Seconds Thought About Some Beekeeping Ideals

February 2019 Introduction: One of the big inspirations for me when I first got into beekeeping was the Backwards Beekeepers out of California. They described themselves as organic, treatment-free beekeepers. They kept plastic out of their hives by using all-foundationless frames, allowing the bees to build comb as they would in nature. They popularized the phrase, “Let the bees be bees.” I loved watching my honey bees build comb on foundationless frames — and I still do. But I don’t wear my Backwards Beekeepers t-shirt anymore.

Anybody can let their bees build comb on foundationless frames, but letting the bees be bees in other ways adds up to a few things that don’t work too well in a cold place like Newfoundland. In California, it means not really feeding the bees, which does not work in Newfoundland. Nucs started up in Newfoundland without feeding sugar syrup or clean honey will most likely turn into dead colonies before the new year. That’s because the summer season in Newfoundland, in both warm temperatures and the number of sunny days, is a tiny fraction of what it is California, and the bees simply don’t have as many good days to collect nectar. Unfed nucs in Newfoundland usually grow up to be small colonies that freeze and then starve to death.

Letting the bees be bees also means allowing them to swarm if they want to swarm. Which might be fine for honey bee colonies in a warm place like Los Angeles, but in Newfoundland, those swarms will not become feral or live long and prosper. They will most likely die within months if they’re not immediately caught and re-hived. Even if re-hived, if they’re late-summer swarms, they will barely have enough time to build up into a strong colony that can survive the winter. I know some so-called natural beekeepers who repeatedly end up with dead colonies before the winter is done because they’ve embraced the “let the bees be bees” approach. A significant number of their bees swarm every summer and freeze or starve to death every winter. (But it’s natural, so I guess that makes it okay?)

What I’m talking about is the definition of bad beekeeping. As much as I was inspired by the Backwards Beekeepers, their “let the bees be bees” philosophy doesn’t translate well in Newfoundland. It doesn’t sit well with many other beekeepers in North America either who view it as a laissez-faire approach to beekeeping. I totally understand the appeal of it, though. It represents an ideal that most people who get into beekeeping buy into — big time. I did. It might also be why something like 85% of new beekeepers in North America stop beekeeping within two or three years. (From what I’ve seen, those statistics are accurate in Newfoundland too.) The reality of actually keeping bees is different from most idealized visions of it.

Responsible pet owners don’t just go out and buy a puppy because it’s cute. They do their homework and ask questions about the breed, its behaviour and what they can expect from the puppy once it grows into a dog. People who become good beekeepers do the same with their bees. They don’t just buy a bunch of bees, put them in a hive and let the bees be bees.

It took me about a year to wake-up to certain realities of beekeeping in Newfoundland. At the time I wrote this post, in 2011, I was still trying to hold on to the highly idealized “let the bees be bees” approach to beekeeping, though it seems I was beginning to lose faith in that vision too.

I’m still in my first year of beekeeping and I’m learning a lot. I suspect one of the reasons I’m learning a lot is that I don’t follow many of the more widely accepted practices that make beekeeping easier. First up are the Backwards Beekeepers out of Los Angeles, California, who have been my number one inspiration from the get-go. They advocate the use of foundationless frames, natural re-queening and starting hives from feral swarms that are better adapted to the local environment than imported queens. Let the bees be bees because they know what they’re doing better than any humans. I love what the Backwards Beekeepers are all about, but it would be foolish of me to think my bees could do as well with 1,500 hours of sunshine a year as theirs do with 3,000 hours of sunshine (and much higher temperatures). And that’s just one of the stumbling blocks. I will continue to follow their example as well as I can, but they present an ideal that I seriously doubt I will ever be able to live up to in St. John’s, Newfoundland, given the severity of our local climate.

Another ideal I realize that I can’t stick to 100% is the use of a spray bottle instead of a smoker. I got the idea of misting my bees with sugar water from the Seldom Fools beekeepers who say this about smoking the bees:

    The reality is that pumping smoke into the hive doesn’t “calm” the bees. It distracts them from the beekeeper’s intrusion by making them think that the hive is in danger of being burned up. They scurry down into the hive and start gorging themselves on stored honey in preparation for a mass evacuation. A simple 10-minute inspection of a hive, if accompanied by smoke, can take a couple of hours for the bees to recover. After they realize that the danger is past, they have to put the honey back into the storage cells. They have to make new wax to seal it in again. The water just makes them think it’s raining. Rain means that it’s time to go back inside and leave the beekeepers alone. It also means very little disruption to the life of the hive.

Seems great, doesn’t it? I manage to get away with using only a sugar water mist on my bees most of the time. And most of the time, I love it. The bees are calm. They don’t fly in my face. They don’t get all buzzy like they sometimes do with smoke. It’s all good.

But then I got into a bad tempered hive a few days ago, and the bees were pouring out all over the hive boxes, all over me, all over everything. It was a mess. I ended up killing a large number of bees when I put the hive back together — a large number of bees that would have been driven down into the hive and lived if I’d smoked them instead. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened. I’ve seen the bees retreat from smoke, and the smoke works. The bees aren’t happy, but they get out of the way and not as many get squished afterwards.

I admit my experience is limited, but judging from my experience so far, I think there are times when a smoker can come in handy. I’m not throwing away my spray bottle, but I might keep my smoker on call for now on. I’d rather have a smoker and not need it than need it and not have it again. The Seldom Fools beekeepers use top bar hives, too, which may be easier to manipulate without smoke.

Gunther Hauk says:

    My long experience is that the smoke is not damaging, if it is done right. I just give a little puff or two when I lift the outer cover, to let them know that I am coming. It’s the ‘door bell’ for me.

    When the bees experience smoke their instinct tells them to collect instead of continuing with the daily tasks. This comes as a survival instinct when the forest is on fire. They collect and take in all the honey they can in case they have to leave their home. Of course this does not happened when you do it like I explained above; the bees don’t storm to the honey, stressed about a possible fire. They go on with their work. But they know now that I am coming.

So there’s another method for you.

I’m not abandoning the ideals that inspired me to get into beekeeping (and there are more than I’ve mentioned here). I’m just learning the difference between theory and practice. The big lesson is there’s nothing wrong with becoming inspired, but it’s vital that I pay attention to my own experience. In the end, I’ll do whatever I’m most comfortable with and whatever I think is best considering our local climate. There’s no one right way to do anything in beekeeping. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I seem to forget it in favour of an ideal that’s just bad for the bees.

February 2019 Postscript: While I do like to have my smoker lit and ready to go when I’m digging into larger hives or colonies that I know are unusually defensive, I’d say about 95% of the time I use mist on my bees instead of smoke (or nothing at all). Some bees don’t react to it because they’re so intent on doing what they’re doing that even the threat of rain barely slows them down, but most of the time the bees react to the mist just like they would to the smoke, namely they get out of the way but they don’t gorge on honey like they sometimes do with smoke.

But there’s nothing wrong with using a smoker if it’s used properly. When I first started out, as in on Day 1, I virtually drowned my bees in smoke. It was overkill. But I’ve since learned how to use my smoker so that the bees barely notice the smoke. I don’t blow smoke in the bees’ faces. I puff smoke around the hive entrance or just under the inner cover in a way that the smoke wafts around the bees. They get a whiff of the smoke but they’re not coughing on it. And they just casually get out of the way. It works. I go in, do my thing and the vast majority of the bees in the hive have no idea I was there. I occasionally have to use more smoke, but it’s rare.

12 thoughts on “Seconds Thought About Some Beekeeping Ideals

  1. What ratio of sugar to water do you use for your misting Phillip? I’d like to try it.

    I agree with you about the smoker being nice to have when the bees are being bad tempered. On my nice bees I hardly bother smoking them while inspecting, mostly just a couple of puffs on the tops of the frames when I want them to go back down before I put the crownboard back on, saves them getting squashed.

    I read a lot of comments on online forums about hives taking two hours or even two days to recover every time they’re inspected. I always wonder where people get that info from and how they’re measuring it. It’s not something I ever see mentioned in beekeeping books.

    • I don’t measure how much sugar I put in the sugar water, but it’s not much, not enough to thicken it up. Just enough to make it a little sweet for the bees.

      My bees usually recover from inspections within an hour, at least on the outside. Moving a hive, that’s a different story.

  2. I use 1:1, the same I use for spring feeding. Also scented with Anise. The last few times I jsut used sugar water for just pulling off the inner cover, topping up the frame feeder and checking the top box foundation without the smoker. I think for full born inspection I would prefer to use the smoker to settle the troops.

    • It’s possible I haven’t had to deal with so many bees until now and haven’t had a great need for smoke. During the last inspections, the bees began pouring out over the sides of the hives as soon as I opened them. The first hive was well behaved and it wasn’t so bad. Many of them got stuck outside on the sides of the hive when I closed it up but found their way back in within 30 minutes. (I made sure to check that the queen wasn’t out there.)

      The second hive was the big mess. The bees were flying out everywhere, pouring out everywhere. It was not good. They were grumpy from the start. The smoke wouldn’t have made them happy, but it would have saved many of them from getting squished. I wasn’t able to inspect the bottom box because it was such an unpleasant situation.

      I plan to quickly inspect the bottom box — to check for swarm cells — this weekend if the weather cooperates. I will have the smoker standing by, as well as a nuc in case I have to pull a frame with a swarm cell.

      The grumpiness of that hive has me wondering if they’re queenless or maybe ready to swarm. I have no experience is detecting either of those situations from the sound of the bees. Even yesterday when I quickly added more frames to the medium box and put on a jar feeder, those bees didn’t no sound happy. More like a little rumble in the jungle.

      They better not swarm.

      • I’ve heard lots of beekeepers talking about aggressive queenless bees, but not aggressive bees before swarming. Cold weather often seems to make them grumpy, in a similar way to humans. Thanks for the sugar advice.

  3. Keep me posted Phil. Let me know if there is a swarm cell. Please post pics. I’m curious to see how you make out. I can’t wait to get the new additions this year. I highly doubt you killed your queen. But anythig is possible….

  4. I agree on having the smoker ready if need be. As my experience is limited as well, I can say that lately as the colony is expanding they seem to be a little more testy. If i can get my smoker to actually smoke for more than a 10 minutes will use it if need be.
    I use a 1:1 sugar mix with a dash of “pro health” feeding stimulant.

  5. Hi!

    I’m part of the BB’s in L.A. I love that you’re following our backwards path! I do use smoke on my hives. Just a couple of puffs, wait a few mins, and then take a look inside. Also, unless it’s for something important (like crowding, possible queenlessness, etc.), once a hive is established, I don’t inspect the bottom boxes. :) The less I bother them, the better.

    You are right in your suspicion that a top bar hive makes it easier to inspect the bees. You don’t have the entire hive exposed, just one frame at a time – so you only have to worry about 1 frame’s worth of bees – the rest probably don’t even know you’re there. A langstroth provides different advantages and problems. So because you are dealing with an entire box of bees at once, and several boxes as you move further into the hive, a little smoke on hand is necessary (IMHO). Even if it disturbs them for another 2 hours, if you’re only checking them once every couple of weeks, you’re not doing a lot of damage. Consider it like when the landlord has to come and check your fire alarm or air vents – annoying, and you may have to tidy up, but you’re no worse for the wear in the end.

    Good luck, wishing you the best from sunny Los Angeles.

    • The only aspect of the Backwards Beekeepers methods that I can attempt in Newfoundland is going foundationless in the brood chamber, and even that hasn’t been very successful so far. I have one hive that’s entirely foundationless now. We’ll see how well it does next year. The jury is still out on that one.

      But at the moment I would not recommend going foundationless or attempting to follow any of the Backwards Beekeeping methods in a cold wet climate like Newfoundland. It’s fine in a warm sunny and dry climate like southern California — that climate is a paradise for honey bees. It’s a completely different situation in here Newfoundland.

      I’ll elaborate in a future post when I can conclude from my own experience what works and what doesn’t. What I can say for now is that all beekeeping is local beekeeping. Beekeepers in L.A. have it so easy compared to beekeepers in Newfoundland, it really is like two different worlds. It takes considerably more work to keep our bees alive in our climate than it does in L.A. I’m fairly confident that if I followed the Backwards Beekeepers methods 100% in my local climate (which doesn’t even come close to resembling L.A.), all my bees would be dead within two, three years tops.

      I love what the Backwards Beekeepers are all about. And if I lived in L.A., I’d be totally on board. But Newfoundland is like a giant iceberg compared to L.A. We have to do things differently here.

  6. Big tip: ALWAYS have a smoker in stand by, even if you don’t light it right away.

    I inspected my city have a month or so ago without a smoker (using a spray bottle instead) and I probably killed the queen because I was unable to drive the bees down with smoke and out of the way of potential danger. (Removing and installing frames thick with bees, it’s easy to miss the queen even if she’s marked.) I did the same stupid thing today and possibly killed the new mated queen I added a week ago. I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance I squooshed her.

    I’m not touching that hive for the rest of the summer. It’s better off without me. And so it goes.

Comments are closed.