4 minute read

Combination beekeeping – a solution to the problem

André Wermelinger, Free the Bees, Switzerland

Why are activities like honey production, bee breeding and pollination provision described with fixed beekeeping guidelines and with fixed bee hives? Why not consider combining several beekeeping methods?

Beekeeping today is largely classified according to which type of hive is used. Bees are kept in a Swiss hive, a Dadant frame hive or some other hive type – and so we tend to subjectively classify our beekeeping methods according to hive type.

A Warré People’s hive beekeeper is thus more likely to be perceived as a ‘natural beekeeper’, whereas someone with a Swiss hive will be considered a ‘honey-producing’ beekeeper. However, several examples have illustrated that the Swiss hive does lend itself to natural beekeeping much in the same way that a Warré People’s hive is suitable also for intensive bee farming. The terminology applied is thus imprecise and the method of beekeeping cannot be determined according to the type of hive being utilised. Technical terms to refer to beekeeping methods are currently still lacking from our vocabulary.

So what are the actual factors that determine our level of beekeeping intensity? The table below enables beekeepers to evaluate the level of intensity at which they operate. Those who are aware of the factors will then be able to consciously make changes and move either in one direction or another. Many people will find themselves between methods. A beekeeper may consciously decide to work intensively with one colony and use natural beekeeping with another.

The more intensive the beekeeping method, the higher the economic yield expected. However there is a side effect on biodiversity with a risk of long-term effects on the species. While the stacking of honey chambers, the division of bees and brood to create nucleus colonies and the use of foundation frames may increase honey yields, these methods also increase bees’ susceptibility to diseases. Studies have shown that increasing a honey yield by 10 kg per hive can increase the colony’s susceptibility to disease by up to 20% 1 . The virulence of viruses and parasites in nucleus colonies tends to increase with artificial swarming 2 and foulbrood spores are found on a much smaller scale in wild or feral populations than in managed counterparts (3) .

Conversely, natural beekeeping methods yield smaller amounts of honey but more natural swarms and therefore an increase in colony numbers. These methods also tend to need less treatment. The closer we manage to emulate the bees’ natural environment, the greater their chance of being able to adapt to environmental changes and thus ensure long-term preservation of the species. Natural beekeeping methods can ensure that increases in colonies are easily achieved with minimal effort as well as ensuring pollination on farmland. Furthermore, the hives are simpler to build and require lower operating costs.

There are no good or bad beekeeping methods, or right or wrong. Instead, it is much more likely that the key to the problem lies in finding an optimal way of combining various beekeeping methods with different hives.

We must ensure that honey bee species are kept alive in the long term. Our second priority is pollination. And we would still like to harvest some honey. If we wish to focus on these objectives then the only way forward would be to adopt a combined method of beekeeping. As an example the Extensive Honey Production method is capable of delivering honey quite sustainably. If 10 or 20% of the bees are kept either fully naturally or at least according to Natural Beekeeping methods, honey can be sustainably sold and consumed with a clean conscience. Could this become a new seal or quality mark that places emphasis on the bees’ welfare?

Table 1: Beekeeping methods with corresponding keys/indicators (from www.freethebees.ch)* 

-Hive and changes in volume-

Natural nesting colonies:

Fixed volume, for example hollowed out tree trunk

Natural beekeeping:

Volume increase beneath the brood nest (nadiring)

Extensive honey production:

Volume increase above the brood nest (honey chamber)

Intensive honey production:

Volume increase above the brood nest (honey chamber)

-Reproduction-

Natural nesting colonies:

Natural swarm

Natural beekeeping:

 Natural swarm 

Extensive honey production:

Natural prime swarm Afterswarms possibly pre-empted by dividing into nucleus colonies

Intensive honey production:

Nucleus colonies, artificial swarms, queen rearing

-Feeding-

Natural beekeeping:

In extremis to avoid colony loss. Honey/sugar mix

Extensive honey production:

Honey/sugar mix

Intensive honey production:

Sugar

-Comb building-

Natural nesting colonies:

Natural comb, fixed comb 

Natural beekeeping:

Natural comb, fixed comb 

Extensive honey production:

Natural comb, possibly using frames but no foundation comb

Intensive honey production:

Removable frames with foundation comb

-Varroa treatment-

Natural beekeeping:

Natural (for example essential oils)

Extensive honey production:

Essential oils, possibly oxalic acid

Intensive honey production:

Formic acid, oxalic acid, acarcides

-Yield-

Natural nesting colonies:

Natural swarms, maybe some honey after several years

Natural beekeeping:

Natural swarms, small amounts of honey for personal use

Extensive honey production:

Natural swarms, nucleus colonies, honey

Intensive honey production:

Honey, nucleus colonies, occasionally a natural swarm

(from www.freethebees.ch)