Over time, so many different techniques have been developed to keep bees healthy all over the world. One of those techniques is “natural beekeeping,” and many beekeepers in the community are passionate advocates for this strategy.
If you’re a beekeeper looking to research all your options, read on to learn all about natural beekeeping and see if it’s right for you.
What Is Natural Beekeeping?
The term “natural beekeeping” refers to an overall philosophy about apiculture.
Natural beekeeping is a technique for raising bees that emphasizes and relies on more “natural” methods. In general, natural beekeepers will avoid using chemicals or over-managing their bees and have a “less is more” style of keeping bees. You still should use a beekeeping suit, though.
This philosophy even extends to the reasons for keeping bees in the first place.
What Makes Natural Beekeeping Different?
Think of natural beekeeping as similar to the idea of permaculture compared to conventional agriculture.
Conventional beekeeping often relies on a more involved approach. Bees are regularly treated for mites or diseases, sometimes using chemicals that can be harsh or develop resistance over time.
Conventional beekeeping is often for commercial purposes, and management will usually aim to increase honey production. Most conventional beekeepers will perform regular hive inspections every 7 to 10 days or so as long as the weather is warm, sunny, and not windy.
Natural beekeeping, on the other hand, is based on a different perspective. Natural beekeeping has an alternative opinion of what bees need, how beekeepers should think about beekeeping, and the long-term goals of having an apiary.
Natural beekeepers are always focused on the whole picture, which means carefully considering their impact on the environment and on honey bee genetics. Ultimately, natural beekeepers want their colonies to be more self-sufficient and well-adapted to their environment.
While natural beekeepers do generally inspect their hives, these inspections tend to be far less frequent and are usually as brief as possible. Observing hives from the outside can offer enough information to determine if more involved intervention is necessary.
The Main Elements of Natural Beekeeping
Several basic concepts in natural beekeeping differentiate it from more conventional methods.
Some natural beekeepers are purists and feel that the term only applies if you’re following all of these guidelines. Others will pick and choose which elements work best for them in an effort to find a balance.
Overall, natural beekeeping is geared toward more hands-off, lower-intervention methods to allow the bees to manage themselves effectively.
Treatment-Free Hive Management
One of the most controversial and central aspects of natural beekeeping is that it is treatment free.
Most of the time, this refers to varroa mites and other pests, which are typically treated with a chemical of some kind to eliminate a mite infestation. Treatments can be very effective but can also be hard on the bees.
Natural beekeepers feel that harsh chemicals are not worth the potential damage to their colonies. Certain treatments can also build mite resistance over time, even if used correctly, creating a mite that’s even harder to get rid of.
Going treatment free has the goal of raising bees that are resilient and can handle potential infestations themselves with hygienic behaviors.
Conventional beekeeping methods often involve using frames with a plastic foundation, usually in black or yellow and sometimes with a wax coating applied.
Natural beekeeping tends to avoid this type of equipment and will instead use foundationless frames, either completely empty or with wire as a guide and support for the wax.
The thinking behind this is that many bees don’t like plastic foundations, and foundationless frames are a blank slate for them to build off of.
Many beekeepers find that their bees are more willing to build comb efficiently without foundations provided. The absence of a foundation, which has the comb pattern already established, means the bees can build comb to their own specifications too minute for humans to notice.
The downsides to this are that the comb is more delicate during inspections. You have to be very careful as you turn each frame over to avoid having it break, especially in warm weather when the wax is softer.
Because they’re more delicate, foundationless frames may not survive spinning in an extractor, although they do give the option to harvest cut comb.
There are so many different kinds of bees out there, but the best ones with the highest chance of survival will always be bees acclimated to your area.
For many natural beekeepers, buying a special breed of bees isn’t worth it anyway because you can’t control future genetics with other bees nearby.
Local bees come from breeders or wild swarms. Swarms are great because they’re free and have already been living in your area. You might even be able to help someone out by removing an unwanted colony trying to move into their home.
Cons for swarms are that you don’t have any way of knowing the temperament of the bees, if they’re carrying pests or diseases or really anything about what to expect. Even with these potential risks, swarms are a great way to acquire bees–and sometimes, it even happens by accident!
Reasons for Keeping Bees
One thing you’re unlikely to hear from a dedicated natural beekeeper is that they have bees for honey production.
While honey might be a nice bonus for them, they typically have more altruistic reasons for keeping bees. They will only harvest honey that goes beyond what the bees will need for themselves.
Many natural beekeepers’ primary reason for establishing their own apiary is for the environmental benefits. Bees are important pollinators and help support healthy ecosystems.
Keeping bees naturally also ends up benefiting other hives nearby as their genetics spread to other colonies over time. This eventually leads to more robust bees with fewer vulnerabilities.
How to Decide if Natural Beekeeping Is Right for You
Natural beekeeping sounds romantic, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everyone.
There is no “right” answer; if you feel that natural beekeeping makes sense to you, it’s worth a try. If not, using conventional methods is also completely valid. It also doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so you can incorporate any natural methods you want.
Ultimately, it all depends on your personal preferences and what is most feasible for you.
Important Things to Consider
Before you take the plunge, think about all the factors that go into natural beekeeping to decide if it will work for you.
Are you in a hurry to start harvesting honey or looking to make a profit from it? Natural beekeeping is not just about honey and is usually viewed as an “in the long run” type of strategy.
Does your area have a known issue with varroa mites or other illnesses? If so, choosing to go the natural route might become an uphill battle for you.
Do you have local resources and people you can consult with about using this method? Set yourself up for success and surround yourself with people and research that can help you get started right and problem-solve as you go.
It’s okay to change course, too. If you’re trying natural beekeeping and find that certain aspects just don’t work for you, do what’s best for your bees and try something different.
Give Natural Beekeeping a Try
There are so many options when it comes to how to approach beekeeping, and natural beekeeping is very attractive to many beekeepers.
If you find that the philosophy behind this strategy aligns with your own personal preferences and goals, it’s definitely worth trying. For anyone with a real dedication to living a more natural lifestyle, natural beekeeping is yet another way to incorporate that sentiment.
Want to learn even more about all the different ways you can keep honey bees? We have tons of great information for you.