The Great Beekeeping Debate


Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.







Beware of Bee Removal Scams

If you’ve got bees living in your wall you’ve got three options: leave them in place, call a beekeeper to remove them or an exterminator to kill them. The best choice is just to leave them in place as long as they aren’t bothering anyone. The second best choice is to call a beekeeper to open up the wall, remove the bee comb and bees and take them away. I did a post on how a bee removal like this is done.

I suspect most people reading this blog will not want to call an exterminator. On top of killing a living, sentient being, an exterminator will leave all the honey in the wall. The honey will attract pests and, possibly, drip through your wall or ceiling. Bees left in place will not let their honey drip or get robbed by mice.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of fraudulent bee removal companies out there who promise “humane” removal but who actually just use chemical fumigants to force the bees to abscond. Colonies forced out this way are nearly certain to die. Having done a lot of cutouts it’s easy to see why fly by night companies do this. Proper bee removal is a lot of work and many property owners aren’t willing to pay what it’s worth do a bee removal properly.

If you need a bee removal service do not just Google “bee removal.” The same sort of scam going on with locksmiths is going on with bee removal services. A panicked homeowner with a bee situation makes an easy target. Bee removal scammers, just like the locksmith scammers, show up and start jacking up the price. Then they do substandard, possibly dangerous, work.

If you’ve got a bee problem look up your local beekeeping association or club and ask for a referral. If you’re an LA local you can contact HoneyLove or send me an email through this website. If you’re in my part of town and the work doesn’t involve ladders, I might be able to help.


Is Honey the Same as Sugar?

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

This weekend’s natural beekeeping conference, put on by HoneyLove, was informative and inspiring. On the blog this week I thought we’d take a look at some of the issues brought up at the conference beginning with the research of Dr. May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Berenbaum’s specialty, for many years, was the interaction of plants and insects. Her interest in bees began with her frustration with the common idea that honey is nutritionally indistinguishable from sugar. In her presentation, in chart after chart, she showed the huge difference in the biochemistry of different honey varietals. Take, for instance, antioxidant levels. It turns out that darker types of honey, such as buckwheat, have a lot more antioxidants than lighter varieties like citrus honey (the exception to this rule is sunflower honey which is both light and high in antioxidants).

The same differences can be found with the antimicrobial properties of honey. Manuka honey, produced in Australia and New Zealand has the highest antimicrobial levels of any type of honey. But, Berenbaum warned, there’s a lot of fake Manuka honey on the market.

One of the most mind bending bits of research Berenbaum described was the discovery that some sources of nectar contain chemicals that can help a beehive recover from toxins and that the bees themselves self-diagnose and then seek out these nectar sources. Just think about that! Unfortunately, she also noted that agricultural states like Illinois, where she lives, lack the nectar source biodiversity that bees need to stay healthy. It’s a state made up, almost entirely, of corn and soy fields.

Her talk was somewhat of an indictment against one of the common practices of conventional beekeepers: feeding bees sugar. The problem is that these simple sugars lack many of the biochemical components found in honey that bees need to stay toxin-free and robust.

Berenbaum did not discuss the impacts of honey on human health but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that those higher antioxidant levels in dark honeys are probably better for us too.





Natural Beekeeping Conference This Weekend!

13900131_1415069945173422_1735699895366642927_nAll the big names in the natural beekeeping movement (including Michael Bush and Dee Lusby and many more) are coming to SoCal this weekend. And I’ll be doing a crazy talk on Sunday morning as well as scoring some future podcast guests. Hope to see some of you there. More info and the schedule can be found here.

Join HoneyLove August 19-21, 2016 for an unforgettable weekend filled with educational lectures and workshops, hands-on demonstrations, the latest in natural beekeeping techniques and findings, an elite collection of exhibitors and sponsors, rare opportunities for you to connect with likeminded beeks, sweet raw honey tastings from around the world AND OUR ANNUAL YELLOW TIE EVENT on August 19th, 6-9pm!

There will also be “Special Interest Groups” on both days covering a wide range of topics for both beginner and advanced beekeepers (see full schedule at the bottom of this page).

All who are interested in bees and beekeeping are welcomed to attend! #HLONBC

Limited tickets available to this awesome weekend so REGISTER NOW!


The Best Way to Get Bees For Free


Free bees in my swarm box.

Since 2009, when our beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson showed up with some bees in a shop vac, I’ve kept our bee stock going and helped other people establish apiaries in just about every way you can. I’ve cut hives out of walls (a lot of work that fails most of the time). I’ve trapped them out (a huge pain in the ass). I’ve captured swarms (easy, but they often take off the next day). The only thing I haven’t done is purchase bees. At about $125 a pop, it’s an expensive option considering they often don’t make it. By far, the best way to get bees is to invite them to settle down on their own. Here’s how to do it.

Build it and they will come
Set up your bee housing (Langstroth hive or top bar hive) and the bees might just move in on their own. It’s happened to me twice now in seven years. You should have your boxes ready to go anyway, since you can never predict the day someone will call with a swarm that needs a home. This readiness applies to tools too. Have all your bee tools in an easily accessible toolbox, always ready to go.

Where to set up your hives is one of the great mysteries of beekeeping. Here in Southern California they seem to prefer some sun and some shade. But I’ve found feral hives both in total shade and full sun. Your results will vary, depending on your climate, but they probably won’t do well in the bottom of a cold canyon or the top of a windy mountain.

swarm blox plansSwarm boxes
Instead of setting up a proper hive, bait a bunch of boxes and place them in your yard, in your friends yards and in random places and you might just capture a swarm or two. You can buy or make swarm boxes. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has estimated that bees show up in around 10% of the swarm boxes he sets up. He also suggests hanging them up around 10 feet high for best results. I like swarm boxes that hold frames so that you can transfer the bees easily to your hive boxes without having to do a cutout.

And guess what? A bee swarm box and a birdhouse are pretty much the same thing. So get friendly with birdhouse enthusiasts.

Baiting swarm boxes
You can buy swarm lure, a kind of synthetic pheromone, but it’s expensive and doesn’t last long. Some folks suggest a cotton swab dipped in lemongrass oil and stuck in a medicine bottle with holes in it. Better, I think, is to mix wax and lemongrass oil and paint that on your frames.

Used equipment that once held bees is also a powerful attractant. Once bees figure out a good space they will come back to it.

Where to put a swarm box
Something that happened to us last week will show you how random and inexplicable bees can be when it comes to occupying a swarm box. I had a swarm box up on top of our shed roof, near our neighbor’s orange trees, because bee swarms have landed there in the past. But even though that box has been up there for years, bees never moved in. So, about a month ago, I finally took the swarm box off the roof and tossed in haphazardly, upside-down, in a large plastic pot that was half filled with chicken litter. I intended to throw the box out at some later date.

Then, a few days later, as a neighbor was telling me about his favorite climbing roses, Kelly called me from the porch, saying there was a”bee situation” going on in the back yard.  I ran up the stairs and behind the house to see one of the awe inspiring miracles of nature: a hive moving into their new home–that new home being the upside-down swarm box in the plastic pot half full of dirty chicken litter. Being bloggers, Kelly and I should have whipped out our smart phones to catch some video. Instead, we sat on the patio and watched the swarm buzz around for ten minutes before they settled in the box.

I put a bee suit on (swarms are usually docile, but it’s best to be safe) and took the box out of the pot and righted it carefully, setting it near my established hives. I’m going to give the queen plenty of time to settle in and start laying eggs –at least 28 days–during which time I won’t touch or look at these bees. Since I already have two hives, I’m going to give these bees away. Anyone want bees?

Have you had a swarm move in on its own?