of a giant sphere, so she will choose to lay eggs where she has the most uninterrupted space (ie in the bees’ part).
Wooden hives should be made from untreated lumber, since chemicals in treated wood can damage bees. After construction the wood is charred to waterproof it. Hives do not have to be wooden: in Mexico, where lumber is scarce, people have made Perone hives from metal barrels and clay.
Positioning the hive
The hive should be installed on a base so that it does not have direct contact with the ground.
Chilean beekeepers practising PermApiculture advise that the comb grids should be orientated so that the bars run from north to south, citing that bees align their combs with the earth’s longitudinal lines.
It is recommended that bees are kept at least 8 km from transgenic crops and any sites where pesticides are applied. People are encouraged to take advantage of the bees’ pollination services and to plant an organic garden or orchard with a variety of flowering plants so that colonies can have nectar and pollen throughout the season - and beekeepers can have fruits and vegetables too.
Populating the hive
‘A hollowed tree’s cavity does not change size neither should a beekeepers’ hive’, states Perone. He encourages introducing the bees to the hive in its completely assembled state, and then maintaining it that way all year round.
In Argentina, Perone and other beekeepers attract swarms to their hives, placing old dark brood comb in the hive as bait. However, most bees will look for a cavity that is similar in size to their previous home. Chilean beekeepers mount smaller boxes in trees to attract swarms and then a few days later transfer the swarm into the Perone hive by turning it upside down in the bees’ part and shaking it. To prevent absconding, some beekeepers attach a single brood comb from a frame hive to one of the top-bars so that the bees will adopt the brood as their own and stay in the hive.
While swarms are preferable, they are not always available so Chilean beekeepers have been experimenting also with transferring colonies from frames hives or nucs into Perone hives. The bottom bar and one of the sidebars of the frames can be removed so that the bees will be able to extend the comb further out and down. The frames can then be tied to the top-bars of the Perone comb grid, preferably in a corner to accommodate future extension of the combs (see images 4 and 5).
While the bees’ part should never be entered, any honey within the beekeeper’s part can be harvested. Perone harvests at night by a red light (a colour undetectable by bees) to ensure that the bees will be deep within the bees’ part of the hive, far from where he is working. No smoke is used.
Mr Perone uses a cart that he made from a trolley (see image 6). He passes a wire between the comb grids and supers and rests the supers on a frame mounted on the trolley. He then cuts the honey out and it falls into a bucket below. The comb is crushed, squeezed, and decanted for up to two weeks.
For more information about PermApiculture and the experiences of beekeepers using this system see: www.keepingwiththebees.wordpress.com www.biobees.com/forum/
Films www.youtube.com/user/vidaenpaz?feature=mhee www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcZWV2JtQuQ
The information in this article is provided by people who practise PermApiculture including:
Oscar Perone (Creator of PermApiculture, Buenos Aires, Argentina), Miriam Ortega (President of the Co-op Apicuracavi, Curacavi, Chile), Esteban Acosta Pereira (Co-ordinator of the Biodynamic Agroecology Movement, Universidad EARTH, Costa Rica), Raúl Herrera (biologist and beekeeper, Chiloe, Chile); and Alexis Torres and Claire McHale, PermApiculture practitioners and article authors.